He looked up to where the Warden was nestled in the crook of a tree-branch. "Kadan."
She smiled down at him, head tilted back, catching the last notes golden notes of sunlight. "Do you know how to climb trees?"
He frowned. "A soldier of the Beresaad has no need of climbing and hiding in trees."
Mahariel. The name was a clumsy thing and did not suit her. The Warden changed her angle and slid backward, hanging from the branch by her knees, dark hair falling to reveal gracefully pointed ears. Her face was nearly level with his. "But can you?"
Sten's frown creased his brow further, but he stepped past her hanging form to grapple with the trunk of the tree, armor and all.
Mahariel smothered her giggles as she watched him clamber up, almost wrestling with the tree in an attempt to balance out his great size with the narrow crooks and turns of the bark and branches. He was tangled up halfway on her branch, crouching, leaves dangling in his face when she swept smoothly upright and finally patted the spot beside her, inviting him to sit. He did. Heavily.
But the branch remained stable, and Sten looked to her expectantly.
She knew he would not ask why have you asked me up here, Kadan or this is ridiculous, what are we doing or I am here what will you do now. Truly, she had expected him to turn and walk back to their camp area and finish setting the fire and tents, rather than indulge her. But here he was, and his amethyst eyes held all the questions he did not care to voice, even if his face remained impassive.
Mahariel turned her gaze to the now-setting sun, orange on the horizon, sporting glinting drops of red across the clouds like a bloody trail. "Is there a word for love in Qunlat?" she asked after a moment. She often asked him questions such as this. He knew this one was different.
Sten did not move. "Not as you think of it."
She fixed him under her gaze. His skin showed a dark bronze in the light of the setting sun. "How, then?"
For a moment, she feared he would remain silent.
When he spoke, he spoke slowly. "We do not express… affection as the bas do. All of this… copulation for the sake of enjoyment, the… touching of the mouths. All of this is unnecessary, a waste—foolish by the Qun. Is it not enough to have a bond without all of the touching? The way of the Qun teaches that we may find meaning in each other as we serve our people: an extension of our duty and heart to one who is worthy. This is what it is to 'love.'"
Mahariel's gaze fell again to the horizon, to the last slivers of gold and orange over the hills. "But that is not the word your people use."
Sten began to miss his helm, left nestled in the roots at the foot of the tree. Qunari were not meant to sit in the branches of trees conversing with elves.
And yet he had climbed up anyway.
"Will you tell me the word?" she asked.
It was his turn to observe the lingering light of the sun as it made the hills and trees and farmsteads but dark silhouettes against the sky. "There is no word; there is duty and the spirit."
Strange how many words unspoken could be sounded in a single syllable.
Sten did not turn his gaze as he spoke again. "There is only the name given to the one found worthy, the one with whom the bond is forged: Kadan."
Her lips formed the word but its sound caught in her throat.
Sten glanced at her sidelong, hands carefully balancing his weight on the branch, on either side. "It means 'where the heart lies.' It encompasses duty and care, sometimes affection. It is the word we have for those dear to us."
A smile tugged at Mahariel's lips. "May I call you so, Sten, encompassing all of my care and affection for you these months?"
It pleased him more than it should have. He inclined his head. "Yes, Kadan."
She smiled and reached over to brush her fingers over his hand, just once, and settled back, "Kadan," she tasted the word, smile never fading. Yes. That seemed exactly right.