Elissa and Alistair sat around the campfire. The others in the party were sleeping, but Elissa hadn’t been able to. The nightmares had been plaguing her again. When Alistair asked, she told him she’d dreamt of the archdemon, but the truth? She couldn’t stop dreaming of her father clutching his side, his life’s blood spilling around her knees. . . . his teeth stained with it.
Elissa picked at her long glossy nails and sighed, a lick of chocolate brown hair falling in slanted eyes. Her hair was a magnificent mess of curls. Her mother had always lamented that she absolutely refused to do anything more with it than tie it off o the side and let it fly. But when it was down . . . Elissa smiled to herself. Each time she took a man to her bed, down came her curly mane in a fluid toss, and . . . up they went.
Tall and curvaceous, she’d been deemed the loveliest flower in Highever – with the sharpest thorns. Many said she had her grandmother’s look and her mother’s impertinent tongue. Teryna Eleanor often lamented that her own headstrong ways had come back on her tenfold in her daughter. Elissa was rude whenever it could serve to amuse her, bossy, headstrong, wild, and full of life. It was often said that the only man she ever listened to was her father, and the only man she ever allowed to out-do her was her brother. She idolized both.
Sword in hand, she spent many hours in the training yard of Cousland Castle, beating dummies to a pulp as sweat ran in her eyes. Her swordsmanship was as impressive as her generous bosom, and she was the desire of young noblemen across all of Thedas. As a teryn’s daughter, she could have had whichever nobleman she chose, but she never chose. With a defiant spark in her eye, she refused all interested parties and swore to remain a free woman.
Fergus had always found it amusing, Elissa’s disgust for love and romance. He would be standing in the courtyard kissing his wife, and she would walk by, making a face at him as she went.
“One day,” Fergus would say with a laugh, “you’ll find a man who can tame you. Mark my words.”
The memories shattered as Elissa felt Alistair’s gaze. She glanced at him around the sweep of her russet hair.
Elissa sighed. “What is it, Alistair?”
“I . . . was just curious,” he said, as if he was promising her that his stares had been nothing more.
Leaning back on one hand, Elissa crossed one long leg over the other and chucked a pebble across the ground. “About?”
“Well. . . . nobility of your stature and age . . . are usually married by now, aren’t they?”
“You were thinking about that?!” Elissa cried in amazement. She laughed incredulously.
“Well . . . yes,” Alistair admitted. “It just seems odd. Most women marry as early as seventeen.”
Elissa frowned. “Perhaps that’s the problem. A noblewoman is always expected to marry, to solidify ties and arrangements,” she said and tossed her hand in disgust. “That snake Howe was always after me to marry one of his sons.”
“Well, there were other men who asked for your hand, surely.”
Elissa glanced sideways at Alistair and laughed when his cheeks colored slightly. “Why, Alistair, was that a compliment?” she teased. She looked at the fire thoughtfully. “Of course, there were others. But I was determined not to let politics define my life – no matter how futile the effort on my part. And Father was very protective. He didn’t want his pup married off to just anyone.” She smiled sadly at the fire. “He barely let me leave the castle. I felt trapped . . .” she shook her head. “All the time. I was always begging to ride off with Fergus and be in the action. I felt . . . so frustrated and coddled. Now I’m finally out of the castle . . . and I’d give anything to be back.”
Alistair frowned. “I find it hard to believe there was never anyone you would have at least considered.”
Elissa stared at the fire, an absent smile on her lips. “Oh, there was someone. But I never could have . . .” She frowned and lowered her face as she avoided Alistair’s eye. Brown curls swept forward to hide her expression and she was glad. “I couldn’t have married him. He was just a knight.”
“But you loved him,” Alistair said. It wasn’t a question.
Elissa looked at Alistair curiously, and her lips twisted into a smirk. “Why the sudden interest in my love life, Alistair?” She grinned when his cheeks brightened even more.
“Well,” he said and shrugged, “nobles have never given me much reason to believe they care about anything but blood. A person is of little worth unless they have a title, that sort of thing. Then the other night, you said you didn’t care about my blood. What was more, you really seem to mean it. And I realized how wrong I was.”
Elissa grinned. “Don’t worry, Alistair. Happens to the best of us.”
Alistair smiled, silently admiring her pretty face, the soft lips and bright blue eyes. Maker. A man could get lost in those eyes. “And you’re never wrong,” he teased.
Elissa’s face brightened, and he could tell more witty banter was on the rise. Perhaps that was the best thing about her: she loved to play.
“Next time I’m wrong, I’ll kiss ten darkspawn!” she vowed.
“Ah, that’s disappointing.”
“Is it now?”
“It’s a waste of two very pretty lips.”
“Two lips? Sure one lip isn’t prettier than the other?” Elissa said and pointed a slender finger at her mouth.
Alistair grinned. “Hard to say. Come closer and I’ll find out.”
Elissa’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, but she was still smiling. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I know this game. I lean over there and you’ll kiss me.”
“Drat,” said Alistair and bumped his fist against his knee in playful frustration. “Beautiful, fun, and clever. I bet that lucky man you love used to have his hands full.”
Alistair sensed his blunder when Elissa looked sadly at her crossed legs. Her lips turned down at the corners, and her blue eyes almost shimmered with tears. She turned her head away again, hiding once more behind the sweep of her curls. She was too proud to let him see her cry. He wanted to take her hand but didn’t have the nerve.
“Foot in mouth again? I do a lot of that,” Alistair said apologetically.
Elissa laughed, but it was such a thick laugh that he could tell she was crying. “Don’t worry about it, Alistair. I seem to be attracted to clumsy, awkward, endearing young men.”
“Ah, I’ve a chance then.”
Elissa laughed and looked at him fondly. He felt a sting of guilt to see her face was indeed wet with tears.
“I didn’t know you were interested,” she said.
Alistair looked at her in amazement. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Elissa smiled sadly. “I know I can be a little . . . how did Mother put it? ‘Lacking in social graces or diplomacy.’ I tend to speak my mind a bit too freely. Mother always blamed Father for it. Said he let me do whatever I pleased and I was in danger of never making a good match.”
“I bet you miss them terribly,” Alistair said sympathetically.
Elissa gazed off. “Everyday. At least I was able to tell them farewell before . . . the last time I saw Rory, he was holding out Howe’s men so Mother and I could get away.”
“Rory?” Alistair asked curiously.
Elissa smiled at him. "Ser Roland Gilmore. He was . . . the first. And the only man I would have married. It couldn’t have happened, he was just a knight. But those things . . .” She shook her head, still smiling at Alistair. “They don’t matter when you love someone.”
Alistair’s heart fluttered when Elissa’s blue eyes peered warmly into his. “Goodnight, Alistair,” she said, and rising from his side, she went to her tent. Her pretty lips perched in a whistle, and her mabari hound lopped bright and eager to her side. Alistair watched with a smile as she and the dog ducked inside the tent. She smiled a last time at him over shoulder, and his heart skipped a beat.
If only she realized . . . he was more than interested.