The Laurel and the Rose: Chapter Three


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It was hard to know quite where it had all gone so horribly wrong, although Isobel thought about it a great deal. She counted through, moment by moment, trying to find that crack, that flaw… that single point at which the rot had set in.

The road had been normal. Quiet, but normal. She had half-expected the south to be thick with refugees or crawling with troop movements, but that wasn’t the case. Lothering might have had its swells of destitute farmhands, but they barely saw anyone between there and Redcliffe.

Isobel hadn’t expected her first sight of the village to be so impressive. That great waterfall, thundering down from vast red rocks, and the cottages spread out below like the dollhouses she’d had as a child… she’d stopped to admire it for a while, and not realised that anything that pretty must be a mirage.

Alistair, in his typical muddle-headed fashion, had tried to talk to her then. She’d brushed him off, told him to wait until later, and he’d turned oddly petulant, which irritated her.

He could have pushed the issue. He should have, and Isobel had doubted she would forgive him for it. He’d made her look such a fool.

Bann Teagan was perfectly charming, despite the difficult circumstances. Oh, that Arl Eamon’s sickness was some sort of a magical poison—some malady that normal healing could neither identify nor cure—had been obvious, but somehow no one had expected ravening hordes of undead. That was just too much, and then to have to find out there, in front of everyone, exactly how Alistair knew the Guerrin family…!

Isobel could have sworn he took a perverse delight in her embarrassment. Teagan’s expression, as he tried to conceal his surprise that she didn’t know, had burned into her, and she took refuge in the stiffly formal court manners her mother had taught her. That, and the assault that nightfall brought.

It had seemed so much easier to deal in facts like that—in matters of men, and equipment, and the practicalities of barricades—than speaking of it further. She had pushed past Alistair’s attempt to apologise, her anger making her brusque instead of icily crisp, and glared at him until he shut up and followed orders.

She should have seen it, she supposed. She imagined he had thought she would, or that she would at least have suspected. The daughter of a teyrn, who should have been so familiar with Cailan’s court… how had she missed it? He couldn’t have known that, despite the fact there was not that much of a familial resemblance between him and the late king, Isobel had only ever been presented at court once, more than two years ago. Naturally, she would rather have walked barefoot into the Black City than admit it.

So, that wound was set to fester.

They fought side-by-side that night, nevertheless. Leliana and Morrigan, too… and Ryder, flinging himself at the massed ranks of walking corpses, until the air was choked with the stench of rotted flesh, and they stood ankle-deep in bodies.

Dawn came at great cost. Barely a handful of the militia had still been standing. Murdock was dead, the village virtually flattened, only smoking, gutted ruins left… and when she saw the faces of the people creeping out of the chantry, the breath leaked from Isobel’s lungs like cold fire. There were women and children—pale, weak and terrified—who’d lost everything, and they did not look at Isobel and her companions as if they were saviours.

There had been no time to rest, no opportunity to recoup their strength.

They had pressed forwards to the castle, bone-tired and aching, their wounds hastily bound and the blood still spattering their armour. What they found within those walls sickened her. More death, more filth, more violence… things were worse than Isobel had feared.

It wasn’t my fault.

What else were we supposed to do?

So many had already died. So many had suffered, and the arl was virtually on his deathbed. There was no time.

When they found the boy, Connor, it was clear that Lady Isolde had lied to protect him. She knew the child was possessed, that it was his desire to spare his father’s life that had sundered the Veil, and not the blood mage who had posed as his tutor.

Isobel remembered, through the haze of fatigue, standing in the great hall, her armour sticky with the congealed blood and partially rotted flesh of corpses, her blade heavy in her hand while they all argued. The arlessa had cried and protested… even Teagan suggested they consider the ultimate method of neutralising the threat, and Alistair had been wavering towards agreeing.

Leliana pressed a hand to her mouth, aghast at the notion of killing a child. But there was no other way… no other sane choice.

Of course, in such circumstances, the insane fast becomes rational.

The blood mage, Jowan, offered a solution. Isolde had him dragged up from the dungeon, her rage palpable. She still blamed him, pouring her fury and her guilt into a hysterical tirade against his magic. By contrast, when he spoke, his voice was so small, and his words faltered as he offered his forbidden knowledge to make amends for the evil that had been unleashed.

Isobel hadn’t wanted to hear it. Blood for blood, a sacrifice so that the child might be spared and the demon within him defeated. It was a vile, distasteful thing… and yet the only sensible course. Isolde even volunteered, her anger replaced by such terrible calm when the reality of the choice was made plain.

Kill Connor, or perform the blood ritual.

Oh, the mages might have helped. The Circle Tower might have had enough lyrium to power such an endeavour without this heinous need for flesh, but they were more than a day’s journey away, and there had been no guarantee that Connor would remain passive that long.

Isobel had shaken her head as she said as much, her words falling with finality across the strained silence. Alistair had the nerve to look at her as if she was a monster, yet hadn’t he vacillated between wanting to beg for the Tower’s help and saying they must face the necessity of killing the boy? She’d known that she couldn’t let his indecision hamper them any longer.

Of all of them, Morrigan alone had understood. Her golden eyes glimmered in the light of the torches that burned on the stone walls, and she had nodded to Isobel. She would be part of it, and enter the Fade. With her power, and the strength of Jowan’s ritual, they stood a good chance of seeing the demon defeated.

It was the only sensible choice. A willing sacrifice: a mother’s blood, given freely that her child might be spared the consequences of his folly.

Put like that, it almost seemed noble, and those were the silver threads of hope that Isobel clung to, even as the ability to feel anything seemed to ebb from her.

They had carried out the preparations virtually in silence. Lady Isolde’s quiet dignity was magnificent. When Connor was fetched—still pliant and small and nearly his normal self—and placed within the circle that Jowan drew, he looked up at his mother with wide, questioning eyes, and asked her what was happening.

Nothing, Connor. Everything will be all right. I love you, my son.

With the soft white glow of Jowan’s sleep spell enveloping him, the boy had slumped, the arlessa’s pale hand still resting upon his cheek.

At Isobel’s side, Ryder had flung back his head and howled. Leliana murmured something about not being able to watch this and, turning, fled from the hall. Isobel had nodded at her hound, dismissing him, and the mabari seemed only too pleased to follow Leliana.

She’d glared at Alistair then, his dark-shrouded stare like a burr on the back of her neck, but he’d folded his arms in silent refusal. He wouldn’t leave.

He had stayed, just as Isobel had.

She watched every visceral, bloody moment of it. She watched the way Jowan’s face contorted as the arlessa’s blood fountained from her body, the wash of power and triumph that engulfed him, and of hunger… and she knew Morrigan felt it too. There was something feral about the pair of them. Something sinister and frightening, and then the whole room reeked of copper and meat, and there was a vile, dark stain that tainted every last one of them.

Isobel had felt it deep within her, beating to the pulse of the darkness that corrupted her own blood. That flesh-song, that brutal, raw thing… the oldest, bluntest kind of magic. She had known that none of them would ever be quite the same for it.

And yet, when it was all over and Connor was free of the demon, it had been deemed a success. A sober, terrible success.

Bann Teagan, ashen-faced and solemn, hurried his nephew from the room, arms protectively encircling the boy as his piping voice asked why Mama was lying down. Even Morrigan, for all her indomitable steeliness, had looked shaken.

Isobel had offered her an arm—intending nothing more than a gesture of support—but found herself briskly rebuffed as the shapechanger stalked from the hall. She would not see her again until the following dawn.

One by one, they left, until the room was empty except for her, Alistair, and a pair of elven servants who had been sent to begin laying out the body. One had brought a mop and bucket with her, for the blood that still marked the flagstones.

Isobel supposed she should say something. She didn’t know what, or where to begin and, as she had moved forwards, her hand extended as if to touch the back of Alistair’s arm, he’d flinched away. He tore his gaze from Lady Isolde’s lifeless face, and looked at Isobel with a mix of rage, hatred, and guilt that chilled her to the core.

With a few muttered words about going to the tavern, he had left, and barely spared her another glance.

The servants had no use for her either, and so Isobel had left them to their work. She had been on her feet and fighting for the best part of twenty-six hours without rest, and the fatigue hit heavily.

The castle being in no state to receive visitors, she had made her way back down to the chantry.

As a child, Isobel had often found peace in Mother Mallol’s chapel. It had been a small, quiet island of rest and learning amid the bustle of the castle, and there had been times it became her sanctuary. Not so, in Redcliffe. The dispossessed, the bereaved, the wounded… they were everywhere, and she didn’t know how to help them. Unlike Leliana, who had immediately begun assisting the revered mother in tending to the needy, Isobel had no skills as a healer, and no expertise in comforting the grieving.

Instead, she had sat in one of the oak pews, gazed up at the blessed visage of Andraste, and wondered why it seemed so hard to weep.

Later, with Ryder at her heels, she had stood on the top of the ridge and looked out across the lake. Darkness drew in with the dusk, the last of the sunlight dying in a murmur of gold beneath heavy-bellied clouds.

A light breeze rippled through the thick air, still a little rimed with soot and death. It had tugged at Isobel’s hair, pulling a few greasy blonde strands from the rumpled knot at the back of her neck, and she had thought longingly of hot baths and clean clothes… things that Bann Teagan had promised them before they left.

They had promised until after the funerals. It seemed only right. One more dawn in that forsaken place, one more day… and then back on the road.

Isobel had looked down, and seen the villagers building the pyres. She had watched the people criss-crossing the square with what little timber they had left, gutting their own houses to bid proper farewell to their dead.

She had seen Alistair, too, throwing up behind the tavern. Repeatedly. It had looked quite possible that he was crying.

She’d heaved a deep sigh. She could have crossed the ridge, scrambled down the gritty path and gone to him, she supposed. Been the friend he wanted. Apologised for making the decisions that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And yet she didn’t leave her position on the ridge. Aloft, alone… her feet firmly planted on the hard, red rock, she had watched, and wondered how much all this had changed things, and just where it was that it had all turned so bitter.

He barely said a word to her until after they left Redcliffe. Partially, she imagined it was the hangover. He’d looked awful, anyway. Passing the night in the bare comfort of the chantry hadn’t helped much, and then there had been the horrendous solemnity of the obsequies to endure before they departed.

It was no wonder that, when they’d finally hit the West Road again, ploughing on over the unforgiving terrain with Ryder insisting on putting up every single bird he found, tensions were strained.

Now, as the quiet of the camp seeped into every available space, filling up with the soft rustle of night creatures in the bushes, and the low crackle of the fire, Isobel sat and stared into the flames.

She had been replaying the whole thing over and over in her mind, trying to find that one point, that key moment when it had all changed and she had steered them into such a blind corner. Perhaps if they’d planned the assault differently, if she’d never allowed Bann Teagan to return unaccompanied to the castle, or if the village’s defences had been better manned, and they’d had greater numbers, or if more of Ser Perth’s men had been able to go with them… but such thoughts were useless, weren’t they?

What had happened had happened, and no amount of mulling over it would change that.

At her feet, Ryder gave a small, despondent groan, and stretched out in the scrape he’d dug himself. Alistair, sitting a quarter turn around the fire from her, let out a long breath that seemed a cross between a sigh and a groan of frustration.

He glanced at her, and Isobel could feel the tension creaking in the air. It was inevitable, she supposed. This was the first time they had been alone since Redcliffe. Morrigan had excused herself once again, and Leliana had retired to her tent with a prayer book the revered mother had given her.

There was no one here to stand between them, and nowhere she could go to hide from his censure. She met his gaze, and arched her brows.

“Did you want to say something?”

“Plenty,” he said dryly. The fire’s orange-hued shadows painted hollows on his cheeks, and the shadows around him were steep and unforgiving. “I just can’t believe you let her do it, that’s all.”

Isobel frowned. “It was Lady Isolde’s own choice. And it’s done. Do we really have to talk ab—”

“Yes, we have to talk about this!” Alistair snapped. “You think Arl Eamon would have allowed it? You think that Connor—”

“Connor would be dead if we hadn’t, and Arl Eamon may still die,” she retorted, meeting him head-on. “Someone had to make a decision!”

Neither of them was doing all they should to keep their voice down. The words poured out, pools of vituperative anger, and Isobel was suddenly embarrassed by that. She rose briskly to her feet and began to stride away from the fire, taken aback by the heat burning in her cheeks. She didn’t expect Alistair to follow her, or for the brunt of his outrage to fall so swiftly across her.

“But… blood magic!”

She turned, and found him closer than she’d anticipated. His face was an odd combination of the hollow, desolate grief she’d seen on him in the Wilds, and a fierce, stubborn anger that was rather more unfamiliar. Isobel gritted her teeth, and met it with completely equal fury.

“And what other choice was there? Run crying to the Magi and hope there was still a castle there when we got back? Or would you have killed the child? Would you have done that, hm? Held a blade to his neck and—”

“Stop it!” He winced as if she’d lashed out and scratched him. “No, I— I just… she was Arl Eamon’s wife! What do you think he’ll say when we revive him?”

Isobel snorted. “If he revives… if we can even find the Urn. If that happens, I trust he’ll see what was at stake. Wouldn’t you?”

Alistair started to shake his head, his mouth twisted. True revulsion seemed to stain his eyes as he looked at her.

“I… don’t know how you could make the decision you did,” he said, his voice dropping from outraged injury to a softer, more dangerous tone. “There should have been another way. We should have… I should have— I don’t know. I owed the arl more than this.”

“Huh.” Isobel crossed her arms, unwilling to sympathise with that hangdog look of martyrdom he had now. “Of course. This isn’t about you disagreeing with me. This is about you and him… about your so-called family.”

“What? No!”

The fire leapt and crackled, and he winced guiltily, hanging his head as she glared at him. Isobel was still smarting from the embarrassment of that particular revelation. She arched an eyebrow.

“Well?”

“All right… maybe. I don’t know,” Alistair admitted, scowling at the grass as he dug the toe of his boot into the mud. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s done. And it’ll have to be enough, won’t it?”

“It was what had to be done,” Isobel said tersely, repeating the same damn argument that didn’t make her feel any better. “Do you think it was easy?”

The night was folding in around them. The fire popped, and an owl called in the trees beyond their camp. Alistair’s face stiffened, and he seemed unwilling to meet her eye. She wasn’t sure whether it was defiance or guilt.

“No. I didn’t say that. But Arl Eamon—”

“Took you in because you were Maric’s bastard,” she said, her frustration whetting a blade of cruelty in the words, “and then tossed you aside. Stop pretending you owe him more than you do, Alistair!”

He scowled, his mouth half-open, and Isobel wondered if this was the closest he’d ever come to slapping a woman in anger. She wanted him to, she realised, in the strangest of ways… just so she could have the pleasure of hitting him back.

“I owed him enough to save his family. We should have gone to the Circle. We should have done something… anything that didn’t involve blood magic, that’s for sure.”

The words left him like small polished stones, each one spat into the mud between them. Isobel curled her lip.

“Don’t be such a bloody idealist! We did what we could, and there are those who’ve lost a damn sight more than Eamon, or even Isolde. At least she chose to give her life for her son.”

She glared, meeting him eye for eye, her head full of the echoing memories of one castle that was so like another, and the screams of death and betrayal seeping through the corners of her mind. Oren’s tiny, bloody body shimmered in her mind’s eye, so small and unnaturally crumpled against the grey stone floor.

Alistair exhaled tightly, and his gaze wavered. “I… yes. I suppose you… I mean, I guess it’s easy to question when you’re not the one making the decisions. And I’ve let you do just that, haven’t I?”

It sounded like he was backing down, but she could hear every barb that laced the words, and there was real steel behind his gaze.

“Oh?” She rested her hands on her hips. “Does this mean we’re going to have to arm-wrestle for control?”

She didn’t need to be so argumentative, she supposed. She could have ended it more gracefully… but Isobel resented the implication that, somehow, Alistair’s lack of will to lead had allowed her to exercise her own poor judgement. She was damned if she’d let him get away with that one.

He shook his head irritably, the look on his face one of defeat, and sighed. “Forget it. I’m… sorry. It’s done, and that’s all there is to it.”

He turned and sloped back to the fire, with a muttered comment about volunteering to take first watch. Isobel grunted her assent, silently fuming at his infuriating ability to make ‘I’m sorry’ sound exactly like ‘you’re wrong’.

When she finally crawled into her tent, Isobel was only too glad to hide beneath the blankets and the musty-smelling pelts. At least it meant that no one could see the slow, uneven tears that gradually began to score their way down her cheeks.

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Chapter Four
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The Laurel and the Rose: Chapter Two

 
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People kept telling her to expect dreams. They didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

The knock came as a gentle scuff against the door, and Isobel swung her legs off the bed, an eager smile curving her lips. She clasped her robe around herself, pausing to adjust it so just a hint of décolletage and shoulder could be seen, and turned the wrought iron handle. It barely squeaked, but even the suggestion of sound seemed loud in the stifling quiet.

Iona stood nervously in the corridor, clutching a candle, a blue silk wrapper pulled on over her shift. Fine wear indeed, Isobel thought, observing the delicate embroidery that chased the cuffs and neck of the robe.

She smiled and held out her hand. “Come.”

The girl hesitated, those lovely green eyes wide in her delicate face, but she reached out and slipped her soft, slim fingers into Isobel’s palm. That small, almost innocuous contact sent a thrill of triumph and anticipation through her, and she looked Iona over hungrily.

There was a strange paradox to her that Isobel found intensely interesting; that odd mix of artless sensuality and demure shyness. She’d seen it before in elven women, and wondered if it was natural to their kind, or something they learned. Either way, a useful trick to have in one’s repertoire, she supposed.

Iona’s prettily shaped lips moulded into a pout, and she blew out the candle, allowing Isobel to take it from her and set it on the dressing table. She was still clasping her wrapper close around herself, still looking so delectably anxious as Isobel pushed the door shut behind them and turned the ornate key.

“No disturbances tonight,” she murmured.

Iona just smiled nervously, and the room’s soft candlelight caught in shifting planes at the corn-silk blonde of her hair, gilding it and lending her skin a shadowy, burnished glow. Her perfectly almond-shaped eyes glittered, shining with what Isobel suspected was a combination of apprehension and excitement.

She resisted the urge to lick her lips and, instead, just reached gently for the girl, letting her fingertips trail softly down the silky folds of her robe, and skimming the outline of those slim, firm hips.

Iona let out a small, faint gasp. Isobel smiled. She’d half-expected an ‘I’ve never….’ or a ‘My lady, please….’, but none came. The girl was too much of a sophisticate for that, she’d wager—or at least aware of what was expected of her.

She leaned close, breathed in the soft, sweet scent of the elf’s skin, and the perfumed oil she wore—that delicious hint of jasmine and bergamot, like a midsummer breeze—and waited. Their nearness grew tight with heat and want, her hands squeezing Iona’s delicate waist through the thin fabric of her robe, and the girl’s breath warming her cheek.

Isobel planted a small kiss at the edge of her mouth, tempted beyond endurance by those pretty lips. She felt rather than heard the gentle sigh the girl gave—one part defeat, one part expectation—and bent her head, kisses trailing like rose leaves along the line of the delicate jaw, the graceful column of a lily-white neck.

It was easy, so incredibly easy, to let her hands unfasten the belt of the robe, its slippery fabric slithering to the ground and leaving the elf clad only in her shift. She was small-breasted, but as Isobel fastened her mouth to the juncture of Iona’s throat and shoulder—her nose tickled by that wealth of luscious blonde hair, just as smooth and perfumed as the rest of the girl—she felt the twin hardnesses of large, tight nipples graze her own chest.

She broke away, pleased to see the flush rising in those pretty cheeks, and cupped Iona’s face in her hands, bringing their mouths together for a long, deep kiss. A small moan burst against Isobel’s lips, and she wondered if the girl really was unused to female company.

She appeared to enjoy it, in any case, yielding readily to the rhythm of kisses, and moaning as Isobel’s tongue slid alongside hers, each soft thrust a promise of what would come. Heat and hunger welled in Isobel, and her hands shook a little as she slipped the straps of Iona’s shift from her shoulders. The fabric shivered to the stone floor, leaving the elf naked before her.

Isobel smiled. Every bit as lovely as she’d hoped. Slim, petite… graceful. Limbs as light as birds’ wings, skin smooth and almost hairless, but for the triangle of golden silk that lay at the junction of her long, slender legs. A tremor of anticipation slipped through her, and she traced a line towards that enticing prize with gentle fingers, tracking every subtle curve and swell of Iona’s body along the way.

The girl shivered as Isobel’s touch lit upon her most secret spot, nipples standing pink and proud from her small, upturned breasts. Her breaths were light and short, her face a mix of curiosity, lust, and apprehension, and her arms hung loosely at her sides.

Isobel took it slowly, reaching out to tuck that lovely blonde hair back from the girl’s pretty face—hooking it behind one of those curiously tapered ears—as her fingers carefully sought the jewel within Iona’s sex. She found it, pressed her thumb to the tiny nub, and caught the gasping, open mouth against hers for another kiss. She tasted of wine and sweet, good bread, like berries and honey. Slowly, as she rubbed away Iona’s cares, the elf’s hands moved to Isobel’s shoulders, sliding the straps of her shift down, seeking the feel and the warmth of skin on skin.

Being somewhat better built, her body a battleground between the hardness lent by exercise and the softness of her womanly curves, Isobel had to step away and pull the shift over her head. She grinned at the girl.

“You look cold. Come. Into bed, I think.”

She took Iona’s hand and tugged her gently towards the bed. The elf was a little more forward-going now, and she slipped easily beneath the heavy covers, apparently happy to be held in Isobel’s arms and kissed anew. She yielded to the firm thigh that pushed between her legs, and sighed a little as Isobel ground against her, mouth and hips working their own sinuous concert.

Isobel pulled away, looking down with satisfaction at the green eyes, half-lidded, the flushed cheeks and swollen, parted lips. She kissed Iona’s chin, neck, chest… pausing on her descent to flick her tongue over first one tight nipple, then the other; sucking, nipping, then blowing across the wet skin, delighting in every arch of the girl’s back and each murmured gasp of pleasure.

Lower still, and the taut planes of breastbone and ribs offered smooth skin and gentle curves, the smooth swell of her belly a soft and tantalising place to linger. Isobel kissed and nuzzled, letting her hands toy on Iona’s thighs, and thrilled by the way the girl’s legs opened, her modesty now well and truly thrown away.

She strung it out until Iona’s fingers were knotted in her hair, the damp pleas nothing more than shapeless chains of words that she could no longer ignore. Isobel fell on her, hungry and ruthless, hands cupped beneath the girl’s firm buttocks, refusing any attempt to pull away. She was merciless in her assault, lapping, suckling and laving until Iona’s soft entreaties became high-pitched gasps, and eventually one long, choked squeal, her thighs clamping hard around Isobel’s head, and her body shuddering in a series of violent jolts.

Iona was breathing hard when Isobel pushed her legs apart and tracked a series of small kisses down her inner thigh. She trembled, but didn’t resist, and it pleased Isobel to see how pliant pleasure had made her. A beautiful, rose-like flush stained her cheeks, those gorgeous eyes nothing but dreamy emerald slits in a face sluiced with bliss.

When Isobel slipped two fingers inside her, the girl’s mouth formed a surprised, imperfect ‘o’, and she pulled a taut breath across her teeth… yet her hips rocked with practised, easy motion, and Isobel smiled gleefully.

She made it slow, irrefutable, building the fire stick by stick and only letting the flames grow at her pace, until Iona was whimpering and bucking against her. Faster, then. Rougher. Kneeling over her, weight supported on the hand not otherwise engaged, mouth sealing the groans and sighing squeals that broke from those pretty lips, Isobel wanted the elf in no doubt as to who was doing this to her. She broke the wet, greedy kiss and reared back, knowing she would be outlined in the candlelight, staring down into those lovely eyes as she pushed Iona past the brink one more time. It was an act of possession, dominant and uncompromising, and the girl writhed as if she had a demon within her, those delicate hands knotted in the sheets, and all that pretty, corn-silk hair splayed out in damp tangles on the pillow as she rutted and panted her way through her ecstasy.

It was she who craned up to be kissed, after. She who pulled Isobel close, rolling them over in a delicious cocoon of warmth and closeness, hands squeezing and tugging at the ample weight of her breasts, graceful fingers pinching her nipples, and seeking out the pleasures of her body.

Isobel played the gentle guide, to begin with. Iona was still clinging to the role of ingénue, though her touch belied her pretended innocence. She’d certainly known more than just her husband, Isobel decided, as she grew tired of the teasing and pushed the girl’s hand firmly south.

Iona smiled up at her, then pressed her mouth to the warm solidity of Isobel’s breastbone, and did not disappoint. Her fingers seared a line that her lips quickly followed, and she returned the favours Isobel had given her three-fold, her touch trailing a warm, sated laziness behind it, and promising a whole night’s worth of fun.

It was lucky, Isobel supposed, that the castle’s stone walls were as thick as they were. There was only so much effort a woman could make at staying quiet, after all, especially with the elf’s soft, sinuous limbs twined around her, and every kiss a lip-promise that brought her closer to fulfilment.

Later—a long, wonderful while later—Isobel gave a soft, sated sigh, lay back against the pillows, and delicately extracted her leg from beneath Iona before it went completely numb. She gestured lazily to the table that stood near the side of the bed.

“There’s, uh, there’s wine, if you want it.”

Iona shook her head. “I am… quite content, my lady.”

Isobel snorted. “If you won’t call me Isobel now….”

The girl loosed a pretty, musical chuckle.

“Isobel,” she murmured, rolling over onto her side, head propped on one dainty hand as she gazed down with those uncommonly attractive eyes, mouth bowed into a strange, inward kind of smile.

“See? Isn’t that better?” Isobel grinned. “You’ll stay, of course. Tonight. Yes?”

Iona’s smile began to fade. “Oh, I—”

“Shh. Don’t worry. I’ll see you’re back to your own room before anyone else is up. Say you will?”

A look of alarm crept into the girl’s eyes. “But if Lady Landra needs me….”

Beneath the covers, Isobel snaked a hand to the curve of a smooth thigh, delving with deadly accuracy to the hot swell that crowned it. She raised her brows.

“And what about what I need?”

The breath shivered between Iona’s lips, her body betraying her with a needy little push back against Isobel’s touch.

“Well… I… oh, Maker….”

Isobel smiled and darted in, seizing a kiss as the girl closed her eyes. She really was lovely. So much more refined than most of the elven servants they had knocking around the castle, although Isobel couldn’t help wondering how much of it was the product of fine gifts and good grooming. Hard to imagine most of them in silk and lace, with their hair fixed up and their skin smelling of jasmine….

She couldn’t really be bothered to go again, she decided. Tempting, but it was too voluptuously luxurious just to lay there, every inch of skin tingling and the sheets so very smooth, her awareness of each sensation part of a delicious patchwork of pleasure.

Isobel sighed and let her eyes close, comforted and soothed beyond measure. There was nothing to fear from what lay ahead. The men would march south, and they would join the king’s army to rout the ragtag bands of darkspawn that dared to show their filthy faces above the ground. It would be glorious… and, when Arl Howe’s men arrived at Castle Cousland in a day or so, no one would notice another horseman slipping quietly into their ranks. With her helmet on, and a cloak to disguise the heraldry on her good plate, she could be halfway to Ostagar before anyone realised who she was, and by then it would be too late to turn back.

She smiled to herself, turning her head to catch the sweet, soft scent of Iona’s hair. A nice gesture to give her some money, Isobel supposed. She’d said something about a child, hadn’t she? A gift, then. Yes. Some sort of… favour. The elf would probably expect it, anyway, although in her experience serving girls didn’t get greedy until the novelty wore off. That was when the requests started coming.

Different with this one, of course. A lady-in-waiting, not a grubby little scullion, or a femme du chambers with strong, clever hands…. Isobel’s sleepy smile widened, and she slipped away into dreams within dreams.

Noises in the hall woke her, coupled with the sound of Ryder, her hound, giving furious vent to a loud bay. And then it all went so wrong. There was shouting, and Iona gasping in short, panicked breaths, tumbling from the bed with the sheet clutched to her nakedness.

Isobel’s chest tightened as the room bent and blackened around her. She remembered this… remembered all of it. A dream, then, and that angered her so much. She didn’t want to relive it, didn’t want to have to see it all over again—but there it was, spilling out before her.

The screams. The shouting. Howe’s men, rampaging through the castle, killing everything they came across. The leers on their faces and the foulness they spouted when, her door flung open, they found a naked woman with a sword in her hand. It had given her the element of surprise, anyway. Ryder gave her an advantage. She’d have been dead without him… as dead as poor little Iona, who they cut down without thought or feeling. Pretty green eyes blank and dull as stone, blood streaking perfumed skin and pooling beneath the mass of corn-silk hair, the corner of the sheet still clasped in those delicate fingers, and mouth moulded around a dying word that no one had heard.

Isobel woke drenched with sweat, the lurch from sleep to wakefulness leaving her dizzy and nauseous. It took a few moments to reconnect with reality, to become aware of the tent above her head, the stagnant smell of wet dog, unwashed body, and ever-present mud… and then everything else hit her around the back of the neck. She groaned, forcing the dream-images from behind her eyes. No more blood. No more dead bodies.

Oren. He was so very small. Who could have thought there’d be so much blood?

She had to get out of the tent. Too hot. Too stifling. Her skin, her body, too— too much.

Isobel scrambled out into the cold, lacing her jerkin hastily as she went and tugging at the seat of her breeches. No room to dress, and barely any privacy to speak of… they were going to have to do something about the travelling conditions. Ryder, as was his custom, had been sleeping in a scrape at the flap of her tent, waiting for the first opportunity at which she’d drop her guard enough for him to sneak in.

He lumbered up and trotted obediently at her heels, wagging his tail when she scratched his ears in morning greeting.

Isobel took a deep breath of the cold air, unused to the strange, pellucid darkness that came shortly before dawn. Everything seemed very crisp, very clear… yet the sky was beginning to soften, the first smudges of light blurring the horizon. The moon was still a pale but visible ghost, hanging there like a burned-down lantern, empty and worn out.

“Good morning.”

She flinched, not expecting the gentle voice behind her. Leliana still wore the long, figure-skimming robes of the Chantry, and she had her hands tucked into the sleeves to guard against the early morning’s chill. It gave her a very priestly air, at odds with the silent movement through shadows, and the recognition in those terribly blue eyes.

“Morning,” Isobel echoed, aware that she’d been rumbled.

“Bad dreams, I take it?”

“You… could say that,” she said guardedly.

Leliana smiled. “I couldn’t help overhearing a little of what you and Alistair were talking about the other night. It must be so terrible to feel those things in your head. I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“Mm,” Isobel managed, a non-committal grunt.

She blinked, forcing the last vestiges of the dream away. If only it had been darkspawn and demons. Alistair had warned her about those—what to expect, how to deal with it, and the hope that, with time, the worst of it could be blocked out. She hadn’t listened much, suspecting his eagerness to talk was more to do with his own night terrors. Oh, yes, she’d heard him yelling in his sleep. Everybody had.

It would have been all right, but she hadn’t even been dreaming about the horde. Other visions occupied Isobel’s head. Bloody, fleshy ones… with innocent human faces.

She blinked again, aware that Leliana was still looking at her.

“I’m all right. Really. Thank you, though. I, uh, I suppose we all have things we carry with us that we’d… rather not. Don’t we?”

Leliana’s expression shifted slightly, and in the dimness it was hard to read.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I think you’re right.”

She met Isobel’s gaze, and the shadows played softly over that pale, freckled face, eyes like twin sapphires hiding their secrets in the gloom.

It was a strange moment, drawn out like a breath held in nervousness, and Isobel broke it, ruffled by the need to pull up camp, get back onto the road… to shake from herself, somehow, the lingering threads of dreams, and guilt, and losses that couldn’t be forgotten.

A cold bath wouldn’t have gone amiss, either, and she mourned the lack of the opportunity.

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Chapter Three
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The Laurel and the Rose: Chapter One

 
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Isobel stared morosely at the cooking pot. The stew, if you wanted to call it that, was bubbling… albeit in a gloopy, unpleasant sort of way. Occasionally, slightly gristly, grey things broke the scummy surface, with a noise best described as blurp.

She wrinkled her nose in distaste, and thought mournfully of poor Nan. So many people had lost their lives when that bastard, Howe, showed his true colours, and out of all of them— No, that wasn’t true.

Isobel broke away from the thought, left it half-formed and dangling in the darker parts of her head. She’d already devoted more time than she should to dwelling on the events of that night, picking over every second as if she could change the past by sheer willpower alone.

It wasn’t possible to say which of them had deserved it least, or who she had been most deeply cut to lose.

Family went without saying. Her mother and father, Oriana and little Oren… they were the faces and the voices that echoed in her mind the most, the losses that gnawed at her with every heartbeat, every pulse that called for vengeance. But they weren’t the only ones.

Brother Aldous, Mother Mallol, the servants who simply hadn’t run fast enough—Howe’s men had cut down everybody, without thought for whether or not they posed a threat. Even whatshername… Iona, the poor little elven lass.

She’d felt guiltiest about that, Isobel reflected. As if the girl might have been spared, had she not decided to indulge a passing whim. It was unlikely, of course, but she couldn’t help feeling at least partially responsible.

You have no ladies-in-waiting of your own… is that not unusual in a noblewoman of your rank?

Isobel smiled sadly to herself, recalling pretty green eyes that fluttered coyly as the question dropped from softly parted lips. The moment she’d known she had her prize within her grasp.

The girl had been astounded—awestruck, even—when, in the quiet of the castle’s study, with the flagon of ruby red wine in her hand, Isobel had told her the story.

She’d embellished it, of course, pulled out all the details that, at the time, had been awkward and embarrassing, and smoothing it down in the telling like the fabric of a new dress.

Given her reputation for ‘manly pursuits’, as people insisted on calling her martial training, she had been considered something of an eccentric in Highever. It was a bore, but it did mean most of her so-called social transgressions could be explained away under the guise of a refreshing lack of pretension, or—in the case of the absence of maidservants—an admirably down-to-earth dislike of being waited on hand and foot.

The truth was, of course, that after the incident with the Orlesian femme du chambres, Mother had quietly prevented her from keeping anyone quite that close again.

The girl’s name had been Selene. Pretty, with pale brown hair as soft and fine as a child’s, and a light dusting of freckles across her creamy skin. Petite, but tightly curved, with a beautiful backside and breasts as round and white as full moons. She’d been a challenge at first, though not an insurmountable one.

To Isobel, the equation was simple. She was a Cousland. One day, she would be required to marry, and secure a lucrative and advantageous alliance between her house and her husband’s. Fergus—and, later, Oren—might get the teyrnir, the castle, and all its holdings, but she would have other roles, other duties to assume.

Naturally, a good match would not be hard to find, although it necessitated the preservation of her reputation… and her virginity. Taking a male lover was out of the question; it would be social and political suicide.

Women, on the other hand, afforded all the delights of an intimate companion, and could not be proved to have besmirched her good name—particularly if they spent most of their time below stairs. There might be rumours, sniggers behind hands from some of the less enlightened nobility, but that was of no consequence. Isobel knew what they called her—Bryce’s Little Spitfire, or ‘the Teyrn’s youngest son’—but the names resulted from her training for warfare, and would have been cast after her anyway, no matter whom she took to her bed.

And the theory had worked well… right up until Selene.

Poor, dear creature. Beneath all those innocent protests, the blushes and the coquettish apprehension, had lain a tiger. She was wonderful—sweet and insatiable and utterly charming—and she hadn’t understood how things worked at all.

She should have done, Isobel supposed. She was from Orlais, and everyone knew how the game worked there. But, her dear little Selene had not had the brain, or the heart for it. She’d fallen in love, and expected the world.

Deny me, and I will kill myself!

What a scene. She wouldn’t have done it, of course, but all the same… the floods of tears, the swearing and screaming and scratching…. It cast something of a shadow over Teyrna Eleanor’s salon that spring, and all because she had seen Isobel laughing with the daughter of one of the banns.

Mother had been as supportive as could be expected, Isobel supposed, and at least she hadn’t told Father. He really wouldn’t have understood.

Fergus knew of her… interests. In typical fashion, he’d joked that, had he not already been married, they might have gone wenching together. She’d laughed, and basked in the warmth of his acceptance.

He was a good man, and to think of him lying dead in the mud at Ostagar—one more betrayal on top of everything she had lost—was almost more than Isobel could bear.

“Is that done yet?”

The stew went blurp again.

“Er….” She blinked. “How exactly does one tell?”

Alistair sighed and leaned over her, unhooking the ladle from the side of the pot and waggling it around in the gloop.

“When it’s all nicely boiled to a uniform shade of grey,” he said confidently. “See? Yum.”

Isobel’s stomach heaved, and she could only hope he was joking. Again.

Still, years of breeding won out over the urge to say what she actually thought.

“How… interesting.”

Oh, Maker’s mercy. He’s carrying bowls. He actually expects us to eat it.

She held her breath as the ladle made pass after pass, and the unappetising mess sploshed into four bowls. Opposite her, on the other side of the fire, Leliana, the Orlesian lay sister who had joined them in Lothering, met her gaze.

Isobel raised her eyebrows, and the look of mutual trepidation that passed between them made her want to smile. She didn’t, for fear she might accidentally breathe in.

“How kind,” Leliana managed gracefully, as Alistair passed the bowls around. “And… what did you say it was again?”

“Pea and lamb stew,” Alistair said, hunkering down in his customary ungainly sprawl beside the fire. “Good, solid Fereldan food, that. Sticks your ribs together.”

Isobel dandled her spoon in the bowl and watched something round—and rather worryingly grey—bob in the viscous eddies.

“Of that,” she said carefully, “I have absolutely no doubt.”

Leliana caught her eye again, and smiled.

A curious thing, Isobel thought, to find such a face—and such a terribly familiar look in those ice-blue eyes—out here in the middle of nowhere.

Still, she managed to eat her supper without gagging, and they talked about where they planned to go. Well, three of them did. Morrigan, as usual, had deemed herself too good for their company and was squatting off somewhere in the shadows, probably waiting for the opportunity to shift into animal form and hunt down something she found more palatable than Alistair’s cooking. Not that Isobel could have blamed her for that.

Leliana shared everything she’d heard in the cloister about Arl Eamon’s alleged sickness. It didn’t sound good. For the arlessa to be clutching at straws, reaching out so hopelessly for the comforting fables of faith, he must be ill indeed—and Andraste’s Ashes were about as likely to be found as the Maker’s thumbprint atop an ocean wave.

“It’s all the more reason to get to Redcliffe as soon as we can,” Alistair said grimly, and Isobel took care to mask her annoyance.

He was genial enough, but he repeated himself far more than was necessary for a man who said he had no desire to lead, and she had little patience with his clumsy attempts at manipulation.

Still, he had a point… and Isobel saw no reason that the arlessa shouldn’t lend them aid on her husband’s behalf. So, it was settled. At Redcliffe they would rest, restock, and begin to build the army they would need to march against Loghain. And the darkspawn, she added to herself, passingly ashamed that the Blight had not been the first thought in her mind. It should have, of course. It should consume all that she was now, her old life cast away from her like froth on the ocean, and her identity bound up completely with what she now was: a Grey Warden.

The fact she had never asked for it should no longer matter, she supposed, and nor should the circumstances of Duncan’s offer, in those squalid, vile minutes, which Isobel had no wish to revisit, yet knew she would never forget. Her mind had barely to touch on it, of course, and she could smell the blood all over again. The kitchen’s stone floor had been warm and wet with it, her mother kneeling in the seeping red pool, her father’s breaths clotted and rasping. She pulled away from the thoughts, but evidently not before the colour had drained from her face.

“It’s not that bad, is it?” Alistair asked, of the appalling stew.

She shook her head, but found no words to reply properly. Leliana saved her.

“It has a most… interesting texture, Alistair,” the sister observed diplomatically. “Very, um… interesting.”

Isobel fought the sudden urge to laugh. It was there, right at the back of her tongue, wild and manic, and she was convinced that if she gave into it, she would go mad. So she sat quietly and ate her supper, and refused point-blank to give in to the maddening swirls of grief, anger and loss, or the pulsing, burning desire to taste the blood of vengeance.

There would be time for that. And she could wait.

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Chapter Two
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