Redcliffe was just about as boring as she'd thought it would be, but no one ever listened to her. Mother and Father insisted there was plenty to do, but there wasn't. There wasn't anyone to play with, not even Fergus, because he was accompanying Father to talk with Eamon – Arl Eamon – about important Ferelden things. Because Elissa was a girl, she had to go with Mother and Arlessa Isolde and do lady things.
Except Arlessa Isolde was boring, and Mother was boring, and so Elissa slipped out with Lachlain to explore. She was six, more than capable of taking care of herself. Especially with Father's mabari with her. No one could complain.
Mother would complain anyway.
Especially if she got muddy.
She decided to get especially muddy.
Tromping down the hall, she made her way to the entrance, her fingers resting lightly on Lachlain's shoulder. She was in a stupid dress that made it hard to walk, so the first thing she did when she got into the courtyard was find a sharp rock and rip it up the side. The stupid underskirt wasn't much better, and neither was the chemise, so she pulled them both off. The overdress was comfortable enough, and it was really, really hot.
Wearing so many clothes in hot weather was really, really dumb.
"Adults are dumb," she told Lachlain.
Lachlain snuffled and pressed his nose into her hand. Clearly he agreed.
Peering around the edge of the stairs, she crept across the courtyard and then took off at a mad run for the path to the stables at her first chance. There'd be stable boys there – unless Eamon was really boring, and he might be if all he wanted to talk to Father about were maps and dead people and stupid Prince Cailan – and stable boys meant playmates.
The kind that would make Mother's lips get all thin and her face all splotchy.
She ducked into the stable, narrowly avoiding a groomsman taking one of the horses out for—well, for something. She didn't know what.
Lachlain plunked himself down at the entrance to the stable – he didn't like horses at all, but they didn't like him much either – and Elissa continued in, peering into the stalls for a possible friend.
No one, no one, and no one.
She was almost upset. Then she saw the ladder to the hayloft. Delighted, she scrambled up the ladder and into the hay. After a moment's thought, she decided to pretend she was Queen Rowan, laying a trap for the Orlesians.
Her fort was more than a little sloppy, and bits of it kept caving in, but she made do. She whispered quietly to herself, pretending she was with Ser Loghain and that they were waiting together. Playing alone was boring, but she kept herself entertained until she heard footfalls.
Eyes widening, she ducked down in her hay fort, peering through the gaps in the walls to see who came. It was a stupid boy, a pitchfork in hand.
A stupid stable boy.
Giddy with delight, she burst from the hay. "Maric!" she exclaimed, startling the boy so much that he turned the pitchfork on her.
She'd already done some training with the castle guard, and she was very proud when she swung to the side, caught the barrel of the pitchfork, and disarmed him. The pitchfork clattered down the ladder and hit the ground.
He stared at her.
She grinned back. "I'm Rowan," she told him. "You're Maric."
His eyes got bigger. "No," he said. "I'm Alistair."
She rolled her eyes. Stupid boys never understood. "And I'm Elissa. But right now I'm Rowan and you're Maric, okay?"
He hesitated. "Um. You're Lady Cousland…" He glanced toward the barn floor. "I don't think I should—"
Huffing, she grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him into her pile of hay. Pressing a finger to his lips, she whispered, "You can't be loud. If you're loud, the Orlesians will find us."
She pressed her whole hand over his mouth and scowled at him. "Fine, then I'm ordering you to play with me, okay? Now you won't get in trouble, right?"
He frowned, but he nodded, and that was good enough. "Who are the Orlesians?" he asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
Chewing on her thumb, she considered. There wasn't actually anyone in the barn. "Maybe it's a trick," she said, her eyes growing large. "Maybe we need to go find them."
"But if we leave, we'll be visible."
"So we need weapons."
"You knocked my pitchfo—my sword away." She scowled at him. He swallowed hard. "Well, you did."
"Then we'll have to get it back." This should have been obvious to him. Why it wasn't, she did not know.
Dropping to her elbows, she crawled slowly from under the hay, keeping close to the rough wooden floor. The stable boy followed her, except that he was much too noisy. She stopped to shush him, glaring fiercely. He looked like he might wet himself. That was okay, she thought, because she was stronger than a stupid stable boy anyway.
Peering over the edge of the hayloft, she spied a groomsman doing something with one of the horses, and she frowned. "We can't sneak down with that Orlesian there," she told him.
"But that's just Peadar," the boy protested, whispering at the very least. She appreciate that he was trying now. "He won't do—"
Jumping to her feet, Elissa grabbed a rope hanging from one of the barn's crossbeams. "Lachlain! Guard!" she shouted.
The mabari leapt into the barn barking like mad as she slid down the rope, burning her hands. But she didn't mind – it was part of the adventure. She scooped up a brush and jabbed it at the groomsman as he cried out in alarm. "On guard, you, you—" She hesitated just long enough for the stable boy to come to her aide.
"Pox-ridden wench!" he called.
"Pox-ridden wench!" she bellowed, prodding the groomsman with the handle of the brush. Stumbling over Lachlain, the mabari snapping playfully at his heels, he fled the barn. "Victory!" Leaping into the air, she clapped, delighted.
The stable boy came down the ladder, frowning, and approached her slowly. "We're going to get in trouble for that."
"No, we won't. Come on! We have to save Loghain! He was captured!"
"Wait." He grabbed her wrist, tugging her close to him. She frowned, unused to people touching her so freely, or standing so close. Except Fergus. Fergus was always allowed to stand close, even when he put frogs in her bed. Stupid Fergus and his stupid frogs.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
He studied the red burns on her hands. "You got hurt."
"So?" Snatching her hands away, she curled them against her body, protecting them.
"So you should get something to make them heal better."
She scoffed. "Don't need that. Now come on." She grabbed his wrist then, ignoring the burn and the tight pull of her skin over her palms, and dragged him out of the barn, Lachlain loping along easily at their sides.
Mother was horrified.
And so was Arlessa Isolde, who looked like she might die when she saw Elissa scramble into the dining hall. Even Arl Eamon looked unhappy. Father just laughed, though, and Fergus was so jealous Elissa thought he might die.
She kind of wished he would. But only sometimes. Like when he took all the potatoes.
"You took all the potatoes!" she wailed, clambering into her seat at the table.
Fergus rolled his eyes. "You weren't here."
She looked at Mother, with her tight expression and lips pressed into a thin line. She had that mean Mother look in her eye, like she was about to start scolding. But Elissa knew Mother wouldn't scold her in front of people. That was rude, and Mother wasn't rude.
"Young ladies do not come to the dinner table covered in mud and missing half their clothes."
Arlessa Isolde pressed a napkin to her lips and closed her eyes, turning away.
"But I'm hungry, Mother." She held up her hands, red welts and all. "And see, my hands aren't that dirty!" The stable boy made her soak them in cold water at one point because she said they were burning. The water washed away most of the mud, so only her nail beds were really dirty. Mother didn't approve of eating food with dirty hands. She said it made people sick.
"What happened to your hands, Elissa?"
Reaching across the table for her goblet, she shrugged. She tried to be like Father, all careless about her injuries like they didn't really matter – because they didn't, it was just some welts on her hands after all. "Nothing, Mother."
Fergus snickered, like he knew something she didn't, and she shot him her worst scowl, her lips pursed and eyes narrowed. He stuck his tongue out at her.
"Children!" Mother sounded annoyed. That was never good. Both turned to her, and Elissa widened her eyes until the air stung them and made them watery. Watery eyes always worked on Father.
Mother was, as always, completely unaffected. It wasn't fair.
"Elissa, you will take yourself to your rooms and bathe. And then, if you are very lucky, I will see dinner brought to you. You disgrace yourself, coming to Arl Eamon's table like that."
Heaving a huge sigh, Elissa slid bonelessly from her chair and stomped across the ground, deliberately leaving flakes of mud behind her. She heard Father ask Mother if that was truly necessary, but then the door closed and she trudged down the hall.
"Nothing wrong with mud," she muttered, kicking at the carpets running along the floor.
A maid intercepted her outside her room and dragged her to the baths. Elissa squawked and fought the maid when she started tugging at her clothes – she hated the maids helping her undress. She was five and could take off her own clothes. The woman had rough hands, too, and pulled her hair when she washed it. In retaliation, Elissa kicked and flailed and got the woman as wet as she was. She was so very satisfied to see the maid dripping when she was finally pulled from the bath.
The maid returned her to her room, dressed for bed and dry. And hungry.
She flopped in front of one of the windows. It was stupid big, all wide and made of glass, and indefensible. But she supposed if Eamon wanted to invite attack by displaying his wealth, he could do that. Father, though, would never be dumb enough to put in such a huge window.
Something knocked against it.
Jumping back, Elissa stared at the window as something knocked against it again. And then she realized it was a rock. Someone was throwing rocks at her window.
Her fingers scrabbled at the latches and she finally got the window open – that was even more stupid, really, what was Eamon thinking? Even she knew better – and poked her head out. The stable boy from earlier stood at the base of the wall, and he waved.
"What?" she called down to him, frowning.
"I had fun today."
She tilted her head to one side and then grinned. "Me, too. Want to play more tomorrow?"
"Alright!" Excitement bubbled up in her stomach, making her feel light and floaty. "I'll find you!"
But when she went looking for him in the stables, he wasn't there. She hunted through the fields behind the estate, but couldn't find him there, either. She found the groomsman from the previous day, though, the one she'd attacked with a horse brush, and he watched her approach warily, his gaze dancing from her to Lachlain and back.
"Where's Ma—that stable boy." She couldn't remember his name. "Um. Alex?"
The groomsman hesitated. "Alistair?"
"Yes, him!" At her side, Lachalin woofed, as if agreeing. "Where is he?"
Elissa crossed her arms. "I'm Teyrn Cousland's daughter, you have to tell me. Or I'll tell Father."
"He's—not working today."
There was something wrong. She didn't know what, but she knew it was something. He had that face adults got when they were lying and thought they could get away with it. She watched him for a minute. "That's not where."
"He's probably in the servants' quarters."
"Oh. Where are those?"
He gave her directions, haltingly, and then she took off at a run. Mother had let her wear better clothes, fitted breeches and a nice tunic instead of a stupid dress, and so running was much easier. She hated dresses. They were bad for running.
Pushing open a side door, Elissa peered down the dimly lit corridor. A few washer women walked toward her, baskets in their hands. She slipped inside, Lachlain on her heels, and went up to them, a sweet smile on her face. "Hello."
The two smiled back at her. "My lady," they said, bobbed in half-curtseys. People curtseying to her made her a little uncomfortable. "What can we do for you?" the older one asked. "Are you lost?"
"No. I'm looking for Alistair." Her Maric.
The women exchanged adult-type glances, like they knew something they didn't want to share, and she scowled. "My lady, surely—"
She suspected they were going to try to make her leave, so she crossed her arms, turned up her nose, and put on her best teyrna face. "No, I want to know where he is." Lachlain leaned heavily against her side, rumbling against her leg. His head butted against her hip.
"Last room, at the end of the hall, by the stairs, miss," the younger one said. "It's his lordship's manservant's room."
Elissa brushed by them, rushing down the hall, Lachlain trotting beside her. It took her a minute to get the door open – the handle was strange to her – and then she was inside a cramped room. The bed took up most of the space, but it was still larger than most servants' rooms. And there was a body on the bed.
The lump rolled over.
She froze, eyes going wide. "Why's your face so white?"
He glared at her and rolled back over. "No reason," he muttered, his words all muffled by the pillows and blankets.
Clambering onto the bed, she climbed over him, squishing between his body and the wall, like she'd do with Fergus when Fergus got a strapping. "No."
"Yes." He rolled over again, and she saw red welts peeking from under his loose tunic.
Tentatively, she touched his shoulder. With a hiss, he jerked away, but he didn't get up and actually move. Just shifted over a few inches.
"What'd you do?" she asked, confused.
He turned his head over his shoulder and glared. "Played with you. My lady."
She shot upright, stunned. "But—" Her face set in a hard glare. "Don't go anywhere."
"I don't want to," he muttered, but she plowed right over him with, "I'll be right back." Vaulting over his body, she scrambled across the floor to the door and tore up the flight of stairs and along a servant's corridor. She nearly knocked over two maids in her haste – Lachlain tripped one when she turned to chastise Elissa for running – and burst into a main hallway.
"Yes, my lady?"
"Where is my father?" She crossed her arms.
"With Arl Eamon, my lady. In the arl's office."
She stormed down the hall with Lachlain and banged on the door with both fists, pounding until Eamon opened it, a look of shock on his face. Father looked bemused, but he was used to her doing things like this.
"Daddy!" she exclaimed, rushing under Eamon's arm and flinging herself into her father's lap. Locking her arms around his waist, she tilted her head back and pouted at him. She knew just how to work her father to get what she wanted from him. "Daddy, it's awful!"
"What is, pup?" Eamon coughed and Father held up a hand. "A moment, Eamon, please. Pup?"
"Someone beat my friend!"
"The stable boy?"
She jerked her head around to glare at Eamon. He knew. Of course he knew. The lords always knew everything that went on in their houses, even Father.
She turned back to her father, making the pleading look that always worked on him when she wanted something.
"The boy shirked his duties to play with you."
"And there are consequences."
She gaped. He wasn't taking her side? Why wasn't he taking her side? What had happened to the world – Arl Eamon must be a bad influence – that Father wouldn't take her side? "But, I made him—"
"He should have said no." Father placed his hands on her arms and pulled them from around his waist. "And you have to deal with the consequences of your actions." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. Pressing it into her hands, he kissed the top of her head. "Off with you, pup."
She stared. "But—"
"Off with you."
That tone brooked no argument, so she slumped out of the room, glowering at the floor as she went. Stupid Father.
By the time she pushed into the room where Alistair was, though, she'd decided to make do. She climbed onto the bed, surprising him.
"You came back?"
"Of course." She shifted, kicking at the sheets until they fell off the end, and she sprawled on her belly across from him. "Do you know card games?"
He shook his head.
"I'll teach you cradle."
He frowned. "Don't you need a board for that?"
"Yes. But we'll play the card variation." She shuffled by spreading the cards on the bed and then smooshing them together. "Now. Pay attention," she said, and she began to explain the rules.
The first four games he lost miserably, claiming she had to be cheating. She wasn't. That would be mean. A serving girl poked her head into the room at noon bell and asked if she would like lunch. To spite Isolde and Eamon, Elissa asked for more food than she could possibly eat and shared all of it with the stable boy. They went back to their card games, on the floor after eating, him sprawled on a pillow and her wrapped around several blankets they'd stripped off the bed. He won two hands, but only because she let him.
It took him several days to recover, and Elissa kept him company most days, though sometimes Mother insisted she do "lady" things. Lady things were boring, but she did them because Mother asked. And because she got to wear some of Mother's jewelry. Wearing Mother's jewelry always made her feel pretty.
The day before they were to leave, she found him in the stables again.
"What're you doing?" she asked, hopping onto the stall beside him.
"Cleaning horse shit," he said, driving his pitchfork into a stinking pile of it.
She wrinkled her nose at the stench, watching him move it. And then she saw a second pitchfork, stuck in the hay nearby. Examining her hands – they still hurt a little, but the blisters were mostly gone – she hopped off the stall and marched over to the pitchfork. She picked it up, surprised by its weight.
Glancing at the stable boy, she smiled a bit. "Let me help."
He balked. "You're—"
"If we're going to play together, you have to get your things done first," she told him, driving the pitchfork into the muck. "Like this?"
"You're… going to help me?"
Working together, they cleared out the stalls quickly enough. Her hands ached by the end, and he took her to the same small stream as the first day to soak them. After that, they brushed down two of the horses – the old ones with bent backs and knobby knees – and poured slop for the pigs. Well. He poured the slop. She watched.
When he was finally done – and smiling brightly – she grabbed his hand and took him to a hill behind the estate where she'd set up two barrels. They were stuffed with sheets from her bed, not that it would make the game any easier on them, but. It was the thought, wasn't it?
"Barrels," she declared, pushing one onto its side. "See, you climb in and then roll down the hill."
His eyes widened, but he brought his to its side, too, and climbed in, feet first, holding the barrel in place with his hands on the ground. "Like this?"
"Yes!" She scooted into her own barrel, grinning at him. "Ready?"
"On three. One… two…" Her grin became wicked. "Three!"
They pushed off at the same time, ducking into the barrels as they bounced and rolled. Elissa shrieked with delight, heard the stable boy shout in alarm and then excitement. She didn't stop rolling until her barrel crashed into a tree and splintered, but that was half the fun, and she crawled out, dizzy but unharmed, and then chased after his barrel until it finally rolled to a stop.
He was laughing breathlessly when she leaned over him, grinning. "You okay, barrel boy?"
"That was fun!"
"Yes! Want to go again?"
"We'll need to get new barrels."
"We can find them." She offered him her hand. He took it, and they raced up the hill.
Returning to Redcliffe was… interesting. He had no great love for the village. It never felt like home, just a place to live, and he had few happy memories of the place. But they needed Eamon's support. Badly. And it was as good a place as any to start.
He stopped behind Elissa when she paused, a thoughtful look on her face as she stared at some broken barrels. What's so fascinating about barrels?
"Huh," she said.
"What?" he asked, stepping to her side. There was nothing of use in the barrels. So he couldn't understand why she was so interested in them.
"Oh, nothing." A fond smile turned the corners of her lips upward. Beautiful to begin with, she was radiant when she smiled, her light blue eyes brightening with her happiness. "Just remembering. Once, I spent an afternoon rolling down hills in barrels here."
Alistair went still, hit with a rush of memory. "That—that was you," he breathed, shocked. She looked so different than how he remembered. Truthfully, his strongest memory was the sensation of falling while rolling and a round-faced girl covered from head to toe in mud.
"The girl with the barrel!"
"Wha—" Her eyes widened and her hands covered her mouth. And then she was laughing hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. "You—barrel boy?"
He winced, a bit horrified that she called him that in front of Morrigan. Morrigan, though, seemed more interested in keeping Rabbit out of her pockets, scolding the dog while Sten looked on, blank-faced. Leliana, though. Leliana was watching him and Elissa, and he jerked his gaze away before she noticed. "Well, not so much anymore."
Elissa's laughter subsided, and she wiped at her eyes, shaking her head. "No, no I suppose not."
He'd never been so relieved in his life. They'd been traveling together for little more than a week, and the thought she might now see him as a boy, just when he'd started—well. It was hard not to notice her. She was pretty, but more than that, in spite of everything, brimming with life. She was a force of nature, as unstoppable and unyielding as a winter storm.
She licked her lips and gave him a wicked grin. "Chantry boy." And then she was off, clucking at Rabbit to save Morrigan, leaving Alistair shocked and more than a little disappointed.
He nearly jumped out of his skin, taking several quick steps away from Leliana as she slipped up to his side. "Er, no?"
"If you do not want her to call you boy, you should show her you are a man."
He almost laughed her off. "It doesn't get much manlier than cutting darkspawn down. Does it?"
She shrugged. "Maybe she is not so impressed by a warrior's skill because she is one. Maybe she would like other things."
He frowned, brushing his thumb over his chin as he watched her distract Rabbit with a stick. She rocked back and forth on light feet before hurling the stick clear across the village square. Rabbit took off after it with a happy bark, and Morrigan exclaimed "Finally!" before rounding on Elissa and demanding she control her beast.
"But—like what?" He hadn't the slightest idea how to woo a woman.
Leliana laughed. "Every woman is different, Alistair. You'll figure it out."
He wasn't entirely sure he believed that.