Chapter 1: Sync
To accept one's role is to become synced with the soul.
Herah was born in a village on the coast of Rivain. It was one of the few strictly Qunari establishments outside the larger islands, and though it was no Par Vollen, it was Qunari all the same. The Qun has a way of sticking with a person even when they don't want it to, even when they thrust it from themselves with hatred in their heart. It has a draw to it that cannot be found in the faiths of other peoples. It tells a man, from the time he is very young, exactly who he will be to the world. The Tamassrans say to the children that their purpose is pre-ordained and failure an impossibility because the Qun is faultless. This takes a man's independence, yes, and his free will, as well, but it also takes from him his fear of the unknown, and so his fear of the word.
This is why so few have had the strength to leave the faith — to face not only the wrath of their people, but the chaos of their own mind, terrors collected from childhood, with no parents to soothe them. Only the Qun.
This is why so many Tal-Vashoth turn to banditry and killing, looking, confused, for a way to fill the gaps in their understanding and the hole in their heart.
This is why there are so few qunari to walk among the gentler races.
Despite what they say, Qunari do have calling names. They are named when born and called such through the duration of their childhood, the time spent under the care of Tamassrans. Calling names are used before the child's role is clear, in the same way you might nickname a cat before you think of a better word to describe it; a work in progress, a process pending. When at the age of twelve they reach the time for assignment, they shed their birth name and take instead the title of their occupation, losing status as childhood to become an independent unit, a part of the whole. Herah was born to Meraad and Kost — though of course she did not know that — and was looked after by the Tamassran, Aban.
Herah was named thus because she was born two months before expected, and Meraad had a sense of humor. Of course, the Tamassran was the one to give the name, as there were no mothers under the Qun, and all parental activities fell to the Tamassrans once the brood mother had completed her duty.
Herah was a regular child until the age of six. That was the day the Arishok and his men docked in the small port harbor on the northern side of the village and stepped ashore. It was very rare for the Arishok to leave his place in Par Vollen — usually a Sten would do just fine in his place — so the village in its entirety gathered along the pebbled shoreline to watch events unfold.
This suited the Arishok's purpose just fine.
Most in Herah's village were craftsmen and farmers, making use of Rivain's superior soil and offering goods when the Kitshok came by to collect the dues owed the Qun — goods and supplies to bevy the greater whole. As far as anyone knew, this had always been their only purpose. That made the Arishok's appearance all the stranger.
Before inquiries could be voiced, the Arishok made clear his intention. After consulting with the Arigena and the Ariqun, the three agreed it had been too long since the smaller settlements had been involved in any matters of import.
Most of the imekari had begun to speak and dress in the ways of their birth cities, and the Triumverate worried. Most were not even proficient in Qunlat, the holy language of their ancestors, and some spoke so little they could not understand passages of the Qun without it being translated first. It was a terrible disgrace to a people who preached mastery of all things.
They were straying from the path, Ariqun said, and as a child requires a firm hand in matters of conduct, so too did servants of the Qun require such discipline.
From now on, the Arishok said, the Qun would not be a trifle, but a parent from which to seek guidance.
The Arishok raised a great, gray hand. From the ship slipped a dozen robed figures, women dressed in silks of gilded gold and with ornamental beads dripping from their horns like rainwater. They were not Tamassrans of the sort Herah knew. Her Tama wore robes, but of a much more practical material than silk, and she did not hold herself with the poise of these Tamassrans. They were paupers in the presence of queens.
These Tamassrans, the Arishok claimed, hand-picked from the best of their kind in Seheron, would live among and guide the villagers on how to live a more fulfilled life, to better show the children the true path. They would confer with the Triumverate by carried message.
The following morning, the children were rounded up and put in a line. The Tamassrans prowled along the line like hunting cats, assessing, watching. The Arishok and his men watched from behind. A few of the older children were sent to the Arishok, who nodded at his Sten to take hold of them. With shakes of their heads, the Tamassrans declared the others too young for assignment They would need monitoring and education before they could be given roles. The Arishok nodded as if he'd expected such and turned to go. He boarded his ship without a goodbye.
When the Arishok left, the Tamassran stayed.
For six years, the new Tamassrans taught in the place of the old. They were odd, different from the ones Herah knew. Those she had thought the smartest in the village were little more than Qalaba when compared to these silk-wearing goddesses. These Tamassran were sharp as cut glass. They knew things the others did not, stories of Ashkaari Koslun and the kossith, new ways to paint vitaar, bold to inspire fear, soft to accentuate the face and distract the enemy.
Herah did not like them, at first. Her life was harder now; her militant schedule very different from the loose-bracketed days she'd kept before. She would do her best to please, but Tama always demanded more. It made her angry, so she would throw fits and pout. Instead of upset, Tama seemed amused, and she would wait patiently until Herah's tears ran out or her voice went hoarse before continuing her lessons like nothing had happened. As the months passed, Herah grew used to the routine: waking with the sun, playing with the children while the Tamassrans watched and talked quietly amongst themselves, then being sat down for long, personalized lessons, a Tama for every pair of children.
The new Tamas taught differently. They were always watching with eyes of gold and fire and lightning-filled ice, guiding in their telling. They had subtlety where the old Tamas didn't, mannerisms finessed like steel from a forge. They guided quietly, behind the guise of maternity. To those whom they expected would fit within the priesthood, they told stories of the Qun lined with excess detail and asked that they be recited back before hearing another. They encouraged mischief in the would-be Ben-Hassrath. The Kaaris and Ashaad were allowed to wander when others could not, past curfew or during mealtimes, long enough to encourage but never long enough to warrant the upset of the other children.
Herah and a few others were given special attention, doted upon. The Tamas were sure to speak to them sweetly, to brush their hair and speak in soft voices. They were not shy about their apparent favoritism, but they were more careful when the other children were around. In some ways, that just made the game more fun; it was a secret, and only they and their Tamas knew. The Tamas sometimes asked for their help with things, tying the knots of Antaam-Saar, organizing stacks of paper in alphabetical order. Herah did that one a lot. The papers were filled with numbers, strings of eight stacked on top of each other. She did not know what the numbers meant, and she'd never cared enough to ask. She only knew that when she finished, Tama smiled at her and told her what a good job she'd done.
The Tamas made it pleasant to be around them, and soon Herah and the other children were fighting for their attention, one wanting to do the task assigned to another. The Tamas didn't seem to mind this squabbling like they did more serious confrontation, and usually they let it linger on for a few minutes before putting an end to it. Herah enjoyed it as much as the others did. She didn't notice the way she stopped speaking like the natives, replaced the white robes of the Rivaini with the silk ropes and threads of Qunari children. She didn't notice the way she looked at herself as a part of the group instead of an individual, how she asked Koslun for wisdom in the long hours of the night and began reciting platitudes as a normal part of her speech.
She didn't notice the passing of months turning to years, nor the way she'd stopped yearning for the quiet, uninvolved life she'd lived before.
Chapter 2: Bas
Herah's nature changes like the tide.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Qunandar was big. It was odd to see so many Qunari when she was used to only a few. Her training with the Tamassrans was difficult. They taught her complicated arithmetic and the fine points of the Qun. Where she'd known the faint brushstrokes on a canvas, they painted brilliant pictures in vivid color. They drilled her incessantly on role-assignment and what personality fit what. They taught her to read a person.
They taught her to pleasure.
And the years passed.
The folds of her tent rippled, then fell still. Herah twisted to see who came to request her service and sighed internally. He was tall, with blunted horns that swept straight back. The hard set of his shoulders and the muscle rippling along his back were better markers of his warrior status than the leather straps of his antaam-saar.
“I am here to be released,” he said.
His words were as blunt as his appearance.
Herah nodded in understanding, even as something in her gut twisted. It confused her. She did not always like this part of her job, true, for it was tiring to set aside one’s own burdens to tend to another’s — yes, she often shared in good-natured griping with her sisters, but she’d never seen it as anything more than her duty. A body was a body. If it meant honoring her role, she could find enjoyment even in the unenjoyable, and that was not so hard a task in matters of the flesh. Especially when the one who came to her was as handsome and virile as this one.
She set down her brush and smoothed her hair over a shoulder. She watched him for a moment while she braided her hair, then turned her back to let him watch her. She tinkered mindlessly with the things on her vanity, just for a moment, and smiled when she heard the impatient huff of breath behind her.
The Antaam prided itself on efficiency, but she couldn’t help but play with them when they came to her. Her smile broadened. For ones who boasted complete mastery over their selves, they visited the Tamassrans often enough. And in Herah’s experience, they were the most demanding of her lovers.
Turning, she motioned the Karasaad forward and he sat on the reed-woven cot before she could point him there. That and his easy posture marked him as a frequent visitor of the healing tents. Surprising, considering his age. He looked no older than the teenagers released to war in Seheron, and those ones were always twitchy and defensive their first few times.
Herah ignored the odd feeling in her stomach and rose from her seat. She walked with quick, light steps to where he’d just settled with shoulders back and feet planted. He watched her, stoic, though his eyes smoldered with want.
She moved to stand behind him, friendly but not overly familiar. Some came to her seeking intimacy and an exchange of equals but others came and went within a matter of minutes, wanting nothing more than to finish and leave.
Even though she was quite good at reading people, she’d learned better than to assume she knew what they wanted.
So she set her hands on his shoulders and murmured in a voice as warm as her caress, “What do you want?”
He leaned into her touch. “Issqun,” he said.
He had tried to hide it, but she heard the tremor in his voice. Most asked for katoh , or aqun for those looking to give as well as take, but very few for issqun .
She hid a smile and dropped to the floor behind him. She kept her hands on his shoulders and pressed a kiss to his neck.
He closed his eyes and took a shallow breath.
Herah raised her brows.
Not so stoic as you play, then ?
She lay him on his back and divested him of his clothing. Free of the leather and fabric, she saw that his body was a map of scars, most angry and red; he was too young for anything older. She spared a moment to acknowledge the customary pang of sorrow in her gut — besot only slightly by the odd feeling still inside it — that someone so young should be so marked.
Evidently, the Karasaad noticed her looking because he grabbed her hand to get her attention.
“Anaan esaam Qun,” he said. He meant to soothe her, but his blunt conviction only hurt her harder.
She pulled her arm back just slightly so that his grasp fell from her wrist to her hand. Shewh wov her fingers through his.
“There is much more to live for than glory,” she whispered.
His brow furrowed. “What —”
“Anaan esaam Qun,” she interrupted, for there was, and because it was better to halt his confusion before it turned to suspicion. She straddled him and let a mischievous smile grace her lips. “Ebasaam katoh-maraas,” she said, and he quickly surrendered himself to lust.
She touched him with gentle hands, mindful of his wounds, caressed him from top down. After a moment, she stood and stepped away to retrieve a vial of oil from her vanity. She continued where she’d left, touch sliding along his torso and leaving his flesh glimmering like liquid gold.
He finished surprisingly quickly — not so far off from the others his age, after all — and then turned her on her stomach to give her the same treatment. She was surprised went but followed his lead willingly. He’d said he wanted to be mastered, but if he wished to switch his goal, she would not fight her own pleasure.
He licked into her with his tongue and she pulled at the knot of ashen hair hanging between his horns. He seemed to enjoy this, so she kept her hands there, tugging occasionally. She came twice without incident before he finished. When he lay beside her on the ground, cot abandoned because it was only big enough for one and he seemed to enjoy skin-to-skin contact.
She turned to him, a smile on her lips, to give him a word of thanks, and then an odd thing happened. The feeling in her gut, which had been sitting quiet in a space just beside her left hip, reared up like the head of a great serpent.
She gasped, clutching her stomach, and the Karasaad immediately sat up on his elbows to look at her.
“Do you need healing?” he asked.
Herah shook her head and tried to say no, but she could not find the air in her lungs to respond. She twisted on the floor and moaned as the pain intensified. Her vision was clouded with dust and odd twisting figures, like people dancing, but she did not have the strength of will to be afraid.
A moment later, the feeling was gone.
She took a breath and found it slipped through her lungs easily, as if she had not just been struggling with it for what felt like an eternity.
She whispered, “I am alright.”
Confused but relieved, she turned to the Karasaad but she found him looking at her strangely.
“I am alright,” she said again, thinking he had not heard her.
He did not react. He had gone very still, gaze trained to a spot on the floor. She followed his gaze to a space beside her left hand, where a puddle of water lay, still shimmering with a crust of new frost.
She frowned. Perhaps she’d spilled a pitcher before the Karasaad came to her? It was much too hot for water to stay cool for long, let alone ice.
As she had the thought, the puddle jumped. There was a sharp crack , and then a patch of ice lay where the water had once been.
The Karasaad leapt backwards. His cock had gone limp and the worry that once lined his face had crimped to fear.
“Saarebas,” he said, first in a hoarse whisper, then again in a shout, terror turning the pitch of his voice to that of a terrified child.
He turned from her, hair disheveled and pants undone, and fled from her tent.
After he left, Herah sat in her tent, confused. Her mind was blank, wrapped in a soft blanket of fog. She looked at the ice on the floor, then at her hands, then back to the ice. She did not understand. She was still in her tent when the Ben-Hassrath came to collect her.
They put her in a room.
It was small and dark and not quite a prison cell. The walls were stone, and the floors were stone. There was no bed. A single slit of a window hung high overhead, letting in a thin shaft of sunlight. Herah sat with her hands around her knees, puzzled.
Hours later, the Arvaarad came bearing her shackles like boons of war. There was also a needle. That would come first, he said.
Cool metal touched her lips. It was a small discomfort, not even painful, but she flinched all the same.
Arvaarad noticed her fear and paused. He did not pull the needle back but let it rest against her skin, a patient tool.
“You’ll not be the same after this,” he said in his sandpaper rasp. Though the words sounded cruel, she knew he meant them as comfort. “The pain is temporary. When it has left your body, so too will the pain inside you.”
The first stitch pulled a cry from her lips. The second brought her to tears. Tamassrans were not told to guard their emotions like Sten and Karashok. They were to embrace their emotions as part of the whole; it was what made them such good caregivers, so good at reading people. So Herah did not hold back her tears, nor did she keep mute from pride.
There was glory in her role, even if it was changing.
Arvaarad kept his hands steady, one pulling the needle through her flesh in quick, smooth strokes, the other a weight on her shoulder meant to restrain but also to soothe. He murmured soft assurances to her, soft nothing words of the sort told to an upset newborn. When he finished, he broke the thread and sealed it to her flesh with magic; until she better understood the evil power within her — a reality that was years away yet — the tie could not be broken.
Arvaarad lay his forehead against hers. She was feverish and sticky with sweat, but he did not comment on it. He pressed his hand to her back and pulled her to his body. She felt small trembling in his arms like she was, like a child still with a Tama of her own. It was odd, for once, to be the one comforted instead of the comforter.
Qunari frowned on emotional exchange for the same reason they frowned on frivolities and words spoken where none were needed. The mind was the mouth of the soul, and its thoughts deserved protection. A follower of the Qun held a part of the Qun inside them, and because they held a part, they were the Qun. The Qun was perfection and thus required no amendment.
But though Qunari were frugal with affection, this was a moment where it was sanctioned, even required. The bond between Arvaarad and Saarebas was not the awful master/slave dynamic the bas made it to be. It was one of respect, endearment, leaning on each other to stave the evil inside them.
Pressed against Arvaarad, named a bas , less than nothing, this was perhaps the closest thing she had to love.
*Karasaad - a soldier and member of the Antaam
*Katoh - completion
*Aqun - balance
*Issqun - mastery
*Anaan esaam Qun - y’all know this one. Glory is in the Qun.
*Ebasaam katoh-maraas - literally, “we are nothing end.” i could not find a word meaning “not” or “no” so i just tacked maraas onto katoh and used it like a negative expletive in some weird ass pigeon Qunlat. I really just meant it to mean “we’re not done.”
*bas - thing
*saarebas - dangerous thing
i did not proofread. please let me know if there are typos in the comments.
Chapter 3: War is Coming
Arvaarad is a teacher, but also a friend.
Note the asterisk "*" and the correlating explanation to explain a confusing bit of dialogue.
Arvaarad taught her to control the evil inside her. He was a harsh master, strict but grim; he took no pleasure in causing her pain. Sometimes he beat her, strokes long and methodical, the endless rhapsode of wood on flesh in a room no larger than a man lain on his side. But mostly he held her. He pulled her to his body, both separated by layers of cold metal and their voices interrupted by the sporadic rattle of chains.
For the first few months, he did nothing but instruct her, praising her victories and correcting her failures. In this time, she was not allowed to leave her room. She was brought meals of soft, cut meat and bread of a size small enough to fit in the gaps between her stitches, and then led to the latrines outside to relieve herself. In the weeks following, Arvaarad trusted her enough to bring her along on his errands through the city. She savored those rare moments of freedom — because even on a leash, freedom it was. Her true captor was not the shackles weighing heavy on her wrists nor the slatted metal blurring her vision, but the agony of her own solitude.
During those long hours they spent together, Arvaarad taught her about herself. The Qunari lived by the Qun, and the roles defined by it, but as each role had its own set of criteria, its own culture and beliefs, one had little need to know anything but the bare bones of the rest. As a Tama, Herah had known more than most but next to nothing of Saarebas. They were not seen as bearers of a role befitting a child, and thus they were not placed within the knowledge necessary for a carer of children. When a Qunari was discovered practicing magic, they were given immediately to an Arvaarad. They became his property, bas .
It was almost unheard of for an adult of Herah's age to develop magic after a childhood without, but it was not impossible and thus the Arvaarad were prepared; they were always prepared for the unpredictable.
Granted, it would be a while yet before the Qunari stopped looking sideways at the Tamassrans, but the suspicion would fade with time. If any group were to be hit by such damage to their reputation, the Tamas were as good a choice as any. They cared for children, soldiers wounded in body and mind, their wisdom valued as much as that of the priesthood. They held the heart of the Qun, and unlike with Saarebas, people were all too eager to forget their suspicion.
Her first introduction to war came with a visit from Arvaarad. Herah sat up when she saw him, alert. He entered in traditional silence, but she'd learned to read him in the months they'd spent together, and the heavy air about him signified more than his usual stoicism.
He fiddled with the straps of her armor and gestured absently that she should stand. Herah didn't bother voicing her concerns. She knew she would get nothing out of him until he'd completed their ritual.
She rose, stretching only slightly before walking to him. She did not sleep in any clothes other than a thin pair of trousers, the only time she was allowed to walk free of armor, and even this liberty only permitted within the confines of these four cement walls. Neither she nor he showed concern over her bared flesh.
Qunari did not see each other as sexual partners — if you needed release, visit the Tamassrans — and so nakedness was no cause for alarm. No need to get worked up over a body when nothing could come of it. Especially in the matters of an Arvaarad and his Saarebas.
When she reached him, she stretched out her neck so that Arvaarad could get the iron collar over her head and the broken stubs of her horns. The chains rattled while he did so, and then again when he fastened them to the leather skirt she wore. The mask came last.
Herah did not speak until the heavy weight of it settled over her, drawing her shoulders in towards her stomach. She took a moment to roll her shoulders, the motion slowed by the great, leather pauldrons spread across them. When she stilled, the leather edges dug into the odd calluses on her shoulders, built up from the first days she’d worn them and the pauldrons still left angry red lines in her flesh.
"What troubles you?" she asked into the silence that had grown between them. The question drew her stitches taut, flesh tugging uncomfortably with each word.
Arvaarad did not respond right away, choosing instead to fuss with the braided rope leading from her mask to his hand. He could've been checking that it was secured properly, but they'd done this a hundred times and he'd never once distrusted the tools of his trade.
Herah caught his hand with hers.
He stilled, and after a moment met her eyes through the slats of her mask. They inspected each other, his fade green gaze to her burnished gold. She examined his features, strong and over-pronounced like the bold brushstrokes of a hero's painting. It was rare that he came to her unmasked, and to do so signaled that he was worried about something, enough to momentarily part with his identity, his duty as an Arvaarad.
"Tell me," she said softly. It was easier to speak thus when stitches pulled her lips together, but rarely had this note of gentleness entered her voice since her days as a Tamassran. Her role no longer required gentleness, but just this once, for her Arvaarad, she would allow her past to seep into her present.
Arvaarad sighed, rope slipping from his fingers, and rested his forehead against where hers would be, uncaring of the metal prodding his skin.
"You are to see war today," he uttered, sorrow lining his words.
Herah laughed, just a little huff of air. She was not supposed to laugh. She was not supposed to speak at all — that would mark her as an individual entity with thoughts worth expressing as opposed to the thing she was — but Arvaarad had never reprimanded her for doing so, only cautioned her to be wise so that expression did not become rebellion.
So she did not hesitate to say, "That is all? I had thought I'd erred in something."
Arvaarad was suddenly larger, anger blazing through sorrow like flame through pitch. "You erred just now," he said.
Herah took a step back at the steel in his voice, but the rope had returned to his hand, an iron vice that kept her from progressing.
Arvaarad stepped closer, reclaiming the space she'd put between them. Qunari were lax with personal boundaries, and she and Arvaarad often stood against each other, closer than this, but there was something markedly different now than those other times. Arvaarad was neither partner nor friend in this moment. He was a teacher, a disciplinarian, and she was to be the one disciplined.
"You are to see war today," he repeated, this time in a voice like rumbling thunder. "War is not a thing to be laughed at. Its place is not beside you, but before you, a leader to be followed and honored just as an Arishok would be by his soldiers. I will forgive this overstep because you are still a child*, and because you are still coming into your role, but you would be wise to remember this moment."
He released her, and Herah immediately scrambled back. Her heart was thumping like she'd been running and the her face flushed with sweat. She looked at Arvaarad with new eyes.
The anger had evaporated from him as quickly as it had come, and what was left was but a husk of the man he'd been. Herah paused, setting aside her fear and the way her heart still pounded like a war drum, and looked at him again. She thought of what to say. There was no sign of rage in the slouched shoulders and creases lining his face, but she hesitated all the same.
Another moment passed before she took a tentative step forward. When Arvaarad showed no signs of moving, she took his hand in hers, as it had been before his outburst.
"I did not mean to upset you," she began, but he interrupted with a sigh and a shake of the head.
"You did not upset me." At her incredulous look, his lips twisted wryly. "I was upset," he explained, "but it was not you who caused it." He paused, searching for words. "It was war that caused it," he said finally.
Herah hummed and traced her thumb across the back of his hand.
Arvaarad smiled at the gesture and sat on the floor of her cell, pulling her down with him. "You are only a child, he said, "and you have never seen war. I should not have expected you to understand."
Arvaarad shook his head, great horns shivering like the branches of a tree. "It is not a thing to be explained. It is a thing to be experienced. Just as colors mean nothing to the blind, and peace means nothing to the greedy, war means nothing to those who have not seen it."
"I will see it," Herah promised, resolute.
"Yes, imekari ," Arvaarad said. His eyes were wells of pain. "That is exactly what I feared."
*i imagine qunari measure maturity not by age, but how far they are into their role. A child is a child not because he’s young but because he doesn’t understand the world and how he fits into it. Because herah has only been saarebas for a few months, she is still a child. I guess that means tal-vashoth are rebel teenagers.
Chapter 4: Unity
Herah goes to war and finds unity in all things.
In the northern reaches of Seheron, far past where you'd expect to find it, there is life. Persistent little pieces of it, yes, just those few souls too brave or perhaps too stupid to give in. They have outlasted their brethren through sheer will alone and one-upped the very mother who birthed them.
Small ferns huddle close to the ground, hoping to retain the meager heat trickling from the earth. Ground squirrels, fur thicker and richer than their cousins, build worlds beneath the earth, complex tunnels that go on for miles. Foxes and the odd wolf are the only predators wise enough to have survived, these few tougher, meaner, than their cousins.
Then there are the people, neither adapted to the land nor welcomed in it. They are called "Tal-Vashoth," "Grey Ones" named after their misfit heritage, matching neither to the life they were born to nor that offered by the outside, their ranks formed by visionaries and troubled minds, far enough from their kin to be other yet still products of their environment. The role they were assigned is not enough. Tama is too general. There are a hundred other Sten, and when stood beside each other, one cannot be told from another. Those with Vashoth hearts yearn for something personal, a means by which to call themselves in reference to their surroundings, for if even the self is indistinguishable from the whole, then what is the purpose of existing at all?
So they fled their purpose, abandoned glory and the battlefield, shedding armor and loosing magefire where it was never allowed before. They came together, small clusters of two or three becoming a dozen, then a thousand. They searched for a home but found none, so they turned to refuge instead. They found this in the mountains, safe in the ice and cold where man had not set foot in a thousand years. Upon their arrival, they were met with the cold stares of owls and night creatures. The wind's howl was angry, almost forming words.
Leave , it hissed. You do not belong here .
"We are sorry," they said, "but we do not belong anywhere."
And the Vashoth bowed their heads, abashed, but pressed on.
There they remain, amidst war and harsh terrain, trapped between a wasteland of sharp ice and howling wind, and a life just as brutal as the land.
The first time she fought Vashoth, Herah felt nothing. Arvaarad had taught her well, and she felt only a mild wariness when the magic plucked at her fingertips. She was powerful here, alive amidst terrain that matched the power in her blood. She was careful not to let her comfort become cockiness. Never did she turn her back to the enemy, never did she allow the glory of casting dull the shame and fear of her role, never did she allow herself to think about freedom or forget the heavy weight of chains at her hip.
She fought in a kith of nine, as was classic in the Antaam. A kith was made of two teams of four and the Karasten leading them. Generally, each team was made of two close-range fighters, one wielding a maul or a sword, and another acting as a clandestine, breaching enemy lines from behind and attacking from the shadows. The two remaining members of the team kept a ways away from the others, bearing bows or small compacts of gaatlok to assault the enemy from a distance.
This time, they had something better to replace them: mages. Qunari Saarebas were scarce, not only by birth but also because most died before maturity; very few were strong enough to withstand the rigors of training, the shame of their existence, and the dangers of untrained magic. As such, a kith equipped with a full team of Saarebas was rare and a treat to all who fought with them.
Upon discovering the Tal-Vashoth camp, there had been much shouting and scrambling to form up. There were many of them, perhaps two dozen, but they were skinny from the cold and were unprepared for an attack. When five Tal-Vashoth burst from the encampment, the Qunari were not concerned. The fact that they were the first to approach meant that they were the best, and if there were only five of them?
Herah's Karasten sent the two maul-wielders to deal with them. Five old weapons, rusted from damp and snow, would break easily beneath well-kept steel and powerful blows. They were evenly matched until the next wave of Vashoth came, six strong, rapidly pushing the Qunari back in a new onslaught of blows. Herah glanced to Arvaarad. Technically, he was an invisible unit to their kith, not even counted as a member of the nine, merely there to maintain control over the Saarebas should something go wrong. She expected him to give her and the other Saarebas a new command, now that that their people were at uneven odds, but Arvaarad remained silent.
After a moment, she turned back to the battle, tense and uneasy. Their Karasten waited until one of the Vashoth drew blood before he sent the remaining Kithshok to assist them. The two of them, both sword-bearers, rushed to help their companions.
An outsider would have wondered why the Karasten did not order Arvaarad, and thus the Saarebas, to finish the Vashoth. It would have been faster and less messy to spear them with ice, or to burn the camp in its entirety. To the Qunari, such a thing was unthinkable. Besides the fact that it was frowned upon to kill through underhanded means, such an excessive use of magic was unnecessarily dangerous. Magic was harnessed, yes, because Qunari were ever practical, even with the things they feared most, but if its use could be limited in favor of simpler means, it always would be.
Now, though, Herah felt her time approaching. The Vashoth had finally gotten themselves in order and the fifteen or so that remained had moved to aid their wounded comrades.
"Now." The Karasten spoke to Arvaarad. "You will attack with fire from the left. From behind and from the right you will trap them with ice, so that their only option is to face us or burn." When he finished speaking, he nodded to Arvaarad, for Karasten though he was, it was not his role to command the Saarebas.
The four of them stood in a row, each linked to the one beside him by virtue of the chains at their hips. Herah was at the end of the line, on the far left. The Saarebas beside her was a tall male with thick knots where his horns used to be. She could not see his face, but she guessed he was in his middle-years from the age and frequency of his scars. He was a silent presence beside her, solid and strong, and Herah appreciated the wisdom that had gone into the position of their fighting. Pride was not a part of her role, and so she felt no shame in admitting the nervousness running through her at her inexperience.
"Saarebas." Arvaarad turned to them now.
The word was met with uneasy shifting. Chains rattled and leather creaked as bodies shifted restlessly as they awaited direction. A Saarebas’s purpose — her purpose — was not as an individual being, but a weapon of war. As a foul-natured stallion can be born among a brood of loyal steeds, or the noblest of dogs could whelp a pup with blood in its eyes, Saarebas were a sad inevitability. As with all great races, there were bound to be mishaps.
Arvaarad’s command was said gravely, but firmly, for war was grisly, but necessary. As one starving did not shy from slaughtering a calf for its meat, one did not shy from their purpose.
The Saarebas responded at the same time, a single, automatic unit. As one, they lifted their hand, some fingers old and cracked from years in battle and some few still bearing the softness of youth. Male and female, young and old, all gathered beneath the banner of war. Together, they drew a single breath. Herah felt the ground at her feet, the sun at her back, her kith beside her.
The magic flew from her like a dove set free, light as a breath, as a cloud. It was hard to see it as an evil thing when its essence felt so pure —
Herah felt the impact in her teeth.
Her eyes snapped open, breath pulled from her lungs in a croaking gasp. A torrent of power leveled the mountainside. Their magic, her magic, fell from the sky in a maelstrom of fire and ice, a living hell to the left and jagged cuts of ice to the right. Fresh screams lined the air, howling and shrieking with the wind. Where they had been gaining ground before, the Vashoth were rapidly falling apart, obviously unprepared for the magic. Their front line, the strongest defense they had, was thinning.
The Kithshok had done well, laying an aggressive frontal attack as soon as the first flames began licking at the snow. The Vashoth, pressed on all sides, were panicking. Many of the youngest members broke rank and fled, forgetting that there was naught to greet them there but swift death. Those hardened to war did not move, closer to the Qun than they knew.
Herah watched a pair of men fight at each other’s backs in the long-practiced manner of an Antaam fighting pair. They were old, but not so old as to be weak. She watched them fight, faces set in grim masks, angry but also despairing. They slashed through bodies, gaits steady, feet always pointed forward, until a blade took both through their hearts.
At the sight, Herah faltered for half a second, connection to her magic cut like a cord. Though she was not the most powerful flame wielder by half, and the loss of her magic should not have been so grave a calamity, a physical ripple went through the Saarebas.
The parts of a machine are tuned finely. If one falls out of place, so do the others, in an eternal line of dominos — and this is a physical connection! Magic links viscerally, at the soul.
To miss a piece of one’s spirit, even a very small, very broken piece, is a loss that shakes to the core.
So it was predictable — even expected — that the weathered male to her right kicked her angrily in the shin.
“Saarebas,” he said, the word itself a reprimand.
Herah hastily reconnected to her fire, swallowing. She did not want Arvaarad to notice her disobedience. Though he was kind, she feared the pain of the control rod.
From her side, the male continued, “Do not falter again or I will tear you from this line myself. There is no place in the Antaam for hesitation and even less for mercy.”
Herah knew he did not lie. Saarebas adopted brevity as a partner, but the few words they did speak were always honest.
As she cast, Herah found an odd feeling in her chest. It was the same feeling she had offered the Kithshok who’d come to her tent all those months ago, the same she offered the children she’d reared over the years. Sympathy, or something close to it. She wasn’t sure who she’d learned it from when so few had shown it to her in her own youth. Arvaarad was kind, but she had held the emotion before him. It was acceptable as a Tamassran,preferred even, but as a Saarebas?
The Qunari preached “anaan esaam Qun,” “victory in the Qun.”
It became clear that without the advantage of surprise, their victory might not have been so sure.
The flames had dwindled to embers by the time the last Vashoth fell. It had been a long battle, harder than their first assault had promised. The initial attack had placed the Qunari in the lead, the Vashoth unprepared and scrambling to regain the ground they’d lost. A few minutes in, though, and the stakes began to even.
One of the Vashoth began shouting orders to his men, calming the panic befallen them in wake of the magical assault. He pulled them into a line, a complex formation that only the highest Sten could manage. With a leader to command them, it became clear that these Vashoth were no strangers to battle. At one point, they even managed to get a few bows strung and leveled a thin volley of arrows. They fought with a ruthless efficiency that none but true Qunari could rival, even as flames pulled people from their left and ice consumed the rest. Even when the last man fell, body failing at loss of blood, he still managed to throw an arm out and pull his opponent Qunari down with him.
The Kithshok suffocated beneath the weight of his body, too weak to pry himself free.
In the end, the Qunari suffered great losses. Where they had started with a party of nine, only three remained. Herah, the Karasten, and the weathered Saarebas to her right. And Arvaarad.
The other two Saarebas had died to arrows, two of the four Kithshok from knife wounds, one through the heart and one through the chest. The last Kithshok hung on for a few hours after the battle, fitful and bleeding, but he’d taken a brutal gash to the chest, and neither Herah nor the male Saarebas knew how to heal. They left his body to rot.
In wake of battle, the Qunari examine their dead. They collect weapons, write down recognizable features so that they might be erased from the breeding lists, and perform checks, on both comrades and enemies, to be sure of their deaths.
Herah, who had gone to battle thinking herself immune, could muster no sorrow. There was only numbness, an odd white haze clouding her thoughts. Arvaarad disconnected her chains from those of the fallen Saarebas, urging her forward with a guiding hand on the shoulder. The weathered male followed, obedient, silent.
They passed bodies. She felt blood in the way her boots stuck to the ground, snow thinned beneath the tramp of feet, the earth grasping at her shoes with phantom hands before the might of her steps tugged her free. She tripped over limbs in the same way one tripped over protruding roots. She felt cold, and it was from more than the landscape.
For a long time, her gaze remained stubbornly skywards, head tilted back and eyes lost in a sea of gray clouds, guilt nagging at her like an irritable puppy. With each step she took, the guilt increased, until it became a roiling ocean of self-hate and shame, spilling over the edges of herself and through her lips and out into the world.
At her incensed cry, Arvaarad’s steps faltered for a moment, the metal of his mask tilting back just enough that she knew he was looking at her. Then, he continued on, the hand on her shoulder a little firmer, his steps a little more solid.
Herah followed his lead but was too overwhelmed to be embarrassed. She looked down — at them , the faces of the lost — and finally the emotion she had been smothering squirmed free of her grasp.
They are us , she thought.
The same lives, tormented in thought and imprisoned in the stone walls of belief. The same horns, broken and trampled by uncaring feet. The same ashen skin, soaked in blood like crude vitaar, and the same eyes, gold and fuchsia irises dulled to gray.
She swallowed bile.
The secret of uniting nations, of eternal peace, and synergy, was not the eradication of beliefs and culture, nor the spoon-fed teachings of this great book or that enlightened scholar. It could not even be found in philosophical discussion or debate or neutral exchange. The only way to unite, the only way to bring enemies together was —
Well, it was called the banner of death for a reason.
*kithshok - a low-ranking infantry man (foot soldier)
*karasten - low-ranking infantry commander
*vinek kathas - a command to kill
*vitaar - war-paint with armor-like qualities
Herah could not pinpoint when it was she started to drift.
The doubt crept up on her like slow disease, taking refuge in her breast and spreading outward with long, gangling fingers. She did not notice how far it spread until she found herself turning from the battlefield, disgusted.
Even still, she did not lash out at her captors — for that’s how she saw them now; where once the Arvaarad had been teachers and caretakers, they were now only the ones holding the key to her shackles. She wore the collar obediently, followed the tug on her lead and the grunted commands to kill. But while she did not fight in body, her spirit rebelled. She turned her ears from Arvaarad’s teachings, refused the few kindnesses offered by those who still remembered that the role of Saarebas was one deserving of respect.
She had been isolated before — her role ensured it — but now she was an outcast even among her own kin.
On the battlefield, she cast fire and ice at half power. She could not meet the eyes of those she killed, not with guilt churning in her breast, faltering steps and halting thoughts.
Once, when her doubts were still infant seedlings, she despaired to Arvaarad, “Is it not my nature to be Saarebas? If my role is all that I am, why do I falter so?”
Arvaarad merely said, “You are Saarebas. Take pride in your purpose. Find solace in your role.”
That was when guilt turned to anger.
The whole of them, every Qunari on this island, either felt no pity for those they killed or thought the pity a sickness of the mind. It was ridiculous, it was incredible, it was horrific, that an entire race of people had been cowed by a book and the man who wrote it, a thousand years dead.
Herah hid her shame with anger. If she had to kill, she would not do readily. She would be sure her keepers knew her feelings, and if they were unfamiliar with pity, they could acquaint themselves with her hatred.
As the years passed, she became jaded. Her good nature soured, sympathy bittered to scorn and ideals turned cynical. The iron of her mask hid a face marred with lines, always with tension about the eyes and jaw.
Arvaarad worried for her, but where before she accepted his compassion with open arms, she spurned him instead. As she was months past the need for such an involved hand in her teaching, he could do little but let her. He was a father seeking to lend guidance to his child, only to find, in the wake of rejection, his child was a child no longer.
(His attempts grew weaker, though he never stopped trying to teach her.)
Herah, for her part, aged inelegantly. She could not be wholly sure how old she was — record-keeping was a Tamassran’s duty — but she thought she was reaching her thirtieth year. She’d left the shores of Rivain when she was only eight, taken her role eleven years after that. Although she’d been Tamassran for longer than she’d been Saarebas, she could hardly remember it. It seemed like a different life, where death and war were not synonymous with existing. She burned for that life, even as she scorned it.
She’d been a different person, younger and softer, less angry. At times, she wished she could be that version of herself again, guileless and secure, but most others she raged. How stupid she’d been! How content in her ignorance, ignorant in her content. Happy to live in her narrow world where she faced no hardships but those of her own mind. Outside her dreamscape, the world was a terrible place.
And the horrors wrought by her own kin...
They were no paragon people, perfected over time and living in a faultless society. Koslun was no prophet, either a man of incomplete philosophies, or a convenient fairy-tale.
The Qunari told stories that they were descended from dragons, and perhaps they were. They certainly wreaked enough havoc. Great, horned beasts with eyes lost to the blood haze, breathing fire and ice upon those who strayed too far into their territory. Dragons were mindless automatons, slaves to their instincts in the same way that the Qunari were slaves to the Qun.
Her Tama, the one who’d trained her, and then again Arvaarad after her, had said that it was duty, a necessary part of existence, to follow the Qun. She could neither be proud of herself for acting in its stead, nor guilty. She was merely its dictate given physical form, one of many, and it could have just as easily been her chosen as it could have been another.
What a convenient way to avoid responsibility.
The day a Qunari leaves the Qun is perhaps the most memorable day of their life. It will lodge in their minds, underlying thought and action, though the reason for its adherent qualities differ depending on the Vashoth you ask.
For some, it is a day of freedom, the day that they accept themselves as an individual, allow the whisperings of years past to become full-bodies voices, harmonizing in a great, monastic cacophony. For others, it is a moment of weakness, the day they could no longer shoulder the weight of their purpose, and they fled, backs bowed, beneath the demands of the Qun. For still others, it is a day of enlightenment, for truly they have never even considered the possibility of an alternate life, and it is only now that reality settles upon them, broad and expansive with new .
For Herah, it is a day of fury .
It had taken her a while to realize that this battle was different from others.
As always, the Saarebas had been held behind the greater army while the troops moved in, forced to watch their people and their once-people engage in mindless slaughter. As always, they’d waited, silent harbingers of death, held to heel at the side of an Arvaarad — not her Arvaarad; he never came out on missions like these. Then, only when the bodies piled high enough and Qunari loss seemed inevitable, did the Arvaarad lead his retinue forward to join the rest of the Antaam.
This was a time no different, and as she’d done a hundred times before, Herah plodded alongside her fellows to the killing field. She loosed ice beside magefire and spirit energy, the years having wisened the Arvaarad to her proficiency.
While her sibling Saarebas cast with dull resignation, gazes like death behind their masks, Herah kept her eyes stubbornly forward. She allowed herself to watch the destruction around her, swords and axes rising and falling like the endless tide, and she allowed herself to burn .
Meraad astarit, meraad itwasit. Maraas shokra.
These last words enraged her.
How many had she seen fall to the careless arc of a blade, the hand wielding it steady and unshaken? How many times had she looked to the men beside her, seeing faces so ragged and worn they seemed a decade older than was true? How many times had she looked in the mirror and called herself a killer?
She hated what the Qun had made of her. She hated what she’d let herself become. While the Qun boasted independent roles for individuals of different skills, the truth was something different. They were one people, one role. The Qun made killers of them all.
She curled her lip on a snarl, the dead at her feet burning her worse than the ice at her fingertips.
This, the folly of the Qun, its hubris. There was always something to struggle against, whether the chaos outside or the chaos within, but always, always , something.
She was shaken from her thoughts by a scream. That in itself not uncommon. They were at war, after all. But this scream was different. It was not the pained grunt of a blade through the ribs, nor the wet rasp of a ruptured lung. It was not an expression of physical pain at all.
This was the sound of a mother in labor. This was the sound of a Tama who found one of her children had died in his sleep. It was the sound of one who fled his purpose, his life now nothing but a meaningless mote of existence. It was the sound of a Karasaad ten years ago, come to the Tamassrans to seek comfort but had found a demon lurking in her tent instead.
Herah turned, copper eyes flicking back and forth through the chaos. She saw them, then, the one who had screamed and the one beside him. They were hard to miss, really. A boy — for the fear in his eyes belied his youth, no matter the breadth of his shoulders or the length of his horns — held down an elderly Qunari, face a map of scars. Herah recognized him a moment later, and her breath caught.
The Arishok showed no sign of struggle; he would die and he knew it. There was nothing to struggle against. The boy seemed not to know what to do.
A voice from behind shouted in Qunlat, “Hurry up and kill him, Aban, before he kills you!”
The boy’s face, a mask of pain, anger, and confusion, twisted further.
At his hesitation, the voice became a snarl. “Vashedost imekari, vinek kathas. They show us no mercy. Why should you?”
The Vashoth tightened his grip on the blade, eyes wild but firming with resolve. He would not move.
From her place across the battlefield, Herah applauded him.
Yes , she thought, defy. From your side, defy, and I will defy from mine.
The Arishok had other plans, apparently. He kicked out an ankle, tripping the boy and pulling him down into a headlock. He squeezed hard enough that the boy’s face paled to white.
“Yes, Vashoth,” he spat. “Look at what your mercy has done. I know my place. My resolve does not falter. Have you fled so far from the Qun that you forgot that?”
The Arishok’s grip went lax, and for a second she thought he’d let the boy go. But something was off. The boy extricated himself from the Arishok’s lax embrace, pushing the arms away like physical weights. The Arishok slumped to the ground like a man who’d drank too much ale, limbs falling to his sides with an audible thump.
It took her a moment to notice the red pooling at his feet and a moment longer to notice the length of steel pushing from between his stomach like an odd growth.
The Vashoth boy stood on shaky feet, stared at the body beneath him, and loosed a sound of grief so very like his first. Anger. Hate. Confusion.
From there, it was slaughter.
Enraged at the death of their leader, the Qunari pushed forward with new strength. Even the Saarebas beside her cast angrily, loosing dark mutters as they worked. Their attacks held a new vitriol that made her eyes widen and breath catch.
Blood stained the ground, red dripping from open throats and innards that had been bared to the world like new life. Bodies piled on top of bodies, too fast to follow. Herah swallowed bile. She could not stop casting — to do so would draw the attention of the Arvaarad — but the flow of her magic slowed considerably. The Saarebas beside her were too deep in their anger to notice.
The iron tang of blood filled her nostrils. She tried to slow her racing heart, to breathe through her mouth, but then she could taste it. She closed her eyes, but then she could hear it, in the way people screamed with new acuity, spilling onto the ground in great, geysering bursts. She could not close her ears; she needed her hands to cast.
She could not be rid of it. Blood was flooding her mouth, her ears, her eyes. She wanted to flee. The thought set her breathing harder.
She couldn’t flee. It was the reason she rose every morning and allowed the iron slats of the mask to obscure her vision, the shackles pulling her arms behind her into a position that felt more normal than the way her hands fell naturally. It was the reason she had suffered the last ten years of existence, angry, yes, but resigned.
The Qun was an abusive lover. To stay was torture, but to leave was death. And so she couldn’t possibly leave. Not while she still valued life. Not while Arvaarad still offered her kindness.
She fled while the fires still burned hot.
In her wake she left four corpses. They were charred beyond recognition, armor and masks stripped to preserve their identity. She didn’t need the Ben-Hassrath tailing her just yet. With all the deaths she’d seen today, she didn’t think she had the strength to face another. Even if that death was her own.
* Meraad astarit, meraad itwasit. Maraas shokra. - the tide rises, the tide falls. there is nothing to struggle against.
*Vashedost imekari, vinek kathas - piece of shit child, kill him.
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