Garrick lay upon the bedstead; a satisfied Mairi in his arms who he would have thought was dozing if not for the occasional kisses she placed upon his bare torso. For the moment she seemed content to revel in the silence, the only noise the crackling of the logs as they eventually gave way to the persuasions of the flames and their gentle breaths, not so long ago harsh and hitched as they found their pleasures in one another.
It still amazed him how quickly his life had altered.
His blood still boiled when he thought of the king’s presumption, the thought that simply because Garrick had not yet sealed this blessed nymph to him in the most physical of ways, that somehow meant he would willingly relinquish her to another.
He had returned to their rooms, aching and on the cusp of fury at the thought that she had surrendered herself under some sort of compulsion, and not the willing acquiescence that he had thought so very lovely.
But true to her sweet nature she had coaxed and persuaded and had been the very picture of sincerity that while she might have allowed Drostan’s words to spurn her determination, her actions were based on love, and not coercion.
And he had never been so relieved in all his life.
He had been unprepared for her to ask him what he intended to do to protect her, and he was equally taken aback when she recanted. It seemed that at any moment she could decide that his actions were too cruel, too monstrous for her to allow and she would abandon him, but even now she remained, close and warm and so very soft and unafraid.
It made it all the worse that he should have to leave her soon.
Already he should have departed, demanding the stable hand provide him a temporary replacement for Callum as it was the failure of their realm to see to Callum’s maintenance.
There was work to be done, but even with that knowledge pressing anxiously upon him, he found himself merely holding Mairi closer and pressing kisses of his own to her temple, wishing the moment would never end.
“Garrick, where shall we go when we are free to leave?”
He smiled despite himself, unsurprised that she could not allow the silence to continue. His little nymph liked conversation.
“Do you have a preference? You mentioned your father—would you like to return to your wood and see if they will welcome you?” His stomach clenched at the thought, knowing that as easily as he overpowered the lone dryon he had encountered, he was not infallible. If there were more of them, a whole host as he assumed inhabited a city so worth protecting, he would surely fail to protect either himself or Mairi should they turn on her for approaching.
Mairi sighed heavily and shook her head, burrowing all the closer as she did so. “I would not risk your life on the venture, my bond-mate. And I do not think I would know the way.”
His heart ached for her. She had scarified so much for him and he offered so little in return. Images of the small dwelling that he occasionally called home came to his mind and he tried to picture living there with her. His bed was narrow, incompatible for two even if she nestled as close to him as she did now. He had done so on purpose. It was long to accommodate his height, but it only served as a vivid reminder of how alone he was when half the bed was cold and empty.
But no more.
Memories of his childhood home came unbidden. It was large and magnificent with lush draperies and carpets that made Drostan’s own castle seem tattered in comparison. But to him it was a prison, one that he had walked away from with all the small dignity he could muster, servants and parents alike cursing him as he went.
But with Mairi...
The harsh stone walls and stiff formality would be softened. She would have a home befitting her role as his wife, the fairest and loveliest creature he had ever beheld. She deserved such a home, a place where they could settle. Where the farthest they would ride would be to picnic in the forest, a lazy Callum begrudgingly offering his services for an afternoon, only to wander away as he kissed her in a glen.
He did not know who lived there now. His progenitors had made it perfectly plain that they would do all they could to disinherit him and he assumed they went to the king to have their petition made legal.
Garrick had never cared before, but now...
He would never ask it of the current king. But to have the future ruler indebted to him—such would lead to possibilities.
“Mairi, do not be alarmed, but I shall have to leave you for a time.”
She pushed on his chest hurriedly until she had risen on her elbows and looked at him sharply. “Have you need of the privy?”
He cursed the flow of blood that settled in his cheeks, mortified as he was at her question. “Nay. I have an errand that requires my attention and it shall involve a bit of travel. It is not necessary for you to accompany me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You would leave me here when you believe me in danger?”
He smoothed his thumb over her cheek, expecting her reaction. “I am not abandoning you. But if I am to protect you properly I must away. It shall only be a few hours and then I shall return—hopefully even before our final meal.” He smiled at her softly. “Who else shall tell you what your stomach asks for?”
She still looked unconvinced though he could see the smallest hint of a smile ghosting unbidden across her lips. “You will be safe, little nymph. I do not leave you alone. There is another in this residence that knows of the king’s proclivities and would see you kept safe. He knows of my task and will ensure your wellbeing.” He held her close and sat up, pulling her with him, unwilling to part with her so soon. “And if he should fail than perhaps I have one more charge before we leave this place.”
Mairi gasped. “Garrick! That is a dreadful thing to say!”
He shrugged, unrepentant. He found that he would indeed come to rely upon scandalous phrases if it meant she would cease staring at him with a mixture of pain and resignation.
“You must trust me, dear-heart. I do this for us.”
She kissed him, softly and sweetly before rolling away from him. “That makes it no easier to let you go.”
It felt the deepest betrayal to dress. He abandoned the armour to its neat pile in the floor, knowing that it would only draw undo attention. His errand was uncommon enough to remain in far too easy reach of memory, and seeing the sigil of a known assassin would only make the purchase all the more worrisome.
There could be no evidence, no doubt.
And Garrick was nothing if not excellent at his work.
He kissed her once more in parting, trying valiantly to remind himself that she would be safe and well in his absence. And if she was not, Cyrus’s life was forfeit.
Garrick closed the door firmly behind him, sending a quick prayer for her safety as he did so, only to then bellow at the young boy stationed in the hallway, “You there, come here!”
He scrambled to his feet, at the ready for whatever a guest required of him. Garrick vaguely remembered such boys, running thither and yon on whatever errand was asked of them, wiling away the hours as they simply waited in passageways in case a nobleman required them. At the time he had envied them, or at least their normality, but now it seemed always a waste of youth. But he supposed not everyone could foster a profession at such a young age, and many had families that required the income.
“Go find that maid Bonnie and tell her to meet me at the stables. And be quick about it!”
He nodded furiously and gave a clumsy bow, “Of course, m’lord!”
It would cause too much suspicion to send word to Cyrus directly, and although he appreciated his wife’s defence of him to the cowering servant, he took not great issue in frightening her into obedience.
She was not his wife after all.
He traversed the now familiar passages to the stables, errantly hoping that the smithy had made a sudden recovery and all of this proved unnecessary. But the stable hand assured him that he had checked with the man’s apprentice only that morning and he was still as sickly as before. “I’m terrible sorry for it, m’lord. But please know that I’ve been taken excellent care of him besides!”
Callum was indeed munching placidly on a trough of warm grains. “Aye, I can see that. Just be certain he does not become even more plump than he is already.” Garrick allowed a hand to rest on Callum’s brow, though he shook it off forcefully, returning his attention to his oats.
“Ungrateful wretch of a beast.”
The stable hand watched the two with wary amusement, and he nodded agreeably at Garrick’s assessment. Perhaps Mairi had indeed softened him for he had no impulse to cuff the boy for agreeing with Garrick’s defamation of Callum’s good name.
“Will you be needin’ anything else, m’lord? Or merely to check on ‘im?”
Garrick drew to his full height, knowing that it was only going to be fear of Garrick’s ire that would cause the boy to still his tongue if the need arose. “I had not intended to be kept here so long and I have business that requires my immediate attention. I shall require the use of one of the king’s horses.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “I don’t...”
Garrick’s eyes narrowed, and his fist clenched. “Are you defying me? I am on the king’s errand and I shall be certain to inform him of who kept me from my charge.”
The lad stepped back fearfully, and he began to nod slowly. “Forgive me, m’lord, I did not know. I’ll have Ailbe saddled right quick!”
Garrick was not certain what kind of horse of quality could be called Ailbe but the boy seemed sure of himself as he scampered to the back of the stable and coaxed a tall gelding from the stall.
But what caused his nose to crinkle with distaste was that the beast was white.
As if he was some avenging maiden.
Before he could open his mouth to protest, Bonnie came running into the stables, already breathless from the exertion. “You had need of me, m’lord?”
Garrick cast one last begrudging look at the white steed being outfitted with the proper equipment and sighed, turning to the girl. “I have an errand and shall be gone until at least dusk. You will tell that husband of yours that my wife is to be protected. If she is harmed in any capacity while I am gone, I can assure you that the pretty curls he loved so much will be the least of his woes. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
She nodded furiously, her hands straying to the short strands that now made up her hair even as she looked at him in fear. “The Lady Mairi said...”
“My lady does not quite appreciate what I will do to see to her safety and wellbeing. Much like I assume you do not know what your husband is willing to commission to see to yours.”
She bit her lip and gave a low curtsy. “I imagine not.”
“Good then. Heed my words, girl. I would garner no pleasure in destroying the entire line of this infernal house, but if my Mairi is harmed I can assure you I will make that sacrifice.”
The stable boy returned, the charger in tow, and he seemed quite proud of his speed. “He’s a good horse, m’lord! Our Ailbe won’t give you any trouble.”
Garrick took the reins from him and mounted, finding the experience of a new stead discomfiting. He threw the lad a penny piece, and gave neither of them another glance before prodding the horse onward into the afternoon air.
It felt strange riding alone. For so many years he had been without a companion. In season past he had found the open moors, newly bursting with heather and fresh grasses to be a freeing experience. He was bound by no vow, no sense of duty but that which he had for himself.
Yet now everything had changed.
This horse was not trained to his every nuance, and he stayed the course merely out of a brokenness of will, not for a love for its rider. His little nymph was not entwined about him, sharing his cloak and murmuring incessant questions in his ear that he would answer with a long-suffering sigh.
True to his word, Ailbe proved a capable horse that seemed to appreciate the leagues Garrick needed to travel with vigour. Although he was loath to leave Mairi with any considerable distance, the farther he was from the king’s domain when he made his purchase, the better—and safer for all parties involved. The smaller villages might have healers with little pouches of tinctures to offer for the right price, but he needed an apothecary. In truth, he might be able to scour the countryside and find enough on his own, but there were few guarantees and he did not have the luxury of time. Should any discover that he had left the castle, and had indeed taken a horse without express permission, there was little telling what might befall his poor wife.
Dandryvl was well known to Garrick. He had first found work there, mucking out stables and the rather prominent inn, the last before one made it to the opulence of Calidore. The innkeeper had eyed his masked features with suspicion and made him promise to keep to the shadows so as not to frighten any customers. He had also told him strictly that if any devilry should befall the horses in his charge, he would take it out on Garrick’s hide.
Yet he had been but a lad himself then, thin and wiry, and not at all the strong, capable man he had become.
A lad without a wife.
Garrick wondered if he would ever grow truly accustomed to the idea.
And they had a reputable apothecary, one that he had often passed with a dream in his eye, wishing that any of the potions and salts prescribed within could somehow heal him of his mother’s hatred.
And now as he swiftly dismounted the dreadfully white horse and dropped the reins, he found that his wish had indeed been fulfilled—and never in a way had he ever imagined.
He eyed the horse warily for a moment, wondering if he required tying to a post or if he was obedient enough to remain where he was placed. Callum would sometimes try Garrick’s patience by wandering the smallest bitto more preferable nibbles, but he was always confident that he would not disappear entirely.
This horse, however, had done little to earn his trust other than to keep from startling when they had crossed paths with a rather formidable destrier and a knight, evidently waylaid on the way to the tournament for he travelled at a very great speed. He nodded at Garrick as he passed but Garrick paid him little heed—even as he tried to keep his eyes from lingering with envy as he acutely felt the desire for Callum to once more be fit for use. This white beast was smaller and more delicate, and completely lacked his friend’s fierce loyalty that made them such amiable partners.
But no matter. They would be reunited once again if he had to ride all the way back to Monavyn and snatch up their marshal, willing or no. He would finish this unpleasant business of dispatching the king and then...
He would skip from kingdom to kingdom seeking more malcontents that wished to kill one another and he would pretend it was justified in the prevention of a war. Some might indeed have circumvented more bloodshed; sovereigns had mustered arms for less. But no longer could he ignore the pettiness of mankind—the very thing he had indulged for so long.
Such had been his life for decades, but now it left him feeling discomfited. He did not wish for his Mairi to be exposed to more violence and death—she deserved her little copse of trees where she could laugh and be free, fearing nothing.
The apothecary had an obnoxious little bell that tolled shrilly at his entrance, and he glared at it hotly before shutting the door behind him. He would have dispensed with it completely but that would leave a memory, and it was far better if he could remain as unremarkable as possible.
He waited another few moments, and although he tried to be mindful of the need to remaining inconspicuous, he could not contain an impatient, “Apothecary!”
He heard a subtle thud from a small room beyond the one bursting full of herbs, some dried, some fresh, some placed in tiny jars and others taking up whole corners of the room with murky substances he could not begin to identify.
An older man appeared, not much younger than Mairi’s elderly friend Harold, and he had a terrible limp that necessitated the use of a gnarled old stick. “Who calls so loud?”
Garrick rolled his eyes but bit back a retort.
“Merely a customer in grave need.”
The man peered at him from slightly hazy eyes, and Garrick wondered how he could keep a shop if his eyesight proved so poor.
He settled on a low stool with a heaving sigh, rubbing his bad leg with surprisingly strong strokes. “Too many are, I fear. Is your wife sickly then? Perhaps about to birth?”
Garrick blinked, his mouth suddenly dry, unable to consider such a prospect. He supposed they hadnow engaged in such congress that could—theoretically—beget a child, but his earlier worries returned that he could not actually provide her with the babe she so desired.
A seedling as she called it.
He shook his head, once again marvelling at the strangeness of his wife that he had come to find so endearing.
“Nay. My father’s heart grows weak, I was told you could provide something to improve its quality.”
The man nodded, though he winced at the mention of it. “Aye, you’ll be needing foxglove. I do have me some and I hate to inconvenience you, sir, but it’s up yonder, and I’ve long been unable to reach it. I’d have me son’s boy do it, but he’s run off to woo that young Mistress Rose down the lane. So if you would be so kind, you are awfully tall...” He pointed with his staff to a high shelf, neatly lined and labelled with small pots of dried herbs.
Garrick examined them all carefully, unwilling to risk any mistakes in this particular venture—or in truth, in any of his charges. He might be reconsidering his occupation in general, but he would still see this through properly—to fail would mean an inquest, and possibly his head.
And if bond-mates were as entwined as Mairi suggested...
The thought of her perishing because of his blunder was intolerable. He knew well the smell and appearance of dried foxglove, having used it before in similar matters. He found the correct jar and eyed it carefully, satisfied that the man had not exchanged it with another of similar consistency.
“If you’ll just bring it here I’ll put a few pinches in a pouch.”
From a pocket of his rough robe he produced a packet, and with great concentration he allowed a small measure to fall into the waiting sachet. “Best for a young man like you not to handle it too much. It can be a bitter draught so do your father a kindness and put it in a strong drink if you’ve got it.”
Garrick produced a few coins and watched with some amusement as they seemed to disappear into the folds of his robe. “You’re not from these parts, are you? I’d remember a handsome lad like you.”
Garrick smirked, any good humour gone. “I lived here long ago, but no, I do not think you would remember me.”
The man squinted, his mind groping for memories long since past their prime. “I’m terrible good at faces. You weren’t old Hammond’s boy were you?”
Garrick pulled up the hood of his cloak and opened the door, cursing himself for having remained that long. “Nay, and you may trust me when I assure you, if you had seen my face you would have been unable to forget it.”
Dusk was settling over the moors as Garrick spurred Ailbe into motion. He had travelled by moonlight before but already he felt the insistent tug to return to Mairi, to see this task fulfilled, and finally begin to sort out precisely what their lives would be when this whole business was at last completed.
And as he tucked the illicit packet into his cloak and urged the too-pale gelding into a faster pace, he realised with a startling clarity that all he wanted was the home his little nymph had for so long been forced to grieve.
And he found himself wondering if it was time to reclaim his birthright.