Isobel stared morosely at the cooking pot. The stew, if you wanted to call it that, was bubbling… albeit in a gloopy, unpleasant sort of way. Occasionally, slightly gristly, grey things broke the scummy surface, with a noise best described as blurp.
She wrinkled her nose in distaste, and thought mournfully of poor Nan. So many people had lost their lives when that bastard, Howe, showed his true colours, and out of all of them— No, that wasn’t true.
Isobel broke away from the thought, left it half-formed and dangling in the darker parts of her head. She’d already devoted more time than she should to dwelling on the events of that night, picking over every second as if she could change the past by sheer willpower alone.
It wasn’t possible to say which of them had deserved it least, or who she had been most deeply cut to lose.
Family went without saying. Her mother and father, Oriana and little Oren… they were the faces and the voices that echoed in her mind the most, the losses that gnawed at her with every heartbeat, every pulse that called for vengeance. But they weren’t the only ones.
Brother Aldous, Mother Mallol, the servants who simply hadn’t run fast enough—Howe’s men had cut down everybody, without thought for whether or not they posed a threat. Even whatshername… Iona, the poor little elven lass.
She’d felt guiltiest about that, Isobel reflected. As if the girl might have been spared, had she not decided to indulge a passing whim. It was unlikely, of course, but she couldn’t help feeling at least partially responsible.
You have no ladies-in-waiting of your own… is that not unusual in a noblewoman of your rank?
Isobel smiled sadly to herself, recalling pretty green eyes that fluttered coyly as the question dropped from softly parted lips. The moment she’d known she had her prize within her grasp.
The girl had been astounded—awestruck, even—when, in the quiet of the castle’s study, with the flagon of ruby red wine in her hand, Isobel had told her the story.
She’d embellished it, of course, pulled out all the details that, at the time, had been awkward and embarrassing, and smoothing it down in the telling like the fabric of a new dress.
Given her reputation for ‘manly pursuits’, as people insisted on calling her martial training, she had been considered something of an eccentric in Highever. It was a bore, but it did mean most of her so-called social transgressions could be explained away under the guise of a refreshing lack of pretension, or—in the case of the absence of maidservants—an admirably down-to-earth dislike of being waited on hand and foot.
The truth was, of course, that after the incident with the Orlesian femme du chambres, Mother had quietly prevented her from keeping anyone quite that close again.
The girl’s name had been Selene. Pretty, with pale brown hair as soft and fine as a child’s, and a light dusting of freckles across her creamy skin. Petite, but tightly curved, with a beautiful backside and breasts as round and white as full moons. She’d been a challenge at first, though not an insurmountable one.
To Isobel, the equation was simple. She was a Cousland. One day, she would be required to marry, and secure a lucrative and advantageous alliance between her house and her husband’s. Fergus—and, later, Oren—might get the teyrnir, the castle, and all its holdings, but she would have other roles, other duties to assume.
Naturally, a good match would not be hard to find, although it necessitated the preservation of her reputation… and her virginity. Taking a male lover was out of the question; it would be social and political suicide.
Women, on the other hand, afforded all the delights of an intimate companion, and could not be proved to have besmirched her good name—particularly if they spent most of their time below stairs. There might be rumours, sniggers behind hands from some of the less enlightened nobility, but that was of no consequence. Isobel knew what they called her—Bryce’s Little Spitfire, or ‘the Teyrn’s youngest son’—but the names resulted from her training for warfare, and would have been cast after her anyway, no matter whom she took to her bed.
And the theory had worked well… right up until Selene.
Poor, dear creature. Beneath all those innocent protests, the blushes and the coquettish apprehension, had lain a tiger. She was wonderful—sweet and insatiable and utterly charming—and she hadn’t understood how things worked at all.
She should have done, Isobel supposed. She was from Orlais, and everyone knew how the game worked there. But, her dear little Selene had not had the brain, or the heart for it. She’d fallen in love, and expected the world.
Deny me, and I will kill myself!
What a scene. She wouldn’t have done it, of course, but all the same… the floods of tears, the swearing and screaming and scratching…. It cast something of a shadow over Teyrna Eleanor’s salon that spring, and all because she had seen Isobel laughing with the daughter of one of the banns.
Mother had been as supportive as could be expected, Isobel supposed, and at least she hadn’t told Father. He really wouldn’t have understood.
Fergus knew of her… interests. In typical fashion, he’d joked that, had he not already been married, they might have gone wenching together. She’d laughed, and basked in the warmth of his acceptance.
He was a good man, and to think of him lying dead in the mud at Ostagar—one more betrayal on top of everything she had lost—was almost more than Isobel could bear.
“Is that done yet?”
The stew went blurp again.
“Er….” She blinked. “How exactly does one tell?”
Alistair sighed and leaned over her, unhooking the ladle from the side of the pot and waggling it around in the gloop.
“When it’s all nicely boiled to a uniform shade of grey,” he said confidently. “See? Yum.”
Isobel’s stomach heaved, and she could only hope he was joking. Again.
Still, years of breeding won out over the urge to say what she actually thought.
Oh, Maker’s mercy. He’s carrying bowls. He actually expects us to eat it.
She held her breath as the ladle made pass after pass, and the unappetising mess sploshed into four bowls. Opposite her, on the other side of the fire, Leliana, the Orlesian lay sister who had joined them in Lothering, met her gaze.
Isobel raised her eyebrows, and the look of mutual trepidation that passed between them made her want to smile. She didn’t, for fear she might accidentally breathe in.
“How kind,” Leliana managed gracefully, as Alistair passed the bowls around. “And… what did you say it was again?”
“Pea and lamb stew,” Alistair said, hunkering down in his customary ungainly sprawl beside the fire. “Good, solid Fereldan food, that. Sticks your ribs together.”
Isobel dandled her spoon in the bowl and watched something round—and rather worryingly grey—bob in the viscous eddies.
“Of that,” she said carefully, “I have absolutely no doubt.”
Leliana caught her eye again, and smiled.
A curious thing, Isobel thought, to find such a face—and such a terribly familiar look in those ice-blue eyes—out here in the middle of nowhere.
Still, she managed to eat her supper without gagging, and they talked about where they planned to go. Well, three of them did. Morrigan, as usual, had deemed herself too good for their company and was squatting off somewhere in the shadows, probably waiting for the opportunity to shift into animal form and hunt down something she found more palatable than Alistair’s cooking. Not that Isobel could have blamed her for that.
Leliana shared everything she’d heard in the cloister about Arl Eamon’s alleged sickness. It didn’t sound good. For the arlessa to be clutching at straws, reaching out so hopelessly for the comforting fables of faith, he must be ill indeed—and Andraste’s Ashes were about as likely to be found as the Maker’s thumbprint atop an ocean wave.
“It’s all the more reason to get to Redcliffe as soon as we can,” Alistair said grimly, and Isobel took care to mask her annoyance.
He was genial enough, but he repeated himself far more than was necessary for a man who said he had no desire to lead, and she had little patience with his clumsy attempts at manipulation.
Still, he had a point… and Isobel saw no reason that the arlessa shouldn’t lend them aid on her husband’s behalf. So, it was settled. At Redcliffe they would rest, restock, and begin to build the army they would need to march against Loghain. And the darkspawn, she added to herself, passingly ashamed that the Blight had not been the first thought in her mind. It should have, of course. It should consume all that she was now, her old life cast away from her like froth on the ocean, and her identity bound up completely with what she now was: a Grey Warden.
The fact she had never asked for it should no longer matter, she supposed, and nor should the circumstances of Duncan’s offer, in those squalid, vile minutes, which Isobel had no wish to revisit, yet knew she would never forget. Her mind had barely to touch on it, of course, and she could smell the blood all over again. The kitchen’s stone floor had been warm and wet with it, her mother kneeling in the seeping red pool, her father’s breaths clotted and rasping. She pulled away from the thoughts, but evidently not before the colour had drained from her face.
“It’s not that bad, is it?” Alistair asked, of the appalling stew.
She shook her head, but found no words to reply properly. Leliana saved her.
“It has a most… interesting texture, Alistair,” the sister observed diplomatically. “Very, um… interesting.”
Isobel fought the sudden urge to laugh. It was there, right at the back of her tongue, wild and manic, and she was convinced that if she gave into it, she would go mad. So she sat quietly and ate her supper, and refused point-blank to give in to the maddening swirls of grief, anger and loss, or the pulsing, burning desire to taste the blood of vengeance.
There would be time for that. And she could wait.