Run fast for your mother run fast for your father
Run for your children for your sisters and brothers
Leave all your love and your longing behind, you
Can't carry it with you if you want to survive
–Dog Days Are Over, Florence + the Machine
Elissa looked at her bloody hands, holding them up to her face in wide-eyed horror. She spread her fingers and the gore stretched between them like strings. Gross.
The body of a soldier lay at her feet. Blood dripped from the caverns that were once his eyes to pool on the stone floor of her bedroom.
She wiped her hands on her skirt. Her stomach heaved. I did that.
A man screamed and a dog snarled before the scream abruptly stopped, replaced with a wet, ripping noise.
She fell to her knees and retched—heaving until there was nothing left but bile. Finally, the spasms stopped and she sat back on her heels and stared at the bloody comma marks now adorning the skirt of her once beautiful velvet gown. I should change.
The sounds of another fight drifted to her, punctuated with a high pitched yelp that could only mean that her mabari, Prince, was hurt.
The noise was like a slap to the face. What was she doing in here staring at her hands when Prince was out there killing himself to protect her? She dragged a sleeve across her face and stood, before running to the door.
Just as she got to it she froze. Stop. Think. Going out there without a weapon would be foolish—even if she didn't know how to use it, having it was better than not.
She knelt and yanked the shield off the arm of the dead soldier, affixing it to her right arm before kneeling to pick his weapon off the floor. Her fingers were still slick with blood and so she dropped it; the sword clattered to the floor with a loud clang. She picked it up again and held it more firmly, surprised at how light it felt in her hand, and then tiptoed over another man's corpse. His throat was ravaged into an ugly gash.
Good job, Prince.
She heard Prince yelp again and rushed out of the room in time to see her loyal hound charge two men at the other end of the Cousland family wing. They stood outside the closed door of her parents' bedroom. The momentum of Prince's charge bowled one of the men over, and they fell to the ground together. Prince snapped his powerful jaws trying to get at the man's neck, but the soldier got an armored arm between himself and the dog. They rolled on the floor while the other man stood near by them, sword poised to swing at the next opening.
At the sight of her mabari in mortal peril, Elissa's heart beat wildly in her chest. She sprinted forward to defend her mabari with no conscious thought of what she would do when she got there.
The other man was absorbed enough in the fight that he didn't hear her until she was almost upon him. He was too surprised to block the jabbing thrust she made at his throat with her sword.
It was only at this moment that she realized she had the weapon in her left hand, and the shield in her right—her dominant one. Instead of piercing the center of the man's throat the sword slid across it to the left. Still, the blade was sharp and the aim was true enough to slice the throat open. He stumbled backward, lifting his hands to his throat and choking on bubbling blood.
Elissa watched him die, frozen in place. That's the second man I've killed in as many minutes. She felt numb.
Another yelp from Prince made her heart lurch. She turned in time to see the man fighting Prince stand. The dog lay still at his feet.
Her blood boiled with a sickening heat; it white-hot and all consuming. "No!"
The man looked up at her with an angry sneer and leapt, swinging his sword.
Just in time, she lifted her shield and blocked the blow, stumbling under the force of it. She tried to take a step backward, but she tripped on her long gown and fell, landing painfully on the stone floor and dropping her sword. It clattered away out of reach.
The soldier was on her in a flash, and it was only her downward momentum and dumb luck that allowed her to bring up her shield in time to block the blow. The brute force of it reverberated painfully up her arm and shoulder and she cried out. She tried to raise the shield again but her arm wouldn't move without searing pain.
The man loomed over her. She must have seemed like easy prey—sprawled on the floor in her velvet gown, covered in blood. It only took him an instant to realize the mismatch and he smirked. He took his time lifting his sword for another blow.
Instinct took over. She grabbed her shield arm with her other hand and yanked it up and across. Moving it made her scream, and then the blow she blocked was mind-shatteringly painful. Elissa saw only white light for a few seconds, before coming back to life with the sound of blood rushing in her ears.
She was lying flat on the floor, completely unable to move. The man raised his sword for a final strike.
This was the end. The lack of choice offered a weird sort of peace and she accepted it. She closed her eyes—literally the only thing she could do to prepare for the final blow.
But it didn't come.
She opened her eyes. An arrow sprouted from the man's neck and he fell over, landing on top of her. The relief she felt overwhelmed the pain. Thank the Maker.
"Elissa! I heard fighting outside and I feared the worst!"
She looked up with a weak smile, heartened by the sight of her battle maiden of a mother, still resplendent in her leather armor after all these years. Her mother hauled the lifeless body off of Elissa, eyes widening when she saw the blood on her hands and dress. "Darling! Are you hurt?"
"No. Wait, yes. But this isn't my blood. It's my arm."
Her mother helped her get to a sitting position and then knelt by her. Gently, she lifted Elissa's right arm, careful not to jostle the shield.
She hissed in pain anyway. "It's my forearm."
"Probably a fracture," Eleanor said under her breath as she removed the shield. She gasped. "This is the seal of Amaranthine. These are Howe's men! Why would they attack us?"
"He attacks while our troops are gone."
"You don't think Howe's men were delayed . . . on purpose?"
"No. Obviously, I don't think they were delayed at all. They were just camped nearby, waiting for the right moment to strike." She shook her head in mute anger for a moment before saying through clenched teeth, "I can't believe I didn't see this coming."
"Darling, not even you could predict this."
Her mother's words offered no comfort. She could have predicted this, perhaps, if she hadn't been so damned distracted . . .
Eleanor gasped again. "Have you seen your father? He never came to bed!"
"Where did you see him last?"
Eleanor raised her hand to her mouth. "He stayed up late, drinking with the Arl. Oh, Maker."
The white-hot, all-consuming rage from earlier threatened to return, but Elissa forced it back down. "Alright," she said with a scowl. "We need to find Father."
"Andraste's mercy! What if the soldiers went into your brother's room first?"
Elissa's blood chilled. She had heard a woman's scream, she remembered now. With a clarity she despised, she knew without a doubt that her sister-in-law was dead. She couldn't keep this knowledge from her face. "I heard a woman scream . . ."
Eleanor's face crumpled. "No."
Elissa blinked away tears. "Maybe Oren hid," she said, voice threatening to crack. "It's possible."
From the look on her face, she could tell that her mother saw the offering for what it was: slim, futile hope that would get them through the next moments, at least. Her mother's lip trembled and tears fell down her cheeks, but she didn't break. "Let's go check, quickly. Then we'll look for Bryce downstairs."
With that, her mother stood and rushed to the door, which she flung open. In that brief moment Elissa's heart flew to her throat—the hope that Oren was alive was too buoying for her to just ignore, dangerous as it might be.
Her mother choked out a sob. "No! My little Oren! What manner of fiend slaughters innocents?!"
And just like that the hope was gone, leaving her feeling emptier than the moment before it. Alright, no more hope, she thought as she forced herself to rise from the floor and follow her mother into the room.
Oriana. Elissa couldn't see the fatal wound, crumpled as her sister-in-law's body was on the bedroom rug, but she was deathly still, and surrounded in a wide pool of blood.
Elissa knelt down, not caring that the blood soaked her skirts. She reached out to touch the woman's neck with her fingertips, but felt no sign of life. She heard another choked sob and looked up to see her mother cradling Oren in her arms, rocking back and forth.
Howe did this. "I will make Howe pay for this."
"He is not even taking hostages! He means to kill all of us!" Eleanor shook her head and gently laid the boy back down on the bedroom rug. "Oh, poor Fergus . . .let's go. I don't want to see this!"
Elissa closed her eyes and willed the rage back down. It was useful for spurring her into action, but now she needed to think . . .
Just then she heard a soft whine from the hall. Hope sprung up in her chest unbidden and unwanted, but nevertheless she sprang to her feet and dashed out the door. "Prince!"
The mabari still lay in the same position by the bedroom door, but his eyes were open and in the span of a heartbeat Elissa saw them move, and knew that he was alive.
"Oh Prince!" she cried, collapsing in front of her dog. In spite of her earlier promise, she found herself surging with sudden hope. If Prince lived, he could fight for her. They might have a chance.
"He's alive!" Eleanor was at her side.
Elissa took a deep breath and blinked away the water in her eyes. She needed to focus. "Yes," she said, catching her breath. "But we need to heal him."
"Wait here." Eleanor rushed back into the master bedroom.
Elissa let out a breath and looked to Prince's wounds. He had a nasty looking slash across his chest and his breathing was shallow. He whined softly at her, and he shook under her hands as she pet him. She tried not to show the worry that was threatening to overcome her hope—she didn't want Prince to see that.
Her mother appeared at her side, the faint red glow of a healing potion in her hand. "I only have one potion . . ."
"Give it to Prince."
"But, your arm is broken."
"Fractured, you said."
"I'm no healer, but you're my daughter, and as much as we might love him, Prince is just a dog—"
"He is not just a dog!"
Her mother's mouth set in a thin, grim line. "Elissa. This is no time for sentimentality—"
"It's not that. It's really not."
Eleanor started to respond and then stopped, searching her daughter's face. "What is it?"
It hurt a little to admit it. "Even with my arm healed, he's twice the fighter I am. You know that." Tears she'd only just quelled began prickling at the edges of her eyes. "Congratulations. You were right. I should have focused more on arms and combat. I'm sorry. I've let everyone down." She bent her head.
"Elissa, look at me." Eleanor took her gently by the chin and turned her face toward hers. "Good. Now listen. No amount of training can prepare you for this. None, you hear me?"
She blinked slowly, and then nodded.
"What matters is how you react, and you are doing fine. You may not know how to fight but you are quick and you are clever and you have gotten this far."
Elissa took a deep breath, hearing the truth in her mother's words. They were alive—all three of them, and that was a fact she could cling to. "That's right," she said, trying to sound brave. "I'll just think up a way out of this."
Eleanor smiled. "That's my clever pup. You have a plan, don't you? You always have a plan!"
Elissa did her best not to sigh. "The first step," she said patiently and slowly. ". . . involves you giving the healing potion to the damn dog."
"Right. Alright, fine." Eleanor shook her head and knelt beside Prince. She began to spread the potion over the nasty-looking wound.
Now that Elissa had convinced her mother to save Prince the only thing she had left was worry. It was awful, worrying that he wouldn't live, and also worrying that his death would certainly spell her own. She wanted to only worry for his sake but the cold, sharp, practical region of her mind knew with a disturbing clarity that her survival depended on his.
The wound closed before their eyes. It remained red and angry looking, but the hound lifted his head and huffed at them.
Elissa gave a huff of her own as she let the breath out she didn't realize she was holding. "Thank the Maker!"
Even her mother couldn't help smiling when Prince got to his feet and happily started wagging his tail, licking Elissa's face and acting for the entire world like nothing ever happened. Elissa grinned and hugged the dog to her chest, more grateful than she could explain that her mabari was alive.
"What's your plan, Elissa?" She looked up to see her mother staring fretfully down the darkened hall.
She gulped. "Healing Prince was step one. I still haven't figured out step two . . ."
"Let's get in your room."
They entered the master bedroom and bolted the door. Elissa moved quickly over to the open chest along the wall, while her mother went to the bed and began pulling a sheet off it. She stared into the chest, hoping something inside would spark insight into a solution, trying to think, but the pain in her arm and shoulder was mind numbing.
Eleanor was at her shoulder with a long swath of the bed sheet.
"Let's get that arm in a sling."
Her mother's hands were expert at this, and she wrapped her injured arm securely against her body. It hurt, but once the sling was in place the forced stillness helped to dull the pain a tiny bit.
"I saved a few drops." Her mother handed her the tiny healing vial. "Don't be upset."
Elissa felt only gratitude. She grabbed the vial and downed the last few drops. It wasn't much, but it lessened the pain enough to allow logical thought.
Screams, both awful and distant, reached their ears. Prince was on his feet and growling. Elissa put a finger to her lips and whispered, "Prince, silence."
He complied, and she was almost overwhelmed by the surge of gratitude and love she felt at his sudden and uncharacteristic obedience. "Good boy."
Her mother gave a worried hum. "The fighting is getting closer."
"Alright. Alright." Elissa's eyes searched the chest. She grabbed a dagger and set it on the ground beside her before she spotted a familiar contraption. It was made of metal, wood and an oddly shaped bottle. With a gasp, she lifted it.
"You saved this?" She showed the small grease trap to her mother.
Eleanor snorted. "Confiscated, if you recall," she said, and in spite of the dread situation, her mother smirked. "Too many innocent passersby were caught up in your prank war with Fergus."
She started chuckle, but then the images of Oren and Oriana's bodies sprang to her mind and her heartache was suddenly more intense. Fergus: how would they tell him?
She shook her head and placed the trap on the ground next to her, before retrieving a leather belt from the chest and attempting to wrap it around her waist. Her mother came over and helped her buckle the belt. In the distance, she heard screaming and the sound of metal ringing against metal.
"Can you hear the fighting? Howe's men must be everywhere," Eleanor said, sitting next to Elissa.
Elissa looked up and placed her good hand on her mother's shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll get us out of here," she said, trying to project a confidence she didn't exactly feel. "I have an idea, but it might be a bit. . . dangerous."
The look her mother gave her was chilling. "My only grandchild is a ravaged corpse. What do I care about danger?"
"Right." Elissa said, fighting back tears. She picked up the grease trap, walked over to the door and put an ear against it. "I don't think they are in this hall yet," she whispered. "Wait here."
She didn't wait for her mother to protest before tucking the trap under her arm and slipping out the door and into the wide hall. She heard fighting in the distance, but no one had entered this wing just yet. She quickly rushed to the entrance of the large hall and knelt to place the grease trap on the ground, at the top of the hallway that sloped down to the lower level of the castle.
A sudden shout sounded much closer, and Elissa realized as she looked up that she'd been spotted. A group of men started running up the hallway toward her.
She finished arming the trap with one hand, and then turned to run back to the room. Her mother stood in the doorway of her bedroom and Prince lunged out past her and into the hall, barking viciously.
"Move!" Eleanor cried as she brought up her bow and notched an arrow in it.
"Prince, hold!" Elissa shouted in command
Prince charged past her, not hesitating at all. He dashed down the hall toward the grease trap.
Fear almost closed her throat. If he trips it first . . .
She took a deep breath and shouted in the loudest, deepest, most this-means-business voice she could muster, "Prince, to me, now!"
The incorrigible hound listened for once! He skidded to a stop right before reaching the trap. He stood there and barked at the men approaching.
Finally the stubborn dog ran back to her. She grabbed a torch off the wall just as rest of the men got to the top of the ramp. One of them tripped the trap and the bottle exploded—a thick slippery substance splattered around them and two men in front went down, hard. The three behind them slid but kept their feet.
With a running step for momentum, Elissa tossed the torch over Prince's head and into the center of the group of men.
The oil ignited in a violent whoosh. The two men on the ground were quickly consumed in flames, and they screamed in terrible agony. Elissa stumbled backward, trying to get away from the sudden heat as the fire took off, igniting the men still on their feet.
Prince danced around her, barking maniacally. Eleanor ran up and shot one of the standing men. The arrow landed in his throat and he went down into the flames. She quickly shot two more arrows, felling the rest of the men.
One of the first men to fall somehow managed to get to his feet, and came stumbling toward Elissa.
"Get back!" Eleanor screamed as the man lunged toward Elissa. Her mother shot him with another arrow but the man, mad with pain and fear, didn't stop.
Elissa stumbled backward. The man fell forward, and one flaming hand touched the bottom of her blood-stained skirt. It was so wet that it didn't ignite immediately, but smoldered at the bottom.
Elissa froze, staring at the flaming corpse in front of her and the orange glowing line that slowly crept up her skirt.
She snapped back to reality when her mother tackled her, knocking her to the ground and beating the fire out of her skirts with a wall tapestry. Finally convinced that the flames were out, Eleanor stopped and the two women slumped together.
"Maker's blood," Eleanor said. There were five bodies writhing in flames before them. They sat there and watched them until they finally stopped moving.
Relief washed over Elissa in spite of the horror. That's seven. Seven men she had managed to kill in the span of—she realized she had no idea how much time had passed—so much happened at once. But miraculously, she was still alive.
"I know, right?" she said, and then grabbed her mother's arm. "And for my next trick . . ." she waggled her eyebrows at her mother and then led her into the guest bedroom next to her own. Prince finally stopped barking and joined them.
A stone tub abutted the back wall. Elissa hiked up the ruins of her skirt to climb the steps into it.
"What in the world are you doing?"
Elissa stared at the wall and bit her lip, trying to remember. "There's a secret passage here to the study," she said, reaching out tentatively to push on a stone in the upper right corner of the wall. It gave slightly and she smiled to herself, confident that she remembered the combination.
"A secret passage? How is it that you know about this when I do not?"
Elissa pushed another couple of stones and then the wall slid away with a rumble. At her mother's gasp, she turned around and grinned. "I thought you vowed to stop asking that question?" she said, before climbing into the passage and holding out a hand to her mother. "Now, come on! Let's go find father."
With a shake of her head Eleanor took her daughter's hand and let Elissa lead her into the darkness.