Free Marches, near Ostwick
“This is the one who snuck on board.”
The two Karashoks pushed her into the room so hard she fell on her knees. She braced with both her arms to prevent collapsing entirely before throwing back her head to stare at the one she had been brought before. Her posture was feral, like a hound growling up at its master. But as a loyal hound, she didn’t bite.
She realized who she was looking at. Grey skin. A sash across the chest. Most notably, the lack of horns on a head crowned only by braided white hair. The fact that she had been brought before him only confirmed it. He was Ben-Hassrath, the enforcers and spies of the Qunari. They were the ones responsible for ensuring all Qunari followed the Qun and re-educated those who do not.
“What are you?” the Ben-Hassrath asked.
“I am Taam-kasari,” she replied as she rose back to her feet.
“She is Mashari,” corrected a Karasten who had followed the two Karashoks inside.
The Ben-Hassrath took a step forward, “You deny your place in the Qun?”
Mashari shook her head, “I don’t believe we have found my place.”
“You think the Tamassrans have made a mistake?”
“No. It is the limitations of their choice.”
His eyes bore into her with an intense stare. Qunari did not talk much. Everything was done as efficiently as possible, and talking was only for when sharing information was necessary. The Ben-Hassrath’s gaze conveyed his meaning perfectly without the need for any words. In this case, he wanted Mashari to keep talking. He wanted an explanation.
She elaborated, “I seek my place here.”
“There is no place for you here,” Karasten responded while the Ben-Hassrath contemplated.
“I am already here,” Mashari argued, “You would not send a ship back to Estwatch just for me, and it would be a waste to keep me here without letting me be of use.”
“You are Mashari. You are not like us. You cut Dathrasi, not men.”
“I can fight,” she insisted.
Karasten began to raise his voice slightly, clearly getting irritated with this conversation, “Females cannot be warriors.”
“If she remains female,” the hornless Qunari finally spoke up.
The two males exchanged a brief glance. Karasten’s look was one that said ‘You cannot seriously be considering this.’ The Ben-Hassrath ignored him as he turned his attention back to Mashari. Once again, his eyes seemed to burn into her very soul when he focused on her alone.
“You wish to become Aqun-Athlok?” he asked.
The term meant someone who was born as one gender but lives as another. The life of a Qunari was shaped by the role given to them by Tamassran priestesses when they came of age. Roles were different between genders, as each gender was deemed to excel at different things. Some roles, like members of the Ben-Hassrath, could be filled by both genders. In those cases each gender was still given separate positions with different titles and responsibilities that varied to some degree. Other roles, such as warriors and priestesses, were restricted to a particular gender.
It would be an inadequate allocation of resources to assign someone to a role meant for the opposite gender. There was nothing the Qunari hated more than mismanagement. But every once in a while, there would be someone born of one gender who was better suited to the role of another. They were the Aqun-Athlok. A Qunari’s place in the Qun was more important than any physical attribute. That was why converts from other races, or Viddathari, were so readily integrated. And to the Qunari, they were Qunari, not elf or human or dwarf.
The Aqun-Athlok were treated as the gender of the role they filled. For all intents and purposes aside from procreation, Mashari would be seen as a male. It was not what she hoped to achieve, but it would let her do what she wanted.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Na’thek,” the Ben-Hassrath nodded. “Karasten, find a Kas Eva from the plunder we still have on board.”
The warrior gave him a curt nod and headed out. With a wave of his hand, the hornless Qunari dismissed the two Karashoks as well before he turned his attention back to Mashari.
“You will be re-evaluated,” he stated. “In the absence of a Tamassran, I will make the judgement for the time being.”
“For the time being?”
“A Tamassran may evaluate you again once it is convenient.”
The two of them remained silent as the minutes passed. Nothing more needed to be said, so they waited. Then, the Karasten returned, an iron greatsword in hand. The Ben-Hassrath nudged his head towards Mashari, and the warrior handed her the weapon. She grasped the handle and pointed the blade upwards as she inspected the metal. It wasn’t anything special, but it had a sharp edge. And it felt good in her hands.
When she turned her attention back to the Ben-Hassrath, he had already stood and was making his way out of the cabin. Mashari followed him onto the deck and off the ship. He turned when they reached the shore and unsheathed his weapons, a set of two identical swords meant for single-handed use.
“Let us see if you are as fit for this role as you claim,” he said. He didn’t need to, as the drawing of his blades was enough. Mashari sprung to action. Her excitement fueled her as she swung her blade in a wide arc towards the hornless Qunari. The blade was heavier than she had expected, but she managed to complete the swing. The Ben-Hassrath stepped back from the clumsy attempt, unimpressed.
Mashari swung again, this time her blade making a diagonal cut. With a better grasp of the weapon’s balance, it moved more like she expected it to. The Ben-Hassrath still easily swatted it aside with one of his swords while thrusting the other towards her. The length of her greatsword put enough distance between the two for Mashari to react and she narrowly managed to avoid the jab, dragging her heavy blade awkwardly with her as she did.
The Ben-Hassrath continued his advance. He put his other leg forward and swung the sword he previously used to block. Mashari brought her blade up and knocked his out of the way, but just as she did, his other sword came at her. She quickly deflected the second blow and began to back up. His attacks followed one after the other, leaving no opportunity to counter. Soon her defense faltered, and the Ben-Hassrath landed a hit. He turned the blade on its flat edge to prevent any injury and quickly drew it back.
“You have the strength,” he remarked. “Unsurprisingly, you lack the skill.”
Mashari looked at the Ben-Hassrath expectantly, but he merely plunged his blades into the beach, “Again, without weapons.”
She nodded and did the same with her greatsword. The Ben-Hassrath raised his arms and adopted a ready stance. Mashari mimicked the pose, more careful now as she slowly approached the large male. He did not budge. It was evident he wanted her to make the first move, so she did. She swung for his head, but he blocked her arm with his left wrist. His right hand formed into a fist and jabbed directly in her chest before she had time to react and Mashari was sent stumbling back.
The blow was heavy and Mashari took a moment to regain her breath. When she looked back to the Ben-Hassrath, he stood waiting. Mashari charged him this time, closing the distance fast and trying to tackle him to the ground. He caught her by the shoulders, but the force of the charge had sent him a few steps back. She punched him in the stomach and he grunted but held on to her.
The Ben-Hassrath moved a leg behind Mashari’s to trip her to the ground. She acted at the same time, butting her head sideways into his, using the side of her horns to slam into the hornless male’s face. The two both fell and landed on the rough sand.
He stood first, spitting out a small amount of blood before speaking, “From this moment on, you are Aqun-Athlok.”
She...he clambered to his feet, shaking off some sand as he did, “And I will fight with the others?”
“What?” the confused and outraged expression on the former Mashari’s face was enough to speak for itself, though he could not help but blurt out the word as well.
“You are now Taarmashras,” the Ben-Hassrath stated flatly. “As you prepared food before, you will manage the food supplies of this expedition. That is the best use of your abilities.”
“What was the point of becoming Aqun-Athlok then?” Taarmashras inquired angrily.
“Because you requested it. You wished for a chance to fight. Not all males fight.”
“You may as well make me Mashari again.”
“You are now part of the Antaam,” the hornless Qunari stepped over to where the greatsword was plunged into the sand. He pulled it out and held the blade horizontally in both hands as he presented it to Taarmashras.
“This Valo-kas is yours. Guard it or lose all honour.”
The Aqun-Athlok was not expecting this. He took the weapon with one hand on the hilt and the other supporting the blade, “I shall.”
“You may train in combat,” the Ben-Hassrath explained. “As I said, you have the strength. You simply lack skill. If you train enough, the Tamassrans may make you Karashok when they evaluate you again.”
Taarmashras nodded, though the disappointment on his visage was clear. The other Qunari picked up on this. He turned away to retrieve his own twin blades but paused, glancing back.
“I know you wished to partake in this offensive, Taarmashras. You are not ready. Perhaps one day you will fight on the front lines. That day is not today.”
The Ben-Hassrath sheathed his swords and walked off. Taarmashras stood there on the beach holding the greatsword, torn between satisfaction and disappointment. He was part of the Antaam. He was given a weapon. Yet he was still not allowed to use it. That almost made everything he accomplished pointless.
Taarmashras repeated the Ben-Hassrath’s words in his mind. Perhaps one day. How much longer would he have to wait?