They had been having such a pleasant morning.
She had dreamed of his sweetness and his touches and his care, and he had nearly fulfilled such hopes when he gave her breakfast. And not only was she grateful for the food, but even more meaningful for her was the way he had wrapped her in his cloak—he had foregone his own comforts to see to hers.
And she was deeply touched, as he did not seem the kind of man to make such displays very often.
So she tucked away such moments in her heart, even as she sat against the great oak behind her, her wrist bound but otherwise unharmed. Eventually the tears had faded and she was left feeling morose—and, she could not deny, angry.
She had seen kindness in him. When he spoke of his horse, of Callum, there was genuine affection in his voice that gave her hope—but as he had grabbed her and bound her, she realised that he still had much to learn about the ways of bonding. No dryon from the High City would ever have abandoned their mate in such a manner.
He wanted her to trust him. Trust that he would return, that his desertion would not be forever.
She tugged at the rope once more, surprised to see it give slightly the harder she pulled.
And though tears prickled her eyes at the realisation, she decided that though he was boorish and terribly wrong to have done this to her, he was too afraid of hurting her to make the bonds too tight.
Now that she was calm enough to see how simple it was to escape, she did so hurriedly, determined to waste no more time with her ridiculous hysterics. She would remember the progress they had made as they spoke civilly, how he had allowed her first choice of their breakfast and had even provided cool water to quench her thirst.
She kept the strip of his tunic around her wrist, drawing comfort from its presence. While his deed had been foolish, the fact that he had thought to protect her delicate skin from the rough abrasion of the rope meant something to her—despite himself, he cared for her.
So she left it on and rubbed at it absently, her eyes closed as she tried to call upon the bond.
The more she considered her bond-mate and the thoughtfulness he had shown her just recently, the warmer she began to feel, and a gentle pull settled on her heart that drew her eastward.
She quickly took up the rest of the things he had left. While she intended to scold him quite firmly for his actions, she did not want him to be cross for her abandoning the rest of his things. He had left the flagon of water and a few biscuits for her and she tucked them into a pocket she found in his cloak. Finally she coiled the rope about her arm and placed it within yet another hidden fold, which oddly seemed suited for that purpose.
And then putting her faith in the almost non-existent tether that beckoned her forward, she departed.
Mairi had no memory of Garrick stopping for the night. Never in her life had she required as much sleep as she now seemed to, and she could not say that she relished this new development. Before her tree would quiet at twilight, and cool night breezes would lull it into slumber with her nestled in its branches.
But things were different now.
So very different.
Garrick’s small encampment had been away from the road, but not so far that it was difficult to find it again. She noted with an indignant sniff that it would still have been highly possible for other men-folk to have stumbled upon her should she have remained tied to the oak, and she was certain that not all of them would have been so helpful and amiable as the ones she had met thus far. Her ire prickled anew to think that her bond-mate could have left her in such danger, with nothing to defend herself—not even the ability to quickly climb a tree and hide if necessary.
The bottoms of her feet were sore from the many stones and twigs that were embedded in the hard-packed earth of road, and she grumbled as she walked, wishing she was once more in Garrick’s arms as they road steadily onward on Callum. Now that she knew his name she would like a proper introduction, perhaps if she was even brave enough she could touch the large nose that from afar looked so very soft.
Her pace quickened at the thought.
Before long she reached a village, larger than the small scattering of buildings that the tavern had been nestled between but not even remotely as impressive as the High City. Of course, it was difficult to compare the two civilisations, as humans appeared to make their shelters out of stone and mortar with thatched roofs instead of what was naturally supplied.
And she noticed with dismay that even her recollections of her beloved home seemed hazy, almost as if a dream from long ago.
For a moment she hesitated as to her direction and she turned abruptly at a whiff of something scrumptious diverted her attention from her rapidly deteriorating mood.
She had entered what appeared to be the centre of the town, as buildings flanked a large circle that was bustling with people. Wooden stalls with various wares were scattered about, with burly men and shrewd women calling out their goods.
Mairi shrank back, not at all prepared to face such a crowd without her bond-mate there to guide her.
The noise was deafening as carts clamoured over cobblestones, and she saw two men come to blows when a barter soured.
She wanted her bond-mate.
And she wanted him now.
She took a careful step back hoping that no one noticed her, and she felt the gentle pull of their bond drawing down a narrow opening between two neat rows of shops, and she felt grateful that Garrick should have found a quieter place for disappearing.
Mairi hurried onward, excitement growing at being reunited with him. Her brief encounter with people had made her forgive his brash action at tying her to the tree and leaving her, so grateful was she for the idea of his company once more.
She was not prepared for when she saw him.
There was no mistaking him, not only from the slight pull of her heart that made it so abundantly clear that this was in fact her mate, but also because of his towering height over the man with him. At her first fleeting look it appeared he was embracing the man from behind, his arms coming around him as the man struggled.
But soon she saw the glint of a dagger as it sliced cleanly through the man’s neck, and Garrick released him hurriedly.
And feeling utterly detached from what she witnessed, Mairi realised he had allowed the man to crumple forward, hands desperately clutching at the wound at his neck, simply so that the blood that gushed forth so freely would not splatter on his armour.
“Why is it red?”
Garrick’s attention snapped to hers, and the way his eyes glowed like molten embers she wished she had remained silent.
He was furious.
And when he stalked forward she could not help but step backward, suddenly desiring with all her heart that she was once more bound to that tree.
“What are you doing here?” His voice was a low hiss that shuddered through her, and she clutched his cloak tighter about her, even as she felt tears prickle at her eyes.
She would not cry.
He might be tall and have just killed a man, but he was her mate and it was not possible that he would hurt her.
But as he stared at her with such rage that nearly bordered on hatred, for the first time she realised that perhaps a dryon might never harm his nymph, but there was nothing in their history that could assure her that a human mate might be able to keep himself from striking her.
She swallowed, every answer that her mind supplied feeling wholly inadequate for quieting his temper. So instead she took a steadying breath, trying to force herself to calm, even as she wanted to chastise him for leaving her, even as she wanted to beg him not to hurt her.
So instead she tugged at his cloak and stood taller, proud when her voice did not waver as much as she would have anticipated given how tight her throat had constricted. “Why is his blood red?”
Garrick scoffed and his hand clutched her arm, pulling her behind him as he hurried back from whence she had come. And though she hated that she did so, she checked to see if the knife was still visible, a small part of her afraid he would use it on her. “All blood is red, stupid girl. But I believe I left you somewhere to wait for me so I would not be plagued by such ridiculous questions.”
Mairi struggled to keep up with his long strides as he nearly ran from the body of the man, now completely still in death.
She flinched at his ire, but her fear was rapidly being replaced by righteous anger of her own. How darehe call her stupid? So many times she had told him that their customs were different—that she could not be expected to know of his world when it differed so entirely from her own. But still he mocked and criticised, and she did not appreciate his surly ways. “You left me bound to a tree where any might have found me! What would you have done should you return and discovered my body? Would that at least have grieved you?”
Garrick turned abruptly, bringing her close as his hands grasped her upper arms. “You ask me that? I told you to remain for you protection, not because I had hoped that some vagabond would come and maim you!”
Beneath the hiss of anger Mairi could sense his sincerity, but that made her no more ready to forgive him. It might not have been his intention, but there was little excuse for his lack of forethought—not when it could have led to such disaster.
He released his firm grip on her arms and tugged insistently instead at her wrist, pulling her to where Callum patiently remained, looking rather forlorn that there were not grassy bits for him to munch on as he waited. Garrick did not allow for Mairi to give her consent before grasping her waist, but for some unexplained reason she knew that if she should allow him to put her upon the horse and ride away, nothing good could come of it. He was too angry, too volatile and full of blood lust to be fully aware of his actions, and that frightened her more than she cared to admit.
She lurched away harshly and ran back toward the bustle of people that had previously so intimidated her.
Garrick was not one to make a spectacle, and surely if she could make it to where there were sufficient people, he would be forced to cool his temper before they made for their next destination—wherever that may be. He had said they would discuss it, and she tried to remember that indicated, no matter how small, that he would look for her input. Despite her earlier thoughts he was not always a brute, and she would have to cling to that remembrance if she was to keep her heart intact.
The bond rippled with both his fury and the reminder that she was running away from her mate. Her heart ached but she tried valiantly to smother the longing to return—to soothe his bad humour in whatever manner she could.
But the part of her that did not know him kept her going, even as she heard the creak and clang of his armour as he pursued her.
The same luscious scents met her first before the murmurs of the crowd overwhelmed her, and she slowed only the better to blend into the throng. But still she went on, determined that he would have to find her in the middle of the market before she would approve of him taking her anywhere. She would not abandon him—no, would never do that—but it did not feel safe to be alone with him at this time.
They were so loud.
Hers were a peaceful and quiet people, and though during festivals there could be many dancing and laughing under the stars and overhang of heavy boughs, it was never this boisterous. There was a soothing melody to her kin’s timbre, yet these people haggled and argued with a perfunctory nature that was wholly foreign.
“You there, m’lady! Can I interest ye in any woollen garb? Finest in all Monavyn!”
So intent was she in listening for any sound of Garrick’s approach that she had not realised she was staring at a man in a stall. He had quite a few teeth missing but he smiled amiably as he waved her closer.
“Don’t you be listenin’ to a word he says, lass; McFarland’s a swindler if I ever I saw one.”
She started, not expecting anyone to touch her except perhaps her mate as he angrily pulled her from the market. But as she turned to demand she be released she was met with the warm smile of Harold and it soon matched her own. “Good morrow, friend! I am ever so happy to see you!”
His grin widened and he ushered her back to his own stall, his pipe waiting on a wooden board which he promptly picked up and settled in his mouth. “Glad to be hearin’ a little lady like you appreciates me company. If I’d known you would be interested in market day I woulda offered ye a ride yesterday.”
“Thank you, but I did not know I was to come here. My mate had business to see to and I was merely...” Her eyes strayed to flicker about the passersby, looking for Garrick. With his long limbs it seemed impossible that she could have been so far ahead of him, so he must have chosen to allow her to disappear—or else he was even now galloping away on Callum and leaving her behind.
Her heart sank at the notion.
“Yer mate, eh? That anything like a husband? I’d hate for a pretty lass like you to be used without being wedded proper.”
Mairi blushed, not entirely sure how to answer. If Garrick was to be believed they had not been truly wedded, but Harold seemed disgruntled at the idea and for some reason she wished to please him. “It is. From where I hail he would be called a mate.”
Harold’s eyes narrowed as he eyed her up and down. It was an action she was used to, but this lacked the slight shiver of revulsion that it used to inspire as he appeared more interested in her garb. “Aye, you’re not from around these parts. But it does me good to hear yer not livin’ in sin.”
She shook her head firmly, although she was not certain what error she would have been committing.
“So where is this mate a’yours? If you were my wife or even one of me daughters, I wouldn’t be so quick to let ye wander off.”
Mairi hung her head, knowing that Garrick had no intention of allowing her to wander, and it had been her decision to flee. Perhaps she had done something dreadful, offended some custom by being in public unattended and she was shaming him.
Her stomach clenched uncomfortably at the thought.
“He was angry with me. I thought it best to leave him for a bit.” She could not meet his eye, doubting her decision now. Garrick had never actually hurt her beyond the accidental wound that led to their sealing, and she had most likely deeply insulted him by running as she did.
She searched for him through the bond, and gasped as she realised he had been lurking in the shadows behind Harold.
His arms were crossed over his chest as he emerged, his armour dark enough to allow him to fade away almost completely. “It seems at every turn I find you cavorting with another man.”
Harold turned, his eyes widening as he observed Garrick’s height as it dwarfed his own slightly shrunken frame. “Got yourself a knight, did ye? Well, at least I can rest easy knowing you’ve picked a husband that’s capable of bein’ protective.” But there was a firmness to his jaw that easily showed that he was assessing the relationship between the two and Mairi remembered the stable boy’s concern. And the guilt pressed all the harder against her that she too had doubted Garrick’s intentions. They looked at his features and thought him boorish and mean—and he was quite capable of being so—but Mairi had seen him softer and should at the very least have tried to think better of him.
She stepped closer to Garrick and reached out her hand.
Should her mate have been a dryon, he would have placed his forefinger about hers and possibly, if he was feeling particularly overt in his affections, pressed a kiss upon their conjoined appendages.
But Garrick was not of her kin, and instead he tilted his head away with a sniff, and she was glad that the visor no longer covered his eyes so she could judge his mood more easily.
Her hand fell away and she felt terribly lonesome.
“Garrick, this is Harold,” and her eyes implored him to be civil. There no resemblance between this man and her father, but she found that there was a kindness in him and perhaps a crinkling of his eyes when he smiled at her that struck her as remarkably similar.
And she felt a twinge of loss that she would never introduce her bond-mate to her actual father, and this might be the closest encounter she should ever experience.
“I must thank you again for collecting my wife. She seems to have quite a knack for disappearing when it pleases her.”
Harold chuckled, but Mairi thought it sounded a little forced. “Me own wife does not have that trouble. Every fortnight she shoos me off to the market to sell me dyes and thread. Now that these bones are old I’ve started spending the night in the pub for a rest. And though she’d tell ye it was a terrible expense, I rather think she likes to be free of me for a night too.”
Garrick’s eyes flashed towards Mairi and she saw the barely concealed irritation still simmering within. “Indeed.”
It did not escape Harold’s notice and his mouth turned to a grim line, not at all the cheeky grin of which she had become accustomed.
“You sell thread? I am afraid I tore my gown and am in need of something to mend it.”
He stared at her a moment longer his eyes flickering to Garrick before nodding. “Aye, I’ve got something that’ll fix it up nicely, but to match the purple of that gown it’ll cost a wee bit extra.” He glanced at Garrick, his expression almost challenging. “That shouldn’t be too much trouble for ye, right m’laird? Not when this fine lady should be treated with such care.”
Mairi hung her head, humiliation burning low within her. She was not being a good mate. Garrick might have been failing in the same venture, but she had the benefit of knowing perfectly well what made for a good mate—and allowing others to constantly suggest that she was being mistreated was not at all fair to him.
“Nay. So name your price as we must depart.” His tone was curt and it was obvious he had not missed the none too subtle insinuation from Harold. But just when Mairi wished the earth would simply open where she stood and swallow her into its darkest depths, she heard him whisper, “Callum is waiting for us.”
And suddenly she knew she had done rightly.
For his voice was softer, and some small part of their bond told her it was not merely because he spoke of his friend—it was for her.
His use of the word us made her heart swell for joy.
Hearing him be curt and short with another yet lower his voice and speak almost intimately to her of something he considered private sent her reeling.
And this time when she patted Harold’s arm and thanked him profusely for the thread, she knew that all would be well.