"What's the matter, Ashara? Too short to climb up here?"
Ashara could hear the two boys snickering above her in the large tree and she gritted her teeth, determined to pull herself up to their height. By stretching her arms as far as they would go she reached up and managed to get a grip on what seemed like a sturdy branch, though she shook it a little to see how steady it was. When it didn't move she thought it should be able to support her. She grasped onto it with both hands and jumped off the limb she was standing on, trying to pull herself up. But her eight year old arms weren't strong enough to pull her entire body up and soon she was dangling in the air, only holding on by her hands. With an annoyed tut she let herself go and fell four feet to the ground. She tried to land on her feet but missed and tumbled onto her bottom. Above her, Tamlen and Fenarel collapsed into laughter.
Ashara quickly jumped up and glared at them. They were clinging to branches to keep themselves steady, and she was sure she saw tears of laughter in the corners of Fenarel's eyes. "Shut up!" she demanded, stomping her foot angrily. But it didn't do any good. If anything, they started laughing even harder.
Jerks, she thought to herself. She held her hands out in front of her, directing her palms towards the two boys. See how much they laugh after she hurled a fist of stone at them. They weren't much higher than she had been, they wouldn't even break any bones from such a fall. But it sure would shut them up if they got knocked down. Ha! She grinned triumphantly and began muttering the spell.
"Ashara, what are you doing?" She jumped and lost focus as she heard the disapproving voice. It was right behind her, she twisted and whipped her hands behind her back to see Master Ilen, the Clan's craftsman, staring down at her with his arms crossed and an amused frown on his face. "You know you're not supposed to use your magic unless the Keeper allows it."
"But I wasn't hahren," Ashara said sweetly, and her violet eyes widened innocently. Most of the adults of the Clan thought she was adorable and she had learned from an early age to use that advantage at any given moment. She almost never got in trouble; the adults would pat her on the head and tell her to go back to Ashalle's aravel. Only the Keeper, and perhaps Ashalle herself, were immune to her charm. "I was just going to tell them that it was dangerous to be up so high."
Master Ilen's lips twitched, though he didn't believe her for a moment, and he looked up at Tamlen and Fenarel who were watching with wide eyes. "You two, come down here."
The boys groaned loudly, irritated that their fun had gotten interrupted but they complied, easily dropping down from the tree and landing on their feet. They straightened their tunics and came to stand next to Ashara, sure that they would be scolded. Children weren't supposed to climb trees in case they should hurt themselves. The Keeper, who was a powerful mage, could heal them easily but she had more important things to conserve her mana for. Of course, both boys were clever enough to say it was Ashara's fault. She always took the blame, and somehow managed to keep them all out of trouble. It was how they always responded when they got caught doing something they weren't supposed to do, and it worked well for all three of them.
But Master Ilen only shook his head and sighed. These three were known around Camp as the troublemakers, the ones who always needed to be watched. They were always getting into something they shouldn't, or playing childish pranks on the others. But they never hurt anyone, and even the Keeper seemed to find their antics amusing. "Shouldn't you three be back at camp? Ashara, aren't you supposed to be with the Keeper?"
Ashara shook her head. "Marethari is helping the Clan prepare to move, she said Merill and I could have the day." Whenever a Dalish child reached five summers they were sent to study with one of the hahren, to learn a skill that they would use as adults. Most often a child got to choose the path they wanted to take, but in rare cases where a child was born with magical ability they were sent to train with the Keeper, who could teach them the ancient magic of their ancestors, but most importantly how to control their gift. Ashara was one of two Dalish children born to the Clan. The other was a girl named Merill, and both girls spent most of their days studying with the Keeper. It was rare that they were given a day to themselves.
"Tasar gave us the day too," Tamlen said excitedly. "He has the hunters helping to gather food for the move and said he didn't need us." Both Tamlen and Fenarel were learning to be hunters, they had been training for four years, since their fifth summer. Most of the boys chose that path, though some of the girls chose to be hunters as well.
Master Ilen let out another sigh. "Well I doubt they meant for you to crash around in the forest and scare off everything in range. Go back to camp, and make yourselves useful. I'm sure you can find something to do."
Fenarel hopped from one foot to the other, he could never manage to sit still. "Let's race!"
Tamlen nodded eagerly, and the two of them abruptly ran off while Master Ilen merely shook his head and Ashara scurried after them. She tried to keep up but it was difficult. Tamlen and Fenarel were used to running; hahren Tasar usually had his young hunters practice to build up their endurance and get them used to chasing after prey. So while the two of them easily jumped over logs and avoided the low hanging branches, after a short distance Ashara stumbled and somehow managed to fall headlong into a large bush.
She laid on her stomach for a second, stunned, before she rolled herself over and sat up, angrily pushing her black bangs away from her face. Her long tunic was ripped, the leather belt around her waist was askew and when she lifted her knee she could see through the tear of her leggings the scrape there. Blood was trickling down her leg and tears suddenly pricked at the corners of her eyes. She rubbed them with the back of her hands, if Fenarel caught her crying he'd never stop teasing her. But at the sight of the blood on her knee it suddenly started hurting, she could feel the sting of the painful throbbing.
She heard leaves rustling and swiftly wiped her face, holding her breath to keep from sniffling. Fenarel would tell everyone in camp that she had been caught crying, and she would never hear the end of it. But as the bushes were pushed aside she saw that it wasn't Fenarel who found her; it was Tamlen. His blue eyes were wide and he knelt down in front of her. "What happened?" he asked, though she could swear he was biting back laughter. "Did you fall?"
Ashara lifted up her chin. "No," she said defensively. Tamlen was her best friend, had been her best friend since they were really little. He was only a year older than her and though they each spent their days training for different paths, he trained with hahren Tasar while she trained with the Keeper, whenever they had free time they spent it playing jokes on the people in camp, or scavenging through the forest, usually accompanied by Fenarel. There was very little that she didn't share with Tamlen, she found it easier to talk to him than the girls around camp. But that didn't mean she needed to tell him that she had almost been crying.
Of course it didn't matter, Tamlen could see the cut on her knee. He knew she'd never admit that it hurt but she could hardly walk back to camp with her leg bleeding the whole way. He stood up and reached a hand down to her. "Come on, I can carry you back to camp."
Ashara narrowed her eyes at him and defiantly struggled to stand up on her own. "I don't need you to help me," she said arrogantly.
Tamlen stifled a laugh. "I didn't say you needed help." He knew how she was, she never liked to think that anyone was helping her with anything. "But I've seen hunters get hurt while out searching, and they don't mind if someone carries them back to camp." When she hesitated he continued. "If you try to walk back to camp by yourself your leg is going to hurt worse and it's going to bleed everywhere." He glanced at her slyly. "You know, wolves are attracted to the smell of blood."
Ashara stiffened and her eyes grew wide. He almost felt guilty at lying to her, but she needed to get back to camp and get the cut checked out before it got worse. She was terrified of wolves, ever since hahren Paivel told them the story of Fen'Harel, the Dread Wolf, and how he would sneak up on his unsuspecting prey in the night and whisk them away, never to be heard from again. "Okay," she said nervously, glancing back to make sure there weren't any wolves hiding behind her.
Tamlen pressed his lips together to keep from laughing and turned around so she could climb onto his back. He hooked his hands on the back of her knees, careful to avoid her cut, and she wrapped her arms around his neck to keep herself steady. "You ready?" he asked. She nodded and he started walking back to camp, talking the whole way about how Fenarel was going to wonder where they were, and how he was hungry and couldn't wait for the evening meal.
Ashara listened to him talk, and though she'd never admit it to him, her knee was starting to feel better.
The sun was setting and scents from the evening meal drifted to Ashara, Tamlen and Fenarel from their spot by Ashalle's aravel. They had been caught pouring cumin powder in Junar and Meira's drinks. Or rather, they had been caught after the two young hunters in training began coughing and wheezing from the bitter taste of the water. Fenarel had tried to keep a straight face but couldn't, and as soon as he began snickering Ashara and Tamlen had succumbed to laughter themselves. Ashalle had confined the three of them to her aravel until evening meal was ready. As Ashara's adoptive mother, she was used to the girl's innocent looks and Tamlen's smooth words, and didn't believe any of them for a moment when they claimed it was nothing more than an accident.
Fenarel sighed dramatically and leaned against one of the barrels used to store goods. "This is boring, it wasn't that big of a deal."
Tamlen couldn't help but smirk. "Did you see the way Meira's eyes started watering and how Junar started sneezing?" He almost doubled over from laughter at the memory.
Ashara lifted her chin. "I told you it would work," she said smugly. Part of the job of Keeper was knowing different ways to heal the Clan. They trained in herbal lore, and learned the many uses for various herbs scattered around the forest. Since the Clan was constantly moving they had access to a wide variety of plants to use. Ashara loved learning the different uses for various herbs, though in all honesty she didn't always use them for good purposes.
Tamlen grinned at her but Fenarel sighed heavily and looked around at the Clan bustling about, packing up belongings and getting everything ready for the move. "So we move the Clan tomorrow." He glanced at Ashara. "Did the Keeper tell you where we're going?"
The Keeper was the one who decided when and where the Clan should move. It was their responsibility to maintain the overall health and welfare of the Clan. As one of the mage children, Ashara was in training with Merill to learn the duties of the Keeper; Marethari often told them things she didn't reveal to the rest of the Clan. "She says we're to go north, to the summer clearing near the ocean."
"That will take us a few days, won't it?" Tamlen asked. He glanced smugly at Ashara. "Did you know that Tasar is going to let me and Fenarel try hunting when we get to the next camp place?" His voice lifted in his pride and Fenarel sat up straighter; it was every boy's dream to participate in his first hunt. No one expected a hunter to make his first kill until around thirteen, but they started joining in the hunts as soon as they were able to.
"Really?" Ashara gasped. "I'm sure you both can do it!" Tamlen had confided to her that he wanted to be Chief Hunter one day; she was sure that he could do it, he always paid attention to Tasar's lessons and practiced with his bow more often than anyone else.
"I'm going to give you whatever I catch," he continued. "Then you can use the fur to make a medicine pouch like the one the Keeper has."
Ashara giggled, envisioning how wonderful it would be to have a pouch like Marethari's. The Keeper put all of her healing herbs in it, as well as various stones or amulets that she used in sacred rituals. She kept it with her at all times, saying that the pouch was too important to be out of her sight. "I'll carry it around when I'm made First, and then when I become Keeper every Clan will know that you got it for me!"
Tamlen laughed. "Of course you'll be made First, who else would it be? Merill?" He snickered.
"Don't be mean to her!" Ashara reprimanded crossly. Everyone was always picking on poor Merill, just because she was quiet and didn't join the rest of them in their loud laughter and mischievous adventures. But Ashara studied with Merill almost every day and knew that she was just shy. She just took her studies seriously, and was really very sweet. Ashara got along really well with her.
"But she's so nervous all the time," Fenarel complained. "Always studying, and making us be quiet when hahren Paivel tells stories."
"That's because the Keeper says it's important to learn our history and she wants us to be proud of who we are," Ashara retorted firmly.
"Whatever, you'll definitely be made First instead of her," Tamlen said confidently.
Dalish mages were rare, so when one was born to a Clan on their fifth summer they began training as First, apprentice to the Keeper. If a Clan didn't have a First, when it was time for the arlathvhen, the meeting of all the Dalish Clans that occurred once every ten years, they would get a mage child from a different Clan. It was to ensure that the tradition of Keeper and First continued. Not only was a Keeper basically the leader of a Clan, but they were also responsible for holding all of the ancient history and lore left over from the ancient days of Arlathan. It was a hard job, after the shemlen came and enslaved the elves they lost almost everything.
Their Clan was an extremely rare occurrence; it had birthed two mages: Ashara and Merill. So while they spent their time learning what all Dalish mages learned, they were also in competition for the spot of First. Whichever one was not chosen would be sent to live with another Clan. Ashara was determined to be made First over Merill.
The thought made her nervous, but Tamlen's confidence was always encouraging. She tossed him a grin. "I hope so! When we're old enough to get the vallaslin the Keeper will make her choice." The rite occurred when a child reached fifteen summers; it was their marking of adulthood, what set them apart from the da'len. Each of them chose the god they wanted to represent, and the design of that god was tattooed onto their face. It told the world that they were Dalish, and reminded them to never bow down to shemlen rule.
Fenarel let out a wistful sigh. "I have no idea what design I want when I get my vallaslin," he said.
"I'm going to have Andruil's design," Tamlen said enthusiastically. "All the hunter should have Her design."
As the two of them started bickering over which tattoo they wanted as adults, Ashara tuned out and watched the camp scurry about. Tomorrow they would be moving, traveling to their northern camp. She had gotten used to it; the Clan was always moving from one spot to the next. The Keeper had explained that the Dalish must always move. To stay in one spot was to invite problems with the shemlen. But it didn't seem fair to Ashara. Why should the Dalish move, when all they wanted was to be left alone? What was it about them that made the humans so angry?
She knew from studying their history that one time, so long ago that no one could remember it, the elves had been immortal and lived all across the land. They built glorious cities and even had a home of their own. But the shemlen came and took it all away. They forced all the elves to become slaves, and even after the elves were freed they had lost everything. So now they had to keep moving because the shemlen hated them for being who they were.
Ashara had never seen a shemlen before, but Ashalle had told her that while they looked similar to elves, they were very different. They were big, and had such small ears that they were almost invisible. She said they were often dirty and their faces were red. Even their eyes were small and watery. Hahren Paivel said they were violent and angry, and wouldn't stop at hurting them. He said they still kidnapped elves, and made them into slaves. Ashara shuddered to think of it.
One day, she thought firmly to herself. When I'm made Keeper I'm going to get all of our history back.
shemlen - humans
hahren - elder, used as a sign of respect
da'len - little child
vallaslin - blood writing; the tattoos that children get to mark their entrance into adulthood. Each design represents a different deity
First chapter! This story is written to explore Ashara's personality and childhood, a kind of challenge for me to study her more. It also helps me to explore more of the Dalish culture, and will be a sort of companion piece to my other story about Kali, the city elf. Plus, I love coming up with ideas for all the shenanigans Ashara and Tamlen manage to get into. I hope the part about Ashara almost crying makes sense: if you work with children/have children, you know how if they hurt themselves they'll be fine, at least until they see blood. Once a kid sees blood it's over and the tears start pouring out XD
Well, I hope you enjoyed the chapter :D ~Seika