As soon as the rain had commenced Callum had already begun the short walk to the small stable that made up his home while Garrick made use of the cottage. In truth, the stable was newer and in better condition than even Garrick’s lodging, something that at the time had seemed fitting. Garrick did not care if his home was old so long as there was a warm fire and no leaks in the roof, but he did want to provide what he could for his only friend.
Garrick found him at the stable door, his ears turned low as the rain pelted them relentlessly. “My apologies, old friend. Let us get you settled.”
Other than a fine layer of dust having settled upon each of the exposed surfaces and a rather musty smell that spoke of disuse, everything was much as it always had been. The hay was no longer the freshest but it would pad his stall well enough, and there was a warm blanket to be had to rub Callum dry so he would be content for the night.
And although it seemed almost absurd to face the storm outside to find the long forgotten well and draw water to quench Callum’s thirst, it was still a necessity.
“You know, some day I shall expect you to return the favour. I will remain warm and dry and you shall bring me apples and water even in the worst of weather.”
Callum merely blinked at him.
They had ridden through worse and both survived the experience, but neither of them truly enjoyed prolonged bouts of cold and wetness. Perhaps they were becoming spoiled in their advancing years, but there was something appealing about warm shelters and hot meals and, perhaps most importantly, someone to share them with.
For the first time in his remembrance, Garrick felt an almost urgent need to return to the cottage.
“Dream well, Callum. Our mistress requires settling also.”
A low huff of breath was his only reply.
Garrick barely felt the cold. The rain however was impossible to ignore, and for a moment he allowed himself to feel grateful that he no longer was forced to wear the mask. In summer the heat made the confining leather nearly unbearable, but rainwater leaking and smothering could be equally troublesome.
But no more.
And it was all due to the little nymph that awaited him just inside the door.
To his relative surprise she had succeeded in starting a fire. It was a small one to be sure, but she looked immensely pleased with herself and the happy domesticity of a wife waiting by the hearth with a welcoming fire beside her was not lost upon him.
Perhaps it was not the building itself that signified a home.
Perhaps it was wherever he could be with this lovely creature.
He shed his sodden cloak and placed it on a hook by the door, installed there precisely for that purpose. “That is a fine fire you have made, Mairi. My congratulations.” His first impulse had been to tease as he did so appreciate the colour that would rise in her cheeks as her indignation increased in equal measure. But not now.
Now he removed his armour as efficiently as he could, wanting nothing more than to feel her embrace and receive her kiss of greeting like a proper husband and wife.
“Will Callum be well? I do not like to think of him shivering in the cold.”
Garrick chuckled, knowing that Callum would never submit to such treatment in any case. Had he no shelter of his own he would likely have prodded his head against the window of the cottage seeking entrance before he allowed himself to face the elements alone. “There is a small stable nearby. Callum has stayed here with me many times and his comfort was of equal importance.”
Mairi eyed him dubiously, still kneeling before the hearth. “Somehow I think you paid greater attention to his comfort than to your own. You are very generous, Garrick, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.”
He shifted uncomfortably though he tried to hide his embarrassment by removing his breastplate. He placed it down with the rest of his armour, enjoying the feeling of lightness that always accompanied being free of the heavy coverings. “Are you going to come kiss your husband or shall he be forced to go to you?”
Other than her unearthly beauty and grace that was so obvious in her every movement, there were few occasions that truly reminded him that she was indeed a nymph. But as she leapt from the floor and hurried to his side so very quickly, he was reminded of the brief showing of her skill in the forest right before his arrow had struck her.
But now instead of falling and gasping in pain, she was reaching up on tiptoe to place a kiss upon his cheek, her fingers seeking his to entwine and stroke as she pleased. “Welcome back, my bond-mate. I have missed you.”
He did not know if he fully believed her as he had not been gone so very long, but the sentiment still warmed his heart and made him hold her closer, burying his face in her lovely, lovely hair.
Before he shivered.
A wonderful first attempt or not, he was still chilled and a larger fire would heat them both much better.
But the way she held him close it was impossible for her not to notice and to his relief she laughed, a bright cheerful sound that would never cease to make him think she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“I appreciate your praise, sweet Garrick, but maybe you should tend to it. I will not be cross.”
He kissed her cheek briefly noticing that she too was slightly chilled before doing as she had bid, trusting that she would not in fact be insulted as he stoked and prodded until the flames leapt higher and the largest of the logs also entered into the fray.
His body shuddered as the heat met him, his hair slightly damp from where the cloak had not quite managed to shield him completely. Soft hands reached up, a stolen linen from Drostan’s fortress taken from their saddlebag as Mairi wiped at his hair as thoroughly as she could. “You will not become ill will you?”
He smiled, and though it went against most of his instincts, he went down upon one knee so that she could more easily reach him. Having her deft fingers stroking through his hair was worth more than his fastidious protection of his dignity.
“Nay, dear-heart. Not when you take such excellent care of me.”
Although he could not see her face, the subtle thrum of their ever-present bond told him she was pleased.
Soon however his hair was fully dry and while she maintained the pretence for a bit longer, stroking and caressing wherever she pleased, eventually she leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “I should like to see your lyre now, Garrick. If you are amiable.”
As if he would refuse her anything.
That was the only object he had taken any true care in concealing. The door held a mechanism that would dissuade many from entering, but even that could have been averted if a determined soul would have simply broken through the window, shuttered even as it was.
He rose and took her hand, leading her off of the carpet before the hearth. He might have not exerted much effort in the upkeep of this dwelling, but even he did not care much for cold feet.
She watched him curiously as he pulled back a corner and revealed a slight discrepancy in the flat stones that formed the floor of the cottage. He removed a small blade from his boot and with practiced movements, he used the tip to lift the stone, aided by the invisible hinge he had installed.
The opening was not overly large. He had intended it that way, as there were few keepsakes he would take the trouble to hide, and he did not like the notion of a large hiding spot barely filled—a tangible reminder that so little of his life held meaning.
So instead there was only a rectangular space, large enough to hold his lyre, carefully bundled in soft cloths and leather to keep it clean and dry.
As he pushed away the coverings he felt a part of him settle back into place, the familiar wood fitting perfectly in his long-fingered hands, crafted especially to suit them.
He had expected her to admire the instrument, but instead she watched his face, a soft smile playing at her lips. “I think you neglected to tell me of another friend. You were not quite as alone as I had feared.”
He smoothed his fingers over the strings, unreasonably shy at her observation. “It was always so quiet here. Mostly I relished the silence, the solitude, as it meant I was free from people and their inanities. But sometimes...”
Garrick felt her hand settle upon his shoulder, and she gave it a gentle squeeze of understanding. “Sometimes you wanted for more. And then when you went looking for it you were once again met with nothing but disappointment.”
He glanced up at her, never ceasing to be amazed at how well she could understand him. But then, she had said they shared their very souls, and perhaps an ability to know, even when words failed, was a glorious result of such a bonding.
“Until I met you. You changed everything, Mairi. At times I lie awake wondering if you truly comprehend how much.”
She pressed another of her kisses upon his cheek, and she smiled at him softly. “I am beginning to.”
The fire was comforting, but eventually his knees, although used to a hard day’s ride, began to protest their prolonged position against the stone floor. He closed the hidden enclosure and replaced the rug, ready to serenade his wife.
The issue of seating became immediately apparent. He had only one chair before the hearth, the presence of an ever empty addition too depressing even for him. There was the hard backed one that he would force himself to eat on to maintain a semblance of civility, but it held little appeal.
Mairi’s eyes flitted amongst the available options before she went to their bags and pulled forth the bedroll, appearing unbothered as she settled amongst the furs and looked to him expectantly. “I believe you owe me a song.”
He felt a twinge of guilt as he settled in his chair as his wife was forced to content herself with the floor, but as he watched her it was evident that she truly was pleased. She fluffed and positioned until she had created quite the little nest that even looked appealing to his own sensibilities.
He plucked at the strings thoughtfully, his ear carefully listening for any twinges that would indicate a slight adjustment of the little pegs that held the lines taut, and with only a few small corrections he was pleased with the result.
No one had ever heard him play before.
He waited for a wave of nervousness to overtake him as Mairi watched him so intently, but it felt somehow right with her. As if this part of himself was meant to be shared and exhibited, for it would mean growing closer with the one who meant everything to him.
He began softly, testing his fingers that had not played in so long. But eventually they seemed to recall the melodies that had long been ingrained in them and his fingers flew over the strings as he beckoned forth the pieces that had been his companions for longer than any other.
Garrick had not anticipated Mairi’s gasp, her eyes widening as tears sprang forth.
He stopped immediately. “What is wrong?”
He wondered if somehow her people’s ears were different, that somehow the gentle refrains could pierce tender tissues and he was causing her pain.
But she shook her head furiously, a smile growing. “My adar used to play something similar. The instrument itself looked very different, more curved and delicate, but the sound...” She sniffled, wiping her tears away hurriedly. “I am sorry, I did not mean to interrupt. Please, continue.”
He hesitated, not at all certain he wished to carry on if it meant forcing her to relive obviously cherished memories with a man she was forbidden from seeing in the future. But his fingers did not seem to share his reticence for they soon resumed their dance, more cheerful and exuberant than anything he had ever composed before.
For how could he play of his melancholy and despair when this lovely nymph was staring up at him with such affection in her eyes?
And his breath grew short and finally they stilled when on the second circuit of the melody, new and unexplored even to him, Mairi began to sing.
Theirs were clearly a musical people.
Or maybe their bond merely allowed her to sing the notes that were barely formed within his own mind, but as her sweet voice mingled with his instrumentation, joining and teasing in ways that sent a shiver of pure delight through his entire being, he knew that she was beyond anything he could have ever dreamt.
Before long however he ceased his playing and sat back in his chair, relishing the little songbird that had unknowingly taken residence in his life and heart.
She seemed lost in song for a moment, obviously relishing the return of something that had once been a great joy, when she realised he had ceased his accompaniment and she had drifted to ballad of her own kin’s.
Mairi blushed deeply. “Forgive me, you did not ask for me to join you.”
He shook his head, carefully wrapping his lyre into its protective coverings and placing it on the floor. Then he reached out a hand and beckoned her forward, and it took only a moment’s coaxing before she abandoned her nest of furs in favour of settling upon his lap.
Garrick kissed her throat softly, marvelling at the talented creature that he had so been blessed to call wife. “Never apologise for singing, dear-heart. Had I known what talent you possessed I should have asked for a song every day since our meeting.”
Her cheeks never quieted, and she tugged at one of the laces of his tunic shyly. “You play very well. My adar would have complimented you also, and he has practiced far longer than you have been alive.”
His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying that I merely play well for a young man? Or that you truly enjoyed it?” He did not know why it troubled to him—his only concern should be that he was pleased with his compositions, the opinion of another mattering little.
But it did.
There was so little in his life that should recommend him to her. Despite how childish it might have been, he wanted to impress her—to offer up this talent, the only one of which she might approve. She would never compliment his skills as an assassin, nor should he wish her to, but this was something entirely different.
Yet true to her character, loving and so knowing of his every insecurity, Mairi hurried to assure. “Oh no, Garrick, I did not mean that at all! I have rarely heard anything as beautiful as your playing. My adar is regarded as one of the most esteemed musicians of our people, and I meant to praise your ability.” She tucked herself more fully against him, her hair tickling the skin of his neck as she finished her nestling. “Please do not be cross.”
How could he hope to be so when she was so warm and pliant in his arms?
“My apologies, Mairi. I suppose my music is a sensitive topic, of course you meant well.”
She hummed, the action sending little vibrations against his throat as her lips paid special attention to it. “Someday you shall not be so quick to think I intend to criticise. You shall know that I think you of great worth, with talents and qualities beyond what I could have hoped for in a mate.” She found a particularly sensitive spot that sent a jolt of heat through his very core, and it took a great deal of willpower to keep silent. “But for now I shall simply have to offer what assurances I can.”
At that he could not help but chuckle. “That is hardly an incentive for me to think otherwise—not if this is your balm to soothe accidental wounds.”
Mairi pulled back quickly, and he silently cursed having spoken aloud as she blinked at him, his words evidently proving too reasonable for her to deny. “You are right, I should...” Her head tilted and she nibbled on her lip—the very lip that had only recently been stirring a great many of his passions.
He wanted to nibble it himself.
“What would you have me do instead?”
Garrick brushed his fingers along the flesh of her tender neck, so soft and pale. He revelled in the knowledge of how pink it would flush when he kissed her, or when he proved his husbandly devotion again and again. Only he knew such things, and that was the way it should always be.
“I would never dream of telling you to touch me less. Such an order would be the most absurd instruction to ever pass my lips.”
She grinned at him. “You are not very good at forbidding me from things.”
He smiled, indulging in a gentle kiss before answering. “Nor should I hope to be. I am your husband, not your minder. You are free with me.”
His little nymph sighed so very sweetly as she threw her arms about him. “I know. Some might think being sealed a burden, but ours is the most wonderful bondage I could ever have imagined. I would wish for no other life. Not now.”
And though it still amazed him even now, when he was given evidence of her sincerity at every turn, he did believe her. For she was kissing him and shifting clothing to meet her whim, and he was helpless to resist her—it did not even occur to him to deny her long enough to suggest they make use of his narrow bed before flesh met flesh and they were once more one.
It was only after as he supported her full weight as she draped herself lazily against his chest that he realised they might have some difficulty with sleeping arrangements. “Mairi,” he murmured, pushing away a lock of her tousled hair as he searched for her features. “You may sleep in the bed tonight, and I will make use of your very fine nest. I wish for you to be comfortable.”
Her grip about him tightened. “You speak nonsense, my sweet Garrick. I will sleep with you, whether that is in my nest as you call it or the bed in the corner.”
He chuckled, not yet fully used to her endearment. So few would consider him sweet and yet she did. And perhaps it was not the most masculine of names but still he loved it, for it came from her.
“Dear-heart, it is too narrow. If you would like either of us to have use of our limbs come daybreak then I suggest we do not attempt it.”
She sighed, her chin coming to rest upon his chest as she peered up at him. “When shall you learn that it is useless to deny me?”
He should have bristled. He should have reminded her that he was not some child to be bullied about, his opinion discounted. But as he stared at her, so gentle and yet vehement when necessary, he knew only amusement.
For all she sought from him was more time, more contact. She desired soft words and gentle caresses—the kind of accord that led to fondness and love between spouses, no matter how difficult their beginning.
It made it all the easier to concede.
“If my sword arm is unfit for use I shall blame you.”
She nodded languidly, settling even more fully upon him, and he could not help but roll his eyes in mock exasperation. So trusting, so absolutely certain that she would only have to lie there in his arms and he would eventually carry her to their bed, tucking her in and ensuring her comfort before succumbing to his own sleep.
And he could only kiss her temple before doing precisely that.
Yet despite her assertion that both would fit on his small bed, his concern proved well founded. She made more use of him as a cushion than the bed itself, and it took him a few disgruntled moments to situate their limbs in any semblance of relief. To his absolute bemusement, she only lay there, pliant and yielding and allowed him to work, so certain was she that he could manoeuvre them both to the most comfortable position.
His wife was such a helpful creature.
Finally he managed to subdue the bed adequately until it was forced to accommodate them, and only then did his wife show signs of consciousness. “Why is your bed so small? I should have thought you would like to move about unhindered.”
He was silent for a long moment, staring instead at the wooden beams of the ceiling. How many night had he laid here, cold and alone as he listened to the sounds of the rustling forest about him? So many times he had read or played until he could barely keep his eyes open, better to be utterly exhausted as he fell between the bedclothes than to feel alone.
But now the bed was almost too warm, their entwined bodies a vivid reminder of how things had altered drastically in such a short period.
“So I would not have to remember every night that I had not yet found you, little nymph. Your tree might not have been empty of my presence, but I did not relish the reminder that half my bed had yet to become yours.”
At first she made no reply, but soon he felt a wetness against the exposed bits of his chest that she rested upon, and she tried valiantly to quiet her sniffles, as futile as it happened to be.
“My tree was empty too, Garrick. I may not have known it then, but now I cannot envision another life than what we are creating.”
He held her tightly, trying to maintain his own emotions, so rampant whenever she expressed the very words he so longed to hear.
“You are my dearly beloved. I hope you know that.”
He placed a kiss upon her temple, welcoming whatever deadened limbs met him come morning, so long as he could hold her close in this moment.
“As you are mine, my beloved Mairi. Now sleep and dream of pleasant things.”
And for once she obeyed without protest.