Mairi did not know what to feel.
It still seemed so strange and unnatural to take the life of another, yet as Garrick held her in his arms and she felt the emptiness echo through their bond there was no possibility that she would push him away.
Not when she needed the contact just as desperately.
He made her feel safe, far removed from the king’s moist breath and caging presence, and she had never been so grateful for her bond-mate. When they had first met he had thought that she would be happy with any that had claimed her—that the nature of her people’s sealings dictated that she would be helpless but to accept any that touched her.
But that was not the case.
Not now that she knew the ill-intentions of some of his kind.
Her sweet Garrick was kind and gentle, no matter how he had tried to convince her otherwise.
Simply the memory of another sent a shudder through her, and was grateful for his firm grip about her.
“Do you wish to speak of it, little nymph? No matter what he threatened, he shall be in no condition to see you harmed.”
She nibbled her lip and closed her eyes, trying to decide if speaking the words would only make her relive the experience or if it would be a purging of her soul—a burden to be shared with the one far more apt to carry them than she.
“Why has no one stopped him before?”
Garrick sighed and began stroking her hair with his fingertips, and she could not help but hum lightly in contentment, relishing the feel of his gentle attentions.
“Some believe that men are born to rule. To usurp a king is a dangerous undertaking, and it generally means death should you fail. The incentive must be great indeed to even attempt it.”
She stilled, not knowing the ramifications would be so very dire. “And you have such an incentive?”
He nuzzled his face against the curve of her neck and this time when she felt lips caressing the shell of her ear they felt right and good. But to her horror tears still pooled even as she tried to stop them. This was her Garrick, her bond-mate, her husband, and she would not allow one occurrence to taint anything between them.
“Do you even need to ask?”
She did not, not truly. But her words had sent a ripple of love and affection through their bond and chased away the hollowness that had threatened to overwhelm them both.
But a new worry had entered her mind, one that she could not in good conscience ignore.
“Bonnie said that you threatened to hurt her if anything happened to me in your absence. Will you actually do it?”
Garrick sighed and his arms fell away, but before she could protest—rescind her question and assure him that she would keep silent on the matter if only he would hold her—he coaxed her to turn so that she could look at him.
“The maid is safe, Mairi. Do you think me so very wretched? That because I would poison a man I would also punish an innocent for the failings of her husband?”
She played with a loosened tie of his tunic. “No, but I also know that you value your word. She was very frightened.”
Garrick huffed and rolled his eyes dismissively. “Then she should have emphasised the importance to Cyrus that you remain protected.”
Mairi shook her head. “He said that it was safer in public; that if I did not come to the banquet the king had said he would come to our room as he knew you had departed.” She glanced up at him worriedly. “Was I wrong to go with him? Would you have preferred I stayed here?”
He sighed and brushed her cheek and she closed her eyes at the contact. “You have done nothing wrong, my wife. It is only becoming clearer to me that while being a solitary creature in the past ensured my protection, that is not necessarily the most effective measure for you.”
She cocked her head to the side slightly, intent on understanding him. “You wish for... friends? Sisterlings and guards who help keep those you love safe?”
He smiled at her fondly and brushed his lips against her temple. “I suppose I do, at times like these. I would even take that Raghnall of yours to guard you as I know he at least values your wellbeing.”
She watched his lip curl slightly and knew that it pained him greatly to even consider allowing her old friend near her. But Raghnall was a good dryon and would never think of intruding on a bond, no matter how much his heart might wish it.
Not that she would have ever allowed or encouraged him to do so. Not when she had her sweet Garrick.
Mairi hoped he found a dryad that cared for him. She did so want for him to be happy.
That ache reappeared when he mentioned her home and it did not go unnoticed by her bond-mate. “You are unhappy.”
She shook her head slowly, trying to determine what precisely she felt. “I am not unhappy. I could never be so when I have you. But...I cannot help but miss certain things. Like my adar and company, and knowing that everyone in the wood only wished for one another’s shelter and contentment.”
Mairi brushed her finger against the sliver of exposed flesh where his tunic began to open. “It is so lonely when you are gone...”
They were both quiet for a long moment. For a while she thought that she had offended him, that he would think she found him lacking as a mate. But he seemed more pensive than angry so she allowed him time to collect his thoughts even as she wondered what she truly wished for.
“I have offered before, Mairi, and I shall again. Do you wish to return to the wood and look for your people? At the very least perhaps you would be allowed to say a proper goodbye, not rely on dreams and visions to provide you a glimpse at their welfare.”
Is that what she wanted?
Hers were not a violent people but even she could not guarantee their safety. There was no history of this kind of bond, not precedence to give her comfort that the elders would be reasonable. And that had not changed simply because she had been given time alone to truly miss them.
“What is it you want, little nymph? Say the words and I will do my upmost to see it done.”
She shifted so she was lying over him and she cupped his face in her hands, coaxing and soothing the lines that had formed at his earnestness.
“Give me a home, I care not where. Take me from this place and let us be free—free to find kind people to form bonds with, if only very small ones. And I know you worry that we shall not have seedlings of our own, but give us the chance to try. But not here. I do not want our nymphling or dryling to know anything of this place.”
In a move so quick it made her gasp in surprise, Garrick had flipped them so that she now was pressed against the featherbed, his body long and strong and wrapping her in a delicious covering of protection and love.
“You have my word, Mairi. I have a place in mind where we might have all that you ask, but first I must petition the new king for the rights to this property. It had forests for you to hide and play, and a lake for you to explore. We could be free there, you and I. Of that I am certain.”
Her brow furrowed. “Why have you not spoken of it before?”
His eyes darkened but not in anger, in shadows of memory that still clung to his mind that even she had not yet been able to quiet. “It is my ancestral home. I forsook it long ago but now...” He took a deep breath and when their eyes met once more there was a determination there that she had not seen before. “Now that you are with me I think we could make it the home it was intended to be. Too long it has been mismanaged and a prison for misery and pain, and I would have us cleanse it.”
Garrick leaned down to press an all too brief kiss upon her lips, and then he added quietly, “Just as you have cleansed me.”
She could not bear for him to think her more powerful than she truly was. “I did not do so very much. Please, you know I possess no great magic.”
Garrick scoffed and pressed gentle kisses on the tear stains that had only just begun to fade. “Preposterous. You have managed to possess me, both body and soul in so short a time. You have taken away the scars of my mother’s hatred, and with it began to heal what remnants also contaminated my very essence.” He kissed her lips, slowly and thoroughly, “What greater magic is there?”
How could she hope to form an adequate response?
So instead she allowed her fingers to move through his own dark hair, revelling as he shivered in that delightful way and nearly feeling the same tingles that erupted in her own body when he performed the same action. And with another careful tug she claimed his lips, pouring out her acceptance and resolve, and most importantly, her love.
He had thought himself a monster, yet he was one of the bravest men she knew. He would stop a dastardly king from performing the most heinous of crimes when lesser men would fear for their lives and remain silent. He would face the horrors of his past and hope to conquer them, simply to provide her with a proper home.
Her brave knight.
She felt his fingers under her, plucking at the laces of her gown and she shifted slightly to aid his purposeful intentions. His clothing was easier to manoeuvre, although she hated their momentary separation when she insisted his tunic be removed and tugged it up and over his head.
He always seemed so shy when his breeches were removed. It took a good bit of coaxing and skilfully placed hands to ease his bashful countenance, and she wondered if she should be more concerned at his reticence. But perhaps that was the way of men and they worried and fretted that they were unpleasing to look upon, even when his masculine form was most certainly comely and desirous.
But when he joined with her there was no room for thought or doubt. There was only love and acceptance, and a blessed reassurance that they were together and once more truly one. And the intensity of that feeling made her tears fall freely.
“Mairi? Are you well?”
He lay beside her, still quivering from his own pleasure as he drew her into his arms and wiped away her tears. His brow was furrowed with concern, and her emotions were too raw and open to contain. “You are so perfect. My very soul aches when we are apart and then when we are once more together...”
He held her more firmly against him as his breathing quieted. “I know, dear-heart. I feel the same. It is so wrong to be parted from you even for the smallest while.” She pressed a kiss above his heart, grateful for his understanding even when words failed her. “Does this fade with time? These feelings?”
She glanced at him and with a finger she softly smoothed away the line that formed between his brows. The idea of their cooling want for one another evidently bothered him as much as it did her. “Our bond shall only grow, sweet Garrick. There is no fading between mates, simply maturation.”
He tugged playfully at a lock of her hair. “Why little nymph, are you suggesting we shall become old-growths together? And here I believed your people immortal.”
She smiled up at him softly. “No one is immortal, Garrick. Not even us. Our time might be longer than yours, but it too comes to an end.”
He shook his head. “Let us not speak of endings. Only beginnings. What shall you do first in our new home?”
Mairi took a moment to wipe away the remnants of her tears, perfectly willing to participate in his imaginings of their many tomorrows yet to come. “You promised me a forest to play in.” The more she thought of the woods the more she longed for her familiar surroundings and the companionship to be found within—and not only those of her kin.
“Are your trees very wise? You shall have to tell me their words for I should like to introduce myself properly and know that they accept my presence. They may not have known a nymph before and they could be quite shy. If they are, it would be terribly rude to impose upon them.”
She peered at him, trying to assess if he thought her very foolish. She spoke truthfully as trees were indeed very dignified creatures and she would not wish to inflict her presence upon them if they disliked her.
But he only smiled at her in that sweet way of his; pure indulgence and gratefulness that she was willing to share what to him must have seemed so eccentric.
“I shall be your interpreter for as long as you have need of my services. But perhaps your ability has returned now that our... bond has established itself more firmly.”
She sat up sharply. “Do you think it possible?”
Her heart swelled even at the thought of it.
Garrick’s expression grew wary, and she could readily see that he was uneasy at her reaction. “Anything is possible, Mairi, I have learned that from you. But I would not wish for you to grow expectant.” He brushed her cheek softly with his thumb. “Your disappointment is also mine.”
She nodded firmly, holding his wrist so she could place a kiss upon his palm, smiling at how comfortable a simple action could be. “No expectations; merely hope. I do not think that is asking too much.”
With his free arm he drew her back upon his chest and she offered no resistance, for in truth, there was no place she would rather be. “So you would have us traipse through the woods. That is hardly different from what we have been doing since our bond was first forged.”
Mairi entwined her fingers with the hand she still held prisoner. “I disagree. For that wood would be ours. We would not be travellers who borrow it for a time, but instead we could become friends with it. I should think that very different.”
Garrick did not appear wholly convinced, but did not press the matter. “I will defer to your judgement. You know the ways of trees much better than I.”
She could not help but smile at that. “That is a curious thought. There is so little that I am more experienced in than you.”
“I am not so certain. You know the ways of loving a person as you have experienced it before. I do not know that I would have had the courage to try if not for your example.”
Mairi pressed a kiss to his exposed throat, savouring his trust in her to be so vulnerable in her presence. “It is in your nature, Garrick, just as it is in mine. I like to think we bring out the best in one another—like a properly mated pair.”
His smile was so soft and gentle and she had never felt so loved. Despite what he said there was no doubt that he was very good at showing his devotion.
“What will you wish to do first in our new home?”
His smile turned roguish and she knew precisely where his mind had turned. Even though they had only just finished with their previous interlude she already felt her blood warm once more to receive such a look.
But then his gaze turned wistful and he sighed, his grip about her shoulders tightening. “I wish to purge the house of memories. I wish to take you to all the little nooks where I would hide as a boy, so hated and alone, and have you hold me and remind me that I never have to feel that way again.”
She burrowed her face closer to his chest so he would not see the tears that had begun to pool. This was not about her pain at hearing of his past despair, but was her turn to comfort and soothe as best she could.
Her voice was muffled as she could not yet calm herself enough to look at him and she kept her face buried in the smooth flesh of his chest, but she knew from the way he trembled and as his hold on her was so firm that he understood.
“Never again, my sweet Garrick. We shall fill it with so much laughter and affection that at times we will be forced to flee to the woods or else the dwelling will be full to bursting.”
They lay there in the quiet of their room, their breath and the crackling of the fire as it heated their chamber the only thing to break the silence.
She tried not to think of a man perishing within the same structure.
She tried not to think of her Garrick’s involvement.
Instead she focused on their future, as her bond-mate had suggested. And it was so very beautiful to her and she wanted it so desperately, yet at the same moment she felt a crippling guilt that her happiness should come at the cost of another.
She tried to keep her feelings from crossing through their bond but she must not have been overly successful for when she peeped up at Garrick his eyes were tightly closed. “How can I help you, Mairi? I cannot rescind it now. Your people punish innocents with banishment. Is it so unheard of for them to dispense with dangers in a more permanent manner?”
Mairi swallowed, uncomfortable with the inquiry. “Not since the Old Days. But I was not punished, Garrick. It was a natural consequence that I do not regret.”
He grimaced but did not argue about the ways of her people, to which she was grateful. They had spoken of it before but still he did not understand the reasoning of the elders for her exile. Although it still hurt her greatly to be separated from them, she knew of their intentions.
They had an entire people to protect—with a way of life that could not include her bond-mate.
And she would never ask him to submit to an existence of ostracism and suspicion simply so she could be with them.
She was not so cruel.
He regained her attention with a gentle touch upon her cheek. “You are not to blame for his death, little nymph. You have a right to live unmolested, just as I have a right to protect the one I love. Trust me in this, I beg of you. Do not resent me for what I cannot change.”
She nibbled her lip, unsure of how to fully express her thoughts. “That is not it, Garrick. It is... difficult for me to know right from wrong in this world. I understand your reasons, truly I do, but it confuses me how I should then feel when it is against what I have been taught for so long.”
He looked nearly pained. “Do not base your view of morality upon me, Mairi. I fear you would find none more ambiguous than I.”
That she could not allow.
“I most certainly can, my brave knight. And he is the very king in question. His only guide was what would provide him the most comfort and pleasure, with no regard for those he harmed in the process. You may have acted in such a way in the past, but I do not believe it defines your future. Not now. Not when you are so dedicated to seeing to my happiness.”
“That is all I want,” he whispered, drawing her close so he could seal his promise with a kiss.
They slept little that night. On occasion they exchanged heartening touches and quiet words of love and assurance. She would not consider the outcome should whatever Garrick placed in Drostan’s drink fail to bring about the death he appeared so confident was unavoidable. She would not think of the possibility that Garrick would be discovered and executed in the same manner that was seemingly so prevalent to these people.
And when Mairi did manage to drift into an uneasy slumber she awoke frequently to Garrick’s steady presence surrounding her, holding her close as they waited for the inevitable.
At dawn, breathless and looking as equally tired and dishevelled as both Garrick and Mairi felt, Bonnie knocked upon the door.
And when both had donned some manner of clothing and Garrick opened the door, her eyes were large and harrowed as she pronounced their change in fortune.
“The king is dead.”
And despite her many worries and confusion, all Mairi felt was relief.