I could hardly have known that worst night of my life would follow one of its best days.
It had started with a woman in my bed, as so many of them did. Lovely Rhonwyn, with her slim hips and her small tits, one of the upstairs maids, long brown braid unpinned and coiled around her shoulders as she slept. I took her again, hard and ready upon waking, and brought her to muffled screams of pleasure before she’d even opened her eyes.
“Good morning, my lord,” she said sleepily, as I kissed her white neck, panting from the early exertion.
“Good morning to you,” I murmured against her skin, tasting salt. “You are the second best reason to wake up.”
I heard affront in her voice when she asked, “And what is the first?”
I pulled away and smacked her bottom playfully. “Being alive.”
She yelped at the swat, but then laughed. It was the signal that it was time for her to depart—the head maid would be looking for her soon, and it would behoove neither of us for my mother, the Teyrna Cousland, to find out about our affair. I watched her dress from the rumpled mess of my bedclothes, one hand tucked up behind my head. She threw me a pert, sidelong smile as she pinned the last of her heavy braid into a demure bun. “Shall I come tonight?”
“We’ll see,” I replied, noncommittal. “Things may be too busy, with Arl Howe and his men arriving. I’m sure you will be kept busy all day as well.”
“Quite likely.” She curtseyed, a trace of irritation flickering across her features as she asked formally, “By your leave, my lord?”
“You may go,” I acquiesced with a negligent wave of my hand. My thoughts were already turning elsewhere, to the day ahead, the quality of sunlight seeping around the curtains of the window, before the door was closed.
I managed to avoid my mother until late in the morning. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her—I loved her dearly, in fact—but there had been an unnatural amount of talk of marrying me off in recent weeks, and it was a topic I was trying to avoid. I’d already dealt with it once today, when Arl Howe had sprung on me comments regarding his eminently available daughter, Delilah, and her supposed interest. To encounter her with Lady Landra, also in residence, would ensure it.
“Ah, there’s my younger son,” she said when it became too late for me to avoid them on my path to find my brother, Fergus, at our father’s behest. “I take it by the presence of that troublesome hound of yours that the situation in the kitchen is handled”
I kissed her on the cheek, and replied impertinently, “Nan’s head exploded and Cu ate the kitchen staff”
She chuckled dryly, returning my kiss. “Well, at least one of us will have had a decent dinner. Perhaps your hound left something I can feed my guests. Darling,” she said, returning to her companions, “you remember Lady Landra? Bann Loren’s wife?”
Lady Landra gave me a smile. “I think we last met at your mother’s spring salon.”
I gave a small bow to her. “Of course. It is good to see you again, my lady.”
She laughed. “You’re too kind, dear boy. Didn’t I spend half the salon shamelessly flirting with you?”
The man gibed his mother with, “Right in front of your family, too.”
Our eyes met, and I saw hers sparkle when I gave her a slight smile. Of course I remembered her. She’d spent half of the spring salon drunk, and I’d obliged her flirting later that night in an alcove, her skirts rucked up to her waist, with her whispering things in my ear I hadn’t even heard the scullions say.
Then I suddenly thought of such words coming from my lady mother’s mouth, and my cheeks burned with shame. Poor timing, as Lady Landra went on to say, “You remember my son, Dairren? I believe you two sparred in the last tourney.”
Dairren, oblivious to my moment of awkwardness, grinned. “And you beat me handily, as I recall. It’s good to see you again, my lord.”
I called on all my training in my father’s hall to answer glibly, “You’re being modest. You fought very well.”
“And this is my lady-in-waiting, Iona,” Lady Landra finished up the introductions, and prompted, “Do say something, dear.”
“It is a great honor, my lord. I have heard many wonderful things about you.”
She was a comely elven lass, her blonde hair allowed to hang partially unbound to sway enticingly around her shoulders. Her clothes were of better quality, emulating the fashion of the human nobles, a bodice cinching in to accentuate the slenderness of her waist and raise her bosom to rounded globes barely covered to modesty by her chemise.
The smile she gave me was demure, but Lady Landra laughed. “Don’t look now, Eleanor, but I believe the girl has a crush on your lad.”
“Lady Landra!” Iona protested, pinking delicately.
Mother tut-tuted. “Hush, Landra. You’ll turn the poor thing scarlet.”
They continued to bicker like the old friends they were, Dairren included, granting me the opportunity to lean over to Iona and say under my breath, “Perhaps we should speak alone sometime, Iona?”
Her eyes fell to the ground, but the dip of her chin suggested the interest was welcomed. “As it…pleases you, my lord.”
Lady Landra’s voice raised to intervene before I could say more. “I think perhaps I shall rest now, my dear. Dairren, I will see you and Iona at supper.”
“Perhaps we’ll retire to the study for now,” Dairren said.
It was a new experience to have Lady Landra offer me a curtsy, Dairren a slight bow as she said, “Good day, your Lordship.”
She departed towards her rooms, Dairren and Iona drifting in the direction of the castle’s library, but not before Iona spared a glance over a creamy shoulder and smiled at me. My mother clearing her throat interrupted me from my appraisal of the way Iona’s hips swayed under her skirts. She said briskly, “Geoffrey, leave the poor girl alone. Don’t you have aught else you should be doing today than flirting with our visitors?”
I tore my attention away from the elf’s posterior to my mother’s stern features. “Yes, of course, Mother,” I replied. “Father sent me to find Fergus. Did you know there is a Grey Warden here?”
Her sculpted eyebrows arched. “Yes, your father mentioned that. You haven’t gotten it into your head that you want to be recruited?”
I cleared my own throat and shifted to the balls of my feet. It was reflexive. Sometimes, she reminded me of Ser Balin in the practice yard, just before he slipped in my defense and cracked me one. Except she could do it without a weapon to be seen. “Definitely not.”
“Keep it that way. You’ve enough to do here at the castle without chasing darkspawn. Did your father mention what he wanted to discuss with Fergus?”
“I think he wanted to discuss preparations to travel south, and the fact that Arl Howe’s men haven’t yet arrived as expected.”
Mother snorted. “You would think they were traveling from Redcliffe rather than Amaranthine. They should be here by now.”
“I know. But Father says we cannot wait any longer.”
“And you will be left here to govern in his absence.” Her expression turned wistful.
“But you will be here, won’t you?”
She shook her head. “No. I will be here for a few days. Then I’ll travel with Lady Landra to her estate and keep her company for a time. Your father thinks my presence here might undermine your authority.”
This shocked me, and I straightened my spine. That I would be steward while Father and Fergus was gone was no news, but I had expected my mother, Father’s strong left hand, to be watching every decision. As the second son, the best I had ever expected was to eventually marry, hopefully to a Bann’s heir, although Delilah Howe would have been the next best prospect even with his two son’s in line for the Arling, with Teyrn Loghain mac Tir’s daughter, Anora, married to King Cailin, and Arl Eamon Guerrin’s only offspring a boy of twelve. To be a trusted advisor, or perhaps second in command, as Teyrn Loghain was to first King Maric and now Cailin was my lot in life…but I wanted more. I deserved more, as a Cousland. I’d heard the whispers of it, in Denarim. But this was the first time I might get a taste of it. “As you wish.”
She gave a small nod of approval. “Good. I was worried you might be nervous about running the castle alone. I needn’t have been concerned.”
The smile I gave her, I intended to reassure. “I should go.”
She surprised me again by reaching out to cup my cheek. “I love you, my darling boy. You know that, don’t you?”
I raised my hand to cover hers, noticing for the first time how small it seemed in mine. “What brought this on?”
“You’ve grown up so fast. And now Fergus is married and given me a grandson, marching off to battle, and Bryce is leaving you in charge of the castle. You’re still little boys to me…” She trailed off, then sniffed. “I suppose there’s no point dwelling on it.”
I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek once more. “We’ll always be your little boys.”
She laughed and slapped my shoulder. “Impudent pup. Go do what you must, then. I will see you at supper.” she added with a sternness belied by the amusement in her eyes.
“Yes, Mother,” I agreed meekly, slipping out of her reach to discharge my task and then circle back to the study.
Honeyed sunshine poured through the windows of the study, painting Iona’s skin as gold as her hair .The shadow my body cast cut across her face, but lent her an air of being half of dark and half of light. “Greetings once again, my lord,” she murmured, eyes averted decorously.
I hooked her chin under my crooked finger, lifting it so I could meet her gaze, lingering when I felt her trembling reaction. “I haven’t seen many elven ladies-in-waiting.”
“Lady Landra has been very good to me. I am lucky,” she replied, but I noticed she made no effort to look away this time. A note of triumph flared in my chest. She knew the game, and was willing to play it. “If I may…your mother has no ladies-in-waiting, herself. Is that usual for a noblewoman of her rank?”
I moved closer to her, close enough to feel her warmth, shielding her from Dairren’s view. As if we needed the artifice. Ever since I had dug out the library’s copy of “The Art of Passionate Love” and offered it to him, he had become oblivious to everything around him. Not that I could blame him. It was an engrossing tome, depicting what I had in mind for Iona, and some things we wouldn’t have time for in one night. Before she departed, however... I brought my attention back to her, but she’d noticed the quickening of my breath, swaying into me. “If she found a maid like you,” I told her softly, my thumb gliding down her jawline, “I might encourage her.”
“You are…very kind, my lord.” Her lips parted when I reached the point of her jaw and dropped to her neck, tracing as lazy a path lower. “You make me blush.”
I watched said blush as it crept up the white column of her throat, making no effort to hide my interest. “How did you come to know Lady Landra?”
“Lady Landra elevated my place as a reward for our loyalty.” Her head bowed, and her hair swirled around my hand, silk strands caressing my skin. “I hope this position might pass to my daughter.”
My motion paused. “You have a daughter?”
Some mixture of chagrin and pride shifted in her expression. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t have mentioned her.”
Hunger stirred in me. I wanted to possess her, and I pressed quietly, “Tell me about her.”
“Her…name is Amethyne.” In a rush, she added, “Her father died of a wasting sickness two years ago.”
“Ah,” I intoned with some intent of sympathy, letting out a noiseless sigh of relief. Not that a daughter or a husband would have stopped me, look at Lady Landra, but they did complicate things and had to be taken into account. My fingers uncurled, to alight along the side of her throat, and I felt her pulse leap under my thumb. “I bet she has your beautiful eyes.”
“She…does,” she replied with reluctance. “Many people say she looks a great deal like me. I am the only one who sees her father in her.”
My thumb dropped to fill the hollow at the base of her neck, and it contracted under my touch, my heart speeding up in response. “Tell me more about yourself.”
She laughed nervously. “I am an open book, my lord. What would you like to know?”
I looked up from my study of her throat to her eyes, feeling a thrill when our gazes met. “Is there anyone special back home?”
She shook her head, hair whispering over my hand once again. “No longer. I have little time for such things.”
“Surely you’re joking,” I said with a chuckle. “Someone as beautiful as you?”
She laughed softly, a breathy quality to it. “You flatter me, my lord. I am not so pretty that suitors are lining up, if that’s what you mean.”
I leaned in, so my body just lightly pressed against hers. “And what do you think of humans?”
The question clearly took her off-guard, which had been my intent. Her heartbeat fluttered under my fingertips. “That is…an awkward question. What do you mean?”
“Do you find humans attractive?” I trailed my fingers down to her collarbone, the thin skin there, and she jumped as they dropped lower, teasingly near the neckline of her bodice. “The reverse is true enough.”
Her breasts strained against the boning, the tops swelling upwards at her quickened breaths. “Some humans, yes. Without question.”
I ran my fingers along the curving flesh, trembling. “I think we should get to know each other better.”
She smiled up at me, then lowered her gaze again. “Aren’t we doing just that? What else did you have in mind?”
I wanted to plunge my hand down the front of her dress and find the nubs of the nipples, to feel them harden against my palm…but I preached patience at myself. Anticipation would make the reward all the sweeter. “Something more intimate, later on in my room,” I whispered in a husky voice.
“I ..I see,” she said slowly, then raised her eyes. “I think I might like that.” Her voice dropped so I could barely hear it, and my face drew closer so I could. “If I come to your door once everyone is asleep…would that be agreeable, my lord?”
Her breath blew warm against my face, we were so close, and I eyed her mouth, wondering if I dared kiss it, but refrained. “Yes, that would be very agreeable.”
“Until tonight, then.”
The step I took back was the hardest task I had all day. Her eyes fluttered in a disappointment I shared, but then half-lidded when I took up her hand in my own, the other going to her elbow and sliding up her arm, sneaking under the cuff to caress her upper arm as I brought her hand to my lips to kiss her fingers. “Until tonight, sweet Iona.”
“Maybe Teyrn Cousland should be taking your brother with him instead,” old Ser Balin growled in disgust down at Fergus in the dust.
I stepped back but kept my sword and shield up at the ready, even though my shoulders burned and sweat trickled down my cheeks under the helmet. Fergus scowled up at the old master at arms and climbed to his feet. “Stand down, Balin. It’ll do me no good to go into battle at Ostagar from a cracked rib sustained on the practice field.”
“Then Andraste’s holy tits, keep your shield arm up, boy, and your ribs won’t be open to be cracked.”
“Enough,” Fergus said with a laugh, then saluted me by bringing his dulled practice sword up before his face. Only then did I relax my guard, returning the salute before sheathing my sword and letting the heavy weight of the rounded shield drag down my arm. “I will continue to practice along the way and will remember it when we enter real battle. I have every reason in the world to want to make it home intact, not the least of which is to not deny you the pleasure of haranguing me every afternoon upon my return.”
Balin snorted. “Do that. For I swear if you are cut down, I will find some way to get into the Fade and beat you senseless, boy.”
I shivered at that, unconsciously making a warding sign with my hand. Fergus caught it, though, and laughed once more, swinging an arm around my shoulders. “I didn’t realize you were so superstitious, little brother.”
“I just don’t like talk that you might not make it back,” I muttered.
He clapped my back and began dragging me in the direction of the armory to divest ourselves of our gear. “Neither do I. But it won’t happen. I will be surrounded by our men, Father at my side, near the King and Teyrn Loghain and his Elite Guards. From all reports, this is a minor infestation that will be easily taken care of. I’ll be gone a couple of months and be home in time for Feast Day.”
Pages rushed to our sides when we entered through the doorway, and there was little for us to do than to stand like scarecrows as nimble fingers stripped us down to smallclothes and scurried away. Younger boys brought us plain shirts and trews to cover ourselves as far as our rooms and our baths. “That’s not what the Grey Warden seemed to think.”
“Yes, Duncan did seem to indicate that,” Fergus agreed amiably, pulling his shirt on over his head. “But then again, the entire purpose of his Order is to stand vigilant against the darkspawn. He is more likely to take the cautious view of things.”
“True. So what did you discuss in your meeting with them earlier?”
He reached out and ruffled my hair , “Never you mind.” I slapped his hand away to his roar of approval. “Father intends to tell you all before he leaves tomorrow morning. I shan’t be the one to risk his ire.”
I rolled my eyes. “No, that’s my job?”
“Of course, little brother. You do such an admirable job of it.”
My shoulders slumped when I reached my room, sighing with the release of cares provided me by privacy. A tub waited in front of the fire as was customary, the fact that it was only half-filled was not. I rolled my shoulders, working on loosening the exercised muscles as I crossed the floor, but turned my head when I heard the door opened.
A buxom young red-headed woman entered, a bucket of hot water sloshing from each hand. She stopped dead in her tracks, hesitated, then tried to form a curtsey without dropping her load. “Oh, my lord, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you would be back so soon.”
I laughed. “No mind, Elaine. Ser Balin ended early, with everything going on this evening. And I will hardly deny you bringing me my bath water,” I added with a smile.
She smiled back at me, and a dimple appeared in her round cheek. She lugged the buckets over to the tub, emptying first one, then the other, without spilling a drop on the floor or herself.
She had been in the household for as long as I could remember, the daughter of one of the cooks now following in her father’s trade working in the lower levels of the castle. We had grown up together, in a way, as my father and mother allowed us to rough and tumble with the other children of the estate until we began our training in earnest. She had recently been allowed the duty to fill my bath, and it was only then that I’d realized the woman she’d blossomed into. I appreciated that, the curve of her ass as she bent over to pour, the way her breasts hung against the loose fabric of her shift, her nipples visible.
She straightened up and noticed my attention, flushing bashfully but giving me a tremulous smile in return. “There is one more trip to fill it,” she said almost inaudibly. “It will be ready then, Geo—my lord.”
My smile widened, trying to put her at ease. “I will await your return. Can you also ask Nan to send up a plate for me? Tell her I’m starving.”
She giggled, her dimple bursting into life again. It turned her from plain to attractive, that simple mark. “Yes, my lord,” she said, giving another curtsey as she fairly skipped out of the room.
I went to my wardrobe and sorted through my clothing, considering and discarding the articles available to me to outfit what I would wear to supper. Despite the short notice, it would be a semi-formal affair, what with the presence of Arl Howe, Lady Landra and Lord Dairren, and marking the farewell for the Teyrn and his Heir. And with the announcement of my stewardship, I wanted something that would give the right impression. Making my decision, I pulled out a deep velvet doublet of green slashed with white in the sleeves and black pants, and my favorite black leather boots, laying them aside on the press, and stripped out of my shirt.
It was then I heard a tentative knock on the door, heralding Elaine’s return. Her eyes widened when she saw me, and she blushed again. Enjoying her discomfit, I stood back to watch her add the last of the steaming water to the bath, openly admiring her form, and hardened.
Another knock sounded while Elaine dropped the first bucket and reached for the second, and guilt struck her face. Giving her a reassuring smile, I called out without looking away from her, “Come.”
“My lord,” Rhonwyn’s voice came from behind me, then hiss of breath sucked in. I held my gaze on Elaine for a moment longer before turning to look at Rhonwyn, spying the platter in her hands.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “If you could leave that. Thank you, Rhonwyn.”
She looked at me, then glanced over at my shoulder to Elaine pouring the last bucket of water. Fury warmed her eyes, and she looked back at me, accusatorily. I kept my expression bland, gaze steady, until her defiance wilted. Her curtsey was perfunctory, the door closing behind her a little harder than was necessary.
Elaine was finished filling the tub, standing with the empties dangling from her hands uncertainly. I walked to where she stood, taking the buckets from her with a caress of my fingers that brought her eyes up with a start. “I will need some help washing my back,” I said in gentle undertone.
“I’m not sure I can, Ge—my lord,” she said nervously. “Nan…”
“Nan will want me to be clean for the supper tonight,” I said with an amused smile, dropping the buckets to the floor with a thunk and taking up her hands instead. When she tried to draw them back, I gripped them harder, preventing it. “I will take care of Nan. I promise.”
She said nothing, but tension leached from her posture as she relented. She didn’t withdraw when I dropped her hands to strip out of my pants, and I held her eyes with my own, except for when she snuck peeks at my half-erect member with growing fascination. I climbed into the bath and beckoned her over. She came, but reluctance returned. “If I return wet…I cannot.”
“Take off your clothes.” Her eyes rounded, but her breath caught. I twisted to lean over the edge of the tub, taking up her hands once more and grinning at her impishly. “It’s not as if it’s nothing I haven’t seen already.”
She giggled, relaxing. “This is true. Well, as long as it will help you be clean for supper tonight…”
“It will,” I said, releasing her hands so she could shed her shirt and unknot the cord of her skirt while I watched avidly. “I am very dirty.”
Supper was a blessedly short engagement at my father’s request, although that in and of itself would have been cause for tongues to wag. With Arl Howe having a place of honor between Father and Fergus, and Duncan on Fergus’s other side, I was left to sit on Father’s left, between Mother and Dairren. Bann Loren’s heir, at least, seemed more interested in chatting up Rory, Ser Gilmore, seated on his other side, and so it was that I spent most of the time ignoring Mother’s hard, sidelong glances at me to focus on my meal. Just before Father drew back his chair to bring the supper to a close, she tilted her head over to me and said, “Darling, have you done something to upset Rhonwyn?”
The look I gave her was pure innocence. “Rhonwyn?”
Braver men than I had quailed before the look she shot me. “Yes, darling,” she said tartly, “Rhonwyn. Don’t think I am so senile that I don’t know of your affair.”
“I would never think that of you, dearest mother.”
She snorted. “Don’t you start ‘dearest mother’ing me, oh.” She sighed suddenly. “You’re a man, and a teyrn’s son. Do as you will. Just—please be careful, and don’t get any by-blows on her. I want my grandchildren by you to come on the right side of the sheets.”
Reaching out, I took her hand and squeezed it. “I’ll be careful, mother. I promise.”
I was on my way out of Father’s study and a game of Thrones and Castles with Dairren, when he interrupted his conversation with Arl Howe and Duncan to ask, “Are you on your way to your rooms? Will you stop and tell Fergus I need to speak to him before he leaves?”
Squashing my sigh, I nodded. “Of course.”
So it was I found myself again on an errand from my father tracking Fergus down in the castle, although at least this time, I knew exactly where he would be.
As I walked down the hall of the family wing, Oren’s treble voice floated through the open door to Fergus’s rooms, “Is there really going to be a war, papa? Will you bring me back a sward?”
“That’s ‘sword’, Oren,” Fergus’s amused voice rumbled out. “And I’ll get you the mightiest one I can find, I promise. I’ll be back before you know it.”
A pang of wistfulness hit me. Although I had no interest in marriage at the moment, I did envy Fergus his son.
But then a woman’s voice spoke, and his wife, Oriana, said. “I wish victory was indeed so certain. My heart is…disquiet.”
“Don’t frighten the boy, love,” Fergus responded jovially. “I speak the truth. And here’s my little brother to see me off,” he announced when I crossed the threshold. “Now dry your eyes, love, and wish me well.”
I grinned at both of them, trying to bolster Fergus’s attempts at lightheartedness, and teased, “You two are nauseating me.”
“Ha!” Fergus exploded in a laugh. “When there’s a woman in your life, you’ll understand.”
Blinking innocently, I said, “No fewer than three, if you please.”
He smirked. “Bold words, little brother. I mean a real woman, not a turn in the straw.”
Oriana snapped, scandalized, “Fergus! Language!”
Oren interjected brightly. “You like to play in the stable too, Uncle? I like to hide in the hay.”
Shooting both of us a look of pure disgust, Oriana said to her son, “Don’t you listen to this. If I catch you with your clothes full of straw again, I’ll send you to Mother Mallol.”
“But mama! She talks forever!” Oren whined.
While she went on to scold Oren, I dropped my voice. “You’ll be missed, Brother.”
Fergus sighed heavily. “If it’s any consolation, I’m sure I’ll freeze in the southern rain and be completely jealous of you up here, warm and safe.”
“I am positively thrilled that you will be so miserable, husband,” Oriana said with some asperity.
I cleared my throat. “I bring a message. Father wants to speak to you before you leave.”
“Well, I’d better get underway, then,” Fergus said, straightening. “So many darkspawn to behead, so little time!” Turning to his family, he added, “Off we go, then. I’ll see you soon, my love.”
“I would hope, dear boy, that you planned to wait for us before taking your leave?” a male voice interrupted.
Mother and Father slipped into the room behind me, and Mother approached Fergus to wrap her arms around him. “Be well, my son. I will pray for your safety every day you are gone.”
Around her, I gave my father a withering look and said drily, “You could have delivered your message yourself, Father.”
As usual, the minor rebellion bounced off Father’s good humor. “And miss having both my children in one place before I leave? Not likely.”
Oriana bowed her head and intoned, “The Maker sustain and preserve us all. Watch over our sons, husbands, and fathers and bring them safely back to us.”
“And bring us some ale and wenches while you’re at it,” Fergus interrupted irreverently. At his wife’s scowl, he added hastily, “Err…for the men, of course.”
“Fergus!” Oriana said again in exasperation. “You would say this in front of your mother?”
Worse, in front of his son, as Oren once again piped up to ask, “What’s a wench? Is that what you pull on to get the bucket out of the well?”
Father answered him. “A wench is a woman that pours the ale in a tavern, Oren.” A wicked twinkle glinted in his eye. “Or a woman who drinks a lot of ale.”
While Fergus and I stifled our snickers, Mother spoke sharply, sounding uncannily like Oriana. “Bryce! Maker’s breath, I swear it’s like living with a pack of small boys.”
Fergus’s chuckles broke free. “I’ll miss you, Mother dear. You’ll take care of her, Geoff, won’t you?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and planted my feet, bemused. “Mother can handle herself. Always has.”
“It’s true,” Fergus agreed eagerly, “They should be sending her, not me. She would scold those darkspawn back into the Deep Roads.”
Mother scowled. “Well, I’m glad you find this so funny.”
“Enough, enough,” Father interjected, and we all quieted down instantly in the tone of his authority. “Pup, you’ll want to get an early night. You’ve much to do tomorrow.”
“Getting sent to bed early, are we?” Fergus joked.
I shot him a smug grin. “I don’t mind. I have someone waiting for me?”
Fergus punched me in the shoulder, proclaiming loudly, “What? You sly dog!”
Oriana burst out again, “Fergus! Really!”
He ignored her to sidle up to me, whispering conspiratorially, “It’s the elven lass that arrived with Lady Landra, isn’t it? Don’t you tell me it isn’t.” When I simply blinked at him in reply, he chuckled. “At any rate, I’ll miss you. Take care of everyone, and be here when I get back.”
I went to my rooms, already putting them aside to turn my thoughts towards Iona, unaware it would be the last time my family would be together this side of the Veil.
For the second time in the day, a knock sounded on my door while I stood in my room dressed only in trews, waiting on a woman. I forced myself to count to ten before moving to answer, the sound coming a second time a little louder as I reached to open it. Iona stepped back, startled.
I flashed her a smile. “Sorry. Hi.”
She recovered quickly, the smile she gave me in return was warm, her eyelids drooping to turn her expression sultry. “Good evening, my lord.”
“Good evening,” I replied, pitching my voice low. Stepping aside, I swept my hand from front to behind. “Will you come in?” She stepped over the threshold, looking about my room with general interest while I looked at her with specific interest. I already knew what she saw. The fire put red highlights in her hair, the candles softening her features. From the hearth, Cu’s head lifted to appraise her, then finding her unworthy of further attention, lowered back to his paws, letting out a long, disgruntled sigh at having his nap interrupted.
I waited, giving her a chance to make her initial assessment before asking, “Would you like some wine?”
“Yes. Please,” she added, turning to give me a smile. I poured her a goblet and handed it to her, forcing her to touch my fingers to take it. Her eyes lit, her mouth curving up at the corners. She brought it to her lips, the wine staining them red, her pink tongue coming out to run across them. The gesture mesmerized me, and her smile widened as she caught my fixation. “So, what now, my lord?”
I took a step closer, running my gaze over her hair. “How…?”
She turned her back on me then reached up and over her head, grabbing the stone knob of a decorative hairpin thrust through the coiled mass of her braids while I rested my hands on her partially bared shoulders. With a flirtatious glance back, she said, “Simple. Pull this,” which she did, “and everything falls apart.” Her hair spilled down to cover my hands to the wrists, wafting up a cloud of some floral aroma.
Burying my nose into the crown of her hair, my hands slid over her shoulders down her chest to find the top of her bodice, resuming the exploration I’d interrupted earlier in the study. “Beyond my skill, I’m afraid,” I breathed, as she leaned back into me, her body molding to my front. Fingers plucked at the ties of her corset, and I asked, “That scent. What is it?”
“Andraste’s Grace, my lord,” she answered, leaning her head against my jaw. Her free hand came up to rest against my wrist as I unknotted the tie, the laces giving at the sudden lack of binding. Her breath caught as it did. “It grows wild in the Alienage in Denarim.”
One hole, two, many, the laces hissed from the twin rows of holes up the front of the garment as I ripped them out with impatience. I murmured, “There is metaphor in that, I’m sure.”
She stilled in confusion. “What, my lord?”
“Nothing,” I assured her with a shake of my head. The last lace free, the corset hung loosely, then fell, and I filled my hands with her breasts, eliciting a trembling whimper.
I stopped talking then, intent on exploring her as quickly and thoroughly as possible. She was eager, far more eager than I, and I smiled at the possibilities that opened up. I brought my lips to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, sucking it for the reaction of her pressing back hard against my manhood bulging into her spine. Pinching her nipples brought squealing moans, her body writhing against my chest. A hand straying from her breast to the fastening of her skirt gave her something active to do, the garment flying undone and dropping to the floor with the bodice, leaving her only in a linen chemise.
Slowly, I splayed my hand to cross her belly, feeling her panting through the fabric, then down her hip, grabbing up folds of the skirt to lift to her waist so I could touch her sex, already slick and wet. Sliding it into the folds to find the hard nub of her clit she whimpered, her hand fluttering down the length of my arm uncertainly, lightly covering it as I rubbed it in increasingly harder circles. Up her neck my lips went to the lobe of her ear, sucking it into my mouth, and she gasped, bucking against my hand. She was so close to climax now; arousal leapt into my chest. I tongued my way up the sweeping curve of her elven ears, only reaching halfway before she cried out with a shudder and sagged against me.
I wrapped my arm more securely around her waist, supporting her, my fingers still in her slot but unmoving as she caught her breath, returning from beyond the edge. Her head lolled into the hollow of my shoulder, her fine hair tangling in my beard and the curls of my chest and bringing a wave of gooseflesh prickling my skin. I shifted to find a more comfortable position for my member still caught erect between our bodies, softening somewhat in the absence of stimulation.
The shift caused her to stir, her hand on my wrist caressing the back of mine, her head turning to rub her cheek against my neck. “My lord, do I displease you?”
I barked a hoarse laugh, mouth finding her forehead to brush with a kiss. “Anything but, sweet Iona.” I withdrew my hand from between her thighs, resting my fingers against her lips.
A moment’s hesitation, then she licked them, cautiously at first, drawing them into her mouth after my breath caught. My shaft quivered, beginning to harden once more. She withdrew from my fingers and tilted her head back to look up at me. “You…did not take me.”
I brought my hand, washed cleaned by her, up to cup her cheek. “Not yet. But I will.”
I kissed her then, loosing restraint and letting need move to the fore. My tongue probed into her mouth, tasting her, and with my arm I spun her in my arms so her breasts pressed against my bare chest, my erection into her belly. I broke from her to lift the chemise again, this time working with her to strip it over her head, leaving her naked and burnished copper in the twin lights of fires and candles. With gaze and body, I directed her backwards to the bed, already turned down for the night, watched her slide her bottom back across the linen sheets while I undid the knot on my trews and peeled them off, baring me. Her hands came up to fold together between her breasts as her gaze strayed down, taking in the upthrust curve of my cock, but came back up when I climbed onto the bed over her, bearing her down to the mattress.
I could’ve taken her right then, but I didn’t want to, wanting to draw the moment out and make her ready again. Instead I rolled onto one hip and kissed her, never leaving her mouth while I once again traversed the trail from her mouth to her slit, this time fingers dipping into the opening there as I teased her, my member rubbing into the curving side of her waist. When her hand slid down my back to cup my ass, squeezing, I felt control fray and moaned into her mouth. As if emboldened, she squeezed again, garnering another grunt, then traced the line of the crack. I broke the kiss, unable to get enough air to breathe, and she smiled up at me, triumph in her expression.
It was the last push I needed. Rising up from the bed, I threw a leg over her, spreading her thighs with my hand. The tip of my shaft found the wet folds of her and I guided myself in until I could thrust unaided, filling her. Her back arched suddenly, putting new and dizzying pressures onto my throbbing manhood and I responded in kind. I stroked once, twice, and she moaned. Her hands came up, grabbing my ears and tugged, the sensation sudden and unexpectedly erotic and I strained. I was pumping, faster and faster, listening to her groans becoming high pitched mewls, my moans mingling with hers until the crest broke and I came in a hot spurt, emptying myself into her welcoming depths.
I locked my elbows to keep from collapsing on top of her, panting. A shudder, and I withdrew, easing myself onto my back on the bed beside her to catch my breath. My eyes closed, blocking out the light, everything, until I felt her prop herself up to her elbow, and they slitted open to find her looking down at me. I forced a tired smile. “Thank you.”
I’d learned a long time ago how easy those words were, but how large an impact they had. She was no different, smile beaming. Snuggling into my shoulder, she asked shyly, “What now, my lord?”
“Now?” I wrapped my arm around her slender shoulders. “I sleep. But do you need to return to Lady Landra?”
“Not immediately,” she replied playfully. “She sleeps soundly, and should not wake until roused in the morning. By me.”
The corners of my mouth quirked with amusement. “Then I suppose we will have to make sure you are awake in time to do so. No strenuous activity, that would keep you up too late.”
She giggled. “Oh, I don’t know, I am young, I believe I could probably forgo sleep this night, if necessary. You are the lord’s son, after all, and it is my duty to serve.”
“Mmmmm,” I hummed, stroking her hair idly. “This may be true. I’m supposed to be awake early to see my father off, but no one says I must sleep ton—“
From the hearth, Cu began growling, startling me so much I cut off and jackknifed up to a seat, unthinkingly pushing Iona off my arm and leaving her sprawled in the sheets. Head whipped over to find him, he was gathering his haunches under him and staring at the door out to the hall. His bark exploded from his chest, followed by a string of them that shattered the quiet of the night.
Iona gathered herself, wild eyed and terrified. “My lord, what is it? Why is he barking like that?”
“I don’t know, there must be something wrong. Hush, boy,” I commanded him, scrambling out of bed to find my pants, but he ignored me.
Far more used to dressing quickly, Iona had already yanked her shift over her head and was heading to the door. “I must go to my lady. She may need me.”
I was reaching for my sword when I heard the latch turning, and cried out, “Iona, wait!”
She’d opened it by the time I finished, and I heard the thunk before I registered the sight of the quarrel piercing her chest. Cu seized the opportunity afforded by the open door to leap out to the hall. I had no time to watch her body fall to the floor, as a man wearing Arl Howe’s device burst in behind him.
“We need to keep moving,” Duncan said when I stopped on the crest of the hill to look back from whence we came.
“Just give me a minute,” I snapped. I realized only later how much like my mother I had probably sounded, but he immediately stilled.
I needed to fix this moment in my memory: the feel of soot, dry and itchy, on my skin where it wasn’t caked with drying blood, not my own fortunately. I put my sword hand before me and flexed, watching flakes of my father’s blood cracking off the back of it and falling off to the ground, swallowed up by the darkness, gone, just like him. Up, I looked, towards the castle on its hilltop, the crenellations silhouetted by the red glow of the fire raging through the keep hazed by a thick blanket of smoke. We were too far away to hear the cries of those who might be being put to the sword, the pound of booted feet on the stones as Howe’s men laid his claim.
Tears came then, cutting rivulets through the muck on my face. Father. Mother. Oriana. Oren. Rory. Nan. Iona. Rhonwyn. Elaine. Ser Balin. Lady Landra and Dairren. Cousland Castle. Gone. All gone.
It was Oriana’s voice I heard then, her prayer before Fergus’s departure. ““The Maker sustain and preserve us all. Watch over our sons, husbands, and fathers and bring them safely back to us.”
Except the sons, husbands and fathers are safe, and there is no ‘us’ to return to, I thought, grief welling up hard and hot in me.
I rubbed my eyes across a dirty cuff, smearing damp across the mess but clearing my eyes. The time for crying would come later, when I wasn’t at risk of being captured. The first order of business was to get to safety, to get to Ostagar and find Fergus and tell the King of Amaranthine’s treachery. And see him pay.
Setting my jaw, I turned back to Duncan to find him studying me intently. I gave him an icy glare, and with grim determination said, “Let’s go.”