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.

Chapter Three
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