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A Noble Heart

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“Well, “ Elissa breathed, “That was unexpected.” She yanked her dagger out of the last dead rat. It thrummed quietly with a blue aura of magic until she slid the glowing blade back into it's protective sheath.

Zeus, her mabari, barked, wagging his tail, his head held up high. Apparently he was quite pleased with himself.

Ser Roland Gilmore sheathed his own silverite longsword and ran a metal encased hand through his unruly dark red hair, making it stick up even more. “Giant rats in the larder? It’s like the beginning of every bad adventure tale my father used to tell me.” He looked at Zeus. “I bet that dog chased them in here too.”

Elissa sighed. “My trained war hound chasing rats. Wonderful.”

“To be hair, he’s actually done the castle a favor, my lady.” Ser Gilmore said. “Those were some nasty rats, could have caused all manner of illness and chaos in the castle if left unchecked.”

“Yes, but did he have to chase them into the kitchen larder?” She looked around at the mess of blood and dead rats. “Ugh, this place is going to have to be scrubbed down. Disinfected. Food thrown out. I don't know if I'm going to have much of an appetite for a few days.”

Zeus barked happily and jumped up on her chest as if to give her a hug. She laughed. "Okay, okay. You did a good job, just maybe next time chase them somewhere outside the castle and not where we keep the food?" Zeus barked in agreement and jumped back down.

Ser Gilmore followed Elissa over to the door back into the main kitchen. As she opened it, Zeus almost knocked them both over, in his excitement to get through. Ser Gilmore caught Elissa as she fell backwards. It was a rather graceful catch, almost as if they'd been dancing. Both froze, his green eyes locked onto her light blue ones. An unspoken whisper of a long distant memory passed between them.

With a hard swallow, Ser Gilmore composed himself and helped her back onto her feet. “Are you alright, Lady Cousland?”

“Yes,” Elissa said, breathless, making a show of adjusting her light leather armor and checking her enchanted dagger was still properly sheathed. After a long pause, she brought her eyes back up to his. He wasn't quick enough to hide the longing she saw flicker across them.

Nan’s words coming from the other side of the doorway broke the awkward tension in the air.

“Look at that bloody dog, brazen as you please! Licking his chops after helping himself to the roast, no doubt!”

“Actually Nan, “ Ser Gilmore said, as he and Elissa reappeared in the doorway.  “He was defending your larder from rats. Very large ones actually.”

Elissa walked over to Zeus and gave him a fond stroke across his head. "Such a smart boy, aren't you my love." Zeus barked and licked her hand.

Nan’s dark eyes flashed with fury. The elven servants, Triss and Anerin, backed away from the larder doorway.

“Rats?” Triss shrieked, wringing her hands, “not the large grey ones??”

“They’ll rip you to shreds, they will!” Anerin cried.

Nan glared at Ser Gilmore. “See, now you’ve gone and scared these two.”

Ser Gilmore gave her a short bow, “My apologies Nan. I didn’t realize…” The glare on her wrinkled face didn't soften and his voice trailed off. Nan was a fixture at Cousland Castle and had been around since before either Ser Gilmore or Elissa had been born. She was a tough old woman, but as strong as any woman half her age, and could make even the most grizzled and weathered knight quail beneath her stares.

Elissa suppressed a giggle at Ser Gilmore's reaction. Nan didn't scare her. Elissa was the one person that the old cook, and former nanny, had a soft spot for. That didn't mean she was free from Nan's attempts to keep her in check.

Nan shot her an annoyed look. "Lady Cousland, what would your mother think? This is not appropriate behavior for a war dog or his noble mistress."

Zeus gave a curious whimper and panted expectantly up at Nan.

"C'mon Nan, " Elissa grinned, "How can you resist that face?"

For a short moment Nan continued to glare at all three of them. Anerin and Triss hid back behind them all, afraid of Nan's temper. Ser Gilmore chose to stare somewhere above her head. Elissa and Zeus, however, just smiled, however you might imagine a dog could smile.

“Oh, go on, all of you.” Nan sighed, her anger disappearing. She walked over to a bowl on the carving board and pulled out some pork bits, placing them on the floor for Zeus. He barked thankfully and immediately began to chomp them up.

"Triss! Anerin! Get in there and let me know what we need to clean that place out! I'll call one of the men to come pick up those rats." Both darted nervously into the larder at Nan's direction.

“Shall we go inform the Teryna that this was taken care of, my lady?” Ser Gilmore asked in a brisk tone.

“Oh, yes, of course Ser Gilmore.” She ran over and hugged Nan quickly, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m sorry about the mess Nan.”

Nan shooed her away, “My lady, I swear you will be the death of me one of these days.” But she smiled. “Now, out, both of you! We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to be ready for dinner on time! Maker, all these soldiers to feed.”

Ser Gilmore, Elissa, and Zeus left the kitchen, back into the walkway outside. The sunshine was slowly fading, evening beginning to set in. As usual, the castle was full of life. Voices and laughter mixed with the clash of blades and sounds of armor clinking as soldiers practiced in the yard nearby, the occasional shout filling the air. A cool breeze blew through the open air hallway as they walked back towards the garden where Teryna Eleanor, Elissa’s mother, was entertaining Lady Landra and her son. And Elissa was required to make an appearance after fetching her mabari hound. She wasn't looking forward to it. Lady Landra's son, Dairren, was very pompous and always flirting with her in such a formal way that it creeped Elissa out. Yet, she had to smile and bow and thank him. Somehow, miraculously, she'd managed to avoid any talk of courtship with him and his weird mustache.
Zeus trotted alongside them both, appearing quite content. Elissa looked down at him and chuckled to herself. He was so mischievous sometimes, but no matter what anyone in the castle said, he was well loved and quite spoiled for a war dog.

Normally Ser Gilmore and Elissa chatted easily, they had practically grown up together as Ser Gilmore came to the castle at the age of 8 to squire for her Father, Teryn Bryce Cousland. They were both roughly the same age and became fast friends. Now, at 19 years old, it felt like they'd known each other since birth. But after the moment in the larder, Elissa was feelings awkward and it seemed Ser Gilmore did to. She wracked her brain for something to say, but all that came out was,

“Rory, I-.” She froze, the sentence dying in her mouth, now dry. Zeus stopped, looking expectantly up at his mistress, as if asking why she was no longer moving.

Ser Gilmore did too, slowly turning to look at her.

“Did you-did you just call me Rory?”

“No! I mean-yes, I’m sorry…Ser Gilmore.” A hot flush crept up her cheeks. She looked away. But she could feel him staring at her. Andraste’s mercy, why had she said that?!

“You haven’t called me that since-“ Ser Gilmore cut off abruptly, but Elissa already knew what he was talking about.

“I’m sorry Ser Gilmore.” She said quietly. “I don’t know where that came from.”

Ser Gilmore shook his head. “No, it’s okay.” He hesitated for a moment and then said, just as quietly. “I miss hearing you call me that.”

Elissa finally looked back at him, startled, not having expected that. She moved towards him, slowly. Now, he wouldn’t look at her.

“Really?” She asked. A suppressed instinct, a hidden urge, made her fingers long to reach out and graze his cheek, but Elissa knew she couldn't. If someone saw any hint of an intimate gesture, there would be a hard price to pay with her father. But when Ser Gilmore finally met her eyes, it was like lightning in her veins, her skin brushed with raw emotion.

“I-I miss calling you that. I miss you.” She whispered.

For one, long, hard second she thought he was going to kiss her. The seduction of his large, well built form inching closer to hers. His eyes drifting to her lips. Temptation in the way his tongue hinted movement between his own.

Then loud laughter from around the corner pierced the air.

The moment was shattered, the glittering joy of it falling to the ground around them.

Ser Gilmore stepped back from her. Sharply. Hastily. Desire replaced quickly with sadness. The gravity of it filling those deep green eyes of his. Ones that had always hypnotized Elissa in ways she'd tried to learn to ignore. In a husky and choked voice, he said to her softly, “My lady, please, don’t. I swore to your Father. We can’t. You can't. And I can't. I'd rather serve you every day than be sent away again for our foolish choices. But, as your Knight, I will still be by your side. Always.”

Foolish choices.

Her breath caught in her throat. Like a dagger to the chest.

Our foolish choices.

Elissa moved back too and took a deep breath. “You’re right. My apologies, Ser Gilmore. It was inappropriate of me to suggest...” She forced a smile to her lips, quickly composing herself, just as she had been taught to all her life.  A familiar, tight knot settled in her stomach. They may not wear fancy jeweled masks like the Orlesians, but Ferelden nobles still wore invisible ones of their own design.

A briskness and formality colored her now, otherwise flat, voice. “I’m sure you have things to do for Father. I’ll handle my Mother. Thank you for your help, Ser Gilmore. It was very gracious of you to join me.“ And with that she walked away, head held high, not waiting for a reply, not looking to see if he even moved from that spot, cursing her stupidity for allowing him to see her that way, after all this time. Obviously he was able to push it aside. To move on. She must also. After all, it was her duty, as the only daughter of one of the last Teryns in Ferelden to act as a noble lady should. And falling in love with a Knight under her father’s command was most definitely not allowed.

I don’t love him. She told herself, blinking back angry tears, thankful that no one else was walking in this part of the hallway and could witness the one that managed to roll down her cheek.

But, if Elissa had deigned to look back, she would have seen Ser Gilmore still standing in the place she left him, suspended in the same torment, her pain echoed across his handsome features, eyes wet with longing, his shoulder heavy from the weight of unspoken words.

It must have been close to midnight, but Elissa couldn’t sleep. She'd been tossing and turning for hours now, miserable, as she was left to suffer with the fears and worries that permeated her mind. The ones that full consciousness usually allowed her to lock away. Now they raced around in her head tormenting her with scenes and faces and words of terrible finality and pain. Wine had done nothing to ease her troubled heart. And if she went asking for a sleeping potion, it would raise questions she'd rather not speak of to her mother.

Zeus sensed her restlessness and was not able to lay still either. He kept lifting his head up to check on his mistress, the faintest of a whimper escaping his mouth. 

Save the occasional creak of wood or hourily shout from the lookouts, the castle lay quiet around them as everyone had retired for the night. Tomorrow promised to be a long day.

Elissa finally sat up, the blanket wrapped tight around her. A fat stub of a candle sat in an ornate holder on her bedside table, flickering, throwing shadows against the far wall. Her father and brother were riding of to war. Saying goodbye to Fergus had been difficult. She feared that she may never see her older brother again. And she was haunted by an intense feeling of foreboding.

It wasn’t even just about the fight against the darkspawn, there was something else. Something gnawing away at her insides, like a memory you can't quite place, or a thought that got away. She just couldn't put a finger on that fear, define the foundation of it. It was causing her an anxiety she couldn't shake. And then there was the lingering darkness in the very air they were all breathing. The one that no one would openly acknowledge, but that she knew everyone could feel.

The Blight was one to taint everything and everyone, but it couldn’t be that, could it? The darkspawn were still in the deep Southern swamps of Ferelden. They hadn’t come North…yet.

And then, despite her best efforts, she was still thinking about the brief encounter with Ser Gilmore. Rory. He'd once been her Rory. And he had called their time together foolish.

Foolish choices.

Losing herself to the dancing shadows on the wall, memories came back in painful waves, an ache threatening to squeeze the life out of her soul. A deep longing of images and sights, sounds and tastes. Moments that she could never return to, seconds and minutes and hours, ones that had once given her so much joy and happiness. Ones that now only brought her heartache and hot tears when she allowed them to flash before her eyes.

Maker, I don't want to think about it.

However, tonight, her head would not give her any respite.

It was 2 years now since their relationship had been discovered and ended by her parents. To be specific, her Father. A late night, a foolish attempt to steal a passionate kiss in the shadows of the front garden during a party. And Teryn Cousland, showing some guests the exotic flowers his wife had imported from Antiva, saw them.

That night was one of the worst of her life. She would never forget the look in Rory's eyes when her Father, wrought with a quiet fury and disappointment, ordered Rory out of his sight. Those jewel green eyes. Glistening in shame and sadness. He'd broken the trust of a man who'd raised and trained him since he was 8 years old. Who treated him like a son.

Rory was given night duty in the Red Light District of Highever for a month. Nobody wanted that shift and it was considered to be a punishment when assigned. Drunks and prostitutes, constant fights and large scale brawls. The very worst of society. He'd been sent to live and serve in the City Guard for a year, banished from the castle and demoted during that time to nothing more than a guard. To have a Knight, in the service of Teryn Cousland, demoted in such a way was so unheard of that nearly everyone in Highever knew within a week of his assignment to the City Guard. The gossip flew around the castle, then the Guard, then the city. For months, Elissa had endured whispering everywhere she went. The whole thing was a nightmare. Humiliation at it's finest.

And there had been so many fights. Tears. Yelling. Her mother watching with red rimmed eyes as her father lectured her over and over about her duty, her damn duty, as the only daughter of a noble house, one of the two last remaining Teryns in Ferelden.

Bryce Cousland was a kind, loving man, but with him, duty and loyalty to the Crown were of the highest priority, falling only below the safety and security of his family. "You must accept this pup," He stated. "You can scream and cry, but there is no choice here. I am sorry. You cannot marry Ser Gilmore. Even if he has risen to become a Knight. You are of House Cousland and must accept all that comes with that. It is both a privilege and a burden. And we are the last in a long line of old noble Houses. One of two Teryns and the only one with true noble blood in its veins. The Couslands are part of all that is left of what Orlais did to our proud country. We must do all we can to make sure we keep our line from ending. It is our duty to Ferelden and to the Crown. And that requires marriage to a noble house of the highest station. Not the son of a minor bann." Her father had repeated himself until she could barely stand it, all her arguments for nothing and in the end, she spent over a week in her room, crying until there were no tears left. Only with time was she able to let go. Harden herself. Become the daughter her Father expected her to be. Lock away her love for Rory. And try to fight the rising desire of resentment for her last name.

In an obvious effort to kill her affections for Ser Gilmore, her parents pushed suitors her way, and she refused each one. Including Thomas Howe, one of Arl Howe's sons. Elissa had no desire to marry Thomas. Though attractive, the guy was a womanizer, cocky, full of himself, and, too often for her taste, annoyingly immature. She also had a growing lack of a fondness for Arl Howe and suspected his real reasons for wanting the marriage were nothing good. As a child he'd been like an uncle to her, but things changed in recent years. Since King Cailan rose to the throne after the death of his father, the Arl's loyalty and unwavering reverence and respect for her Father's place in Ferelden nobility were fading. He never outright said so, it was just there. In the small looks, little remarks, an action of defiance here, a smartass response there. Minor things her Father seemed to ignore. But, she often wondered if her Father saw it too and simply chose not to acknowledge it. He was, after all, a clever man and knowledgeable of the dangers that would always threaten nobility. Even in peaceful times.

Thomas Howe was not to blame for his father's behavior, of course; but, his interest in her was purely sexual, with the marriage proposal strictly at his Father's orders, as he so kindly made clear to her that first evening they spent alone together. It ended with multiple bottles of expensive wine and a dark corner of the library where breathless, she let Thomas pull up her dress, his hand ripping fabric to grab onto her breasts, his fingers teasing the depths between her thighs until she was practically begging for it. He pushed her face first into the wall, growling as he slid inside her. It had been rough, fast, with Thomas moaning in her ear about how he wanted more.

And she wanted so badly to forget Rory's touch.

So Thomas and her had an extended fling, both aware they were only in it for the sex. Thomas, despite his arrogant demeanor, was a good lover, his size more than satisfying. Tall, muscular, and extremely skilled with a sword, with perfect bone structure, flawless dark brown hair and hypnotizing hazel eyes, the man was more than any woman's dream. And he oozed sex appeal, confidence, and took control of her body in ways that, at times, left her barely able to walk the next day. It was one of those types of relationships. And it'd been a lot of fun sneaking around. Thomas' needs were insatiable and his constant attention helped Elissa stay distracted from the broken heart she was still nursing. To try to move on and see herself with someone else. Both her and Thomas managed to keep this wild part of their relationship secret. On the outside it looked like courtship. Behind closed doors, it was anything but. Which was part of the excitement. Towards the end, Elissa thought it was unfortunate that their attraction was only physical.

After about three months, Elissa was getting pressure from her parents to respond and so officially, she turned down his offer of marriage. Thomas had grinned when she told him and snuck into her bedroom that night, spending one last time making her scream for him before disappearing to Amaranthine. Honestly, for that, she was sad to see him go.

Arl Howe and her Father had not been happy when they found out she'd turned Thomas down.

Elissa sighed at the thought of her Father's disappointment when she told him there would be no wedding. No anger, just sadness in his eyes. And a hint of defeat.

And nothing more was ever said. If she refused to choose on her own, her parents would eventually arrange one for political purposes, one appropriate for a noble of her station. It was unspoken and she knew it. Her brother Fergus had taken her aside many times and begged her to move on, to not be so stubborn, as he didn't want her forced into a loveless marriage, left to live a life without the happiness and joy that finding real love would bring her. But he hadn't understood how she truly felt about Rory. Fergus was lucky, he had a beautiful Antivan wife from a wealthy, respected family. And she secretly thought, as the eldest son, he was given fewer rules and more freedom.

A small part of her died the day she lost Rory. He'd been the love of her life. That happiness her brother spoke of had been stripped from her the day her Father ordered them to never see each other again. Never would she love a man the way she loved him. She was convinced of that. And part of her thought if she couldn't have Rory, then why not marry for the honor of her house. Duty above all else. Right? No matter what she told herself though, it was a bitter taste on her tongue.

When Rory finally returned to the castle a year later, she was told, as was he, to keep all interactions professional and according to their station. In the year since then they had managed to form a courteous friendship, if a little fragile and awkward at times. He rarely met her eyes. His tone formal with each interaction, his obvious deferment to the fact that he was a Knight under her Father's command. It was "Lady Cousland" now, eyes trained just above her head or at someone else in their party.

At first this cool attitude stung and caused her a few nights of crying herself to sleep again. The ache for him returning. She thought she let go during that time he was gone, her time with Thomas showing her she could be with other men. Yet, now he was there, standing in front of her, and it took all her strength to keep a strong emotional distance. In the end, she managed it by staying away from him as much as possible. Today had been the first encounter in a couple of weeks.

I need some air, Elissa thought to herself, throwing off the blanket. She stood up and pulled on a white dressing gown over her nightdress. Her nightdress was lacy and thin, but the softness of her robe was thick and modest. Sliding on a pair of supple and light leather slippers, she snuck out the door, being careful to make sure Zeus stayed in her room. She didn’t want him making noise, waking everyone up. He whined sadly, but obeyed, laying on the rug by her bed.

Quietly she left the family quarters, her steps making no noise. Years of training as a rogue had given her the ability to move with stealth and agility when necessary. Once out in the open walkway again, she snuck past the guards towards the upper gardens. In her younger years she'd mastered the art of sneaking around the castle at night, without her Father’s guardsmen having a clue, by learning every shadowy corner and secret door, unused passage and how to distract. In private, as her Father would not approve of such a comment, Fergus had joked that she could have been trained as an Orlesian bard.

It was a gentle, starry night. A small, pleasant breeze blew through the open garden, leaves swishing in a slow rhythm, the trickling water from the fountain creating a calming atmosphere that Elissa welcomed. She sat on one of the stone benches by the fountain, the coolness of the stone refreshing against her skin. Removing her dressing gown and slippers, Elissa allowed herself the private freedom of feeling the breeze through her thin nightdress, the chilly blades of grass between her toes. She closed her eyes, the wind caressing her skin, covering her in a pleasant sensation of goosebumps.

A moment later though, the soothing sounds of the night were disturbed by the soft chink of armour. Elissa jumped up startled, her dressing gown falling onto the stone walkway as she turned to see a tall man in silverite armour, his dark red hair catching the light in the one of the lamps as he came towards her.

“My Lady Elissa?” It was Ser Gilmore’s deep voice, in a hushed tone.

“Ser Gilmore?! Maker’s breath, you scared me!” Elissa knew she was safe in the castle, but hadn’t expected anyone to come into this particular garden this late at night.

“My lady, I thought I saw you sneaking in here. I was just coming off my shift.” He was closer now, the moonlight showing concern on his handsome face. “Are you alright? What are you doing out here at this time of night?”

“I-I couldn’t sleep.” Elissa was flustered, feeling oddly vulnerable as Ser Gilmore appeared right in front of her. His demeanor shifted, as suddenly, his eyes found her, widening as they trailed down her body in stunned silence. The breeze threw a gust that fluttered her nightdress and she realized, cheeks reddening, that the soft light from the nearby lantern allowed him to see through the thin material covering her otherwise naked body. Under his gaze, her nipples hardened in the cool air. She shivered. She might as well be wearing nothing.

An unbidden memory pushed itself into focus. A dark night in this very garden. Hidden under the trees from a summer storm. Of the feel of his tongue grazing her skin as he sucked gently on her nipples. His fingers trailing like a fire down her stomach to slip beneath the strip of lace covering-

"Lady Elissa?" Ser Gilmore's voice cut in hard, and she heard echoes of her own desire in the sudden hoarseness with which he spoke her name.

Elissa pulled herself back into the present, breathe caught in her chest at the sudden onslaught of lustful longing that threatened to awaken between her legs.

"My apologies, Ser Gilmore. I was just...lost in thought."

There was utter silence for what felt like an eternity. She unknowingly bit her lip when she saw his tongue flicker between his. She couldn't help but stare at the wetness left on his bottom lip.

“Um, my lady,“ Ser Gilmore, clearing his throat, finally tore his eyes away from her and picked up her dressing gown, “You seemed to have dropped this.” He held out the garment, looking away from her, attempting to give her at least a little respect and privacy. She noticed though, as she took her dressing gown, that his hand was trembling.

He was so close now, the familiar scent of him enveloping her senses. Knees weak, she stepped back too fast and for the second time that day, fell into Ser Gilmore's arms. The cool metal of his armour pressed against her warm skin as he held her for a moment longer than necessary. 

Are we writing a romance novel?  She thought with a slight giggle. Then she looked up into the face of the beautiful man holding her.

The rest of the world faded around them.

Why do I still have to love him so much?

“I really need to stop doing that.” She whispered, her eyes tracing the line of his jaw, the curve of his lips, the hunger in his green eyes. Ser Gilmore's lips were parted, his breathing heavy. In barely a whisper, he said, “I'll always be there to catch you my lady, as long as you'll have me.” The tenderness in his words stole any reply from her lips.

But then it was over and reality returned with Elissa back on her feet. She pulled her thick dressing gown back around herself and sat on the bench, wrapping both it and her arms tightly around her, as if it would shield her against the memories that, mixed with his touch, were awakening long suppressed desires.

Another minute of awkward tension. Ser Gilmore seemed to steel himself.

“May I join you my lady?” His formal tone didn't match the electricity that was now passing between them with an unrelenting force.  

Maker preserve me. I don't know if I can handle this.

Echoing her thoughts, she replied, "I don't know if that is a good idea, Ser Gilmore." She took a deep breath and looked away. It had been so long since she'd allowed herself to think of how he used to touch her, kiss her, make love to her. It was overwhelming, and left her light headed. 

"I know-I looks like you could use the company, Lady Cousland." She chanced a glance and saw his attempt at a friendly smile, to ignore what had just happened. She relaxed a little.

"Okay, Ser Gilmore. You may join me."

He returned her smile and then removed his leather scabbard. Laying it gently on the bench next to him, he sat down, armour glinting in the moonlight.

Andraste keep me, he looks so sexy in that uniform. Like always.

For a few moments they said nothing. Elissa watched the water flowing from the fountain into the pool below, unsure of what to say.

“Are you okay?” Ser Gilmore broke the quiet solitude. “You appear troubled.”

“I am.” She sighed. “Father and Fergus are off to fight darkspawn and Maker knows what else. Mother is even leaving for awhile because I’ll be running the castle while they’re gone. She and Father wanted to make it a show of faith so that everyone knows my parents trust me to handle my family's responsibilities to the people of Highever. But, in truth, I wish I was going with them. I'm more comfortable in the field wielding a blade, than sitting behind a desk."

Ser Gilmore chuckled, "Of that, I can agree. And you are quite skilled with those dual blades and intriguing potions of yours."

She turned to look at him, unwrapping her arms from her body, and sitting up straighter, returning his laughter with her own, "You would know, considering all the times I've bested you in training."

He raised his hands up in mock defeat, smiling, "I will not argue with you, dear Lady Cousland, lest you take my own sword to my chest right now."

They both laughed and fell into a more comfortable silence.

A thought had occurred to Elissa however and she voiced it. "If you don't mind me asking, why aren’t you going with my Father's personal complement of Highever Knights?”

“If I had been asked, I would have gone. And willingly so.” Ser Gilmore was staring at the water in the fountain pool now. “But your father wants me to stay with the complement guard at the castle. More specifically, he tasked me with protecting you.” At these last words, he looked over at her.

"He-what?" She asked, startled. "But-when-why? What?!"

"After our adventure earlier today, your Father called for me and told me some things in confidence. He stated that he needed to leave someone behind whose only job was to protect both his daughter and wife. And he said he knew I was the one person in the world he could trust to not let anything happen to you. He said it was clear I still loved you and that I have proven my loyalty to the Couslands many times over. Of course, he also made it clear to keep my feelings in check, but I'm to be your personal bodyguard while he, your brother, and most of the soldiers are gone. It's the perfect time for an assassination and coup attempt he says. He knows you are strong, and very capable of protecting yourself, but others may see Castle Cousland as weak and vulnerable, and he has no doubt there are a few who would be willing to betray him and use the war as an excuse to do it. And even his well-trained, fierce pup can't foresee every possible scenario that may place her in harm's way." Ser Gilmore gave her smile. "That last part is a direct quote from him."

Stunned, Elissa let his words wash over her, trying to take in the magnitude of what Ser Gilmore had just shared. Betrayal? Assassination? Coup attempt? Ser Gilmore as her personal bodyguard? And this was her father's idea? He trusted them enough to think they could keep any existing feelings in check? That was...unexpected.

Yet, in the end, there was one thing that stood out the most.

"You-you still love me?" She asked softly.

Instead of answering, Ser Gilmore stood up, taking off his gauntlets and dropping them onto the grass with a faint clink and thud. He walked towards the fountain, staring up at a stream of water emitting from the top. His silhouette was dark against the sparkle of the water and the dim light of the garden lamps. He stood there for a moment before speaking, running a hand through a spout of water, watching it pass through his fingers. When he finally spoke, his voice was reminiscent, “Do you remember when we used to sneak out and meet here? We’d leave each other notes all over the castle, in our little hiding places, setting up our little dates. We had so much fun didn’t we....”

Elissa shivered, but it wasn’t due to cold. “I do remember. I would spend all day in anticipation, I was always so excited to see you.”

Ser Gilmore turned back towards her. “As I was always eager to see you. It was distracting at times. I had a hard time focusing, and paid dearly for it many a time in the training yard; but, I didn’t care, all I could think about was being with you.” There was a huskiness in his voice that Elissa hadn’t heard in a very long time, his profile outlined in shadow under the pale starlight, face hidden by pieces of the night that surrounded them. Elissa shivered again as he started to move towards her.

“I never stopped loving you, Elissa. It broke my heart when we had to end it, but your father said he would send you away if I didn’t leave. He told me that you and I had our duties and that took precedent over everything else; so, that day you had to become someone I would always bow to. It tore me to pieces on the inside, but all I wanted in the end, was to prove that I could be trusted to come back and protect you. Even if I was to only serve you as a Knight of House Cousland for the rest of my life, at least I would be near you, to take care of you, to make sure nothing ever hurt you.”

Elissa's eyes filled with tears as she heard the break in his voice. All this time, she had missed him so much, never knowing that he felt that way, that he still loved her.

It was Rory now who knelt in front of where she sat on the bench. Her Rory.

“I need you to know something.” He said in a whisper, his face close enough to hers that she could see the green of his eyes, even in the dim light cast by the garden lamps nearby. “I had so many dreams. I wanted to become something worthy of you. Someone with status. So that I could ask for your hand in marriage. I loved you madly and I still do. I'm sorry for what I said earlier today about our relationship being foolish. That couldn't be farther from the truth. If there is something in my life that I am certain about, it's that loving you has been anything but foolish. Elissa, my love, you were, and still are, the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Elissa was sure her heart was no longer beating. Because she'd stopped breathing.

“I-I, “ She whispered. “Rory, I-“ but before she could finish, his hands were cupping her face, his lips pressed into hers, kissing her with such tenderness and passion that she was sure if she hadn’t been sitting down, she'd have lost all ability to stand.

He pulled away, breathless, standing up and walking away. “I-I’m sorry, my lady.” She heard him stammer. “I lost control for a moment.” She could hear his heavy breathing, the pain in his voice.

Elissa no longer cared about anything but the two of them alone in that moment. She got up, allowing her dressing gown to fall to the ground.

“I still love you Rory.” A whisper in the dark. Spoken to the outline of his broad frame, encased in silverite armour that winked in the moonlight.

And then he turned around and she knew he could see her naked body again underneath the delicate lace.  She wanted him to. An overwhelming feeling of love and pure lust was making her dizzy and breathless, the tingles of heat that teased her creating an ache traveling from between her legs to the rest of her body, leaving her blind to anything but the want of wrapping herself around him.

“Elissa.” Her name escaped him in a whispered moan.

Rory's hands were around her hips, against the small of her back, as he bent down to pull her into a fiery kiss. The passion between them made their movements aggressive. Forceful. She found herself pushed back into the garden wall, helping Rory remove his armor, tossing it aside as his eyes threatened to consume every inch of her body, until there was nothing but his naked skin, hot against her nightdress. With one gesture, he ripped it off, the fragile fabric discarded as his mouth found hers again, tongue probing hungrily, his body trapping her against the moss covered wall. The heat of his skin against her bare breasts a sharp contrast to the cold stone pressing into her back.

Driven by liquid hot desire, Elissa longed to taste him. Running her hands down his chest, she sank to her knees, looking up at Rory as she did so. A ravenous fire burned from his gaze, his head falling back, eyes glazing shut, as she began to stroke him. She guided his length towards her mouth, sucking lightly on the swollen head before slowly taking him in, her fingers cupping underneath gently as she wound her mouth around his hard shaft. His deep intake of breath was followed by a quiet moan of pleasure.

"Elissa," he murmured, pushing her head down, her mouth swallowing him deeper, tangling his hands in her long hair. She responded with her own moaning, knowing how the vibrations made him throb, licking around his most sensitive spots, the skim of her tongue under the tip causing him to groan, his hips thrusting into the delicious warmth of her mouth as his movements matched hers.

And then Rory had taken her back, pushing her hard into the wall again, his lips on her neck. He growled and bent to nibble on her earlobe, grazing the outer part of her ear, pulling it with his teeth and causing her to shiver before moving to run his lips along her collarbone. His fingers trailed down to her breasts, rubbing and pinching her hardened nipples, following it with his mouth, sucking hungrily. Legs trembling under his touch, Elissa closed her eyes, her hands now in his hair, moaning as the sensation of his tongue flicking her nipple was combined with fingers tracing down her stomach, trailing along her thighs, sliding up between her legs. She gasped as he started massaging her, gently, sending sparks through her body, his fingertips becoming more wet with every touch.

“Lady Cousland,” he said in a low voice, his tongue in her ear, as he slid two long fingers inside her, “I want to feel and taste how sweet you are.” He pulled them out again and she moaned in frustration, “And I can feel how badly you need me to.” He murmured, sliding three back in. Slowly. Teasingly.

She groaned, her muscles squeezing around each tight thrust. Desperate for more, she pushed down onto his fingers, allowing him to force her legs further apart. “How I've missed being inside you,“ he whispered, hot breath tickling her neck, sending sensations down her spine to match the ones exploding inside. And then he was kissing her mouth again, her body trembling as his tongue entwined around her own, the thrust of his fingers deeper, faster, his thumb rubbing her small bud, now dripping with hunger for his continuing touch. He sucked hard on one of her nipples, biting it, making her gasp and shudder. And the world faded as she fell over the edge. Luscious ecstasy that caused her knees to buckle beneath her, leaving her shaking, supported only by the stone wall she collapsed against and Rory's long, wet fingers. Almost uncontrollable as she came, tendrils of electric pleasure radiated through her body, and she rode him hard until his touch was too sensitive for her to bear.

And suddenly she was laying on the grass, his mouth assaulting her breasts as she gasped for breath, unable to focus on anything but what he was doing to her body.

His fingers continued to trail along every inch around and in between her thighs before he pushed them back in, eliciting a wanton moan as she squirmed, craving more. Sucking and biting, kissing his way down her stomach, he lowered his mouth between her legs, tongue sliding smoothly down to meet his fingers.

"...oh god..."

With one more slick, silky brush of his tongue, she came again, almost immediately. More intensely. The moans that escaped her parted lips, the way her body trembled and arched to meet his every touch only seemed to deepen his lust for her.

And she couldn't get enough from him.

"So sweet," Rory whispered before going back down to run along her outer lips, nibble across the tingling, tender parts, his fingers matching every wet caress. She continued to moan with ragged breath, until an intense wave crashed over her again, as he buried his face deeper, holding her down as she shook beneath him.

It was all Elissa could to do to keep from screaming.

He continued to torment her. Thighs down in a firm vice, spread wide, so that she was unable to move, giving him every inch he desired to caress with his mouth. She whimpered, the heightened sensitivity that followed every orgasm becoming painful, but Rory hadn't forgotten where to touch, when to pause, and when to go back, giving her a slight reprieve each time, but never stopping completely. 

Elissa could only groan his name over and over, barely registering anything but the delirium of pleasure she was lost in. Her hands finding his head, raking through his hair, only to let go, back arching as she grabbed onto the thick, soft grass with one hand, until Rory knew she couldn't take anymore.

"Please," she managed to cry softly. “I need you inside me.”

And then he was on top of her, a guttural groan escaping from his mouth, his long length sliding in with one hard push, her muscles contracting around him, animal lust in his eyes.

She was overcome by the smell of his skin, of him, the feel of his broad, powerful body pressing down on hers, the size of him covering her smaller frame, as he took her, leaving light kisses along the side of her neck, groaning into her hair, hands lost among the soft strands.

And Elissa was oblivious. To anything but the love she had for the man melting into her entire being.

It was fierce. Years of built up, suppressed emotions came spilling out and at her plea, his thrusts became relentless. Faster. Depraved in desperate desire.

She wrapped her legs around him, pulling him deeper. He growled, grabbing her hair so that her head fell back. He bit his way up to her earlobe, each one causing a sharp inhale of pleasure and pain.

"Elissa," he half whispered, half moaned as their bodies moved together, skin sticky and hot.

And Rory took her body as his own, showing no mercy, greedy in his need for her.

Pulling out with a throaty growl, he flipped her over, holding her hands behind her back in a show of welcome force, and grunting, devoured her from behind. Her face against the ground, she cried out in pleasure as he slammed his body against her over and over, aching from how deep he was and relishing every second of it.


The smell of grass and earth in her nose, tickling her nipples, she tightened around him, each moment more frenzied than the last. Rory stiffened, wet lips parting to groan, as with one last thrust, he came inside her. Almost savagely. 

Utterly spent and breathless, they collapsed into each other. The intimacy of the moment held in the way he leaned his forehead against hers, breathing hard, looking tenderly into her eyes. They both laughed softly.

"Maker, I've missed you. My sweet Elissa." He pulled her in close, his lips against hers, the taste of her still in his mouth.

Rolling onto his back, Rory held her against him. Strong arms around her waist as she wrapped her own around his neck. His face again in her hair. Hers buried in his neck and then against his heart. The steady beating, pure nourishment to her soul. 

"I guess it's a good thing your father will gone for awhile. Because we just broke the one major rule he had for both of us. I don't know what we're going to do."

She lifted her head off the warm comfort of his chest and turned her eyes to his. "Nothing for now. With all that's going on, it's one less stress he needs. And we can't do anything at this point anyway. The war takes precedent."

"Well, let's pray there is no true war. That it all ends with Ostagar."

Elissa snuck into her room less than an hour later. It was 2am. Exhausted. Elated. Hair a sweaty mess. The torn nightgown hidden in the pocket of the dressing gown wrapped around her sore body. Rory left her with a lingering kiss before sneaking off quietly into a darkened passage towards the barracks.

Smiling, she drifted into a peaceful sleep. Her heart was lighter than it'd been in years.

No matter what else was happening around them, Rory was hers again.

And for now, all is right in this chaotic world...

It felt like she'd just passed out when a pounding on the door jolted Elissa awake. Zeus was barking. Shouts echoed from everywhere in the castle. Disoriented, her mind bleary and barely aware, it took a moment before comprehension started to creep in.

That was followed by shock. Acknowledgement of all the sounds around her and a sinking, hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, temporarily freezing her in place. Half sitting up in bed, blanket at her feet, watching Zeus growling at the noise emanating from outside her room. A moment where the very air shimmered in her vision, surreal and dreamlike.

She blinked. Focused. And a sharp edge of fear cut through all her senses. 

The alarm had been raised. The bell resonating over and over again.

Somewhere, a woman screamed. Screamed in terrible way. A horrific chilling sound that settled in Elissa's bones, seeping terror into her thoughts.

What is going on? That wasn't her mother, right? Right? What is happening?

Even in her questioning, she knew. That bell was only rung for one purpose.

It was something monstrous.

She heard rough male voices on the other side of her door. The one, she realized with alarm, they were trying to break through.

The mocking tone was eerily sing-song like. "Dear Lady Cousland, we know you're in there. We've come to deliver an important message from Arl Howe. He wanted it given to you...personally." Cruel laughter told her there were multiple men. All intending to harm her.

Andraste's mercy.

The castle was under attack.

And as the door splintered open, the swords of Howe's soldiers raised, and Zeus ran snarling for the attack, Elissa dived for her weapons, the last prayer she had with Mother Mallol earlier that day suddenly ringing through her mind. 


Maker, my enemies are abundant.

Many are those who rise against me.

But my faith sustains me; I shall not fear the legion,

Should they set themselves against me.


...dear Maker

watch over us all...