A Nymph Without Mercy

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XX

Garrick was never overly fond of shops. Most looked at him with suspicion, while others saw him as merely an opportunity for acquiring much coin, and he found their simpering reverence equally irritating.

But entering the tailor’s realm accompanied with Mairi was something else entirely. He was able to watch her eyes alight with wonder at fabrics and styles, and he was curious how she normally received her clothing. Was it part of their nymph magic wherein garments knit themselves together as there became a need? He did not ask, not certain how much he truly wished to know of her people. And if it was true that some of her memories were muddled, he had no desire to cause her pain by making her grope through the fog simply to assuage his inquisitiveness.

He wanted to spoil her, but Mairi proved more practical than he would have originally assumed. She insisted that she only had need of one additional gown—though when she was not looking he commissioned a second—and with a hint of sadness she pronounced that perhaps it would indeed be prudent for her to have a cloak of her own. Although she was sure to explain to him that was only because she would not allow him to be cold on her account.

His silly nymph.

As if now that he had experienced sleeping by her side he would ever be cold again.

There was sense to her prudence, as everything would have to be carried on Callum’s back, and he was already more heavily burdened than he was generally accustomed—not that Mairi was any great weight. But Garrick had to be sensible, and although he wished to shower her with material goods that could provide her evidence of his affections, she only smiled at him and placed a kiss upon his uncovered cheek.

“I do not need things to show me that you love me. I need only you.”

It was a curious thing going without his mask or helm. A very great part of him still felt it necessary to wear—that over the years it was as much a measure of security as was his sword. But when he had reached for it this morning Mairi had pleaded with him, assuring him that it would please her greatly if he would at least try to go without it.

And how could he refuse?

Little had changed with his interactions with other people. He was still gruff and wary, and they in turn avoided him in favour of directing enquiries and conversation to Mairi, who seemed to flourish at the relations. But every so often she would turn to ensure his continued presence and give him a soft smile, and he knew that she only managed to do so because of his staid company, giving her courage in an otherwise unfamiliar world.

The cobbler was a different matter. Mairi appeared dubious about the entire process and cringed and worried her lip fretfully as the cobbler’s apprentice took measurements and showed her a variety of styles.

“What about this, m’lady? ‘Tis a fine pair befitting your station.”

Garrick thought they looked rather like dancing slippers. One step in anything remotely muddy would provide their immediate ruin.

“Boots, boy! Something practical! We have a ways to travel yet and she requires protection, not vanity.”

At least Mairi’s eyes had alighted at the pretty pair from earlier, but now as she looked at what constituted a lady’s boot she grimaced. “They will be so confining!”

Garrick rolled his eyes. “You will break in the leather soon enough with use, and they will keep your feet safe. I have had quite enough of seeing them bloody and abused.”

Even when she pouted he would not relent and eventually, with promises that the requested items would be ready soon—in two days time at the absolute latest—Garrick returned Mairi to their rooms. He had not forgotten Cyrus’s appeal for an audience, yet he almost considered dismissing it. He knew of no great issues that would require his interventions, and he was not one for his generosity of spirit should the task prove inconvenient. He would much prefer to shutter himself away with Mairi and wile away the hours on more enjoyable pursuits while the rest of the castle was preoccupied with the tournament.

From beyond the castle walls they had heard the cheers and encouragements of an impressive crowd, each giving heart to their favoured knights, the sound of splintering wood as it cracked against a shield readily audible even from afar.

The joust was such a messy business.

Garrick participated but rarely as Callum was never one to cooperate except under great protest, and Garrick did not relish the bruises that lingered for weeks afterward. Even when he was successful, his lance finding its mark on a fellow knight, the pressure on his arm at the force was enough to cause tremendous discomfort, let alone the injuries that followed a well placed hit from an opponent.

Not that those were allowed to happen often.

“Are you certain I must remain here? What shall I do in your absence?”

It was a fair point as there was little in the room that would provide much in the way of amusement.

But as he looked at her, as beautiful and naturally radiant as she was, even he could see that their travels had begun to take their toll. From what she had once mentioned, her people slept longer than he usually allowed them, and they were certainly not ones meant for covering great distances.

He brushed her cheek gently with his thumb, trying to smooth away the slightly darkened smudges beneath her eyes that bespoke her weariness. “You should rest, dear-heart. I shall not be overly long and then I shall fetch a servant to bring us sustenance. Is that acceptable to you?”

She glanced at their bed, freshly made by some servant girl. He resolutely refused to give in to the prickles of mortification that threatened to take hold at the idea of a maid finding evidence of their sealing. He had a right to be intimate with his wife, and she had been more than willing—there was no need for shame.

He kissed her once in parting, but he could not help lingering a moment before he sought out Cyrus. “Do not wander off.”

He did not mean to make it sound like an order, but as she stared at him she must have sensed that he was uneasy leaving her alone in a strange dwelling, for she nodded her acquiescence without argument. “I shall be waiting for you. And perhaps you can awaken me with a kiss.”

His eyes darkened and it was with only the greatest outpouring of self-control that he was able to remind himself why leaving her was necessity, even if it was only for a moment.

“Perhaps I shall.”

Never had he been so grateful for their bond. For even as he fastened the door behind him and sealed away a piece of his heart, he could feel her and knew that she was well.

And although he hated being separated from her, he knew that he would come to rely on this new assurance when necessity dictated their temporary parting.

The town surrounding the castle was alive with commotion. He was grateful that the tailor had been toward the opposite side from the tourney, otherwise it would have required him to take Mairi into the throngs of men, their blood singing with violence, either their own or on behalf of their favoured participant.

Cyrus was more difficult to locate than he anticipated. He was not seated by his uncle, perched upon a high dais, laughing and commending whoever managed to draw the most blood from their challenger.

Eventually he spotted the little serving girl that had been charged to their care, scurrying about with trays of food and wine that would be passed to more well kempt servants who would bow lowly and submit their offerings to the king.

He caught her on the way back to the kitchens, with a loud, “Girl!”

She halted immediately, turning to him with a frightened expression. “M’lord? I’m ever so sorry if I’m late with your meal, m’lord but...”

Garrick dismissed her apology with a wave of his hand. “I had a wager with your king’s nephew, Cyrus, and I am looking to collect. Do you know of his location?”

Her eyes widened at the mention of his name, and he found that rather curious. He had supplied a relatively believable reason for meeting with him, although it could prove unnecessary. But as the possibility remained that he had need of Garrick’s more morbid services, it would not do to make their meeting notable to the servants.

“Of course, m’lord. He prefers a quieter spot to observe the games.”

Excellent.

A quieter spot apparently meant one far from the crowds. In truth one could see little of the actual competition, but instead it allowed an appreciation for the bustling kingdom that suffered from an equal lust for chivalry and sportsmanship—even the kind that could include bloodshed.

The girl brought him to a small grove, where two women that he was certain Mairi would have classified as old-growths sat knitting and gossiping as was their wont. Garrick had little intention of paying them any mind, but the girl seemed to hesitate and eventually stopped short by their conversation.

“Did ye hear about the queen, the Father bless ‘er? That new ‘usband of ‘ers was murdered down in Monavyn! Had his throat cut clean through!”

The other biddy gasped in horror, although Garrick could clearly see her eyes alight with excitement at the prospect. “Poor lamb! And after sufferin’ such a disgrace here. Only wanted to scratch out a bit ‘o happiness after being married to such a louse as our king,” both stopped their knitting to glance upward at the sky and mumble, “May he reign long and proud.”

The servant girl finally seemed to find the use of her legs, though she might have been encouraged by the none too gentle push Garrick gave her to keep moving.

He had no doubt that that the man of which they spoke was the one he had killed nigh upon a sennight ago. He did not ask for reasons. He did not ask why someone should request his skills, he only took their coin and performed a task, with his conscious little burdened for the exchange.

Then why did it prickle so now?

And it was foolishness itself to wonder why, when it was so clear even to him. Because now he knew that the man left behind a widow—a woman who had apparently faced some hardship while still remaining here—and all he could picture was some thief in the night murdering him while he passed through a market, leaving Mairi frightened and alone.

Things had changed.

Whatever part of his heart had been so firmly shuttered from feeling for the plight of others was opened, and while he would not say that he would never kill again—such would be lunacy—he realised now that the why mattered.

And before he agreed to anything that Cyrus petitioned of him, he would ask it—as uncomfortable as he was at the notion.

A little past the grove was a lone tree, outfitted with a tapestry upon the grass and a lounging Cyrus eased against the trunk. He hurried to his feet with a wide smile, his eyes firmly on the serving girl, but she quickly shook her head and her eyes flickered to Garrick’s form slightly behind her.

Curious.

“That will be all, Bonnie. Thank you for escorting him.”

She blushed and gave a clumsy curtsey, “M’lords.”

Garrick turned before she had managed to move too far away. “For your sake, girl, there had better be a noonday meal in my chambers before I return!”

She nodded furiously, her eyes wide, and she all but ran back to the safety of the castle kitchens.

Garrick returned his attention to Cyrus who now looked at him with what could also be considered a glare. “You needn’t frighten her. She’s an obedient girl.”

He stared at the man, an eyebrow raised in question.

Cyrus sighed and sank back to the ground. “Are you going to loom or shall you also sit?”

Garrick stared down at the tapestry with distaste. “Could you not have picked a more dignified place of solitude?”

He shook his head. “Sometimes privacy is worth more than seemliness.”

Rather than concede, Garrick merely walked toward the tree, leaning against the trunk and folding his arms. “You are rather obvious, you know.”

Cyrus peered up at him. “What do you mean?”

Garrick scoffed. “Your affection for the girl.”

Cyrus’s eyes darkened. “Do not speak of it. That is not why you are here.”

“Is it not? You said that this was a matter of mutual interest, and I can assure you, I am not in the habit of meddling with the serving class. Whoever has employed her that protests your dalliance is no concern of mine.”

The prince shook his head. “You understand nothing.”

Garrick eased further against the tree, the perfect picture of indifference. “Very well then, enlighten me.”

Cyrus sighed. “Are you certain you will not be seated? You are going to give me a terrible ache in my neck.”

Garrick merely smirked.

“How well versed are you in the laws of this land?”

He shrugged. “Enough.”

Cyrus scowled. “I can see why your reputation so precedes you. You are not one for civility, are you?”

Garrick rolled his eyes, already tiring of this interlude. “Shall you be reaching a point in the near future? I have a bride that awaits me.” He closed his eyes for a moment, checking on their bond for any signs of her distress. All he could sense was a swirling haze and a quiet tranquillity that bespoke of her repose.

He relaxed, knowing she was well and resting.

And could not help but be slightly amazed at how quickly he was coming to rely on this strange new connection.

“Bonnie and I were married almost a month ago. It was a simple affair, only a hand fasting witnessed by the smithy, but it was all that I could provide at the time. But despite my efforts to keep it secret, my uncle discovered us and...” Cyrus clenched his fists, and Garrick saw a familiar rage overtake his features. “He brought her in front of the entire court. He called her a slave and a whore that was not befitting a noble line. He took out a knife and I was sure he would slit her throat where she stood...but instead he chopped off her hair. Her lovely, lovely hair...”

He seemed lost for a moment, and Garrick shifted uncomfortably. It was one thing to discuss the cold and clinical matter of an assassination; it was another to recount an intimate story of humiliation toward one’s wife.

Perhaps knowing the reason was not so very preferable after all.

“Why did you not stop him?” The question was asked before he could think better of it. He did not fear this man, or the reprisal, but his remorse was obvious and he supposed there was little need to make him feel worse.

But even now he could not imagine standing by and doing nothing while his Mairi was terrorised by a tyrant.

Cyrus glared at him.

“Unlike you, I am not capable of disarming his entire guard. They held me subdued while he carried out the deed.”

Garrick sniffed. While all young men received some training in the art of combat, Cyrus did not appear overly muscled that would imply some hidden strength that would enable him to best multiple guards.

“I still fail to see how this is also a problem of mine.”

Cyrus huffed and fell back until he was lying upon the tapestry, and Garrick thought it a terribly imprudent measure. He knew of Garrick’s profession, and to be so vulnerable...

For a moment Garrick was glad of his skills. For no matter what, he knewhow to protect his Mairi. And allowing such moments of weakness would have surely gotten him killed and then who would be there to keep her safe?

And no one would touch her hair but him.

Cyrus groaned and threw an arm over his eyes, and Garrick could not help but roll his own at the action. To be so trusting was absurd in the extreme.

“The king has expressed an... interest in your bride.”

Garrick stared down at him, his body taut and coiled. “What?” he asked; his voice deathly calm.

Cyrus sighed and stood, ensuring he looked at Garrick properly so he could see his sincerity. “While you were called away to the stables the king made some lewd remarks to your wife. He questioned your marriage and I am afraid your bride might have... insinuated that you had not yet consummated it fully.”

Cyrus raised his hands in a placating fashion, Garrick unable to fully contain the growing rage that filled him. “Tell me precisely what was spoken.”

“She did not mean to reveal anything untoward. My uncle has a way of... twisting words to meet his own desires, but he made it clear to her that unless you two had fully consummated your marriage that it was possible for it to be annulled—that someone else could take your place in her...” Cyrus’s eyes fell away and he took a careful step backward before he quietly finished, “bed.”

Garrick lunged, grasping him by the throat. “And you did nothing to intervene?” His voice was a low growl, even as he realised his hypocrisy. He accused this man of not protecting his wife when Garrick so completely failed his own.

He knew she did not care for the lewd way the king spoke—for his easy manner of speech about something so wholly sacred and intimate. And while he had assured her that he would mind his own tongue in future, he had egregiously misjudged how the king would comport himself in company.

He was a fool.

And he wanted to leave immediately.

But even as he made the determination, a cold thought entered his mind—one that left him so terribly afraid.

He lurched away from Cyrus, who rubbed his neck with only a petulant glare, making no move to retaliate.

What if she had not truly wanted it?

She did so wish to bind herself to him in any way she could, and if she had been informed that their marriage was only truly valid upon their most intimate sealing, she could have seen it as the only way to get him to stay—not because she desired him as completely as he cherished her.

His mind returned to the blissful night before, and he searched through every memory as a man possessed. Every breath, every touch he assessed for hesitation, for any glint in her eye that bespoke of her reticence.

Had he truly been so blind?

Cyrus watched him warily, rightfully cautious about continuing his tale. “I can tell she did not speak of it to you.” He suddenly appeared worried and Garrick did not miss the way he took yet another step back. “Perhaps I was wrong to mention it. I do not know you, Lord Garrick, and I should hate to think you would punish her for my uncle’s unwelcome attentions.”

Garrick’s eyes narrowed. “I would never hurt Mairi. And I grow weary of so many suggesting I would be capable of such a feat.”

Cyrus nodded. “Many speak of your vicious nature, but I am heartened for you to confirm that you are gentle with her. She deserves to be treated so.”

Garrick huffed, already tiring of this. He was too hurt, too worried by the possibilities of Mairi’s full motivations from the night before and only a conversation with her could allay—or confirm—his fears.

“Drostan is free to take a proper wife, why must he covet mine?”

Cyrus returned his attention to the floor. “He does not wish for her to be his wife, Lord Garrick, only his mistress.”

Garrick could not help but clench his fists at the mere suggestion, as unwanted and most decidedly unwelcome images flooded his mind—his little nymph laid upon the king’s bed, frightened and in pain, forced to become his mistress while still bound so unequivocally to Garrick’s very soul.

He shuddered, vowing that it should never take place.

If Callum had not been incapacitated he would have left with her at that very moment.

And while his steed had been his faithful companion for many a long year, with horror he found himself debating whether it would be worth leaving him behind as he stole another beast, all so that he could spirit away his Mairi to some semblance of safety. Anything to spare her such a fate.

“The last wife of the king left in disgrace after she failed to bear him a child.” Cyrus shrugged. “Not that any child by him should have been an heir, for the line passes through me.”

Vaguely Garrick remembered whispers in his childhood, of a crowned prince killed in a tournament, of a foreign bride forced to return to her people even after the birth of her son, too young to replace his father as heir. The king at the time had lamented the loss of his son, and for the blind affection he had for his remaining offspring, he gave him the crown for the duration of his life.

And now a man, too hungry for power as he wielded it over his fellow men had made the terrible mistake of looking toward Garrick’s little nymph as a potential bed partner.

“What is it you suggest we do?”

And Cyrus stood tall and proud, the first evidence of the royal blood that supposedly ran through his veins, and smiled.

“I suggest we kill the king.”


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