“A bunch of crazy motherfuckers,” the Iron Bull grumbled as they stepped into the Tal-Vashoth camp. Inquisitor Cadash elected to ignore his bickering, and perhaps rightly so; he was no longer the only giant man in her vicinity and she had much focus to expend on not being stepped on or worse. Her hand stayed over her dagger and she walked past several open tents without looking too closely at anybody. Malika broke her silent vow of staying eye contact when she glanced upon a horned, grey child playing with mounds of sand in the road. The little one blinked and stared before returning to the earth between his filthy fingers.
Cassandra scowled around, disturbed by the presence of so many mostly-naked armed men. Only vitaar and undecorated hides kept a few from being utterly shameless. The women, when one could be spotted, were not much more conservative. Toplessness and body-paint were as prevalent as braids and earrings for them, and this apparently was acceptable. The only hint of things being out of place was a general discomfort in the body language of those who dared look upon the Inquisition. “They hardly look fit to help themselves, let alone serve in the Inquisition,” the seeker hissed. But when she was ignored, she changed her tone towards Cadash. “Perhaps we ought not to answer their request. Whatever they want, there’s no chance they could repay the resulting debt.”
Bull nodded. “It’s dangerous here, too. They’re as likely to have brought us here to kill us as anything. We might be best turning back, Boss.”
Malika turned slightly to glance into his one weary eye. The Ben-Hassrath was determined to observe every movement, every oddity, lest he fail in his duties in protecting the Inquisitor. She cleared her throat. “I’m going to look into this. Whatever they need, whatever they wanted to exchange with us, it’s worth at least hearing out. If things go wrong, then we can worry.”
“I’ll start worrying now, thanks.”
Cole, fading in and out of their peripherals, walked without so much a nervous hunch in his shoulders. “The stars are rising on the horizon tonight; a good day to ask her if she wants to be asked. If she doesn’t? Unthinkable, but thinkable. Red on her lips, hair up, she hums like summertime. Decorated for something, maybe for me. Maybe for somebody else. Hopefully for me.”
“It sounds like they have other things on their mind than us,” the dwarf responded. There was a tent of dyed red that stood taller than the rest, but no entry on this side. They had to follow the circular path around. Iron Bull stalked the roadway with the stress of a caged tiger. Cassandra, like Cadash, kept her weapon under hand.
The young spirit nodded. “Yes. They all think of things, but few look at us. Two more gold, a copper, three silver to go with the caravans into Orlais. Fresh bread and chives, spices, like the ones that used to burn my throat, burn my stomach and make me strong. Two, one, and three silver, maybe for the heart, maybe I’d give the heart in my chest for that burning. They’re thinking about other things on purpose.” He looked around, briefly noticing the jittered glance of a woman working a loom. “If I don’t see them, they won’t be here. More red wool, more red strings for the skirts and boot hems. If I don’t look, they can be gone faster. More plants for the dye, sending the children out later to fetch it when we know they’re gone again.”
“The longer these people feel uncomfortable, the worse our chances get,” Cassandra muttered. “Let’s get this over with. Cole, cease your speaking lest they worry more. Qunari are not fond of things they think magical.”
“Right,” he murmured, backing away from her a bit and standing nearer the middle of the pathway.
Iron Bull did not have time to remind everybody they were “not Qunari” before Cadash cleared her throat and looked upon a man with a greatsword strapped to his back who stood unwaveringly outside the red tent. “I’m looking for the Sons of Keer.”
He nodded and unfolded his arms. Unlike many of his compatriots, he was fully armored. His vitaar was simpler; just a few white streaks along his chin and cheeks that contrasted his especially dark skin. He was not an unattractive man. Horns well-maintained, hair brushed clean, healthy in every sense. Yet he looked not quite right, perhaps out of unease, or perhaps fatigue. He moved as if there was a great weight on his chest and just below his eyes, always leading from the front but bending low. He knelt partially to shake Malika’s hand. “I am the one who sent you the letter, Inquisitor. I apologize for the unprofessional location. There are few safe places for my people, and it seemed more natural to await you in a Refugee Camp than out on the road.”
“It’s fine. Let’s just get to business.” She shook his hand with all the strength one could expect from a woman of power. Malika was not one to disappoint.
He pushed the tent flap open and allowed them all inside, a wary eye on the Iron Bull. It was mutual. The Ben-Hassrath agent made a point of bumping shoulders with the other man, though it produced no evident reaction.
Inside they found a table with many surrounding chairs. Some were already taken, but one side was left entirely open and had four available positions. Cadash took one of the middle spots, with a warrior on either side. Cole appeared to have not come in with the rest of them, but nobody made much bother about that; he would go where he would go. If the Tal-Vashoth minded his absence, they made no show of it; they were hardly in a position to argue against the Inquisition and their people. The man from before stood by his chair without sitting.
“I am Wyrm. We before you are the Sons of Keer. For decades we have been hunters of beasts and monsters. Beside me is Varg, and here, Lind.” Varg was a qunari with black hair, feathers dangling from the knots. He had scars across his crooked nose. It whistled a little when he exhaled. Lind was a well-dressed woman, her horns trimmed round but still long enough to grow past the back of her head. Her square chin vibrated, as if she meant to speak but then thought better of it.
There were others at the table, but evidently they did not yet need to be spoken of. An elf woman with dark skin, light hair, and a self-important sneer had her feet resting up on the table. There was a shorter Tal-Vashoth man in furs who was keen on staring at the seeker, his expression caught in unsubtle appraisal. And finally, there was a redheaded woman next to the elf who looked at nothing but the table, wore a thick armored collar and a golden mask.
“You have an awful lot of women in your group to be called the ‘Sons” of anything.”
Wyrm smiled. “In battle, all women are as men are. In art, all men are as women. Once, the Sons of Keer were all men, and we keep the tradition alive through name rather than practice.”
“I see.” Malika gestured from companion to companion. “This is Cassandra, a Seeker, a powerful warrior.”
The staring man spoke up. “Pentaghast, right?” He was met with her icy glare, but brushed it off easily. “Nevarra’s line of dragon hunters, Pentaghast. I thought you might be one.”
“That really has nothing to do with me,” she lied, shifting.
He grinned at her, cheeks a little pink. “If you insist. Though I bet you would look as the legends must have with your sword through a beast’s skull.”
Cassandra scoffed, face redder. Cadash rolled her eyes and stifled a giggle. “And this is the Iron Bull.”
The dwarf looked up to find the Ben-Hassrath and the Son of Keer glaring at one another, their gazes locked as fiercely as if they intended to choke one another with sight alone. Tense fingers turned a shade lighter as they gripped the table or the back of a chair respectively. The other Sons leaned away from their leader, themselves surprised by his intensity. Malika tried to nudge Iron Bull, to make him stop. “I wondered where you managed to escape to. It’s not usually my policy to let Tal-Vashoth escape, but once an Ashaad always and Ashaad; you were a quick bastard.”
“I am lucky of that at least.” Wyrm, at least, took note of the looks he was getting. Lind ran her hand over his knee and he finally took his seat. “I am not here to argue the duties of a life I have abandoned. Forgive me, Inquisitor.”
Malika nodded and elbowed Bull again. He barely moved. “It’s fine. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask some questions. I’ve never seen so many Tal-Vashoth before.”
“Not all of us are truly grey,” Wyrm made an attempt at relaxing. “Harel has never seen a day of the Qun; she was a Dalish first, and now she is only Harel.” The dark-skinned elf waved at the dwarf, as casual as before. “Varg is only Vashoth. His parents saw the Qun, but not he. The same can be said of many living in this Camp.”
“But they’re all Refugees?”
“Yes. There are countless spies around, any number of Ben-Hassrath agents who would betray their location to the Qun and have them taken to Par Vollen or Seheron. So many have never seen those shores to begin with, but it would be the same treatment for them. In such a large community, even should enemies find us, they would have difficulty forming an assault. Other former Ben-Hassrath recognized your friend, and I knew his arrival ahead of time. It has been a great risk to bring you to this place.”
The dwarf glanced at Iron Bull again, who was shifting and resting his back, sinking closer to his relaxing-in-the-tavern position. “If you’re worried about me putting this in a report, you can relax. I’m willing to let this go undocumented if this is a worthwhile meeting, and I doubt the Qun would be able to do much against your people anyways.”
“I should hope as much.” Wyrm dug into a pouch that hung over Varg’s shoulder, taking out a rolled up length of parchment. He spread it on the table, revealing a map of southeast Orlais and southwest Fereldan, the Refugee camp was denoted on it with a pictograph of a rising bird. “We can discuss business whenever you are ready. Is there more you wished to ask, Inquisitor.”
The woman nodded and stared at the map while she talked, wondering what they were going to have to make sense of. “Iron Bull called you Ashaad. Did you not want to keep that name when you left the Qun?”
“An ashaad is a scout. In the Beresaad… In my unit, I was tasked with exploring far ahead and understanding the approaching world.” Wyrm glanced at Lind. She smiled in a way that reassured him. “From always being ahead, I developed a curiosity of the world, and when I saw my chance to leave the Qun, I took it for want of freedom and exploration all my own. Times were not always easy; I was hunted in Seheron until I managed to catch my way out stowing away on a merchant ship. I since came to Orlais, met the Sons of Keer as they were in my day, and worked here since. I am no longer a scout by function, so it makes no sense to be known as Ashaad. I chose the name Wyrm for myself after my first wyvern-hunt.”
Cassandra coughed loudly, drawing attention to the man who was still shooting her occasional puppy-glances. Lind tugged his ear and he started to behave better.
Iron Bull raised a brow. “That… was awfully smooth of you.”
“Quill is like a child sometimes,” she had a small voice, in every aspect feminine. There was no warrior-pride in her tone, no indication that she was more than a civilian. “I was once a Tamassran. I raised dozens to be the finest they could be, and I loved them in an emotional way. But even the best children need discipline.”
The Inquisition’s resident Qunari was suddenly uncomfortable, feeling as if he had misbehaved in front of his own Tama. He sat more quietly now, forcing himself to be subdued and decently-mannered. Cadash was relieved for this and noted the way the tension in the room dropped. “How does a Tamassran become Tal-Vashoth?”
“It was not entirely my idea to leave the Qun. I had heard that one of my former Imekari had defected, and I thought I could turn his soul back to us. Instead, I found myself wanting for what I had never had before. My own children, who would never be passed to somebody else; my own Kadan to cherish and admire; I even wanted silly things, like new clothes and books. By luck, I think, I eluded the Antaam. In my aimlessness, I found the Sons, and Wyrm.” The two cast shy glances at one another, Wyrm the first to become cowardly and cast his vision elsewhere.
The elf gagged and playfully punched the masked qunari’s arm. She jumped a bit, then settled and rubbed her arm.
“I think I understand.” Cadash pointed at the map. “So, this looks important. What did we come here for, anyways?”
Wyrm nodded and stood to run his finger down the river marked on the paper. “This is a hunting ground we typically use to go after smaller drakes. They feast here commonly, and the riverbed spreads just wide and shallow enough for them to comfortably fish. They are apparently not the only ones. We recently had to abandon the idea of hunting here when an old fort…” He tapped where he remembered the rubble-ruin to have been. “... was repurposed by a troop of knights with glowing red around them.”
“Are you certain of this?” Cassandra stood and looked at the location. “Fort Levilis, I think. It was a brief Imperium-Fort, never was much of a success. It might as well be a footnote in history; almost irrelevant. I only recall because Scout Harding mentioned it during the original survey the Inquisition performed for the region.”
The Son of Keer nodded. “I have never bothered to know the name. Regardless, I am certain of their presence. They also appeared to be making an attempt at damming the river, but I cannot imagine for what purpose. Rumors from some of the other Tal-Vashoth have said some of the Inquisition’s scouts were seen once going towards the area but not returning.”
“I haven’t heard anything about missing soldiers,” Cadash said.
“Neither have I.”
Iron Bull crossed his arms. “We might have some spies in our midst, then. Leiliana is going to be pissed when she gets word of this.”
“It’s why we asked to meet in person instead of sending a warning by letter,” Varg said, his nose whistling. “Corruption within your forces is as dangerous for you as it is us. We would be able to fight off small bands of mercenaries and a few of the Qun’s units, but your army is different. If not for the presence of so many un-leashed mages and Templars in your organization, you would have many Tal-Vashoth supporters here.”
“What a shame,” Bull muttered, eye rolling.
Varg glared. Another nose whistle as his nostril flared. “Nonetheless, you are feared, Inquisitor. Nobody will pretend to be able to stand against you if you should see us as an enemy. Your willingness to overlook the Tal-Vashoth so far has been appreciated, and the Sons of Keer would repay you for your lenience.”
Cadash waved her hand and those who stood took their seats. “It’s not necessary to thank me for that. Right now, we need to focus on how we’re going to take care of a potentially big problem.” She closed her hands together, crossed her arms, and leaned back. It was quiet for a moment as she considered, but Wyrm interrupted the process.
“I would like to send some of my members with you. They know the route to the fort and have long been in favor of your Inquisition. And…” Lind rubbed his knee again and he swallowed. “For Katari especially, I think it would be safest she leave the Camp and travel with those who would better help her to grow and remain safe. It isn’t something we can provide with our small group, and it is not something that can be accepted by all Tal-Vashoth.”
It was the redhead’s turn to squirm. The former Saarebas wore the remains of her past on her face and around her shoulders. The Iron Bull took the sight in entirely, though he had already mapped every important detail in case she had decided to become dangerous. Steadiness and stillness, not a hint of rebellion in anything. She was not unthinking, though, so surely she had never known the devastation of qamek. So, in spite of these surroundings, this Saarebas was Saarebas still. It was hard for Bull to conceive the idea of such a submissive thing fighting off her Arvaarad and leaving; he suspected that wasn’t even the case.
The Ben-Hassrath put on his poker face and leaned back, scratching his chin. “Forgive me if I’m not too sure about being around somebody whose very namesake is bringing death.”
“The name was not her choice.” Wyrm silenced him quickly, voice raised a bit too high. “Anything gentler and she would be attacked, I am certain.” He looked the Inquisitor in the eye. Malika raised a brow. “The others won’t give you trouble, but I understand not wanting for the presence of another mage. I would ask you with all my soul, Inquisitor. Will you take Katari with you?”
“Not a chance,” Iron Bull almost laughed.
“What?” He looked down at his tiny boss in disbelief. It was one thing to bring Vashoth along, another to bring Tal-Vashoth. But an actual Saarebas? A disaster waiting to happen.
Malika Cadash ignored his confusion and went on to seal the deal with the Sons of Keer. Iron Bull huffed and stayed to himself, his eye always leading back to the masked woman, and her gaze never falling upon anyone at all.