A Nymph Without Mercy

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V

Weeping was a tiring endeavour.

Not only was she exhausted from the wound, but her heart ached so fiercely that every breath was a torment. Never had she imagined that her future would hold such sorrow. She knew unequivocally that she was in exile, but a part of her hoped that if she remained in the glen a while longer, Eldared or her adar would appear and offer her a home. Perhaps not the cosy little nook she had known before, but one nonetheless. She would be alone but they would know she was at least alive and she could say goodbye.

Or maybe, if she waited just a bit longer, her bond-mate might appear.

But neither happened, and as she lay against the birch, too weary and heart-sore to move, she pondered if death would in fact have been a blessing.

Her stomach made that strange sound again and she covered it helplessly with her hand. Garrick had said it meant she was hungry and in need of nourishment. She sighed deeply. Her tree had always seen to such things. Its roots had plunged deep into the earth and what nutrients it found sustained her perfectly well, with little effort on her part to contribute.

But no more.

Her eyes strayed to the biscuit settled on the soft grass a short ways away from her. She felt yet another pang of hunger and although she was not certain whether it was appropriate to eat off of the ground—but surely most food came from the ground?—she rose and retrieved it.

Perhaps if she was better, prettier, her bond-mate would not have spurned her and even now would be providing her with food. But as it was this would be the only morsel he would ever supply, so she savoured it as best she could.

It was only as she considered falling into a nearby pile of leaves and refusing to stir until she withered and returned to the earth that she stopped herself.

She was not one prone to dour thoughts, and while a tragedy had occurred, she would not give into despair. Her life was forever altered and there was nothing she could do to change the past. Her bond-mate lived, even if he was discourteous and perhaps a bit mean, but he was hers. Her adar did not have the option of seeking after her amé, but she did.

And she would find him.

Before he had translated it for her, she did not know how to speak the language of stomachs. Mayhap it was presumptive of her to assume he would know the intricacies of mating when he was but a man. She could teach him, if only he would listen.

If her years protecting the City afforded one simple lesson, it was that she was well skilled in the art of persuading men.

She found that her resolve resulted in a renewed energy—or was that the biscuit she had eaten? Remaining in the little glen, while safe and almost comforting in its seclusion would not help her. Her mate possessed a horse and could travel much more quickly than she, and she had already wasted far too much time.

There would be no more tears, not for herself and not for her adar. He would wish for her to scratch out whatever happiness she could from her current circumstances, not dissolve into hopelessness.

And she would have him be proud of her.

From what she had heard whispered about by the more experienced dryads, bond-mates could feel one another, not only their emotions but also their locations. More than once she would be speaking to one of her sisterlings out in the forest when suddenly her mate would appear, bestowing a fond nudge and warm hand in greeting. Mairi had smiled and nodded and pretended she understood how they could so easily be found. But now as she closed her eyes and tried to imagine where Garrick might have gone, she realised that aside from a vague sense of anger and annoyance, she could not tell which direction she should go.

Their bond was still too new, too untested and ill-forged to offer any great assistance.

She refused to allow her frustration to turn to discouragement, not when her determination was still so fragile.

Walking through the woods without her escorts was disconcerting. The trees did not send out a cheerful good morrow! and it was altogether too quiet. While her people were naturally silent as they walked through the underbrush, there was still a feeling that someone was near, ready to offer assistance should it ever be required.

But not now.

She was not naive to the dangers that these forests held. Bears would just now be wakening from their long slumbers, disagreeable to company now that they no longer inhabited their warm dens as they had all winter. For the most part dryads were accepted by the woodland creatures, their senses attributing them more to foliage rather than a threat or meal.

Such would have given comfort if only she could be certain that she still would appear so—already she was losing her memory and physical nature to a more human disposition.

Courage.

She would have courage and all would right itself.

So she plunged ahead into the forest, grateful to find that she was still speedy and light on her feet, though she had to be careful not to jostle her shoulder too acutely as she ran through the tightly woven branches. Before long, however, she grew weary. She had come to the last of the familiar trees, her mouth felt strange—almost thick though dry as well.

She huffed. Her bond-mate should be here to direct her to what she needed!

Soon. For she would not fail. Not in this.

Her ears prickled as the sound of the stream as it changed into the beginnings of the river met her ears.

And even if her senses could not tell her where to find Garrick, suddenly she knew that she needed a drink of the cool water.

She hurried onward, before stopping at the embankment. It did not appear very deep, she was certain she could stand in it and it would come only to her waist. She was simply unsure of how to drink. Did she kneel and bring the water to her lips with her hands or did she lean forward until she could sip directly, much as she had seen the does and fawns do?

The bits of stone beside the river hurt her knees as she knelt, although she tried her best to pick the softest places to do so. She scooped up the clear liquid cautiously, unused to being in contact with it in such form. Rain she knew, and she and her sisterlings enjoyed many occasions of dancing merrily through sudden midsummer showers while the dryons played enthusiastically on instruments carved from ancient woods.

Mairi chastised herself thoroughly. She would not dwell on such things. Not now.

The water was crisp and refreshing, though she grimaced to discover that much of it soaked into the silk of her sleeves instead of finding its proper way into her mouth. But still, as she sipped she decided that she quite liked this drinking business, especially with the way her mouth felt cool and sated the more she managed to swallow.

Her sleeves already drenched, she stared down at her hands as they swished within the water. She found herself wondering what it would feel like to be utterly submerged. Would she feel cleansed and renewed, or would the cold prickle her skin all over, demanding she escape?

She hesitated only a moment before deciding to risk it.

Perhaps she required a new perspective. While she had never felt restricted by her people—far from it as her days had always been cheerful and happy ones—now she could be truly free. Free to touch, free to explore, with no thought to whether or not she would displease the elders or bond accidently with an unsuspecting dryon.

The water lapped at her ankles as she stepped forward, the moss slimy and slick as it coated the rocky depths below. She took another step forward, leaving her skirt to puddle and become equally wet, marvelling as it alternated between sticking to her flesh and floating ethereally in the clear water.

Another step she took and yet another, until, as she suspected, the water met her waist as she stood in the middle of the stream.

Her toes felt almost numb and she felt cold, colder than she ever had before. But there was something delicious about the frost as it deadened the feeling of her skin, and with one last bout of purpose she sank beneath the surface.

She was only under for a moment and as soon as the burst of freezing liquid covered her head she pushed forward with her feet, once more standing as she gasped and spluttered, the icy prickling all the stronger as it pressed harshly upon her torso.

But she also felt exhilarated.

Eldared would have scoffed at her for doing something so silly, but Mairi found as she trailed her hands through the water in a spin that she did not care. Her heart pounded steadily as she swished about, before finally her fingers turned a pale shade of purple and they felt stiff as she bent them.

She stumbled out of the stream, tripping on one of the rocks as she did so. She unthinkingly caught herself upon the rocky shore, and to her bemusement she discovered that tiny pebbles had imbedded themselves into her palms. But what made her inhale sharply and cringe most was the way her shoulder loudly protested the action, and she breathed harshly as she waited for the pain to abate.

She would not cry.

Mairi rested a moment, hoping that what little sun managed to peek through the trees would begin to dry her dress—and preferably, begin to warm her. But a slight breeze was beginning to send a chill throughout the forest and the longer she sat the colder she became.

And very odd shakes overcame her on occasion which made her teeth click together in a strange way that she did not like at all.

Walking with a saturated skirt was troublesome and when it stuck to her legs and tripped her for the third time, she considered finding a sharp rock and cutting off a large section of it.

But what stayed her hand was remembering that it was her adar that had given it to her, and he had smiled at her so sweetly when she had opened it on her name-day.

“It was your mother’s, little one. Violet always suited her so nicely, and I am certain it will do much the same for you.”

She had fought a lump in her throat as her fingers skimmed the delicate silk for the first time, and she had eagerly held out her fingers for him to touch with his own. Warmth and love as she had always known from him had flowed through their bond at the simple exchange, and she had promised to treasure it always.

There was nothing she could do about the gash in the sleeve from where the arrow had damaged it, but she would do her best to be patient with it as it dried.

Before long she came upon a bridge that spanned the width of the river, a long dirt road stretching ominously to either side.

She nibbled her lip thoughtfully. She could keep to the forest and perhaps find provisions in that way, but already she felt horribly lonesome. Even if she could not find her bond-mate immediately, she would welcome the company of someone. And many of the villagers she had seen appeared kindly, and maybe they would be willing to spare another biscuit or some thread so she could mend her dress. She wondered if anyone had any silk worms nearby. Most appeared in rough clothing that was not at all the luxurious fabrics she was used to. Did their cloth and thread not come from such a lavish source?

A small stream of smoke emerging from the left beckoned her forward.

Her kin did not build fires of their own, but she had often seen encampments that utilised them. Garrick had done so, and she remembered now with a shiver the way it had felt so warm upon her back.

She would like one now, preferably with something a bit warmer than the cold stream to drink.

The smoke was farther away than she expected, and she was quickly realising why the humans she had encountered wore such strange coverings on their feet. Some part of her nymphlin heritage must have protected the delicate soles of her feet from the sharp branches and leaves that inhabited the forest floor, but now they were exposed and every rock and twig poked harshly at her skin.

But she kept walking, for standing and thinking too much would only lead to more tears, and she had experienced quite enough of crying for the conceivable future.

Eventually a noise startled her and she turned sharply and she saw a white haired man driving a cart. It seemed old and rickety, and Mairi was very doubtful it could properly support his weight, though it did not seem to be considerable. There was also a strange wooden device stuck in his mouth that puffed out rings of smoke periodically, and she stared at is quizzically.

“’Allo there, lass! Are you in a spot of trouble?”

He smiled at her kindly though she blushed and tugged at her skirt, trying to make it keep from clinging quite so much to her legs. “I am, sir, if you are amiable. Would you happen to know where I might stay the night?”

The man grunted and used the wooden stick in his mouth to gesture forward. “Aye. There’s a tavern not too far that might have a room for ye, if’n you’re willin’ to pay.”

Mairi was not certain what it meant to pay, but she was sure she was willing to do what was necessary to be in the company of others again.

And perhaps her bond-mate would also require shelter and might seek lodgings as well.

“I am.”

He peered at her for a moment longer before patting the seat beside him with a gnarled hand. “Well, come on then, lass, I’ll be seein’ you to the door.”

She smiled at him gratefully, but hesitated when she reached the perch he was seated on. No step was readily evident and she wondered how one properly entered a cart. But years of climbing trees had taught her well, so she leapt up fairly easily—though the man still chuckled at her. “Ne’er seen one as graceful as you. How did you get all wet? Haven’t seen many a clouds this ‘morn.”

He nudged the horse onward with a flick of a large stick, and she eyed the creature carefully to ensure it was unharmed. He seemed disgruntled at having to cease munching on the long grasses that had popped through the gravel of the road, but did not appear otherwise injured.

“I went in the stream.”

The man gaped at her. “That water be freezin’ still! Lairds above, girl, you should have better sense than that.”

Mairi blushed, not realising that her little bout of curiosity should be seen as inappropriate. “I am sorry.”

He shook his head, looking remorseful. “I’ve got no blanket to offer ye, but you’ll warm up right as rain once we reach the pub.”

She did not know how humans expressed their thankfulness to one another and she did not wish to make another mistake by presuming it was the same as her kin. So instead she gave him a soft smile and whispered, “Thank you.”

His ears turned red and he patted her arm with his free hand, and she decided that the wooden thing in his mouth produced a rather pleasant smoke that smelled faintly of cherry. “What is that?”

He eyed her, evidently trying to judge where her eyes had landed and to what she referred. “Me pipe? The wife don’t much care for me smokin’ in her kitchen so I do as much as I can on the way to market. Shame too,” he groused, “I make the finest smoke rings in all the land.”

Mairi did not know if he spoke truly as she had yet to see another man make an attempt, but she nodded in any case. “Would ye care to try it?”

She nearly reached for it, out of idle interest and a desire to be polite, but there was a mischievous glint in his eye that stayed her hand. “I believe you are jesting with me.”

His grin was infectious and she thought he would have been a very handsome man indeed in his youth. “Aye. Have yet to find a woman who cared much for pipe smoke.”

Mairi would have liked the drive to continue for much longer but in another few moments he had stopped the cart. “That’ll be the pub. Tell ‘em Harold sent ye and they might give ye one of their sweeties for only a ha’penny.”

She could not help it. He had been precisely what she required to carry on, and she wished for him to know it. So before she leapt from the perch she placed her hand on his arm softly, much as he had done. “Thank you for your kindness, Harold, I was much in need.”

His ears turned that strange shade of pink again, and it looked odd indeed on a man his age. “Off with ye, lass, I have deliveries to make,” he blustered, and she almost thought she had done wrongly again except there was a slight smile on his lips that belied he was well pleased.

The tavern, or pub as Harold as also referred to it, was not quite as she had expected. Men sat about smoking pipes and a few appeared to be playing games of some sort, though none she would ever like to play. One in particular seemed dangerous in the extreme, as a man was using his knife to find the spaces between his fingers, and Mairi thought it ridiculous to risk ones digits simply for a game.

But she would never say anything and instead hovered at the door, unsure of how to proceed.

She had wanted people, to be sure, but as she stared into the darkened room she wondered if this was precisely the kind of people that would make her feel less alone.

A rather harangued looking woman appeared before her, and she took an instinctive step back at the scowl gracing her face as she assessed Mairi from head to toe. “What would ye be wantin’ girl? We aren’t fancy folk here.”

Mairi opened her mouth to retort that she had made a dreadful mistake and would take her leave, but a portly man appeared and scowled at the woman. “Don’t you be given her a hard time simply because she’s prettier ‘an you, Mabel. Back to the kitchens with ye!”

He wiped his palms on a dirty cloth at his waist. “Watcha needin’, lass? Would ye be lost?”

And though he did not at all resemble her father in any manner of significance, the way his eyes crinkled about the corners as he smiled at her was so similar that to her horror she choked out a sob. “I do believe I am.”


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