Garrick stalked ahead, a young and bashful stable hand stammering his apologies as he led him out into the yard. “Get on with it, boy! What is wrong with my horse?”
So help him, if they had poisoned him...
The stables were neatly kept, but Garrick could not appreciate the smell of sweet hay and warm oats—not when Callum might be ill.
The boy brought him into the stall, and at first glance Callum seemed well. “It’s his hoof, m’lord. The shoe is loose.”
Garrick sighed, trying to keep his temper. To be pulled away from a feast by a servant generally meant something dire—and he did not appreciate being worried for something so inconsequential. “So take him to the marshal. I fail to see why I should need to be consulted.”
The stable hand looked to the ground, pushing at errant bits of straw. “Aye, m’lord, and I do be beggin’ your pardon for interrupting. But we haven’t got a marshal and our smithy has contracted a sickness and won’t be able to see to it for another few days—not ‘til the shakes stop. And his apprentice is just a lad and hasn’t been with him more than a fortnight, and I don’t think you’d be wanted to let him near such a fine beast. Not ‘til he’s surer in his craft.”
“I think not.” Garrick sighed, terribly annoyed at the whole inconvenience. With a steady hand he pulled up the troubled foot and he could clearly see that the shoe was indeed loose. He could ride to the next village and see if they had a blacksmith who was not apparently near death’s door. But to do so could risk Callum losing the shoe completely, and possibly damaging the sensitive tissues and leave him lame.
They would have to wait.
“Keep me informed of your smith’s condition.”
“Of course, m’lord!”
Garrick leaned close to the horse’s ear, his voice low, “Try not to get too fat, my friend. Enjoy your rest for I shall have us travel twice the distance to make up for it!”
Callum only swished his tale and bobbed his head in response.
And with a final affectionate pat on Callum’s long neck, Garrick returned to the castle, not waiting for an escort. He remembered the way well enough, and now that he was sure that his friend was in no imminent danger, his desire to return to Mairi was at the forefront of his mind.
It went against his most protective instincts to leave Mairi alone in a strange and unknown place. But she had not yet eaten her fill and he would not allow her to go hungry—not because of his insipid jealousies.
He was not oblivious to the looks she received.
Noblemen and servant alike sent many long glances to the head table, though his wife did not seem to notice. It made him almost wish he still wore his armour, for at least their attention would be drawn to the formidable knight and perhaps then less likely to the beauty at his side.
But he trusted her. If there was one thing he had come to realise, it was that Mairi would never betray him with another—it went against the whole of her being.
So he had left her to eat and he was certain that none would attempt anything too untoward while in such a large gathering.
She was precisely where he left her, though her plate seemed hardly less full than when he had last seen it.
Mairi glanced up at him as he approached, her relief readily apparent. “Is something wrong?”
He sat, turning his attention to his own considerable meal. “Aye, but nothing too dire. It does however mean we shall be remaining here for longer than I had intended.”
The king clapped his hands. “Excellent! Does this mean you shall be participating in our little tournament?”
Garrick’s eyes narrowed. While many kings took pleasure in the participation of their finest warriors, it was not as though he had sworn his loyalty. His success would not bring glory to this man’s realm, and Garrick was hard pressed to find a logical reason why it was so important. Did he truly hold such a thirst for bloodshed?
He supposed it was entirely possible, especially given his initial instructions for disposing of the man in Monavyn.
“I shall need to speak to my wife on the matter.”
He leaned closer so that only she could hear, “What is wrong, little nymph? Why will you not eat?”
She nibbled her lip and peered at him, her body tense. “I have need to speak with you also.”
He studied her for a moment, trying to determine if something had occurred that required his intervention. Her hair had dried, both from the attention he had paid it with the bath linens and also from the warmth of the room. Her dress was rumpled from use but still was much finer than anything the other women wore. He noted ruefully that he was actually assessing her for injury or sign that she had been harassed in his absence, but there was none.
“You must eat, dear-heart. There is no meat, I swear it.”
Some bit of tension left her at his endearment, and he was surprised at himself for its use. But it felt natural, so wonderfully natural, to shower her with sweet words and gentle touches.
And he would not be ashamed of it.
Not when she warranted nothing less.
“I never would have taken you for the type to require conference with your lady before accepting a challenge. Has married life changed you already?”
Whatever softness Garrick had acquired from caring for Mairi swiftly departed. “Other men must have the misfortune of being displeased with their wives—otherwise they would think it a hardship ensuring their continued contentment.”
The king raised a goblet to his lips, a furtive smile in place. “I would know little of wives.”
“Uncle, perhaps you should commence the dancing. Lady Flincher appears to have finished eating,” the young man at the king’s side suggested—though he was not so very young now that Garrick gave him a closer look.
The king’s attention sufficiently drawn, Garrick returned to his own meal, relaxing as the sovereign rose and did indeed begin the dancing.
Mairi nibbled on a bit of fruit, watching the couples absently. “Do you care for dancing?”
Garrick took a sip of wine, briefly appreciating its quality. “Nay. That would require a partner.”
She smiled up at him, and it sent a familiar flutter through his belly. “I never had a partner either. But I quite like the one I have now.”
He swallowed. “Should you... care to dance?” He grimaced even as he said it, having no desire to make a fool of himself by parading about with the other couples. He would not object to holding her in his arms—never that—but he did not know the steps and he was certain his lack of comportment would cause quite a commotion.
But blessedly she shook her head. “I should like to retire. When you are finished, of course.”
He made haste with his meal then, liking nothing better than the idea of holing themselves away for the rest of the night. He had no affection for feasts aside from the plentiful drink and array of foods, but now he was anxious and uncomfortable and wanted nothing more than to seal himself away with his new wife.
After all, this was their wedding night.
The mere thought sent a shiver of anticipation down his spine.
He was not certain what had come over him. Never did he think he could have been so bold as to draw her into the bath as he had done, nor touch her and speak so intimately.
But he had.
It was as if something compelled him onward, as if his soul had overtaken his mind and with it his inhibitions—and he was not convinced that theirs was any great loss.
Not when she was so amenable, so perfectly and wonderfully receptive to his touches and his kisses. She had assured him over and over that their relationship was impeded only by his own reticence, not by her unwillingness.
And he finally felt ready to believe her.
With her sweetly receptive touches he was ready to consider that even if his face had not been healed by their unforeseen union, she would have cared for him.
His perfectly wonderful wife.
He took her hand and rose, ready to depart this farce of festive making and commence with their own private celebration. But before he had passed, the young man previously seated by the king rose and waylaid him. “Lord Garrick, I shall not detain you but I would ask an audience with you on the morrow. I believe we have a mutual problem that could be remedied through joint... cooperation.”
Garrick stopped assessing the man before him. He bore a passing resemblance to the king, brown of hair and handsome enough features. But it was easy to conclude that this was not the king’s son. “And you are?”
He gave a short bow. “Cyrus; nephew to the king and heir to our little patch of misery and woe. Would you agree to meet with me?”
Garrick did not particularly want a new charge at this moment, but it was always worthwhile to meet with potential employers. “Aye. I shall find you out, do not seek my company.”
Cyrus nodded. “Wise, I am sure. But do not let me keep you, I am certain your lady should like to rest.” Unlike his uncle, his words were genuine and he offered Mairi a sincere smile as he bowed and said goodnight.
He was rather proud of himself for not tucking her behind him, preventing her from even being seen or addressed by another man.
Perhaps he was improving.
Mairi kept close to his side as they traversed the many stairs and passages to their chamber. He liked the feel of her against him. Usually when they walked he was fully bedecked in metal plates, and while he could appreciate the idea of her softness beside him, he could hardly feel it for himself.
“What do you think Cyrus wanted?”
Garrick grunted, not wanting to discuss such things with her—especially not tonight. “To discuss a business proposition, I am certain. Nothing you need be concerned about.”
He opened the door of their chamber, satisfied that a servant had stoked the fires in their absence and it burned bright and hot, warming the room nicely.
Mairi was quiet, moving to stand before the flames, looking pensive. “It seems an odd thing, to plan to kill a man with so little recourse.” She sighed, rubbing her arms absently as if the very thought chilled her. “But I must not know enough of your ways to understand it.”
He approached her cautiously, not wanting her to dwell on these unpleasant matters. “You do not need to understand, little nymph. You shall not be sullied by any of it. I will not make you eat meat, and you shall not have to know about my more... grisly affairs.”
She turned to face him, her expression shuttered. “We share a soul, you and I. Whether you think it or not, your actions will affect me.” She blinked, and suddenly her seriousness had faded to a shy smile. “But that does not mean I will cease to love you, even if I cannot understand your work.”
Garrick was conflicted. It seemed absurd to think that his choices, the only skill at which he truly excelled would somehow leach through their steadily growing bond and cause her to be tainted. But so much of their relationship was built on ideas and fanciful imaginings that were too incredible to be believed—and yet he did.
It was something worth considering.
He pulled her into his arms. She was warm and pliant, and she nestled as close to him as she could, her fingers coming to play with the tight laces that fastened his doublet. “I think I like you without armour. You are much softer to the touch.”
He chuckled, a low, breathy sound. “I do not know that any have called me soft before.”
She peered up at him, her eyes a dark blue in the flickering light of the fire. “We were married today.”
His fingers found her tresses, running through them as tenderly as he could manage. “Aye, dear-heart, we were.” He could not help but hold her a bit more firmly at the reminder.
“Does that mean you shall seal us properly?”
He had no expectations.
Hopes, he could admit, but when he drew her upstairs it was the full intention to allow her to guide their evening. He would not presume upon her, no matter how he longed to join them, fully and completely, as man and wife.
“Is that what you desire?”
She nibbled at her lower lip, and he freed it gently with his thumb. “You must be certain, Mairi. Do you even know what it means to consummate a marriage? Is it the same for your people?”
Now that he considered it, there was not guarantee that her kind even mated in the same manner as mankind. He had seen her breasts, so pale and rosy and absolutely perfect. Surely that meant that the rest of her would be the same.
She blushed burrowing her face in his chest, her words slightly muffled. “I believe so. But I cannot be certain...”
Garrick swallowed thickly. “But you should like to try?”
Mairi looked up at him, this time her expression resolved and all hint of mortification absent. “Yes.”
He scooped her up into his arms with no hesitation. Her steady assurance, her confidence in him thrummed undeniably through their bond, and he had no room to doubt—not with her.
This time when he unlaced the back of her gown, he pressed heady kisses along her delicate spine, relishing in each elusive sigh and quickened gasp that escaped her at his attentions. She had no shame in her nudity, allowing him to remove her dress completely with only a soft smile on her lips as she awaited his approval.
And approve he did.
He had seen the female form, not through personal lust but through his many days of creeping through the more devious parts of villages and kingdoms, seeking out whatever degenerate had the misfortune of procuring the hatred of someone with enough coin to seek his skills.
But never like this.
Never with eyes so trusting, with hands that reached and found, a soul that tantalised and shared in every moment of breathless delight.
His body had never been so freely exposed to another. Moments flickered in his mind, of brutes and bullying youngsters who thought to expose him, to see if more burns covered the rest of his flesh.
And he had cried and grown bitter at being so betrayed by his fellow man.
Only to be healed by his little nymph.
She peeled away his clothes slowly, placing kisses in their wake much as he had done. He had expected for her to be nervous and shy, for him to lead her through this ancient dance, but perhaps that was the beauty of their bond. There was no need for hesitance—not when the emotions of the other were so clearly known and shared.
As it should be.
“You are so very winsome, Garrick. So strong and yet gentle. Always so very gentle with me.” Her hands slipped over the muscles of his arm, a hint of a smile playing at her lips.
He bit back his retort—his years of practice at spurning any mention of his appearance. He tried to imagine how this would have occurred should her magic not have transformed him, but found once her lips nibbled and explored that he could not complete the supposition.
It would take time for him to accept his new features, not to cringe and hide when they were exposed.
But when he was with her, he did not feel exposed.
He felt loved.
And he would covet such a feeling and hold dear it, with all the strength he possessed.
He had never experienced such oneness.
Never had he truly appreciated the marriage vows until this moment. The vows they had spoken and the confirmation of the cleric that they were now one flesh echoed through him as he joined with her. They were one, both in mind, in spirit, and in body. His pleasure was hers. It was not simply her sweet sighs that led him to the proper action that might incite more of the delightful sounds, but the invisible link that entwined them when there was nary a touch, intensified tenfold when they succumbed. He knew when to ease so as not to hurt her, he knew when to distract her with more of his kisses—all because he had surrendered to whatever inconceivable bond had been forged betwixt them.
The bond guided him, urging his hands to excite, and yet soothe. It made him confident, assured that how he touched her and kissed her was right, and he thrilled with the contact that was equally pleasing for him.
After, as he clutched her in his arms and she nestled so perfectly into the curve of his body, he buried his face in her hair so that she could not see the tears that had pooled there. Every wrong he had suffered, every pain that had been inflicted had led to this moment—this wonderful moment when he had a wife in his arms that he had pleasured. And she loved him.
“Do not be sad, my Garrick. I shall never leave you.”
He swallowed, brushing his thumb against her bare skin, ensuring she was real. “How could I be sad when I am with you?”
She wriggled, evidently determined to turn so she could face him, and he took a steadying breath in hopes of calming his tumultuous emotions before she succeeded. “I am truly your wife now.”
He smiled briefly, shaking his head. “I have come to realise, little nymph, that you were right. You have been my mate for far longer than simply this morning.”
She looked down, and he caught only a glimpse of her triumphant expression, and he chuckled lowly. “Does that please you to hear it? That I was dreadfully, terribly, wonderfully wrong?”
Mairi glanced up at him. “I will always be glad to know that you believe me. I realise now how incredible I must have sounded to you in the beginning, for your world is so different than mine.” She sighed, and though she tried to hide it he knew she felt a moment’s loss as she wondered if that world was truly hers any longer.
“You are still a nymph, Mairi. Circumstances may have changed, but you have not. Not truly.” He bowed his head so as to place a soft kiss upon her cheek. “You are the greatest gift I have ever known, and I am selfish enough to bless those circumstances for it allows you to be with me now.”
“And I bless them for allowing you to know what it is to be loved.”
They both lapsed into silence, simply enjoying the feel of one another as the remnants of their sealing provided a contented thrum between them both.
“What is a tournament?”
Garrick sighed resignedly even as he felt a rush of affection for his wife. Of course she could not be satisfied for long, and instead must continue to pepper him with questions. “They are a series of games and challenges, generally with a large prize for the champion. Larger tournaments include a joust.”
He stopped realising that the word would mean little to her. He tried to picture Raghnall on a horse, charging at full speed toward an opponent. It was nearly laughable.
“Some games are in archery, others in combat of swords. I generally prefer the latter.”
Her eyes widened. “And the king would ask you to participate?”
Garrick shrugged. “Many do. Kings grow fat and easily bored when there is little war mongering to keep them preoccupied. They relish the thrill of watching their knights try to kill one another.”
Mairi stared at his chest, tracing errant patterns in the smooth flesh. “And you would like to? To try to kill them and perhaps be killed yourself?”
He should be affronted. To ask the question implied that he would lose—something that happened only in his earliest days. But he could also feel her worry and concern and knew that she meant not insult to his masculine pride, and he held her face tenderly as he bid her look at him. “I can assure you, Mairi, no harm would come to me. But I have little desire to add to the whims of this king, and it is obvious you are wary at the notion.” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her temple. “And I would much rather be sure of your approval than a sovereign who means less than nothing to me.”
“So we shall leave on the morrow?”
“Nay. Callum cannot risk journeying with a loosened shoe and the blacksmith is unwell. We shall have to wait.”
Her brow furrowed. “Callum has shoes? Even I do not have such devices.” Even covered with the blankets Garrick could feel her wiggling her toes as they pressed against his own legs.
She was his wife now, in every way, and he would need to care for her. Carrying her over twigs and stones was satisfying, but not overly practical. Sharing his cloak had been a meaningful gesture in the beginning—something tangible that showed his growing feelings for her even when he could not voice them aloud.
But now she needed so much more. She deserved gowns and shoes and cloaks, all in the finest of styles and materials.
And she needed a home, one far better than a small cottage in the woods.
She deserved the home of his birth...
He pushed such thoughts away. “They protect his feet, much as my boots do mine and only a blacksmith can see to it properly. I am sorry that I have not taken you to a cobbler to have you fitted with a pair.”
She hummed softly in disagreement. “I like when you carry me.”
Mairi nestled further, her head resting upon his chest, and he amused himself with brushing through her long tresses with his fingers. “I shall not mind staying for a bit. Not when this room is so very fine.”
He paused in his ministrations and raised an eyebrow in question, and she smiled at him cheekily. “Although I find that I do not mind the company either.”
And when she lay softly sleeping and his heart felt so very full that he feared it might burst, he decided that he felt the very same.