Garrick was not a kind man.
Despite the armour he wore he was no true knight. He worked for kings, it was true, but not in any capacity that a more moral individual would call reputable. Assassinations were a lucrative enterprise, and one he very nearly took pride in. He was creative, not indulging in the grisly business of simply running his sword through an unsuspecting victim—that was saved for tournaments. No, he preferred poisons, or, if he could not be certain of the precision of that particular device, he would employ a lasso.
Not many in this realm used such a device, but it proved a highly effective method of dispatching whatever foe proved dangerous for whichever king.
Garrick swore no vows of fealty—not to any of the bastards that considered themselves lords over other men.
He would take their coin, whether in swordplay against one of their fair knights or due to his more morose skills, but he felt no loyalty for any of them. Some were better than others, but all thought themselves more capable, more wise, and therefore able to make decisions for those who had the misfortunate of lesser birth.
And none were of lower birth than he.
He came from a noble family, one of the oldest in the kingdom of his birth, but he was not recognised by any. Hidden away as a child, mocked and branded as a product of demonic influence, he learned quickly that it would only be by his skills that he should survive long in the world.
So learn he did.
Sword, bow, lasso, each he fostered until he was certain that none could hurt him—at least, not in the physical sense. He wandered from one kingdom to the next, earning money and squandering it just as easily in taverns, drinking away the memories of an unhappy life.
For he had no true home.
As the firstborn male he should rightfully have claimed his ancestral home and the title that accompanied it. But the scorn of his father and the subsequent hatred of his mother due to his disfavour soured him toward any of their possessions. Let whatever ill-fated child that came to them afterward enjoy the spoils, for he would take none of it.
He had enough coin for whatever he liked, but he kept to a small cottage. It had a warm fire and a comfortable bed, serviceable enough for the likes of him.
But what he liked best was the fine lyre that resided in a corner, and had often frightened away the whispers of loneliness and despair that came from a life such as his.
On this occasion, however, he was on an errand. It was thirty leagues to his intended destination, and while he was never one to eat much—cooking was never one of his fonder pursuits, especially not when he could purchase warm stew and a pint of fine ale—today he found himself particularly hungry. The Wemble Road was not one often used, but that was the reason he preferred it. The issue, however, was that only tiny villages and farmlands could be found along it, and he was not the sort to be welcomed by a family, no matter how many shillings he could provide.
So he followed the trail of a deer, for much longer and deeper into the dense forest than he would have liked, but game was scarce as winter was only just now giving way to spring. The woods unnerved him. While he did not fear man nor foe, there was something odd about this forest in particular. On many occasions he had heard tall tales of creatures who lived within them, beautiful girls who liked to take sport against the likes of unsuspecting men.
It was all nonsense.
But as he now took aim, a large buck a short distance away in a small clearing, he could not deny that a sense of foreboding overcame him.
And as he released a calming breath, his eye carefully on the target and his fingers freed the arrow, he was entirely unprepared for a silent woman to appear from the trees beyond and his arrow to find purchase, not in his dinner, but in the soft flesh of her shoulder.
Garrick might not have been a kind man, but he did not make it habit of harming innocent women who had the misfortune of crossing his path.
He watched her slip and fall, and though part of him screamed to run to her side and offer assistance, the other was deathly aware that the woman he had harmed could not possibly be real.
She was too beautiful.
Too unearthly beautiful.
He had struck an angel.
And if he had not been damned before to the blackest pits of hell, he most assuredly was now.
Yet despite his reticence, he could not simply allow her to perish on the forest floor. He was not entirely certain of where the arrow had struck her, and if he should have killed her...
He strode forward, bow still in hand.
Only for her to try her best to creep away from him.
He ignored the sting of pain at her action.
Of course she was frightened of him. He was an imposing figure at best, and a devilish one at worst.
Though he was loath to reveal his face to this beauty, he needed to better see to assess the severity of her wound. She visibly shuddered as she took in his features, and he could clearly see the arrow protruding horrifically from her shoulder, the point clearly visible through the opposite side. He removed his gloves, prepared to begin the work of excising the shaft from her lovely body.
But what cut him to the quick was her imploring plea to leave her undefiled, as if someone who looked as he did was obviously intent on doing her the ultimate harm.
And the anger burned even as he watched her eyes flicker closed as she fainted away.
Perhaps another man would have taken advantage—seen the pale skin, hair longer than he had ever seen, and the prone form that would offer no objection and taken what was not willingly offered.
He was many things, but he was no raper.
And though it was ridiculous in the extreme, it still hurt him terribly that she should think him so.
At least he would not have to stare into her frightened and imploring eyes as he tended to her. Whether she wished for his aid or not, he would provide it. It was his error that saw her hurt. He would mend her as best he could and then leave her to return from whence she came.
He shook his head in disgust.
Her blood was not like any he had seen. It was pale, and it nearly glistened with a luminescence that unnerved him.
It almost resembled sap, but he shook away such nonsensical thinking immediately. She was no angel, nor a goddess. She was a poor girl who had the misfortune to encounter him.
And she would not pay for that with her life.
He was unprepared for what happened when he allowed his fingertips to assess the wound.
She gasped loudly though her eyes remained closed. A tingling erupted in his fingertips and he nearly tasted despair as her face grew ashen, as though whatever force had coaxed life into her veins had suddenly fled from her.
She had told him not to touch her.
He had not listened.
Garrick had little time to ponder what her words could possibly have further implied as her strangely coloured blood still oozed, sticky and cloying as his fingers did their best to close the ragged edges of her injury. He quickly pulled a blade from his belt and removed the arrowhead from its shaft, morbidly grateful that it had gone through cleanly so he should not have to cause her all the more pain of damaging more of her precious tissues.
And for the first time since he could remember he whispered a prayer that she would not awaken from the pain, and pulled the shaft free, pressing tightly as fresh blood bubbled up around his fingers.
“I am so sorry, angel.”
Remorse was not a feeling of which he was well acquainted. Anger honed his senses and fuelled his strength into something productive.
Remorse made him fumble with the edge of his under tunic until he could tear of a piece long enough to bind her shoulder. The dress she wore was nearly transparent in its quality and he had to purposely keep his gaze focused on his task to keep from checking to see if it sufficiently covered her endowments.
Shame was rapidly replacing remorse.
But before he bound the wound he poured a generous portion of spirits onto both sides of the gash, hoping it would prove sufficient in cleansing.
She seemed too pure for any ailment to dare take hold, but it was best to be cautious.
Her eyelids flickered as he wrapped the makeshift bandage about her shoulder—and did he imagine that a bit of colour was already returning to her cheeks?
Garrick did not care about many earthly comforts, but he did have a fondness for finer fabrics. Silks and soft linens were his wont, as he liked the feel much better than some of the harsh cottons as they rubbed at his sensitive flesh underneath his armour.
Yet the ripped piece of tunic looked like the shabbiest of garments when compared to her gown.
Now that he had tended to her as best he could he allowed himself a moment to assess the rest of her, perhaps so he could ascertain where this maiden had originated.
He firmly shoved away any thought that she was anything but mortal.
He was not prone to irrational fancies.
The ignorant townsfolk, most of them barely literate would weave fantastical stories of what inhabited these woods—elves, sprites, and above all, the infamous dryads that could grant wishes if you found them.
All of it utter nonsense.
But as he allowed his finger to trace over the material of her gown—had he ever felt something so soft?—and gazed at the splendour before him, he thought if any could be mistaken for a nymph it would be her.
“Shall you grant me a wish, nymph? Will you make your attacker handsome, perhaps?”
She did not stir, nor give any recognition that she had heard him.
A lock of hair had caught upon the moisture of her lips and with trembling fingers he brushed it away with his thumb. It was a liberty he immediately regretted as a shudder of something ran through him as he came into contact with the rosebud mouth that he suddenly wished to press against his own.
Which was absurd. He did not kiss maidens, no matter how lovely.
He wished she would awaken. Or perhaps he wished that some of her kin would appear and take away the burden of her care. He had done this to her, but with the feelings she elicited, he thought it much safer for her to be tucked away with whatever family she possessed than to remain in his company much longer.
But none came and she continued to sleep.
Yes, he would call it sleep.
It was much better than to consider her unconscious.
Time passed and he continued to wait. Wait for a sign of life.
Wait for a sign that he had not killed her.
Eventually he heard his horse emerge from the woods, evidently tiring of standing about waiting for his master. Garrick could not fault him, especially as he was grateful for his presence as it was apparent he would be making camp in the glen for the night.
His stomach made a noise of disapproval as he would go yet another night without meat, but he refused to dwell on that for any significant duration. He would make do with what was left of the hard cheese and biscuits. He pondered whether he should risk leaving her in order to start a fire, but as the day wore on and rapidly turned to night, he realised that it would be foolish not to provide her what warmth he could.
The dress she wore certainly would not offer her any relief from the crisp night air.
Garrick started a fire, using whatever wood lay about. He briefly considered hacking a few larger branches from the trees overhead, but decided against it. The strange feeling he had about this wood, this girl, had not abated, so he made due with whatever was loose about the ground.
Eventually a fire crackled pleasantly in the small pit he had created, and he undid his bedroll from the horse’s saddle and laid it close enough to the flames so as to be pleasantly warm, but not so close as to cause discomfort.
For while he appreciated the comfort of his own provisions—what man did not?—there would be a maiden sleeping there tonight and he would offer her what he could.
He did not generally make it a habit to remove his armour while exposed in the woods, but if he was to spend a hard night on the forest floor he would not add harsh metal cutting into his every joint. Removing it was always a tedious process, and not for the first time he cursed his lack of squire to aid the process. But squires and attendants were for true knights who had earned the favour of their kings.
And he would not engage in such hypocrisy.
For he knew of knights who had a thirst for killing—who swore vows of chivalry and yet dishonoured many a maiden simply because he was larger and stronger.
And yet they were given lands and commendations for performing the same duty as he, conquering and claiming victories, whether it was on the battlefield or a tournament.
Piece by piece he removed his armour, flexing each newly freed appendage, grateful for the heavy weight to fall away. He did not wear it for fear of being bested on the road. He wore it for appearances. He wore it because the darkness of it, the crest emblazoned on the breastplate struck fear upon those he met.
And he wore it for it covered the worst of his failings with little question being raised as to why he rarely removed his helm.
In addition, while his height distinguished him from other men, his actual frame would do little to inspire dread in his enemies. He was strong to be sure, but he lacked the rippling muscles that so readily displayed physical power.
He comforted himself with that idea that perhaps by so disarming himself he would not appear so intimidating to her. She would undoubtedly fear him—had shown that she already feared him—and surely she could find some comfort knowing he was just as any other.
But with a dry mouth he reached once more into the saddlebag and pulled out his mask.
He only wore it when he was without his helm, not bothering to wear both at once. To do so created conditions that were dreadful for his sensitive flesh, and he found that the itching and irritation that it caused was not worth the added security should some unlucky soul be witness to his visage.
Even he was allowed to be fastidious regarding his personal care, ugly though he might be.
All his armour removed and carefully nestled beneath the overhang of a large oak, he took a bracing breath before moving toward the girl. She had yet to move and he would not deny that it unsettled him. He firmly reminded himself that for her to stir and moan would likely indicate the presence of fever, so this cold sleep should be considered a blessing.
But he still felt the edges of death about her as he leaned forward and scooped her into his arms, delivering her to the soft bed of furs that would hopefully coax her into a healing rest she could soon wake from.
Garrick tried not to let himself think of how she felt in his arms.
He most especially tried not to allow himself to consider a very different way in which he could be taking her to his bed.
Instead, he was careful not to jostle her shoulder overly much, and tucked the furs around her gently. And from her stillness he could not help but press two long fingers to her throat in search of a pulse.
His digits still tingled strangely from the contact, nearly burning in its intensity. But instead of the visceral reaction to pull away from a scorching encounter, he felt the need for more.
Garrick lurched away from her.
Her pulse had been thready but present.
Which should have provided more reassurance than it did.
From the location of the injury he never would have presumed it to be fatal. But this little creature seemed too slight that perhaps she could succumb to such a wound.
He determined not to sleep but to remain watchful. She would come to no other harm, and should her kinsman finally come in search of her it was best he be awake to defend himself. Garrick liked to think he would submit to them and whatever justice they demanded, but he should at the very least like to explain what steps he had taken for her care before they eviscerated him.
At least, he hoped that should an encounter take place he could allow himself to submit to their reasonable quest for vengeance.
He was not always the best at allowing physical harm to befall him, not at the hand of another.
Although used to sleepless nights he found himself jerking awake just as the first rays of sun began to pierce through the tangled branches above.
And found two eyes blinking at him with an expression he could not quite decipher.
She was awake.
And though it was perhaps absurd, Garrick was terrified.
“Hello. You must be my bond-mate.”