The last leaves of autumn clung to the trees of Skyhold valiantly, a white powdery layer of snow turning them solid and crunchy under the heels of passers-by. It was not as cold as it would soon be, Dorian knew, but for now he was tolerably warm. The beautiful silvery fur of a large mountain cat that lined the collar of his new coat helped. The Iron Bull had gifted it to him, after returning from one of the expeditions with the Inquisitor. Apparently he’d spotted the creature, and then ended up fighting it off while everyone else was a little preoccupied with a group of bandits.
Dorian had huffed and complained about how surely it would smell of wet cat, but secretly he’d had to contain himself from doing a little pleased dance. It wasn’t the first time a lover had gifted him something, but it certainly was the first time a gift had been this thoughtful, and carried the weight of being acquired through more effort than just gold exchanging hands.
So if Dorian buried his face in the soft fur from time to time, and Bull grinned faintly if he caught him at it, then surely he could be forgiven for the sentiment.
It was quite a useful gift, and even up on the battlement Dorian only felt a mild chill on his face, where skin wasn’t covered by the coat. He paced the mostly empty walkways, stretching his legs away from the garden, which was much too full of well meaning Chantry sisters for his liking. Up here he was mostly left alone, unless he ran into a soldier he happened to know from the Herald’s Rest.
In the familiar calm up above the usual bustle of the Keep, Dorian immediately startled at the sudden sound of a child’s laughter right behind him. He barely had time to turn his head to see a blur of grey and black rush by with a shriek, close enough to catch the ends of his coat and briefly have it flutter up in the wind.
Dorian nearly let out a warning shout, but the sight of the child let the words die in his throat. It was a Qunari, that much was clear, though he had never seen one of their children before. The boy’s age was hard to tell, as Dorian had no idea about Qunari children sizes relative to humans, but he was dressed in simple dark clothes and boots that looked to be a bit too big. There were pronounced bumps on his forehead where the horns would be one day, and his copper hair was pulled back in what Dorian recognized as a simple military style.
The child glanced up at Dorian only briefly, green eyes shining with mirth, as he let out a sorry that sounded more like an afterthought than real concern for nearly knocking the man off his feet.
Dorian stared at him, unsure of what to say. He had heard about a group of Tal Vashoth mercenaries seeking refuge in Skyhold, but not that there were children among them. How unusual.
A call came from one of the towers along the wall, and the both the boy and Dorian turned to see who it was.
The Tal Vashoth standing in the door was massive, muscles pronounced and stark white scars all along their bare arms. The only concession to the cold was a cape and a laced up vest that reminded Dorian of the one he’d seen Krem wear during sparring matches. The Tal Vashoth has the same copper hair and green eyes as the child, though their skin was darker and more like the colour of slate. They called out again, this time in Qunlat, and the boy ran over without so much as a glance at Dorian. The warrior smiled and after a brief hesitation placed a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder to lead him away, though the affection in their gaze was clear.
Curiosity awoken Dorian watched them leave and stepped to the balustrade to watch them descend towards the courtyard. Something in his heart clenched at the sight of the child chatting on and on, clinging to the Tal Vashoth’s wrist as his… parent? (Did Qunari have parents?) listened patiently and with a sigh of fond indulgence. It was quite similar to how the Bull listened to the few children of Skyhold. Though Dorian had never seen him interact with an imekari.
A group of Tal Vashoth was assembled together. At the distance Dorian could barely make out what types of people they were, only able to assume that about half were warriors. But even from so far up he saw that there were at least a dozen children.
Dorian watched as they spoke to one of the Inquisition officers for a few moments, before resuming his walk. He would ask the Bull about this later.
Tama had been a tamassran for far too long. She had raised and cared for countless years of imekari, first on Par Vollen and then in the borderlands of Rivain and Antiva, in the small outposts that were never meant to last for more than a few months but always remained for far too many years.
There wasn’t really much one could do about this. There was a need, for outposts and places of respite, small hospitals to take care of the wounded, smiths to repair armour and weapons, tamassrans to take care of the Antam. One couldn’t move between only Seheron, Par Vollen, and the few bigger centres of Qunari presence; there was a need for those smaller ports in the expanse of Thedas. Small shelters of reason and the presence of the Qun. They weren’t intended to exist, but they were needed, so exist they did.
Soldiers got wounded, things broke, and trade and food from Par Vollen soothed the soul much like reciting the Qun’s teaching did.
And then, of course, there was a need for somebody to take in the imekari that had not meant to exist
It happened, of course, no matter what the tamassrans tried to do in keeping careful records and plan for what was best. Soldiers and craftspeople far from Par Vollen or Seheron, and tamassrans had their needs too. Not all of them knew how exactly to prevent pregnancies, and not all of them could access what was needed. It happened. At most it set them back one soldier temporarily, if an Aqun-Athlok ended up that way. Occasionally it created a bit of a hassle in recording the exact bloodline of the imekari, but Tama had her own book with as much information on those in her care as she could get.
It should have been fine. For decades Tama did what was asked, what was needed. She took care of her people, she took care of the imekari together with two other tamassrans as best she could. Given that the imekari were all wildly different ages it was a little bit of a challenge to deviate from how she was trained to take care of groups, but it was alright in the end.
Raise an imekari, soothe their fears, teach them how to read and walk and live, tuck them in at night, carefully decide what path would suit them best, go on with her life. It should be easy. It really should have been.
Tama sat alone in the house, cool from being overgrown with ivy protecting it from the sun. The others were all in the yard, playing with the other two tamassrans, and close by she could barely make out the voices of the two Ashaad speaking outside.
She ignored it for now, not able to listen closely as she focused on the task at hand. Kos was clinging to her skirts were she sat, pitiful sobs shaking his tiny body as he wept. Tama was rigid, her heart turned to a block of granite, incapable of pain. It had to be.
“Peace, little one,” she told Kos, stroking through his pale grey hair. “It is to be.”
He was a gentle soul, delicate hands capable of creating things in more detail than the clumsy attempt most his age were usually capable of. Kos was too young, of course, but Tama thought that perhaps he could have returned to Par Vollen on the path of an artist, illuminating teachings of the Qun, or perhaps he could have been sent to the hanging gardens of Qunandar. He always did enjoy nature.
That is to say, she would have chosen this for him. Before he had accidentally created sparks of green energy with his hands, frightening himself terribly.
“But what did I do wrong, tama?” he wailed, looking up. His pale violet eyes were bloodshot from tears, his face wet and ruddy. “I promise I won’t do it again! I don’t want this!”
Tama gently wiped his cheeks with the edge of her shawl, willing herself not to show any emotions. Kos was such a sweet child, afraid of demons and the idea of hurting something with his mind. He liked soothing the other little ones and telling stories, since he didn’t know how else to help yet. He laughed and cheered when he and some of the others tried to knock each other to the ground with the barest hints of horns. He really wasn’t what a Saarebas was like normally.
“Nothing, Kos, you did nothing wrong,” she tried to soothe. Really she shouldn’t be speaking to him at all. There was no Arvaarad anywhere nearby, and Kos should have been locked away until everyone decided what to do. He was too young to really be a danger, though demons could already be attracted to him.
“You are what you are. Just as some apples are green and some are red, and you wouldn’t know from just staring at the tree trunk.”
Kos sniffed again, calming a little as he thought about this.
“Will I be punished?” he asked meekly.
Tama thought of collars and metal masks that covered faces, sawn off horns and sewn shut lips.
“No, Kos,” she promised, feeling her heart clench and flutter against the layer of granite surrounding it. “You will not.”
Eliana approached the Bull very shortly after the newest batch of refugees had received accommodation. There were quite a few too many to house in one place comfortably, so the warriors among the Tal Vashoth had decided they would set up tents outside a not yet quite restored tower’s rooms assigned to the rest, keeping all of them together.
The Bull had expected her, of course, their Elvish leader quite pragmatic and aware that there might be unforeseen problems. The Tal Vashoth had broken from the Qun less than three months ago, and were still getting used to the world this far south from their original home. While they were all very adamant on fitting in, they would not get it right immediately.
“Would you speak to them, if something is needed?” Eliana asked over a tankard and the Bull agreed readily.
He wanted to check them out himself, just to make sure everything was alright with the group. They had imekari with them, which was highly unusual. Tal Vashoth were usually soldiers breaking away from the Qun. It was rare that imekari were involved, unless they were born way after. This group had a wide age range of them, about twenty in number, ranging from infancy to the cusp of adolescence.
So the Iron Bull made his way to the tiny camp within the Keep, introduced himself, and was led deeper into their territory past worried stares.
There was a leader, the Bull realized, a tamassran with hair steel grey from age and one of her elegant curved horns snapped off right in the middle. Her face was the severe mask of an experienced teacher, her ice pale eyes took everything in while she watched over her charges. The imekari clearly loved her, the adults respected and revered her.
There was another tamassran, young and soft faced, introducing herself as Taashath. She couldn’t have been a tamassran for very long, still half a child but already carrying herself with the dignity of an experienced caretaker. At least two imekari were clinging to her at all times, and she seemed to focus on those older, and easier to take care of, while the main tamassran shifted her attention between advising the adults and caring for the imekari barely old enough to speak confidently.
Some of the imekari seemed to stray from their tamas completely, Bull noticed. A few of the older ones stuck to the sides of others. One timid looking child with gentle violet eyes stuck to a seamstress with fresh scars and bandages, hiding behind her each time anyone unfamiliar so much as glanced at him.
Two that looked like twins stuck to a pair of Taarbas, and an Aqun-Athlok had his hand on the shoulder of a boy that looked to be his own born as he practiced wrapping a sword’s handle.
“Ben Hassrath,” the leader greeted the Bull as he took a seat next to her, near the fire where a stew cooked. Her clear Qunlat was a familiar sound, and Bull found himself shifting his posture to look smaller, bowing his head respectfully.
“Formerly. I was exiled from the Qun,” he explained. By now those words barely stung.
“I see,” she replied, moving on. “You may call me Tama. This is what I am, even without the Qun, and I see no point in choosing a different name.”
Tama glanced at the others.
“Though I see why others do so. It is good to try and make a new life, now that we cannot return.”
She shifted, and Bull noticed that there was a bundle under her shawls. A baby nestled against her chest, dozing quietly. Only her face and a tuft of white hair were visible from inside the warm blankets. As he watched, Tama undid the knot that held the baby close, and carefully placed her in the Bull’s arms.
He immediately cradled her close, practiced from when he was still an imekari and stuck to his tama as much as he could.
“It’s unusual to have this many imekari,” he noted. “At least among freshly turned Tal Vashoth.”
“We had no choice,” Tama replied. “I needed to leave, Taashath saw my reasons, and besides us nobody else was left. No matter the difficulties, I could not leave my imekari behind. Not even her.”
She indicated the baby in the Bull’s arms, and he gently petted her downy hair. It must have been difficult to take care of a newborn on the journey south, he realized. But she looked healthy and her cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s should be.
“I will let the requisition’s officers know that you might need stuff for them,” the Bull assured Tama, and she nodded in acknowledgement.
“I thank you. I never had to speak of an imekari’s needs in Trade.”
The Iron Bull tore his eyes away from the precious little one in his arms and raised his eyebrows at the amount of imekari around him.
“No worries. It must be hard to take care of so many with only two of you.”
Tama’s lips thinned.
“We were more originally,” she explained, and then quickly changed the subject. “But as we are among the bas now, I think it could be good to try and do it their way.”
She nodded towards the adults with imekari hovering near them.
“You do not need a lot of teaching to take care of older ones. If Thedas has not fallen to complete chaos in so many centuries, then… families cannot be too wrong.”
The Bull thought of Dorian’s pained face in the rare moments he spoke of his parents, and Sera’s bitter sneer when her own adopted mother was brought up. He looked at the warrior with the child that looked like him, carefully helping him with his sword, and the seamstress who spoke to the timid one with hushed and patient tones.
Perhaps, if chosen carefully, it could work.
The Iron Bull remained by the fire with the baby in his arms to allow Tama to move about and take care of the other imekari for a while. When the food was declared to be done and everyone moved in with bowls, he reluctantly handed the baby back to Tama, who looked at him with a curious expression.
After a promise to return the next day to assist in whatever was necessary, Bull left them to their dinner, satisfied that he could help them all settle. He hadn’t gone very far when a soft voice called him back.
He turned to see the seamstress, who he learned referred to herself as Vat, the violet-eyed little imekari behind her clinging to her skirts and peeking out at Bull fearfully.
“Yes, do you need something?” Bull asked, turning fully to her.
“I do,” she said, her voice soft and gentle. “I know there are bas saarebas in Skyhold. Tell me, do they teach young ones how to use their gifts?”
She was much shorter than Bull, her expression gentle, but her posture was that of a warrior, shoulders drawn back and chin tilted up as her hand rested on the imekari’s head, the other on the dagger of her belt. She looked at him fearlessly, a challenge in her eyes even as she faced a former Ben Hassrath.
The imekari looked up at him with his eyes wide in terror.
Bull nodded and then sank down to a knee with a smile, posture relaxed as he looked at the boy. He startled, but Vat didn’t move. She gave him an encouraging nudge, but didn’t push him.
“What’s your name?” Bull asked.
“Kos,” the boy replied, his hands clenching tighter.
“You’re a saarebas, right?” Bull asked, casually, as if it really was no big deal at all. At Kos’ nod he went on. “You’re in luck, Kos. The best mages in all of Thedas are in Skyhold right now. They can teach you anything you need to know about your powers. You can learn how to make fires and big thunderous lighting bolts. Would you like that?”
Kos seemed to relax a little, and Vat stood unmoved though her expression relaxed as well.
“Or healing. You can knit together broken bones and heal any injury! I wouldn’t be half as healthy if it weren’t for healers,” Bull went on, guessing at potential interests for the boy.
“And do you want to know a secret? The most powerful saarebas in this entire Keep? He’s my Kadan, and the strongest and cleverest mage I have ever known. Just don’t tell him that, he’ll preen all day.”
At this Kos actually stepped closer, eyes wide. Even Vat looked briefly startled.
“You can have a Kadan if you’re a saarebas?” Kos asked with a reverend whisper.
“You can be whatever you want,” the Bull confirmed. “Some saarebas here have families now. We have a saarebas from the courts of Orlais, with the most beautiful dresses, who’s just like a Tama among the bas. And saarebas who only heal, or who only study animals, or who just read books all day.”
Kos shifted from foot to foot, a hopeful glimmer in his eyes. He was young enough that he must not have known he was a mage for very long, the Bull realized.
“Can I do these things too?”
“Of course,” the Bull promised. “We can go and talk to the saarebas leader tomorrow to decide what you could learn? How about it? I’ll help translate.”
Kos glanced up at his caretaker, and Vat nodded.
“Yes! Thank you!”
The Bull grinned and rose to his feet with a wince.
“Come find me when you’re ready. Now off, before dinner’s all gone.”
Vat gave Bull a grateful nod, and led Kos back inside, leaving the Bull alone on the battlements. He could hear an excited Kos ask Vat, “he said that saarebas here can have kadan! Do you think that’s-” before his voice was lost among the communal noises of the group.
Bull smiled and hooked his thumbs in his belt as he strode off in the direction of the library. It was about time he saw what his own Kadan was up to.