She was curled in his lap, murmuring nothings into his ear that seemed to feed whatever part of him ached for kindness and affection, long denied by his stony composure. His armour had disappeared and he relished the feel of her—the true feel of her—pressed against him, the rigid impediment removed. He allowed his hands to drift down the soft silk of her gown, rivalled only by the suppleness of her skin before finally, finally, allowing his fingers to comb through the long tresses of her hair that seemed to shimmer in the dim light of early morning.
Her eyes were as bright and blue as a midsummer sky, and they peered at him with such love and warmth that he was left breathless.
“It could be like this always, if you would let it.”
All of his old arguments echoed tauntingly through his mind, yet when she looked at him that way, they began to quiet—almost as if they had never been.
His appearance did not matter.
His profession did not matter.
Only she mattered.
Only ever her.
With trembling hands he reached out to cup her cheek, marvelling at the way his large palm seemed to frame her face so completely. So delicate, so very beautiful, and completely and inexplicably his.
His lips met hers and some part of his soul leapt forward and was found, mingling and twining with hers as the softness of her lips met his own slightly rough ones. At any other time he would have been horrified that she could see him, would be forced to kiss a monster such as he, but as she surrounded his senses—her hair twining over his shoulders as the kiss deepened, her arms coming to embrace him—such cares seemed a distant memory, ones that he had no desire to locate.
“I love you, sweet Garrick. Please do not leave me alone for so long again.”
And as he pressed his kisses onto every bit of skin he could, he breathed, “Never,” over and over, nearly as a benediction, a vow, one that he hoped would bind him to her as completely as she was to him.
Garrick awoke with a start.
Despite his best efforts to reach Monavyn that night, such was not to be. Although Mairi’s form was slim, her presence did not allow his horse to travel as quickly as he usually would, and he tired more easily. So eventually, late in the night and with only a sliver of moon and starlight to guide him, he had stopped in a small clearing at the edge of the forest and set up camp. He considered waking her to ply her with foods, realising ruefully how little she had eaten that day.
She must have been starving.
But she looked so peaceful and contended as she slept and he instead allowed her to rest, promising himself that he would prepare her a bountiful breakfast at first light and ensure she ate her fill.
She was slight enough as it was, and he was afraid that any more of this mistreatment—for he could not look back on his acquaintanceship with her and view it as anything else—would cause her to simply wither away completely.
The dream had been unexpected, and most certainly unwelcome. He had not intended to sleep himself, instead deciding that keeping watch was a necessary endeavour. Garrick had never had a companion before, especially not one so enticing as Mairi, and he fully believed someone could try to snatch her away if he did not keep a steady guard.
But regardless of his resolve he must have succumbed to sleep, if only for a little while. And Mairi was still tucked safely in his bedroll, and he felt far too much relief than was reasonable for a girl he did not care for.
His stomach growled from his own lack of food, and he felt another stab of sympathy for how hungry she must be. He stretched, trying fruitlessly to release the kinks and cramps that inevitably came from falling asleep upright and set about preparing breakfast.
Perhaps preparingimplied too great an effort on his part, as truthfully he had only to stoke the fire and place a few of the pasties on a large, smooth rock to warm by the flame. He debated with himself, but also pulled out the sweetie she had requested, considering whether or not he should in fact gift her with it.
For reasons he could not explain, it troubled him greatly that another had cared for her, and it was from this care that he had known to request such a treat for her.
Nonetheless, he had notmentioned Harold’s name and had paid the full amount. Even if his companion wished to use her feminine charms to inspire men’s compassion, he most certainly would not be taking the same advantage.
Something of his conscience prickled at such thoughts. The longer he came to know her—though he would not pretend to truly know her, not until the ridiculous matter of Raghnall’s insistence that she was truly a nymph could be sorted—the more convinced he became that she was not the skilled manipulator and seductress he had first assumed. Her tears were always, painfully, genuine, as were her smiles and the occasional twitch of irritation when he had been an exacting bastard to her. What he assumed were the practiced wiles finely honed to be his ultimate destruction, he begrudgingly acknowledged now were simply her.
Her trying to be kind, and her trying to eke out whatever kindness from him he was willing to part with.
He poked a pasty with the point of an arrow, not trusting the sticks scattered about as there was no telling what manner of animal had been traipsing about on them.
Already he could smell the delicious combination of buttery crust and stewed meat, and it took a considerable amount of his control to keep from snatching one to sate the edge of his hunger. But he wished to offer her the one of her choosing, however small a peace offering it might be, and he would not ruin it by being overeager.
He removed his helm and rubbed at his neck, tired and sore as it was from supporting the heavy weight for so long. He glanced at the sleeping girl quickly before pulling on his mask—the easier to eat by.
If he left them much longer he feared they would burn, and surely burned pasties were worse than a smaller selection. That begged the question of how to wake her. He glanced down at the arrow point and briefly considered poking her with it, much as he had their breakfast, until she awoke. But even as he pictured the sharpened point of it coming into contact with her person, he was filled with visions of it piercing her flesh and the strange sticky blood oozing and the fear and remorse that had immediately followed.
His dream taunted him. Although her lips had been a figment of his own imagination, he vividly recalled how glorious they had felt as he nibbled at them with his, and he wondered if she might prefer to awake in such a manner.
He stopped thatfantasy short with a curt reminder that it was simply a dream and that his kisses would never be foisted upon her when she was not even conscious to deny her consent.
That did little to quell the desire.
So instead he stood over her, clearing his throat obnoxiously yet still she slept on.
She had when he leapt down from the horse.
She had slept when he lay her down in the softest moss he could find so he could make camp.
And she had when he tucked her safely into his bedroll.
And still she slept, the savoury scent of breakfast pervading the air.
While many things about her continued to amaze him, he rather thought that this particular attribute was the most incredible.
Finally he stooped low and assessed which area would be best to prod. She was lying on her good side, her injured shoulder peeking out from the furs. He frowned, noting that he would need to provide clean bandages after they had eaten. He also begrudgingly realised that he would be sacrificing more of his dwindling spirits in order to clean it once again.
He berated himself silently for having left the tavern without having stocked one of his most welcome provisions.
“Mairi,” he murmured, allowing a fingertip to stroke down her sleep-warmed cheek.
His mouth grew dry, realising that although his dream might have fabricated details—her willingness being paramount—the memory of her silken skin had been exact.
She sighed softly, a gentle smile upon her lips as she snuggled deeper into the furs.
He swallowed thickly, trying not to remember that until recently, those had been his furs.
“Mairi,” he tried again, this time more forceful although his touch remained gentle.
Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled at him, and it sent an ache through his heart that he had never known before. “I had the most wonderful dream,” she whispered drowsily.
There was no possibility, absolutely none, that she had been privy to what he had dreamt. Most likely she had been home with her father and Raghnall, pledging troths and dancing about at her wedding feast as she laughed and rejoiced at their reunion.
“A dream formed from starvation, I expect. Up with you, before our breakfast burns.”
She sighed, and he noted with a grimace that she shivered as she left the blessed cocoon of warmth. Her village must have been strange indeed if she could be dressed so without thought of a wrap. He sighed and pulled out his cloak from a saddlebag, shaking it out ruefully as he noted the few wrinkles that managed to corrupt the fabric.
“Here. I will not have you sick as you follow me about. You are troublesome enough without also sneezing on my chest as we ride.” He placed it on her shoulders, and she stared up at him with such wide eyes that he was momentarily lost in the sheer blueness of them.
Eventually she looked away and he was freed, and he busied himself with finding the flagon of water—the more appropriate beverage for their morning meal.
“Thank you, Garrick.” Her voice was hushed yet the gratefulness was clear, and he felt a momentary thrill. He might be boorish and have blundered every encounter he had with her thus far, but this morning he had yet to do so.
“You are much welcome, nymph. Now pick a pasty.”
She peered at the assortment curiously. “What are they?” Her stomach grumbled loudly and she placed a hand over it soothingly. “I suppose you do not much care what they are, but you seem to want one. Have you a preference?”
Garrick stared at her incredulously as she allowed a hand to hover over each, seemingly waiting for her stomach to form an opinion.
“You are in earnest?”
Her eyes were wide and innocent as she glanced at him. “Is this not how you do it?”
He rolled his eyes and picked up the finest looking pasty and handed it to her. “Eat, nymph, and cease your foolishness.”
She looked momentarily disheartened by his tone, but nibbled on her breakfast dutifully.
Before promptly yelping.
“It is hot!”
The interior steamed welcomingly as he saw the small bite she had taken and Garrick could not help but take two for himself, biting into them voraciously without care should it burn his mouth. “Aye. Nothing worse than a cold pasty.”
She glared down at it and he could not help but smirk at how perturbed she appeared. “That was very naughty to... to burn me!”
He could not help it.
He laughed, loud and long, and quite possibly louder and longer than was appropriate. Especially when he received another glare from her which only amused him more.
“Why should you laugh when your food injures me?”
He waited to answer until all that was left was an errant chuckle, before taking another bite of his apparently discourteous food. “I do not laugh at your discomfort, my lady, merely your strange manner of address.”
She blushed and took another nibble, her brow furrowed as she chewed carefully, evidently waiting for it to maim her further. But this time much of the heat must have been released and she took another enthusiastic bite, the buttery crust and stewed vegetables clearly to her liking.
Garrick had yet to meet a person who disliked a pasty.
They ate in silence, though he nudged her with his water flagon occasionally to get her to drink. She fumbled with the seal and nearly dropped it before peering into its contents cautiously. He grunted, “I shan’t poison you, it is naught but water.”
Mairi drank deeply and he felt another slice of guilt for how he had failed to care for her. She did not need to be his wife, or his bond-mate as she still called him, for him to help her. She was a maiden in need and deserving of his intervention.
The dream still mocked him, with all of its possibilities.
“What is your horse’s name?”
Garrick swallowed, relishing the warmth in his belly. “His what?”
“Do you not name your beasts? The saplings always loved naming the woodland creatures. It grew all the sadder, however when predators would come.”
“A sapling is a tree, not a person.”
She tilted her head. “Not a person, an age. I am not far out of my sapling years myself. Do you have another name between seedling and maturity?”
Garrick shook his head, wondering why on earth he had been burdened with such a strange girl.
Then he chastised himself for such thoughts, as he should be grateful for being in the company of any girl at all.
“I can assure you, the names do not equate to flora.”
Mairi shrugged and took another sip of water. “I do not know why you chastise me when we clearly mean the same things. You use strange words too but I do not criticise you for them.”
He sighed the feeling of guilt pressing all the harder upon him. “You would not think it childish for a man grown to name his horse? You already said that it was the younger ones of your people that named the animals.”
She shook her head firmly. “Not at all. I would think it shows that you have affection for those in your care. To name something is to give it more meaning to you.” She picked up a stick that poked out from the fire pit, its tip burning brightly. He was surprised to see a flicker of fear on her face, though she tried valiantly to keep it hidden. “At home we did not have fires. Trees had names and voices—they had meaning. They are quiet now.”
If ever a tone could be the epitome of wistful sadness, it would be hers. It resonated in some place behind his heart, and before he had realised he had done it Garrick plucked the stick from her hand and cast it back into the fire. “I did not remove these limbs from live trees. They were already upon the ground.” He did not know why he felt the need to defend his actions. The fire had kept her warm throughout the night and had heated their breakfast this morning. But even if her head was full of fancies—of trees with voices that she could no longer hear—he did not want her to think he would be violent with what she considered a friend.
He did not want her to think that he would be violent with her.
Garrick briefly remembered his experience by the stream, of a whisper of voices that were not his own but that he had dismissed entirely. He was not of her kin, and there was no possibility that such could be true. Yet he hoped she would never speak of such things in front of a magistrate, as he feared she would be condemned as a witch for believing so.
She smiled at him wanly. “It comforts me to hear it.” He did not like that expression on her face—eyes haunted with memory and loss even as she tried to keep her composure, seemingly for his sake. And he remembered that soft sleepy smile she had given him when she awoke, and he felt all the worse for it.
“Callum. His name is Callum.”
She mouthed the name and looked back at his horse, grazing good-naturedly on whatever grasses caught his interest. He was a large animal, even for a horse, but he had not always been so. While most men would buy their horses trained and ready for a rider—especially a horse meant for war and travel—Garrick had not done so. He was not always so capable as he was now, and he had found Callum half starved and beaten by a cruel master. He was not the great and powerful stallion he could have been, but instead had looked at him so forlornly that Garrick had known he must intervene—to do anything else felt like the greatest sin of all.
He had been ready to murder the bumbling fool that called himself a horsemaster, but such had not proved necessary—at least, not strictly so. A jaunt to a local tavern and a few well placed bets left him with a full purse and a new horse, one that was once wary and frightened but now was more loyal than Garrick could have ever hoped.
He was his friend.
“You care for him.”
Garrick scoffed. “Aye. Too well, the fat beast.” But even he could hear the affection in his voice, and he hoped that Mairi did not see it as a weakness. Surely he was allowed one friend in this world of rejection and misery...
And this time her smile was genuine and touched her eyes and made them sparkle. “I am glad. I do not think it is good for a man to be entirely alone. If they cannot have a female with them then at least their horse might be able to give a bit of sense.”
This time it was his turn to glare but she smiled at him almost impishly and he realised belatedly that she was teasing.
It was odd and unwelcome and yet it caused a strange clutching in his gut as he realised that he liked it. He liked it coming from her for it bespoke of a familiarity that they as of yet barely shared.
“Come, I must tend to your wound and then I must depart.”
Whatever calm and gentle comfort she had received quickly fled and she looked at him in panic. “What do you mean? You said I was to remain with you!”
Garrick sighed. “And you shall. But if you think I am going to take you with me as I... fulfil the terms of my agreement, then you are gravely mistaken.”
She stared at him for a long moment before her chin rose in defiance. “You may leave me here if you wish but you cannot keep me from following. I told you, I will not allow you to abandon me again.”
Whether or not he intended it, there was no mistaking that this girl, this nymph, this angel, was wheedling her way into his heart.
But that did not mean he would allow her to speak to him in such a manner.
“I most certainly can, my lady. Though I can assure you, you would find it far more pleasant to simply agree. I shall return when my errand is complete and we may discuss where to travel next.” He sighed, trying to cool his irritation as he approached her. She leaned away and eyed him suspiciously, and that simple act did little to help his agitation. “Be still, foolish girl, I must change your bandage.”
She did not fight him as he removed the old bindings and exchanged them with another strip of his tunic. He made quiet hushing sounds as he doused the gash with more spirits and she cried out in pain, and he found himself rubbing soothing circles upon her arm before he stopped himself with a firm reprove.
Properly seen to and certain that she had enough food and water during his absence, he turned to leave. “Please, do not go. Do not make me chase you.” Her eyes were wide and pleading, and that small fragment of his soul that was softening to this maiden demanded that he acquiesce.
But he knew that his primary task was to protect her, even against herself. It was too soon for her to trust him, to believe his word that he would return and he would not corrupt her with the violence and blood that would soon follow.
So he took a rope tied to the saddle—new and crisp and unspoiled by death—and brought her to a tree. She was crying as he wrapped more of his tunic about her wrist, a protective measure so that her delicate flesh would not be besmirched by the rasp of the rope, before looping the length of cord about her wrist and the trunk. She could move well enough, yet it would efficiently hold her to the camp without hurting her. “You shall have to trust me, nymph. I shall return for you. But what shall happen is not for your eyes, and I will not have your loss of innocence on my conscience.”
And he tried desperately to ignore the look of betrayal as he rode away.