“— and so the captain says, you know what, fuck it, we’re bringing this one and hoping they pay us for it, best we can do, right lads? So we drag this- no, really, we did, dragged this desert worm to the city walls. Heavy as fuck, that beast. Not even a trophy skull to be had, for fuck’s sake.”
“And did you get paid?”
The big vashoth, Meraad, chuckles and nods. “Yeah, we did. Would’ve kicked up a fuss otherwise, I think even that gussied-up Orlesian got that.”
“I’d’ve broken their fucking shins otherwise,” the dwarf, Wulf, adds and cracks his knuckles. “No matter how much gold you shit, it ain’t as fun with no legs to your three page name.”
The mercenaries laugh. The lady vashoth, Tama, claps Meraad on the back. It’s nice, to have them all sharing their stories. All of them are less uneasy around each other when stories are told. Even if half the stories feel like a deflection. But these people don’t like to talk, they like to tell what they think others want to hear—
“Hey, Asaara, you listening?” Someone nudges your leg and you snap out of your train of thought.
“Oh! No, I zoned out. Sorry. What did I miss?”
“Was asking about you.” It’s Tama, with her gravelly voice. Her heavy brows and strong face make her look so much more stern than she is, but she’s all tender behind it and her voice is gentle. “I was saying, I don’t see a lot of horned folk around, so I’m curious when I meet one. You tell stories?” Connect with me, she’s saying. Make me less alone.
“I’m not much of a storyteller,” you admit. The attention of the group on you is a heavy touch, buzzes in your chest like a beehive, and you fiddle with one of your braids. “But I can tell you about where I’m from, if you’d like.”
“Yeah, that sounds good!” Tama gives you an encouraging smile and you return it.
“Well. I’m from a village south of here. Between here and the Vimmark Mountains, somewhere in the middle. It’s quite small, really. And here’s the catch, I think you’ll like it: almost all of us are vashoth.”
Tama’s eyebrows shoot up. Meraad, next to her, hesitates with his drink halfway to his mouth.
“Really? A vashoth village?” Tama sounds as surprised as she looks and your smile widens. Other vashoth are almost always delighted. It’s good to make them happy.
“Yes! Sometime ago, we think about seventy years back, a handful of Beresaad soldiers on a mission in Nevarra decided to declare together and settled down here. And then they met vashoth who decided to stay and tal-vashoth who wanted somewhere to make a new home, and it kind of grew. I think we make somewhere around a hundred and half, maybe two? It’s not like we count. There’s a bunch of families now. A few humans, some elves and two dwarves also live there, but it’s mostly us.”
“A few humans,” says Tama and looks over you again quizzically. “There as guests or as family?”
“Some and some. Most humans there stayed because they have love-ties, though.”
“That why you so small? Half and half?” The assumption is reasonable; Tama and Meraad tower over you standing and sitting both. Even most humans are your height or taller, at least the men. If you don’t count your horns.
You laugh a little and shake your head. “No, I’m born to vashoth. I’m just short. But there are kids who are half and half. My father’s kadan has a child who is half qunari and half elf, and there are half-human kids too.”
Tama nods, all slow. She’s looking remarkably smug around the corners of her mouth. “A village of vashoth, with ime-bas running around. The Ariqun would lose her horns over this. Koslun’s nuts, can you believe?”
“Can’t say I’ve heard of something like it before,” Meraad says. “Never found a group of vashoth that was bigger than a couple with kids, or a merc company with three or four. What’s it like?”
“It’s nice! Our village is called Sataakost. The ones who grow up there usually learn Qunlat and Trade both, because some who live there barely speak trade at all, like my grandmother. She had a hard time learning it at all, and she was so happy to find somewhere she didn’t need to.”
“Ah,” says Tama, and switches to Qunlat. “It’s always nice to find someone who speaks it. I don’t miss the Qun, but knowing a language and never using it is like neglecting a limb.”
“You’d like your village, I think. I wouldn’t know because I’m not true grey, just grey, but some say that we keep the good things from home and make the rest better. We even have some traditions that are like the Qun, but different.”
“Yes! Like this!” You indicate the red knot-work around your upper arm. “This is for good luck, so I remember where I’m from! Like a token. My parents all have one that says they are committed to each other. There’s also ones that are for mourning, and ones for celebration, when someone, uhh…” You switch back to Trade. “For when someone comes of age!”
“Using the traditional knot-work to represent… commitment? Romance? Forget what I said about ime-bas, this is what would make the Ariqun’s horns fall of from shock,” Tama snorts. “Talking to every vashoth who comes through the inn is a great thing and shit like this is why. Your next drink is on me, kid.”
The other mercenaries, you notice, moved on to other topics of conversation around you, leaving the three of you to your qunari-talk on your corner of the table. Wulf’s mentioning something about finishing a bar-fight using a wheel of cheese.
“If your home’s that good, how come you’re here with a bunch of mercenaries? It’s not the best life.” Meraad’s frowning, but that’s just his face. It’s concern behind his words instead, even if he could be a bit gentler about it. Maybe he hasn’t been shown how to be gentle, or it’s been taken out of him.
“Well, I wanted to get out for a bit, see more. Bring back money so we can have luxuries.” The thought of coming home with knickknacks and enough money for new tools or clothes makes you smile. You’re already planning a gift for little Léon. “And I like helping people. Being a healer for an entire company of people who frequently get injured is hard work, but I make a difference for everyone, you know?”
“You’re an absolute sweetheart,” Tama declares. “That is the nicest thing I’ve heard in like a year.” It makes you blush a little, and when you look up you only just so catch the tail-end of a grin on Meraad’s face. You’re glad for it — it’s much better to have him facing you directly, when he knows it’s you and likes you instead of seeing him flinch whenever he sees you from the corner of his eye.
“Oh! I’ll let you in on another secret!” You lean in close, all conspiratorial-like. Tama looks amused, but mirrors you. When you don’t say anything and just look at Meraad, she levels him with a look that makes him duck his head in real quick.
“What’s the secret?”
“We’ve figured how to make our own horn balm!”
“No! Really?” Tama looks delighted. “How’d you manage?”
“Well, one of ours was a worker who brewed it day in, day out. So she knew the recipe with the Northern bits and bobs, but not with the Southern plants. And one of ours is a Dalish elf who left her clan to come live with us, and she knows all there is to know about plants here. So the two of them put their heads together and made the original Sataakost version! The ones who actually lived up North say it’s just as good.” You notice Meraad itching his horns. He probably doesn’t notice it himself, absent-minded as he’s looking.
“To think I was making do with leather polish,” Tama snorts and leans back. “You got some on you? I’ll buy it off you, if you want.”
“I’ll give you a tin! I always carry two when I leave home so I can share with other people. It’s not that often, but it’s worth it every time.”
“Damn, kid. You’re really that nice.” Meraad drains the last of his drink. “Hard to believe.” He believes it, though.
“The only drawback is that it dyes your horns a bit. There’s lots of blood lotus in it, so your horns end up more red than before. And your fingers, if you rub it in by hand, so we usually use a cloth for it.”
Meraad snorts. “Gonna be real with you, looking like my hands and horns are permanently bloodstained would be a perk with the work I do. Saves me the trouble of convincing people I’m as dangerous as I look.”
Tama laughs uproariously and claps him on the back again. “Damn! Aren’t you an optimist?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I have the ability to look into the distance and just see an endless shiny dawn. Every day is a ripe new… something of possibilities.” His wry look turns more wry. “Possibilities of getting stabbed, shot with arrows, thrown rocks at until I collect mediocre payment and piss off. Who wouldn’t be an optimist?”
Tama cuffs him in the one remaining horn and turns to Asaara. “How do you keep being sweet as you are with this grump-ass around? That attitude could curdle milk.”
You consider the question. “Well, for one, I think having a nice home I keep going back to helps.” Tama makes a little bit of a face, and oh. Oh no. That was a rhetorical question. “Was that rude? I didn’t mean to be rude. Sorry, sorry!” Fuck. Meraad pats you on the shoulder with one huge, callused hand.
“Naw, it’s fine, kid. You’re not wrong. I don’t have anywhere to call home anymore, and I am a bit of a miserable bastard.” The air has changed on him. Something heavy sits on his heart, a leaden melancholy that he lifted for a while with drink and stories and that’s back now, dragging him down.
“Aren’t all mercenaries miserable homeless bastards?” asks Tama with a snort.
“Not all,” Meraad says. “Half this company has a home, a retirement plan or both. Even Wulf over there, who’s more of a miserable bastard than me. Says he’s gonna move to some forest once he’s got the money for a house.”
“He actually talks to you?” You may or may not gape a bit. Wulf never talks to you if he can help it. Or most others. Sigrid offered to be his friend when she joined up and he stood up with his drink and moved to an entire different table.
“Surprised me too.” Meraad shrugs. “I think it’s ‘cause I’m the only one with a bigger weapon than him and he respects that.”
“Yeah, the size of your two-hander is probably exactly what’s got him being nice to you,” Tama mutters and it makes Meraad splutter into his ale. When he manages to breathe without asphyxiating on his ale, you reach out to pat his hand.
“If you don’t have anywhere to go, you’d be welcome in Sataakost.”
He doesn’t just fall silent at that, he stops moving entirely for a second, staring at you without blinking. It doesn’t seem to be pure distress though, so you just take back your hand and smile gently. A breath or two later, he breaks eye contact, looks down at his hands. He starts to form a word, but his voice cracks a bit and he clears his throat before trying again.
“I, uh. Thank you. I don’t stay anywhere, but thanks.”
“You don’t have to,” you assure him. “But Sataakost welcomes all vashoth and tal-vashoth, as long as they behave, you know, like people. Maybe staying somewhere would do you some good, though. You can’t grow roots to keep you strong if all you do is float. It’ll be lonely.”
He looks up at you again with a face like you gutted him for a moment before he forces a more neutral expression over it. Was that too much? People do say you say too much for comfort sometimes. It looks like he might say something for a moment when Tama leans in. She’s giving him an out.
“If tal-vashoth are welcome, does that mean I can come?”
“Oh, absolutely!” She looks delighted and you beam at her. “You can come and visit, or stay longer, either’s fine. Whenever, too, I’ll show you where we are on a map. We have a really nice feast every First Day and our Summerday is much better than what most humans do. Lots of songs and dancing!”
“That sounds like a nice place,” says Meraad, who looks a bit more composed now. Too composed, so there’s definitely still something going on in that head of his, but it’s definitely not an invitation to talk about it.
“If you come, I have to introduce you to my cousin. He wants to become a warrior someday, with a huge sword. He’d love you.”
“Oi! Big bastard! You wanna go get a fucking round?” Wulf yells over while elbowing someone in the side to get more personal space on his side of the table.
“Why me? Get your own shit,” Meraad calls back good-naturedly.
“‘Cause you’re the fucker sitting at the edge of the table, now go!”
“I think that’s my cue,” Meraad sighs and stands. Tama stands with him.
“I’ll help. Since, y’know, I do technically work here.” She ruffles your hair affectionately in a way that reminds you of your aunt. “I’ll be back in a minute, and I wanna hear all about your better version of Summerday.”
Barely more than a month later, Meraad leaves Starkhaven with his pack and his axe and his rolling guilt on him, and you wish him well. Tama comes with you to Sataakost for a bit, but Meraad doesn’t show up. Still, he’ll come around. No-one who enjoys company that much can live well so lonely, and the doors of Sataakost are open.