When they had awoken the rain had ceased and the sky was bright and clear, the clouds only furthering the beauty of the morning as the sun shone in hues of yellows and pinks as it too greeted the day.
Mairi had not been so ready to vacate their warm cocoon, but Garrick had persuaded her, promising a hearty breakfast and a long picnic luncheon if she agreed to hurry and begin their journey.
Evidently, while he had appreciated their evening in his almost-home, he now was anxious to depart from it.
Despite her protests he insisted she wear her boots, claiming that the lane was too muddy and rocky for her to be without them. She had complained, but with an imperious sniff he had informed her that he was already heavy laden with their many belongings and could not possibly be expected to carry her as well.
She pouted but finally agreed, resolving to be free of the foot bonds as soon as possible.
Mairi was wearing one of her new dresses, and while she appreciated Garrick’s efforts to care for her through its provision, it still felt terribly odd to be in something not of her people’s making. It was warm and soft, and he had clearly spared no expense in ensuring that she had the finest the tailor had to offer, but it still was not the same.
For one thing, it did not seem to repel dirt and water like her old gown, and she had to carefully manoeuvre the lingering puddles and dampness, the hem pulled to well above her ankles.
“I certainly hope you do not plan on exposing so much of your lovely legs should we meet any other travellers.”
Garrick had been attaching their bags to Callum’s saddle, and she thought that the task had occupied most of his attention.
“I do not wish my hem to be ruined!” Her new dress was a deep blue, almost as dark as the night sky, and although she supposed it would hide most stains well, she would do her best to ensure it would not be forced to accommodate such things—not when she could help it.
“Better your hem meet its demise in a puddle than other men be ratified by the look of your legs. I have a particular fondness for the way your skirts appear hoisted over your legs, and I shall not allow another to also be privy to it.”
She rolled her eyes, easing her dress down as far as she could without it meeting the forest floor. “This is a silly argument, as I told you of the perfect solution. Had you simply agreed to continue carrying me, all of this could have been avoided.”
Garrick merely sniffed once in reply.
Their travels were much as they always had been, only this time, when Garrick had listened to the sounds of the wood for a long moment—and Mairi secretly suspected he was listening to the trees for a forewarning of strangers—he would make use of his lyre and they would sing before the fire, wrapped cosily in the fur-lined bedroll until succumbing to sleep.
But that night, Mairi dreamed.
She did not realise it at first, it was simply flashes of images that only appeared vaguely familiar. There was a nymph, fair of hair with sparkling blue eyes, although she mostly kept them lowered to the ground, a dryon beside her. He prickled more of her memory until finally through the haze of what used to be the clear memories of her past, she recognised Raghnall’s features.
“Celestryn, you know I am bound to you. There is little need for your doubts.”
It took Mairi a moment to recall even the smallest bit of who this dryad was, but suddenly she remembered a young nymph, two full cycles behind hers. She was timid and quiet and kept mostly to herself, and even throughout the much teasing Mairi had received from her own sisterlings regarding Raghnall’s affections, she could easily see how Celestryn watched him from afar.
“Of course my heart mourns for her adar, but why have you brought me to her tree? Is not my soul enough to hold your attention, that you must continue to pine for what cannot be yours? Why would you seal yourself to me if you could not forget her?”
Raghnall sighed and entwined their fingers before resting his forehead against hers. “Nethben, you know my heart, and it is yours. I have brought you here that you might see how hers has begun to flourish and blossom. She too has found happiness with her bond-mate, as I had hoped she would. That is why I would come here, not to dream of her, but to nourish the hope that one of our kin was not lost and alone in the world. Can you understand the difference?”
The vision ended as the couple’s lips met, and Mairi blinked awake to the crisp morning air. Garrick was holding her tightly in his sleep as he often did, although she rarely wakened before him to know precisely of his habits. She waited to feel a pang of disappointment that she had so effortlessly been replaced in Raghnall’s heart, but it did not come. For such an emotion to take hold would mean she was dissatisfied with her own existence, and as she listened to her bond-mate’s soft breathing, she could not find even the smallest twinge of discontent.
She was truly pleased for him. It was a terrible thing to be alone, and she hoped that his new mate would grow secure enough in their bond that she would not doubt him, or his affections, for too long.
“And what has placed such a satisfied smile on your lips so early, little nymph?” Garrick’s voice was a warm rasp in her ear, and she could not help but shiver slightly at the sound.
She often wondered if they shared their dreams now that they were bonded, but even if such proved possibly, she was rather glad that this one appeared private. She would discuss it if he asked, but he did not seem to appreciate her speaking about Raghnall, and would likely not understand how glad she was at his happiness.
“We shall arrive home today. I think that is something very worth my satisfaction.”
Garrick groaned and released his hold on her, stretching until his joints released whatever tension had developed in sleep.
He had to explain to her what his morning shifting was about, for it was not something she had witnessed before becoming his bed partner. He almost seemed embarrassed at first at her enquiry, but he seemed to be more readily accepting his role as her teacher when required of him.
“I shall be glad when we no longer must contend with the hard ground for a bedstead. I am becoming too old for such primitive travel.”
Her brow furrowed, not at all liking talk of his aging. They never discussed how many seasons he had seen, and she likewise did not divulge her own age, difficult as it was to compare to human years. From what she had gleaned men did not live as long as her people, and it worried her greatly that he should have only a few seasons left.
How she wished she had her adar to consult on the matter!
But for now she would not think of it, as worrying and fretting would only make her cry and Garrick would surely not appreciate such a thing so near the beginning of the day.
Now that they were so close to their destination, both Mairi and Garrick elected for a hurried meal easily consumed while riding, anxious to begin their lives properly settled in their new home.
Before midday Garrick announced that they had reached the outskirts of the estate, and for a moment she wondered how he could possibly tell when so much looked the same.
But then she felt a whisper of a feeling, familiar and yet so fleeting that she almost cried out as it was gone.
The trees were speaking, of that she was certain.
It was little more than a murmur through her mind, almost entirely lost if she had not known to stop and listen closely, and it was only then that she realised that it was an echo through their bond.
They were welcoming her Garrick home.
The feeling must have overwhelmed him for he pulled harshly at the reins, and a disgruntled Callum threw a petulant look at his master before giving him a rather hard nip at his boot as recompense.
Garrick staggered down before walking toward one of the older oaks, thick and tall and so obviously an ancient. “How...”
For the first time Mairi jumped down by herself, and as she eyed the many twigs and branches on the forest floor she was glad of her bond-mate’s insistence upon boots.
She walked toward him quietly, hoping she would not startle him as her hand drifted to his shoulder lightly. “This is your home, Garrick, and they know well of you. Did you greet them often as a child?”
He gave a short little shrug, his eyes not straying from the trees as they flickered, obviously trying to place a voice to each tree. “It was safe here, without people, without things staring at me. I rarely travelled this far, however. Only a few times when I simply wanted to escape.”
Mairi bowed her head, wishing she had the words to introduce herself properly. “It does not matter, Garrick. They remember. And if you were kind to them, as I am certain you were, they shall be glad to recognise your return.”
He was silent for a long while, and although she could not quite make out the words, there was only a lingering feeling of acceptance that assured her that her bond-mate had indeed made the right choice in bringing them here. The house itself might have held memories that had to be expunged, but already this wood beckoned them home.
He took her hand and led her back to Callum, and she quietly suggested that he remove his helm now that they were so well received. She wanted to advise that he remove his armour entirely, but Callum was already heavy laden and it would have been cumbersome to tie to the saddle.
They journeyed onward at a much slower pace, Garrick clearly listening and accepting the warm reception of his native lands, supposing his firm hold against her waist and the feelings of overwhelming relief that murmured through their bond were to be believed.
Their new home was not what she expected. From the way he spoke of it she thought it would be a haunted place, darkened stone covered by gloomy skies that revealed the despair that had once resided within.
It was in reality made of stone, as were many of the more magnificent castles she had seen thus far. But while Drostan’s had loomed and oppressed, this one appeared somehow welcoming. The materials were light in appearance, with spritely towers that rose upward to the noonday sun. There was a wide channel surrounding it with clear water that she felt certain would be well utilised come the heat of summer.
Garrick grew tenser the farther away they moved from the encroaching wood, and she wondered how anyone as evil as his parents could have lived in a place so lovely.
Callum’s hooves made comforting clamour as they met the smoothed cobblestones that saw them over the moat, and they were met with a large courtyard, grasses and flowers allowed to grow as they pleased between any broken bits of stone that revealed fertile earth beneath.
She noted with some bemusement that they would not survive there long should Garrick leave Callum unattended with them for any length of time.
Garrick dismounted quietly, and this time he reached up to help her down. She almost expected him to move away immediately, but he kept his hand in hers and drew her to the ornately carved doors that seemed to indicate the entrance.
There was a long pull to the right that after some hesitation Garrick gave a perfunctory yank.
He was too silent, too tense to make her believe that he was looking forward to exploring their new home.
“Garrick? If you would prefer we may leave at this very moment. We can make a little home at your cottage and perhaps someday I shall convince you to let me visit Harold and you will roll your eyes and huff but eventually concede. We can be happy any place, my sweet bond-mate. I should not wish for you to despair.”
He sighed and for a moment he cast Callum a longing glance before he pulled her into his arms. “I swore I would never return here, Mairi. And at the time I fully meant to keep such a vow. I wonder how this place appears to you, as beautiful as it might be. For so long it was my prison and now... I thought it would immediately be different, now that you were with me.”
She allowed her hand to caress his cheek softly, saddened that she could only offer what small assurances she could. “I have no great magic, sweet Garrick. And we have hardly even begun our christening, so please do not lose faith. Not yet. If you find that it truly does displease you we shall leave, but at least you may know that you tried. Surely that is worth something to you.”
Before he could reply the sound of many footsteps approaching the door made him pull away, and she could not help but feel a bit despondent that such would be necessary.
The magnificent door did not open as she expected. In fact, only a small portion, barely tall enough for Garrick to pass through without stooping pushed inward, revealed a man in what she had come to identify as clerics robes.
She knew little of what such a title indicated, but one such man had presided over their human wedding ceremony, and she supposed that made him a rather important figure.
“Hello? Are you in need of aid?”
He was about the height of a dryon, but that was where the resemblance ended. He was younger than she had expected, and he had a kindly face that looked genuinely concerned as he took in what she supposed appeared like two weary travellers.
From some hidden crevice of his armour Garrick produced the document Cyrus had provided them, and he handed it over without uttering a word.
Mairi thought it rather rude, but would not risk contradicting him by offering her own salutations.
The cleric squinted at the fine writing before sighing and stepping through the doorway and into the midday sun.
His action however allowed the rest of the footsteps they had heard to come barrelling through the doorway, three of the largest hounds she had ever seen came to investigate the newcomers with fervour.
Mairi was momentarily startled at their appearance and gave a yelp of surprise when one stood on its hind legs, its forepaws more than reaching her shoulders before it gave her cheek a lick of greeting.
Then it promptly desisted and went to see if Callum proved more interesting company.
She blinked up at Garrick, not at all certain how to react at the unexpected welcome. He looked a mixture of cross and wistful, and from yet another pocket produced a piece of cloth that he used to wipe her cheek. “Did they harm you? Our land was well known for its deerhounds but I had not thought they would still be in existence. They are startling to those who are not used to them.”
The cleric had watched the interlude with quiet amusement, evidently well used to the behaviour of his hounds and their method of greeting. Mairi noted rather begrudgingly that none of the large animals felt the need to meet Garrick in such a manner, but as she looked at their furry and expectant faces, she could not help but push aside her wariness and offer a pat on an eager head, a powerful tail whacking its master on occasion.
“They are fine dogs, my lady, but I do apologise if they gave you a fright. We do not receive many visitors here and they are always anxious to make a friend.”
His brow furrowed as he finished the missive, and he tucked it away in a pocket of his robe, his expression inscrutable.
“That is indeed the king’s seal, and I suppose I must concede. But if I may...” He glanced down at his dogs, his frown prominent. “I have lived here for over a decade. I always knew there was a possibility that an heir would be found, but I thought I would receive more warning.”
Mairi felt a tug of unease. She had not expected that they would force out another as they attempted to secure a home of their own, but it was clear that this man had secured attachments to this residence.
She hoped Garrick would be kind to him.
“Johan, was it?”
The man nodded, his eyes still shuttered even as he reached down and gave his dogs gentle pats of affection, their own expression growing worried as they noticed their master’s distress.
“Have you managed these lands well? Do the tenants respect you and your direction? Has the castle been well kempt and trustworthy servants employed?”
Mairi did not know what a tenant was, but it was becoming more evident that there was more to owning such a large home than she had previously considered. She had thought they would be alone and secure in that isolation. If they had remained in Garrick’s cottage perhaps that would have been their existence, but there was much more that she seemingly needed to learn.
“There are few complaints, but I believe myself a fair man. I can assure you that the tenants are a great deal more contented than when the last Lord Moore resided here. He had a reputation amongst these parts, as a carouser and a bit of a drunkard.” He looked down quickly before closing his eyes and entwining his hands. “Forgive me, it is not proper to speak ill of the departed.”
Garrick scoffed. “You shall find little censure from me should you openly curse that man.” And although he tried to appear relaxed, Mairi could plainly see his interest even as he wiped carelessly at a smudge on his armour. “And what caused their demise?”
Johan looked distinctly uncomfortable. “It was not a pleasant matter, and little could be proven...”
Garrick stared at him expectantly. “And?”
The man sighed. “It was believed that the Lady Moore poisoned her husband before consuming the concoction herself.”
Garrick gave no indication that the news upset him, instead he only nodded absently. “Good then.”
Johan glanced up in surprise and barely concealed confusion. “Forgive me, my lord, but I find I must enquire. What are your ties to this home? I should rest easier leaving it if I knew that you had honourable intentions towards it.”
Even as he mentioned departing he cast longing looks back at his dogs, and Mairi wondered at the action. Were animals also considered property of a house that they must also be surrendered? It was clear that there was great fondness between them, and she should hate to see them made unhappy. They had done nothing to deserve this disruption.
Garrick’s mouth formed a grim line, and Mairi could clearly feel his ire rising at being questioned. He would not even reveal to Cyrus the nature of his birthright, and she sincerely hoped he would consider being more forthcoming with this man.
“You were sent here when the property was in probate, were you not? For the heir had disappeared?”
Johan nodded. “Our previous king did not think it right to disinherit a legitimate son when no crime could be placed against him. He had hoped that with time it might be restored to him and I was charged with managing the estate until he came forward.”
Garrick was silent for a moment and Mairi moved a little closer, tucking her hand into his. He gave it a soft squeeze of recognition, and she was glad that he received her comfort with so little protest.
“This was my father’s home. I... left... for a time, but as you say, circumstances have changed and I have returned. I thank you for your service, but it shall no longer be necessary.”
Johan sighed heavily before nodding with obvious reluctance.
Mairi could not remain silent. She did not know if it was beyond her bounds, but something felt terribly wrong about this exchange, and she could not in good conscience begin her new life while causing this man such distress. “Have you a place to go?”
He smiled at her sadly. “I shall travel to the head of my order and receive new instructions. If there is no need of me here then there might be somewhere else. I live to serve, my lady, and it seems my assistance here is not required.”
He turned and made to re-enter the castle walls, but hesitated. “I will just fetch my things, if that is acceptable. And if you have any questions I shall answer them before I take my leave.”
Garrick waved for him to enter, and Mairi watched the three large dogs trot after Johan, nipping and shoving in an attempt to cheer him.
“Garrick, this is wrong.”
He sighed, his hand tugging at his hair, his frustration evident. “What would you have me do? He was charged with overseeing the estate, and now his position has been filled. For him to remain would only cause confusion for the servants and tenants alike.”
“This is his home.”
Garrick turned to her, his expression resolved. “This is our home. It was a mistake on his part to grow attached when his position was only provisional.”
Mairi took a step back, fully prepared to flee to the forest rather than allow this to continue. “And would you ask him to leave his dogs behind as well? Are they too your property? Garrick, I do not care what Cyrus gave you, it is not right for you to expect Johan to sacrifice everything he has overseen for so long. Surely there can be another way.”
“You are being unreasonable. This is how it is done!”
Mairi rolled her eyes. “Simply because convention dictates an action does not make it right.” She took a steadying breath. Arguing would accomplish little. Her bond-mate was not an illogical being, and although she understood little of how such transactions were conducted, this seemed needlessly cruel.
“I do not doubt your capability, Garrick, or your willingness to learn. But do not allow your pride to cause the suffering of others. That is beneath you. If Johan is to be believed, people have been content under his rule, and perhaps it would be more beneficial for you to accept his help rather than turning him out the moment we arrive!”
Garrick shook his head. “He is not a king, Mairi, he does not rule. A lord owns the land and tenant farmers utilise it to feed and care for their own families. It is not an overly complicated process. I hardly require help.”
Mairi huffed, frustrated that he was being deliberately obtuse. This was not at all how she imagined their homecoming. She had thought they would tenderly explore their new dwelling, with many kisses to punctuate discovering each room. But instead they argued and had to watch a man be evicted from a space that while not quite his home, had been where he was clearly happy.
She walked over to Callum, for a moment briefly wishing she had the knowledge to ride away at this moment. She did not need a large home with farmers that used land that was not their own. She simply wanted a quiet life with her Garrick.
And that was apparently too much to wish for.
She held out her hand and allowed Callum’s velvety lips to nibble at her palm, his dissatisfied look when he realised she held no treat briefly distracting her from her tumultuous emotions.
“What would you ask of me, Mairi? That he remain with us? You do not know of him, or his intentions. Why do you defend him so?”
She stroked the long white line between Callum’s eyes, the only relief from the intense blackness of his coat. “Because no animal would look that way at a cruel man. And those hounds do love him, and I will not see them separated, no matter what your paper dictated.”
She heard rather than saw his approach, and suddenly a shadow fell over her shoulder as his arms wrapped about her, his chin resting upon the top of her head. “Is that how you knew that I was not what people suggested? Because Callum cared for me?”
She hummed, her ire beginning to fade slightly. “At first. And then I began to know you for myself and your goodness was equally evident in your treatment of me. I should simply like to extend the same courtesy to another.” Mairi turned so that she could peer up at him, her hands gentle as she reached up to touch his cheek. “Would it truly be so terrible to be free from some of the responsibility of the estate? To have more time to spend with me? You promised that we should try for a seedling, and I can hardly do so on my own.”
His eyes began to burn at the suggestion, and he rested his forehead against hers and closed his eyes. “He will not remain in the house. But I suppose a lord is allowed a steward, and surely there is an empty cottage somewhere that would be suitable.”
She tried valiantly to quiet her triumphant smile, but as Garrick opened his eyes and she saw his eyes narrow, she knew she had failed. But his lips twitched the tiniest amount at the corners, and she was certain he was not as annoyed as he chose to appear. “And he may keep his dogs,” she stated, rather than asked.
He groaned and pulled her all the closer, silencing her with a kiss before she could insist any further.