Chapter 1: Prologue
Most people assume dwarves are born to work with stone and steel; to live beneath the earth away from sky and wind and rain, and with few exceptions, I suppose I'd have to admit they're right.
I take great pride in being one of those exceptions. You see I was born to do two things; to pierce things with arrows – something I do quite well thanks to my beautiful siren Bianca – and to tell tales, a talent in which I am unrivaled.
Of course, any good spinner of tales requires quality subject matter, and in that respect I have been blessed a hundred times over. I thought when I met Morgan Hawke that he was to be at the center of the greatest story I would ever tell. It was a safe assumption with all he would accomplish in the years that I knew him. I would eventually discover that as incredible as Hawke was in his own right, he was simply the bridge that led me to her.
Who is she you ask? Truthfully she has gone by many names in her lifetime: The Hero of Ferelden, The Commander of the Grey, The Grey Lady, and Doamna Mortii among them. Each name has a story of its own, and we will touch upon all of them at one point or another.
In order to do that, I have to maintain my focus and go all the way back to where everything began. I have to tell the story of Lady Elissa Cousland, a rowdy firebrand who spent her days and nights dreaming of the adventures she wanted to have, of the places she wanted to see, of the dragons she wanted to slay; not knowing how much of her destiny actually lay clasped within the decrepit claws of those monsters and madmen.
It has been years since Thedas lost its greatest champion and there are few who yet live that know her true name, and even fewer who would dare to speak it; as though the simple utterance would draw down her legendary wrath from beyond. I am willing to risk allowing it to pass my lips if only to ensure that her story is told as it should be. Someone who sacrificed so much for so many and asked for nothing in return deserves no less than the best this old bard can offer.
When Bryce Cousland and Rendon Howe were brought together in battle against a common foe, a bond was forged between them.
This bond, forged in battle, would strengthen and grow with the relationships their children built as the years passed. It established a connection, which would unite these two families - for better or worse - until the end of time.
The Couslands were proud parents to a son, Fergus, and a daughter, Elissa – and The Howes to two sons, Nathaniel and Thomas, and a daughter, Delilah. The children were born so close in years that they made easy companions, and both Bryce and Rendon were happy to encourage their interaction. It would not become clear for many years how drastically different their reasons were for doing so.
Beginning when the eldest of the children were ten, the Couslands and Howes would alternate visits between their homes – with summers spent in Highever and the fall months in Amaranthine. This gave the children great lengths of time within which to build their own bonds. Thus, it was in her 8th and his 10th year, that Elissa Cousland and Nathaniel Howe first laid eyes on one another.
Nathaniel was a quiet boy and though he often appeared to be wearing a permanent scowl, it was more likely that he was simply too deep in thought to notice what his face was doing, or what anyone else around him might think of it.
Elissa was the exact opposite, loud and boisterous, always smiling or laughing, and hardly ever thinking about anything longer than the span of time between when it popped into her head and when it spouted from her mouth.
It surprised no one that Elissa was instantly drawn to Nathaniel. She saw him as a puzzle brought specifically for her to unravel and jumped at the challenge to draw him out of his self-imposed shell in any way she could manage.
Nathaniel was completely perplexed by the chattering young girl now glued to his side. She was an endless fountain of questions, and never gave him time to answer one before she had proceeded to another. She also tended to be quite liberal with her physical contact and displays of affection, giving joking prods and pokes as easily as bear hugs and the lingering grasp of a hand. This was something with which the Howe children had little previous experience and thus Nathaniel was unsure as to how he was expected to respond.
Rendon Howe made it very clear to his children how important it was to forge and maintain a friendship with The Cousland family, and it was obvious to Nathaniel that as much of that now hinged on he and his siblings' ability to impress the children as it did on his parents' friendship with the Teyrn and Teyrna. Between their newly scheduled vacations and the normal functions required of noble families with their status, it was clear the Cousland children weren't going away anytime soon. For these reasons Nathaniel ultimately decided Elissa's odd behavior was something she was bound to grow out of, and steeled himself to become tolerant of it during the months they would inevitably spend together each year.
When Nathaniel was fourteen and Elissa was twelve, Elissa began to realize that not only was Nathaniel the most interesting person she had ever met, but he was also very easy to look at. Four years had passed from the day they met and she still had not managed to make much progress in breaking his stoic facade, which only encouraged her to try harder. It was at this point - though mostly unintentional, as Elissa was far too young to actually understand what flirting was - her attentions toward him shifted from curiosity to interest.
Nathaniel didn't know what had changed, or why. He only knew Elissa's behavior was even more strange as the days passed and the change made him feel something he couldn't quite label. Something that made his pulse skip and his skin sweat and a nervous ball of energy build heavy in his stomach. So he did what any young man would do when backed into a corner by a demanding young woman. He pushed her away. As a result, he saw little of her over the next two years, instead spending most of his time with Fergus getting into the kinds of trouble that young men do.
All of this probably seems unimportant, but I assure you it is necessary to remember the beginning in order to understand the connection between these two families - specifically the bond that would develop between Nathaniel and Elissa. But I have lingered enough. It is time to begin the tale within the tale and to recount for you the beginning that would eventually give birth to The Hero.
Chapter 2: A Change in Perspective
A/N: As I progress through these stories, I will try to add tidbits of things that might have inspired me while writing if they occur to me (mostly music). I have always found those notes interesting when reading other stories, and it never hurts to have a bit of thematic inspiration at hand for fun :D Feel free to take or leave them as you will – nothing is ever required "listening".
Muse Music: Fire Woman by The Cult (Elissa's Theme), and 3 Libras by A Perfect Circle (Nathaniel's Theme).
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter One: A Change in Perspective
"It's all his fault."
"What's that?" I looked up from my notes to find Fergus Cousland staring at me, his eyes bleary from all the ale he'd poured into his mouth from the moment he sat down at my table.
"All of this… everything that's happened. You can track it all back to the same place." He tossed back the last of his mug and slammed it empty to the table, grabbing the pitcher in front of him and refilling it before starting over again.
"I'm assuming when you speak of him you're referring to Lieutenant Howe." I listened to the bitter bark of his laughter and flipped to a blank page.
"Lieutenant Howe. Does he make you call him that? Arrogant bastard…"
"Honestly, I call him Archer or Howe. Some of the others have more… colorful… names for him, but I tend to stick with neutral. He's quite good with his bow." The elder Cousland nearly spilled his ale laughing at that comment, turning his glassy eyes away from the alcohol and back in my direction.
"I'm not afraid of Nathaniel, nor should you be. Temperament and parentage aside, Nate's always been hogtied by his senses of honor and decorum. You'd have to do something leagues beyond tossing an insulting nickname to draw an arrow." He worried with his hair after that, long fingers working their way into the deep, auburn strands. It was impossible to mistake the bloodline that tied him to his sister. It was there in the pale skin and flashing green of his eyes; though his glare was far less deadly.
"You can't honestly hold him responsible for all of this? I thought you two buried the hatchet when he rescued you from those bandits." I checked that theory as those eyes narrowed in my direction, hoping my gentle prod back to topic would not be my undoing.
"I see you aren't familiar with the inner workings of noble society." He poured another mug, putting a good half of it away before speaking again. "He saved my life and forced me to reciprocate or appear the tyrant to my men and my people. I'm certain he thought of that before he made the decision to ride to my rescue. Without my generosity his sister would still be raising her spawn in one of the groundskeeper cottages on the edge of Vigil's Keep."
"It isn't possible he rescued you simply because you come from the same blood as the woman he loved; because you were once his friend and it was the right thing to do?" He glared again; jaw twitching as his temper rose – another trait he shared with his mercurial sibling. "Simply posing a question, not suggesting it to be fact."
"I doubt our friendship ever registered in the equation, I honestly don't think it ever did. I was only ever a way for him to get to Elissa. I don't know if he planned it all himself or if it was orchestrated by his father but worming his way into her heart…" I could see in his eyes that Fergus was pained by the thought that this could be true, though he absolutely believed it. "Looking back, I know the exact moment when everything changed. I saw it even then, but I did nothing to stop it. If I had… I can only imagine how different things might be."
It was not unusual for Nathaniel Howe to be roaming about the Cousland estate in Highever unescorted. At sixteen he was the eldest of the three Howe children, and easily the most mature of both clans. This meant in the Teyrn's eyes he no longer required the constant supervision of a true adult.
Some mornings, Fergus, would accompany him on his early hunting expedition. On this particular morning, he refused to get up; mumbling a sleepy "sod off, Nate" into his pillow before rolling over and going back to sleep. If Nathaniel was honest with himself, he didn't really mind. Hunting with Fergus rarely resulted in an actual kill because the eldest Cousland never shut up long enough for them to successfully track anything.
At this stage in his life if given a choice in the matter, Nathaniel preferred to spend most of his time alone. He was a quiet, thoughtful child who had grown into a quiet, thoughtful young man – partially because in the Howe home children were expected to be seen but not heard, and partially because it was simply within his nature to be so.
Nathaniel moved through the forest silently, continuing to track the stag he'd been following for hours and waiting for it to reach an open tract of land where he could be certain to get a clear shot at it. He was a cautious tracker with a great deal of respect for the natural world and would only take aim if he could be certain his shot would kill. There was no reason for the hunted to suffer. These beasts were noble and deserved a clean death; as clean a death as he could offer them.
At the crest of a nearby hill he finally found his opening. The stag stopped in a clearing down below and nuzzled among the grass, completely unaware that it was being watched. Nathaniel pulled his bow loose from its anchor; nocking an arrow between his fingers and drawing it back slowly to aim his shot. Once everything was to his liking, he drew a deep breath and prepared to let fly – stopping only when he heard the sound of another arrow slicing through the air. He could track the shot to slightly left and just ahead of him through the tree line with little effort. His eyes snapped back to the clearing and he watched as the stag dropped. The shot had been precise.
How could anyone else have been tracking it for this long without my noticing? He carefully eyed his surroundings for any disturbances that showed evidence of another hunter in the wood, but found nothing. Curiosity peaked, he wandered off in the direction from which he assumed the arrow had been fired. Whoever it was would certainly remain nearby if for no other reason than to retrieve their prize.
As he moved through the forest Nathaniel became so lost in his search for any evidence of another hunter, which much to his annoyance he still could not find, that he did not notice the object of his obsession was also tracking him. The only warning he received was a slight rustling of leaves, something an inexperienced tracker might easily have dismissed as nothing more than a breeze wafting through the trees.
Nathaniel was not inexperienced and stepped back quickly at the delicate sound, narrowly avoiding a kneecap to the jaw, which would have most likely put him on the ground. He reached to touch the hilts of his daggers on instinct as the other hunter dropped gracefully to the dirt in front of him. Glancing up to the tree above, he had to wonder how long they had been there and how he had managed not to hear them until they came down on top of him.
"Fergus?" Nathaniel was incredulous, wondering if this was just the newest in a long line of practical jokes the two often played on one another. He doubted Fergus had either the skill or the inclination necessary to play such an elaborate hoax to fruition, and this made him even more suspicious of the foreigner parading through the Cousland forests.
When the hunter stood, his eyes wandered over the lean body now stretching with a catlike grace. It became blatantly clear this body did not belong to Fergus. The sunlight drifting through the canopy of the forest revealed curves on the frame that were in all the wrong places to be part of a masculine form. This was definitely a woman. After pausing long enough to observe him, she stretched her arms up, reaching for the light helmet that completely obscured her head and face. When she pulled it free, a tousled mess of unruly, red hair tumbled onto her shoulders.
"Fergus?" came the laughed reply, as she pushed an errant curl aside to meet Nathaniel's eyes. "Honestly Nathaniel, you know as well as I do Fergus would never be able to shut up long enough to track anything. And have you ever seen him launch an arrow that would come anywhere near striking it? Most of his archery attempts end up firmly lodged in the dirt."
"Elissa?" Nathaniel couldn't stop himself from gasping in surprise, unsettled as he was in that moment by a great number of things – mainly how her broad smile and the sparkle of her emerald eyes were beginning to cloud his mind."
"You sound disappointed," Elissa laughed again, turning to walk in the direction of the stag as she continued the conversation. "Were you expecting someone else?"
"Someone else?" He watched the sway in her hips for a bit longer than he should have, shaking his head to regain focus and increasing his pace to catch up to her. "No, it's not that… it's just, when… when did you…"
"When did I what?" She turned her face to smile at him as he fell into step beside her, inspecting him carefully with a twinkle in her eyes that made him wonder if she could read his mind. It forced him to sever eye contact and turn his face away just in case she could.
Nathaniel couldn't control the roving of his mind over just how much she'd changed since last he saw her. The girl he'd known was gone, replaced by this… woman… all soft curves and pale, ivory skin. Thankfully all that came out of his mouth was, "Learn how to hunt like that? I saw no signs that anyone else was in the forest this morning, and I'm an excellent tracker…"
"Perhaps, Lord Howe, you aren't as good as you think you are," Elissa taunted him, bumping her hip against his and laughing aloud as she ran the last distance through the trees to where her stag had fallen.
Nathaniel lost his footing and stumbled over a nearby root. The physical contact between them threw him off balance physically and mentally, and he cursed himself for being so completely disarmed by her actions. He'd known Elissa Cousland for as long as he could remember. She'd never been anything more than a little sister to him. A very annoying, confusing little sister - but a sister nonetheless. What in the Maker's name was wrong with him?
Somewhere between the last time you took notice of her and today, 'little sister' went and grew into a woman's body that you can't seem to stop admiring, Howe, said a voice inside his head. A voice he tried desperately to ignore.
Nathaniel finally made it to where Elissa crouched next to her kill, and watched her hands as she carefully removed the arrow, attempting to do as little damage as possible. It had been a one in a million shot, straight through the stag's jugular, meaning the creature died almost instantly. He realized that even with his best efforts he could only have hoped to match the skill it took to make it.
"An impressive shot," Nathaniel tried to sound as casual as possible, working hard to disguise how blown away he actually was. "I did not know you had taken an interest in archery. When last we spoke you were still training among your father's knights and determined to be a swords-woman."
"I'd wager there are a great many things that have changed about me since last we spoke, Nathaniel, the least of which would be my choice of weaponry." A smile twitched at the corners of her full lips and she caught his eyes with a pointed gaze before turning her attention back to the stag.
He was lost for a moment pondering the words she had chosen. The way she allowed his name to roll languidly off her tongue sent a shiver down his spine; a shiver that now settled warm and insistent in his pelvis.
"So it would appear…" Nathaniel fought for some semblance of control over the hysteria that was rapidly overtaking him. His voice cracked as he spoke, but if Elissa noticed his condition, she did not acknowledge it. "I do wonder, my lady, how you expected to transport such a prize back to the keep by yourself. Did you not think to plan beyond the actual kill, or is magic yet another skill you've kept hidden all these years?"
"Sadly magic lies not within my blood," Elissa laughed, pulling her hair back into a messy tie as she stood. "But I certainly didn't come here intending to be so drastically unprepared. I have been tracking this beast for several days; learning his patterns and planning my approach. You are correct that I could never move such a large creature on my own, and I did have plans in place to address that issue. Unfortunately, it would seem the person I recruited to assist me with this task has either forgotten completely or is running very late."
"Seeing as I no longer have a prize of my own to transport, I could offer my aid, if you would accept it..." Nathaniel smiled at her, hoping that he didn't appear too eager to rescue the damsel in distress.
"Your appearance is fortuitous, Lord Howe... I will admit." Elissa chewed at her lip as she pondered over her dilemma, drawing Nathaniel's eyes once again, though she did not notice. "Still, you and I could not hope to move this monster alone, not without the help of a litter. My absent companion was supposed to bring one. Now I fear all of my hard work may be for naught."
She knelt down by the stag once again, stroking its face softly and whispering something Nathaniel couldn't quite hear. A few moments later, as though she had somehow willed him into being, another young man came bustling through the trees on the hill above them.
"Before you yell, it's not my fault! Well… not entirely," The young man panted as he reached the clearing, leaning forward to brace against his knees in an attempt to catch his breath. It was obvious he'd run the entire distance between the castle and where he now stood; his thick red hair was tousled and wet from exertion, falling heavy on his forehead and drifting into his eyes.
"It never is." Elissa sighed and rolled her eyes, pushing down a smile as she reached over to retrieve half of the litter he'd dropped unceremoniously from his shoulders. She knelt down to inspect the ties and ensure it would be strong enough to bear the full weight of the stag.
"Your mother kept coming up with errands." Her companion knelt down to help with her evaluation; completely oblivious that Nathaniel was there at all. "I swear she knows where all my time is being spent these days."
"Don't be silly, Rory." Elissa laughed and blew a curl out of her eyes without raising them. "You're just being paranoid. It's not as though we're involved in anything sordid."
"Well n-no…" The young man stuttered in response, and Nathaniel watched as color bloomed bright against the pale skin of his face. It was clear he wouldn't have been opposed to anything sordid if that had been asked of him. "But if I continue to avoid my duties to aid in whatever scheme has currently taken possession of your mind, then your father is eventually going to remove me from his service."
"You know I would never let that happen." She reached over to still his hand where it worked at the ties, forcing him to meet her eyes and holding them until she was certain he believed her words to be true. "If you were gone I'd have to go through the effort of finding and molding a new able-bodied young man to my whims."
That quickly the moment of seriousness was gone, and they both fell into laughter as they finished the last of the ties and prepared to lift the stag onto the litter.
"Maker have mercy on the next mark you set your sights on, Elissa Cousland. I know from experience you will not." Rory chuckled and shook his head, rolling his eyes when Elissa poked out her tongue in response to his taunts.
It's as though I have ceased to exist… Nathaniel was unable to suppress the harsh bite of jealousy blooming within him at what was clearly a strong and very intimate friendship between the two.
At 17 years of age, Rory Gilmore was only a year Nathaniel's senior, but the physical difference between them could not have been more drastic. Where Nathaniel's musculature was wiry and lithe across his long frame, Rory was broad chested and heavily muscled throughout his body. Nathaniel attributed this mostly to his weapon of choice, noting the broadsword strapped between his shoulder blades. Nevertheless, he found himself wondering if he was getting a glimpse into the type of man Elissa preferred.
"Do you intend to stand there gawking while we do all the work, or are you going to lend a hand at some point, Nathaniel?" Elissa tossed a smirk in his direction, making it clear to Nathaniel that though the knight may not have seen him; she had not forgotten he was there. Her voice jarred him from his thoughts and forced the knight to finally acknowledge his presence.
"L-lord Howe…" Rory barely managed to get the words out, glaring pointedly at Elissa. It was clear he was unhappy to find himself so lax in the company of a noble who outranked him and was not a member of the Cousland family. After pausing to collect himself, he turned to Nathaniel and offered a slight bow. "I apologize for any inappropriate behavior I may have unknowingly shown you. I did not realize Lady Cousland had acquired another hunting partner for the day."
"Don't be daft, Rory. It's only Nathaniel, and he's not offended. Are you, Nathaniel?" Elissa turned to him, something in her smile speaking the volumes her words did not say.
Nathaniel briefly considered the idea of feigning offense, if only to make the young knight squirm a bit more. But as he looked at Elissa he realized that not only would this merely be a snap reaction to his irrational jealousy, it would most likely only anger her and destroy any chance he might be asked to spend more time in her company. Realizing he most definitely wanted to do that very thing, he checked his ego and fashioned a polite smile of his own.
"No harm done," Nathaniel assured the knight, walking closer to the litter to offer his assistance. "Where would you like me?"
Elissa bit at her lip for a moment and stared wistfully at Nathaniel, not entirely sure how she wanted to respond. She noticed Nathaniel did not miss that pause and quickly focused her attention back onto the stag. "Rory can bear the weight at the front alone if you'd be so kind as to help me with the rear of the litter."
"As you wish, my lady." Nathaniel bowed lightly to her and moved into position. Once settled, the trio easily lifted the litter and headed back to the castle.
The weight was manageable spread between the three of them, as was the conversation, so the journey back into the castle yard went by quickly.
When they crossed the clearing outside the main gate, several servants came to take the stag back for butchering, and promised that the horns would be retained for Elissa to take as a trophy from her kill. Rory excused himself soon after they arrived, hoping to get back to his daily tasks before anyone noticed he had been gone, leaving Elissa and Nathaniel to walk back into the castle alone. The awkward silence at his departure was deafening.
Well… you wanted her alone, Howe, here she is. The voice inside Nathaniel's head mocked him as they entered the front doors and moved deeper into the castle. Do you think to spark her interest with your mastery of silent walking?
Say something, you nit! Say anything! Elissa's own conscience hissed, but nothing would come out.
The silence stretched on for what seemed an endless amount of time until Fergus' voice rang out behind them. If they could have read each other's thoughts in that moment, they would have found themselves both thanking the Maker for his arrival.
"Blimey, Nate, that's one heck of a beast you dropped!" Fergus smiled and clapped him on the shoulder in congratulations, situating himself between the pair. He completely ignored his younger sister's glare and focused in on his friend. "I expect your thanks for not coming along to ruin your stealth with my bumbling."
"Though I heartily agree you should be thanked for not ruining the hunt with your inevitable bumbling, I cannot take credit for the kill, my friend." Nathaniel caught Elissa's eyes with a small grin across her brother's shoulders. "It was your sister who felled the great stag, and she did it with a single perfect shot few could ever hope to attain."
"Nonsense, Nathaniel." A light blush crept into Elissa's cheeks at his praise, though she did her best to fight it down. "You have always been the most talented archer among us. You could easily have done it. I simply got the shot off first, nothing more."
"I thank you for your kind words, my lady." Nathaniel smiled and offered a slight bow to her, pressing the flirtation to see if he could pull even more of that lovely color into her cheeks. "Sadly, even had I gotten my shot off first, I could only have matched the skill required to make yours – not exceeded it. You have grown to be a talented archer in your own right, and are as worthy of praise as I am."
Elissa felt her cheeks burning, and could no longer manage to meet Nathaniel's eyes or even to speak for fear she would embarrass herself further. She knew he was watching her. She could feel his eyes, cool and grey like polished steel, and she prayed to the Maker for any excuse to remove herself from his company and rein in her racing emotions.
"Maker you two are acting strange…" Fergus came to a standstill in the middle of the hall, turning his gaze from one to the other when they stopped a few steps behind him. "Can you go back to your usual routine of ignore and insult? This new found… admiration… you seem to share for one another is beginning to make me ill."
"I have no idea what you're going on about, Fergus." Elissa knew her words were a little sterner than she intended, but it was too late to take them back now. She stared down the hall and pretended to be looking for someone or something – anything to avoid her brother's curious inspection, anything to avoid Nathaniel's inquisitive gaze.
"Uh-huh… sure…" Fergus' eyes narrowed on the pair, unconvinced. "Regardless, you'd best go get cleaned up for dinner. Mother is already cross that you missed tea with Lady Ashland to go gallivanting about in the forest."
"Delightful… I'm certain that will be a conversation well worth having." Elissa grumbled and stomped off down the hall toward her room, secretly sighing with relief. However unwelcome her mother's lecture might be, it was better than continuing to make a fool of herself in front of Nathaniel Howe.
Nathaniel watched her go; chuckling to himself at just how easy it had been to get her all bent out of sorts with his words and comforted that she was clearly just as affected by him as he had been by her during their afternoon adventure. He'd thought her pretty in the forest, but she had been downright adorable all flustered in the hall. He became tangled in his own thoughts; wondering when he might get the chance to fluster her again, or simply to spend time in her company, and did not notice Fergus' attempts to get his attention.
"Oi!" Fergus tapped him quickly in the middle of his forehead. "Are you listening to me at all?"
"I'm sorry…" Nathaniel stammered and shook his head to clear it, leveling a smile back at his friend. "I was lost in my own head for a moment. What were you saying?"
"Lost in your own head…" Fergus turned and followed the path to where Nathaniel's gaze had just lain, up the long hall until it rested upon his sister's retreating form. "What exactly are you two playing at?"
"Nothing," Nathaniel answered innocently, noting the way Fergus' eyes had closed to slits with his inspection. It was obvious he needed only the smallest hint that his friend's intentions were anything other than noble to send him into a full outrage. "I just like to torment her. It's been so long since last I spoke with Elissa, I had forgotten how easy it was to do so."
Fergus watched him a moment longer, finally deciding to accept his excuse for the unusual behavior. Nathaniel breathed a silent sigh of relief as they made their way to their own quarters to prepare for dinner.
Had Fergus decided to press him for answers, he honestly wouldn't have known what to say. He was still trying to wrap his own mind around what was happening and would likely have come up with something Fergus interpreted as offensive in some way. The Cousland children weren't known for their even temperament, so Nathaniel decided it would be best to keep a closer watch on his behavior until he had reached some sort of conclusion with regard to his newfound interest in Elissa.
"Do you honestly believe if you'd intervened you could have prevented them from continuing to show interest in one another? Your sister can be quite… focused… when she sets her mind to something." I watched him push up from the table, pacing back and forth across the room in frustration. For a moment, it was almost as though it was The Hero standing in front of me and I had to fight down the urge to laugh at the image.
"I'd have done whatever it took. Nathaniel was still quite malleable at that age. If he'd thought for a moment I'd go to his father with what I knew, he'd have backed away from her immediately – and that would have caused a strain between our families." He was smiling, but it was not a happy smile. It was the smile of someone grasping at the memories of what had been lost and frantically trying to find a way to reclaim it. "With the Howe's out of the picture, my parents would still be alive… my wife… my son… Elissa would never have joined the Grey Wardens."
"I imagine Rendon Howe would have seen your family as a threat regardless of whether either of his sons had been involved with your sister. It's possible that orchestrating such a change would have only given him the opportunity to completely eradicate the Cousland clan rather than leaving you and your sister alive to make sure the truth was known." Fergus stopped pacing and glanced over at me. I could tell he was pondering the words though the expression on his face had changed little. "Not to mention The Blight would have come to Ferelden either way. If your sister had not joined the Wardens, there is no way of knowing who would have led when the others fell at Ostagar. It's possible no one would have – and then an entire country would have been lost along with your family."
"It's also possible father would have seen the change in Rendon without Elissa's dalliances to blind us. If we'd known an attack was coming, he would never have succeeded in taking the castle. Without his whispers in Loghain's ear, the battle at Ostagar would have gone very differently. Elissa would never have been recruited, much less required to lead an army." The elder Cousland stood resolute in his belief that it was The Archer who caused all of the pain in his life and nothing I could say to him – no matter the logic of it – was likely to change his mind.
"I suppose none of it matters now. Things are what they are."
He conceded with a nod, stalking back to his chair and filling another mug to overflowing.
It was painful to see just how broken Fergus Cousland actually was, though like his sister he hid most of it behind the false wall of practiced nobility and bravado. In moments like this it was easy to see why The Hero felt so alone in the world and how important those of us who were now more family than allies would be now that her only blood relative had become nothing more than an angry, distant stranger.
Chapter 3: The Heart of Obsession
A/N: Muse Music: Core of My Addiction by Fireflight.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my awesome beta artemiskat!
Chapter Two: The Heart of Obsession
"Of course Fergus blames Nathaniel." Delilah Howe walked back over to her kitchen counter to refill my glass, shaking her head at my unnecessary revelation. "Their current dysfunction aside, he has always been obsessively protective of Elissa. I suspect no matter what the truth is in a situation, Fergus will take her side in the end."
"So you don't agree that keeping them apart may have changed things for the better?" I knew that pressing this topic was risky. Delilah's relationship with her brother had only recently healed, and though she'd become more tolerant of Elissa's presence in his life - there was still far too much damage between them to ever call them friends.
"I think that aside from shipping them to the furthest corners of Thedas and chaining them there, nothing would have kept them apart – and even then I doubt it would have changed things to the extent that Fergus believes." She sat at the table across from me, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Truthfully, I think they need one another to be complete. I can't explain it, and I certainly wanted not to believe it for a time myself… but I've seen it with my own eyes to many times to pretend it isn't there. They push each other to extremes both good and bad, but separate they're only half of what they should be."
"I'm surprised to hear you say that. I know that things have been a little rough since—"
"Since my childhood friend rose from the dead and ripped my world apart? Rough is putting it mildly." Delilah snorted out a burst of bitter laughter, turning away to compose herself for a moment before she could continue. "Look, things are far from civil between us, and I've come to realize that it's unlikely I'll ever completely forgive her for all that she's done – but I understand now why she did it. Not only that, but through my brother I've gained a window into just how much Elissa has sacrificed to make the world safer for the rest of us. No matter how distasteful or brutal I might find her methods to be, Thedas needs her. She stands for us all when no one else is willing, and there is no way around that."
Dinner at the Cousland's was a thing of wonder to the Howe children; a grand event full of laughter and noise and Bryce Cousland's booming voice spinning out no end of tall tales. Though they would never admit it publicly, it could not have been more different than the silent stilted affairs at their home in Amaranthine, and for many years it was the thing they most looked forward to on their visits to Highever.
This particular evening was no exception. The conversation was boisterous as usual and Nan, the Cousland's Nanny turned chef, had concocted a seemingly endless amount of delectable dishes. Still, Nathaniel could not seem to enjoy himself and relax into the evening, as he normally would have done.
He was seated in his usual spot between Fergus and his younger brother Thomas at the end of the table that had been labeled years ago as the "boys" territory. In the past it would have been exactly where Nathaniel wanted to be, but tonight he realized that from this vantage point he could not seem to get a clear look at Elissa. The longer dinner dragged on, the more he realized that was the one thing he most wanted.
Elissa sat far at the other end near her mother and his sister Delilah. Nathaniel remembered a time when she had vehemently insisted she be allowed to sit with her father, as "that was where all the fun was to be had". Her request was quickly denied between Fergus' complaints and her mother's belief that behaving as a proper lady at meal times was the least her rowdy daughter could manage. He silently cursed himself for not somehow managing to talk Fergus into allowing it, though at the time he could not have known how much he would come to regret that she was seated so far away.
As dinner drew to a close, Nathaniel was rewarded with a glimpse of her as she stood from her seat and leaned in to whisper something in her mother's ear. After what he assumed to be a favorable reply to her request, Elissa excused herself. She offered a polite curtsy in the general direction of the rest of the table, making what Nathaniel deemed to be an intentional effort to avoid eye contact with him, and then disappeared from the room.
Nathaniel knew he should leave the events of the day behind and turn in for the night. Choosing to follow after her was foolish, risky, and quite possibly crossing a line into inappropriate territory. The two had rarely spoken more than a few words in passing before that afternoon, even though they had known one another for years. Yet, even as he sat there listing off all the reasons he shouldn't go, he knew he would not be able to pass up the opportunity to speak with her again. Their brief interlude had sparked something within him that he was powerless to suppress. He now itched to know more of her mind and to find out all the things he had not bothered to learn about her in the years behind them.
"My lord," Nathaniel politely tipped his head to the Teyrn to draw his attention. "I wondered if I might excuse myself early. The day's adventures and a full stomach seem to have taken their toll and I think I might retire to my quarters."
He sincerely hoped that he had waited a sufficient amount of time between Elissa's departure and his request to avoid attracting any suspicion from the Teyrn and Teyrna. Fergus had already noticed something amiss and turned his eyes slightly from his conversation with Thomas to inspect Nathaniel once again. He should stop this insanity here and he knew it, but he pressed forward anyway.
"Certainly, my boy." Bryce laughed and Nathaniel could read the knowing look alight in his eyes as he reached over to shake his hand. The Teyrn leaned in to whisper conspiratorially in Nathaniel's ear and shield their conversation from the other boys' prying eyes. "She's likely off for one of her nightly walkabouts. You'll want to hurry toward the front gates if you hope to catch her in time."
Nathaniel stood, eyes wide with the realization that no matter how innocent his current intentions might be, Bryce Cousland didn't miss a thing when it came to his only daughter. For a moment he was concerned, but then Bryce winked at him and Nathaniel found himself unable to stop from smiling in return. He left the hall and headed toward the castle gates, feeling as though the Teyrn had just granted his approval of whatever he might decide with regard to Elissa.
When he'd made it far enough away from the dining hall that he could no longer be seen, Nathaniel fought the urge to take off running and try to make up for the time between when Elissa left and he followed. He knew it would make him look just as silly as he already felt chasing after this woman he barely knew and these new feelings he could neither identify nor understand. So he pushed himself to maintain some sense of decorum while walking as fast as he could manage and still look as though nothing abnormal was going on.
He wondered if she would be easy to find, and if he should attempt to track her in the night woods had she already gone before he could catch her, but his mind stuttered to a stop the moment he breached the castle gates and laid eyes on her. She sat on a stump at the edge of the forest, the skirt of her dress folded up into her lap so that she could tug boots onto bare feet. He smiled, noting that underneath her dress she still wore leggings just as she had since they were children. It was reassuring to know that despite all the differences he'd seen over the course of the day, a bit of the girl he'd grown up with still lingered inside her.
"Nathaniel?" Elissa was unable to suppress the surprise in her voice as she watched him slowly walk over to her side. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Nathaniel smiled cryptically.
For a moment he wished he hadn't been so blunt. She could easily reject his company for uttering such a bold sentiment when he had shown up uninvited. But the color creeping into her pale skin assured him that his subconscious decision to speak with such blatant honesty must have inadvertently been the right course of action.
"Looking for me? Whatever for?" Elissa refused to fall to embarrassment once again, pushing out a laugh and hoping it didn't sound as nervous as she felt.
She winked at him as she stood, dropping the hem of her dress back to the ground and making sure to brush lightly against his arm as she walked past to stand in the shadows at the forest's edge. If it was more of their earlier banter he'd come looking for, then she would certainly play along. She knew from their time in the forest earlier in the day that she could get under his skin just as much as he could hers; though it might not be as easy to read in his features.
"I'm tempted to say to offer you protection from the dangers that lurk in these forests at night… However, after seeing you in action this afternoon, I hardly think you would see such a thing as more than an insult to your capabilities." Nathaniel kept his voice neutral, refusing to allow the brush of her arm against his to shake his calm exterior the way her bump at his hip had earlier that day.
"Oh, I don't know…" Elissa smiled in return, stopping to lean back against a tree, and making sure that as she looped her hands behind her back it pushed her shoulders out just enough to call attention to the parts of her body she intended. "Surely even a lady who is skilled in combat should be allowed to enjoy the protection of a gentleman companion every once in awhile."
She tried to sound as confident as she could, to ignore the nervous twitch in her stomach at the way the moonlight caught his dark hair, or the way the deep blue of his tunic made his gray eyes even more intense than she had always found them to be. She tried to ignore the way her heart had skipped a beat at the thought of him wanting to protect her from the unknown dangers of the night, regardless of how little she might need it.
"Is that your way of asking for my company?" Nathaniel walked closer to her, holding steadily to the gaze she had initiated. He willed his pulse to slow and not betray him as the seething ball of hormones he was quickly becoming at the sight of her leaning there in the flickering moonlight.
He wondered if she knew what she was doing to him as she chewed at her lip and tilted her half-smile in his direction, or if it was merely a coincidence that every move she made seemed to draw him further in. Nothing about her behavior or her dress was improper; in fact the only skin visible was that of her face and hands. Yet, the way the silk clung to her body showed Nathaniel just enough to make him certain he wanted to see more. She started to speak again but stopped when someone else exited the castle gate, standing up properly and clearing her throat as though she'd been caught doing something for which she was sure to be scolded.
"I was beginning to think you stood me up, Rory Gilmore!" Elissa walked past Nathaniel to greet the young knight with a smile.
"I'd never stand you up, my lady," Rory replied, what would normally have been a much more casual conversation becoming stilted by ceremony in Nathaniel's presence. A fact Nathaniel relished to some degree. "But I will take my leave of you for this evening's stroll as it seems you have found another more suitable escort."
"I do not know that Nathaniel has agreed to accompany me per se. Prior to your arrival we had only begun to discuss the idea, and certainly not in a serious manner." Elissa found herself very uncomfortable at the thought she could soon be alone with the eldest of the Howe children for the evening, particularly after her unconscionably flirtatious behavior only moments before.
"Maker," Rory puffed out a frustrated breath, clearly uncomfortable himself and anxious to return to the duties that would take him anywhere other than there. "You know that he will if you ask him to, as would any young man within the castle walls. Now, if I may take my leave, there are plenty of things I really must attend to."
Elissa nodded reluctantly, flustered by her friend's insinuation that some army of young men wandered about the castle grounds fawning over her. She knew she could not fault him for venting his frustration, nor could she ask him to stay. So she drew in a deep, calming breath as she watched him retreat back through the castle gate and turned her attention back to Nathaniel.
"It would seem, my lord, that I find myself in need of an escort after all… if the offer still stands." Elissa smiled lightly, willing her voice to be steady and her words to be far more confidant than she actually felt standing alone with the boy she'd dreamed of for as long as she could remember.
"Of course, my lady." Nathaniel smiled in return and offered his arm to her slowly after sensing her nervous energy. "I can honestly think of no better way to end what has already been a most agreeable day."
"Surely you'd rather be barreling about the castle with Fergus." Elissa laughed, sliding her hand into the crook of his elbow as Nathaniel led them further into the wood. "I'm certain he will be into all sorts of mischief within the hour. It will likely be far more interesting walking with me in a dark forest."
The heat of his body warmed her skin even where there was little physical contact between them, and she wondered how she'd manage to make it through the walk without humiliating herself once again.
"I think you sell yourself short, Elissa." Nathaniel caught her eyes so she could see his sincerity. "You are nothing if not interesting. I have found myself filled with a great many questions to ask you since our chance encounter earlier in the day."
"Then I shall try and answer them as best I can," she smiled at him, wondering what he could possibly have found so curious as to follow her from the dinner table. "Though I cannot see how many things about me can be of much interest to you, my lord."
"Let me be the judge of that." Nathaniel chuckled lightly at the stilted formality of their conversation and watched as she withdrew her hand from his arm and stood still, inspecting him cautiously from the shadows.
"As you wish," Elissa said, favoring him with a low curtsy though her eyes never left his. "For the duration of our walk I am an open book."
"An open book you say? I shall have to take advantage of this offer before you change your mind and close back up again." He laughed to cover the sudden wave of nervousness that washed over him in the face of such an offer, watching her nod silently as she sauntered past him to lead him deeper into the forest.
They walked for some time, Nathaniel asking questions and Elissa answering them while interjecting some of her own when curiosity got the better of her. Though the conversation started out stilted and slow, their nerves quickly relaxed and eventually each of them could only marvel at how comfortable it was to talk this way. It was remarkably easy to simply say whatever it was they were thinking with no fear of how it would be interpreted, and no matter how much was said, they both still wanted to hear more.
Nathaniel had no idea how long they had been walking, having lost track of time many questions before. In fact, he had forgotten where they even were until he found himself in a clearing, at the edge of a deep, blue-green lagoon. Elissa walked on ahead of him when he stopped in wonder and sat on the edge of a fallen log, bending down to remove her boots. He watched her stand again, moving out on a great rock that stretched out over the water and finally sitting on its edge to dangle her feet into the cool, clear water beneath her.
"Aren't you coming?" she smiled back at him and brushed her hair back from her face where several curls had fallen loose as they walked.
He nodded in reply, stopping long enough to remove his own boots before taking a seat next to her. The lagoon was beautiful, catching the moonlight in a way that made it appear to glow from within. He had wandered these woods many times on his visits to Highever but had never managed to come across this spot. It seemed there were a great many beautiful things to be found here that he was only now discovering, he thought as he looked over at Elissa for a moment before turning his eyes to the sky
"Ah, now there is the stoic, silent Nathaniel I have known all these years." Elissa laughed, drawing him back out of his own head. "I was wondering what you had done with him. I think you've spoken more over the course of this one day than in all the previous years I have known you?"
"I'd wager you're right," Nathaniel admitted, smiling at her and knowing that she was. "I apologize for the lapse in conversation... I was simply overtaken by my thoughts for a moment."
"What were you thinking, if you don't mind my asking?" Elissa leaned back on her elbows, dragging her feet lazily through the water.
"Not at all." He laughed and leaned back himself, propping his head up on the palm of his hand so that he could continue to watch her while they spoke. "I was just wondering how I could have gone all this time believing that I knew you. Today has been incredible to me, for a number of reasons, but at the same time it has shown me that I never really knew you at all. I can't help but feel as though I've missed out on something I shouldn't have."
Elissa laughed, turning her face to his. "I'd imagine it would have been hard for you to actually know me before today. You've only ever seen me as an annoyance and you have rarely sought me out in conversation beyond the pleasantries required from one noble to another. It would have been difficult for you to learn anything about me under such circumstances."
"An annoyance?" Nathaniel was sincerely shocked she would think such a thing of him. Though he'd often thought almost exactly what she'd said, he'd believed his well-practiced behavior allowed him to hide it. "Elissa, I can assure you I have never thought of you as such."
"Surely you jest!" she replied, the laughter coming harder now as she rolled onto her side to face him. "Have you forgotten all the times you and Fergus would chase me away from your adventures? I tried for many years to be included, but after my last attempt a year ago, I simply gave up on joining you and found adventures of my own."
"Chase you away?" He struggled with his memory but was unable to lock on to anything specific. "Wait… what happened a year ago?"
"You really don't remember, do you?" Elissa realized his confusion was indeed genuine and softened a bit in her response. "Ah, well then I shall try to do my very best impression so that you believe that I am not simply making this up for your benefit."
A few moments later, much to Nathaniel's growing embarrassment, she spun a tale about a young girl of 13 who wanted nothing more than to accompany her brother and his friend on their adventures in the wood of Vigil's Keep. She was daunted every step of the way by the two boys of 15 who did everything they could not to include her. She persisted until finally, she was pulled aside and lectured not by her brother, but by his friend.
"And then you said," Elissa brought a hand up to her chest and cleared her throat, setting her face in what Nathaniel assumed to be a mimic of his usual half frown. "Elissa Cousland you are an insufferable twit. Would you please stop following us about? Go find Delilah and play with your dolls and dresses like a respectable little girl. You are not wanted here!"
"I… I don't know what to say…" Nathaniel stammered as the memory of that moment surfaced in his mind. "My behavior was inexcusable. I cannot believe I would have said such things to you, but I know that I did as I have begun to remember them with my own mind."
"You should be sorry!" Elissa wagged her finger at him. "I thought the world of you and you crushed my poor little heart in return."
"I offer my sincerest apologies," he insisted, pulling up to sit across from her and forcing himself to meet her eyes though he knew she would certainly see the shame there. "You are a generous soul to tolerate my forced company after such insult."
"Truly, Nathaniel, you shouldn't worry so." She reached over to take his hand and offered a reassuring squeeze along with her smile. "I forgave the transgression long ago. Boys will be boys, or so I am told. Besides, if you hadn't chased me away I'd have wasted all my time waiting for you and my brother to lead me to adventures instead of learning how to find my own. Honestly, I should be thanking you for pushing me to take charge of my own destiny. I only wish that in taking charge of it I had somehow gained the ability to change it."
"What do you mean?" Nathaniel noted the tension that crept in her demeanor as she stood and began to pace the edge of the rock on which they sat. She stopped every now and again to skip a small stone across the surface of the water, but anxiety read in every single gesture.
"Do you know why I come here? Why I've come here every night for years…" Her face grew solemn with the question, and Nathaniel could see the free-spirited girl who had drawn him here disappearing beneath the growing wall of sadness.
"I'd assumed because it was beautiful and quiet – a place you could think." He pulled himself to his feet and stepped a bit closer to where she stood, concerned at her quick and startling change in demeanor.
"It is all those things, but that's not why I come here." Elissa looked off into the distance as though searching for something. "I come here because this is the one place I feel I can truly be myself. It is the one place I can allow myself to consider the life I want; rather than the life that has been mapped out before me year by year."
"I'm not sure I follow…" Nathaniel wanted to understand so that he could try to ease some of the sorrow that had begun to take over her. It tugged at his heart and made him ache to bring back the smiling young woman she'd been only moments before.
"In two years I will turn sixteen, which means I will become eligible for courtship." Elissa turned her gaze downward into the water, unable to continue to meet his eyes. "At which point my dreams of being anything other than a dutiful wife and… breeder… will be gone forever."
"I know your parents well, Elissa," Nathaniel tried his best to calm her as he started to realize what it was she lived in fear of, "I am certain they are in no hurry to have you married off, nor can I see them forcing you into a union of which you did not approve."
"And I know that you are right on both counts." Her pacing became more frantic as her distress continued to rise. "However, I have no illusions as to what will be expected of me as one of the most politically desirable matches in the kingdom. I have no desire to cause my parents more humiliation than they already suffer on my behalf. I know what people say about me, Nathaniel – what they've said for years. I know that the girl I am, and the woman I long to be, are not what any man desires in his bride. Eventually I will have to settle on someone who will tolerate my negative qualities else die an embarrassment to the Cousland name."
"Any man who would think you not suitable is a fool!" Nathaniel spat, reaching over to stop her frantic pacing by taking both of her hands. "There is nothing about you that I would consider undesirable."
As soon as the words had left his mouth, he realized how they sounded, but he knew that he had meant every word. Attempting to censor himself now would only come across as insulting and most likely push her even further into her despair.
Way to take advantage of the poor girl, Howe. The voice in his head laughed. Way to remain calm and in control of your feelings. He waited for the rejection he was certain would fall from her lips at his foolish admission so early in their newfound friendship, and steeled his nerves to accept it regardless how it made him feel.
Maker, did he just say he found me desirable? Elissa tried desperately to push down the blush threatening to rise in her cheeks, squeezing his hands and offering a smile. Surely not, I'm probably just reading this wrong. Silly girl, we gave up hope on him for a reason - remember...
"I hope you're right, Nathaniel," she finally managed to push the words out amid a heavy sigh. "When I think about being trapped in such a life… well, it makes me want to crawl right out of my own skin."
"Then don't think about it," he offered with a smile, relaxing when she did not shy away from his obvious flirtation, or withdraw from the physical contact he'd initiated with shaking hands. "Enjoy the life you have now and do not focus on a future you cannot yet know for certain."
"You are right." Elissa flashed an easy smile, taking in a deep breath and leaning forward to wrap her arms around him in a heartfelt hug. "Dear, steady Nathaniel – ever the voice of reason in my storm of chaos."
He smelled of leather and bow oil and something she couldn't quite place, something that over the years she would come to realize was distinctly Nathaniel. She had not attempted such intimate contact with him in a number of years, and was uncertain what motivated her to do so now. Rather than question, she simply enjoyed it, knowing he could push her away again at any moment.
"I will happily do so anytime if you ask it of me." Nathaniel wrapped his arms around her in equal measure and rested his cheek against her hair, feeling her body relax into his embrace when she realized he did not intend to shy away from it.
She smelled of lilacs and steel. Everything about her was a whirlwind of contrasts and things he'd only begun to understand; yet she felt as though she belonged right where she was – in his arms. He didn't know where the thought came from, he didn't know where any of this had come from, and in that moment he was stunned to discover that he no longer cared. It felt right to be with her, and that was all that mattered.
From that moment on, the connection between them was set in stone. They saw little of each other during the day, both having made the decision to keep the blossoming friendship between them hidden for the time being rather than allow it to be prodded and analyzed by outsiders before even they had truly begun to understand it.
Elissa spent her days training with Ser Gilmore and the rest of her father's knights or gossiping with Delilah, while Nathaniel roamed the forests with Fergus and Thomas. But every night like clockwork, she would excuse herself from the dinner table and a few moments later he would follow.
For the next few weeks they spent each evening walking the paths of Highever forest, down to the lagoon where they would talk for hours or simply lie in comfortable silence shoulder to shoulder with their toes dangling in the cool water. When it came time for the Howes to return to Amaranthine, they came to the powerful realization that they no longer wished to be parted from one another, though clearly they would have to bear it. Nathaniel promised to write, and Elissa laughed insisting he would forget her as soon as he returned home, which could not have been further from the truth.
Neither of them could have known just how much that chance encounter and a handful of days would forever change their fate, marking them both permanently, and winding their lives so tightly together it was hard to know where one began and the other ended. What had now been set in motion would never be stopped.
"That summer changed us all." Delilah smiled, lost in the memory of a time long gone.
"How so?" I watched her flash back to where she was now, shaking off the smile and pushing back to her feet.
"Fergus lost Nathaniel's undivided attention while I gained a sister, and Thomas... well he lost any chance he ever had at securing Elissa's favor as Father had always intended." She paced over to the window, staring out into the dwindling daylight. "Looking back – for better or worse – everything that would happen to us began the moment Elissa dropped out of that tree and into my brother's field of vision."
She silenced after that and I saw that my welcome had worn through, so I packed away my notebook and set off into the Kirkwall night.
Chapter 4: Running on Fumes
A/N: Letters written between Nathaniel and Elissa during the months they are apart.
Muse Music: I Run to You by Lady Antebellum.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Three: Running on Fumes
Some time ago I had the privilege of sharing a short conversation with Fergus Cousland, our Lady Hero's older brother. He was understandably hesitant to divulge any information with regard to his sister's past with Lord Howe; partially because he was still at odds with his former friend and partially because he feared the wrath of the she-demon his sister could be when it came to the public discussion of her private life. Many mugs of my rarest vintage later, he passed on a stack of letters to me – letters that had been written to his sister by none other than Nathaniel Howe.
I read through them, and while large portions of the series were lost during the Arl's siege on Castle Cousland, what Fergus had managed to salvage offered a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the most cryptic individuals I have ever come across.
Years later I spoke with Delilah Howe, The Archer's younger sister, and mentioned in passing that I was in possession of said letters and had nearly been driven to madness wondering what had been in the corresponding halves of them. As fate would have it, she managed to rescue a similar set when she fled from Vigil's Keep in the wake of her father's madness, and was kind enough to entrust them to me once I explained what it was I ultimately hoped to do.
I have tried to place them as accurately as possible within the correct time frame. I am incredibly fortunate to have been gifted these letters, as you are incredibly fortunate to have been given them in return. No matter how gifted I might believe myself to be, there is no better way to know the true story of Elissa Cousland and Nathaniel Howe than to have them tell it for themselves.
Lady Elissa Cousland,
I hope that my letter finds you well. I feel that I must offer my thanks once again for a most enjoyable summer at your family's home in Highever. I do not possess the words to fully express how thankful I am that you found it within your heart to forgive me for treading so heavily upon your feelings in the past. I hope that my friendship, through what I intend to be a great many years in the future, can somehow make up for my childhood indiscretions.
I expect your return correspondence to include most sincere apologies for doubting my assertion that I would write to you. I do not make promises lightly, my lady, and would never make one to you unless I intended to do everything in my power not to break it.
I look forward to your reply.
Lord Nathaniel Howe,
I cannot begin to describe the joy I felt when I saw the Howe crest in the wax at the back of your letter. I had gone down to check the post with Fergus, fully expecting to get nothing as usual, when much to my surprise there was indeed a letter for me. I snatched it from the postman and ran all the way from the front gate to my room I was so anxious to read it. I am certain Fergus will never allow me to forget such silly behavior.
There is no end to the happiness it brings me to know that the time we spent together this summer meant as much to you as it did to me. It feels so good to finally have someone with whom I can freely share both my thoughts and my time without fear of judgment or criticism.
You are dear to me, Nathaniel. I too hope that our friendship will last for years to come.
I end this letter with the apology you requested, which you obviously deserve. Never again will I doubt your word, and I hope that you know that you can expect the same from me.
Lady Elissa Cousland,
The thought of you running the halls of Castle Cousland simply to read my clumsy words brings me far more pleasure than I should probably admit. I am, however, sorry for any torment it may have inspired at the hands of your brother. Fergus can be a bit like a hound with a bone when given information with which he can instigate another. Were I there, I would happily deflect such attentions onto myself so that he would leave you in peace.
If it makes you feel any better, once Delilah discovered it was you and not your brother with whom I had been corresponding, she immediately erupted with a million questions – none of which I intend to answer.
Father mentioned that your family would be coming for their usual visit in the fall, but he did not specify whether you would be among them. I have no intention of asking for such information from him, so I find that I must request it from you. Will I be able to see you again soon?
Your words are not at all clumsy, and I wish that you would not think them so! You are the most honest and steady adviser a creature of chaos such as myself could ask for. I treasure each time we speak, be it in words uttered aloud or written in silence. I have found in you my dearest friend, and most trusted confidant. I hope that in me, you have found the same.
With regard to your sister, surely you know that not answering her inquiries only increases her desire to know and that the less you say the more she will assume? While I do not care what stories the others might concoct about us, having long ago given up on being anything other than the absolute mess that I am rumored to be, you have a longstanding reputation as one of the most well-groomed young men in the kingdom. I would hate to see that tarnished simply to hide what in all honesty is an innocent series of letters between friends. Were you writing Fergus, it would not be an issue. It is utterly ridiculous that a boy and girl cannot write one another without people assuming something improper is afoot.
As far as my family's upcoming visit to Amaranthine, I have not yet decided whether I shall make this trip. While there is little I desire more than to once again spend time in your company, I must hesitantly admit that the idea of the restrictions placed upon me when in the company of your father discourage me to volunteer extended amounts of time to such scrutiny. The Arl has made it abundantly clear that he does not care for the freedoms my parents allow me, and often times that he does not care for me specifically – though it has never been said in words.
I hope that I have not offended you, but I wanted to be certain that should I choose not to come, you knew that the decision had nothing to do with you.
Yours in friendship,
P.S. I hope that you will forgive my overly familiar heading. It was beginning to feel comical to include so much pomp and circumstance for someone with whom I have become so comfortable. However, if my use of your name in such a familiar manner offends, you need only say so and I shall revert to the behavior of a proper lady; at least in this regard.
If you are comfortable doing so, feel free to call me Lissa. My proper name always sounds so awkward to my ears. No one who is as dear to me as you are ever uses it unless it is to be followed by a lecture, and I certainly hope to hear none of those coming from you.
Let me begin by assuring you that you have in no way offended me. I know all too well the discomfort my father can inspire, and while I do not believe that his disdain is in any way specific to you – I will not lie and promise that your time here will be as freely spent as it is in Highever. I can, however, swear that I will do everything in my power to make each moment at Vigil's Keep as bearable for you as I possibly can.
Please, Lissa, I beg you to reconsider accompanying your family on their journey in the fall. There are many things I would love to share with you about my home in exchange for all those you shared with me about yours.
These letters between us are not the simple mutterings of just any boy and girl; rather they are the innermost feelings of an exceptionally silent young man and a beautiful girl on the verge of womanhood. It is that which intrigues, that which fosters rumors, and that which – though we certainly intend only the most untoward of conversations – will make these letters out to be anything but innocent. Nothing that I say will change that, in all likelihood it would only make things worse for both of us, so I simply choose to say nothing at all.
I do encourage you not to worry about any damage to my reputation that might come as a result of our friendship, through rumor or otherwise. I will gladly suffer anything in order to continue to foster this bond that grows between us.
I hope that my explanation of does not discourage your continued communication as I have come to value your words as much as you claim to value my own.
P.S. Though it felt strange at first to use a name so overtly familiar, I find myself loving the idea of being allowed to use something clearly so personal to you as your nickname. My only request is that in exchange you should use mine.
I cannot think of anything, short of direct insult, that would cause me to discontinue our communication or our friendship. As your earlier attempts to chase me away with insult have fallen by the wayside, it seems that oftentimes even direct insult will not work on me! I am a stubborn girl, or so my mother frequently tells me.
I appreciate your explanation of why our letters have become of such great import to people who are not actually involved with them. It was something I had not considered when I suggested that we begin writing in the first place, though clearly I should have.
I know that you told me not to worry, but I would feel incredibly guilty if you were to be thought of as anything other than the gentleman you are simply for befriending me.
That having been said, I have reconsidered my family's upcoming trip to Vigil's Keep and decided to accompany them. I shall hold you to your word, Nathaniel Howe. It is only the promises in your last letter which made me change my mind.
Looking forward to seeing you soon!
Chapter 5: Choosing the Path Between the Stars
A/N: Muse Music: As the World Falls Down by David Bowie.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Four: Choosing the Path Between the Stars
"The Lady Cousland has always been kind to me, even after the old Arl wiped out her family." The old elf chuckled, carving away at a small chunk of wood with a twinkle in his eyes. "It can't have been easy on her coming back here after everything that had happened. I fully expected to be sent on my way, but she kept me on staff – me and dozens of others. She didn't have to do that. She had every reason to toss the lot of us, especially after Master Nathaniel turned up in the dungeons aiming to kill her."
"So that rumor is true!" I shook my head and went back to fletching my arrows, watching the sunset over Amaranthine from the back porch of Groundskeeper Samuel's small home.
"Oh, it's true enough, though to be fair he had no idea who she was at the time. Even if he had, I doubt that would have made much difference. Their reunion was not a happy one."
"You've known them for years, have they ever actually been happy?"
"Absolutely!" He smiled, flipping the results of his work into a nearby pail and snapping up another chunk of wood to dig into. "Happy, young and very much in love. If the odds hadn't been stacked so heavily against them I'd imagine we'd be surrounded by any number of their children at this very moment. But life never quite goes the way we intend."
When he received the letter saying that Elissa would indeed be accompanying her family on their upcoming visit to Amaranthine, it was all Nathaniel could do to maintain the mask of neutrality he forced himself to wear when dealing with his family. He knew Delilah would approve, and doubted his mother would pull herself from her alcohol induced fog long enough to care either way… but he was uncertain as to how his father and brother would react if they knew the true extent of his growing connection to the "Cousland girl".
It was common knowledge in the Howe household that Rendon fully intended on matching Thomas with Elissa and had been pushing his youngest son to establish some sort of connection with her for years. He'd already begun lashing out in frustration with the realization that the friendship Nathaniel somehow managed to forge with her now had the distinct possibility of strengthening into something more, which had increased the tension in an already precarious household.
Nathaniel wanted to believe it was only because he had never spoken to his father directly about the true nature of his feelings toward Elissa. But in those rare moments when he put his dreams aside and saw things as they really were, he knew that even had Rendon Howe known all of his eldest son's thoughts and feelings on the matter, it would not have changed how he conducted himself and would certainly not have made even a slight difference with regard to his carefully laid plans.
In all likelihood even broaching the topic would only have angered his father and pushed him into doing something rash that would end any possible relationship between them before it had time to take root. Nathaniel was not willing to risk such an outcome, so he forced himself to remain vigilant in his efforts to conceal the truth of his heart.
Wishing to dwell on such things no longer, he turned his thoughts back to Elissa's change of heart. He had not expected her to be so easily swayed by his words. She had been dead set against the visit and he knew from years of experience how stubborn the Cousland children could be. He marveled once again how a mere handful of days could have so thoroughly changed them both.
The next few weeks would prove to be the slowest he could remember, with each second of every day stretching into eternity. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing that at the end of this tortuous time period he would be able to spend eight glorious weeks in Elissa's company, and that was certainly worth the wait.
Exactly twenty-four days after Nathaniel received Elissa's letter, the Couslands arrived at the Howe's home in Amaranthine. Elissa had ridden on horseback with her father and brother for most of the journey, but was forced inside the carriage with her mother for the last leg so that she could change into clothes more suitable for a proper lady.
She tried her best to choke back her disdain and paste on a calm face while she dressed, knowing this was only one of many things that infuriated her that she would nonetheless be expected to tolerate during her family's stay at Vigil's Keep. She was now fourteen and far too old to be allowed to get away with certain breaches of etiquette while in polite company, or so her mother had decided as they prepared to leave Highever.
Nathaniel had better be true to his word! Elissa's brows knit together into a thick scowl as the carriage bounced the last few feet onto the Howe estate grounds. If he isn't I shall take it out of his hide.
The frown she wore was quickly replaced with a smile when her eyes found Nathaniel standing with Delilah in the front of the welcoming party that waited just outside the Keep's main gates. She watched as he greeted both her father and her brother when they'd dismounted their horses; moving over to the carriage to offer a steady hand to her mother when she opened the carriage door and made her way down the narrow steps.
"Welcome, Teyrna Cousland." Nathaniel bowed politely and offered a sincere smile.
"Why thank you, Nathaniel, dear." Eleanor offered a warm smile in return, giving his hand a gentle squeeze before turning to address his father. "You've raised quite the gentleman, Rendon. Would that I could say the same for Fergus."
Rendon responded with a terse smile and nod. His mind had drifted to other things; wondering what his eldest was playing at with his sudden interest in the Cousland family. Nathaniel did not see it. His attention had already been drawn back through the carriage door to where Elissa stood waiting to exit.
"My lady." Nathaniel held out his hand again, and though most everyone else in the crowd saw nothing unusual about his behavior, Elissa noted the way his eyes held hers for a moment longer than they ever would have in the past.
"My lord." Elissa didn't bother to try and hide her own smile as she took his hand and made her way carefully down the steps. They were friends; nothing more, and what anyone else thought of their newfound connection mattered little to her now that she was certain Nathaniel felt the same.
Nathaniel did not release her hand once she stood again on solid ground, rather tucked it into the crook of his elbow, an action which made her tilt her face to his and search his eyes for an explanation. As usual his expression remained unreadable.
"If it pleases her, I will escort Lady Cousland to her room, Father." It was stated rather than asked, and when Nathaniel saw Elissa nod to answer, he did not wait for a reply from his father before turning them in the direction of the Keep.
He was certain his father would rather have one of the servants escort Elissa through the grounds of Vigil's Keep, or his sister Delilah, or even Thomas if she'd any interest in allowing such a thing. But there were things that must be spoken of, and this was the only span of time Nathaniel was certain to get her alone before dinner. For this he was willing to risk inciting his father's wrath.
"I must apologize for my son's sudden lack of proper decorum." Rendon Howe glared at the retreating figures of his eldest son and the Teyrn's daughter. "I don't know what gets into the boy sometimes."
"No apology necessary, Rendon." Bryce Cousland smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "I'd imagine Nathaniel is simply excited to see my youngest again after enduring several months with only scattered missives to sustain him."
"Several months of what?" Confusion creased Rendon Howe's face, but it was only momentary and soon replaced by his typical impassive stare. "I'm sorry. I was under the impression the correspondence Nathaniel had become so diligent about was with Fergus. Clearly I was mistaken."
"Surely you aren't upset by this, Rendon?" Bryce was thoroughly confused by his old friend's behavior. Rendon always seemed to be singularly focused on a union between their families, and though he seemed to push Thomas forward as the appropriate match for Elissa, Bryce had been certain that he would be equally pleased to learn that Nathaniel had succeeded where Thomas could not.
"The two developed quite the friendship during your children's last visit to Highever." Bryce continued to explain, hoping to calm Rendon's rising temper before any more damage could be done. "I do not think that it has grown into anything more as of yet, unless you know something that I do not."
"No, no… I'm sure you're right old friend." Rendon laughed, covering the roving of his mind with a cryptic smile and contemplating this new knowledge.
Perhaps you may be of use after all, Nathaniel… he thought, moving the remaining guests to settle into their quarters before dinner was served.
Inside the Keep, Nathaniel finally led Elissa into the room where she would be staying for the remainder of their time in Amaranthine. Once inside, he released her arm and stepped away so he could see her face properly.
"It is so good to see you again, Nathaniel!" Elissa closed the distance he had opened between them and wrapped her arms around his waist. He could feel the press of her fingers against the small of his back and fought against a physical reaction.
"I wasn't sure you would come." Nathaniel laughed, returning her hug with one of his own. "I still have no idea what convinced you to change your mind."
"You made certain promises to me, I believe." She laughed, pulling away with a smile and walking to look out the window of her room. "Promises that you should intend on keeping or I shall be very cross with you."
"Well, I certainly can't have that." He chuckled and moved to stand next to her; unable to stop himself from smiling though he was certain he looked a fool. She was like a roaring fire, always burning, and the light and heat she radiated had become a comfort to him. His normal moody stoicism was replaced with something much less heavy whenever she was near.
"I should go before Father has time to react to my less than acceptable behavior." Nathaniel reluctantly moved back to her door. "I just wanted to warn you that I will be coming to retrieve you tonight after everyone has turned in for the evening."
"Retrieve me? For what?" Elissa's emerald eyes searched silver for some clue of what was to come, unable to calm the restless roving of her mind when faced with the unknown.
"Ah! 'Tis a surprise, my lady." Nathaniel wagged his finger at her, attempting not to laugh at the vexed look on her face when he chose not to answer. "But I believe it will be worth the wait. Change into your bedclothes only if you need to convince someone you are truly going to bed, otherwise be ready for me when I return."
"I will be ready." She smiled lightly, though a nervous tension threatened to betray her calm façade.
"Tonight then?" He smiled back at her from the doorway.
"Tonight," Elissa answered with a nod, dropping heavily upon the bed when her knees were suddenly unable to support her weight as he disappeared outside her door. She held her shaking hands together, willing her heart to stop racing and the electricity to stop flowing through her veins.
Maker help me or I shall make a fool of myself, she thought, wondering if the rest of the evening could possibly pass fast enough.
"It's hard for me to imagine either of them being so hesitant." I shared a smile with the old man as he chuckled at the memory.
"In the beginning they were both full of nervous energy… and hormones." He pulled the bucket full of small figurines over to a nearby stump, setting them up on what I could now make out to be a chessboard. "There's more to tell, if you care for a game?"
"I hope you don't expect me to turn that down." I chucked the last of my arrows to the side and settled in for an evening of memories.
Chapter 6: Dreaming After Dark
A/N: Muse Music: Before the Dawn by Evanescence.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my awesome beta lady artemiskat.
Chapter Five: Dreaming After Dark
During The Blight numerous Fereldens escaped to our shores hoping to find shelter within the city of chains. Many of them were inconsequential; minor nobility, former household servants, nameless and countless orphans… but a few of them stood out simply because of who they had once been linked back to. Among those was a soldier by the name of Karras, formerly an employee of the Cousland family, now simply a man fleeing in the wake of destruction. At the time it was assumed that all of the Couslands died in the fires of the Arl's traitorous invasion, so I tucked the knowledge of his past away until such a time as it might become useful to me.
It wasn't hard to track the man down again, though several years had passed since he and his family first came to the Kirkwall docks in search of asylum. He worked as a guard now just as he had done then, and though he had gone from private service to service of a city, I imagine he was much the same as he had been back when he patrolled the walls of Cousland Castle.
"You couldn't ask for better employers than the Couslands." Karras smiled, leaning against one of the corner walls outside of The Rose. I'd caught him just prior to his break, so he'd allowed me a few moments of it in conversation before he rushed off to eat with his family. "Their staff was more like family. We had jobs expected of us, for sure, but we were never treated like servants. If I'd been working for any other family I'd likely have been fired that last night at Highever Castle."
"What happened?" It was the same with him as with anyone who spoke about that night; his body tensed, his voice got lower, there was something behind his eyes that spoke of horror and heartache. For a moment he was not the same friendly guardsman I had struck up a conversation with months before.
"It was late in my shift and I'd sat down for a card game with some of the other men when Lady Elissa caught us at it. I think we were all certain we were to be punished, but she asked to be dealt in." He shook his head and laughed. "Can you imagine that? Well… you know her so I suppose you can. At any rate, we finished up the game and she headed off to meet someone, somewhere and I went off duty. The next time I saw the castle it was crumbling to ash. Lord Fergus was missing, the staff and guards were slaughtered... the rest of the family were presumed dead."
"I imagine that must have been difficult."
"I came to work for the Teyrn when I was barely more than a boy. Castle Cousland was my home and all within it my family. The Arl stole from more people than he believed when he raided Highever. And none of us have forgotten."
"But he's gone now, gutted by the lady herself if legend is to be believed." I watched the swing of his eyes back in my direction, and the flare of temper that still flickered within.
"The Arl and that dreadful Thomas are gone, yes, but the Howe bloodline lives on."
"So you don't approve of Lady Cousland's relationship with the Arl's son?"
"Lady Elissa was always meant for better than that. There are those of us who still believe that bloodline poisons everything it touches, the lady included. I've seen her since and she is a mere shadow of what she used to be. The Howes took that light from her, and I would see them answer for it."
Elissa paced anxiously inside the closed door of her guest room, just as she had been since she'd retired to her quarters after dinner, straining her ears for any sign Nathaniel had finally come to retrieve her as he'd promised on her arrival. Finally she heard what seemed to be a light rap of knuckles against the wood, though it was so faint she half expected to go to the door and find that her ears were playing tricks once again.
Despite her fears, opening the door this time revealed Nathaniel to indeed be standing just outside. She started to speak, but he pressed a finger to his lips, instructing her to remain silent as he reached over to take her hand and lead them stealthily through the dark halls of the Keep. He moved quickly but quietly, turning them through the maze of dim hallways and out the front gate, not releasing her hand until they reached the shadows of the tree line just beyond the castle walls.
"I hope you don't mind riding double." Nathaniel's voice remained little more than a whisper though they were far away from anyone who might overhear them. He motioned toward where he'd tethered his personal steed before moving in its direction. "I considered taking two horses from the stables, but ultimately feared that would draw too much attention to us. At least this way if someone notices, it will appear as though I have gone out alone, which would not be unusual."
"I am comfortable with it if you are." Elissa smiled in reply, though her stomach did full rolls as she thought of being so close to him after months of separation. She tried to hide her anxiety by walking over to gently stroke the horse's long face. "Your stallion is beautiful, Nathaniel. What is his name?"
"Nocturne." He glanced back toward the castle nervously. "Forgive me for rushing us along, but I would like to put as much distance between us and the Keep as I can before someone notices one of us is missing. I promise you can visit with him all you like once we've reached our destination."
"Certainly." She nodded, understanding all too well the reasons behind his tension. She did not wish to be caught openly disobeying his father's instructions any more than he did. "Now be a gentleman and turn around for a moment, unless you wish to catch a glimpse of my under things."
"Since when did you stop wearing leggings beneath your dresses?" Nathaniel laughed, turning around as she asked and trying not to dwell too long on the idea of what her under things might look like should he deny her request. He would be expected to sit very close behind her in mere moments and could not afford to have any physical reaction to those thoughts. Intentional or not, he did not wish to cause either of them discomfort.
"Mother wouldn't let me wear them because I'm to behave as a proper lady while we visit. And as you gave me no idea what you had in store this evening, I did not think to put them on once I'd returned to my quarters." Elissa settled astride the stallion with a subdued laugh of her own. "Alright, crisis averted. You can turn back around."
Nathaniel was stunned to stillness for a moment when he turned around to see how perfect she looked perched there astride his black stallion. The deep navy of her dress was barely distinguishable against the horse's dark skin and the loose tendrils of her auburn hair tossed lazily about her smiling face in the light breeze.
She looks as though she was meant to be there, he thought, pulling up and lightly settling himself into the saddle behind her so that he could direct the horse off into the trees. It's almost as though she belongs with you.
They rode through the trees in comfortable silence. The way Elissa leaned against Nathaniel's chest, the way his arms rested at the crooks of her hips as they lightly held to the reins, the way their dual heartbeats synched into one almost immediately; none of these things were lost on either the youngest Cousland or the eldest Howe. A powerful connection was building between them and it could no longer be denied.
"We'll walk the rest of the way." Nathaniel dismounted and tethered Nocturne nearby before reaching up to help Elissa down.
Once she stood again on solid ground she walked over to the stallion, stroking his face and whispering something before returning to Nathaniel's side. As he watched her he realized that it was simple things just like that, which made him long for her so much more than he'd ever believed possible.
"Alright, lead on." Elissa smiled at him and waited patiently for whatever came next.
"Do you trust me?" He smiled back at her before pulling a long, green scarf from his pocket and moving to stand at her back.
"Why, Nathaniel Howe!" She feigned shock perfectly, bringing a hand to clutch at her chest in mock horror. "Whatever do you intend to do with that? I'll have you know I am a proper lady! I'll not be lead out to the middle of your wood just to allow myself to be tied up so you can have your way with me!"
"I assure you my intentions are perfectly innocent, my lady. I simply want what I am about to show you to be a surprise." Nathaniel brought the scarf across her eyes and tied it snugly behind her head, fighting the urge to do exactly what she had jokingly suggested, or at least to turn her toward him and steal a kiss from her perfect lips.
"I am all for surprises, Nate, but how am I to walk among these trees without the use of my eyes?" Elissa took a hesitant step forward and promptly stumbled on a tree root before colliding square in the middle of his chest. She could feel his laughter begin beneath her fingertips long before she could hear it and the vibration excited her in a way she did not fully understand.
"I would never leave you to wander in such a way, Lissa. I am here to guide you. You can trust in me to keep you safe in this temporary darkness." He took her hand to reassure her and maneuver them the rest of the way to where he'd been leading them.
Once they reached his intended destination, Nathaniel positioned her so that he was certain she would take in the perfect view upon opening her eyes, and then moved behind her to loosen the blindfold.
"Alright." Nathaniel let the cloth slide down her face to drape loosely beneath her chin. "Open your eyes."
"Oh, Nate…" Elissa's voice was barely audible over the sound of the surf below as she stepped out further onto the cliffs that stretched ahead of them. "It's beautiful! I had no idea such a place existed here. The sound of the waves is… a-and you can see forever… it's perfect!"
"That first night at your lagoon when you spoke to me about having a place to truly be yourself, to imagine what you want from your life, to dream without having those dreams encroached upon by duty and reality… my thoughts brought me back to all the time I have spent here." Nathaniel moved to sit on a large rock, turning his eyes to stare out across the moonlit waves below. "Like you wander the woods of Highever searching for an escape from your destiny, I come to the cliffs of Amaranthine and imagine that someday I will be the son my father wants, instead of the man that I am."
"I owe you an apology, Nathaniel." Elissa looked down at her hands, what had only moments ago been joy and excitement fading only to be replaced by guilt and sadness. "I spent all that time babbling on about my problems, never even considering you had your own."
"You have nothing to apologize for." Nathaniel didn't want her to worry herself, though he could already see that's exactly what she was doing. "I had plenty of chances to speak of such things. I simply wasn't ready to do so at the time. No harm has been done; there is no need for you to concern yourself."
"I promise from this moment forward I shall make more of an effort to be worthy of your trust in me." She refused to meet his eyes, continuing to stare at her hands as though she could discern some hidden meaning in the pores of her skin. "I cannot expect you to carry the burden of my secrets without offering my own shoulders to you in exchange. That is not true friendship."
"Elissa, honestly…" Nathaniel reached over to grab one of her hands, squeezing her fingers as though he could will her to understand with his touch alone. "I did not bring you here to make you feel guilty. I brought you here so that you might see how it was so easy for me to understand the way you feel. I brought you here because you shared something so incredibly personal with me… I felt I owed you – no, I wanted to share this in return. You have to understand, I am a man of few words, and I always have been. Yet I have spoken more to you, both in person and on paper, than I have spoken to everyone else I have known through the previous course of my life combined. It has stirred in me both exhilaration and terror and I find that I am still struggling to wrap my mind around it all. I was hoping that by sharing this with you, perhaps we could try to understand it together."
Still she said nothing, staring silently out across the Waking Sea. The breeze gusted hard against them now, whipping her hair around in a frenzy and throwing the back of her gown out behind her in great, blue waves that mimicked the dark water below. She was dangerously beautiful there in the moonlight, and Nathaniel found that he desperately needed to see her face and know what she was thinking. Had it been too much? Had he finally overstepped his bounds?
"Elissa…" Nathaniel tugged at her hand, his voice taking on a pleading tone he no longer cared to disguise. "Say something. Say anything. Lissa… just look at me, please!"
Finally she turned, and he could immediately discern that she was on the verge of tears. They glistened at the edge of her eyelids, heavy and threatening to fall. He fumbled for the words of an apology, but she silenced him with a gesture and dropped to her knees in front of him, reaching over to take his hands and disregarding the fact that she was most certainly ruining her velvet dress in the dirt.
"I apologize. I did not mean to make you worry." Elissa smiled softly and cleared her throat to calm her nerves and push back the emotion that already threatened to overtake her senses. "I was… overtaken by emotion. I needed to process for a moment so that I didn't say anything foolish in the wake of such a grand gesture."
"It can't have been that grand if it has brought you to the brink of tears…" Nathaniel reached over to wipe away one that had started to run from the corner of her eye and fought the urge to wrap his arms around her until he knew exactly what she was thinking. "I did not intend to upset you. I swear it."
"Nathaniel…" Elissa reached up to lay her hands on each side of his face, brushing a strand of hair behind his ear as she did so. "You have not upset me. I am simply… I am… struggling for words, which does not happen to me. I am overwhelmed to have you share so much of yourself with me of all people. I did not expect it."
She leaned forward and Nathaniel felt his pulse quicken as she placed a gentle kiss against his forehead, her lips lingering there for a moment while she ran her fingers through his hair. When she pulled away to stand, he moved back to make room for her to sit with him on the rock as they had near the lagoon in Highever. But rather than sit beside him, she sat in front of him, much as she had when they shared his horse just an hour before. When she was finally settled, she reached back and took his hands, guiding his arms around her and intertwining their fingers as she pressed back against his chest.
They remained like that until the sun started to color the sky at the edge of the horizon, and though neither of them wanted to move, Nathaniel dared not risk staying longer. They would already be cutting it close to make it back into their beds before the Keep came alive once again.
The rest of Elissa's time in Vigil's Keep would be spent in a similar fashion to Nathaniel's visit to Highever. They saw little of each other during the day, but Nathaniel would come to her room each evening and they would spend as much time as they dared at the cliffs awaiting the sunrise.
The Couslands' departure came quickly, no matter how hard they both fought to push it away. This time there was no need to promise or request letters. It was known they would be written. It would be the only way either of them could manage until they were allowed to see each other again.
I spent some time attempting to filter some of the ill will from Karras' mind with what I now knew of both The Archer and his sister Delilah, but it was to no avail. The massacre at Cousland Castle had warped what had once been a kind man into a creature of vengeance and fury. Reason no longer held a place in his mind, and nothing that I could describe would give him need to believe otherwise.
I toyed with the idea of revealing the man to either The Hero or the Howes, but ultimately decided that such knowledge would only muddy waters already so cloudy it was near impossible to see beyond their surface. Instead I watch, and wait, and hope the day never comes when I am forced to step in and remove this threat that Rendon Howe's legacy bestowed upon his children.
Chapter 7: On Fire
A/N: Another section of the "lost letters" followed by some entirely new content to this book!
Muse Music: I'm On Fire by Bruce Springsteen.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my Lady Beta artemiskat!
Chapter Six: On Fire
As a teller of tales, I believe there is no better way to understand someone than to hear their story told in their own words. It's why I consider myself lucky to have received these pieces of The Hero and The Archer's past, and why I continue to share them with you. With no further adieu, I give you the second installment of Elissa and Nathaniel's lost letters.
Life in Amaranthine has lost all its color now that you have gone. Delilah and I both agree that our summer visit cannot come soon enough.
It does my heart good to see the influence your friendship has had upon her. For too long she has been a passenger in her own life and now, like a fledgling learning to fly, she is beginning to speak up for herself; to assert her own mind and shape the world around her. It is an amazing thing to behold and it is all because of you.
She claims that you offered to train her in rudimentary sword skills when next we are in Highever. I never thought I'd see the day that my little sister would desire to use a sword! I will have to learn not to press her patience quite as much once her tutelage begins. I doubt Thomas will be smart enough to do the same.
I return to the cliffs each evening, though I no longer think of them as mine alone. Now they belong to us both. I like to think that your lagoon was changed by our time there as well, and I hope that you go there when we are apart and feel that somehow in that place we are still together.
Thinking of you,
You are correct. I did indeed promise to aid Delilah with her swordsmanship when you come to visit us this summer. In exchange, she has promised to help me hone my "womanly" skills, which I am informed with regularity are in dire need of refinement.
She claims that with her help I could soon possess the ability to bend anyone to my will, a skill that will no doubt come in handy someday! I am not certain she is correct, but she seemed disinclined to accept my offer to help her without offering something in return, so I reluctantly submitted myself to her will.
I very much enjoy the time I spend with your sister, as I always have, and if my presence in her life has somehow influenced her in a positive manner then I am thankful it was not my more questionable virtues to have passed in her direction. Delilah is a wonderful person, so much like you in the truth of her heart. I miss you both dearly and cannot wait to see you again.
I am often struck speechless by the memory of that first night on the cliffs with you. Hard to believe, I know. Until that moment, I was unsure that the connection I felt between us was more than the fanciful wishes of a silly girl, but hearing your words and feeling your arms around me as we sat there watching the light come back into the sky… it is the first time in my life I have ever felt complete.
Know that each time I return to our lagoon, as you return to our cliffs, I know that you are with me… and I cannot help but smile at the thought of it.
The thought of my sister training you to use your "womanly" skills is a terrifying prospect indeed! If what you are able to do with them now is done in an unpolished state, then what you will be able to manage after she has tutored you is far more dangerous released into the world than any sword skill you might pass to Delilah could ever be.
Truly, Elissa, you do not give yourself enough credit. I think your Ser Gilmore said it best himself that first summer we spent together. You'd have but to ask and any young man would gladly do your bidding. I know that I fell under your spell long ago.
Forgive me, for I am certain anything I write hereafter is likely to sound unbelievably daft, but as I have said many times before, I am not a man of words. Try as I might to express myself properly to you, I am certain that half the time it must seem as though I am speaking another language.
That said, I must admit to you that I found myself reading the second half of your last letter over and over again out on our rock in the moonlight. I reluctantly confess that I have now read it so many times I have worn the vellum on which it was written to the point that I hesitate to touch it again else I shall lose it altogether. I wanted to be sure that I did not misread or misinterpret anything contained therein. I do not wish to insult you or overstep my bounds with this reply.
This friendship – this bond between us – it means more to me than anything, Elissa. I do not wish to damage it, not after working so hard to build it into what it has become.
I will start by assuring you that the connection you feel between us is certainly not "fanciful wishes" as you put it, though I thought as much myself in the beginning. Now it has solidified into something… real. Something I cannot deny.
Its pull on me is constant. I am drawn to you like the tides are drawn by the moon.
I had been unable to put into words what holding you there on the cliffs had stirred in me until you labeled it yourself. Like you, I now know what it is to feel complete, and I want nothing more than to feel it again.
Counting the days,
I have gone through six sheets of vellum penning this missive. Mother would die at such wastefulness, but I had to make absolutely certain that each word I chose was perfect. Like you, I cherish this bond between us far too much to risk damaging it by saying something mortifyingly stupid, as I am known to do.
That you read my letters at all is often a surprise to me. To hear that you reread even a portion of one so many times that it warped the vellum upon which it was written did funny things to my stomach; things, which I had never felt before.
If it makes you feel better know that I have reread your last letter so many times that some of the words have actually begun to wear away. I fear reading it again for they might fully disappear and then I would find myself believing I imagined that they were ever written at all.
Mother has informed me we are to stay with your family in Denerim for a portion of the summer, as we are all required to attend the pre-coronation events in the Royal Quarter. If this is the price that I must pay to see you again, then I will gladly offer it. I find there is little I wouldn't do these days to enjoy your company.
With you in spirit,
Chapter 8: Volcanoes Melt You Down
A/N: Muse Music: Volcano by Damien Rice.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Seven: Volcanoes Melt You Down
Teagan Guerrin spent a great deal of time traveling to and from Kirkwall during the years I knew The Champion and The Hero. He was the eyes and ears of The King in a place Alistair would not bring himself… for obvious reasons. It was on one of these visits that I finally convinced the reluctant nobleman to give me a few brief moments of his time.
"I don't see how I can possibly have any insight to offer you on this particular topic. Obviously, I am not – nor have I ever been – a supporter of this… union." He poured a bit more dark liquor into his glass and looked out his rented Hightown window into the streets below.
"I'm not looking for supporters, simply insight into a part of their lives where I don't have observational knowledge of my own. You can trust me when I say I've come across plenty of people who I wouldn't necessarily call fans, though none of them had as personal a stake…" I watched as he stifled his laughter into his glass, turning back in my direction.
"I'm not certain that feeling my nephew was slighted during their mismanaged courtship is a personal stake bu—"
"I wasn't referring to The King." His laughter stopped as soon as it had begun, but the blank slate of his face revealed nothing of the emotions that might have been running beneath the surface. Like all nobility, Teagan was well versed at hiding the truth when faced with subject matter they'd rather not discuss.
"Elissa was a child when first we met, a beautiful child, but a child nonetheless. I might be an infamous flirt, but even I draw a line at that sort of age difference." His voice was calm and even, but I could see the small peak of fury in response to the accusation I was certain he tracked right back from my mouth to its source. "When next I saw her, she'd grown into quite the woman, and I was interested – but my nephew beat me to the punch – and that, as they say, was that. So you see, my disapproval of Nathaniel Howe has nothing to do with anything beyond the man himself."
A large segment of their next summer together was to be spent in Denerim at a series of galas and smaller private parties in celebration of Prince Cailan's impending coronation. The thought of it made Elissa's skin crawl, and the only thing giving her the focus she required to remain so resolutely on her "best behavior" was the knowledge that the Couslands would be sharing the Howes' city estate for the duration of their stay.
Fergus' dawdling delayed their arrival in the city, so the Howes were long gone for the first party before Elissa could attempt to track down either Nathaniel or Delilah for companionship prior to the event. Instead she dawdled; standing in front of her mirror, attempting to brush several unwieldy curls back into place one last time, and wondering if she looked as different as she felt.
Nathaniel's letters had been more frequent and infinitely more personal during these last months of separation, as had her own. They'd celebrated birthdays and commiserated on the distance between them, sharing secrets and private jokes along the way, and now that she stood mere moments away from seeing him again she felt as though she might pass out in anticipation.
"You can stare into that thing all you like, what you're seeing isn't going to get any better." Fergus laughed at his own joke, ignoring Elissa's glare when she spun in his direction. She'd never shown the slightest concern over her appearance in the past, and he was certain that her newfound attention to detail had everything to do with Nathaniel Howe, though if he mentioned it she would no doubt deny such fact until the bitter end.
"Shut up, Fergus!" Elissa snatched her silken wrap up off the bed, winding it around her shoulders and pushing past her brother out the door.
To say Nathaniel had been disappointed when he found Elissa delayed in her arrival was an understatement. The cloud over his head as he pushed himself through the paces of the first of many tedious events was nearly visible. He checked his behavior yet again when his father's disapproving glance passed in his direction, forcing himself to smile and attempt to show interest in whatever Anora MacTir was going on about this time.
His renewed attentions only lasted a moment before his eyes were drawn back to the entryway, now opened to reveal Elissa arguing animatedly with her brother who dashed off the stairs and out of her range before she could land the blow she leveled in his direction. She looked amazing as usual, the vibrant sunburst hue of her gown making her hair appear even more like an open flame. He watched her eyes pass over the crowd, his pulse picking up with the knowledge that she was most certainly attempting to find him among the masses. He straightened up to make it easier, but watched her gaze fall short of where he stood as his brother Thomas climbed the steps to offer himself as an escort into the party. The pleased look on his father's face across the room left no question in Nathaniel's mind who had sent him.
The smile Elissa pasted across her face was as polite as she could manage, but Nathaniel could easily imagine what was going on in her mind when she threaded her arm into the crook of his brother's elbow and reluctantly followed him further into the ballroom. He kept track of her as the evening dragged on and assumed when he saw her slip into the shadows of a back hallway to exit the event that she intended for him to follow.
Elissa stood in the half-open window of the Langtham family barn, looking down over the exterior of the estate and listening to the chatter from the party still churning within its walls. Her eyes watered a bit in reaction to the dust that wafted up from the hayloft's floorboards, but she was willing to endure it if only to escape Thomas Howe's oppressive company for the remainder of the evening.
"I'm rather sad I missed you attempting to navigate the ladder in that gown."
Elissa spun, pressing a hand to slow her heartbeat when Nathaniel stood closer behind her than she'd thought it possible for him to manage without her noticing his approach.
"My apologies. I didn't mean to startle you… I assumed when you left that you wanted—" His words faltered at the idea that he'd overstepped his bounds and intruded where he wasn't wanted, but she stopped him with a smile.
"I hadn't really planned to set this up as a rendezvous point, but I'm thrilled that you interpreted it as such." When she'd finally found him at the party he'd seemed engrossed in his conversation with Loghain MacTir's daughter, and Elissa refused to risk his father's wrath or her own humiliation should she choose to interrupt and attempt to divert his attention.
"I'm fairly certain we would not have spoken tonight if I hadn't." Nathaniel chuckled and stepped closer to the window, following her gaze out into the torch lit courtyard below. "It seemed both of our social agendas were pre-planned this evening."
He made no mention of Thomas' name, but Elissa knew what he was hinting at. The best laid plans of Rendon Howe were beginning to play out in front of them and it seemed they were both merely pawns on his chessboard as he orchestrated whatever grand scheme he was pressing toward now.
"You seemed interested enough in whatever it was Anora deemed worthy of your attention." Elissa cringed, realizing how that sounded though she'd no hope of retracting it now that it had passed her careless lips and hit the open air.
"Absolutely. A detailed recounting of the number of dresses and hairstyles she went through before settling on the one that we saw was without a doubt the most stimulating conversation I can imagine." His pulse picked up again with the twinge of jealousy he detected in her words, but he attempted to remain neutral in response to it.
"Tell me she didn't?" Elissa laughed aloud, smiling broader when he leaned against the sliding window panel and met her eyes.
"Not every young woman is capable of discussing swordplay and legend, Elissa. Most of them are dreadfully tedious conversationalists, or even worse completely silent."
"I shall take that as a compliment."
"It was intended as such." Nathaniel watched her cheeks color in response, unable to hide his pleasure that he could continue to bring such a reaction out of her.
"I feel like an absolute twit for admitting this… but you are the one thing making this dreadful series of events even remotely tolerable. Had I not been certain you planned to attend I'd likely have orchestrated some sort of dramatic escape from Highever to avoid coming here at all." Elissa glanced at him from beneath her lashes; unable to fully look him in the eyes for fear that he'd see exactly what it was she felt inside.
"I suppose if those are the criteria, I'd have to label myself as a twit as well… I was unreasonably disappointed with the news that your arrival would be delayed and equally frustrated when I could not seek out your company once you'd arrived." He took another step closer to her, easily within range of making physical contact but allowing her to initiate it should she so desire. "If you hadn't had the foresight to make an escape of your own, I'd likely have made a much less tactful attempt to have you to myself within the hour."
There was a long pause within which both were certain the other could hear heartbeats pounding beneath skin. Nathaniel wanted to touch her, but would not, and Elissa was certain she could read something in his body language willing her to do the same, but feared making herself a fool should she misinterpret. She finally threw caution to the wind, closing the space between them and sliding her arms around his waist.
"It is good to see you again." She released the breath she'd been holding when she felt his arms close around her and the press of his chin against her hair.
"You'll get no argument from me." He smiled, brushing a curl out of her face when she pulled slightly away to look up at him.
"You wore it!" Elissa's eyes went wide when she caught sight of the tiny arrow charm she'd sent him for his birthday through the open collar of his shirt.
"Of course." He'd strung it on a cord and tied it there the moment he'd finished her letter, knowing that no matter what else came from the day he'd already received the best thing he could imagine.
"Fergus said I was daft when I bought it. He'll shove it in a box and forget about it, Elissa. You're wasting your coin." She reached forward without thinking and traced her fingers over the silver as she mimicked her brother's disgust; tucking the shiver she imagined she felt when her fingers brushed his skin away as nothing more than wishful thinking.
"Imagine that, another thing your brother is wrong about." Nathaniel laughed, hoping that she hadn't noticed the physical response he'd been unable to suppress when she'd unintentionally pressed her bare fingers against his collarbone. "It was the perfect gift, though you needn't have gone to any trouble. I was surprised you even remembered my birthday."
"I've remembered your birthday every year, Nathaniel." Elissa laughed, extracting herself from his grasp and pacing a few steps away to the other half of the window. "I simply didn't feel as though I knew you well enough to acknowledge it."
"Speaking of birthdays…" He watched her eyebrow arch as he reached into his pocket and moved toward her again. "I hope you didn't think I'd forgotten yours."
"What is this?" She reached out her hands to take the small box, flipping the lid open and revealing a delicate, silver bracelet fashioned in the pattern of laurel leaves. "Oh, Nathaniel! This must have cost you a fortune! I-I can't take this…"
"Nonsense." Nathaniel pulled the gift free from the box, flicking open the clasp and drawing it around her wrist before snapping it closed again. "Though, now I hope you understand why I dared not send it in the post."
"I don't know what to say…" Elissa toyed with it in restless fingers, stretching up to kiss his cheek impulsively before she could fully think through the results of that action.
When she settled back down to her feet Nathaniel was looking at her more intensely than she'd ever seen him before, and she was absolutely certain he was going to kiss her. The press of his hands at the small of her back suddenly burned her skin and she fought against the need to step away from him and catch her breath.
Nathaniel was absolutely going to kiss her, against all the voices in his mind screaming the reasons he should not. They shouldn't be there alone, no matter how close their families were it was improper. He shouldn't take advantage of her in such a way when she'd never made it blatantly clear that she desired anything more from him than the friendship he had already given her. But his rational mind was silent now, overtaken by the way she was looking up at him and how much he'd missed her the months they'd been apart.
He leaned in, confidence bolstered when she didn't withdraw, smiling when her eyes fluttered closed at the feeling of his breath only inches away; but the moment was crushed by the audible growling of her stomach.
"Bloody…" Elissa flushed straight down below her collar, stepping back with a nervous laugh at what had nearly transpired between them. "I suppose I should have extracted myself from your brother's company long enough to eat something."
"I can go back down to the party and grab something from the kitchen." Nathaniel cleared his throat, heading back to the ladder and attempting to calm his racing heart.
"No. I'll go." She brushed past him, smiling a half-smile back in his direction. "If your father lays eyes on you I have no doubt I certainly won't be seeing you again this evening."
He chuckled, watching her descend the ladder and knowing she was right.
Elissa had barely been gone when Nathaniel again heard someone walking through the barn; only these footfalls were much heavier than those he'd listened to as she made her way back out to the party. The ladder creaked beneath the weight of whoever now climbed it, and Nathaniel's nerves were set on edge when the blonde puff of hair breaching the top of the loft revealed none other than Ox to be invading the private space he and Elissa had claimed as their own.
"Congratulations, Howe. I honestly didn't think you had it in you." The much larger young man laughed bitterly as he stomped about the hayloft.
"I'm certain I have no idea what you're talking about." Nathaniel glared back at him, knowing whatever it was he was sure not to like it.
"Don't play coy, Nathaniel. Everyone's heard the rumors you finally got the Cousland brat to spread those pretty little legs of hers; I just didn't want to believe it. Though I suppose I should be thanking you for loosening her up. Will certainly make it easier for the rest of us to have a turn whenever you're done with her." Ox leaned against the wall, picking at his teeth as he passed his eyes out over the crowd below.
"Elissa is as much a lady now as she was when I met her years ago, regardless what your insipid rumor mill may have led you to believe." He could feel his temper rising when the other man smiled even broader in response to his words and knew that he'd chosen them poorly.
"Well if you aren't man enough to take her on, I am certainly up to the challenge. Why don't you head back into the party and leave Cousland to me." Ox wagged his eyebrows, wiping the edge of his lip with a cold grin. "No reason the rest of us shouldn't get a go simply because you don't know how to manage a woman properly."
"If you believe for a second I'd ever allow you to touch her, you are dreadfully mistaken." His voice shook with anger as he took a step toward the blonde menace now pacing the edge of the window ledge.
"So it isn't that you haven't wanted to, you simply haven't been invited?" The blonde shook his head, cold laughter crackling through the air. "You're too polite for your own good, Howe. If they don't offer, you simply take it. I certainly intend to."
The turn of the larger man's back in his direction was the only invitation Nathaniel needed, and he shoved Ox hard against the barn wall, hoping the element of surprise would give him the advantage he needed. It did not, and he soon found himself sprawled on the floor of the barn, reeling from the strike of Ox's fist against his nose.
"What in the Maker's name is going on here?" Elissa's eyes were like saucers when she crested the top of the ladder and she forgot all decorum, dropping to her knees in the dusty loft as she scurried to Nathaniel's side.
"Your friend here overstepped his bounds and I was forced to correct him." Ox stared down at her, even more infuriated by the way that she fussed over the other young man's condition.
"Yes, I'm sure that's precisely how it went." She puffed out a breath, turning her attention away from Ox and back to Nathaniel. "Now run along and dig Vaughn out from whatever cesspool he's currently lodged himself. I'm certain he's into any number of things much more to your liking than whatever it is you thought to find here."
"Howe may let you get away with speaking to him in that manner, but that sort of sass doesn't work with me you spiteful little tart!" Ox stomped forward, reaching down to yank her up from the floor by the crook of her arm. "It's about time someone taught you some respect."
The punch Elissa threw took everyone completely by surprise, sending Ox stumbling back against the barn wall clutching at his eye and swearing in a blind rage.
"I'd suggest you get going." Elissa stood up straight, posturing to take a second swing if it was required. "Now, before I'm forced to teach you some respect."
He pulled himself up from the wall and stomped over to the ladder, continuing to swear as he made his way down it and out of the building. Elissa stood until she was certain he was gone, relaxing only when his footsteps silenced and shaking out her hand as she made her way back to Nathaniel.
"He could have pummeled you, Elissa. I'm not certain the two of us combined would have been a match for him had he decided to," Nathaniel mumbled around his hand as she settled to the floor at his side once again. "Clearly I didn't fare well on my own."
"Ox is nothing more than a big bully. Having to walk back into that party with a ladies' shiner is likely as much of a spanking as his ego can take." She laughed, drawing him into her lap and gently prying his fingers away to inspect his nose. "I don't think it's broken, but we need to stop the bleeding before you ruin this shirt."
He watched as she ripped a strip of cloth from one of the layered petticoats beneath her gown, dabbing at the blood that had already run free and attempting to staunch further bleeding with light pressure.
"I shudder to hear what your mother is going to say when she sees the state of your gown back at the estate this evening."
"Mother has long since learned not to question such things. There will be sighs and a rolling of eyes and then she'll pass it off to the seamstress to see if it can be salvaged." She stilled her hands, cocking an eyebrow and holding his gaze steadily. "Now... do you want to tell me what it was Ox said that spurned your temper to the point you'd think to take a swing at him?"
"He suggested that our relationship had turned… physical…" Nathaniel paused, watching for a response to his words, and then continued when she showed none. "He then insinuated that I had in some way made things easier for others who sought your attention in such a way and said that he should be the next to have a go at you."
"I'm sorry, Nathaniel." Elissa sighed, her brow furrowing in irritation while she continued to dab at his nose.
"Sorry? You have nothing to be sorry for." His felt his own brow furrow in return and struggled to decipher what it was she could possibly feel a need to apologize for.
"I do. I told you the day would come when your reputation would be ruined as a result of your deciding to maintain this friendship with me. It seems today is that day, for Ox is most certainly down at that party claiming any number of obscenities to cover up the appalling appearance of his black eye."
"Elissa, I told you before and I'll say it again now, I don't care about my reputation." He reached up to still her hand, forcing her to meet his eyes. "I was angry that he would say such things about you. If people want to jump to conclusions about us, I am powerless to stop it. So long as you are not upset by these accusations, then I can force myself to remain calm."
She could feel her pulse picking up again at the look in his eyes, and reached down with her free hand to trace her fingers through the hair at his temple, pulling back when she heard a voice calling from the top of the ladder once again.
"Elissa! I've been looking for you everywhere. Temmerly just showed up at the party with a shiner he's claiming he got defending your honor…" Fergus watched Nathaniel extract himself from his sister's lap, pressing a small swatch of cloth against a bloody nose and resolutely avoiding his eyes.
"He got a shiner for attempting to put me in my place after I prevented him from further pummeling Nathaniel." Elissa snorted, dusting off her gown as she got to her feet. "Honestly, Fergus, you know better than to believe anything out of that idiot's mouth."
"What I believe is unimportant at the moment. Mother is on the warpath and Nathaniel's father looked none too pleased to look about and find him missing as well." Fergus followed the dart of Elissa's fearful eyes back to Nathaniel in response to this newest bit of news. "If you go down there now you can smooth over most of the damage with that silver tongue of yours. I'll get Nathaniel cleaned up and play alibi so that the Arl has less to rant about."
"Thank you." She pressed a quick kiss to her brother's cheek as she walked by, holding Nathaniel's eyes for a moment longer before descending the ladder for the last time that evening.
"Was there any truth to it?" Fergus turned to Nathaniel, attempting to read his friend's eyes as he searched for the words to answer.
"I have not threatened your sister's honor, Fergus. You have my word." Nathaniel pulled the bloodied cloth away from his nose and tucked it into a pocket, wanting nothing more than to be out of this conversation.
"What you do with your house staff is of no concern to me, Nathaniel, but if it concerns my sister…" Fergus trailed off, not wanting to damage a friendship he could already see crumbling with poorly chosen words. Nathaniel had shared knowledge of his experience with one of The Keep's serving girl's in confidence, and bringing it up here was risky. "Elissa is… she looks a woman but she's still a girl… if you decide to admit to her or yourself that this friendship has evolved into something more…"
"Your sister deserves better than a tumble in a hayloft if that's what you're getting at," Nathaniel finished the thought, understanding how difficult it was to broach the topic. His friendship with Fergus had been stifled by his evolving relationship with Elissa and he could sense the tenuous ties breaking free as the conversation continued. "I'm well aware of that and I promise if we make the decision to proceed in such a direction, I have every intention of doing so properly. As of now we are friends, and nothing more."
Fergus nodded, saying nothing more as they made their way to the ladder to face whatever now waited for them at the party.
Nathaniel lay in bed trying to silence his mind as it went over and over the events of the day. Even he was beginning to doubt his feelings for Elissa remained rooted in friendship, though he'd resolutely insisted as much to both Fergus and Ox earlier in the day. There had been a moment, no – two moments – where they'd almost crossed a line, and he was even more uncertain what to make of it now that they'd both been run through the wringer in the wake of Ox's black eye.
Before he could think any further, he was pulled out of the fog by a light knock at his door. He grabbed his shirt off the nearby chair and threw it over his head, making his way through the room to open it and find Elissa standing in her nightgown on the other side.
"Can I come in?" She glanced nervously down the hall, pulling the bottle she'd been holding behind her back out and offering it as cost of admission. He stepped back with a smile and allowed her inside, making certain no one had seen before shutting and locking the door behind her.
"You really like to play with fire." Nathaniel shook his head, trailing behind her as she made her way over to sit on the edge of his bed. "Just coming here is enough to damn us both and you tote along what I'm certain is a pilfered bottle of wine."
"I stole it from the party earlier, but was distracted by the whole debacle with Ox. Seemed a shame to let it go to waste." Elissa popped the cork, holding it out to him with a smile. "Besides, I couldn't sleep. I hope your father wasn't too hard on you. Fergus swore he provided a solid alibi but he's behaving oddly even for him."
"It's fine. Fergus did as much as he could." He took a small drink, enjoying the burn of it against his throat as he settled beside her, and hoping she would press him no further with regard to her brother's current attitude. "What about you? Has your mother calmed?"
"Once I explained to her what actually happened, she was quite a bit less inflamed, and you were once again the hero of the Cousland household." She laughed after a drink of her own, smiling when he looked at her curiously. "I may have insinuated that it was you who dotted Ox's eye, and I doubt he'll desire to admit to the shame that would come in attempting to deny it."
"Let's leave it for now." She yawned, rolling in his direction and reaching over to trace the charm he wore around his neck. "It's been a long day and I'm too tired to think through anything that might come out of my mouth properly. I just wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I'm fine." He smiled, stifling a yawn of his own when she snuggled closer to his side.
"I should go." Her words were muffled against the cloth of his shirt when he wrapped his arm around her.
"Probably." He tucked his other arm behind his head, listening to her breathing even out and settling himself to stay awake long enough to get her back to her room at morning light.
"Howe chased her from day one, whether he would admit to it or not. Everything he did was nothing more than a clever plot orchestrated to endear her to him. How much of that came as a directive from his father and how much evolved from his own personal machinations is impossible for me to say." The nobleman settled his glass back down on the table with that final thought, scratching at his jaw line in slight irritation. "Alistair never had a chance. She'd been poisoned long before they met one another. It was only a matter of time before she turned back to him, once he dug himself loose of the Free Marches and showed his face in Ferelden again."
I saw my window closing, and knew enough of the Royal Family's thoughts with regard to Nathaniel Howe to be certain I'd make no progress in changing Teagan's mind no matter what facts I could come up with describing The Archer's virtue. Regardless, I had my story, and that was enough to call it a successful night.
Chapter 9: Can't Walk Away
A/N: Part two in what I loosely call the "Denerim series".
Muse Music: Shameless by Garth Brooks.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Eight: Can't Walk Away
"Do you ever miss it?" For once it was Aveline and not Hawke who broke the silence as we sat around the table running through next week's plans.
"My conscience? No. Never." Hawke smirked, flipping a map of several nearby cave systems to the side.
"Funny." There was a sigh and a half-hearted frown that even Aveline with her rigid nature couldn't keep up for long. Hawke was who he was and they'd both accepted long ago that their friendship would simply have to tolerate both his open disregard for the law and her strict adherence to it. "I was actually speaking about Ferelden."
"When we were running from it with the horde at our back, I didn't want to leave… and I missed it for quite some time afterward." Hawke stroked pensively at his beard, far away in memory. "Then we were here and working to scratch out a new life and somewhere along the line I just forgot."
"So that's a no?" Aveline folded long fingers against her arms, cocking an eyebrow at him as she tried to puzzle out his thoughts.
"Not exactly." He pursed his lips in frustration, wishing for once she'd simply let him get away with the non-answers he was more comfortable offering instead of pressing for the details he didn't want to give. "I didn't miss it for a long time, but now that I've gone back… there are times when I do… and then I remember all the darkness and I try to forget it again."
Hawke's time with The Hero had changed him, as it had changed all of us. We learned to appreciate things we hadn't before, and to let go of others we'd clung to.
"I don't know how she stays there." Aveline reached for a stack of questionable documents, frowning as she shoved them underneath some other papers so she could pretend she'd never seen them.
"Elissa is the Warden-Commander of Ferelden, Aveline. That implies that she stays there."
"I am aware." She was getting frustrated now. It had been a long day, and a longer night, and Hawke knew just what buttons to press. "I simply meant it must be harder… For you and for me it's just Lothering and Ostagar… for her… how can she walk anywhere in Ferelden and not see everything that was, everything that she lost?"
"That's a question for her and not for me, Aveline. Though I suspect it's just as easy as sharing a bed with someone who looks suspiciously similar to the man responsible for most of that destruction."
"Hawke…" Another long sigh and a chastising glare in his direction. Aveline did not tolerate gossip. She was very attached to her own privacy and understood The Hero's desire to maintain what little was left of her own. "How you feel about Lieutenant Howe is of no more interest to me now than it has ever been, and has very little to do with the question I asked."
"The man is a menace." Hawke mumbled it, not meeting her eyes, but it was there just the same. "She's better off without him."
"I think we can all agree after seeing how she is without him that better off is not an accurate description of what she is…" Aveline let the thought trail off, the room falling into silence once again as we considered just how true that was.
Nathaniel woke a grumpy, sleep-addled Elissa with the first light of a new day; shuffling her off to her own room before anyone could discover that she'd spent the night sharing his bed. With only a few hours rest of his own, he knew it promised to be a long day, and found himself somewhat relieved to find he'd been excluded from the hunting party his father rounded up the night before.
"You somehow managed to redeem yourself with the Couslands by defending the girl's honor, but the damage that you did to relations within our arling by blackening the Temmerly boy's eye will take some time to repair." Rendon Howe pulled on his hunting gloves, leveling a cold glare in his eldest son's direction. "You are to spend the day here considering the choices you should make in the future if faced with a similar situation, and I am certain you will be if you continue to foster this… bizarre… attachment you have to your brother's future bride."
"If Fergus is going along, I doubt he's going to be any more lenient on Ox's behavior than I was. Elissa is his sister after all." The words were out of Nathaniel's mouth before he could stop them, the combination of too little sleep and irritation with regard to his father's continued need to label Elissa as property belonging to his brother making him far less cautious with his words than he should have been. He watched his father's hands still with his rising temper and prepared himself for what was to come.
"Unlike you, Fergus Cousland seems to understand that boys are going to be boys and a certain amount of questionable commentary with regard to the young women around which you find yourselves is a natural fact of life." Rendon doubted this was entirely true, but could not allow himself to let his son get the upper hand in this or any conversation.
"Respectfully, Father, if you'd heard—" Nathaniel's words trailed off at the look in Rendon's eye and the pressure of his father's thin fingers digging hard into the muscle of his upper arm.
"Then tell me, boy, what is it that this ruffian said to make you so willing to challenge me and forget every bit of decorum that I've bred into you from day one?" His father's eyes narrowed to slits and Nathaniel knew better than to test his boundaries any further. His body was still recovering from the punishment doled out at the hands of an all too willing guardsman the night before. "That's what I thought… now off to your room, and I suggest you put some additional time into remembering your place else I'll ship you back to Amaranthine for the remainder of the summer."
"Yes, sir." Nathaniel dipped his head as respectfully as he could manage, though his nerves prickled at his father's venomously chosen threat.
"Brother…" Delilah tapped frantically at Nathaniel's door, attempting to get his attention while avoiding the eyes and ears of anyone else who might be listening. After several minutes of waiting for an invitation, she gave up and opened the door of her own accord.
"I don't recall inviting you in, Delilah." Nathaniel lay on his bed; thumbing through a book Elissa had given him on Grey Wardens and glancing with disgust out the window into the passing afternoon.
"I'm not the one punishing you, Nathaniel, so you'll gain no benefit from treating me as your enemy… particularly not when I've come to bring you news that should erase that scowl of yours." His sister folder her arms and leveled a smile in his direction, waiting for him to acknowledge her before she was willing to impart the details she'd come there to reveal.
"Spit it out, Delilah. I have a great deal of sulking left to do and I'm fairly certain you're supposed to be off at Anora's tea."
"I am, yes, but Elissa isn't going." She watched her brother's expression change slightly before he could manage to neutralize it once again. "I thought that might get your attention."
"I don't see what that's got to do with me." Nathaniel turned his eyes back to the pages of his book, pretending the knowledge had no effect on him whatsoever.
"Nathaniel…" Delilah sighed, pacing closer to his bed. "I know you fancy her. It's okay to admit it to me. I won't tell a soul."
Nathaniel remained silent, only looking up when Delilah turned back toward the door at the semi-slurred ranting of their mother out in the hall."And that's my cue…" She fussed with her sleeve on the way back to the door, thankful that the Teyrna would be attending and keeping her from being stuck with her consistently inebriated mother on her own. "Do with the information what you will. I just thought you should know."
Nathaniel waited as long as he could manage to ensure both his father and mother's parties were long gone from the estate before he made his way down the hall to Elissa's room. Ensuring he hadn't been seen, he tapped at her door and waited impatiently for her to answer. When the door opened, she looked genuinely surprised to see him.
"Nathaniel? Why aren't you off hunting with Father?" Her brow creased as she waved him into the room, glancing quickly down the hall before closing the door behind him.
"My father thought it best that I not make an appearance as he hoped to repair the damage I did with Temmerly's people." He looked her over as she paced near the window, fretting anxiously with the edge of her sleeve. The dress she wore today was even more elaborate than the one she'd worn to the previous evening's gala, and her long hair had been tamed into wax-smoothed ringlets that tumbled down her back. "Aren't you a little over-dressed for lounging about the estate? Have they called you to Anora's tea after all?"
"I never thought I'd wish to attend a ladies' luncheon, certainly not one that Anora had anything to do with, but I'd gladly go today." Her heels clicked as she strode back over to open the door and looked down the hall again, closing the door when she didn't find whatever it was she'd been looking for. "Unfortunately, Mother and that dreadful Arlessa Isolde set me up for an afternoon tea at the palace… or they called it a tea. I'm fairly certain it's an audition."
"An audition?" Nathaniel shook his head in confusion.
"For queen… I'm having tea with Cailan." Elissa glanced furtively in his direction, dropping his eyes almost as soon as she'd met them. "This is exactly what I was afraid of… exactly what I don't…"
"When are you leaving?" His words sounded as panicked as he suddenly felt, but there was nothing he could do to correct that now.
"I'm already twenty minutes late. The handmaiden Mother assigned as chaperone has come down with a fever of some sort. She's off attempting to find a suitable replacement as we speak." She pulled open the door and puffed out a long gust of air when it again revealed no one had arrived. "The only thing worse than having to go is going late! It's humiliating enough as is… and now I get to listen to Isolde lecturing about decorum and being a proper lad—"
"What?" The look on her face was nothing short of horror, and she had to struggle to neutralize it before she caused any offense as a result.
"You need a chaperone, and I have nothing to do. I'll go." Nathaniel watched her consider the offer, easily reading her discomfort and attempting not to read too much into it.
Elissa paced, considering her options, which weren't many. She could continue to wait for a chaperone to be provided, making her even more late and increasing Lady Isolde's displeasure – a displeasure certain to be relayed to her mother in great detail. Or she could take Nathaniel up on his offer, putting both of them in a potentially awkward position and risking further inciting his father's wrath against him.
"Are you certain?" Seeing little alternative, she made her choice, hoping it was the right one.
"If I had any reservations, I would never have offered." Nathaniel held out his arm, attempting a reassuring smile as he led her out the door.
When Lady Isolde brushed past her guardsman to welcome Elissa Cousland into the palace foyer and escort her to the tea garden, she was already long past irritation. The girl was dreadfully late, and had finally shown up not with her mother's handmaiden as an escort, but with the eldest of the Howe children – a young man with whom she was rumored to have been carrying on a questionable relationship for some time.
"You needn't have delayed your arrival for lack of a chaperone, Lady Cousland." Isolde glanced down her nose with disapproval, tossing a barely tolerant smile in Nathaniel's direction where he trailed behind them. "If the Teyrna's attendant was unable to make it, I could have easily provided a… suitable… replacement."
"My apologies, Arlessa." Elissa cringed at the tone of the older woman's voice, now certain choosing to accept Nathaniel's offer was the worst decision she'd ever made. "Lord Howe offered himself as a last minute replacement, and as I was desperate not to be even further delayed in my arrival, I accepted. I am not as well versed in the proprieties of Royal Tea as perhaps I should be, but I assure you, any breech in decorum was not intentional and should be blamed solely on my personal ineptitude."
"Too late to worry about such things now." Isolde sighed dramatically as she pushed through the doors into the courtyard. "Cailan is in the gazebo. He can send for anything you might require."
Elissa curtseyed respectfully, letting out a breath when the frustrated woman disappeared back inside the castle, but making no move toward the center of the garden.
"Are you alright?" Nathaniel hesitated even to speak for fear of making Elissa even more likely to run than she already looked at the moment.
"I am most decidedly not alright, but there's nothing to be done for that now." She took in another long breath, smoothing down her dress and finally stepping forward toward the gazebo at the center of the garden.
"Ah, Lady Cousland!" Prince Cailan rose with a smile at her approach, offering his hand to steady her as she settled into the chair he'd already drawn out from the table. "I was beginning to think you'd decided not to accept my invitation after all."
"No, your majesty." Elissa's anxiety peaked when Cailan noted Nathaniel's presence while taking his own seat after assuring she'd been settled, but if her choice of escorts registered to him at all, she could not read it in his tone or on his face. "My assigned chaperone fell ill at the last moment and I was left struggling to find a replacement."
"Then I am fortunate indeed that you have friends so loyal they would sacrifice their own day so that you could keep your appointment." Cailan winked at her, bringing a light flush into her cheeks that Nathaniel couldn't miss – though he neutralized any reaction he may have had before the prince looked in his direction. "It's good to see you again, Lord Howe, and I thank you for ensuring the lady's safe arrival – though I doubt today will be very enjoyable for you."
"I suspect I shall manage." Nathaniel smiled in return, noting the increasingly panicked rise and fall of Elissa's chest the longer he spoke. "It's a lovely afternoon, and the scenery here in the Royal Gardens is nothing if not easy on the eyes."
Elissa choked on her tea, pressing her eyes closed and willing this all to be a dream. When she opened them again, both Cailan and Nathaniel had shifted positions to see to her well being, and she sprung out of the chair – disregarding how it might have looked as she paced to the edge of the gazebo to draw in a long breath of air.
"Perhaps you would enjoy a tour of the gardens?" Cailan offered his arm, accepting the mournful half-smile she gave to him as she linked her hand into the crook of his elbow.
Elissa remained silent while the prince led her through the gardens, chattering on pleasantly about one thing or another, though if asked later she'd be hard pressed to tell you what any of the topics had been. She remained focused on getting one foot in front of the other, on evening out her breathing, on pasting on a convincing smile, and most importantly on ignoring the sensation of Nathaniel's eyes on her back watching their every move.
"And that bush over there grows loon berries…" Cailan's words trailed off at the look on Elissa's face, and he started to chuckle. "Got your attention?"
"My apologies, your majesty. I'm dreadful at these sorts of things." Elissa felt as though she could vanish into her own shadow.
"At what sorts of things?"
"At behaving properly in the company of royalty... or anyone really..."
"Alright. Let's try this a different way then." Cailan stepped back, turning to meet her eyes. "Forget I'm royalty."
I-I'm sorry, your majesty, I don't see how…" Elissa sputtered in response to that, noting the curious look on Nathaniel's face from the corner of her eye.
"For starters, call me Cailan." He smiled when she nodded, and then continued. "Furthermore, there is no real need for ceremony here. That was all Isolde's idea – propriety and such. Let's just take a walk in the garden and talk. That should be quite a deal less stressful than a formal tea, don't you agree?"
"Yes, your ma—" Her words trailed off at the tilt of his head, and she corrected herself. "Cailan."
With her nerves beginning to settle, Elissa linked her hand back at his elbow and followed the soon to be king around the palace gardens.
It had only been an hour, but it felt distinctly longer to Nathaniel when Prince Cailan stepped away from Elissa to have a word with him while she waited slightly ahead on the path in the shade of a large tree.
"You must be parched after all this walking." Cailan smiled, flawless as usual, and though he followed Nathaniel's gaze back to Elissa – he made no mention of it. "I noticed Isolde must have sent more refreshments while we were lost in the hedges. Feel free to go and have a glass. I can see the lady back to the table."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the point of a chaperone not to leave one's attendant alone with the other party, your majesty." Nathaniel's tone was practiced and even and without the smallest hint of impropriety, though the things running through his mind were much the opposite. Regardless of how he'd done it, Rendon Howe had trained him well in hiding what went on behind the well-trained mask of neutrality he offered the world.
"You are correct. However, surely you can trust me not to cross any boundaries here in the broad daylight of the palace gardens?" Cailan's perfect grin never faltered. "Come now, Nathaniel. You've seen how uncomfortable she's been today, and I'm willing to take partial blame for that, but I suspect it's the combination of us more than one or the other. I'm simply trying to give her a moment to breathe. Once I get her back to the gazebo you're both free to go."
Nathaniel looked at Elissa and realized that Cailan was right. She looked ready to bolt at any moment, and even his presence was doing little to calm that impulse. He nodded and headed off toward the gazebo, trying not to think about just how dreadful the day had been and how foolish he'd been to ever offer to come along.
When they were finally outside the castle walls, Elissa picked up her pace, wanting nothing more than to be back within the confines of her own room. She knew she was dragging Nathaniel along behind her, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
"Did he do something to you?"
"What? No!" Elissa looked appalled at the suggestion, continuing her near dash through the crowded market streets.
"Did he say something?" Nathaniel would not be swayed from course.
"Leave it be, Nathaniel."
"Something has you so wound up you're willing to attempt to outrun me simply to avoid talking about it." He nearly plowed into her when she spun back to respond.
"Why does it matter?" Her eyes narrowed.
"Why can't you tell me?" His face was unreadable, though he could feel his pulse racing.
"Can't you just let it be? Today has already been a nightmare… can't you…" Elissa could see he wasn't going to let it drop, so she drew in a breath and simply spat it out, hoping then it would be left in the past never to be spoken of again. "Fine. He asked if I knew of any formal offer of betrothal between my family and yours, and when I was uncertain as to the answer, he asked if he might ask my father before he considered making a request of his own."
"Then your audition went well." Nathaniel knew those words sounded as bitter as they felt, and almost cringed at the look on her face in response, but could not silence his mouth as the words continued to pour out of it. "What did you say?"
"I said yes, Nathaniel! What else could I say?" She spun away from him, unable to stand holding his eyes even a second longer. "You can't very well turn down a king."
"If anyone could turn down a king, I would have suspected it to be you." She spun back again, closing the distance between them at an angry stomp.
"What would you have had me do, Nathaniel? I told you this day was coming; now here it is. Everything plotted out, everything chosen, everything I want go—" Elissa bit her lip, stopping the thought before it could come out, stopping the tears that desperately wanted to fall as she felt the little control she'd believed she had over her life slipping through her fingers. "It's done."
When she turned away from him, the world went into slow motion. Nathaniel watched her foot come down just between two cobblestones, the heel of her shoe snapping audibly as she tumbled hard to the ground. He dashed forward to her side, watching the damn break and the tears start to tumble down her cheeks.
"Here, let me—" She swatted his hands away with a mix of fury and humiliation, rubbing dirt on her face as she attempted to brush away the tears.
"Don't, just d-don't!" Elissa sobbed harder when Nathaniel refused to listen, scooping her up in his arms and pushing through the gathered crowd toward his family's estate.
Elissa made it clear she didn't want him there once he'd settled her back in her room and rounded up the healer to see to her ankle along with the various scrapes and bruises she'd gotten in the fall. She hadn't come down for dinner, and Delilah was reluctant to divulge any information she might have gotten from her short visit an hour before they retired to their rooms for the evening.
When he made his way to her room sometime later, he knew it wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. Elissa was right to call today disastrous. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. He'd damaged a friendship he cherished more than anything and to make matters worse, he now had one last chance to salvage things before his father – true to his word – intended to ship him back to Amaranthine for the remainder of the summer.
He didn't knock at her door. He wasn't certain she'd allow him entry should he request it, and he couldn't take the chance that she'd spend the rest of the summer angry and not knowing how sorry he was for his behavior.
"I don't expect you to speak to me." He sat down on the edge of her bed, watching the rise and fall of her back while she stared out the window and away from him. "I just wanted you to know how sorry I am. I never meant to upset you, and certainly never intended for you to be hurt. I just thought you should know that."
When she said nothing and made no movement to acknowledge his presence, he drew in a long breath and started to stand up and make his way back to the door, stopping only when he felt her hand at his wrist.
"Why?" Elissa's eyes held his with a resolve that shook his confidence. "Why did you offer to come?"
"You needed an escort…" Nathaniel trailed off at the look on her face, knowing if he was to repair this he had to come clean. "I didn't want to sacrifice another day of our time together… and I couldn't stand the idea of you being with Cailan all day."
"I don't know." It wasn't an answer, and he knew it – but it was all that he had. He traced his thumb across the laurel bracelet at her wrist, taking some small measure of hope from the fact that she still wore it. "But it's the truth. It bothered me more than it should. I have no right to—"
"Everything is changing, Nathaniel." She rolled in his direction, pulling at his arm lightly until he got the message and stretched out across from her. "Why can't things just stay the same?"
"Do you really want them to?" Nathaniel took in a long breath when she pulled in closer to him, pushing several curls behind her back and settling his arms against her waist.
"I suppose that depends on what we're talking about." Elissa felt the tingle in her blood again at the look in his eyes, but didn't withdraw from it this time. "Delilah says you're leaving tomorrow."
"Yes. Father has determined my behavior to be unsuitable for further attendance at the remaining events here in the city and has instead assigned me to work with a garrison of his soldiers to repair footholds at the edges of the arling for the remainder of the summer." He wasn't certain what to trust, the part of his mind that was telling him to go back to his own bed before this went any further, or the beating of his heart that told him this was the only place for him to be.
"Then you should stay here tonight." She pressed her lips lightly against the arrow charm strung above his collarbone, feeling his pulse pick up beneath them and relishing the idea that whatever was changing between them – he felt it too. "You're being sent away tomorrow, I've humiliated my mother and broken my ankle, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I really wish you wouldn't say that." Nathaniel brushed her hair back from her face, tracing her jaw with his thumbs for a moment before pressing a kiss to her forehead and rolling back so that she could get comfortable against his chest.
Chapter 10: Watching
A/N: The final of the chapters from the "Denerim Series".
Muse Music: Every Step You Take by The Police. I realize that may seem an odd choice, as most people consider it to be a "love song" but if you listen closely it's actually quite a bit more sinister.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta lady artemiskat!
Chapter Nine: Watching
As the years passed, those of us who met The Hero in Kirkwall would come to spend a great deal of our time within the boundaries of Ferelden, the stone walls of both Vigil's Keep and Soldier's Peak eventually becoming a second home. It was not a sanctuary she had to offer, and she often did so with great trepidation, especially in the later years when she became increasingly more withdrawn. Regardless, she opened her home and in turn her life to all of us, many who had no where else to go, and that would impact even the most jaded among us.
Some spent the visits availing themselves to the sparring rings and training yards, some in the kitchens putting away as much food as they could manage before the Wardens made quick work of what was left. I wandered the halls and the grounds chatting, and listening, and reading.
The Hero was well known for her love of books, my contributions to the literary world notwithstanding, and so any place she called home – temporary or long-term – was eventually filled with them.
It was during my perusal of one of the many library rooms within the walls of Vigil's Keep that I stumbled across something no one was ever meant to find.
The thin, wordless spine drew my eye. Crammed in between the elaborate, gold-bordered volumes of several Magister's tomes, most would have simply passed it by without a second glance, but I pulled it loose and flipped it open.
The longer I read, the more disturbing it became. It was the journal of Thomas Howe, begun in his youth and continued until he took his leave of Amaranthine to aid in his father's failed quest for domination.
To this day I have made no mention of it to either The Hero or The Archer, but I will share a few of the less… visceral… passages here simply to prepare you for what is to come. Our greatest enemies are often those we are least likely to suspect.
Being invisible is an art, a gift, a tool.
To see and not be seen, hear and not be heard… many would think it a curse, but I know the truth of it. Being invisible is a gift, and a powerful one.
My brother is a fool. Trailing around after the Cousland brat like a leashed mabari. I see them coming and going from one another's chambers in the shadows of evening and the growing light of dawn. If he were being given a taste of her virtue for his troubles… perhaps I could understand, but he has pledged to my father that she remains untouched – and Nathaniel is nothing if not a man of his word.
Honesty… what a worthless aspect to embody. Even when he tells the truth, Nathaniel is no closer to gaining Father's approval – though I suspect the truths he tells are incomplete.
Friends… he assures Father they are merely friends, but friends do not hide in haylofts trading trinkets and touches. They think no one sees, but I miss nothing.
Father has plans for Elissa Cousland, and they don't include Nathaniel. He would never be able to put her in her place. That requires a strong hand and a spine, neither of which my brother managed to acquire… but Father taught me well.
She will make a fine Arlessa and provide necessary connections to my heirs, and then when I'm done with her… there are rooms she can reside in far beneath these stone walls should she choose to forget to whom she is married.
For now, I am content to be ignored. I sit, and wait, and bide my time, knowing that one day I'll get my turn. They'll be sorry they didn't pay closer attention to the shadows.
Chapter 11: A Touch of Fire
A/N: Muse Music: Just A Kiss by Lady Antebellum.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat!
Chapter Ten: A Touch of Fire
"I think that may have been the longest year of my life." The Archer stared into the hearth, reading some sort of meaning in the dancing flames within as he thought back over his past with The Hero.
"Longer than the time you spent in the Free Marches when you were sent there to squire?"
"Yes, believe it or not." He chuckled and scratched at the patch of hair beneath his lip as he turned back to me. "For the first few years of that separation I was hopeful that I would soon return and we would be allowed to marry… and then when she… when Father ended things, it didn't seem to matter anymore. That summer he sent me back to Amaranthine and then declined the Cousland's usual fall visit, I was uncertain when or if I would get the opportunity to see her again."
"Was he really that angry that you'd become attached?" Nathaniel Howe rarely ever spoke in great detail with regard to his family, and I was determined to get as much from him as I could before he locked it all away again.
"I used to think I had a good idea of what motivated my father, but now… I haven't the first inkling of what it was that set him off. My father was… regimented… He had rules and structures and plans, and he didn't like for those to be questioned. I spent most of my life living within the boundaries he set for me without the slightest desire to challenge any of it – but that summer in Denerim…" He laughed and shook his head, reaching over to pluck a newly fletched arrow off the table to twirl in nervous fingers. "I talked back, I ignored orders, and I openly defied him given the opportunity to do so. I felt completely out of control, like I'd gone badly off the course I'd always intended to follow. I could see where I was supposed to be, I could get back there if I tried, but I wouldn't go back… I was too far gone by then. Being in love with Elissa Cousland was both terrifying and exhilarating. I have no idea if that's what it's supposed to be like. I've only ever loved her. Perhaps it's all madness."
"Would you do things differently if you could go back?"
"I've thought about that, the idea of one decision that I could make differently, one choice I could rethink that might have saved us some of this torture that we've both lived through – but how do you know that changing one bad thing doesn't eliminate the possibility of the good?" He looked up, shrugging his shoulders and tossing the arrow back into the pile. "Obeying my father that summer could just as easily have resulted in Elissa sitting next to Cailan on the throne, or marrying my brother… No. It's best not to think about the things you could have done. Take the good with the bad and make the best of what you've got. It's all any of us can do."
The Howes had made the journey to the Cousland estate more times than Nathaniel could remember. In the past he had ridden along patiently at the back of the party, enjoying the slow passage of the Highever countryside. This time the scenery was of no interest and his thoughts – drifting back to that last night spent half-asleep in Elissa's bed over and over again – only seemed to make the time pass slower. He was too focused on where he wanted to be and even more focused on the fact that he was not yet there.
He spent most of his time locked in an internal struggle between the responsible young man Rendon Howe had raised, the one who knew better than to do anything beyond riding steadily alongside the rest of his family, and the hormone driven lunatic who was rapidly losing patience with the entire trip. His anticipation at seeing Elissa again after months with few and much colder letters, due to his suspicion that their communications were being monitored, hung tangible in the air. He wanted nothing more than to push his stallion as fast as it would go regardless of what his father might do in response to such blatant disobedience.
He should have been thankful. Delilah somehow persuaded his father to leave a full two days ahead of schedule. How she had managed this he did not know. Rendon Howe was not a man known for flexibility. Nathaniel silently promised to spend the rest of his life repaying her for the favor, knowing even one more day of solitary confinement back in Amaranthine would have pushed him beyond his limits. Willing himself back into neutrality, he kept the pace his father set and prayed that the Maker would grant him the patience to continue to do so until they reached their destination.
When the gates of the Cousland home appeared on the horizon, Nathaniel could feel his tattered nerves finally begin to relax. He scanned the crowd as they approached for the flash of red hair he'd become so used to seeing upon their arrival, but this time Elissa was nowhere to be found. He dismounted his stallion and exchanged pleasantries with the Teyrn and Teyrna, tension building inside him once again as his mind raced to find a reason why she wouldn't have turned up to meet him along with the rest of her family.
"She's not here." Fergus' voice came from behind him, the semi-annoyed grin on his face evident in his words even before Nathaniel turned to face him.
"I'm sorry I…" Nathaniel returned the handshake Fergus offered and tried to conceal the natural reaction to how easily he'd just been read.
"Don't play coy with me, Nate." Fergus laughed, though it did not fully reach his eyes and leaned in closer to give some modicum of privacy to their conversation – at least enough to ease Nathaniel's mind under the watchful eyes of his father. "I know you're looking for Elissa. With all the night time strolls and obsessive letter writing you aren't nearly as subtle as you seem to believe you are."
"I see…" Nathaniel tried not to think too hard about the fact that both Delilah and now Fergus seemed to have figured out what was happening between the two of them before they'd given it a name, and to dismiss the slight disapproval etched into his childhood friend's features. "Can you tell me where to find her?"
"Ouch. Not even a 'Hello, Fergus. How are you, Fergus?' for your good friend anymore?" Fergus folded his arms across his chest and waited for a response.
"Hello, Fergus. My apologies for not greeting you properly." Nathaniel tried to remain patient, fashioning a smile to offer in return. Clearly if Fergus suspected his interests to have moved beyond a simple friendship, he had not yet made a decision on how he felt with regard to it.
"I suppose I always knew I'd be stepping aside for Elissa one day where you were concerned…" Fergus trailed off with a slightly bitter smile, leaving Nathaniel with a head full of questions. How was it possible that others could have so easily predicted something he himself had only recently discovered? "Elissa's been out in the forest since before sunrise. She wasn't here when your scout arrived, so she isn't aware you've arrived early. She's probably down by the lagoon if you want to go and find her. I will make sure your things are delivered to your room, and you can unpack later."
"Thanks." Nathaniel smiled and clapped Fergus on the shoulder before turning to jog into the forest in search of his sister.
He could feel his father's disapproving glare burning into the back of his head, but he didn't care. He'd used up all the patience the Maker had allotted him during the trip to Highever and the equally stressful conversation with Elissa's brother. If he was to be punished by either of them for his behavior later, so be it. For now his only focus was to find Elissa and know if she'd been as tormented by their separation as he had.
Elissa was at the lagoon just as Fergus had wagered, though Nathaniel had expected she would be upon discovering that it was neither illness nor distress that kept her from greeting him upon his arrival.
He could hear her laughter bouncing off the trees. The rich sound of it made him walk faster, seeing in his mind's eye the smile that no doubt graced her features at that very moment.
When he came into the clearing he saw her kneeling on the great rock above the lagoon just across from her friend, Ser Gilmore. Their clothes were still damp from having spent at least some time in the water. He opened his mouth to call out to her, but was stunned to silence when she leaned forward to place her lips flush against the knight's.
Jealousy burned hot in his veins. He wanted to run forward and tear them apart; to yell and threaten and plant his fist right in the young man's face. But he knew he had no right to do so.
Elissa was free to do as she pleased. Regardless of what he believed they had established in their letters over the last year and the stolen moments alone during their brief Denerim summer, he had laid no official claim to her – nor had she given him any pledge of loyalty. She owed him nothing.
Nevertheless he had no desire to watch her kissing another man. So he left the forest to return to his quarters, not noticing the blood that had slowly begun to flow between his tightly clenched fingers.
Nearly an hour passed between Nathaniel's poorly timed arrival at the lagoon and the moment when Elissa finally decided to finish out her lazy afternoon practicing swordplay, and other not quite so innocent but equally dangerous activities, and return to the castle for the evening.
As they neared the gate, Elissa recognized Nathaniel's stallion now tethered to be groomed before being stabled for the evening.
"Nocturne! Nathaniel's arrived early!" She squealed out the words unable to contain her excitement as she squeezed at Rory's arm and bounced from foot to foot. "Why did no one come to find me?"
She did not wait for an answer, as she had really been speaking to herself, instead thanking Rory once again for keeping her company before dashing off through the castle gates in search of the new arrivals. After checking several of the places she had become accustomed to finding Nathaniel, and verifying that he was not with Fergus, Delilah, or even Thomas – a last ditch effort as the two rarely spent any time together unless forced to do so – she made her way to his guest quarters and knocked softly but insistently at his door.
"Nathaniel? Are you there?" Elissa leaned her ear closer to the thick door to listen for a reply.
After a few moments, she heard a mumble inside, which she took to be a 'yes' – though she couldn't actually make out what had been said. Regardless, she opened the door and rushed inside, closing it softly behind her.
The room was mostly dark as the sun had started to set an hour ago, but she could make out enough in the fading light to see that Nathaniel lay sprawled out on the bed staring at the ceiling, or something on the ceiling, she couldn't be certain which.
"I'm so sorry!" She made no attempt to hide the excitement in her voice as she bounded over to the bed and flopped down beside him. "I had no idea you'd be arriving today! Why didn't you come and find me?"
"I was tired." Nathaniel noted from the corner of his eye the way her curls had popped loose from her braid as usual, and fought the urge to reach over and push one out of the corner of her mouth where it had fallen as she dashed to his side. "It was a long trip."
"What? Did they add extra road between Amaranthine and Highever that I'm unaware of?" Elissa laughed, rolling up on an elbow so she could look him in the face and poking at his shoulder when he still had no reaction. "You've never hesitated to come and find me before, or Fergus if it wasn't my company you desired, and you've made this same trip more times than I can remember."
Nathaniel had no reply for her, none that he could bring himself to say and certainly none that she would want to hear, so he said nothing. Instead he continued his careful inspection of the ceiling and willed the scent of her not to affect him so – that oh so familiar aroma of lilacs and steel already tugging at his senses.
"Did something happen? Are you ill?" Elissa became concerned that he would not meet her eyes, or acknowledge her presence at all. When last they'd seen one another they could barely manage to break apart, yet now he seemed to have reverted to the silent, distant boy he'd been years ago. "Your behavior is very peculiar."
She pulled up to her knees and laid a hand against his forehead, then his neck, checking carefully for signs of fever.
"I assure you I am not ill." Nathaniel practically growled at her, meeting her eyes long enough to relay a pointed glare before reaching to remove her hands from where they touched him and turning his attention back to the ceiling. "Now, my lady, I would like to rest until dinner if you don't mind. Please close the door on your way out."
Elissa sat there completely stupefied; hands hovering in midair where he'd unceremoniously dropped them. It would have been impossible to miss the venom in his tone or his eyes as he looked at her, and it hurt more than she ever could have imagined.
"Apologies, my lord." She composed herself as best she could before standing, determined not to let him see what his cruelty had done to her. "I was unaware that you did not wish to be disturbed. I will leave you to your sulking. It is, as it always has been, what you seem best suited to do."
Moments later she was gone, storming out of his room with the loud slam of his door sounding behind her. He listened to her footfalls moving down the hall, not running though she moved as quickly as she could manage without calling attention to herself. Her own door slammed a few minutes later.
"Alright… perhaps I could have done that differently."
I allowed myself to laugh once he'd begun to do so himself, his older, wiser mind thinking back on just how poorly he'd behaved in the wake of youthful jealousy.
"Then she's always been…" I trailed off, uncertain how to best complete that sentence without offending the temperamental archer.
"Elissa is impulsive. She acts without thinking; she follows her heart and what she believes to be reason – though often it is clouded by her emotions in one direction or another. I know that now – but I was still learning back then. I saw nothing but a kiss that did not involve me. Beyond that it was frustration and embarrassment and rage." He laughed again, shaking off the memory of that moment. "I'm certain Rory enjoyed it, but he never would have instigated it. He adored her, but he was even more proper than I was back then."
"That's difficult to imagine." I leaned back in my chair, attempting to form in my mind someone bound more rigidly by proper decorum and the rules of nobility than a youthful Nathaniel Howe.
"Elissa was the only daughter in one of the most powerful and well respected noble families in all of Ferelden, and Rory Gilmore – for all his strengths – was merely a soldier in her father's army. For him to have ever admitted how he felt… well, it took a dire situation indeed." The smile faded from his face, and I remembered a story The Hero once told about the last time she'd spoken with the knight before fleeing Highever in the wake of Rendon Howe's siege. "He saved her life by giving his own, in my mind all before that is forgiven – if there was ever anything to forgive."
Chapter 12: You Belong
A/N: Muse Music: You Dance by eastmountainsouth.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers – and to my wonderful beta artemiskat!
Chapter Eleven: You Belong
"Well of course I was cross!"
Several weeks after my conversation with The Archer, I brought up the topic of their reunion – fully expecting The Hero to dismiss me. When she snatched my last bottle of vintage, dwarven ale off the back shelf and sat down at the table instead, I had to scramble for my journal in an attempt to keep up with her.
"You don't think it was a bit unwarranted?" Her eyes narrowed in my direction as I sat down across from her, so I held up my hands in surrender. "You were kissing someone else. I'd say his reaction was somewhat justified."
"I didn't know he'd seen that! I didn't even know he was there!" She poured herself a mug, and one for me, sitting the bottle down hard to the wood as she leaned back in her chair. "Furthermore, we weren't together at that point, regardless what he may have told you! I did nothing wrong!"
The next thing Nathaniel heard was one of the kitchen staff calling him to the dining hall when he did not arrive on time for the meal with the rest of his family. He took his seat just as Bryce Cousland started to speak.
"I must extend my apologies to our guests. It seems my youngest will not be joining us for dinner this evening." The Teyrn smiled as he spoke, giving no impression that anything was amiss. "She has taken ill and decided to forgo dinner in lieu of a good night's sleep. She does send her regards, and looks forward to seeing you all tomorrow."
Nathaniel tried to ignore the pointed glares aimed in his direction from both his sister and Fergus as the Teyrn announced Elissa's sudden illness. Even his own father seemed to cast a disappointed look in his direction. Not unusual, but certainly unexpected in response to this particular bit of information. He would have guessed the man would be pleased to see that his efforts to drive a wedge between the pair had been successful considering the entire last year of his life seemed to have been devoted to that very thing.
Let them glare! He tried to reassure himself, settling his napkin casually against his lap and continuing to maintain the illusion that it was a perfectly normal evening. She deserves to feel bad. She manipulated you. She lied. You did nothing wrong.
Nathaniel ate his dinner quietly, speaking only when spoken to, and excusing himself as soon as an opportune moment presented itself. He just wanted to get back to his room, the place he planned to spend as much of the rest of this horrible visit as he possibly could, but he was stopped outside the dining hall by a strong hand on his forearm.
"Oi!" Fergus was yelling and yanked hard enough to spin Nathaniel back to face him. "What in the bloody void happened, Nate? You were all smiles when I sent you off to find her, now you're doom and gloom again and she's locked herself up in her room! What did you say to her?"
"I do not wish to discuss this with you!" Nathaniel yanked his arm away from the much bulkier swordsman, bristling with irritation. "Or anyone else for that matter!"
"Well that's too sodding bad isn't it, because you're going to!" Fergus planted himself firmly between Nathaniel and where he intended to go, his voice trembling with the rise of his own temper. "I want to know what you did or said to her that could possibly have upset her so much she's refused to come out for any reason!"
"What I did to upset her?" Nathaniel stepped closer to Fergus and narrowed his eyes as his own fury began to rise dangerously out of his control. "Did you pause even for a moment to think that perhaps it was she who upset me and that whatever I did or said was in simple retaliation? Or is that information far too advanced to have any hope of seeping through that thick Cousland skull of yours?"
"I'm going to forget you said that last part and give you one more chance to explain yourself before I decide whether or not to pound you into oblivion." Fergus returned his glare with an equally pointed one, making it very clear how rapidly his own patience was dwindling.
"Were you aware that your sister spends her free time fraternizing with the help?" Nathaniel was well aware he had chosen to tread on dangerous ground. The Couslands did not look down upon anyone in their employ, a fact Nathaniel admired, but he was angry and in this moment did not care how bigoted he might appear.
"Choose your next words carefully, Howe." Fergus rumbled out the words through clenched teeth, grabbing Nathaniel by the collar and slamming him hard against the stone wall. "I shall allow you to continue only out of respect for our friendship and the one I thought you shared with my sister, but be warned, sully her name again without due cause and I will end you."
"Without due cause?" Nathaniel laughed ruefully, continuing to hold the elder Cousland's glare. "I saw them, Fergus! I found your dear sister down by the lagoon just as you suggested I would, but when I got there I found her… she was all tangled up with… she was kissing your Ser Gilmore!"
Nathaniel fumbled over the words, his anger continuing to build when he remembered the moment he'd seen their lips press together. He expected retaliation, disbelief, perhaps even surprise from his old friend after he revealed his discovery. What he did not expect was the laughter now erupting from Fergus' mouth, or the way the young man released him and backed away, gripping the wall across from him for support and wiping away the tears that had started to run from the corners of his eyes.
"Wait, I can't be hearing this right… you-you can't possibly be… you aren't actually jealous of Rory Gilmore?" Fergus could barely get the words out, sputtering them in broken phrases between his continuing laughter. "Seriously, Nathaniel, you should feel pity for the poor man – not envy!"
"Pity? For him…" Nathaniel straightened his collar and stared at Fergus in confusion.
"Don't get me wrong… Elissa adores him in her bizarre, backward way, but he's really nothing more than a glorified training dummy for her most of the time." Fergus walked over to stand beside Nathaniel, all anger gone as easily as it had come into him. "She was likely practicing that on him like she'd practice anything else. You know how she is. She keeps at something until she feels she's mastered it, and only then will she test it out in whatever real life scenario she started prepping for in the first place."
"So you're saying she was practicing kissing on Rory?" Nathaniel still couldn't believe it. It seemed too foreign a concept. "Why would she need to do that… hasn't she…"
"Ah… my sister is gifted at a great many things." Fergus smirked, knowing exactly what Nathaniel was attempting to ask and slightly amused in response to it. For as well as the two of them seemed to think they knew one another, they really were fumbling in the dark. "The arts of – hmm… how to put this in a delicate way – seduction, shall we say, are not one of them. When she does something right, it's usually accidental. Mostly she spends a great deal of time feeling awkward and mannish and likely conned poor Rory into allowing her to become more comfortable with the idea of kissing a boy before she was put into a situation where such skills might be useful."
"Why does he allow himself to be used in such a fashion?" Nathaniel shook his head, solemnly mulling over the idea that as Fergus had not so subtly hinted she was likely practicing because she intended to kiss him.
"You have met my sister, haven't you?" Fergus laughed. "Really though, I don't know. They've been the best of friends for a very long time, and I suspect a part of him is in love with her, though he knows it is an affection that will never be returned in the way he wishes for it to be. I assure you, he does not feel used, nor does Elissa do these things intending to use him. You shouldn't think poorly of either of them in that regard."
The two young men stood there a few moments longer, Fergus continuing to chuckle while Nathaniel let everything sink in, eventually giving himself over to the same laughter.
"She is never going to forgive me for this." Nathaniel leaned his face forward into his hands, shaking his head with a long sigh.
"Oh, I suspect she will, given the right amount of groveling." Fergus patted his friend's shoulder sympathetically. "I wish you'd come to me with this earlier. I could have spared you the trauma you've done to yourself, or what's to come at the hands of my sister."
"Don't remind me…" Nathaniel swallowed hard thinking about facing her temper once again.
"Do yourself a favor and stop by the kitchen. Ask Nan for some leftovers." Fergus turned to walk away. "She gets even more grumpy when she's hungry, so bringing her something to eat might help with that… a little… maybe… if you're lucky. Of course, it might just give her more things to throw at your head."
"Thanks," Nathaniel groused, but headed to the kitchen anyway. He spent nearly twenty minutes sweet talking Nan into a large plate of food – including a double helping of dessert – before setting off for Elissa's room.
Nathaniel now stood outside Elissa's door like a prisoner awaiting his appointment with the gallows. He knew the offering of food in his hand would do little to make up for his earlier behavior, but he hoped it would at least be enough to get him in the door. Balancing the precarious plate he drew in a deep breath, steeled his nerves, and knocked.
"Go away!" Elissa was angry. "I've already said I'm not coming down for dinner! Just leave me be!"
"It's Nathaniel." His voice cracked with hesitation and he cleared his throat several times to stabilize it. "May I come in? I've brought you some dinner. Nan even gave me extra dessert when I told her it was for you."
There was no reply, and for a moment Nathaniel believed she would simply ignore him until he went away. He'd just about given up when he heard movement inside. The sound of her hands at the door sent him scrambling back and shielding the plate with his body as he wasn't sure what to expect once she'd opened it.
"I could just take the food and leave you in the hall." She glared at him through the slight crack.
"I suppose you could." He knew he deserved nothing better than if she did precisely as she'd threatened. "But then you'd miss out on yet another instance where I must grovel at your feet and beg forgiveness for running off at the mouth without thinking."
She did not smile or alter her expression at all; she simply moved to the side and opened the door wide enough for him to enter before closing it behind them.
The warm glow of the candles that lit her face made it obvious to Nathaniel that she'd been crying, though she'd done her best to hide it from him as they sat down opposite one another on the edge of her bed. It gnawed at his heart to know he'd caused her to suffer even the smallest amount of pain, regardless of whether he'd believed her to be deserving of it at the time.
"So, let's have it then." Elissa grabbed a bunch of grapes from the plate between them and started to eat them steadily. "Quickly. I'm still deciding whether I should throw things at you or listen and can easily be swayed in either direction."
"I was warned that my peace offering might be used as ammunition." Nathaniel stifled his laughter with a cough when he saw her eyes narrow in response to his comment, barely avoiding the grape she hurled directly at his forehead. "Okay! Okay… tread carefully, understood. Ugh… I don't know where to even begin…"
He shook his head wearily, rubbing at the back of his neck and trying to think of the right thing to say. He had no desire to be pelted with food, but more than that he desperately wanted to make things right between them again.
"How about 'I am a colossal ass'?" she mumbled around a mouthful of grapes, doing what he assumed to be an impression of him. "That seems fairly accurate."
"Perhaps you're right." He sighed, knowing that she was. "But could I at least try to explain before you label me as such? I know it won't change anything, but I'd like to think that if you understood the motivation behind it, perhaps you might consider granting me your favor once again – if only out of pity for my stupidity."
"Go ahead then." Elissa leaned back against her headboard and gnawed on some cheese. "I'm curious what I did to motivate such behavior from you, especially in light of… well, after the letters we wrote over the course of the last year and that last night in Denerim."
"Oddly enough that probably contributed to my behavior." Nathaniel noted her confused glance before continuing. "When we arrived I was surprised to find that you were not there to greet us with the rest of your family. After speaking with Fergus, I discovered you had not been there to receive word of our early arrival from the messenger we sent ahead of the riding party, so I set out to find you in the forest."
"But I never saw you…" Elissa interrupted, silencing with a wave from Nathaniel who just wanted to get it all out and be done, and nodding for him to continue.
"I know. I left before you did…" He didn't know how to continue. Even now, certain it had meant nothing, the thought of her kissing another man burned at him. "When I found you at the lagoon you were… not alone…"
"Not alone? You mean Rory?" Elissa sat up straight again, confusion completely overtaking her expression. "Why would that upset you? He's my oldest friend. You've seen us together a million times."
"Not like this I haven't…" Nathaniel tried to suppress his temper as it threatened to rise again when faced with what almost seemed a denial of what he'd seen.
"Not like… I don't… oh-Oh!" She gasped the words out and stood from the bed with eyes wide, covering her face with her hands as a flush started to creep into her cheeks. "You saw… you weren't supposed to see that! Bollocks!" She started to pace, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of him having witnessed what she did. "I'm mortified!" She groaned, completely covering her face. "What you must think of me…"
"I wasn't sure what to think, honestly." He watched the light of the room play off her hair as she moved. It was completely loose from its usual restraints and burned in the flickering shadows like fire around her face and down her back. "Clearly I chose to go with anger, though unjustified. I have no claim on you."
"Don't you?" Elissa finally moved her hands aside and met his eyes. What he saw there made his pulse rise steadily though not with anger. "You have to know it meant nothing. Rory and I are not… we are only friends. I was…"
"Practicing?" Nathaniel finished the thought for her, smiling again for the first time since he'd entered the room. "Your brother explained. It's how I knew what an idiot I was, and why I came to plead for your forgiveness."
"Fergus…" She laughed and shook her head. "I suppose he does come in useful every now and again. I'm certain he will call in this favor when I least expect it, and probably when I least wish to oblige…"
"I likely owe him as well." Nathaniel laughed, finally feeling comfortable enough to stand and walk over to where she stood. "For enumerating the ways in which I am an idiot, and for not popping my head off before I had a chance to explain myself."
"I'm sorry, Nate." Elissa grimaced at the thought of her brother's temper turned loose. "Fergus can be a bit overprotective. I hope he didn't hurt you."
"It's nothing that won't heal, and nothing that I didn't deserve," Nathaniel assured her. "I know what it is to be an older brother. He did nothing I wouldn't have done for Delilah were our circumstances reversed."
They stood in silence for a few moments before Elissa spoke again.
"Did you have something to tell me?" She picked at her cuticles and took a seat on the windowsill. "When you came to find me in the forest this afternoon…"
"Actually, I believe it was you who had something to tell me." A small smirk crept onto his lips. "If I remember the contents of your last letter correctly, and believe me, I do."
"I have many things to tell you, Nathaniel." Elissa smiled back at him. "But today was far more draining that I expected and I… I will need all of my courage to get through this, so I must ask for you to wait a little while longer if you can."
"In light of my earlier missteps, I can hardly deny your request." Nathaniel moved to sit across from her, his knee brushing against hers as he lowered himself into a comfortable position against the stone. "Nor would I pressure you to discuss anything you are not yet ready to speak of."
"Thank you." She reached over to take his hand. "I do, however, have a favor to ask of you before you retire for the night."
"If it is within my power to grant it, I will certainly do so." He caressed the top of her hand with his thumb, nothing how soft her skin was in spite of the fact she spent as much time with bows and blades as he did.
"You know it's my birthday in a few weeks…" Elissa looked down at the floor, her cheeks flushing with color again.
"Of course. Did you think I wouldn't remember?" Nathaniel laughed, bumping her knee lightly with his own.
"It isn't that I didn't think you would remember my birthday…" She still couldn't meet his eyes and looked increasingly uncomfortable. "It's just this birthday in particular is… important."
She finally met his eyes, waiting for a response, but he shook his head in confusion and forced her to continue her awkward explanation.
"It's my sixteenth birthday, Nathaniel." Disgust started to flood into her words. "It means I'm officially of age for courtship, should anyone desire such a thing."
"Oh!" Nathaniel suddenly understood why she was so uncomfortable. In light of her family's station in the Ferelden hierarchy there would almost certainly be a huge celebration where the Teyrn would be expected to present her to the entire kingdom as eligible for marriage proposals.
"It's going to be horrible." Elissa banged her head against the wall and stared out into the night. "As if being forced into a ball gown and corset isn't bad enough, this time there will be no sneaking away at the first available moment. I'll be expected to dance and mingle and behave. I'll be put on display like a side of meat up for the highest bidder…"
"It's only one night," Nathaniel tried to reassure her. He knew she could make it through this, as dreadful as he was certain it would be for her. "And then we have the rest of the summer to laugh about it and forget it ever happened."
"I wish it were that easy." She sighed, sadness creeping onto her face – a sadness he hadn't seen since that first night out by the lagoon. "After this year, I have to face the reality that I will soon be married off and living the exact life I have feared being shackled to for as long as I can remember."
"I suspect it will take some time for that to happen," he laughed, continuing his attempt to lighten her spirits. "Most of the young men in the kingdom are probably terrified of you, and rightfully so I might add."
"Yes, please do mock me, Nathaniel. That will make it so much better." Elissa tried to sound angry, but knew he could see the laughter in her eyes.
"It's getting late you know." Nathaniel faked a yawn and stretched with his free arm. "Were you planning on getting to that favor at some point or were you just going to wallow in melancholia until I pass out from boredom?"
"Ah… that…" She took a deep breath and reached over to take his other hand. "I wanted to ask you to be my escort to the ball."
"You want me to… shouldn't Fergus?" He sputtered the words out not believing his ears, but encouraged by her warm hands and grimace at the mention of Fergus being the one who should accompany her. "I would be honored to be your escort."
"Thank the Maker!" Elissa collapsed forward, resting her head against his knee. "I don't think I'd be able to bear this nightmare if I didn't have you there with me. I was afraid you'd say no. I know you hate these formal affairs as much as I do."
"I admit, I do not care for such events." Nathaniel released one of her hands so that he could stroke her hair. "But I would never abandon you to suffer such a fate alone if I can help to make it more tolerable. However, you should realize that if you choose to have me escort you, rather than your brother as tradition dictates, people are going to assume we are… together… as a couple…"
"The thought had occurred to me." He could feel her body tense beneath his hands.
"Does it bother you?" He needed to hear her answer before he could be certain he'd made the right decision in accepting her request.
She rolled to her back, looking up at him cryptically as she tried to puzzle out her thoughts before revealing her own.
"No," Elissa finally admitted. "Does it bother you?"
"I told you long ago what other people thought of the nature of our relationship meant nothing to me." Nathaniel reached down to touch her cheek lightly. "That has not changed, nor will it ever."
She reached up and covered his hand with her own, her thumb running over his skin in a lazy circle as she smiled at him. The sensation sent a jolt of electricity from the point of contact all the way down his spine. His pupils dilated, and as though responding to him, he watched hers do the same.
"Why were you practicing?" The words fell from his mouth before he could contain them.
He watched color flood her cheeks again and she released his hand to sit up, trying to compose herself as she increased the space between them and returned to her spot opposite him in the windowsill.
"I have never…" Elissa began, trailing off in search of the words to explain. "I didn't want to be bad…"
She tried to will herself to be calm, to simply say she didn't need to offer an explanation, but he was there – watching her with his steel gray eyes – and suddenly she couldn't breathe.
"You planned on kissing someone…" He dared to push forward, seeing the emotions coursing through her and knowing they mirrored his own.
"Perhaps…" It was all she could manage in response. The candles in her room had burned down over the course of their conversation and the moonlight from outside her window had taken over the darkness. She was taken aback once again by how handsome he was under such circumstances.
"Is he someone I would know?" Nathaniel played along. If she did not wish to speak directly, he would allow her to hide behind riddles for the moment.
"Quite well, I'd imagine…" Elissa smiled slightly.
"I see…" He leaned forward, bridging the distance between them halfway and allowing her to make up the difference if she so desired. "And what did he do to garner the consideration of such a gift from you?"
"He stole something" she replied, emerald eyes holding tightly to gray.
"Stole something?" Nathaniel was thrown for a moment. He'd never taken anything from her, not that he could remember. He started to believe it wasn't him she desired after all.
"Yes." Elissa's voice dropped to a whisper as she brought herself upright, closing the last of the space between them and reaching to hold the side of his face as she finished her thought. "He stole my heart."
Her thumb grazed the edge of his mouth, tracing the outline of his lips, and before he knew what he was doing he'd drawn her into his arms. He reached up to take her face in his hands, leaning forward to claim her mouth with his own as he had desired to do more times than he could remember. He stopped only when he felt her hands push lightly at his chest.
"Wait." Her words were breathless and he could feel her body shaking lightly next to his as he was certain she could feel from him. "I'm not… I can't…"
"I'm sorry." Nathaniel released her, backing away to give her space and fearing he'd upset her once again. "I assumed… it was improper of me."
"No… no, Nathaniel. I won't have you beating yourself up." Elissa followed him in his retreat, taking his hands and forcing him to look at her. "It was you I practiced for… is you… it's just… If I kiss you, it will change everything – forever – there is no going back. I have to know that I… that we are ready for that."
"I understand." He nodded because he did understand her fear. He did not know himself if he could go back to being her most trusted companion once he'd had a taste of anything else, and the idea that anything could remove her presence from his world brought more fear to his heart than anything else he could imagine. "Take all the time you need to be certain. In the meantime, I really should go before…"
"That would probably be for the best." Elissa sighed with regret. There was nothing she wanted more than to have him stay the night beside her as they'd done those two brief nights in Denerim, but in light of the changes afoot between them, she knew better than to tempt fate to that extent. She stood to walk him over to the door, holding to his fingers until the last possible second, watching him walk down the dim corridor to his room, and only closing the door once he'd disappeared inside it.
Elissa's mind raced as she dressed in her nightgown to lay down for the evening. Almost an hour later, after having been completely relaxed for some time, her heart still raced as though she'd run for miles.
She wondered if Nathaniel felt the same way as he tried to sleep just down the hall, so close to her yet so far away. She suspected she would have her answer come summer's end and wondered how her father and mother would feel when they discovered they'd announced their daughter's eligibility only to be told she'd given her heart away years ago.
Down the hall Nathaniel tossed and turned, unable to sleep. He felt as though he was burning alive with a fever, though his room was quite cool for the summer temperatures, and he knew this had everything to do with the girl who lay sleeping just down the hall.
He wondered if Elissa lay awake as he did, wanting nothing more than to travel the few minutes between them and continue what had almost begun an hour before.
He fought down the urge to return to her. He knew it wouldn't take much to weaken her resolve. It was already crumbling. He'd seen it in her eyes. But he'd also seen her fear, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection… and something else, something he also feared. Fear of what could be.
"All that and you didn't kiss him?" I laughed, stifling it when she cast a stern glance in my direction.
"Nathaniel used to harp on about that, still does from time to time." She folded her arms across her chest. "To kiss someone is… profound. It changes your entire world in the span of a second."
"The other stuff doesn't?"
"What other stuff? Sex?" She snorted out a burst of laughter. "To a certain extent I suppose, but there's a disconnect… a loss to sensation and pleasure and the chemicals rushing about in your veins pushing you to continue the species and what not. Kissing is less tangible and far more intimate."
"And you weren't ready to be that intimate with him?" I listened to the sigh, and assumed I'd gotten as much as I was going to get, but she surprised me by continuing.
"Is that so hard to believe?" She fussed with her hair, lost in memory and what looked to be regret. "Nathaniel was… and still is in some ways, out of my reach. I don't know how to explain it better than that."
Chapter 13: One Step Closer
A/N: This is the first chapter that will absolutely contain some NSFW material - though the entire book is labeled as Mature.
Muse Music: A Thousand Years by Christina Perri.
Thanks to my readers, reviewers and followers - and to my wonderful beta who keeps me on track artemiskat!
Chapter Twelve: One Step Closer
"Elissa's announcement ball? Yes, I suppose that is where it all really started." Delilah tapped at her lip, staring out the window of the large library room we'd wandered into during this stay at Soldier's Peak.
"It all started the moment she spied your brother walking through the castle gates." It was noon and Fergus had already been drinking, though the spirits had done nothing to brighten his mood. "Her ball was simply the first time they openly admitted it to the rest of the world."
"Fergus…" Delilah rolled her eyes with a sigh and turned to face him. "It may be easier for you to lay the fault in all of this at my brother's feet… I understand the impulse better than most, I certainly held your sister to be solely responsible for a lot of things for a long time… but we both know that isn't the truth. The damage they've done to each other, to others… it's because of the choices they've made together. But there is good in them as well, you just don't want to see it."
"You can't see things that aren't there." The elder Cousland ran his fingers through his hair and shoved away from the table. "Why are we talking about this anyway, dwarf? I thought you were interested in telling the tale of the Hero of Bloody Ferelden. I'm not sure how Nathaniel has anything to do with that. That's all Elissa and her ego."
"If I'm going to tell her story, I have to tell his." I shrugged my shoulders, having no better answer than the honest truth. "Truthfully, I don't think one exists without the other. Without the Howes there would be no Hero."
"Without the Howes there would be no cemetery in my courtyard. Forgive me if I would trade Nathaniel one hundred times over to erase everything his bastard of a father ever touched!"
"Nathaniel had nothing to do with any of that! Father's influence only ever extended to Thomas, and your sister saw to his end just as surely as she saw to our father's!" Delilah was angry now. She held no love for her family beyond the bonds that remained between herself and The Archer, but she tired quickly of all of the blame being laid at the feet of her bloodline.
"Your father and your brother deserved much worse than they got, of that I am certain." Fergus glared at her for a moment before turning back to his bottle. "Either way, what's done is done… but if I could go back, I'd have escorted my sister to her ball and done everything possible to keep her as far away from Nathaniel as I possibly could."
"That would only have encouraged them, Fergus." Delilah sighed, her fury faltering when she saw just how broken the man actually was. He'd truly lost everything especially now that he'd sacrificed any sort of relationship with Elissa to his vengeance and pride. "By the time Elissa's sixteenth birthday rolled around, they'd already made it clear they were willing to do anything to be together. There was nothing any of us could do to change that."
The next few weeks passed quickly; the castle awash in a tempest of activity as the Teyrn and Teyrna – along with the castle staff – rushed about to accomplish everything that must be done so that all was in order for the birthday celebration that would come at summer's end.
For the first few days after she made the request, Nathaniel and Elissa both attempted to go about their days much as they always had, spending the light hours involved in activities of their own and the evening hours together. But little by little, day after day, Nathaniel would forgo any plans he had tentatively established with Fergus and find a way to share in whatever daytime plans Elissa had made. By summer's end, they were spending every waking moment together, separating reluctantly to bathe and sleep.
The air between them hummed with a constant, unspoken energy, but though their relationship had clearly changed, neither of them pushed any further through the door of discovery that had opened that first night. There were many times it almost happened, many moments when Nathaniel's lips would come so close to finding purchase – but at the last second Elissa would hesitate to meet them. He would not allow himself to pressure her, no matter how much he desired to do so. So they spent the summer circling in a beautiful and tortuous dance, waiting for the moment when she would give in to his advances or he would become unable to restrain himself any longer.
When the night before Elissa's birthday celebration finally arrived, neither of them felt ready for it. It seemed that everything between them could change in the course of one evening, an idea that excited and terrified in equal measure. They'd spent most of the summer carefully considering and exploring the idea that something more than a simple friendship was building between them. Though both Fergus and Delilah had noticed the visible change in their behavior, clearly evident when they were together and even when they were apart, neither Nathaniel nor Elissa had spoken of the new developments in their relationship to anyone other than each other.
Until they were forced to address the issue by her father's announcement of Fergus as her escort at dinner that evening.
"By the bloody void, do I have to?" Fergus glared down the table at his sister as though it had been her idea. "I'd rather try to wrangle a dragon than attempt to make Elissa behave properly at a formal event."
"Language, Fergus!" Eleanor Cousland hissed at her son, the color rising in her face while she smiled at the Arl and Arlessa and attempted to mask her embarrassment.
"Listen to your mother, Fergus… and yes, you do." Bryce Cousland was clearly annoyed at his son's outburst, but he covered it with a light smile of his own. "It's tradition that the eldest son accompany a girl to her announcement ceremony if the young lady has not already chosen an escort of her own."
Fergus opened his mouth, ready to continue to voice his disapproval, but was interrupted by Elissa's voice.
"Actually, Father…" Elissa cleared her throat nervously and caught Nathaniel's eye, continuing when he nodded his approval with the realization that they now had no choice but to reveal their intentions. "Fergus will not need trouble himself to wrangle me as he so lovingly put it. I have chosen an escort of my own."
"Indeed?" Bryce shared a smile with his wife across the length of the table when their suspicions were confirmed. "And whom will I have the pleasure of announcing at your side?"
"I have asked Nathaniel to accompany me." Elissa grimaced lightly when chatter erupted around the room; gasps from some, delighted twitters from others, and what seemed to be irritation from a small handful.
"I see…" Bryce turned to Nathaniel and attempted to mask his obvious joy at the news with his best serious face. "And you have agreed to this proposal, young man?"
"Yes, my lord, I have." Nathaniel ignored the disapproval rolling off his father in waves and the truly hateful look he now garnered from his younger brother Thomas.
"Then I suppose barring any disapproval from your family…" Bryce paused, waiting to see Lord Howe acknowledge his acceptance of these arrangements, before continuing when he received it with a curt nod. "This would let Fergus off the hook for the evening."
Green eyes met grey across the table, Elissa blushing furiously under the scrutiny of both Delilah and her mother's curious eyes while Nathaniel seemed unaffected as her father smiled approval down upon him.
Elissa stood in front of her mirror fussing with her hair one last time. Her mother insisted she wear it up, though she pleaded to keep it down; uncomfortable with the amount of skin exposed by her new dress should she not be allowed to have her hair hide at least part of it.
After wasting an hour arguing, they had finally come to a compromise, leaving half her curls pinned down loosely to her head, and the other half in rolling tendrils that hung down her back and shoulders. Standing there now she reluctantly admitted it looked quite nice, though she wondered if Nathaniel would think the same.
Nathaniel stood outside the door to her room, a spot he had stood in hundreds of times before, and took one last breath to calm his nerves. It had taken him a long time to get ready; a much longer time than it had ever taken him before. Tonight all eyes would be on the pair of them, and he was determined not to cause any undue stress to Elissa by not looking as though he belonged at her side.
He had chosen to wear black, mostly because he had forgotten to inquire as to the color of her dress, but also because he knew that Elissa thought it suited him quite well. You look like a pirate she had said upon seeing him wear this particular outfit for the first time. At first he'd been uncertain whether to take that as a compliment, but her smile of approval and the slight twinkle in her eyes quickly removed any concerns from his mind.
Finally ready to take the plunge, he raised his hand and knocked. He heard the click of her heels upon the floor as she made her way to the door, and a few seconds later the creak of the wood as she opened it. He didn't realize how long he must have been standing there looking the fool until she finally spoke.
"Have you lost the power of speech?" Elissa eyed him nervously, the flush on her cheeks creeping down her neck under the attentive look he was giving her.
"No… I…" Nathaniel tried to speak; unable to take his eyes off of her though he knew he was gawking like an idiot. "I'm…"
He could not have chosen his own outfit more perfectly if he had tried. The dress she wore was solid black silk, embroidered with hints of silver thread that spread their tendrils like spider webs encrusted in morning dew, particularly evident on the long rear train that trailed out behind her. The dress was sleeveless, the bits that covered her arms detached from the main body of the dress, making them more like long gloves that began at the crest of her bicep and traveled the length of her arms before looping in a point over her middle fingers.
Nathaniel had never seen so much of her skin before, everything from her upper chest to her face fully exposed by the cut of the dress. The muscles in her arms twitched nervously under his inspection, and he knew she was fighting the urge to shield herself from his eyes.
"You act as though you've never seen me in a dress before." She laughed, trying to lighten the mood with her smile.
"I have seen you in dresses many times, but never in one like this…" He fought the urge but was unable to keep his eyes from landing on the pendant that she had chosen to wear. The shining silver charm rested just above the swells of her notably ample breasts. It was the birthday gift her father had given to her that morning. "And you never had those… I'm sorry, what I mean to say is, you never filled them out in quite this manner."
"I know!" Elissa wailed, and tugged at the edge of her dress to try and pull it higher, but the action only drew his eyes more intently to her cleavage when the motion caused her chest to bounce slightly. "It's like I just woke up one day and there they were and I don't know what to do with them. I'm sorry, Nate. Is it vulgar? I can change… I-I should change…"
"No, no… Elissa… It's alright." Nathaniel reached over to still her nervous hands with his own. "It's perfect, you look… amazing. I shall be the envy of every eligible bachelor in the kingdom tonight."
"I sincerely doubt that," she scoffed, rolling her eyes at the thought of anyone else wishing for her attentions. "They're far more likely to thank their lucky stars that you're the one saddled with my company. Even Fergus didn't wish to accompany me and he's my brother!"
"Fergus did not wish to accompany you because he is your brother. Showing disdain for such activities is something we older brothers must do, even when the feelings are not genuine." He laughed lightly at the grin that began to light her face. "He could not simply acquiesce to such a directive. It would tarnish his hard earned reputation."
"Are you certain you want to do this, Nathaniel?" Elissa looked down at their entwined fingers for a moment before capturing his eyes with a heavy gaze and offering him one last time to change his mind. "It's not too late to ask Fergus to step in."
"I have never been more certain of anything in my life." Nathaniel released one of her hands and reached over to lay a palm against her cheek. "I do not know what lies beyond this moment any more than you, but know this, Elissa Cousland… it is my honor to stand beside you tonight. If we continue from here in the course of the truest friendship I will ever know, then I will accept that just as happily as if we push with breathless anticipation for whatever lies behind this next door. I am yours in whatever capacity you choose to have me."
She closed her eyes as she reached up to take his hand where it lay at her cheek, turning her face into it and placing a kiss in his palm. They stood that way until one of the servants knocked at the door and they were out of time.
Nathaniel offered his arm to her as he had many times before, but this time as she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and he covered it with his own, he knew with absolute certainty that no matter what lie ahead for them he would never feel about another the way he felt about her. They fit together, like a puzzle – perfectly connected, perfectly complete. There would be no other.
When they arrived outside the courtyard doors, Elissa's family awaited them, along with Delilah whom she had recruited as her assistant for the evening knowing that she had no hope of managing her monster of a gown without a helping hand. Delilah squealed in delight upon seeing the two of them together, and even Fergus had managed to put away his overtly critical glare in exchange for reluctant appreciation for how well his sister had cleaned up for the event and how natural the two of them appeared standing there arm in arm.
"You look absolutely stunning, my darling!" Eleanor smiled, patting Nathaniel lightly on the arm to offer her seal of approval.
"My fierce girl…" Bryce stopped her for a moment as Nathaniel passed her over from his arm and looked at her as though she might disappear in front of his eyes. "I cannot believe how quickly you have grown. It seems as though I blinked for a moment and the little girl I watched come into this world was gone."
"I will always be your littler girl, Father." Elissa fought back tears when she noticed the ones that shown just over the pride in Bryce Cousland's eyes.
"Yes, I suppose you will." He gave her hand a squeeze and took in a deep breath, turning them toward the courtyard doors. "Now, I'm certain you're quite ready to have this part over and done with so let us delay it no longer."
A few seconds later they emerged through the doors. The courtyard was packed full of young men and their families, all vying for a place at the front, all wanting to see and be seen by Elissa Cousland. Nathaniel scanned the crowd and recognized many of the faces in attendance, some of them with a disgust he could barely manage to conceal. These men were not worthy of Elissa's attention.
Undoubtedly most of them were here because power hungry parents had told them Elissa was one of the two most desirable women in Ferelden, matched only by Loghain's daughter, Anora. It seemed as though everything she told him in fear years before now spread out before them. A sea of young men who would wish for nothing more than to douse her flame the moment they possessed it. He watched her toy nervously at the edge of her glove with her free hand and vowed to the Maker that he would do everything in his power to make sure that never happened.
Eventually his gaze drifted over to his own family, Rendon as expected making certain to secure a spot near the front of the line. His mother looked distant, likely already lost in the bottom of what he knew was not her first glass of wine. His brother watched Elissa much as a wolf would a fawn in the meadow; hungrily and without mercy. His father's face was unreadable, but Nathaniel knew where to look, and his eyes said everything. The anger that seethed there for his eldest son was immeasurable, and Nathaniel knew that he would pay dearly for this summer's transgressions.
In front of him Bryce Cousland was already speaking; announcing Elissa to the court. After a brief pause to let the applause die down, he turned with a proud smile and announced Nathaniel as her escort. He was vaguely aware of the Teyrn's reassuring squeeze on his shoulder as Elissa threaded her arm into his once again. The hushed whispers and stunned mutterings that continued to flutter through the mass of people clustered around the dais when it was revealed that Nathaniel and not Fergus would stand as escort were missed by neither of them. The blossoming romance that had once been known only to them was now on display for all the world to see, and it was clear that many did not approve.
The line of suitors moved past them one after another. Elissa spoke to each of them with as much decorum as she could muster, but offered little opportunity for a lengthy conversation to take root. It was clear to anyone who knew her that she wanted nothing more than to be done with this exercise in futility as quickly as possible.
Most of the young men probably didn't notice her disinterest. They knew they had little chance of attracting her attention and were perfectly content to ogle her for the few moments of false kindness that she offered to them. But Nathaniel knew her better than anyone, and every move she made, every slight intonation in her voice, every bit of nervous tension creeping into her posture communicated to him that the attention was quickly becoming more than she could manage. She was beginning to take on the appearance of a rabbit in serious contemplation of gnawing off its own leg to escape a snare.
As much as he wanted to relieve her distress, he knew there was little he could do to speed this process. His job was simply to stand there in silence while everyone else got a look at her, and some of them looked a little harder than he appreciated – particularly since as far as they knew he and Elissa had already begun the process of a formal courtship.
When the end of the line drew near, he heard her quiet sigh of relief and echoed it with one of his own. As the last suitor came into view, Delilah – who had giggled off and on throughout the evening and somehow managed to keep the mood light – dashed forward to whisper in Elissa's ear.
"It's King Cailan!" Delilah was hardly able to contain her excitement. She'd had a crush on Cailan for as long as Elissa could remember. "He's been watching you all night. He traded with several others to make sure he'd have the last spot in line."
"What? Why would he…" Elissa began to mumble her response but silenced quickly when she saw that it was indeed the King who now stood before her.
"My lady, you are an absolute vision." Cailan smiled, bending forward to place a chaste kiss against her hand. "Truly breathtaking."
"Thank you, your majesty." She curtseyed low, already beginning to flush in response to his attentions. They had not seen one another since their walk in the palace gardens, and she was no more comfortable now than she had been then.
"I wondered if I might request that you honor me with a turn around the dance floor, seeing as no one else has seen fit to ask." He held onto her hand, watching her glance briefly at Nathaniel to seek his approval. "I am certain Lord Howe will allow it."
"Of course, your majesty." Nathaniel kept his voice low. He was polite as always, but Elissa could hear the anger and frustration simmering below the surface at being backed into a corner and she could not miss the tension in his arm as she slipped away from him and moved with Cailan through the crowd.
The king was just as graceful on the dance floor as he had been walking up the stairs and strolling through the gardens before he'd taken the throne. He moved with ease, and his gentle smile was infectious. He chatted with Elissa as they went through the paces of each dance effortlessly, and she found herself blushing at his words on several occasions. He was, she had to admit, every bit as handsome and charismatic as everyone always claimed him to be.
From the stairs Nathaniel watched the scene unfolding before him. He had been certain that Elissa would struggle and scoff her way through her time with the king in much the same way she had the rest of the evening; barely managing to hide her desire to flee beneath a mask of false politeness until she could steal away with him for the remainder of the evening. What was actually happening out on the dance floor was nothing of the sort.
Her laughter was genuine. Her smiles were honest, and the color in her face… well, he'd seen that before too, but only in response to his attentions. Cailan was a classically handsome man – as different from Nathaniel as night from day, with his golden hair and the shining gold accents on his white, royal regalia. If Elissa were to return the interest he had clearly developed in her, Nathaniel would be left with no choice but to step aside. The son of an Arl was no match for the king.
"I think my sister has had more than enough time with that nit, don't you?" Fergus' voice hissed insistently at Nathaniel's ear.
"I don't know what you expect for me to do about it," Nathaniel grumbled in return, his normally impassive features creased in obvious frustration. He'd watched this happen before back in the palace gardens and felt just as helpless then in diverting its course. "It's not like I can go over there and ask the King of Ferelden to hand her over."
"You most certainly can!" Delilah moved in closer to the ear Fergus was not already bending. "You've a right to request a dance with her any time. You're her escort for the evening, not Cailan."
"You know she'll be relieved when you rescue her from all the time she's spent pretending to be a proper lady." Fergus edged him closer to the stairs with a subtle shove at his back.
"She's far more likely to see that as me attempting to mark my territory on her skirts like a mabari at the castle wall." Nathaniel grimaced at the thought of incurring her wrath with so many witnesses about to see it. "Lest you've somehow forgotten, Couslands are infamous for their tempers. I've somehow managed to stay in Elissa's good graces for the whole of this summer, thankfully… I'd like to remain in that position if it's alright with you."
"Bloody… If you don't do something you're likely to find yourself not in her graces at all!" Fergus demanded, watching Delilah nod insistently beside him in support of that opinion. "Seriously, Nate, get your ass out there and dance with my sister! If I end up with that simpering fool as my brother-in-law because of your sodding pride I will never forgive you!"
With that, Fergus shoved Nathaniel unceremoniously down into the courtyard. Righting himself with a final glare back toward his friend and his sister, and trying to ignore the started glances from the guests standing nearest the dais; he set off through the crowd until he located Elissa and Cailan out on the floor. He could see her face as he approached, mid-laugh in response to something the king had just said to her. He hesitated for a moment, searching her face for some sign that made it clear to him she wanted to be rescued – then green eyes found grey, and she smiled at him. A smile that was only for him. That was all the encouragement he needed.
"Pardon me, your majesty." Nathaniel bowed respectfully to the king but never took his eyes away from the green ones looking back at him. "I was wondering if I might reclaim my lady for a dance or two before the evening's festivities wind down."
"Certainly, Lord Howe." Cailan stepped aside graciously, but laid another kiss on Elissa's hand as he moved away. "My apologies for monopolizing her attentions for so long. I often lose track of time in the company of beautiful women."
Nathaniel watched the color creep higher into Elissa's face at his comment and noted how her eyes followed him as he retreated slowly into the crowd. Interrupting the moment before it drew out any longer, he reached over and pulled her into his arms with a bit more fervor than he'd intended. When her eyes went wide with surprise, he attempted to move them into the pattern of the music in the hopes that she would simply ignore what had happened.
"What took you so long?" Elissa lowered her voice to a whisper, hoping to avoid having their conversation monitored by the prying ears of the crowd now focused in upon them. "I was beginning to think you'd decided to abandon me to the wolves after all."
"My apologies." Nathaniel could hear the irritation laced into his words as he watched Cailan's eyes continuing to linger on her, though the king already held another young lady in his arms. "You did not appear as though you desired to be rescued."
"What did you want me to do, Nathaniel?" Elissa hissed out the words, exasperated with his behavior and wondering why he would pick now of all times to pick a fight over the same nonsense that had put them at odds back in Denerim. "He is the king! I couldn't very well decline his invitation or glower at him in melancholia on the dance floor while the whole of Ferelden nobility was watching us!"
"You expect me to believe you were mired in misery the entire time? " Nathaniel met her eyes with frustration of his own. "That all that giggling and blushing was a show you put on solely for propriety's sake? You are a very convincing actress, my darling, but even you cannot fake certain things. The flush in your skin will give away the truth of your heart every single time."
"I don't know what you want me to say…" Elissa tensed in his arms when she found herself unable to refute his observations. "Cailan is very sweet and it is no chore to speak with him…"
She felt the tension build further in Nathaniel's body, saw it coming into his jaw as the words fell from her lips. For a moment she considered leaving what she had to say at that; increasingly annoyed by his possessive behavior. Did he honestly not trust her after all this time?
"Perhaps I should return you to his company so that you can continue your stimulating conversation. It appears this one is the chore for you at the moment." Nathaniel glared off in Cailan's direction again, completely missing the change in Elissa's composure as her temper flared.
"Return me? I am not some item of yours to return!" Elissa's eyes narrowed dangerously at him. "Jealousy does not suit you, Nathaniel, especially when you have nothing to be jealous of."
"Is that so?" His words still held their bitter edge though his temper began to calm a bit when the music slowed to a waltz.
"For the past few years I have spent every waking moment either with you or thinking of you. Truth be told, I spent a great deal of time before that thinking of you… but I'd rather not make myself more a fool than I already feel where you are concerned… a-and that isn't even the point!" Elissa held his eyes, knowing she was rambling but having lost the ability to stop her mouth from moving under the momentum of her boiling emotions. "The point is, I have spent a grand total of four hours with Cailan and an entire lifetime thus far with you – be that in my imagination or reality… Do you honestly think you have anything to be jealous of? Do you really think so little of my words… o-of me that you could believe me to possess such a fickle heart?"
"Every waking moment…" Nathaniel pulled her closer against his body than he should have, leaning in to rest his forehead against hers when her words washed over him. "Truly?"
"Truly," she whispered her reply, green eyes still clinging to gray as she released his hand and clasped her fingers at the base of his neck. The motion forced his arms to fall around her waist in response.
"People will talk," he insisted, though he enjoyed the feel of her so close to him – the heat from her body seeping into his bones and the smell of her perfume sending his senses into a tempest even as he listened to the scandalized whispers around them.
"Let them." The look in her eyes was a challenge; a dare to anyone who would attempt to break the spell now cast between them.
They finished the dance, and the next one which was also slow, locked in each other's arms; blissfully ignorant of the people continuing to gossip around them. It was as if the world outside this moment had ceased to exist; leaving no one else – nothing else – but them and the intensity of the connection they shared.
It seemed physically impossible to separate from one another when the pace of the music picked up again, but somehow they managed to do so and leave the dance floor to move once again to the dais at the rear of the courtyard. Elissa scanned the crowd, most of whom now seemed focused on their own personal conversations, with a few exceptions… most notably Nathaniel's father and brother who continued to glower in her general direction. She excused herself from Nathaniel's side when she could weather that attention no longer and found Fergus flirting with several noble girls at a table nearby.
"A word, dear brother, if I may?" Elissa smiled at the girls who nodded their heads reluctantly in response. They were neither fans nor friends of hers and clearly had no wish to share her brother's attentions.
"Certainly, sister." Fergus made sure the young women saw his answering smile before he turned toward Elissa and continued his response through gritted teeth. "This had better be good."
"Don't worry, I wouldn't dare interfere with your conquest to woo all the women of Ferelden unless I urgently required your aid." She rolled her eyes at his theatrics. "I need you to create a distraction for me so that I can escape from this nightmare before I finally lose myself to madness."
"Don't you mean so that you and Nathaniel can escape?" Fergus leveled a pointed look in her direction before flicking his eyes over to the very man in question where he stood studiously watching their conversation.
"Yes, of course that's what I mean!" Elissa offered what she hoped to be a reassuring smile to Nathaniel when he tensed under Fergus' inquisitive stare. "Why are you being difficult? I thought you approved of our… situation."
Elissa fumbled for words when she realized she didn't actually know how to label them yet.
"I have no issue with Nathaniel courting you." Her brother ended his staring contest and turned his attention back to her. "However, I take great issue with him sneaking off to snog you in some back room on the first night of your eligibility… as I'm certain would our father and his."
"Snog?! Who said anything about snogging?" Elissa hissed the words out angrily, blushing right to the tips of her toes and quickly lowering her voice when she realized all the attention in the room had focused right in on them. "We've been sneaking off together for years now and haven't snogged once, I'll have you know! What makes you think we're planning to start now?"
"Elissa…" Fergus' voice softened as he spoke to her. "I, along with everyone else present, got a pretty good idea of what's been going on between the two of you for years now when you decided it would be a good idea to… merge… on the dance floor. It is no longer a secret that your feelings for him go far beyond friendship and that he returns them in equal measure. I know you, and I know what you've been practicing with Rory lately…" Elissa blushed at the mention of that activity and tried to turn and walk away in humiliation, but he stopped her with a strong hand on her arm – determined to finish what he had to say. "I caution you because though you are a novice when it comes to the more physical aspects of romance, Nathaniel is not. I do not wish to see you hurt, Elissa. Not now; not ever."
"You are being over-dramatic, Fergus." Elissa deflected his words. The thought had not occurred to her that Nathaniel might have been intimate with other girls, though she knew she was naive to have believed he remained a virgin as she was. The thought of him having experienced such things with another upset her far more than she could have imagined. "I simply want to get out of here. It has been a very long night."
"Very well. I will do this for you," Fergus relented, unable to deny her after having caused the uncertainty that he could read in her features. "Just promise me, in this one instance, you will proceed with caution and not launch headfirst into the fray the way you usually approach things."
"I promise to try," she said, and he knew it was the best she could offer.
Realizing he would get no further, Fergus acquiesced, striding over to where Thomas and Rendon Howe stood with his crowd of girls in tow. While he made a great show of introducing each one of them to his "close personal friend", Elissa made her way back to Nathaniel.
"Come on, let's go." The whisper was urgent as she took his hand, dragging him closer to the doors, which would lead them out of the main courtyard and into one of the side areas near the guard houses.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Nathaniel anxiously watched his father, expecting he would look up at any moment and catch them in the act. "Some of the looks Fergus gave me should have very well killed me on the spot."
"Don't worry about Fergus," Elissa insisted, moving them through the doors and making sure they sealed silently behind them. "If you truly had need to be concerned, do you think he would be over there creating a distraction for us with your father and brother?"
"What did you have to promise in return for such a favor?" Nathaniel laughed, watching her gather the train of her dress and toss it over her arm before reaching to claim his hand again and moving them further into the side-yard.
"Do you really wish to know?" She was unsure how to address the nature of the conversation she'd just had with her brother, and even less secure in how Nathaniel would react once he knew what Fergus had revealed.
"Of course." He wondered what her brother could possibly have said that would make her so anxious to avoid his inquiry. "I always want to know what you are thinking."
"He asked me to proceed carefully with you." Elissa came to a sudden stand still and turned back to face him fully, green eyes carefully searching grey for a reaction. "He was worried that your… experience… in certain matters might cause me to suffer because I am so woefully inexperienced."
"My experience?" Nathaniel began, and she watched him puzzling out the words so that he could formulate the appropriate reply. Suddenly his eyes went wide and a slight twinge of color sprung into his face. "Oh! He told you about… t-that I had…"
"Not directly," she comforted him as best she could, but blanched a bit when he did not deny Fergus' assertions. "Simply that you had been with others already."
"Does that bother you?" Nathaniel could not change his past even if it did affect his present, but he wished in that moment he could go back and choose not to bed the serving girl or the barmaid in Amaranthine. Certainly it had seemed a good idea at the time, but the experience had been… lukewarm… at best, and nothing worth losing what he already had or could have with Elissa.
"More than I care to admit." Elissa looked down at their hands to avoid his eyes. "I know it is silly of me. How could I expect you to wait for me when you didn't even know there was a me to wait for?"
"Wait for…" Nathaniel sputtered, his eyes going wide again. "Are you saying that you… that you saved yourself… f-for me?"
She started to reply when the door behind them began to open. She heard it the moment he did, and took off like a rabbit sensing the approach of a fox, dragging him along in her wake.
It was all Nathaniel could do to keep up with her as she rounded a corner and shoved him unceremoniously into a nearby guardhouse. She dashed in behind him and flicked the lock on the door. They were both breathing heavily from the run, and he was still dumbfounded by the realization that she had – at some point – made a conscious decision to save her maidenhead specifically for him.
"I'm going to have to start running a mile every day just to be able to keep up with you," he laughed, noting with a smile that she'd been wearing boots under her dress the entire evening. He took comfort in the fact that though she may have looked different, she remained the girl he'd fallen for underneath it all.
"I certainly hope there aren't going to be many instances in our future where we shall have to run away from things," she laughed heartily herself, until she heard voices passing by just outside. Suddenly, and without warning, she shoved Nathaniel back onto a bench beneath the window and planted herself in his lap, one leg draped on either side of his thighs.
"It's your brother and someone else. I don't recognize the voice," Elissa whispered, unphased by the position in which she had placed them. "As long as they don't hear us, we're in the clear. I don't think they can see us from here even if they decide to look in."
She leaned forward toward the door, straining to try and hear the voices outside; oblivious to the torment she was causing to the young man she'd seated herself upon.
Focus, focus… Nathaniel told himself. He knew that she didn't understand what she was doing to him as she squirmed against his lap and forced his hands to lay against the bare skin of her thighs when she lifted her gown to straddle him. Her hair fell loose around her face from the exertion of their run, the curls tickling against his hand as she stretched closer to the door. Maker, she smells good… How is it possible she can smell like that all the time?
"I think they're leaving." She sat up straight for a moment, putting her hands on his shoulders and using the leverage to push herself up to carefully peer out the bottom edge of the window.
That's when it happened…
As she pushed up Nathaniel found himself inches from her cleavage, the silver rectangle of her charm bouncing off his nose at one point, and all of his efforts at restraint came undone. He thought for a moment of briefly leaning forward… it would really only take a slight motion, a few mere inches… and planting a kiss right between her breasts. It was a passing fancy, one he never intended to act on, but the thought of it was enough to throw all the fighting he had done to control his body's natural reaction to her right out the window.
"By the bloody void…" The curse passed his lips before he could stop it, drawing her attention back down to him, the one place he was certain he didn't want it at the moment. He could feel himself hardening, and knew he could do nothing to stop it. He could also see that she was sliding back down to sit on his lap once again, and knew he could do nothing to stop that either.
"What's wrong? Are you al-" Elissa's words trailed off when her bottom came to rest on something that had not been there before. "Oh!"
She yelped and pushed away from his body, bending forward to look down and find out what she'd sat on with the assumption that whatever it was had caused him to be injured. The motion gave Nathaniel a look straight down the front of her dress, which did nothing to help his situation.
"I think I sat on something." She started to reach down between them and remove whatever it was that had somehow managed to fall into his lap and wedge itself between them.
"No… please…" Nathaniel begged her, his voice deep and rough with a mix of lust and embarrassment. He reached up and grabbed her hand, stopping her before she could reach her destination.
She is so innocent. He cursed himself for allowing them to be put in such a position in the first place. You cannot do this to her. You will make her uncomfortable, or worse, force her into doing something for which she is not yet ready out of obligation. That would ruin everything.
"I just want to move it so I can sit back down…" Elissa's expression was puzzled and she tried to read his eyes in the dim light.
"Elissa, please take my word when I assure you that if I allow your hands to get where they were going the last thing you will accomplish is to make it easier for you to sit back down." Nathaniel rattled the words out in desperation; holding her eyes and trying through sheer willpower to make her understand what it was he meant to explain.
"What are you ta—" Elissa's eyes searched his until she began to read what lay there; the dilated pupils, the heavy breathing, the small beads of sweat that had begun to appear at his temples. He watched it dawn on her. "Oh my… that was… that's you?"
He nodded, unable to speak as he watched her process the knowledge she'd just received.
"What are you doing?" The words came out broken when she lowered herself slowly back against his lap as though testing the water's temperature before deciding to swim.
"I did this to you?" He could read the disbelief in her voice and her eyes.
"Y-yes…" Nathaniel managed to stutter the words out as his body continued to react to the press of her warmth against him.
When she'd settled, she brought her eyes to his; and what he saw there unnerved him. Somewhere amidst the swirl of fear and curiosity lurked what he clearly recognized as desire. Desire that burned hotter than a million pyres. Desire matched only by what now threatened to burn out of control within him.
He knew he should stop the process immediately, before this disastrous exploration spiraled any further out of control, before the tenuous grasp he held on his body slipped through his fingers… but he couldn't seem to bring himself to do it.
He expected her to become uncomfortable when she recognized his predicament. He had expected her to remove herself from the situation, perhaps even to be upset at his lack of control. Now that she had chosen to do none of those things; he found he desperately needed to see what she was going to do next.
"Does it hurt?" He could see that she was honestly concerned that somehow her weight might be causing him pain.
"Not exactly." Nathaniel didn't want her to worry but was uncertain how exactly to explain the discomfort associated with a sexual need that was not allowed to climax.
"What do you mean?" Her body trembled slightly at the continued husky tone in his voice. It had always been deeper than any of the other boys', and she loved that, but now it was rough as well… almost broken at times. That did things to her she had never felt before.
She didn't know what she was doing. Nathaniel knew that, but when she shifted her hips with her body's instinctual need for sensation, his own responded in kind. His hips thrust forward, seeking to press him further into her warmth. He heard the groan that pushed past his lips in response to her gasp of pleasure and surprise and his breathing became more rapid and harder to catch.
"That was… t-that was… very nice." Elissa leaned forward and pressed her forehead against his, her breath coming in pants now, her eyes holding to his – consuming them. "Can you… would you… do that again, please?"
"I don't think that's a good idea." He felt himself getting closer to the point where he would no longer be able to rein himself back in, but she rolled her hips again – challenge issued in her eyes – knowing she could bring out the reaction she desired in him if she wanted to. So he gave in, thrusting against her once more with intention and multiple times after because he could no longer control the need for it. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her breasts into his chest and her pelvis harder against him, never once releasing his eyes.
"Maker… that's fantastic…" She whispered, finally able to stop the breathless moans that had slipped past her lips until he stilled both of their movements with his hands tight against her thighs. "Is all of it like this? Such… delicious… sensation?"
"Not all of it." Nathaniel knew he could never live with himself if he lied to her about such a thing, though telling her the truth would likely end his chances of meeting his body's current needs – at least for tonight. "Because this would be your first time, if I were to try to… to attempt to be inside you, it would hurt a great deal at first. At least that is what I've been told."
"Nathaniel…" Elissa breathed heavily. Her words dripped with the sexual tension they both felt, and she placed one of her hands on his cheek, tracing the edge of his bottom lip. "I like the idea of having you inside me."
"Please, Elissa, do not treat the idea of this as cavalier as you do everything else." He pleaded with her, trying unsuccessfully to kiss her several times. She would turn or deter him with her fingers between them, anything to keep his mouth from claiming hers. "I am dangerously close to losing control of myself and do not wish to hurt you."
"I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be cavalier." He could read her sincerity. She was fighting her body's natural response to him just as hard as he was, only she did not understand what was happening to her whereas he had the wisdom of previous experiences to draw from. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing; how things are supposed to go. Am I doing something wrong?"
"Absolutely not. You're doing everything very… very right," Nathaniel answered truthfully, still wanting to kiss her – still being denied, finally settling for sucking lightly at her neck and hearing her groan softly in response to the sensation. "Therein lies the problem."
"Do you not want to…" Elissa pulled back to see his face and read his expression.
"Please don't think that." He tugged her back against him, nuzzling into her pulse point once again, needing to enjoy the contact just a little longer. "I simply want your first time… our first time to be… well, something other than what we're doing now. You deserve better than to be taken in some dark, dusty guardhouse, and I could not truly enjoy it knowing that I had taken you in such a way simply because I could no longer control it."
"Then we should probably…" She pushed away from him and stood again, adjusting her skirts and attempting to make her hair look less like she'd been groped a few moments before.
"Turn in for the night?" he finished the thought, standing and adjusting his own clothing, then trying to smooth down his hair where her fingers had tangled in it moments before. "That would probably be for the best."
Nathaniel unlocked the door and opened it slowly; peering out into the moonlit expanse and listening carefully to be certain they were alone. Once he was absolutely sure they wouldn't be seen, he reached back to lead Elissa out, lacing his fingers through hers as they walked cautiously but comfortably back to the castle.
Nathaniel had been tossing and turning for over an hour. Two cold baths and nearly a pitcher of water had done nothing to calm his body down, and no matter how hard he tried he was unable to keep his mind from returning to those moments in the guardhouse hours before. The heat from her body, the lingering taste of her skin… he couldn't stop thinking about it.
"You aren't helping yourself, Nathaniel." He said the words aloud, reaching down with the intention of removing his nightshirt in an attempt to sleep more comfortably before he heard the rattle of his door slowly opening.
Of course it was Elissa. He'd expected no one else. She latched the door behind her, pausing for a moment to linger in the shadows before crossing the room to stand at the edge of his bed. The moonlight outlined her body through the thin material of her nightgown; drawing his eye to the curves he'd been imagining only moments before.
"This is dangerous, Elissa." He was almost afraid to move when she crawled into bed beside him, the top buttons of her bodice falling open to reveal the inner curve of her breast.
"We've shared a bed before and you never believed it to be dangerous." She leaned up on her elbow, reaching over to tug at the front of his shirt with a smile.
"Things are different now." He could feel the pace of his breathing pick up as she grazed his skin through the open collar.
"I came here because things are different now," she laughed, edging closer to where he lay. "I couldn't stop thinking about it… and since you're awake, I'm guessing you couldn't either."
Nathaniel said nothing, squeezing his eyes closed when she pressed her lips against the bare skin of his neck much the way he had done with hers in the guardhouse. When she got no reaction, she drew back.
"If you want me to go, just say so and I'll do as you ask."
"What I want and what I should do aren't in agreement at the moment." He cleared his throat, still unable to move.
"Why not? This is no dark, dusty guardhouse…" She pushed close against him, wrapping her arms around his back. "It's a bed behind a locked door. Isn't that where these things should happen?"
"It's a bed behind a locked door a few feet away from where our parents and all our siblings lie." Nathaniel couldn't stop his hands from following the curve of her hip or settling her tighter against his torso, though he could feel things spiraling once again. "You're sixteen, Elissa. You don't know what you're asking."
"You're right. I have no idea." She laughed breathlessly when he pressed his mouth against her collarbone, his hand squeezing at her upper thigh through the soft cloth of her nightgown. "But you can show me… I want you to show me."
"This is madness." Nathaniel pulled away, threading his fingers into her hair as he fought an internal battle between what was expected of him and what he desperately wanted. Her eyes were fearless and determined. She trusted him; she wanted this, that much was certain. "If we are to do this, there will have to be rules."
"What sort of rules?" Elissa cocked an eyebrow, wondering what sort of restrictions he could come up with to make this feel acceptable to his idea of propriety.
"Clothing on at all times." He pursed his lips when she chuckled, watching her silence in response when she realized he was serious. "No direct contact with any… questionable areas… and if either of us is uncomfortable, we stop. No questions asked."
"You're no fun." She pouted, tracing a hand up his leg before he reached down to grab it.
"I'm serious, Elissa. We're testing boundaries, not crossing them. Can you agree to these terms?"
"I suppose…" She puffed out a breath, long suffering, but it dissolved into giggles when he pulled her hard against him and traced his lips from her ear down to her shoulder.
"You don't think it was bad because you weren't right next door to it." Fergus drank even more heavily thinking back on that night. "Giggling and moaning and thumping around. She swears to this day it was Alistair who claimed her virtue – the ladies in waiting aside – but no way they were just sleeping in there."
"Your sister didn't even kiss Nathaniel until the night before Father sent him to the Marches, Fergus!" Delilah snorted out a laugh. "They were fumbling about in the dark like all of us did at that age; like you did with half the kingdom if the rumors are true."
"Your brother treated my sister no better than he did the help he'd bedded years before, even after I warned him not to." The nobleman very nearly tipped over as he stood from his perch and stomped over to the much shorter woman standing near the table where I sat.
"My brother did no such thing! It was your sister who came to his bedchamber that first night. Nathaniel would never have crossed such a line were he not directly invited." Delilah did not back down or falter under Fergus' angry glare. "They are equally guilty, Fergus. They were in love and love is not logical, no matter how hard we wish for it to be. Surely you remember…"
"Don't speak to me of what I remember." He snatched her wrist, fingers pressing hard enough to bruise but Delilah still stood unmoving.
"I know what it is to lose everything. Don't you speak to me as though you are the only one who has suffered, Fergus Cousland. You are an arrogant man but not a stupid one."
I watched the fury fade from his eyes when her words sank in. Forced to see that she too stood alone he lost the drive to continue, retrieving his bottle and disappearing to parts unknown.
Chapter 14: Stand Within the Storm
A/N: Another little snippet of conversation between Varric and Nathaniel.
Muse Music: Count On Me by Martin Page.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my awesome beta artemiskat.
Chapter Thirteen: Stand Within the Storm
"I remember these letters…" The Archer thumbed the worn parchment with a slight smile on his face; eyes scanning the words before he slid them back across the table and into my hands. "Hard to believe we were ever those people; so devoted, so sure of our… destiny."
"Aren't you sure now?" I tucked the letters back in with the rest and watched him mull over my question as he refilled his tankard of ale.
"Sometimes I am more certain than I ever was back then, and others…" He shook his head, taking a long drink and leaning back in his chair. "Others I'm not so certain that witch wasn't right when she said we'd doom each other."
I struggle to find the right words to write to you, though I have never struggled in the past. Before you begin to worry (I can already see your eyebrows knitting together in concern) this is not because of what happened between us this summer. At least not in a negative way. It's only that I now find when I think of you, my mind is drawn to rather inappropriate places and I cannot recover.
I spend much of my time flushed with fever at the very idea of being near you again. Fergus has inquired as to my thoughts on several such occasions, thus I have found it necessary to avoid him often, or to force myself not to think of you at all until I find myself alone.
I long for fall in Amaranthine.
Delilah has written to me and revealed your father's most… unpleasant… reaction to your accepting my request to serve as escort at the ball, and the punishments you have been subjected to as a result. I cannot express how sorry I am that you have suffered such things because of me. I would not fault you if you were to choose to end your association with me before it goes any further. It would certainly cause you less stress in your daily life.
I do, however, sincerely hope that you choose to stay with me. I would find myself heartbroken in your absence.
With great affection,
To the Ever Beautiful Elissa Cousland,
Know that anything I have suffered as a result of my choice to attend this summer's festivities as your personal escort was worth every second I got to spend with you. Given the chance to do so, I would gladly make the same choice again, regardless of what my father might do in retaliation for what he views as rash disobedience on my part. I have served my sentence - as it were – and things seem to be back to normal once again.
I hope that what I am about to reveal to you does not come as too much of a surprise, and if it does manage to catch you off guard, it is at least a pleasant one.
I have written your father to request permission to begin officially courting you. I also made it clear to my father that I intended to do so, and I believe once he sees that the teyrn has given his approval, he will find it was not such a rash decision. I am very serious when it comes to having you at my side.
I expect a reply any day, and as your father was nothing but gracious the night of your announcement, I expect he will allow it.
Once we are in a proper and public relationship, I see no reason why Father's displeasure with me should continue. To my knowledge, he has always desired a union between our families. I think a great deal of his irritation lies in the knowledge that while his attempts to match you with Thomas failed; I succeeded in securing your affections on my own and without him knowing for certain that I have acted properly and in a manner that will not disgrace our family in the eyes of your mother and father.
You must understand, my parents did not marry for love as yours did, so the concept of what you and I share is difficult for Father to wrap his mind around.
You do not suffer your fever alone. I suffer with you. I sleep little and think too much, and always of you. I too long for fall.
Lost without you,
"It's a shame your siblings weren't able to recover more of the letters from that summer." I poured myself another tankard and started to drink before he interrupted me.
"There aren't any others." He shrugged when I looked up, turning his eyes toward the flames in the hearth – a sure sign he didn't really want to talk about whatever he was about to reveal. "One of Elissa's letters came with the seal half broken. Delilah suspected our correspondence was being monitored. These were the only two real letters written, smuggled through Delilah and Fergus. The rest of the letters were fodder intended to keep whomever was watching us from suspecting anything as they most certainly would have if we'd simply stopped writing altogether."
"Your father was tracking your post?"
"It's possible." He cleared his throat, running a thumb against the patch of hair below his lip in contemplation. "It could have just as easily been Thomas. At this point it doesn't matter… either way we'll never know. Dead men tell no tales."
Chapter 15: Just Believe
A/N: This chapter contains NSFW content.
Muse Music: Breathe by Telepopmusik.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Fourteen: Just Believe
"Thomas was a bloody bastard. Even more so than Rendon as it turned out." Elissa barked out cold laughter before finishing off what was left of the ale in her mug. "Nothing that I discover about him surprises me any more, certainly not that he might have been monitoring our post even then – though I'm hard pressed to believe that he wasn't doing it either at the request of his father or to garner some sort of twisted favor from him."
"You're going to run the place out of spirits if you don't slow down." I shrugged when she turned her attention back from the barmaid in my direction. I'd learned years ago if she was really angry with me I'd never see it coming.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't aware it was your day to lecture me, Varric. If I'd known I might have skipped this little visit."
"No lectures here." I raised my hands to the pursed lips and look of annoyance that crossed her face watching as she retrieved a full mug from the barmaid and placed the empty in its place on her tray. "Merely an observation."
"Given your usual choice in topics of conversation, you'll have to forgive me if I choose to get absolutely plastered in order to muck through it." She sighed and went back to her libations, thumbing through her journal in an effort not to meet my eyes.
"They say the truth will set you free."
"I think I should like to meet them, whoever they are, and give them a good, swift kick in the ass for all their sage advice is worth." She took another sip then slammed the cup down on the table and folded her hands, threading the fingers together as she leveled a glare in my direction. "Let me tell you something about the truth, Varric. In no way does it set you free. If anything it imprisons you far more than any lies and misdirection ever could."
I didn't have to look up to know that The Archer had entered the bar, but I did anyway, managing to catch the look that passed between the pair before they shrugged it off as though it'd never happened. It only lasted seconds, but was more than long enough to let him know that she had no desire to share in his company and alter his course over to the bar rather than back to my suite as he'd no doubt intended to travel.
"The truth makes you weak. It telegraphs your every move – your every thought as though you were speaking them aloud. It reveals the gaps in your defenses, the chinks in your armor. It sets you up to take the fall. That is what the truth is good for. That is all the truth is good for."
Nathaniel was ecstatic when at long last the postman returned with a letter from the Teyrn wherein he was granted "with great joy" permission to officially begin courting Elissa. Upon presenting the news to his father, he was relieved to find that rather than the argument he'd been expecting – Rendon Howe finally granted his own approval of his eldest son's request to begin seeing the Teyrn's daughter. He even praised Nathaniel for having gone through the proper channels in seeking out the Teyrn's approval, though he immediately followed that praise with several not-so-subtle reminders to always be on his best behavior and never to do anything that would bring shame to the Howe legacy under the watchful eyes of the much more powerful Couslands.
Nathaniel assured his father that he had no intentions of being anything other than a perfect gentleman when it came to the Couslands, and Elissa in particular. In all honesty, he never set out with anything other than the purest intentions at heart. Yet somehow when they found themselves alone together, one thing would lead to another, and before he knew it everything began to spiral quickly out of his control.
Elissa was elated when her father summoned her to his study to ask if she'd be pleased by the missive he was prepared to send to Vigil's Keep granting Nathaniel permission to begin his courtship of her. She quickly, and with an enthusiasm that left her furiously blushing in response to her parents' knowing smiles, gave her approval of the idea. She then watched with baited breath as her father pressed his signet ring into the seal at the back of the envelope and handed it over to his personal courier with instructions that it be delivered immediately.
A few days later she received word from Nathaniel that his father finally seemed to have warmed to the idea of someone other than Thomas as a match for her and that with her upcoming visit in the fall the two of them would officially, and for all the world to see, be together.
This time when the Couslands arrived no one showed surprise when Nathaniel greeted Elissa at the carriage door, laced his fingers into hers, and guided her into the castle. This time there was no need for them to pretend they wanted anything other than to spend every second in one another's company. Only their nightly trips out to The Cliffs and each other's personal quarters took place in secret. Rendon Howe would never have considered such things to be proper.
Though they were much more free in their public displays of affection, often holding hands, planting light kisses on cheeks or foreheads, or simply sitting together wrapped in each other's arms, they still had never come close to anything as bold as what transpired between them on the night of Elissa's announcement celebration. Even their nocturnal visits to one another's bedchambers stayed well within the boundaries each had previously established.
Nathaniel seemed to grow anxious whenever their tactile explorations would near the border between proper and… definitely not, so Elissa did not push him further than he seemed willing to go. She had no desire to pressure him into anything he held himself back from for her benefit, or to make him feel as though he was unable to keep himself from pushing her into doing something for which she was not yet capable of understanding. She knew his restraint lay rooted in her lack of experience and not in his lack of desire for her and there were times both were very nearly driven crazy just being together, but it was easy to resist the temptation to push beyond their boundaries because they both knew that whenever they gave in and shared themselves completely it would absolutely have been worth the wait.
They were taking a risk sharing a bed here in Vigil's Keep the way they had back in Elissa's room the previous summer, but they did it anyway – just as they had the previous night and every other before it. The idea that Nathaniel's father or any one of his guards could catch them at any moment almost made their time together even more exhilarating. Almost.
"Kiss me." Nathaniel traced a thumb along Elissa's jaw, sighing in frustration when she giggled and turned away yet again and shifting his attention back to her neckline.
"Shh…" She stilled his hand before he could slide it under the edge of her nightgown to trace along the outside of the creamy, soft skin beneath. "I thought I heard something."
"Don't try to divert my attention." He whispered in her ear, relishing the shiver that ran the length of her body when his lips brushed against it and her loss of focus to push beneath her nightgown once again.
"What happened to 'clothes on at all times'?" She stifled a small moan when his thumb brushed the edge of her smallclothes before moving back to trace circles in the sensitive skin of her hip.
"I'd be willing to bend my rules if you'd see fit to bend yours." Nathaniel leaned up on one elbow to catch her eyes, pushing her nightgown up far enough to see the full expanse of her legs while still leaving what lay beneath her smallclothes fully covered.
"You're a tease."
"Am I?" He cocked an eyebrow, pulling his hand away from her legs long enough to slowly undo the buttons at the top of her nightgown, parting the top enough that he could trace a finger between the swells of her breasts.
"Well? Do it then."
There was a challenge in her eyes, and he knew if he decided to finish what he'd started and expose her fully she would not deter him. He tucked his fingers under the soft cloth at her shoulder, leaning in to kiss her as he began the motion. When her eyes fluttered shut he knew she would not deny him this either.
"Good morning, Thomas!" Delilah's voice rang loudly through the door, stopping the pair mid motion. "Nathaniel isn't up yet so far as I know."
"It sounded as though he was awake," Thomas muttered, strolling away from the door and down toward the kitchen. "I must have been mistaken."
Elissa let out the breath she'd been holding when Delilah's footfalls followed her brother's down the hall and away from the door, chuckling lightly when Nathaniel released one of his own.
"We'll have to thank her for that later." Nathaniel attempted to finish what he'd started, but Elissa dodged him once more, sliding out of his grasp and refastening the buttons on her gown.
"No more tempting fate or each other this morning, Nathaniel." She winked at him and darted out his door into the growing light of dawn.
The time remaining in their visit dwindled quickly and soon Nathaniel found himself saddened to realize that the Couslands were scheduled to depart within a few days. He enjoyed a wonderful afternoon with Elissa in the sparring ring. It was something they normally would have never been able to do while in Vigil's Keep, but an exception was made when Bryce Cousland himself requested they attend his daily training routine. He claimed he was losing his touch and needed more of a challenge than Fergus alone could provide, but Nathaniel knew that in reality he was making sure that Elissa didn't go out of her mind from a month of being a 'proper lady'. He was also attempting to give them as much time as possible together before they were forced to be apart again – just one more instance where
Nathaniel was reminded how lucky Elissa was to be surrounded by such a loving family – and how honored he was to be included among them at her side.
Thoughts of asking for her hand in marriage, of building a life together and raising a family of their own danced at the edges of his mind constantly. They'd begun when he wrote to the Teyrn asking for permission to begin their courtship and seemed to grow in magnitude every moment he spent in Elissa's company. When he approached the main door of the stables for their evening departure he found that he couldn't stop smiling with the knowledge that Elissa would be waiting for him just inside.
Elissa leaned against the wall just outside the stall where Nocturne was stabled and anxiously awaited Nathaniel's arrival. There were precious few hours left before her family would be leaving Vigil's Keep and they both knew it was likely they would not see one another again until the Howes came to Highever in the summer.
She began to pace, trying to slow her breathing, trying to calm her nerves so that she could follow through with her plan to further explore what truly began on the night of her announcement celebration. She had waited patiently for Nathaniel to make some kind of move to initiate contact that moved beyond the boundaries they'd established, to… react as he had on that night. But as close as they had come earlier that morning in his bedchamber, Elissa knew even had Delilah not interrupted them he would have eventually reined himself back in beneath the carefully placed constraints of his 'rules'. If anything was going to happen, it would have to begin with her.
"Finally! I thought perhaps you'd gotten lost somewhere between your bedroom and…" The smile was evident in Elissa's voice as she turned to face the now closing door behind her, but it vanished just as quickly as it'd come, her voice trailing off when her eyes focused on the person standing in front of her.
It was not Nathaniel but his brother Thomas. His eyes roved over her, predatory and cold. She suddenly wished she'd chosen her clothing more carefully and reached up to pull the light jacket closed over her exposed neckline.
"Thomas? What do you want?" She was unable to keep the disdain out of her voice though she knew it would only bait the young man into some sort of retaliation.
"What's been coming to me for a long time." Thomas sauntered arrogantly over to her, never taking his eyes away from their blatant exploration of her body for even a second.
"What's been coming to you?" Elissa stuttered the words out, suddenly finding herself backed into a corner with no way to move around him.
"Father promised you to me years ago. Did you know that?" Thomas leaned in with the question, planting one hand on either side of her body so that she could not stray from where he pinned her against the stable wall.
"I don't care what your father told you! I am certainly not his to promise, not to you or to anyone else." Elissa glared at him, trying not to appear as terrified as she was quickly becoming as the moments ticked by with no one else so much as patrolling by the building. "I am with Nathaniel now, and no matter what your father told you he has given us his blessing."
"Father certainly led Nathaniel to believe as much." Thomas laughed and rolled his eyes at the mention of his older brother's name. "As usual the poor sod was foolish enough to believe it. But nothing has changed. You are still mine and as such I have decided I would like to see what exactly you conceal beneath those suits of armor and pretty dresses that my brother wants a taste of so badly."
"You will do no such thing, Thomas Howe!" She raised her hand to swing at him but he caught it easily and pinned it along with her other arm against her side before yanking her flush against his torso.
"Oh, but I will, and if you know what's good for you you're going to let me." Thomas' voice was low and menacing as he lowered his lips to graze her ear. "You see, I think you are in love with my dear brother. I think you would do anything to make sure that no harm befalls him… If I'm right, then you're going to do whatever I want, tonight and any other night I request it of you. Otherwise, you never know what horrible tragedy might befall your precious Nathaniel."
When Nathaniel rounded the corner of the barn, he could hear muffled voices coming from the stall opposite the one where Nocturne was stabled. His stallion paced with agitation so he stopped briefly to comfort him with a pat to the back of his neck, listening intently until he recognized one of the voices as Elissa's. He crossed over to the other stall to investigate, wondering who else she'd meet with in the stable so late at night, and saw her lying on a large bed of hay. Her hair sprawled loose around her face and the bodice of her dress had been opened slightly, exposing her upper chest to the night air just as the pale skin of her long legs was exposed where the skirt of her gown had been pushed up. There was a man laying atop her, his lips trailing down her exposed neck as he fondled one of her breasts through the thin cloth of her bodice while he attempted to remove her smallclothes with his other hand.
"What in the bloody Void is going on here?" Nathaniel slammed the door to the stall open so hard that it nearly rattled off its hinges when it connected with the opposite wall.
The man turned his face up slightly from where it had been tucked against Elissa's neck, though he did not retreat from his activities. It seemed he only wanted to allow Nathaniel to see with certainty who it was pinning her to the dirt floor of the family barn.
"Come now, brother." Thomas smiled maliciously at him. "You are no chantry priest. You know exactly what we are doing."
"Elissa?" Nathaniel brought her eyes to his with the sound of his voice, trying to read something in them that would make him understand if she was a willing or unwilling participant.
"Elissa is fine. She has simply decided to upgrade." Thomas stroked his hand along the exposed skin of her inner thigh until it disappeared beneath her skirts. Nathaniel watched Elissa fight the urge to pull away from his touch and wondered what it was that kept her still though it was obvious she was not enjoying his attentions. "You can go now."
"Do you wish for me to go?" Nathaniel ignored his brother's obvious attempt to bait him and focused only on Elissa's eyes. When she looked at him Nathaniel read the fear and the silent plea for help within, though she would not speak or even nod in reply. His decision was made. "Thomas, get off her now or I'll –"
"Or you'll what?" Thomas snapped. His eyes were full of spite as he ceased his exploration of Elissa's body and sat back on his haunches. "Tell Father? Father is the one who advised me I should act on my impulses. 'Break the spirit to rein the mare' he said. Something you should have done long ago, brother. Clearly you weren't man enough for the job."
"I refuse to believe that Father would advise you to force yourself on any young woman while her parents lie a few yards away, particularly one whose parents are the Teyrn and Teyrna of Highever!" Nathaniel's temper rose steadily with every word he spoke. "I also don't believe that you can know with certainty what has happened between Elissa and I during our many hours alone together, so to question my manhood in such a way is comical, brother. Now, kindly get off my girl."
They stood motionless, staring at one another for what seemed to Elissa to be hours upon hours. Eventually Thomas faltered under the weight of Nathaniel's wrathful gaze and released his grasp on her. He stood to straighten his clothes before stalking over to the door, pausing for a moment to lean in closer to Nathaniel's face and make sure he would be heard.
"Rest assured Father will hear of this." The younger man cast a pointed glare back in Elissa's direction before turning his attention back to Nathaniel. "And when he does I imagine it will be the last time you disappoint him by going against his wishes, Nathaniel."
Moments later he was gone.
Nathaniel stood staring into the empty doorway left where his brother had just been standing, unable to wrap his mind around what had just happened. Unable to accept that his own father could have orchestrated the whole thing. Unable to believe that the same man might, at this very moment, be plotting some sort of lavish punishment because Nathaniel had refused to allow his brother to – quite literally – claim Elissa as his own.
"Elissa!" He dashed to her side and dropped to the ground next to her, reaching down to brush the hair back from her face. "Are you injured? Did he… did he hurt you?"
"H-he… no… my d-dress is r-ruined…" She sputtered the words out in between sobs and eventually reached to push his hands away from her body, much the way she'd done after falling down in the Denerim streets after fleeing Cailan's tea. "You s-should have let him Na-nathaniel… you sh-should…"
"Let him?" Nathaniel broke apart inside, forced to watch her suffer and knowing he would be unable to do anything to help. "You wanted me to just walk away and allow Thomas to… to… to violate you? Why in Andraste's name would you ever want such a thing? You are, without a doubt, the strongest, most capable woman I have ever known, Elissa Cousland. You took down Ox single handedly for much less than Thomas… Why? Why weren't you fighting him?"
"B-because he said if I didn't let him have what he wanted your father would do something horrible to you!" Elissa finally looked into his eyes again, her heart bare and bleeding. "I would have suffered anything to spare you what is now certain, Nathaniel! Anything!"
She nodded reluctantly, but would not meet his eyes, instead changing the subject to her ruined gown. "Nathaniel… I-I can't go back inside like this."
"I think I have some old riding clothes stored out here. Give me a moment and I'll retrieve them for you." He kissed her forehead and left the stall briefly to search for them. It was clear she needed a distraction and for the moment he was more than happy to provide one.
He found his old clothes without much trouble. They were in remarkably good condition and several sizes too small for him, which meant they would fit Elissa almost perfectly. He also snagged a pair of old riding pants that had been cut off into shorts hoping she would be able to use them to replace the smallclothes his brother had destroyed until she could return to The Keep and retrieve a new pair of her own. He returned to the stall moments later and handed her the pile of clothes before stepping outside the stall so that she could change in private.
Elissa walked out a few moments later with her ruined clothes gathered in her arms. She insisted on burning them, desperate to destroy any evidence of what had happened. Nathaniel argued briefly, but she refused to budge. He could see how distressed she was becoming at the continued discussion, so he reluctantly gave in to her demands. After tossing the clothing into a fire pit out back of the stables they finally headed out toward The Cliffs.
Chapter 16: A Whisper On My Lips
A/N: This chapter contains NSFW material.
Muse Music: Days Go By by Dirty Vegas.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Fifteen: A Whisper On My Lips
An hour or so of intense conversation and an exorbitant amount of alcohol had me calling on Isabela who eventually convinced The Hero to accompany her back to Hightown and at least attempt to sleep some of it off. The Archer came in as they moved out but neither one made eye contact, though he eventually turned to look at her once she'd gotten far enough away that he doubted she'd look back and notice.
"What was the topic tonight?" He dropped his bow off in the corner before pulling out his usual chair.
"Your brother, actually."
"You could at least warn me when you plan on broaching the topic of my family, Varric." He sighed and stretched his legs, glancing at the barmaid who'd entered the room to drop off his plate of food long enough to give a polite nod before turning his attention back to me. "Somehow every time you prod at her recollections on any of them it inevitably results in some sort of backlash in my direction."
"She has seemed a little less tolerant of late where you're concerned." I watched him settle everything into place around him – napkin, utensils, and mug. Years removed from polite society and the subtlest actions still marked him the nobleman he once had been.
"It will pass. It always does." Everything where it was intended, he finally started to eat his meal. "Can I ask what specifically it was you inquired about with regard to my brother?"
"I wondered whether she'd had any idea of what was coming. She seemed to have a bad feeling about your father long before he ever—"
"Went round the bend?" Accepting the truth of what his father and brother had become hadn't made it any easier to hear about, and the more he heard the more he wondered just how much of that same darkness lurked inside him. "What did she say?"
"She told me about the incident in the stables." There was no visible reaction in his face or body, but his eyes grew distant and I knew he was remembering it for himself. "She said she burned any evidence that it had happened."
"That she did." He cleared his throat, putting his meal aside to offer a bit of his own recollection to what The Hero had already given me.
Nathaniel held to her hand as they walked silently through the forest to the cliffs overlooking the Amaranthine coast, but neither he nor Elissa had spoken a word since they left the pyre behind the stables. When they reached their destination he sat down on the stone they had claimed as their own years before and watched Elissa stare out into the night, eyes fixed on some distant place he could not see.
The clothes he found in the stables fit her as perfectly as if they had been made for her, something that happened often with things that had once belonged to Nathaniel alone. Even the deep blue fabric suited the pale ivory of her skin, making it seem luminescent when lit by the moon.
He tried to read her face, but it was impassive – cold and hard like stone. He fumbled for the words to bring her back, interrupted when the movement of her body turning toward him caught his attention.
Elissa met his eyes and never let them go, bending down to remove one boot and then the other, leaving her feet bare in the soft, patchy grass and clay at cliff's edge. He couldn't quite puzzle out what she was doing. She'd gone through these motions a million times before back at The Lagoon, but there was no water here to dip her feet into. The confusion passed as quickly as it came, his eyes following the motion of her hands to the laces of his old trousers. They were undone a moment later, the worn material sliding over her hips and down her legs to drop against the ground below.
"Lissa, what are you—" Nathaniel's pulse sped as the material of her discarded clothing pooled at her feet.
"You'd best get started." Elissa's voice was husky and her eyes glittered dangerously in the moonlight. "I'm already ahead of you."
Nathaniel hesitated to respond. This is not what his father would want from him. This could only make things worse. But the hesitation lasted only a moment. Elissa's fingers were already working the buttons on his old tunic when he bent down to pull off his boots and socks. She was nearly done when he rushed the buttons of his own, sliding it down his arms and dropping it to the ground.
He watched the slight smile that turned up the edge of her lips as her eyes skimmed across his bare chest for the first time. His lean frame was well muscled and dusted with dark hair that thickened into a line across his belly before disappearing beneath the waist of his trousers.
He could feel his body responding to her inspection already, and between the obvious approval and the tunic she dropped to the ground below her, he knew it wouldn't be long before he would be unable to hide it from her watchful eyes.
Elissa stood in front of him clad only in his shorts and a cream-colored chemise, which left little to the imagination, especially when Nathaniel realized that she wore no breast band beneath it. He wondered if she'd ever had one at all, or if she'd simply discarded it along with the other pieces of her clothing that his brother had ruined.
He stood and took a step toward her, the need to touch her – to hold her in his arms – to take her mouth with his solidifying into a tangible thing in the warm night air. But she backed away, wagging a finger at him with a smile. Her eyes rested heavy on the waistband of his trousers in silent instruction.
Nathaniel stopped moving, hesitating to reveal so much of himself, but the way she was looking at him forced his hand. He returned her brazen smile with one of his own, unlacing his trousers and pushing them over his hips then allowing them to fall to the ground with the rest of his clothing.
He watched her pupils dilate, a subconscious, physical, visceral communication of her attraction to him – and with that he began to move toward her again, realizing too late how close she had gotten to the cliff's edge. Before he could react, she spread her arms out wide, closed her eyes, and pushed back lightly with her toes, disappearing over the edge and into the dark water below.
"Elissa! No!" Nathaniel screamed, running forward and skidding to a stop when his toes reached the edge and knocked a few loose pebbles down behind her. He held his breath for a few moments, waiting for her to resurface. When she took longer than he thought necessary, he steeled himself and jumped.
The things I will do for this woman.
He sliced into the water, curving himself back toward the surface. When the night air hit his skin he pushed wet hair back from his face, eyes scanning the rolling waves frantically for any sign of her. The loud splashing echoed off the surrounding cliff wall as he spun in circles, his panic growing with every passing second.
He took in a slow, deep breath and swam in toward the shore where long shadows concealed sharp rocks in shallow pools, praying to the Maker he would not find her broken body dashed upon the stone, but even there he saw no sign of her.
When he could swim no longer he backed himself onto a smooth circle of stones in the shallows and sat scanning the water and hoping he would not be returning to The Keep alone with no explanation of where she had gone.
When Elissa hit the water it was as though everything that had happened and everything that might come as a result was washed away. She heard Nathaniel enter the water seconds later, then heard him splashing above her as he frantically searched for any sign she had survived the fall.
She could imagine how worried he was when she watched his legs kicking off toward the shore, but still she did not come up for air. She wanted to sleep beneath the surface just a little longer. To will her pulse to slow; her nerves to calm.
She stayed until her lungs burned and she could wait no longer, then pressed her feet into the sandy bottom and pushed hard to the top.
He'd caught his breath and watched for as long as he could manage, but when there was still no sign of her Nathaniel prepared to make another attempt to track her beneath the water before he'd be forced to give up and go to rouse the entire castle to aid in the search for her. The moment he stood, her head broke through the waves a few feet ahead of him. She drew in a long breath, staring up at the moon for a few moments, and turned to swim in his direction, standing when her feet could reach the bottom and walking the remaining distance toward where he sat in the shadows.
"Have you lost your mind?" He tried to suppress his anger, but his temper rose quickly when she moved close enough for him to see that she was perfectly alright.
He was furious that she'd endanger them both in such a way, but that fury faded as she emerged from the water. What little she still wore had been rendered translucent by the sea. In the moonlight he could clearly see the outline of her breasts; the nipples straining against the material of her chemise. He wondered if she'd planned that as well; if she'd known what looking like that would do to his ability to remain cross with her.
"Probably." Elissa smiled slightly. "If I have, it is entirely your fault."
She continued walking toward him, not stopping until she was within arms length, but Nathaniel dared not touch her. He could feel the heat radiating off her body and for a moment he was consumed by the thought that he would quite literally burn alive if he did.
"When you didn't come up I thought you were… I thought you'd been hurt." He tried to ignore the way she ran her tongue along the inside of her lower lip, pulling in the droplets of salty sea water that ran lazy trails from her hair, down her face, her neck, her chest.
The water grazed the bottom of her breasts and he fought desperately not to appear as though he was ogling her body, though she did not offer him the same courtesy. Her eyes roamed unashamed over his bare chest and shoulders overflowing with a mix of curiosity and desire.
"Are you cross with me?" Elissa brought a mocking pout to her lips and reached over to lightly run her nails across his bare skin; testing the feel of his musculature and the texture of his chest hair. "Is there anything I can do to make you not so cross?"
Nathaniel felt his muscles tense, his breath catch, his pupils dilate. He knew she saw all of those things happening when she put one knee on each side of his legs and settled into his lap. He knew she could feel him shaking when she reached up to place one hand on his shoulder, using the other to tuck a strand of wet hair behind his ear.
"My frustration with you will not be so easily assuaged." Nathaniel watched her smile languidly at him, realizing too late that the look in her eyes only ever meant trouble. She twitched her hips, pressing her warmth harder against his rapidly hardening erection. Instantly the light flickering of his temper faded, replaced by the raging inferno of passion that only she could draw out of him.
His hands dug into her hips and he attempted to hold her still, to prevent her from continuing any further down the path on which she was unknowingly walking. He stifled the groan that fought to push past his lips with her breathy laughter in his ear.
"Are you certain?" Elissa rocked her hips again, her smile broadening when he was unable to stop himself from groaning this time.
"I assure you, I am exceptionally frustrated." He released one of her legs and reached up to grab the side of her face with his thumb, wrapping his fingers behind her head and pulling her face in closer to his.
"I simply cannot bear to have you frustrated with me." She leaned in so close that their noses touched, moving her hand up to his cheek and rolling her hips again. It was easy for her to coax forth the reaction she desired from him, and she chuckled when he bucked against her. "Let us work together so that we both might find release."
"This is a dangerous game you play, Elissa." Nathaniel's voice was rough with the tenuous restraint that held him in check. "I am your friend – no, more than your friend. As such, I have followed you willingly down the course of your choosing, but at the end of the day I am just a man. You cannot tease me so and expect that I will not one day be unable to keep myself from giving in to the need to respond."
"It is your response I desire, Nathaniel." Elissa ran her thumb along the edge of his lips, then leaned forward and captured his earlobe in her mouth, driving him absolutely mad with desire.
For a moment he stopped thinking, stopped holding back, and simply lost himself in the heat of her touch and the wanton desire that pulsed between them. He ran his hands over her bare skin; long perfect legs, lightly muscled arms, narrow waist, the small of her back, the generous curve of her bottom. She explored him much the same; taut muscled chest, straining biceps, the thick trunks of his thighs, the flat plane of his stomach.
Eventually her hand drifted lower until she was toying with the edge of his smallclothes. As much as he didn't want to, he forced himself to pull out of the fog of desire and stop her hand before it reached its destination.
"Elissa… Lissa, please… we have to stop." He managed to get the words out between his panted, heavy breathing, pulling himself far enough away from her writhing body that he could meet her eyes.
"I don't want to stop." She tried to wiggle free of his grasp and wrap her nimble fingers around the one thing she knew somewhere in her primal mind would end his ability to deny her. "I want you to take me, Nathaniel."
"You don't know what you're asking for, Elissa." He took her face in both hands and forced her to meet his stare. "Your judgment is clouded by what happened earlier. I fear you will regret anything that happens between us now under the clear light of day. I do not wish to be a regret to you, not in any way, but definitely not in this way."
"I am no child!" She spat the words out, anger springing to life in her mind and overtaking the lust that had so fully consumed her only moments before. "I know what I am asking and I will never regret being with you in any way."
"While it does my heart good to hear such words from your lips, I cannot do what you ask of me…" Nathaniel silenced when she pushed off of him and moved away into deeper water. The tension returned to her body as quickly as it had gone.
"Do I no longer please you?" Elissa's voice was shaking with emotion. "Have I been sullied somehow by your brother's advances?"
"What? Of course you… Elissa… that is not what I meant!" He stood and moved over to her, reaching for her hands and turning her to face him. "You please me in ways I could not even begin to explain. I desire you… I need you more than… Elissa, I have never felt this way about anyone else, anything else."
"Then why?" He could see the doubt in her eyes. The fear that she was doing wrong, that she somehow wasn't enough for him.
"I told you before and my mind has not changed regardless of what happened today. We both deserve more from this experience than some quick tumble." Nathaniel touched her face gently, but she shifted again out of his reach.
"When are we ever going to be given the opportunity for more?" Elissa met his eyes briefly, long enough so he could see the fear that had consumed her. "Especially now! Once Thomas tells your father what we did… Oh, Nate… Who knows what he will do?"
Nathaniel had no words to comfort her. There was nothing to say to quell her fears. He dreaded what was to come for them when his father received word on the events of that night. Rendon Howe was not a merciful man under the best of circumstances. Even if he had tried, Nathaniel knew he would be unlikely to predict what his father's retribution was going to be once he discovered that one of his sons had forced himself on the Teyrn's daughter. Knowing this he did the only thing he could do; he wrapped his arms around Elissa and held her as she cried.
When her tears were spent, they made their way up the rocks and back to The Cliffs above – dressing in silence before returning to The Keep.
"She was still sobbing when we got back." Nathaniel picked his fork back up, picking restlessly at his long cold plate. "I thought she was going to wake the entire hall. I tried to get her to come back to my room, but she wouldn't. She was terrified that Thomas would know and tell my father."
"She was right to worry." His eyes flickered up to mine, brow furrowed when I stood and walked to my shelf and retrieved the leather-bound volume I'd taken from The Keep some time ago. I tossed it to the table in front of him, watching him reach to retrieve it and thumb through the pages.
There was a minute widening of his eyes the further into the volume he read. Eventually he snapped it shut and stood, strolling over to the hearth. "Has Elissa seen this?"
"Good." He tossed it into the fire, watching the leather cover char and curl as the flames licked at pages inside. "Let's keep it that way."
"Are you sure it's a good idea to be keeping secrets from her in light of—"
"Some tales don't need to be told, Varric." He collected his things and headed for the door. "Some tales should die with those who made them."
Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen: Throwing Punches In The Air
A/N: Another couple of letters.
Muse Music: Strong Enough by Sheryl Crow.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Sixteen: Throwing Punches in the Air
"I didn't expect to see you again tonight." I glanced at the pirate as she drifted into my suite, bottle in hand, and took a seat at the center table.
She'd disappeared several hours before with an exceptionally moody and very inebriated Hero. Normally when that happened I didn't see either of them again until at least the following afternoon. What they did during their time together I couldn't say for sure. Neither of them were very forthcoming about the nature of their current relationship, which was especially odd behavior when coming from Isabela.
"I didn't expect to be seeing you either." She reached out and grabbed a mug from the center of the table and filled it about half full of whatever was in the bottle she'd purchased at the bar.
"Let me guess, they're fighting again?" I shut my journal, giving my full attention to the woman as she actually appeared somewhat vexed. The Archer had taken his leave for the night not too long before Isabela resurfaced. I should have known he wouldn't simply go home and get some sleep.
She shrugged, tossing back the entire contents of her cup, then pouring another, "Fighting, fucking... it's all basically the same thing when it comes to those two."
"You've got a point." I watched her try to disguise her yawn behind the lip of her mug, though I would have heard the sound of it even if she'd managed to pull it off. "Could have asked them to do it in some place that wasn't your room though."
"I have the keys to the Lowtown flat and that bed's much more comfortable than mine. Not to mention twice as large."
"The one in Hightown is probably even better."
"The Hightown one comes with roommates, and I'm not up for that kind of company this early in the morning." She finished off her mug, capping the bottle and stowing it away in her pack. I could see she was ready to go.
"You could have told him to come back some other time. You could have told him not to come back at all. It's your room. It's your right." I folded my hands on top of my journal and waited for an explanation.
"I could have, but I felt sorry for him." She shrugged as she stood, suddenly anxious to leave as were most people once they realized the direction my questions were going. "Besides, he'd have come in anyway. Or she'd have let him. If they want to see one another I suspect there's not a power in Thedas that can stop them."
"Maybe someone should try..." It was mumbled, and more a comment to myself than to the woman now standing in my doorway, but she heard it anyway.
"He loves her, Varric. Everything else aside, the mistakes he's made... she's made... he loves her, and love is a powerful and dangerous thing." She was going, almost in the hall before I spoke again.
"What about you, Isabela?" The hitch in her step almost wasn't there, but I saw it, and it answered my question though she didn't address it with words. She stopped at the bar to grab several more bottles of whatever she'd been drinking and then disappeared into the shadows of the Kirkwall night.
Delilah has written and told me that Thomas – so far as she knows – still has not spoken to your father with regard to what transpired between us that night in the stables. Would that I could say this knowledge granted me some relief. Instead I find myself lost even more to this dread that eats at my heart. I know that he is most likely waiting until his revelation, or the threat of it used as blackmail against one or both of us, is most advantageous to his plans.
Have you spoken of it at all? Is there nothing we can do to appeal to his conscience? Surely somewhere within him still beats a heart that can be moved by the strength of what binds you and I to one another.
I have heard no news that would make me believe you aren't still bound for Highever in the summer. I hope that I can make it through these ever-lengthening months without you. The memory of your touch on my skin hovers like a ghost, leaving me wanton for more.
Delilah is correct, my brother has spoken to no one of what transpired in our stables, myself included. I wish that I could have faith that somewhere within Thomas the ability to show compassion to another still lives, but I have seen nothing that would make me believe him capable of anything but vicious retaliation. In his eyes this was a defeat dealt at the hands of the brother he envies and the young woman he desires. He will not forgive us, nor will he forget. Like you I believe he bides his time with this knowledge until he can do the most good for himself, or the most harm to us.
I wish that I knew what to do to combat what is coming. I cannot go to Father for fear that his response will be exactly what Thomas has predicted, or that the revelation of these occurrences will force him to render some sort of punishment unto Thomas instead. I often think a great many negative things with regard to my brother, but he does not deserve to suffer from my father's heavy-handed discipline any more than I do. I dare not confront Thomas directly. It will only incense him more, and likely push his hand.
Both of these things would result in the cancellation of our journey to Highever, and I cannot bear the thought of that. I ache for you, Elissa, body and soul. It is a blazing hearth inside of me, always burning. It is a siren's call that is never silent, never dull.
I ask you to forgive me for being so crass as to suggest what I am about to pen to this paper, but your words when last we spoke have made me bold, or perhaps foolish. Such things remain to be seen.
If you still wish to consummate our connection to one another as you did last fall, then I will abide by that desire. I have tried to resist for too long; and my resolve weakens with every thought of you. I know that when I see you again it will be more than I can bear.
If you want me still, the way that I want you, then you have but to say the words and I will make you mine in every way, offering myself to you in return.
Chapter 18: The End In the Beginning
A/N: This chapter contains some NSFW material.
Muse Music: Dotted Lines by Sweet Talk Radio.
Thanks to my readers, followers and reviewers and to my lady beta artemiskat.
Chapter Seventeen: The End In the Beginning
Stone walls aren't always as thick as people might imagine, and certainly not thick enough to soundproof Soldier's Peak. Looking at them might give the illusion of security, but that's all that it is… an illusion.
"Gone crawling back to him again, sister?"
The unmistakable slur of Fergus Cousland, drunk from the sound of it, and stumbling his way into the book laden room that The Hero had taken as an office. The Archer had taken his leave of her only a few moments prior, and I was sure that what I heard in that conversation had put her in no mood to deal with her estranged brother.
"I find it ironic that you're the one wandering about knackered just after sunrise and yet I'm the one who always manages to get labeled as the drunk. Don't you?" Elissa folded her arms and leaned back in her chair, glancing at the half hidden bottle on her desk and wondering if she should start drinking now or wait until Fergus really got going.
"I thought you'd finally passed him over in favor of that whore of a pirate…" He took another drink from the bottle in his hand, stumbling once, then settling in the chair on the other side of the desk.
"Fergus…" Her eyes narrowed.
"Maybe you have them both? Is that how it works now?" Fergus ignored both the warning in her voice and her failed attempt to change the subject, set as he was on pushing his point.
"I'm not going to speak about this with you. Not now. Not ever." Elissa snatched the bottle up, opening it and taking a long look before downing half the contents.
"It seems to be fair game for anyone else." He smiled, watching the barb hit its mark.
"People gossip, Fergus. I neither contribute to it nor address it. What you make of those rumors is up to you. As I've said, I won't be discussing it with you." She sighed, putting the bottle down and standing to pace over to the narrow window at the back of the room. She didn't feel her brother's eyes following her, or see him fiddling with the arm of his chair as he weighed his next words.
"I knew… about his father's plans to send him to the Free Marches." Fergus put his own bottle down at the edge of her desk, holding to the edge to keep his balance when standing.
"I'm sorry… you what?" Elissa turned back to him; face blank as she attempted to process what he was telling her.
"I overheard Thomas and Rendon discussing it just before everyone left for the Bannorn."
"You knew and you said nothing?" There were equal parts fury and hurt in her voice, either way it was clear this betrayal hit harder than most. "You knew and you did nothing? Nothing to stop it? Nothing to help?"
"I wanted him to go." Fergus pressed forward, following her when she shook her head and moved even away at his admission. "With him gone, maybe in a couple of years you'd have come to your senses… maybe you'd have seen that the world didn't begin and end with Nathaniel Howe."
"Why would you do that to us, Fergus? He-he was your friend…. And me, your own sister…" Elissa held her face now, unable to make sense of what she was hearing.
"It was for the best, Elissa. You have to believe me." He staggered after her, nearly taking them both down when he stumbled on an errant pile of books.
"Yes, Fergus. As you can see, it's gone just swimmingly for all of us." She pulled away from his touch, her own pain mimicking what she saw in his eyes as she increased the distance between them. "Get out."
"It's too late for that. Go."
If you asked them to speak about it years later, neither Nathaniel nor Elissa would be able to recall much of anything about the last few weeks they spent together. It slipped past them in a blur, every moment taking on a life of its own, and gaining a momentum over which they no longer had control.
Within the first few days of the Howe family's visit Elissa overheard her mother and father say that the Arl and Arlessa would be accompanying them to a summer gala in the Bannorn, leaving the "children" to fend for themselves for at least three days. When she relayed this information to Nathaniel it was like putting flame to a slow burning fuse, leaving both of them smoldering while counting the moments until they could be truly alone together at last.
They barely resisted the urge to dash off to the nearest empty room the very second their parents disappeared from view, and by the time the sun left the sky on their first day of freedom, they had completely run out of both willpower and patience.
Elissa picked at her dinner, eating what she could stomach over her nervousness at a frantic pace and then excusing herself to retire for the evening. Neither Fergus nor Delilah seemed to register anything unusual about her behavior. She and Nathaniel frequently left dinner early to roam about the estate together, tonight should be no different.
Before she could breathe a sigh of relief she noted Thomas' eyes narrow dangerously as he glanced at her and then turned to Nathaniel. She didn't stay long enough to see how Nathaniel would respond, or if he would. There was too little time. She needed to remain focused on the task at hand.
Instead she dashed down the hall to her chamber and requested that a bath be drawn. Once the servants' footfalls had fallen silent, she sank into the water and began what she could unequivocally say was the most detail oriented bath of her life. She took special care to make certain that no stray dirt or questionable scratches remained from their afternoon sparring and gallivanting around in the forest.
As the servants emptied the bath she combed and attempted to speed the drying process of her long, red locks, eventually cursing them for being so thick and unmanageable. She knew they would remain damp long into the night no matter what else she did to them. When she was certain she would no longer be disturbed by anyone who might become suspicious, she took off her usual heavy night coat and chose a dark-blue dressing gown from her bureau, tugging it over her head and hoping her hair wouldn't soak it through before Nathaniel arrived.
When she was done, she stood for countless moments inspecting herself in the mirror. She fussed with her hair a bit more and ultimately decided to remove both her breast band and smallclothes. The color of her gown would not cause such a thing to be too revealing and it seemed the practical thing to do as she'd not be needing them later. Realizing there was little left to do but wait she dabbed a little lilac oil on her pulse points and started to pace anxiously at the foot of the bed.
Nathaniel didn't wait long after Elissa left to excuse himself; ignoring his brother's pointed glare as he headed down the hall to his guest room. He'd possessed the foresight to take a bath before dinner, so he only needed to freshen up a bit before making his way to Elissa's room. He combed his hair and changed into his night clothes, only pausing for a moment to take in a deep breath before silently moving down the hall to her room.
As he walked, Nathaniel listened intently for signs of anyone else awake and alert nearby, but neither heard nor sensed anything. Eventually he found himself once again outside Elissa's chamber door. It was a place that should have been completely neutral to him at this point, yet now – in this moment – it felt like he was standing on the cliff in Amaranthine and readying himself to follow over the edge where Elissa had already gone.
He raised his hand to the knob and tried the door, wondering for a brief moment what he would do if he found it barred. What if she changed her mind? But the panic was fleeting and unnecessary. The door gave easily, and he stepped inside.
Nathaniel smelled Elissa before he saw her, pressing his eyes closed for a moment before following the wafting cloud of lilacs trailing behind her to where she paced restlessly near the foot of her bed. She looked as nervous as he felt, her fingers twisting a damp curl for a second before throwing it over her shoulder where it would continue to soak through her night gown with the rest of her hair. He leaned against the door, wanting one more moment to breathe and just think about how much he'd come to feel for the girl he'd once considered nothing more than yet another annoyance that came along noble life.
When she finally turned and realized he was there her feet staggered to a stop. He knew that she could see the emotions warring on his face as he looked her over. He desired her, that much was clearly evident in the way he took in every inch of her body, but there was… more. Something as yet unnamed that hung heavy in the air between them.
He closed the distance until he was standing so close she could feel the heat radiating off his body, but he made no move to touch her. His grey eyes held to her green, waiting – she assumed – for her to take the initiative and show him this was still what she wanted from him. She reached out and took his hand, drawing him slowly to her bed and reassuring him that she had not changed her mind. When her knees hit the edge, she sat and scooted back to lie against her pillows, waiting patiently for him to follow behind her.
After a brief pause, Nathaniel crawled across the bed, stopping to kneel between her knees. There were long, creamy expanses of skin exposed where the hem of her mid-thigh length gown ended and the deep, indigo color made it appear as though her milky skin glowed in the flickering candlelight of her bedchamber.
He inched his fingers forward, finding her fingertips – then her hands, and pulled her into a seated position. He linked their fingers together, staring at the way they just seemed to fit perfectly and trying to slow his thundering heart. He was frozen.
As if she could read his mind… as if she could sense his hesitation, she leaned forward, pulling her hands away and placing them on his face. Then, after what seemed like a lifetime of near misses and intentional avoidance, she brushed her lips tentatively against his own.
Any doubt in his mind was instantly erased. All resolve crumbled. The last vestiges of anything within either one of them that possessed the ability to fight against the swelling tide of their feelings for one another gave way. They were lost, enraptured, completely awash in the devastating power of the feelings that had been building for years.
Nathaniel knew he was in love with her, and he realized as he wound his fingers into her hair and tilted her jaw to deepen the kiss that he always had been. He pressed against her, grazing the edge of her lips with his tongue until she opened her mouth and let him inside.
Elissa responded in kind, pushing up onto her knees and crawling into his lap. She threaded her fingers into his hair and tugged insistently at it, kissing him as though he was the very air she needed to breathe. She needed him to see that she was, without a doubt, in love with him too.
In that moment they knew she had been right all along. Just one kiss had irrevocably altered everything between them. It had taken a smoldering ember and lit a mighty blaze that would consume everything in its wake. It was almost too much to bear.
Elissa pulled away for a moment, causing Nathaniel to stare in confusion until he felt her fingers slide down and start to pull his tunic across his stomach and up over his chest. He flipped it off his arms moments later and tossed it to the floor carelessly, wanting nothing more than to kiss her again. When he'd wrapped her in his arms once more he leaned her back against the soft pillows and sighed as she explored his mouth with her tongue.
He could feel the bare skin of her legs against his rib cage and he reveled in the sensation of her long fingers running delicious trails against the bare skin of his back. This time it was Nathaniel that pulled away, grey eyes searching green one last time with the meager vestiges of control he could muster.
"Are you certain you want this, Elissa? Are you certain you want it to be me?" Nathaniel fought against her as she repeatedly tried to reclaim his lips and silence his questions. "We are rapidly approaching the point of no return. If we continue in this manner, I will not be able to hold myself back from you; and once this is done – it is done. There is no undoing it."
"Why must you always doubt that I know my own mind, my own… heart, Nathaniel?" Elissa's face creased into a slight frown and she stroked his jaw, gently tracing the edge of his bottom lip. "I want this and I want it to be with you – only you. I do not wish for you to hold yourself back. I give myself to you fully, and would hope you do the same for me."
Hearing those words was all Nathaniel needed to throw caution to the wind. He pressed Elissa back against the mattress, kissing her thoroughly, one hand in her hair as he slowly slid the other along the smooth expanse of her outer thigh. He planned to remove her smallclothes, but when he reached the soft curve of her hip, he found nothing there.
"A-are you… are you naked beneath this?" Nathaniel's voice broke at the thought that only the thin chemise of her gown separated him from having her fully-bared body writhing beneath him.
"I didn't expect that I would need my underthings as you would only be removing them later." Elissa laughed and used her teeth to nip lightly at his throat.
"I swear, woman, you will be the death of me." He growled out the words and took her mouth again, feeling her fingers search for the laces of his breeches as his hand found purchase against her soft breast through the fabric of her gown. "Though I suspect I shall die a very happy man."
"You are no innocent, Nathaniel." Her whisper was husky and her voice hitched when his thumb grazed her nipple. "You bewitched me years ago. I have been putty in your hands ever since."
His chest rumbled with low laughter when he realized that she'd given herself over to him so fully years ago with him never having known. He continued to kiss every inch of her skin with reverence, unashamed at how his body reacted to her and how easy he was certain it was for her to see how much he wanted her. They belonged to one another. They belonged together. There was no longer any need to doubt or pretend otherwise.
They were both so lost in one another; in the heat of their bodies coming together at long last that they did not notice the door to Elissa's chamber open, or hear the angry words of their uninvited guest. As he pushed up his hips to help Elissa with his pants, Nathaniel felt himself being jerked to the side. Elissa's eyes snapped open when she felt the heat of his body replaced by a cold draft of air. At that point they both registered Fergus standing at the side of the bed, his eyes glittering with a mix of anger and concern.
"Have the two of you lost your minds?" Fergus tossed Nathaniel's discarded shirt into his face and watched as he hurried to pull it back on, shifting himself into a position where he hoped his erection was least noticeable. "If you're going to engage in such… activities… at least have the presence of mind to bar the sodding door!"
"The blame for that oversight should fall on me and not your sister, Fergus." Nathaniel hung his head when he felt Elissa's eyes on him, embarrassed that in his rush he had neglected to do something that obviously would have spared them both the humiliation of this moment.
"I don't care who was responsible for it! We have bigger issues to deal with at the moment than your questionable decision making skills." Fergus stomped over to Elissa's dresser and tossed her a robe, glaring at her until she did as he intended and covered herself back up. "There is a messenger at our gate, Nathaniel, and he has a missive that he will deliver to you and you alone."
"A missive for me?" Nathaniel glanced at Elissa who shook her head to verify that it hadn't come from her. "The only person who has ever written me is in this room and I'm hardly important enough to warrant a night delivery from anyone else. Who is it from?"
"If I knew who it was from, that would mean the messenger was willing to give me information, and then there would be no reason for them not to simply give me the bloody thing in the first place." Fergus was quickly losing what little patience remained within him. "As it is, the man gave me little more than to whom it was to be delivered and spoke nothing more. I pressed him, but answers were not forthcoming. If you desire to know from whence your correspondences come I would suggest prying yourself from between my sister's legs and going to speak to the messenger yourself."
Elissa could feel Nathaniel tense beside her and knew that both young men were dangerously close to losing their tempers. Fergus was close to livid at finding her in such a compromising position and Nathaniel did not look kindly on having what had nearly occurred between them treated in such a vulgar fashion. She clamped her hand down on his forearm, squeezing hard enough to draw his attention and silence his response when he saw the unspoken plea in her eyes. He relaxed, reaching down to lace his fingers through hers and turning to follow Fergus down the long halls toward the front gate where the messenger stood waiting.
Delilah and Thomas were already there no doubt roused by Fergus in his search for Nathaniel. Elissa tensed when Thomas' eyes inspected her state of undress a little too closely, and she felt Nathaniel's anxiety return when the inspection soon turned in his direction.
"Lord Howe." The messenger bowed low, reaching for the parchment stored in the pack he carried. "I apologize for any trouble I've caused for you or your friends. I was given specific instructions to deliver this to you and only to you. It is not a directive I have the courage to test."
"Thank you." Confusion etched heavily onto Nathaniel's face as he retrieved the letter from the man's hand and watched him quickly exit the castle.
Elissa uttered a small gasp when she recognized the Howe crest pressed into the wax on the seal. He released her hand, leaving her to worry with her fingers and watch his face for any reaction to the words within, waiting for him to reveal what it said.
She didn't have to wait long. The others may have missed it. Nathaniel hid emotion, the changes in his expression were so slight they were nearly impossible to see, but Elissa knew his face too well. She watched his eyes widen slightly, the corner of his mouth curl down the smallest amount, the line of his jaw thicken with tension; the news was not good.
"It's from Father," Nathaniel finally spoke, raising his eyes to meet Elissa's with a hesitation that could not be missed. "He's decided to squire me in the Free Marches for a few years to improve my skills in combat and thicken my skin. The ship on which my transportation has been secured leaves in a week, and the caravan I am to travel there with will depart from Highever… tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?!" Elissa yelled and snatched the parchment from his hands, scanning the words with her own eyes. "Due to his disappointment in your recent decisions with regard to your brother's rightful property?!"
Green eyes flicked up from the paper, focusing in on gray – but only for a moment. In that moment Nathaniel saw a wealth of emotion; disbelief, horror, sorrow and finally rage. Pure, unadulterated fury, raw and seething. It caused his breath to catch in his throat at the sheer force of it. Delilah and Fergus recognized it too, but time was slowing down. None of them were able to move fast enough to intercept Elissa before she could snatch the dagger on Fergus' belt and lunge at Thomas.
"You!" Elissa hissed out the words and threw all of her weight against him, slamming him into the wall and pressing the tip of the blade into the skin at his throat. "You are responsible for this! You worthless, cowardly little insect! I should bleed you dry right here and leave the world better in your absence!"
"Elissa!" Fergus moved toward her, snapping an arm out to attempt and retrieve his dagger before any damage was done. "What are you doing? Have you lost your mind? This is Thomas! We've known him since we were babes! Why in Thedas would you attack him over some dispute over who will take the Arlship? I know that you are… whatever… you are with Nathaniel, but this is not your place! This decision rightfully belongs to Arl Howe."
"You honestly think I would be this upset over an inheritance related pissing contest, Fergus?" The venom in her voice froze him in place before he could intervene any further. "The property that Arl Howe so tactfully referred to as being rightfully Thomas' is not Vigil's Keep but me. He was talking about me."
"What?" Fergus growled and glanced to Delilah, then Nathaniel for confirmation when Thomas would not meet his eyes. "Is this true?"
"Most likely, yes." Nathaniel's face showed nothing but shame. His family's dysfunction was fully exposed now and nothing any of them could do would hide it again. "My father was quite insistent that Thomas was the better match for your sister. I had believed him to accept my requests to court her – as we both wanted – but clearly he did not."
"Why, Thomas? Why would you do this?" Delilah had already begun to sob, tears streaming down her face when she stepped toward her brother in an attempt to understand why he would make such a drastic decision. "I have always known that you were tainted by your jealousy of Nathaniel, but why do something so intentionally harmful? Why try to destroy your brother's happiness and possibly end his life by sending him away to such a horrible place?"
"Because all of these things that Nathaniel seems to collect with ease – without-without even wanting them, they were all promised to me!" Thomas laughed, a thin, mirthless sound. His eyes burned with the spite that had built within him over the years and he glared at each one of them in turn before settling back on Elissa whose grip on him had not faltered. "He does not deserve a woman like you any more than he deserved being heir to Amaranthine. I will claim his title and I will claim you."
"You will claim nothing!" Elissa spat in his face and pressed the blade harder, breaking the skin at his neck and forcing Nathaniel into motion to try and stop her. "Nathaniel, stop where you are or I will gut him now. I swear it in the Maker's name."
"Elissa, this will solve nothing." Nathaniel came to a halt just out of range, calming the tone of his voice out of fear that she would follow through on that threat if she felt challenged again. He had never seen her so angry, and even in the best of times her temper was an unpredictable and dangerous thing.
"Yes, darling. Listen to your lover. Every move you make only lengthens the time you will spend apart." Thomas' words dripped with venom and he leaned forward, ignoring the knife at his throat as he moved so close to Elissa's face he could feel her breath on his skin. "Should you gut me, as you so clearly desire to do, you can rest assured that your dear Nathaniel will suffer a much more tortuous fate. I hear the Free Marches are a wild land… accidents happen all the time."
The room stood frozen, so still and silent it was surreal, everyone waiting to see what Elissa would decide. She balanced precariously between her fury at Thomas and her concern for Nathaniel. He already suffered the consequences of choosing to care for her. If she pushed this further then he could… She couldn't think about it. She pushed away from Thomas, her arm falling limp as Fergus rushed forward to reclaim his dagger. Nathaniel stepped forward when she'd been disarmed and folded her in a light embrace.
"You may think you have won, Thomas Howe, but I will never be yours. No matter what your father has promised to you, I swear, it will never come to pass!" Her body started to shake under the strain of her fury and she watched through narrowed eyes as Thomas swiped at the blood on his neck before disappearing with a sneer into the darkened depths of Castle Cousland.
Fergus offered to escort the still sobbing Delilah to her room, sharing a quick, tense glare with Nathaniel that made it clear he was to escort Elissa back to her room but under no circumstances was he to continue the activities they'd been involved in earlier. Nathaniel didn't have to worry about fending off any advances. As soon as they entered her chamber door Elissa threw herself on him, sobbing uncontrollably. Watching her break apart was almost more than he could take.
When he could calm her enough to move he flipped her up into his arms and carried her to the bed, curling around her and stroking her hair until blessed sleep finally claimed them both.
Chapter 19: Letting Go
A/N: Muse Music: Star-Crossed Lovers by DeVision.
Thanks to my readers, reviewers and followers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Eighteen: Letting Go
Where the Cousland siblings seemed to be growing more and more dysfunctional with every passing day, the Howes were well on their way to repair. Delilah seemed to possess an innate ability to calm even the most violent temper, a welcome talent in quarters that grew ever smaller as time ran on. She'd joined me in one of the many library rooms scattered about The Peak about twenty minutes before her brother came barreling in to eaves drop on The Hero.
"He's never going to forgive me." Nathaniel watched as Fergus Cousland stumbled across the snowy courtyard over to the small tavern several of the merchants had established in one of The Peak's outbuildings.
He'd had another row with Elissa. Another very loud row with regard to her continued involvement with The Archer. It had turned an already stressful morning into what was now certain to be a very long day.
"Oh, he'll get around to the forgiveness some day. It's the forgetting that's the hard part." Delilah continued to work on her needlepoint, glancing up at her brother with a half-smile before turning her eyes back down to the fabric.
"So you've forgiven her now?" Nathaniel folded his arms and turned back from the window, arching a suspicious eyebrow at his little sister.
"I forgave her long ago, brother. I suspect I would never have moved into that little cottage back at The Keep had I not… but I doubt I can ever forget what she did when she…" Her voice hitched and she stopped stitching for a moment, pressing her eyes closed and drawing in a long, slow breath before continuing again. "Well, it's best not to speak about it, really. I might forget I have forgiven."
"You're going to have to acknowledge that it had to be done at some point. All that you've seen, all that we—"
"Today is not that day, Nathaniel."
She did not look up at him again and eventually he left in search of Elissa.
The young lovers stood frozen on the ramparts of the Cousland estate in Highever, watching as the sun began to take full possession of the sky. They woke tangled together in Elissa's bed, only managing to separate long enough to change back into proper clothes for the day.
From this vantage point they could watch Nathaniel's belongings being sectioned off into two groups; one loaded into a cart bound for storage in Amaranthine, the other packed into smaller bags and secured to Nocturne whom he would ride on his journey to the coast.
Fergus moved among the workers and supervised everything with a careful eye. He felt the least he could do in light of what his best friend and sister were suffering was to ensure that all of Nathaniel's belongings would be waiting for him in once piece when he returned.
Delilah refused to leave her room now that Nathaniel had said his goodbyes. She sobbed against his shoulder for a few minutes when he hugged her and then retreated back into her bed, unable to face the reality of watching him ride away for what could be the last time.
Thomas had yet to resurface after his near death experience the previous evening, though Nathaniel thought that was probably for the best. He wasn't sure whether his brother was too ashamed or too frightened to show his face anywhere that Elissa could get at him, but if he had to guess he'd have gone with the latter. His brother was rarely ever ashamed of his behavior no matter how awful it might have been.
Nathaniel could see the tension in Elissa's face where she stood at his side and feel it in her hand where their fingers intertwined. She had said nothing, not one word, since he woke to her green eyes watching him sleep. He was beginning to wonder if she was even capable of language at this point.
"Run away with me." Elissa's voice shattered the silence with the insistence of its tone.
"I'm sorry…" Nathaniel turned to her, his heart skipping a beat. He was certain he must have misheard. She couldn't have requested what he thought she did. It was just his fevered imagination, fueled by adrenaline and running on too little sleep.
"Run away with me. Right now." She repeated the request, green eyes holding grey, absolutely serious in her request.
"Do you understand what it really is you're asking of me?" He took her other hand and pulled her closer to him. "Do you know what I would be sacrificing, what we would be sacrificing, if we chose to act on such an impulse?"
"I don't care!" Elissa raised her chin defiantly as her temper rose.
"You don't care if we are nameless and penniless and completely alone in a world where everything is against us?" Nathaniel forced her to look at him, forced her to heed the words he was saying and not just act on pure emotion as she tended to do. "We would both be leaving everything and everyone behind. You would have no title, no family legacy and all the benefits of it, no family. Nothing. All of this, everything you have ever known would be gone forever."
"I wouldn't be alone. I would have you, Nathaniel." She pulled her hands from his and grasped his face between them. "It is the only thing I want. The rest of it is nothing. It's meaningless. I don't want it. I don't want any of it, stupid titles and legacies and the bloody expectations that go along with them. I have never wanted this life."
"Legacies and titles, perhaps, but you cannot say that you could so easily abandon your family. They are amazing people, all of them… you do not know how truly lucky you are." His eyes grew dark with sorrow as he thought of his own in comparison. Over the years it had become obvious that the Howes were cold when compared to the Couslands' genial warmth, but now it was brutally clear.
"If they are so wonderful then why isn't Fergus doing something instead of helping to send you on your way?" Elissa hissed, glaring over the edge of the wall at her brother, who must have felt her eyes and looked up momentarily to meet them before faltering in the face of her anger and going back to what he had been doing.
"Fergus is doing the only thing he can do, trying to slow the process, trying to give us more time together." Nathaniel watched her temper calm when she realized he was right.
"Very well, I would miss my family, but I cannot lose you, Nathaniel! I couldn't bear it… it would be like breathing without air! It cannot be done. Just say yes. Say that you will go with me. We can leave right this second." She leaned her body closer to his and ran her thumb along the edge of his mouth. It was a gesture equal parts seduction and heartfelt plea and it sent shivers running down his spine.
"I won't lie to you… it is tempting…" He watched her body tense as she pulled away, physically and emotionally, in response to his words.
"But you refuse." Elissa paced over to the wall and crossed her arms tight across her chest in frustration.
"I can't allow you to sacrifice so much for me, Elissa. Not when there is still hope that I can repair this… that I can make everything right again." Nathaniel took a hesitant step toward her, stopping in place when she spun back to him.
"Make it right?! Have you suffered a blow to the head somewhere between last night and now?" Elissa was furious and yelling in response. "Your father is sending you away to punish you for being with me! He has taken away your birthright and declared his intention to marry me off to your brother, regardless of how we feel about it, and you think this is something that can be made right?!"
"Elissa… I know you hold no love in your heart for my father or brother…" He stepped in front of her to hold her attention when she tried to walk around him in her anger, muttering under her breath what he was certain involved a large amount of swearing. "While I will begrudgingly admit that after last night, Thomas may be beyond redemption, I refuse to believe that my father is as cold-hearted as you think him to be. Thomas has twisted this somehow. He altered the relay of information so that Father cannot see the truth. If I go to the Free Marches, if I do my duty as he asks, I know I can make this right in his eyes… and when I return I can come back to you as the man that you deserve instead of—"
"There is nothing wrong with you now!" She glared at him. "You know I cannot bear to hear you speak that way! Their words are poison, seeping into your blood, making you doubt the man that you are. I see you, Nathaniel Howe! I have always seen you, and I tell you now – with all my heart and soul – you have nothing to prove! You are perfect exactly like this, and a better man than either of them will ever be!"
"Be that as it may… I have to do this. I need to… and I am begging you to understand…" Nathaniel was pleading with her now, and he knew it. He was torn between the desire to believe in her sweet words and disappear to parts unknown or to heed the obligation to his family name that had been instilled in him from birth. If she couldn't support his decision he didn't know what he would do.
"We don't even know how long you are to be gone, Nathaniel! What am I to do? Wait for your father to somehow convince mine to marry me off to Thomas? Wait for some other suitor to come calling, as I am certain they will after you are gone? They hound my father like vultures already, hoping to strengthen their position at the Landsmeet with my hand." Elissa's voice wavered slightly as fear and heartache started to dominate her fury with the realization that Nathaniel would not stay no matter how many times she asked him to. "I cannot live the life I spoke of in fear so long ago, not now that I have had a taste of a real life, of a real—"
"Say it." Nathaniel reached to hold her face, turning her chin up so she was forced to meet his eyes. "Say the words because I dare not give this voice until I hear you speak it aloud."
"Love." She finished the thought but her voice was a broken thing, almost a whisper. She started to say more but he silenced her with a kiss that brought them both to their knees upon the stone wall, clinging desperately to one another as though by sheer force of will they could prevent their inevitable separation.
"I was frozen when we collided all those years ago; a lonely iceberg adrift in an endless sea." Nathaniel searched her eyes though he already knew what he would find there. "You melted the ice, thawed me completely… I no longer know how to exist outside the reach of your warmth. I love you, Elissa Cousland. A part of me always has."
She was crying openly now, trying to smile through it but sobbing still. He pulled his hand away for a moment and tugged his signet ring free from the hand where he had worn it since his father gave it to him on his 13th birthday. Without thinking he grabbed her left hand and slid it onto her ring finger, marking her as his own.
"Wear this as a reminder that I am yours, and know that if you wear it still; when I return I will not hesitate to make you my wife." His voice cracked with emotion and his heart threatened to burst from his chest with the realization that he had just proposed marriage.
"Oh, Nate!" Elissa sobbed and looked down at her hand, flexing her fingers in disbelief. "It has always been you, ever since I was a little girl. I knew even then. You complete me in a way no one else ever could. You make me feel as though I belong somewhere. I will wait for you as long as it takes. I will wait for you forever."
She reached up and released the catch on the necklace she wore, bringing it up around his neck and fastening the catch then brushing the shiny, silver with her thumb where it was marked with the Cousland crest. Nathaniel recognized it. It was an heirloom, passed from father to daughter on the night of her 16th birthday. It had bounced off his nose once, years before, in the first fumbling steps of their new romance.
"Wear this as a reminder that I am yours, now and always, and know that if you wear it still; when you return I will gladly take you as my husband." Elissa smiled through the tears and kissed him again, tightening her grip when she heard her brother's voice floating up from down below.
It was time for him to go.
Chapter 20: It's the End Here Today
A/N:Muse Music: End in the Beginning by 30 Seconds to Mars.
Thanks to my readers, reviewers and followers and to my wonderful beta artemiskat.
Chapter Nineteen: It's the End Here Today
I cannot share most of the letters written over these next years. They were lost somewhere along the way. Lost to time, and trauma, and fire. I can only relay what I have been told and what I have gathered through simple observation.
Nathaniel and Elissa wrote each other as often as possible for the eight long years of their separation, pouring heart, body and soul into every word, not caring who might read them or what they might think, not caring for appearances or proper etiquette. The letters were all they had left to hold on to. The passing of every year pulled the ties that bound them together tighter and tighter until they'd stretched into a gossamer thin thread that could easily be broken.
Each year Rendon Howe would tell his eldest son how proud he was of his progress. That perhaps he had been wrong and Nathaniel was a suitable match for the Cousland girl, and for the Arlship of Amaranthine. But the political tide of the region was changing and he needed Nathaniel in the Free Marches to strengthen the family ties for at least one more year.
Each year Nathaniel would play the dutiful son and do as his father asked, knowing that relaying this information to Elissa would continue to erode her already dwindling patience. She'd threatened to go to her father with everything, or to run away and come to him on several occasions. Nathaniel had always managed to talk her out of it with reason, but he knew he would not be able to do so for much longer.
In the eighth year her letters became erratic and came with dwindling frequency, driving him near to madness with worry until he received what was to be the final one.
I can wait no longer. This burden has become too much for me to bear.
Mother has suggested a match with Teagan Guerrin, and though he is a few years my senior, he is an honorable man with a good heart and would tolerate my idiosyncrasies as well as can be expected.
This match will be beneficial to my family, and I find that I must do my duty and pursue it.
I wish you all the best.
He read and reread it a hundred times. It couldn't be. The words were cold… they couldn't be hers… and yet, the handwriting could not be mistaken. She had given up on him. She had promised him forever and yet she had pledged herself to another.
The next letter he received, months later, was from his father. In it Rendon explained to him that the Couslands had been found traitors to the crown, and were conspiring with the Orlesians against king Cailan and Loghain Mac Tir. All of them had been executed for their treachery.
Dead. She couldn't be… surely he would know it, would feel it in his soul. The truth was he was numb. He had been since she left him for another.
Nathaniel was broken.
On the day Elissa received her final letter from Nathaniel, she had been in the process of writing a letter of her own. A letter in which she explained to her mother and father why she had made the decision to abandon her life and legacy in Highever and depart to join Nathaniel in the Free Marches.
As she made her way down to her father's study, hoping to slip it onto his desk to be found sometime after she was too far away to be wrangled back in against her wishes, she was intercepted by her brother who dangled Nathaniel's latest missive lightly between his fingers.
"Your latest love letter, my lady." Fergus laughed and sketched an exaggerated bow in her direction.
"Just hand it over." Elissa snatched it out of his hand with a frown. "Honestly, Fergus, you're married with a child and you mock me for being in love…"
She broke the seal on the letter, looking over the words with an impatient eye and hoping to get back to the task at hand. She paid no mind to her brother's continued presence until the words on the page started to connect in her brain.
My time in the Free Marches has left me a changed man. I have found in this place, and in these people, a home that I could never have in Ferelden.
I have held these words back from you for so long because I did not wish to cause you pain, but the more I think on it, the more I realize that telling you the truth is the honorable thing to do, even though it will hurt you.
I do not plan to return from the Free Marches. I have met someone, and she has given me a reason to stay.
I am sorry to have allowed you to believe in the illusion of this relationship for so long. It was cruel, and I do not expect to be forgiven.
Her knees buckled as reality set in and she could barely draw breath as she clutched at the wall for support, her nails scratching against the stone in vain before she fell to the cold, hard ground. When she came around later she would have a vague recollection of Fergus coming to her aid and insisting that she tell him what was wrong before she shoved the parchment in his hand and the world went black.