She stared at him, relatively certain he would rescind his acquiescence as soon as he had given it.
“Truly? You will not try and leave me again?”
He groaned, and his grip tightened around his cup filled with the strange liquid. She wondered why he did not remove his helmet and drink. The aftertaste was rather pleasant she supposed, but it was far too bitter for her to consider sipping with vigour. She also did not care for the foam about the top, preferring to allow the bubbles to pop as they wished on her finger instead of seeing how they might react when introduced to her stomach.
“Nay, you have my word. While I will not have you for a wife, you shall be my companion.”
Her disappointment was immediate. “What does being a companion entail?”
She remembered her initial horror at discovering the lore surrounding her home, where men chased in order to bed, perfectly content to disappear once more without thought for the poor dryad they left behind. To hear her bond-mate suggest such a thing would be devastating.
“I shall protect you, hunt for you, and see you properly clothed. You shall tidy the camp and I shall show you how to brush my horse. I would buy another but you are not much bigger than a slip of a girl so you should not be much more of a burden to him.”
She blushed. “I would not know how to ride a horse, Garrick, even if you provided it.”
He nodded, seemingly expecting that. He hesitated a moment longer, though she could tell something else was pressing on his mind.
A small part of her wished that it was the bond that made that so clear, and that it was not merely due to his expressive eyes.
They were beautiful in their own way. Pale as any she had ever seen, yet in different lights they appeared to take on colours she would not expect. In the soft glow of the forest when she had first seen him they had almost been green, but in the dim light of the tavern they nearly glowed a vibrant gold.
“I will not impose myself on you physically, so that might bring you some little comfort.”
He said this without looking at her and she wished almost desperately that he would. Despite how much the simmering anger frightened her that so often exhibited in them, at least she felt somewhat more sure when they were visible. No dryon was as difficult to understand as this man, of that she was convinced.
“Do you mean that you shall not be intimate with me? But that is what shall further our bond the most.” She felt a sudden ache as the realisation of what he actually meant became all the more clear. “You do not... wish for me to be a mate. Not a true one at least. You will allow me to follow after you simply because it is more convenient, but you will not help me by sealing our bond.”
He shifted in his chair, almost as if her words made him uncomfortable. “I do not believe that you wish to be with me. If any other man was seated before you after having the misfortune of touching you, you would be swearing your fealty and plighting your troth just as quickly. So nay, I do not want your bond nor for it to be sealed. Not when it means so little to you.”
She shrank back quickly, sure that his proclamation could have hurt no more than if he had pierced her with another arrow. “You are all I have. I am not sure what it means to plight a troth, but you must understand, if you allowed me I could learn to care for you most deeply. But you seem to find the very idea offensive in the extreme.” Mairi touched her shoulder absently, the ache there suddenly flaring to life much like the one in her heart. “Perhaps you enjoy wounding me.”
Garrick groaned and stood sharply. He seemed ready to retort—was she strong enough to hear his reply?—when the unkind woman who had first approached her reappeared. “Are you takin’ your leave, m’laird?” Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at Mairi. “The girl hasn’t paid for her ale either, nor the room she asked for.”
Mairi blushed. The man who had seated her at the table had told her not to be concerned about the cost, and his concern over her wellbeing had seemed genuine. He brought her a chair closest to the fire the faster to dry her, he had said, and she had been so grateful for his care.
But now the woman was glaring at her and Garrick’s eyes were narrowed and she felt foolish and lost and she so very deeply wished to be home.
Except she had no home, and likely never would again.
Garrick passed a small metal piece to the woman and she gave a funny little dip before scurrying away back to the kitchens. “How were you intending to pay for these things? Do you have a coin purse hidden away in those skirts?”
She sighed. “I do not know. Harold said that I might find shelter here if I was willing to pay, and I was quite willing to do whatever was necessary. Where does one find some of those metal pieces that made the woman go away? I fear I shall need more of those soon if you decide to leave me again.”
It felt terrible indeed to doubt the word of her bond-mate, but he had left her little choice. He might have said she was welcome to stay with him—that she would not awaken one morning to find him gone—but he did little to inspire her confidence. So she would be watchful and careful, and maybe with time he would grow to be the tiniest bit fond of her and be a bit gentler in manner.
And especially in word.
Garrick sighed and looked at her expectantly, and she rose quickly, hoping that would please him. He strode out of the tavern without glancing behind him, and she hurried to keep up with his long strides.
“I would allow you one night with a roof over your head but I am behind schedule as it is. I should have been in Monavyn by now, and I have a reputation to uphold.”
He led her to another building, this one filled with bits of what appeared to be dried grass and smelled strongly of something she could not readily identify—that was until a few large horse heads popped out from behind short wooden doors. A young boy ran in and Garrick barked at him to see his horse saddled and readied before he took her arm and pulled her back into the afternoon air.
His touch was softer than she had expected, yet firm all the same as with the rest of his demeanour it demanded her respect and acquiescence. If only he would realise that she had no desire to do anything but please him so his blustering and arguments were not necessary.
But it was with a heavy heart that she began to think that perhaps what would please him most was her absence, and she was not certain that was something she could so readily provide—not when she needed him so.
“You misunderstand me, Mairi. I do not enjoy wounding you as you so egregiously suggest. However, we seem incapable of communicating properly so I wonder if we should not give up the venture entirely.” she was almost surprised how his voice could sound so angry—and almost, hurt?—directly contrasting the tenderness of his touch.
Mairi shook her head vehemently. “We should do the opposite! With more practice I am sure we shall begin to learn enough about one another that we can say what we mean and it be correctly heard.”
He released her arm with yet another sigh—this one sounding heavy and sad—before he took a step back from her. “I am going to return to the tavern and see about purchasing some provisions for the road; you must be hungry. Can I trust you to wait here and remain out of trouble?”
She nearly protested, already suspicious that he would attempt to escape without her. But surely he would not leave without his horse and she was closer to its nest than he would be, so she nodded her consent. “I shall do my best.”
He grunted and stalked off, but Harold’s kindly suggestion came to mind. “Garrick, wait! Harold said to mention his name and they would give me a sweetie! Is that food? I do not know, but if it is, do you think my stomach should like one?” She glanced down at it thoughtfully. Garrick seemed to know much better than she about what it would like or dislike—he was much better at understanding its grumbles, so she hoped he would interpret it appropriately for her.
Even with the distance between them she saw him roll his eyes with a huff, and wondered if she should be offended by it as he disappeared through the doorway.
Their conversation by the fire had done much to dry her dress, and she tugged at it ruefully wishing the creases would dissipate. She felt horribly guilty for not removing it before her dip in the stream. Perhaps she should have even taken it off before her drink so the sleeves would not have been soiled.
But no matter how she plucked and smoothed the silk it did not cooperate and she gave up with a sigh.
Before Garrick had returned the boy arrived, his head hung low as he offered her the bits of leather dangling from the horse’s mouth. “Here ye are, m’lady.”
She stared at him, making no move to take the proffered item.
Eventually he glanced up at her, a blush settled on his cheeks. “He’s been a good horse, this one. He won’t give you no trouble.”
Mairi wanted to believe him but still found the creature terribly intimidating. It was taller than most of the other beasts she had encountered, and she was certain he could crush her with his giant hooves if that was his desire.
Yet he only blinked at her placidly from dark, nearly black eyes, no ill intent present within them.
So with a hesitant hand she grasped the leather strips, careful not to tug at its mouth as that seemed like it should annoy the animal.
Suddenly he opened his mouth and repositioned a piece of metal pressing inside, and Mairi gasped. Would that not hurt the poor creature?
She almost began the process of removing the strange device but thought better of it quickly. Surely the boy Garrick had entrusted with caring for his horse should know if a mistake had been made. But when she went to ask him, she caught him looking at her, a nervous yet resolved expression on his face.
“Are ye in need of help, m’lady?”
He could not have been a fully grown man, of that she was certain, although he was no child either. He was taller than she but did not even compare to her bond-mate’s formidable height, and she could tell from his manner and appearance that he would make a pleasing mate one day—a husband, if she was to begin to understand this new world.
“I only be askin’ because the laird does not seem very kind, and a gentle lady such as you should have someone to look after you proper. It’s not my place to meddle, I know that, but if it was me sister who needed help I’d want someone to take notice.”
She smiled at him as best she could, even when her heart ached briefly. If this young man could recognise the need for gentility with her, then surely with a bit more time and coaxing, her bond-mate could see it too.
At least, she sincerely hoped for as much.
“She will not be requiring any assistance that you can offer, boy, so I suggest you run along before I throttle you for your impudence.”
The boy in question blanched, but remained where he was—though Mairi saw a slight twitch in his hands that belied his confidence. “M’laird, I meant no offence to ye. I was worried, that’s all.”
Garrick grunted and roughly grabbed the leather from her hands, his horse giving a disgruntled jerk of his head in response. Mairi half expected him to give the animal a bludgeoning for the action, but he merely patted its neck soothingly before producing a carrot from some unknown pocket.
Her bond-mate remained silent so she felt it prudent to be the one to form a reply. “I can assure you, I am precisely where I ought to be, but I thank you for your concern. You shall make a fine mate in future.”
The colour rose once more in his cheeks and he ducked his head, but seemed to believe her for he scurried back toward the stables.
“You seem to have a very fine knack for convincing men to offer you clemency. Pray tell, am I merely your latest victim? Who was this Harold you mentioned?”
She opened her mouth to tell him, quite indignantly, that she would greatly appreciate if he would cease portraying her as a seducer of all men’s affections, but before she could do so he had leapt upon the horse and reached down and snatched her into his lap.
Mairi had never felt this way before.
She felt unsteady being so high off the ground while on an animal, used to the sure and stable nature of the trees that she had once called home. She had also not been positioned so upon a man—not since she was a seedling and still fit upon her adar’s lap as he told her stories of the old days.
But this felt entirely different.
Her bond-mate was a large man, and incredibly strong, that much was clear. He seemed to prod the horse into motion simply with the use of his thigh muscles, and she cried out when the beast leapt forward in response to its master’s demand. Garrick’s arms had tightened around her and even with his faceplate drawn she could feel the warmth of his breath as she clutched at his neck and tried to bury her face into the unforgiving metal of his armour.
“Well? Have you no answer?”
She took a shuddering breath, peeking down at the ground below. In truth they were not going so very fast, yet she found that the faster they went the smoother and less bumpy the experience. “He was an ancient I happened upon on the road. He told me that the tavern might allow me to stay the night.”
Garrick laughed and it sent a jolt of awareness through her heart.
That was the sound she wished to hear from him, not his huffs of annoyance and barks of angry words.
But she still was left with the distinct impression that he was laughing at her, not because she had been witty.
“An ancient? Do you mean to say he was elderly?”
She shrugged, not finding there to be much difference between the two terms. “His hair was white and he had many creases upon his face. But he was gracious and did not like to see me cold.”
Mairi glanced up at Garrick and through the slats of his helm she could see the furrowed brow that bespoke his scowl.
Would he always be so quick to temper?
He was quiet for a moment and she dared not fill the silence with her own foolish chatter. Perhaps if she waited long enough he would speak of why he frowned so—without being terse with her.
“Do you truly think me so cruel? You accused me earlier of wishing you harm, but that is not in the least true. I only have the benefit of knowing that by remaining with me, I shall continue to wound you, whether it is my intention or not.”
Mairi’s mind recoiled at his bluntness, and it amazed her that he could seem so sure of himself as he stated such drivel.
“Have you had a mate before?”
He barked out a laugh, not at all the pleasant sound from earlier but one harsh and full of disdain. “Nay, I have not had the pleasure of a wife, nor of a girl who claims to be bound to me. Would that have made it better or worse for you?”
Her grip on his neck tightened. “I should not like to think I was stealing away another woman’s mate and the idea of you having gone through the pain of losing one by death is grievous to me.”
Garrick made no reply, and she wondered if that was an improvement from his usually biting retorts. She pressed on, “But I think maybe your ideas of mating are different than mine. If you could allow yourself to feel for me then you would realise that eventually wounding me will be like wounding yourself—I do not know of many who would find such an action pleasurable. I shall wish to please you because it will bring me joy to do so, not because of a compulsion led by our sealing.”
He shook his head, mumbling words that were curt and short though she could not make out their meaning.
Perhaps that was for the best.
“I shall win, you know. No matter how long you reject me, reject this, I shall keep pestering. My adar says that I can be quite merciless when something is important to me.”
Garrick hummed. “Of that I can believe. If you can prove merciless in anything, it seems only fitting that a little nymph like you would choose pleasing her supposed husband.”
She glanced up at him, finding his helm to be troublesome as it obscured so much of him from her view. A brief memory of his true face flashed before her eyes, and she remembered he was not very fair to look upon. But even being able to see his eyes would be an improvement so she lifted the visor to reveal them to her gaze.
His scowl returned, and she supposed it was due to the fact that she had not asked permission, but she found that she did not care. The longer she spent with this man the more she believed him incapable of knowing what was best for him. He blustered and growled and said he did not want her—did not want a wife—but she knew, deep within her soul, that this could not be the case.
So she touched the corner of his eye with her forefinger, revelling in the sensation that trickled through the bond and simply from the sensation of touching. His eyes widened but his hands were too full supporting her weight to do much to hinder her actions, and she pressed her advantage. “I shall sleep now, I think, and you shall be given opportunity to ponder my words. We can be happy, you and I, if only you would let us find it. Together.”
Even though the metal of his armour was harsh and she was unused to moving at such a fast pace upon such a tall beast, she felt a peace she had never known as his arms tightened around her. And the exhaustion, both physical and especially that within her heart, pulled her into slumber.