A Nymph Without Mercy

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XXVII

Despite his obvious desire to be free of the boundaries of the fortress, Garrick would not allow them to depart fully until they had visited the tailor and cobbler and procured the items promised to them.

The dresses were as wonderful as she had hoped and although she could not help but sigh wistfully when he draped her new cloak about her shoulders, she knew that this too was a sign of his affection for her. Each item was a visible outpouring of his care, and she would not spurn them, even if she was happiest in naught but his tunic and perhaps his cloak should her legs get cold.

But Mairi especially did not like shoes.

Garrick promised that she would adjust to them and that they would be necessary now that her feet were no longer protected by her nymph magic as he called it. She tried to protest and remind him that she possessed no such abilities but he silenced her with a kiss, pulling away with a roguish smile as she blinked and forgot her argument.

Her sweet, wretched Garrick.

She felt clumsy in the boots. Garrick pulled out a pair of something called stockings from his pocket and knelt before her in the cobbler’s shop and eased them up and over her feet. While she appreciated his attentions and very much liked the feel of his fingers ghosting about her shins, she was not at all convinced by the weight of these strange tubular devices.

At first she thought he was simply being considerate since she had no experience with laces, but then she recalled his glare as the apprentice had taken her measurements touching her toes and ankles when necessary to ensure a proper fit.

She shook her head in amusement at her bond-mate’s interference.

But no matter how she appreciated the gesture, and his wish that she be well protected, when the thick leather boots went on top of the stockings, she felt clumsy and oafish.

To his credit, the shoe-master had done his best to make them feminine, with little weaving vines pressed into the leather about the laces, and Mairi did like the feel of it as she allowed her fingertips to trace the intricate patterns.

But she would much rather hold the boots than wear them.

She felt terribly guilty knowing that her bond-mate only wished to care for her. But as he turned to settle the cost with the man using a few more of his small metal pieces, she picked at the little knot and tugged them off, shoving them and the stockings under the cloak before Garrick could notice.

They would only be riding in any case. And if the ground was indeed so very rough she would find a way to covertly put them back on—or perhaps she would confess that she had removed them and Garrick would sigh and roll his eyes and once more put them on her feet.

She did like that part of this shoe wearing business.

Finally they were in danger of overburdening Callum with all her new belongings, and Mairi convinced Garrick that she was not in desperate need of anything else.

For in truth, all she felt she truly needed was to begin their journey home.

He was only too happy to oblige.

But before they could be on their way, as Garrick was overseeing all the little buckles and pieces that Callum wore, Mairi stuffed her stockings and shoes into the saddlebag and hoped it escaped his notice.

When he said nothing as he joined her, she was content that she had succeeded.

The open spaces surrounding the king’s city had changed since she had seen it last. The green grasses has erupted into magnificent displays of flowers, each proudly displaying their unique colours as they greeted springtime as jubilantly as they knew how.

She noted sadly that her tree would have begun to bloom as well had it been hale and healthy. There had been no dreams for some time that allowed her a glimpse of how her adar fared, and she thought mournfully as well that she worried for her tree. It was a part of her, as much as her limbs and appendages, and it was always so exciting when the delicate pink blossoms peeped out from woody branches.

“How far are we from your home?”

His hold about her middle tightened. “Our home, Mairi. I would not want it if it was not also yours.”

She would have placed a kiss upon his cheek to express how warm he made her feel at his kind words, but his helm was a harsh impediment against doing so. She huffed. “Must you wear it?”

Garrick sighed. “While we travel, I must. My sigil is known in these parts and none would dare to cross us. When we are safely tucked away in our home then I shall not dare place any obstruction between us.” He leaned in close and even through the metal barrier she felt his breath whisper across her cheek. “I would even forgo clothing if that was your desire.”

She could not help but shiver at his tone.

“Then I hope we shall arrive there soon. You are far more comfortable to be pressed against when clothed in your doublet.”

He chuckled at that, although she had been perfectly serious. She would not begrudge him if he felt the need to keep his armour against the rest of the world, but she could not pretend that she would not be glad to settle into a quieter life, one with less death and bloodshed and more time for simple pleasures, such as making sure their bond was very sealed and that their woods were well explored.

Garrick had eased Callum into a gentle canter, and for a long while they rode in silence, content with appreciating the open spaces before them and lack of oppressive walls that held them captive.

But in time Garrick slowed as a well used road appeared before them, and he eyed it pensively. “I told you that you would have a choice in our destination and perhaps I may now bring that promise to fruition.”

Her brow furrowed. “I thought we were to go to your previous home. Had you another place in mind?” She recalled his offer to return to her own wooded realm and shook her head firmly. “My people are far from here Garrick and I am anxious to build our own way, not attempt to beg them into accepting us. We do not need to return to the High City.”

Garrick sighed. “That is not to what I refer. I have... a few articles in my cottage that shall need to be collected at some point. Either we may make a slight detour and gather them now or we can become settled at Endelmoor and make the journey later. I leave the decision in your hands.”

She tilted her head, trying to understand him. “Are they important to you? Have you missed them?”

He gave a funny sort of shrug that she could not interpret at all. Frustrated at how easily she had come to rely on seeing his features to more fully understand her bond-mate she tugged at his helm and held it prisoner until he was willing to speak.

Garrick shook his head in bemusement. “Most hold no great significance. I will admit that I would prefer to have a few more of my own clothes especially if we are to live at the estate on a permanent basis. But the rest...”

He adjusted his hold on the reins and with a moment of brief clarity she realised he was embarrassed. “The rest is what? If there is something you should like to have, Garrick, I would never deny you. My only wish was to be free of Drostan’s dwelling and in that we have already succeeded. What is it you miss?”

Garrick took a deep breath and she realised that whatever he would confess was deeply personal. For that reason alone the exact identify of the object did not matter—she would willingly face another fortnight of travel and delay if it meant it could be retrieved.

“My lyre. It offered me great comfort in my loneliest days and I should... like to bring it with us to our new home.” He stroked her cheek lightly with his gloved hand. “Perhaps you might even grace me with a song.”

Her eyes brightened. “I did not now that music was of such importance to you.”

She had not anticipated that. Her people had a great fondness for song, and many of their festivals were centred upon dance and music. Her adar had liked to play on his laminchord. When she was a only a seedling he had explained that the small instrument was compiled with strings similar to the ones used to make her gowns, carefully entwined to produce the most alluring of sounds. She had always touched the instrument with such reverence, but her talents lay much more in voice than in instrumentation—and with much coaxing he would convince her to accompany him at their gatherings.

Garrick smiled at her softly, even as his eyes lowered slightly. “Aye. I expect there is still much we must learn of one another. You have a lovely voice, and I should like to hear you sing one day.”

She leaned forward and placed a kiss upon his cheek, grateful that he had shared such an intimate detail of himself with her. “Singing was a great joy of mine that I shared with my adar. I would be happy to do so with you as well.”

He always looked so sad when she mentioned her kin, and she made sure to soothe his worries as best she could with distracting kisses and promises of affection.

But eventually he gently pushed her away with a chuckle, reminding her of their position as Callum released a low chuff of annoyance at being stationary so long. “So what say you, little nymph? Where is to be our destination?”

Even when his hands tugged at his helm held firmly in her grasp she did not relent, and instead she pointed in what she hoped was the direction of his lyre—whatever that object might be.

“Let us find your music, sweet Garrick. I should think it might help frighten away the shadows of your past as we christen our new home.”

At least, she sincerely hoped it would.

He kissed her then, greedily and with more enthusiasm than even she had inspired previously, and for a moment she became lost in the unfretted passion that her bond-mate alone could inspire.

Only to feel the cool metal helm slip from between her fingers.

And when she reached for it and his lips parted from hers as she gasped in outrage, he merely smirked at her roguishly. “Thank you, my lady, for keeping this for me. But if we are to depart then I will need it back.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and unwound her arms from about his shoulders, perching as far from him as she could while still confined to the saddle.

It was a terribly mean trick and one of which she did not approve. He should not wield his part of their bond as a weapon against her. Perhaps he had not meant it maliciously but it still felt wrong that he would use his kisses and affections to manipulate and not simply to express his love for her.

Garrick groaned. “Mairi, are you truly upset? I did not mean to anger you. But I told you, my armour must remain in place until we are sequestered in our new home.”

Clearly her emotions were spilling through their bond, and she made no attempt to stay them.

She took a steadying breath, trying to discern if she should not chastise him for his actions. He was clearly being playful and had not intended to inspire her ire—but that did not quell her unease. “Should you like it if I kissed you merely to get my own way?”

Garrick was quiet for a moment and she heard a shifting behind her but she refused to investigate what he was doing. But before long his arms had closed about her, his chin resting upon her shoulder and his uncovered face so very close to her own. “You are right; I would not like it if I knew that you preyed upon our bond with an ulterior motive. But I truly meant no offense, dear-heart, of that you must believe.” He nuzzled against her neck and left heady kisses against her skin, and she could not help but sink back against his chest.

And,” he added, his breath warm against her, “We shall not move from this spot until you have forgiven me.”

She pursed her lips, trying to quell the shiver of desire and the simultaneous tickle that leapt from her neck as wisps of his hair met sensitive flesh.

How was she supposed to remain cross when he treated her so?

“And never doubt that I kiss you because I want to. Even should I wish to distract you, it is never from anything mean-spirited.”

She could not help but laugh when suddenly, obviously tired of his master’s delay, Callum chose for them and began wandering down the road.

Her laughter only grew at Garrick’s disgruntled expression.

“I was perfectly serious, Mairi. I must hear from your lips that you understand.”

He gave the reins a sharp tug and Callum’s long neck turned to nibble at Garrick’s boot still situated in the stirrup.

Mairi smiled. “If only to save your boots I suppose I shall forgive you. Callum does not seem keen on your declaration to remain here. Perhaps the heather is not to his liking.”

It was certainly to hers, and she almost wished they would soon luncheon amongst the flowers. And if Garrick was very agreeable, maybe he could be persuaded to weave a few into her hair.

And though she had seen some younger dryon submit to their nymph’s ministrations as they interspersed crowns of leaves and clover into their own hair, she would not even attempt such a thing with her own bond-mate.

He did not seem the kind to appreciate such gestures.

Although now with his previous display, she wondered if a few well placed kisses on her part could convince him to indulge her.

She shook her head. They were still so new at this. Their bond might help ease their way through tumultuous conversations but it did little to guarantee accuracy in conversation.

Perhaps time was what was necessary.

She liked the idea of time.

Their journey was farther than she expected, but when they made camp for the night in the woods, this time she was nestled into the same bedroll as her bond-mate. And when Garrick began to explain quite vividly with mouth and hands just what he had dreamt of doing with her all those nights as they travelled with one another, she decided she did not much care if his cottage was a very great distance away.

Not if it meant being so very close to her bond-mate.

The nights were still cool, but between Garrick’s warm body beside her and a crackling fire that frightened away the darker portions of the night, she found herself quite content.

She had missed him, she realised. She did not like sharing him with Cyrus and his errands, or even with the stable hands that pulled him away while she was left alone with a feast.

Someday she might be able to bear the separation, when she had a home of her own and woodland friends to keep her occupied, and perhaps a seedling to complete their little family. But for now—now she wanted him close and hers.

As he would always be.

It was a comforting thought.

On the third day they reached it. So concealed was it by mosses and impressive mounds of ivy that at first glance she thought they were stopping prematurely, but soon she was able to make out the low roof and tiny window that belied the existence of a cottage.

She found it enchanting.

Garrick however appeared embarrassed as he helped her down onto the barely noticeable lane below.

Try as she might to hide her bare feet from him after he had so thoughtfully procured her shoes, he still had noticed. At first she thought he would have been upset with her for disregarding his attention, but instead he had only rolled his eyes and picked her up, carrying her wherever she bade as they had done before.

This time proved no different.

“I am certain you can now see why I thought it necessary to secure a better place for you.”

His mouth was pinched into a grim line as he observed the small abode, so clearly seeing something inadequate as he carried her forward and the details became more apparent.

“I do not know what you think I am used to, but I can assure you, I think your little dwelling is rather charming. And I am glad to have known it, for if only for a time, you called it home.”

He glanced down at her briefly. “This was not a home, Mairi. This was an escape. For when I tired of inns and taverns and looks of fear and loathing that accompanied me always, I would come here as a place of refuge to hide from it all.”

The door did not appear to have a handle like the others she had seen before, and it opened with a loud creak of protest when Garrick pushed some unknown mechanism to offer entry.

He eased her down carefully, the floor comprised of smoothed stones that, while dirty in places from obvious lack of use, were not uncomfortable to her bare feet.

The interior was not as she expected. Garrick had few belongings, and there was little to offer insight into the owner aside from the relative orderliness. A small bed inhabited the corner, neatly made but not quite welcoming with its dark linens tightly bound. There was a large fireplace that looked carefully maintained, despite the rest of the structure appearing as though it was slowly being absorbed back into the nature of the forest.

There was a small wooden table, and a lone chair that sat beside it, one plate and cup already set as if waiting for its master to return to give it purpose.

Mairi had moved about the single room as she took in all the unique features that made up Garrick’s sanctuary, and even to her she could feel the loneliness that had seeped into every article.

“Oh, my Garrick...”

She hurried back to him so she could wrap her arms about his middle, infusing whatever warmth she could into the embrace. Before she had met him she had known laughter and affection, the bonds with her kin that, while not as permanent as the one she now shared with him, was fulfilling in its own right.

But her sweet Garrick had been all alone, forced to endure and scratch out what bits of security he could from a world that otherwise spurned him.

No more.

“You needn’t pity me, Mairi. It might not have been a happy existence here but at least there were none to cause me harm. There are far worse memories within Endelmoor, and even then I forbid you from mourning. This is a part of the past and I refuse to dwell on it any longer.”

She peered up at him, shaking her head slowly as she tried to find the words to express how wrong he was. “It is not pity, Garrick. It is sorrow. You may not have had people here to mock and abuse you, but that does not make your existence here a contented one. And for that I shall indeed be sorry, no matter what you attempt to forbid.”

He held her close for a long while, and she would have happily remained there for as long as he wished, if only his armour was not keeping her from truly appreciating the experience.

“Who am I to inhibit anything you desire. Even if it includes pitying your poor bond-mate.”

His tone was teasing even as she saw the seriousness in his eyes, the pain that was present so long only now beginning to fade the longer she was with him.

Perhaps someday it would be absent completely.

She looked forward to their many seasons with one another so she could see if together they did possess such a magic.

The day had been overcast and Garrick had expressed great concern that the skies would finally give way to their threat of rain. Consequently they had ridden hard trying to reach his cottage before the storm erupted, and suddenly overhead they heard the pattering of a springtime shower, and Mairi was grateful for not being forced to endure the wetness as they travelled.

She loved the rain, truly she did. But she preferred to watch it from the safe harbour of her adar’s tree, nestled in the comforting branches that shielded her from even the fiercest gale.

Garrick sighed and moved away from her, staring at the sudden downpour with annoyance.

“I had not intended for us to remain here for the night.” He glanced at Mairi thoughtfully and sighed. “But I shall not have you out in this weather. A nymph you may be but I will not risk your health when we are unsure of how a chill will affect you.”

He raised the hood on his cloak and stepped outside, but halted her when she made to follow. “There should be logs near the hearth. Callum will require shelter and then I will return. I believe you promised me a song.”

And then he was through the door and off to tend to his friend.

Mairi glanced at the logs hesitantly. He had teased her fire-making skills already and that had not even included creating a fire from nothing.

But still, she would do her best and hopefully he would be impressed upon his return.

From his words it seemed that men could be harmed if allowed to be cold too long, and although it was endearing that he would worry for her so, she did not like the idea that he would sacrifice his own wellbeing for hers.

She thoughtfully arranged a few of the finest looking logs in the middle of the stone opening. If fire would appear it would look very similar to what she had seen burning brightly in the other hearths she had witnessed, but that did not offer much assistance in how such fire began.

There were some other scraps of wood lying about and she thought they were rather lonesome as they were too small to burn for very long, and she was rather sure that Garrick would discount them for that very reason.

She arranged those artfully amongst their larger brethren and then to her delight found the two dark rocks that were very similar to the ones Garrick used to start their cooking fires as they made camp. He had always tended to them and allowed her to brush Callum or ready their bedroll instead of engaging with the potential danger, and she had possessed no great desire to learn for herself.

But now, with her Garrick out in the cold and wet she wanted a homey fire to greet him.

She flicked the rocks together quickly as he had done, only creating a small click as stone met stone.

So she tried again.

And again.

And was relatively sure she was closer to discovering a new form of musical expression than creating fire.

But finally as her frustration grew they seemed to strike one another just so, and a small spark flew from the rocks and found one of the small pieces of wood that she had so strategically placed.

And the little flame grew bigger and she was immensely pleased.

The door opened then and a cold draft made her shiver, and she checked her fire worriedly to ensure that the air had not caused it to blow out.

But other than a flicker of protest, it carried on, and she smiled at her bond-mate proudly as he dropped their saddle bags on the floor and removed his drenched cloak before beginning to see to all the buckles of his armour.

And as he gazed at her so softly, she felt through their bond and from his eyes alone that this was the first time there was someone waiting for him upon his return home, and he liked it very much.

For the person waiting there loved him, and that pushed away what loneliness lingered in this neglected cottage.


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