The little girl continued running, her small bouquet of posies still clutched in her hands as she hurried away from the following man, straight toward Mairi.
She could not help but smile at the sight her bond-mate, his doublet rumpled and his scowl already giving way to a more amused expression. No matter how Mairi tried to explain to her poor Garrick that their seedling was behaving perfectly well given her nature, he always fretted and worried and would not allow her to climb as high in the trees as she so clearly would have preferred.
“For you, Amé!”
She knelt upon the cool grass before her little nymphling and took the proffered flowers with a gasp of delight. They were perhaps held a bit too firmly, their petals protesting the slightly too-rough treatment, but her heart warmed thoroughly at the gift all the same. “They are beautiful, Lilia! Did your adar help you find them?”
She nodded furiously holding out her forefinger for her mother to touch with her own, their bond relating quite effectively just how satisfying her outing had been, although her wide smile and wild curls could have expressed her happiness just as easily.
“Your child is a menace, Mairi, and I suggest we give her to Johan and his wild beasts to finish raising, for I think she is beyond our ken.”
Mairi rolled her eyes, used to her bond-mate’s dramatics when it came to their little one, and knowing how hypocritical in his criticism of Johan’s beasts when one of their descendants bounded about his heels.
Never had Mairi seen him so unnerved than when one day she had asked Johan about how his dogs had come to be his companions.
“When first I came here, I frequently became lost in the many corridors. On one of these... excursions, I heard a low whine in one of the less frequented wings. Evidently a dog had been locked in there on order of the previous mistress, and they had not seen fit to belay the instruction even after her death. I can assure you, those who agreed to be a part of such a dastardly scheme were dismissed immediately without a reference.”
Johan sighed and grew thoughtful, the memory obviously holding pain as well as fondness. “Pretty bitch she was too, and she was the mother of my good friends here.” He smiled down at the dogs lounging about his feet, their tales thumping rhythmically against the floor as he patted each of their heads in turn.
Before Mairi could even comment upon the tale, Garrick released a choked gasp before fleeing the room.
She had found him some time later, becoming lost herself in the seeming maze of their castle home, before finally discovering him in the tower room he had once shared with his beloved Cara.
“Garrick, what is wrong?”
He did not even raise his head to glance at her. “I left her. All that time she was locked away, frightened and alone, and instead of searching every room I thought her dead.”
Mairi sank down in front of him, taking his hands in hers. “You could not have known.”
He snorted and shook his head bemusedly. “She was my only friend. Surely we had enough of a bond that I could have felt her.”
She nibbled her lip, knowing that she must be careful lest she only further his self-reproach. “Sweet Garrick, you forget yourself. While it heartens me that you have grown so used to our bond, you must remember that you were only a young boy at the time, with no knowledge of such connections being possible.”
And her heart ached for him when she saw the tearstains on his cheeks. “I abandoned her.”
That she could not allow. With no small effort she coaxed him into accepting her into his lap, and after she physically wrapped his arms about her she held him close and whispered in his ear. “You no more abandoned her than I did my own people. I have no doubt she missed you, for none could not having known you. But Johan is a kindly man with a fondness for animals. She was cared for and loved, Garrick, of that we can be certain.”
He had held her for a long while after that and eventually they had discovered the rest of Cara’s life. It took a great deal of persuasion on Johan’s part before she allowed him into her affections, but eventually trust was nurtured. And although he often caught her looking toward the forest and he feared she might flee after whatever most held her heart and loyalty, eventually the pups that came drew her attention away from such things, and her instincts as a mother demanded she remain to tend to their care.
“But she did not forget you, my lord. Of that I know.”
Although Mairi knew that it would never be the same and he would continue to mourn the years he was denied with his first friend, there was some small comfort in knowing she had not been so callously disposed of in a moment of vindictive rage.
And eventually after their seedling came and Lilia had first seen the newborn puppies that were now some three generations after her bond-mate’s Cara, Garrick had relented and opened his heart to another runt of the litter—one that was this time loved by all who knew her.
Mairi laughed as Linnet’s wet nose was pressed against her cheek in greeting before she returned her attention to her nymphling. “And what did you do to upset your adar so?”
Lilia dropped her hand away and tugged at her skirt, watching her bare toes disappear beneath the lowered hem. Only recently had they begun placing her in any dress longer than her ankles. She had been too young and her steps too unsure for it to have been practical before now, but as was becoming abundantly clear with each day that passed, their seedling was steadily approaching her sapling years.
“Adar doesn’t like when my dress is wet.”
Garrick finally approached, his scowl firmly in place although within a moment’s focus on their bond she could feel his own gentle fondness towards their daughter. He leaned down briefly to press a kiss upon her cheek, and even after their many seasons together she relished his mode of greeting. “I believe, little leafling, that I protested your desire to swim in your gown and then use me as your linen in which to dry yourself.”
She shrugged, her ashen hair bouncing lightly at the action. “But you’re dry!”
Mairi pursed her lips to keep from laughing, knowing that Garrick must have taken her to wade in the shallows of the lake. Even without having accompanied them she could easily imagine her nymphling’s cheerful giggles as Linnet splashed and shook water all over her young mistress. It was the same spot they had visited when first they had arrived at their new home, and they spent many of their noondays in the summer season there, tucked away in the shelter of the forest before they followed the little stream back as it filled the moat surrounding their home.
“Now, Lilia, it is terribly naughty not to mind your adar. You know that do you not?”
She nodded, appearing properly chastened before turning from her mother to wrap her still damp form about her father’s leg. “Sorry, Adar.”
He released a longsuffering sigh before scooping her into his arms. He showed far more physical affection towards her than a dryon mate would have, but she had come to learn that was simply one of the many differences they shared betwixt their two peoples. While her kind were staid with their young, he preferred to provide constant reminders that she was loved and adored by her parents.
And Mairi found she could not begrudge the action.
But she still felt it necessary to teach her of her nymphlin ways, as there was no denying that she favoured her mother’s kin aside from her ever darkening hair and eyes that changed just as frequently as her father’s depending on their surroundings.
Of course, the very process of reproduction had been a testament to their willingness to trust that the other spoke truly. She could not imagine a seedling taking three full seasons to germinate in its mother’s womb.
Yet according to Garrick, that was typical of most human women.
“But that is so long!”
They were reclining in their bed, the sun just beginning to break over the trees as it sent warm streams of light onto the rugs below. It was the end of summer and they had only been in their home for a short while. She had liked this room best as soon as Garrick had shown it to her, as the windows were large and open, the bed soft and welcoming.
She could ask for nothing more of a chamber.
It was the same room he had first brought her to for the first of many christenings, and while he had promised her any other that caught her fancy, he had seemed almost relieved by her adamant refusal, and she had quickly pressed him for a reason.
“Had you chosen one of my parents’ rooms I would have relented. But I will admit that I did not relish the thought of sleeping in one of their bedsteads.”
Mairi did not ask which rooms were theirs or why they had separate chambers at all, for she knew that imagining what had occurred behind those doors would only leave her feeling sad and angry.
So instead she reaffirmed her favoured room and the servants had quickly readied it for their new master and mistress.
It was obvious from the way Garrick dismissed any of them from a room when had he need of it that her bond-mate was unaccustomed to living with people. They had their own sleeping quarters and he had even gone so far as to ban them from the family corridor unless to clean, but Mairi quite enjoyed the company.
The large castle did not seem so empty and forlorn when there were maids and fetching boys milling about, and she had even made friends with a few of them, once she had assured them for almost a month that nothing would befall them for speaking to her as more than a mistress.
But she was grateful when they relented for her bond-mate, even with Johan’s extensive assistance, often was called away to tend to some business with a tenant, leaving her to dine alone.
Until finally she had experienced quite enough of the empty dining hall and made her way to the kitchens, plate and cup in hand and a fretful serving girl trailing behind.
The cook and kitchen maids had frozen at her entrance, and looked at one another fearfully.
Finally the portly cook stepped forward, wiping her hands on her apron although Mairi could clearly see they were already clean. “Is something not to your liking, m’lady? I would be happy to prepare something else.”
Mairi shook her head and made her way to the long table where she presumed the servants took their meals. “The food is delicious, as always. But I am afraid my husband has been called away on a matter most urgent and I am... lonely.”
Garrick had told her that most mistresses kept a firm delineation between themselves and those under their employ, but as she looked at the kitchen staff they must have seen her friendlessness for they all relaxed slightly and offered rueful smiles. One of the kitchen girls stepped forward despite the quelling glance the cook gave her and sat down a short ways along the bench. “Certainly you are, m’lady. A man is a wonderful thing but he in’t another woman to chatter about with.”
Garrick had not been overly enthused by her burgeoning friendships, but ultimately he relented—but not without first sighing and waiting for her to kiss him for a good long while before offering his approval. “I expect that a happy wife is worth more than any sense of decorum.”
She rolled her eyes before giving him a triumphant smile and kissing him once more. “You think rightly, my mate.”
Frequently she could be found there, giggling with the maids before the cook would huff good naturedly and remind her that there was work to be done—to which Mairi would blink and although at first she would depart, searching out interesting corners of the manor to occupy her time, she eventually began asking if she might learn how their food was made, the many ingredients that once resembled recognisable bits of nature turning into far different concoctions.
It was all very fascinating.
Garrick did not seem to mind her pastime, so long as he was able to taste her labours upon his return home.
But it had been on midsummer’s eve that she felt the quickening.
At first she did not recognise it. Much like their bond itself, she had been told of what would transpire but it was something else entirely to truly experience it.
It began as simply a feeling, a presence that formed within a corner of her mind.
And as the days passed, that feeling blossomed into an awareness that nearly left her breathless.
For despite her bond-mate’s worries, his hesitance at even discussing the possibility of a seedling, she knew that one grew and flourished within her.
Garrick had been in his study, his brow furrowed as he concentrated on a stack of parchment before him.
That was one thing that their bond had not provided her. While it took away most of her native tongue and gave it to her mate, it had not in turn supplied her the ability to read the strange letter marks that apparently communicated language. He had offered to teach her, citing that much enjoyment could be had from hand written tales, but she had declined.
From the way he always appeared when reading whatever business occupied him at his desk, she thought she would be much happier without such a skill.
He gave one last scowl and slashed through something upon the missive with a flourish of his quill. “Have I ever thanked you for demanding I allow Johan to remain? I think I would have escaped to the cottage by now and left this dreadful industry behind if I bore full responsibility.” He sighed once more before finally raising his head to look at her.
She had been unable to contain her tears, the overwhelming feeling of life and love bubbling forth uncontrollably.
Garrick immediately rose and came toward her. “Mairi, what is the matter? Are you hurt?”
A foolish enquiry as their bond would have alerted him to such an occurrence, but she could not find the will to correct him.
“Do you not feel it too?”
That was one detail that she had no knowledge of. Her bond with her adar had been strong, but she did not know when precisely it had begun being forged. Was it after the birth when father first held seedling? Or would it happen sooner?
He wiped away her tears with his thumb, his brow once creased with frustration now crinkled with concern. “Feel what, dear-heart?”
She took a deep breath, her smile uncontrollable. “Our seedling.”
“How... we have discussed this. There is no way to know for certain if we are... compatible.”
She laughed at his shuttered expression, going up on tiptoe to coax his worried features into one of exuberance. “Then you shall have to trust me to know, sweet Garrick. For I do. And it is ours.”
He accepted her touches but still he did not hold her, did not murmur his enthusiasm as he showered her with kisses.
And the first inkling of dread echoed through her.
Except it was not hers, but his. And she grasped his hand tightly, unwilling to allow this feeling to fester within him, not even for a moment. Not when their little one was growing, and their bond strengthening.
Not when she already loved it with her entire being.
“You will tell me what it is. What troubles you? I believed you also desired a youngling!”
He nodded and took a step backward, and with her grip unrelenting around his palm she followed him until he was once more seated at his desk.
“I did... I do. But what if...” His eyes finally met hers and she saw the swirling depths of doubt and worry.
She sighed and pushed at him until he allowed enough room upon his lap for her to settle against him. She found that no matter how difficult it was to speak to him sometimes, to truly understand the occasionally dark and harrowing recesses of his mind, it always felt a bit less daunting when she was seated upon his lap.
“Share with me your burdens, my bond-mate. I do not ask you to carry them alone.”
He smiled at her ruefully before bringing her into his arms, his face buried in her hair, his lips whispering against her ear. “What if our kinds are incompatible? What if it is horribly deformed? What if it...dies.”
Her breath caught even as he uttered the word. Her people were not immune to death coming for their little ones. Sometimes a tree failed to sprout and mother and father would weep and mourn the loss of one they already cared for so deeply.
She did not know if their new-growth would have a tree. She did not know if it would eat and have to wear foot bonds like her parents for there was no magic to protect their delicate soles.
All she knew was that at this moment, the new life taking root within her was hale and healthy.
And her bond-mate had such a tender heart and she loved him dearly for it.
“Life is full of uncertainties, Garrick. We can either live in fear of them or embrace what happiness we can. You are a learned man and perhaps are wise to be cautious, but I would hope that you would enjoy this with me—all of it. For whatever time we have with our precious one is a gift and I hope you would not squander it.”
He had held her for a long while after that, his hand finally drifting to cover her middle, his breath short. “Truly? We are to have a child?”
His voice was small and hesitant, and she knew then that he was simply afraid—afraid to love and have his heart broken should he lose it.
“Truly, my sweet Garrick.”
She could not have asked for a more attentive bond-mate. He employed a few of the tenants’ children to scour the forest for the freshest of later summer berries, determined that she should eat well and heartily during the course of her pregnancy.
He did not seem to understand her lack of discomfort.
“Why should I be pained? Our seedling has no wish to hurt me.”
The very idea was preposterous.
Her bond-mate chuckled lowly, although there was still an undercurrent of confusion. “Of course our child shall love you best, little nymph. But I am given to understand that most women experience some distress while they are with child.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And what maiden have you been so acquainted with that you should know of her body during her child’s growth?”
He looked even more amused. “Do I detect some jealousy from you, wife?”
She bit her lip, wondering if it was wrong to accuse him unfairly—even if his bewilderment did sufficiently indicate some knowledge of the female form. “If I am disallowed from showing other men my ankles, you are not permitted to know of women’s bodies. Mine is yours to enjoy, and you would do well to remember it.”
He grinned at her roguishly, his hands coming to cover her swollen middle as he pulled her against him as they lounged upon their comfortable bed. “As if I could ever forget such a thing when you are near.”
The speed in which their youngling developed was one thing that Garrick had gently told her to keep hidden from the members of staff. Her belly had expanded rapidly, her skin stretching easily to accommodate their little one. She expected to give birth by late autumn, as few seedlings ever made their appearance in winter.
A part of her wished that her sisterlings were near, as she was certain that Eldared would have made excellent use of the fine spring and mild summer to bring forth their own young one. It would have been nice to give her offspring a playmate, one that would know the joys of singing with the trees and scuttling about with woodland creatures and other seedlings their own age.
But instead she reminded herself firmly that she was precisely where she was meant to be, and if she had not been with her sweet Garrick she would not have a seedling to fret over in the first place.
“Why must it be a secret?” She would like to learn more from her kitchen friends about the ways of human women, as they were odd and rather fascinating with all of the supposed cravings she should have experienced as well as the dreaded swollen ankles that were evidently only cured by a good soak or the talented hands of an unusually doting husband.
She rather thought it would have been worth the experience simply to allow Garrick opportunity to fuss over her.
Garrick had sighed and kissed her temple before resuming his work on her hair. The beautiful dressing table had been one of his first gifts to her, the looking glass a delightful device that she still did not fully understand. With it he had provided delicate hair combs and an abundance of ribbons, all with the promise that he would tend to her hair diligently.
“As a proper mate should,” he had told her firmly.
Not that she would ever argue if he wished to pay her hair more attention.
In the beginning his attempts at plaiting had been rather lopsided, but with great determination he eventually became quite proficient at the task.
And now as his deft fingers wound through her hair, his touch skimming across the bared skin of her back as he worked, she could not help but shiver.
“I know you care for them, Mairi, and I would not deny you their friendship, even if that was a possibility.” She could not stifle her grin at his harangued expression. He gave a light tug at her hair in mock disapproval, his eyes betraying his ruse. “But not all will understand that you are different. Some would claim you a witch, that magic runs through your veins and they will seek to hurt our child. Fear can cause people to do terrible things, and I will not allow the risk—not when you or our babe could be in jeopardy.”
She stared at him through the mirror, her eyes wide. None had questioned her beyond asking if she was a foreigner. It had not occurred to her that their safety could be compromised should she answer wrongly.
She swallowed. “They should not be near when the birth takes place. I do not know if things are different for your women, and I would not risk them noticing differences.”
Those differences became abundantly clear when the time came for their little one to be born. She awoke that morning with a vivid knowledge that it was time, and she smiled, kissing Garrick’s sleeping cheek before lounging back upon the pillows.
Garrick grunted lowly before opening one eye. “And what has you so pleased, my lady nymph?”
She sighed, already imagining stroking her forefinger across the tiny replica of their seedling’s, the bond already so strong between them growing all the more unbreakable. “We shall meet our little one today.”
His reaction was not as she expected.
He appeared nearly frantic, asking if she required a draught for the pain, or perhaps even a physician to assist her.
She looked at him incredulously. If he was so concerned about the servants’ gossip regarding the birth, how should they explain it to one of their medical men?
“Your women have pains during childbirth? That seems so tedious when they have so many babes!”
On a few occasions Garrick had taken her with him to greet the tenants and introduce them to their new mistress. Many farms had upwards of five saplings milling about, something unheard of within her own homeland, at least not so close together in age.
She had never seen her Garrick so troubled, but the process was as natural as breathing. She was not frightened of the gentle urges, and in truth she was more concerned of her bond-mate’s distressed pacing than of any of the birth itself.
For as she knew it always would be, her little nymphling was born, all large eyes and seeking fingers, happily meeting her amé’s for reassurance that she was indeed welcomed within this strange new world.
Mairi held her to her breast, tears of contentment pooling as she poured every ounce of love she could through her newest bond. “We greet you warmly here, my sweet one. Should you like to meet your adar?”
Garrick stood beside the bed, looking so terribly unsure. And with a gentle tug at their own bond she garnered his attention, and she smiled up at him. “I hope you do not take so long to accept her as you did me. She may not be as tenacious as your dear wife. Not for some years yet.”
He sniffed, and this time it was not from claiming false indignance, but to quell his own tears. But when first his skin met that of his daughter’s she knew that he too felt a new bond take refuge in his heart, and she was so very glad of it.
“What was your mother’s name?” he asked, his voice soft.
“Lilianna,” she answered, unable to tear her eyes away from the two people who now filled her own heart so completely.
“Hello, my little Lilia. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Her bond-mate was the best of fathers. Over the course of the two season-cycles since their seedling had been born, he proved so wholly attentive. Even within the first day it was apparent she favoured Mairi’s kin, as she required no nourishment and did not make use of the little triangle cloths that Garrick had commissioned, still mysterious to her as to what their function should have served.
Garrick had explained that for human females their breasts would fill with milk, providing sustenance for their babes. But Mairi’s did not swell and Lilia grew and toddled and showed no signs of needing any form of edibles.
Which meant she too had a tree.
Mealtimes became a strictly private affair so that the servants would not be aware that their little nymphling did not eat. They taught her to take portions and proper manners, just as Garrick had done for Mairi when first they settled at Endelmoor.
Yet Mairi could not help but ache for her daughter, knowing she would never meet the tree that supported her very life.
On this day, however, Garrick had taken Lilianna with him on an adventure as he called them, where they would meet and mingle with their ancestral trees and improve her nymphlin tongue. It pained Mairi greatly that she could participate so little in the endeavour, and while she had begun to recall some of her native language, it now was the stilted effort of one learning from the beginning, not the familiar reinstatement of something that was lost.
But what she was most grateful for was that ever since they came here, she had begun hearing the trees for herself. Not always clearly, but even without the echo of her bond with Garrick she could make out some of their most fervent words.
And some of the most persistence loneliness began to abate.
“Now, who should like to help me make honey-cakes?”
“Me!” Lilia’s face broke into a wide smile as she squirmed away from Garrick’s hold, eager to aid her mother. While she could not taste them for herself, she seemed to especially enjoy the bustle of the kitchens, a firm reminder to Mairi that theirs were not an isolated people.
Garrick only chuckled, reaching down his long fingered hand to hold his little leafling’s, his other coming to rest upon Mairi’s waist. “She is taking to it well, dear-heart. I know it will never be the same as living amongst your people, but at least she will not be a stranger to your ways.”
She sighed and closed her eyes as she leaned her head against his shoulder, grateful for the strength he provided before her melancholy could begin to grow.
“Thank you for teaching her when I cannot.”
It was an old sadness between them, as Garrick often felt he had robbed her of her birthright, much as his had been. But while his had eventually been restored, hers was slow in returning, and it required patience on both their parts.
They began the long walk back to the manor, Lilia already prattling about how well she would mix the ingredients, but, “Only after Adar ties my apron!”
And then Mairi felt it.
She froze suddenly causing Garrick to glance down at her worriedly. “Mairi?”
It was only a wisp of feeling, a gentle remembrance of a time before the family she now held dear.
A memory of when herown adar would watch her from afar.
Her breath caught in her throat as she turned toward the forest’s edge, so certain that he was near yet unwilling to allow herself to hope too fully.
For until she felt the flare of awareness she had not realised how she ached to share this family with her beloved father.
“Adar?” she whispered, unwilling to allow her voice to carry too far into the wood, foolish as her hope most likely would prove to be.
Only instead of the silent emptiness she expected, the tall figure of her adar appeared, his own eyes filled with tears as he stood at the forest’s edge.
“Greetings, little nymphling.”
She did not think she had run so quickly in all her years.
She vaguely heard Garrick call out to her but she was too consumed, too overwhelmed with the sheer joy of seeing her adar after all this time, to take heed.
And her seasons amongst the human folk made her want to burst into his arms when first she neared him, but at the last moment she stayed her reaction and held out her forefinger, tears falling freely as she did so.
Only to be pulled into his arms as he pressed a kiss upon her temple. “Oh, my little nymphling. I have missed you so.”
How she had missed him! No matter how she treasured her Garrick and her own sweet one, there was still something so right and familiar about being within the safety of her adar’s arms.
And it was only the sound of crunching leaves that reminded her that her family was near, and she finally pulled back only slightly so she could introduce them properly.
“Adar, this is my bond-mate, Garrick, and our daughter... Lilianna.”
What composure he had regained quickly dissipated at hearing his long deceased mate’s name, but as his fingers met Mairi’s and she lent him her strength, he calmed slightly. “You honour her, little one.”
She smiled at him, still not quite believing that he had come. “How have you come to be here, Adar? Will not the elders be angry?”
He sighed deeply. “When your tree began to bloom I knew that you at least lived, and for a while I was content. But then when a seedling appeared beside it...”
He stared down at Lilia who peered up at him curiously even as she hid most of her tiny frame behind Garrick’s legs. “I had to see you—I had to know. I am so sorry, Mairi for not disregarding the orders of our elders before now. They might protect the needs of our people, but I should not have allowed their pronouncements to cause you pain.” He glanced at Garrick quickly, his voice low. “This could have had a very different result.”
How true he was. For a brief moment she recalled Drostan’s moist breath against her throat and shuddered, creeping a little closer to her bond-mate’s side. “The High City is your home, and I have never blamed you for remaining in it. I was right to be banished,” she ignored Garrick’s grunt of disapproval, “but I fear that you may now face grave consequences.” She hesitated, not at all certain what his coming would entail. “Did you... wish to remain here?”
It was difficult enough hiding Lilia’s true nature from the staff, but everything about her father belied his station as a respected dryon. His robe and tunic were cut of the same silk as the gown she kept tucked away safely in her wardrobe, and his hair was long and neatly kempt, even after his long travels.
But his eyes spoke of untold sorrows, of far more seasons than a normal man that bore a similar appearance.
And because she could not help but ask it, the question that was long since buried although she reminded herself again and again that it was right for them to have been separated, she could not help but ask, “Why did it take you so long to find me?”
His features crumpled and he brought her once more into his embrace, and he offered her soothing words in the nymphlin tongue, utterly recognisable but meaningless now that the words had been lost.
She swallowed thickly as she tried to keep the tears from falling.
Garrick interjected softly. “I am afraid she cannot understand you. Her language was lost after our... bond. She only has use of simple phrases now.”
Her adar smiled at her sadly and briefly touched her cheek. “Then we must make use of the common speech then, until you have relearned what has been lost.”
She nodded, wishing that it would not be so very difficult.
“I cannot remain here long for someone must care for our trees. But I felt it necessary to come, to offer my counsel when this must be so confusing for you.” He sighed resignedly, and she knew their parting would be a painful one. “I began my search as soon as your seedling appeared, but I had no knowledge of where you might have gone. The trees could only provide the vaguest of directions.”
He looked at Lilia again wistfully. “She has a dogwood, just like you.”
It was rare for a parent and child to share the same kind of tree, and she wondered at it briefly. Perhaps because her Garrick had no tree to offer, hers had provided for her daughter whatever it could—a replica of itself.
“It is healthy?”
He nodded. “I would not allow anything to befall her tree, little one. Nor shall anything happen to your own, not when it now supports two.” Garrick looked confused but before he could demand answers to the questions they had so far refused to consider, her father was bending low and offering his fingers for Lilia to touch with her own.
She stared at him warily for a moment, unused to strangers. But eventually with a gentle nudge from Garrick she stepped forward, her little brow furrowed as the bond settled that should have been there since her birth.
“What’s your name?”
He smiled at her softly, some of the sadness temporarily pushed away. “You may call me Daradar, precious one. For I am the adar of your amé.”
Lilia’s eyes grew wide, having heard many tales of him, generally in the form of stories before she was safely tucked into her bed—or on occasion, Mairi took her out into the forest and they huddled beneath the branches of a maple, relishing the whisper of the trees and the crisp night air.
But eventually Garrick always came and retrieved them, scolding that while their daughter might exhibit all the qualities of a dryad, Mairi was still susceptible to more mortal ailments.
Before Mairi could tell Lilia that their simple brush of fingers was contact enough, she threw her arms about the new member of her little family. “My amé looks sad when she talks about you.”
He closed his eyes, momentarily pained before disentangling himself from her embrace and turning to Garrick and Mairi. “I must speak to you. Mairi, while it may have entered your mind before, I must implore you to exert caution as your nymphling enters her saplinghood. The world of men is different than ours, and are you prepared for her to bond so young?”
Garrick’s eyes darkened.
“My daughter shall not be bonding for quite some time, I can assure you.”
Her father sighed. “As any true adar should feel. But we are reticent with contact as it facilitates our bonds, and that is reflected in the manner of our people. In her youngling years she is free to touch as she chooses, especially amongst family. But as she grows older and she is not cautious, she will bind herself as unexpectedly as...” his eyes flickered meaningfully between them both.
“I do not regret it, Adar. Garrick is the finest of bond-mates, and I could not ask for one more faithful or kind-hearted.” She glanced up at her husband and although she could plainly see he meant to argue at being labelled such, he respected her quelling look and remained silent. “My only sorrow is that I was separated from you.”
“It does my heart good to hear it. I only wish for your happiness, and one cannot spend but a moment in your presence without seeing the love that has been forged betwixt you.”
Mairi could not help but blush and she moved a little closer to her Garrick, satisfied when she felt his arm creep about her middle.
“I have not told the elders about her.”
Words failed her. Her adar was not one for deception, and it was almost unheard of for something to be kept from the elders’ attention—especially not when it related to a subject as significant a child born of a human and dryad.
“Is that of some importance?” Garrick finally interjected.
Her father hesitated. “I feared their knowing. If she did indeed exhibit the essential qualities of our people...”
Mairi gasped, the realisation too horrible to consider. “They would take her.”
He looked at her helplessly. “It is possible. We are a secretive people, you know this, Mairi. I have hidden her tree as best I can and I do not believe anything should come of it. But I beg you to be cautious. Teach her to mind her touches, to explain the depths of her heritage and its... consequences.”
And as if he could not help but allow himself to do so, he touched the slightly darkened hair, yet still so similar to Mairi’s. “But also its great joys.”
Mairi rested her head against Garrick’s arm, knowing the truth of what he spoke. None of her kin would have encouraged their union. None would have seen the good and beauty in it.
But she did.
And she hoped, even in this short time, her adar had seen it too.
They spoke until the sun had set and the moon had long since risen. He told her of her sisterlings, and the bondings and sealings that had taken place in her absence, and to her great shame it had taken a great deal of effort to recall the faces of those who were once so close to her.
Garrick had taken Lilia back to the castle before long, claiming that the servants would grow suspicious if the entire family disappeared for such a great duration.
But privately Mairi knew that he was allowing her time alone with her adar, and she would thank him properly for it when next they found a moment of solitude.
Eventually however she began to tire, her body unused to going without rest unless Garrick and certain other of their more intimate pursuits lasted later into the evening.
Her adar must have seen her weariness for he stopped speaking and took her hand in his. “I must depart, little one. Your home is here, with a bond-mate who looks at you as though you are the greatest treasure he could ever have imagined. While I shall miss you every day we are parted, that at least shall give me comfort.”
It was too soon. She felt as if a piece of her heart had only just now resettled into place, and the prospect of losing it yet again was almost too much to bear.
“Shall I ever see you again?”
He smiled softly, his face illuminated by the glow of the high moon. “This is not forever, my nymphling. I shall tend your trees and I will keep you safe. And, when I can, I will return and see that you are indeed as happy as you appear.”
The sound of a twig snapping made them both pause, Garrick’s cloaked figure appearing from the shadows. “Forgive me, I did not mean to interrupt. But I had a feeling you were to depart soon and I hoped you might provide me an answer to one thing.”
Her father gestured for him to continue, and Mairi saw Garrick swallow before he stood to his full height and spoke. “Your daughter healed me. I suffered some horrible burns during infancy and upon our sealing they disappeared. How was this possible?”
His voice was low and almost pleading—or at least, as much an entreaty as her husband was capable of giving.
Garrick looked at his sharply. “You know of them?”
Her adar nodded hesitantly. “They appeared upon the trunk of her tree the day she disappeared. At first I thought they were part of The Withering, but even when it began to heal, the blight upon the bark remained.”
He looked closely at her bond-mate and Garrick did not shy away. Instead he came forward and wrapped Mairi in his cloak, sharing his warmth just as he so often did in all areas of their lovely little life.
“She bears them for me...”
Mairi turned so that she was facing him, still swathed within the cocoon of black fabric he had not forsaken, even when given the opportunity for a new cloak. It was theirs, and it held far more meaning than a simple cape.
For he had once shared it with her.
“We share each of our burdens, sweet Garrick. And I would happily share my tree with you. We are one soul, bound for eternity. My tree is yours, and it took the worst of your pains so that we could live more completely together.”
She stood on tiptoe and tugged at his hair until he bent down low enough for her to place a kiss of reassurance upon his lips. “No regrets, my lord bond-mate.”
She did not even blush when she turned to face her father. “I wish you a swift journey, Adar. And know that my love shall ever be with you.”
He came forward, and touched both their shoulders briefly, much as he would have at a proper sealing ceremony. “And mine with you, little one. Always.”
And then he was gone.
But this time, with the assurance that she would one day see him again, that he had a purpose as he tended to the trees of his daughter and his mate’s namesake, she felt a sense of renewed purpose in him that gave her some small comfort.
“Are you well, dear-heart?”
She took a shuddering breath before she smiled up at him. “How can I not be when I am with you?”
He looked at her for a long moment, his thumb coming to brush away tears that she had not been aware had fallen. “Then why do you cry?”
She laughed, a breathless sound even as she wrapped her arms about him and buried her face in his tunic. “Because I am happy. Because I got to see my adar, and I shall see him again one day. And while I may not know when, I can enjoy our life knowing that he knows I am happy—that this was not all a mistake.”
Garrick was quiet before he leaned down and placed a kiss upon her hair. “Lilianna will have to be taught that touch is sacred.”
Mairi leaned her chin against his chest and looked up at him coyly. “And did we not know that all along? That our intimacies, that our very act of touching was something that bonds people together?”
He huffed, and she released a squeal of delight as he scooped her into his arms. “I believe I am very aware that I never feel more complete than when you and I are entwined. But it is terribly unfair to speak of such things when we are so far from our chamber.”
And she could not help but lean her head against his chest in contentment as he carried her toward their home.
Perhaps someday they would travel once more—take Callum and revisit those places that initially established the tenuous bond between them. But first he would have to consent to a temporary separation from his own mate, a handsome grey mare who had only recently presented him a fine foal, even if she was still a bit unsteady on her rickety legs and unsure feet.
But should he be amiable, they could search out Harold in his market and assure him that she was blissful and well cared for, just as he had hoped for her. They would stop at the little tavern where they had first shared a bed and she would inform Mabel quite imperiously that she had discovered a recipe for honey-cakes that far outmatched her own. And perhaps someday they would return to the kingdom of Cyrus and Bonnie, and maybe Lilia would find a suitable bond-mate in their eldest son, Hamish...
Yet no matter how they had begun—with their bond first consecrated in her blood, then reinforced as she mercilessly and unrelentingly bade him accept her—this was their home.
A home with their nymphling.
A home with her mate.
Her sweet Garrick.
And that was all she truly needed.
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