Disclaimer: I don't own Dragon Age, its characters, or any of the copyrighted stuff.

A/N: This is a standalone fic for fans of Cousland/Gilmore, but it's also the same back story that I'm using for the character of Nalissa Cousland in my Cousland/Alistair fic, Running the Gauntlet—if that dynamic happens to interest any of you at all. Be warned, this story does not have a happy ending.

Once My Knight

Nalissa Cousland could never remember exactly how old she was when she first met Roderick Gilmore, only that he had been one of the few constants in the whirlwind of servants coming and going from Castle Cousland. And he was never really a servant, or at least not in her memories.

When she was still in pigtails and he was still apprenticed as a squire, they used to act out daring adventures in the courtyard. He would invariably try to insist that she be the damsel in distress, but that was never how it turned out. More often than not, Nalissa's imagination would conjure up a wyvern or an ogre that no matter what, she would not let Roderick defeat alone. And in the end, he would always have to accept her help in defeating the pretend beast as they both hacked away at it with wooden swords while Nan yelled at the both of them.

As they grew older, it took more prodding to get Roderick to play games with her. He began to insist that it was not his place, and that he had much work left to do in the kennels, and that Nan would make him sleep with the dogs if he caught them again. But still she would somehow convince him, with a bribe of cookies or a promise that he could be the hero, and they would set sail for undiscovered lands in a ship made of crates until her father called her for supper.

But then as Nalissa became older still, she was made to go to Denerim with the teyrn, or visiting some Bann or the other with the teyrna. As if the days or weeks of travel weren't enough, once there, there was no one of around her own age to talk to. She had to be still and quiet and listen to everyone talk around her, but every time when she finally returned to Highever, the first place she would go would be the knights' quarters to tell Roderick everything she had seen on the journey.

Since he was confined to the castle for his training, Nalissa became Roderick's lifeline to the outside world. He wasn't very interested in the colorful parties or affairs of politics that she would sometimes describe, but he loved the tales of battles and how Nalissa had burgled her way into the room of a Bann's young son that annoyed her and lined his bed with thistles and slugs. Occasionally she even heard news of Roderick's father and older brothers, but those were stories Roderick usually liked even less than the political ones.

When Nalissa began training in earnest with daggers, eager to be allowed out on scouting missions with her brother Fergus, it was Roderick more than her tutors that helped her train.

"You're so slow!" she would taunt him as she ducked around his blunted training sword and laughed. At first he would miss on purpose, knowing he was much stronger than she and afraid of the wrath of the teyrn if he accidentally hurt her. As time went by though, she became faster and surer with her blades and Roderick would occasionally land a stinging whack on her shoulder with the flat of his sword.

Most maidens would have complained, but Nalissa Cousland was not most maidens. She learned from each mistake and never seemed to make quite the same one more than once, until before he knew it Roderick found himself truly sparring with her as he would any of the other knights in training. Well, perhaps with a little less force.

Nalissa grew to be a very competent fighter in her own right, but every time she sparred with someone else and he landed a hit a little too hard, Roderick would make note of it. Then the next time he was allowed to choose a sparring partner, he would strike that squire back twice as hard for daring to leave a bruise on his lady Cousland.

Nalissa wasn't stupid however, and she had always noticed more than others. When she confronted him about it, Roderick expected her to be angry, like she had always been when they play-fought as children and he pretended to take a mortal blow to shield her. Instead, she grinned as brightly as the sun.

"Why do you always hurt him back when Auric hits me with his sword, Roderick?" she asked with a mischievous twinkle in her sea-green eyes.

"What? I have no idea what you're talking about," he tried to say, but she would have none of it.

"Why, yes, you do!" Nalissa insisted. "Every time he gets a good strike in, you always choose him to spar next. And that time Windel accidentally cut my face, you nearly broke his sword arm!"

Roderick relented, but tried to shrug it off. "All right, so I do. But you'll be a teyrna some day. It's not right of them to hit you like you're any ordinary girl."

Nalissa looked very thoughtful at that. "I'll be a teyrna? Do you really think so?"

"Of course," Roderick said, his tone declaring that he had never thought it would happen any other way. "You're already at least as good a fighter as Fergus, and most people like you better too. Even the Mabari the teyrn picked for him chose you instead."

"Teyrna," Nalissa said slowly, as if turning the idea over in her mind. Then her face brightened into a smile again. "All right! Then if I ever become Teyrna Cousland one day, you shall be my knight, Ser Gilmore!"

At that declaration, Roderick blushed to the roots of his red hair. "I plan to be a knight, surely," he began, but she stared him down.

"You'll be my knight if I'm teyrna, because why would I trust someone else to protect me when I already know you will?"

Roderick had no response for that, and from then on she began calling him her knight whenever he fought to avenge one of her injuries. But those became fewer and fewer as time went on, until her speed and tactics began to make her nearly untouchable, even to him. Then came the day, as Roderick was preparing to be put to the test for full knighthood, that Nalissa countered one of his blows a little too vigorously and her blade slashed into his shoulder.

She dropped her dagger in horror, looking from the blood on it to the blood blossoming through the leather bracing of his armor, and began to apologize so profusely that every other word out of her mouth was "sorry."

"It's fine," he assured her, though blood continued to seep through his fingers despite the pressure on his wound.

"It's not fine!" Nalissa objected. "I didn't mean to—I just got carried away, I'm so sorry!"

"You're right, it's better than fine," Roderick said, somehow smiling despite the open wound. "You have excellent instincts, my lady. You now have no need for a knight."

Nalissa felt terrible when he had to be taken to the infirmary, and even worse when she learned the wound incapacitated his sword arm long enough to put him out of the running for full knighthood until the next spring. She didn't visit him again after that and when he returned to the training arena, though she still put the other squires to shame, her blades couldn't seem to even get close to Roderick.

He confronted her afterward, much angrier than she had been when she had accused him of trying to protect her.

"What was that all about?!" Roderick demanded as he pulled her to a corner of the emptying arena.

Nalissa looked more shocked than she ever had; sparring aside, no man had ever dared lay hands on her before. Composure broken, she stammered, "Wh-what are you talking about?"

"Were you trying to embarrass me?" he pressed, for once his temper matching his hair. "Pulling every attack like that, as if I'm not capable of handling them?"

Nalissa actually stood speechless, her mouth moving silently for a moment before she could find her voice. "Of course you are—that isn't what I meant!"

"Then what did you mean? To make me look so piteous I'd never be knighted?"

"I…" Nalissa faltered and a blush spread across her cheekbones. "I just couldn't hurt you again, okay?"

Whatever Roderick had expected, that wasn't it, and it took all the wind from his sails. "You… what?"

Refusing to look at him, Nalissa broke into a rant. "I know it's all my fault! I should have known better, I should have controlled myself more—then you wouldn't have gotten hurt and you would already have your knighthood!"

Roderick frowned and his grip on her arm turned gentle. "Is that what you think? My lady, no. If I am to be a knight, I must be vigilant enough to defend myself before I can be trusted to defend another."

"But I shouldn't have been so reckless," Nalissa insisted.

Roderick shook his head. "Marauders and thieves will not hold back, nor should you."

Nalissa couldn't refute that, but she looked like she was trying to think of a way. Then abruptly she asked, "Why did you start calling me 'my lady'?"

Then it was Roderick's turn to look dumbfounded. "What?"

"You heard me," Nalissa said, her voice suddenly quieter than it had been. "You used to call me Lissa, like Fergus. Why did you stop?"

Roderick shifted his weight to his off foot uncomfortably. "My lady, you're… you're going to be a teyrna one day. I'll never be more than a knight. It isn't really appropriate for me to address you without your title."

"You'll be my knight one day, remember?"

"That just makes it more inappropriate."

"Why?" Nalissa challenged. "You used to."

"I used to be a boy that pretended to slay dragons," Roderick pointed out. "That's hardly appropriate now that I know better, either."

Frowning, Nalissa crossed her arms. "What if I ordered you to?"

He blinked, confused. "To slay dragons?"

"No! To… I don't know, stop being so formal. To talk to me like the boy I pretended to slay dragons with."

Roderick looked down. "I'm not a boy any more."

Nalissa stepped closer, so that even though he was looking down he was looking right into her eyes. "Then talk to me like the man that promised to be my knight."

"I… I never exactly promised," Roderick tried to argue, but found himself unable to take his eyes off hers.

"You're right," Nalissa agreed. "I promised. And I meant it, Roderick. If ever I become teyrna, there is no one I would rather have stand by my side."

"… As… your knight, you mean."

Nalissa smiled very faintly. "As whatever it takes to keep you with me."

The conflict inside Roderick was almost tangible. It could not be condoned for him to be anything more than her knight, perhaps not even her friend. But something within him longed for so much more, and something in her eyes told him that a part of her yearned for that too.

The kiss he placed upon her lips was gentle, uncertain, but it deepened when she returned it. Soon her arms were around his neck and his fingers locked in her dark hair, raking out the looped braid in the back of it and holding her to him with all the intensity of that long-buried passion.

It was a passion that lasted through the night, first under the stars in the field outside the arena and then beneath the canopy of Nalissa's bed. As she kissed the scar she had left on Roderick's shoulder and fell asleep on his chest, he could have sworn he held the entire world in his arms.

Waking up to Fergus knocking on the door, however, was an abrupt return to reality. Nalissa called that she would be out in a minute, and Roderick looked like someone had just slapped him.

"Your brother will kill me if he finds me in here," Roderick whispered.

Nalissa bit her lip. "Don't be silly, you… could have a point there. Um—just put on your armor and stand behind the door."

Roderick was certain Fergus would notice his boots behind the door, but he seemed to be too busy poking fun at his sister for sleeping in. Getting out to the knights' quarters without arousing suspicion wasn't so hard, but Ser Pavell was far from pleased that Roderick had missed his dawn shift guarding the treasury. Somehow it was worth scrubbing the kennels, though.

The next few months were an adventure, full of midnight starwatching, patrols that turned into snowball fights, and a lot of hiding behind doors or in wardrobes and praying to the Maker that no one looked around too carefully. One night as he was going to meet Nalissa, Roderick caught an assassin sneaking into the Couslands' quarters and killed the man in a duel. He was knighted and she helped him celebrate by visiting him in his new private quarters. Then one evening, there was a knock on the door he wasn't expecting and he opened it to find his guest was Fergus Cousland.

"My lord," Roderick said in surprise. "How… unexpected to see you here."

Fergus smiled faintly. "I find it rather unexpected to be here, in fact. But I should offer you my congratulations on your knighthood, Ser Gilmore."

"Thank you," Roderick said with a slight bow of his head, though he wasn't entirely sure if that was a compliment.

Without being asked, Fergus stepped inside the room and looked around appraisingly. His eyes roved over the bed and wardrobe to the armor stand where Roderick's chainmail stood freshly cleaned and he nodded slowly. "You take good care of your equipment. You understand how important it is to protect what's vital."

Roderick tugged on the sleeve of his tunic, suddenly wondering if perhaps he should be wearing that armor now. "What exactly did you need of me?"

"A simple discussion," Fergus said, turning to face him. "Or perhaps not so simple, as the case may be, depending upon how reasonable you prove."

"I still don't understand," Roderick said, though he was beginning to think he might and that made him distinctly wary.

Fergus straightened to his full height, which was less impressive as he was shorter than Roderick but still intimidating as the latter had no weapon. "You've been spending a lot of time with my sister lately, Ser Gilmore."

Roderick nodded, trying not to sweat. "Yes, the teyrn asked her to bring a guard along if she left the castle."

Fergus crossed his arms, the glint in his eyes saying that he knew before his words did. "I do not believe all of your meetings have been strictly within the lines of duty, ser knight. Now, I am not without some understanding. The two of you were children together. Perhaps you feel a connection between yourself and Nalissa, but let me assure you: it does not exist."

Stepping closer to the knight, Fergus spoke intentionally slowly, "My sister is the first daughter of a noble family that has ruled since before Calenhad claimed the throne. You are an unwanted son from a Bannorn of pig farmers. Perhaps you can see the lack of connection there?"

Roderick swallowed hard and said quietly, "Yes, my lord."

Fergus nodded. "I do not know the nature of your acquaintance with my sister and I do not wish to, but servants have begun to whisper and that must be stopped. Mother intends to match Nalissa with a son of a noble house. That can hardly be done if there are rumors of her… involvement with a claimless knight."

Roderick shouldn't have let it show and he knew it, but the idea of someone marrying Nalissa off to a nobleman just because of his pedigree made him furious. She deserved so much more than that. "Have you not spoken to Lady Cousland about this?" he challenged. She would never stand for an arranged marriage.

With a sigh, Fergus shook his head. "My sister is stubborn and too young to understand her responsibilities. She owes it to Highever and to Ferelden to match with a man that will help her hold her station. She has grand ideas of true love and searching for the 'one man' she can bestow that upon, but she doesn't realize that is not how things work. She will learn to love a husband in time, just as I did with Oriana and our parents before us. Mother has already contacted a number of potential suitors. Sons of Arl Wulff, Arl Kendells, and Bann Loren have already responded favorably to her ladyship's behest. Arl Howe's son, of course, has always had an eye for her. One of these men shall win her hand."

Roderick bristled and objected, "Thomas Howe is years her junior and Nathaniel Howe, older than you! And she's told me herself that she detests Vaughan Kendells—she will agree to none of this."

Fergus's eyes narrowed. "Strange how well you seem to know my sister's mind. Then you should also know this: if it is discovered that she refuses suitors of standing out of some misplaced affection for a squire boy of no renown, she will be cast out of the nobility."

Fergus stepped closer still until he was only inches from Roderick's chest. "The look on your face tells me you didn't realize that, but the teyrnir exists only with the fealty of the people. If the freeholders do not believe Nalissa will do what is in their best interests, they will see her claim to the Cousland name revoked. My father would have to choose between his daughter and holding together the teyrnir. Would you force that decision upon his lordship?"

Suddenly Roderick didn't feel taller than Fergus Cousland anymore. In fact, he felt very, very small. "No, my lord," he responded quietly.

"Good," Fergus said, looking relieved. "A good knight should always put the welfare of his Lady and his land above his own. Perhaps you shall be one after all, Ser Gilmore."

Roderick had no response for that, and so Fergus sighed heavily. "You should know I take no pleasure in telling you these things, but they must be said and dealt with. I would see Nalissa safe before all else. She is strong enough that she will make her own happiness from that, but unfortunately her will is also strong. Sometimes decisions must be made for her that are in her best interests to bring her where she must be."

Something changed in Fergus's dark eyes, and his voice hardened. "And I am her brother, ser knight. Choose your course carefully. If you lead my little sister into disgrace and exile, I swear upon the very life of my son that I will see you returned to your father's house broken and in chains. Do I make my meaning clear?"

All the fire had gone out of Roderick's voice as he answered, "Yes, my lord."

"Very good. Then I leave you to enjoy your evening, Ser Gilmore."

Fergus left and closed the door behind him, and Roderick fell back onto his bed to stare at the ceiling with his heart completely numb.

For two days, Roderick avoided Nalissa as much as possible, but he knew that tactic would never last. Finally she barged in while he was on post guarding the treasury and ordered the squire standing guard with him to go keep watch outside.

The boy stammered in confusion. "M-my lady? But Ser Pavell said—"

Nalissa narrowed her eyes. "And did I miss the promotion that prioritizes Ser Pavell's orders above mine?"

This time, the poor kid turned bright red. "No, my lady. As you say."

He hurried out under her disapproving glare, and if anything when she finally turned to look at Roderick, her expression hardened even more. He looked down, missing the flash of pain it caused when he wouldn't meet her eyes.

So Nalissa's voice was much less angry than he was expecting when she asked, "Why have you been hiding from me?"

"I haven't been hiding," Roderick responded, though he couldn't quite make himself meet her eyes. "I've just been busy. I've… had a lot more duties to attend since I was knighted, that's all."

"Busy," Nalissa repeated, crossing her arms over her chest. "Strange. I've been having to put up with the wife and children of every Arl and Bann my mother has invited to her salon, yet I found time to look for you."

Roderick took a deep breath to brace himself, then put a little more force into his words than was necessary to keep his voice from shaking. "Since you've been spending so much time with them, don't you think they suit your company a little better?"

Nalissa sounded half astounded and half relieved as she asked, "Is that what you thought? Roderick, no—"

"Ser Gilmore," he said suddenly, and it stopped Nalissa in her tracks.

Slowly she walked closer to him, but he kept his gaze directed just below hers, unable to meet her eyes. Unfortunately, that meant he could see the way her lips faltered, stumbling over a half dozen different questions before asking, "You… what… did you say?"

Roderick hated the way her voice sounded, how uncertain of herself she suddenly seemed. She was the daughter of a teyrn, for Andraste's sake. She should have been furious he dared tell her how to address him. Why couldn't she have been angry? This would have been so much easier if she had just yelled at him instead.

"Ser Gilmore," he repeated, keeping his voice even. "I'm a knight of Highever, my lady. You shouldn't try to address me otherwise."

The stunned silence that followed spoke for itself, and Nalissa tried to search his eyes for answers but still he refused to look at hers directly. "But you're my knight of Highever," she finally whispered, her arms now crossed less in anger and more in effort to keep them from shaking. "Aren't you?"

How easy it would have been to say yes, but Fergus's warning still rang in Roderick's ears. He couldn't be her anything any longer or he put her at risk, and that was the one thing he was more unwilling to do than say the words.

"I belong to the defense of Highever. You belong in the circle of nobles that rules her. I am nothing to you."

Nalissa's chin trembled, and though he refused to look into her eyes, he couldn't miss the tears that rolled down her cheeks. "You're everything to me."

Roderick couldn't bear to drag this out any longer. The more he spoke, the more she would try to convince him, and if he didn't stop her now, he might lose his resolve and give in. He clenched his fists, looked up into those beautiful sea-green eyes for the last time, and forced himself to speak the worst lie he had ever told: "I misspoke; I apologize. I should have said that beyond the fealty I owe, you are nothing to me."

The look on Nalissa's face was nothing to the shaky gasp that passed her lips. It was the same sound that had been the last breath of the assassin Roderick had killed to protect her, equal parts shock and fear and desperation for something slipping away—only this time it was from the one he had promised to keep safe.

Roderick suddenly found himself wishing Nalissa would just draw her daggers and kill him right there.

But she didn't; she just stared him down with that look like everything she had ever known had just been proved wrong. If that moment had lasted longer, Roderick would have forgotten himself and begun to apologize, but in one sudden motion she had whipped around and was out of the door, slamming it behind her so hard the walls shook.

And as Roderick Gilmore was left staring at the empty space where the lady of Highever had just been, he suddenly reached out to brace himself against the table to keep his feet as the only thought he could manage mocked him: What have I done?

Fergus never mentioned their conversation again, but the next time Roderick saw him, the teyrn's son gave him a single grim nod. Thank you for breaking my sister's heart. It's all for her own good. She'll see that soon.

Nalissa put on her best happy and polite act for the teyrna's salon, which was pretty convincing if you didn't pay too much attention to how much she was drinking. But though more than one of the noblewomen invited tried to match her with their sons, she didn't agree. And though she spent quite some time talking to the heir of the West Hills arling, a tall and powerfully-built young man with striking ice-blue eyes, there followed no news of any betrothal. Only once did he ever hear a whisper that it was because she had already had her heart broken—according to the story, by Evander Wulff of West Hills. Roderick couldn't quite explain how that made him feel better and worse at the same time.

For weeks after, Nalissa seemed to pretend Roderick didn't exist, alternating her time between what seemed an attempt to read every book in the library and training alone in the yard of the morning. The one time he accidentally walked out and found her there, she met his eyes, beheaded the dummy she had been practicing on in one stroke, and walked away in the other direction.

Then one day Nalissa simply turned up again to spar with the knights as if no time had passed at all. Roderick expected that she would pretend he was invisible, but no; she took her turn practicing against him along with every other knight and squire in the yard. When their fight was about to begin, he imagined for a moment that she might finally have decided to kill him. But though she did not pull any attacks, she fought with no anger either. In fact, the way she politely thanked him for the duel and complimented his form as if she had never seen it before almost seemed as if she had decided to pretend she didn't know him at all.

And that was how it was from that time on. If Nalissa ever thought of Roderick and their past, she never showed it, and he allowed himself to think only of how much better off she would be now that she wasn't consorting with someone below her station. Sometimes he almost convinced himself that everything had been a dream.

Then the Grey Warden appeared, and word spread like wildfire that he was searching for a recruit. The opinion of the servants was almost unanimous: if anyone would be chosen for the order, it would be the daughter of the teyrn. No longer did they expect her to become teyrna over her brother, but instead to sacrifice her title for the good of Ferelden.

It would be exactly like the stories they had acted out as children, Roderick realized with an almost sick feeling in his stomach. A chance to rush headlong into battle and accomplish great deeds disguised as an even higher service to the country than guiding Highever. Only if Nalissa was chosen, he would not be there to defend her.

As the elves in the kitchens were telling him the news, a familiar Mabari chose to sneak into the larder and begin barking like mad. Nan, now the cook since Nalissa had outgrown a nanny, began swearing that she would leave if it wasn't dealt with and sent Roderick to find Dante's owner to get him.

It always felt wrong to talk to Nalissa and pretend he didn't remember holding her through the night, but this time he knew he had to. So when he found her on her way to give news to her brother, for once he approached her first. It wouldn't seem odd for him to want to become a Grey Warden, and so that's what he told her, asking about the Warden and if he had said who he wanted to take away with him.

"Father suggested you," she told him, not even flinching at the idea of him being sent away forever.

Roderick feigned excitement, the thing he had wanted as a boy now leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. But he couldn't help asking if she had wanted to go as well.

"It doesn't matter," Nalissa admitted, surprising him with a slightly forlorn tone. "My father would never allow it."

And so it was a little more happily that Roderick followed her to the kitchens and wound up slaughtering some giant rats in the larder. It was strange for them to be there, but it didn't matter. Nalissa would stay safely in Highever where the worst thing she would have to worry about would be invasions of giant rats, and he would go become a Grey Warden to make sure the blighted Darkspawn never made it to her doorstep.

But that night was when it all fell apart. Roderick had been on patrol when he saw them—soldiers, two dozen at least, sneaking from one of the side doors of the great hall deeper into the castle. He first recognized the Howe shields on their backs, then the body of one of the sentries lying crumpled on the ground behind them.

Yelling to the guards by the treasury and chapel to join him, Roderick approached the soldiers only to be greeted by the unsheathing of swords. He cut down four of them before rushing to the gates and barring them against any further intruders. He had no idea what was happening, but he and his men were the only line of defense here to keep the soldiers from pushing farther in.

Maker, he hoped none of them already had. Nalissa would already be asleep—no, the Couslands, he reminded himself. He could not allow himself to think of her any more than the teyrn and teyrna.

Then the teyrn himself staggered into the hall, holding his abdomen and bleeding profusely, and Roderick was so stunned he barely parried a blow aimed at his chest in time. He managed to turn the parry into a thrust and stabbed the soldier through the middle before rushing to the teyrn's defense. But before he could get out a question of his own, Teyrn Cousland grunted, "Ser Gilmore… my wife and daughter… did they get out?"

Roderick thought his stomach might have dropped all the way into his boots. "No one has passed out this way, your lordship. We're barely holding the gates."

Teyrn Cousland nodded. "The servants' entrance… that's where they'll go."

He turned to leave, and Roderick objected, "Teyrn, you can't go alone! If some of the others slipped past—"

"I will make it that far," Teyrn Cousland promised, and Roderick couldn't help looking at the man's wound again. It was grave enough that he wasn't sure that was true.

"I will make sure they make it out," the teyrn continued. "Ser Gilmore… thank you for your service."

And the teyrn limped away as Roderick found himself engaged by two more Howe soldiers, trying not to think how Teyrn Cousland had just said 'they' would make it out, not 'we.'

The odds were so against the small group of guards that it was beginning to look like they would be overwhelmed when a Mabari's snarl announced another arrival. Roderick thought he had never been more relieved than when he saw Nalissa burst in like a whirlwind, Dante on her heels and the teyrna trailing behind them with a bow. The reinforcements were exactly what they needed to rally, and when the last of Howe's men lay dead on the floor, the other guards ran to hold the gates while Roderick told the newcomers what was happening. He had been worried some of the soldiers had gotten through, and it turned out he was right; the teyrna's eyes were filled with tears as she spoke of the death of her only grandson.

But something burned in Nalissa's eyes that Roderick hadn't seen in a long time as she grasped his sword arm and said urgently, "Come with us."

He had never heard an order he wanted more to obey, but a particularly loud bang on the gates behind him made him shake his head sadly. If he didn't remain here to help, the gates would fall before they could escape and he told them so.

"Then we must get to Bryce," the teyrna said quickly, though the lingering look Nalissa left on Roderick burned into his memory. "Maker be with you, Ser Gilmore."

He couldn't remember a time in his life he had meant it more than as he said, "Maker be with us all."

Roderick allowed himself one last look at Nalissa Cousland before he turned on his heel and ran to brace the gates with his men. She took one step as if to follow him, as if to insist he accompany her as she fought for her life, but her mother had already started for the door. She looked over her shoulder as she ran for the kitchens but he was putting all his weight into holding the gate and didn't see it.

And that moment, the moment she knew Roderick Gilmore was staying to hold out the enemy as long as he could to buy her time to escape, was all Nalissa could remember as she raced across the stone floor of Fort Drakon toward a familiar head of bright red hair.

"Maker, no," she sobbed as she fell to her knees and stared into a pair of unseeing green eyes. There was blood all over his face, all over his body, and more wounds than could be counted. Nalissa wanted to tell herself it wasn't him, that it couldn't be, but beneath him on the rack lay another body she recognized: Mother Mallol, the chantry priestess of Castle Cousland. And the worst part of it was that their corpses were barely cold.

All this time—all these months since Highever had fallen to Arl Howe, Roderick and Mallol had still been alive. Nalissa could have saved them, found a way into the fort, something, but instead they had been tortured and murdered alone.

It made her physically sick, but there was nothing in her stomach to vomit up. What information could Howe possibly have wanted to keep them here this long? Had he kept them alive just to gloat when he finally brought Nalissa in unconscious, so that was the last thing they saw before they died?

Nalissa's hands were clenched into fists and pressed against the stone, but still they shook with a pain and fury she couldn't control. This was the last straw. The next time she saw Rendon Howe, she wouldn't be able to restrain herself. He would die, she vowed silently, and that death would be as painful as she could give him.