Even before he felt the weight of Rulaahan’s hand on his shoulder, he felt it as her bioelectric field reached into his subconscious mind, jarring him awake with a start. He couldn’t remember why anyone else would be there in his dorm room to wake him, what had happened to his familiar blankets and pillows, nor how he had fallen asleep in his clothes and he very nearly shouted—until his ears picked up a hissing sound.
As he blinked a few times, he realized it wasn’t hissing…it was the Kurabda Guide, Rulaahan, making a soft shushing sound. He remembered his oath then, and everything that had preceded it…yesterday? This morning? What day is it, anyway?
He didn’t think he’d been asleep all that long, though he couldn’t be sure, and he certainly couldn’t ask.
Now, seeing him fully awake, Rulaahan spoke. “May the song of morning fill your spirit,” she greeted him as he got to his feet.
And yours as well, Guide
. He met Rulaahan’s eyes with a rather bleary smile that he hoped still managed to convey a sense of gratitude, and extracted himself from under the blanket he’d pulled over himself just before he fell asleep.
As he pulled the blanket back, he spotted a clear silhouette of dust on the blanket he’d laid over the mat. Regret flashed across his face, and he started trying to brush it off with his hand. “That’s not necessary,” Rulaahan chided. “You had nothing else to wear; of course you were going to get dust on things. You will be provided with more appropriate clothing soon—once we have seen you among us, we should be able to tell who is closest to your height and build, who can spare a set of robes and nightclothes.” Dukat pulled his boots back on, wincing with the pain. “And sandals,” Rulaahan added. “Now—are you ready?”
Dukat nodded, albeit after a moment’s hesitation.
“Then follow me,” the Guide commanded, and he inclined his head in obedience as she parted the curtain ahead of him and waited for him to step into the main chapel. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but for some reason, this introduction had him far more nervous than he normally was with meeting new people. Just what
would they be thinking of this silent young city-dweller?
The colors of the tapestry shone straight down upon the ark where the Hebitian Records were stored; he knew from this that it had to be midday. Unless he’d managed to sleep for an entire day—and it didn’t feel like he’d had that much sleep—then Rulaahan had allowed him little more than a nap. He supposed, in light of the disciplines they could have asked from him, that this was still quite generous.
While they were still inside the chapel, Rulaahan stopped and faced him; Dukat mirrored the motion. “Some of the men are hunting; there are others who cannot leave their tasks and will not have the chance to see you right now. If they speak to you and expect an answer, this
is how to respond.” Closing her mouth, she touched her own lips and throat with middle and forefinger much as she had Dukat’s that morning.
Dukat copied the motion, thankful for the relative simplicity of this sign. He’d seen what the common sign language looked like, and though he’d learned the basic signs everyone did in school, a full conversation still looked like an intricate, unreadable blur of hands to him.
Rulaahan nodded her approval at his imitation. “All but the younger children understand that sign. They will understand the reason for your silence and not hold it against you,” she informed him. “Now come—they’re waiting.”
The tall young man followed the Guide, exiting the chapel tent behind her. The desert sun blazed high and red in the expansive sky above, forcing him to squint and duck his head in the first few moments, letting his eye ridges do the job they were designed for and shade his sensitive eyes. Once he could see clearly, Dukat took stock of the crowd gathered in the center of the encampment.
All of them, male or female, wore long, flowing, layered robes of light, loose fabric; the women’s robes differed only slightly in the cut, but were easily distinguished by an elaborately-embroidered sash tied around the waist and trailing at the right side. Some, both men and women, wore simple head coverings—cloths tied to the head by beaded bands, that draped down well past the shoulders, covering what of the neck ridges the robes allowed to show. If there was a rule as to who covered their heads and who did not, Dukat wasn’t sure of it yet. Those whose hair was visible had woven ornamented cords in with tiny braids—somewhere from one to five on the same person; this custom was shared by men and women alike.
There seemed to be more women than men, a number of them accompanied by children. “People of Kekil-haaf,” she began, still speaking in the common tongue, “in our world’s time of crisis, Oralius has placed a pilgrim from the city under our care. This is Skrain Dukat of the city of Culat, and he comes to live among us, seeking to learn more of the ways of Oralius, and to learn our ways as well. He has sought the disciplines of our people, and as such, he has undertaken a vow of silence and does not speak. He understands only the common tongue, so that must be the language of your teachings. It is my hope and prayer that you will do all you can to make him welcome among you and to teach him what you know.”
Dukat managed a nervous flicker of a smile and a quick but deep bow as a few voices from the assembled crowd greeted him.
Oh, Oralius…where do I start?
It was in that moment that Gharumef approached, lifting a hand with palm outwards towards Dukat’s shoulder, stopping about twenty centimeters away. Though he did not touch the young refugee, but the sensation of his bioelectric field made his point.
Please don’t let me offend him
, Dukat prayed, mirroring the gesture with an uncertain expression on his face, in hopes of finding out exactly what this foreign custom meant. As he brought his hand close to Gharumef’s shoulder, his hand extended the range of his own bioelectric sense like an RF antenna, drawing information about Gharumef’s physical state without requiring an actual touch. The warrior seemed alert, but relaxed; with that, Dukat figured he’d probably been well-received.
“That’s correct,” Gharumef said. “That is the greeting between men, of one friend to another. Now come—I have just spoken with my brother Arokef, and he has kindly offered an extra set of clothing to you. It is best that you change now; what you are wearing is good for the city where you are only outside for brief periods, but not so good for living here.”
Grateful for Arokef’s generosity, and for the Gharumef’s guidance, Dukat fell into line behind the warrior, but not before he cast one more thankful gaze at the Guide Rulaahan.
None of this was at all what Skrain Dukat had expected. He was dressed now in the manner of a Kurabda nomad, save for the long queue he left tied back in Culatda fashion. The light material of his inner and outer robes draped around his body in an unaccustomed manner for one accustomed to the closely-tailored styles of the city, and a simple headdress draped over his head and the sensitive skin at the back of his long neck—a very useful piece of clothing, Gharumef’s younger brother had explained, given the work he would be engaged in at first, which would require him to kneel outside for a time.
And that work was…not what Dukat had expected, either. I thought I was supposed to become a warrior
, he thought to himself as he raised his borrowed knife…to peel a teliyk
root—and rather clumsily at that. For what felt like the thousandth time, Reh’met was reaching over and correcting his grip, mumbling something under her breath in the Kurabda language that Dukat couldn’t understand and couldn’t ask for the translation that right now she did not see fit to provide. Probably cursing my ineptness
, Dukat thought darkly, praying for the strength not reply with an unkind gaze in response. Instead, Dukat dipped his head in a gesture of apology as he allowed his hands to be guided.
Something flickered briefly across Reh’met’s face, as her hands drew near and then made contact. “You are too tense,” Reh’met admonished as she observed his efforts to cut the outer portion of the ridged root. “This is why you cannot angle the blade correctly. You must not do this; cut too deep and you waste the useful matter inside…cut too shallow and you leave the skin, whose taste is too bitter to bear if bitten into. Relax and focus, Dukat.”
I just watched alien invaders land in my city, they’re doing Oralius knows what back there, my family has no idea where I am or if I’m even alive, I’m running on maybe a couple hours of sleep, and you’re telling me to
Dukat thought furiously, lips pressed together to avert any lapses. As if I’m supposed to just sit here and chop roots like that’s the only thing that matters? What a
fine skill to add to my fighting repertoire—advanced vegetable chopping.
He voiced none of this, of course, but the words still refused to cease in his mind. What was the purpose of this? Was it some kind of test calculated to drive him mad? He couldn’t object—he had no choice—but it frustrated him nonetheless.
Dukat tried again, slicing a bit more slowly at the teliyk
root this time, counting slowly in his head the way his mother had taught him to do whenever he felt his temper rising.
Then a male voice cut across the camp, shouting Reh’met’s name. What followed was a rapid burst in the Kurabda language that Dukat couldn’t understand, but the tone sounded…tense. Exasperated. Grudgingly, with a long-suffering expression of her own, Reh’met stood, tossing only a few curt words towards Dukat to excuse herself. “Stay there—Lehnedrel will show you what to do next.” With that she strode off with the look of one girding on armor for battle.
An odd sort of discomfort settled over Dukat and after stealing one more quick glance at the retreating form of Reh’met, he averted his eyes. It was the sense of having just witnessed something…indecent somehow. Lehnedrel made no comment; unsure what else to do, Dukat resumed his work with the teliyk
The knife slipped again, this time very nearly scraping the microscales off an ill-placed finger. Finally, despite himself, Dukat let out an exasperated sigh and froze at the end of his motion. He hadn’t wanted to show his frustration in front of Reh’met, even in the nonverbal fashion available to him, but now, with his instructor absent, he simply couldn’t hold it in any longer. What is the
purpose of this!?
he mentally groused. And now he’d gone and alienated his instructor somehow, even before
that interruption! And on top of that, she knew
he was new to all of this, knew
he had no way to ask questions…how could she be so inconsiderate?
“Dukat,” Lehnedrel finally said, once Reh’met was out of earshot.
the young man asked with a sharper nod than he intended, lifting an eye ridge.
“Just…try.” Her accent was much thicker than that of Reh’met, her speech in the common tongue much more hesitant. “You do well, for a first try. Reh’met…try—to understand her. Her husband—” Lehnedrel jabbed a discreet finger in their direction. “He—they…are not good friends now. It is difficult…very, very difficult to Reh’met.”
Dukat’s ears and jaw ridges burned. Forgive me
, he thought, addressing Lehnedrel and Oralius both as he bowed his head. He put his hand to his heart, which beat beneath the vestigial sensory node at the center of his chest—a feature that it was believed had helped the Cardassians’ ancestors, back when that node still functioned, to sense not only external but internal bioelectric fluctuations and sort the emanations of their own fields from external stimuli. Hoping the gesture would translate in some fashion, he locked regretful eyes with Lehnedrel. I’m sorry…I didn’t realize
. He pointed in the same direction as Lehnedrel had, then brought his hand back to his heart. I will pray for her tonight.
Lehnedrel gave a faint smile in return. “You did not do this, Dukat.”
He mirrored her expression, but his heart still refused to rest. I know…but I misjudged. I was so quick to assume her problem was with me.
He glanced down again, as though she might read his thoughts through his eyes. And I was just as quick to turn that frustration right back on her.
Dukat drew a deep, steadying breath through his nose, then released it. He took up the knife and teliyk
roots again, angling his actions slightly towards Lehnedrel and raising his eye ridges. Will you help me?
“You are nearly finished,” Lehnedrel assured him as the nearby pot of water began to boil. “These need…to be in, soon. In the pot,” she amended with a clarifying sweep of the hand. Her eye ridges furrowed for a moment, seeming almost…embarrassed, perhaps at her limited skills with the common tongue.
He met the Kurabda woman’s eyes. You’re worried about your speech, in front of a man who can’t speak at all?
His lips quirked up in a silent laugh, and she smiled—perhaps not sure what had prompted Dukat’s more genial expression, but accepting it nonetheless.
And with that, they began again.
Finally, as the sun dipped below the desert horizon, Dukat enjoyed the luxury of a full stomach. While Lehnedrel and Reh’met had kindly allowed him to snack on the ingredients as they’d worked, realizing perhaps that he’d had little to eat during the previous day’s ordeal, this was the first full meal he’d had since the beginning of the invasion—for that was what it had had to be. The stew that had come of their labors hadn’t been half bad, he mused…the spices were foreign, yes, but it seemed, perhaps, that his own work, however halting it had been at times, served to sweeten the taste a bit, as it were.
The meal had been relatively enjoyable, as well. Eating was a communal affair among the Kurabda, and a small group had gathered, choosing to converse amongst themselves in the common tongue in order that the city-born pilgrim among them might feel as though he belonged. It was definitely strange, just as Rulaahan had predicted—perhaps from her own experience?—to sit amongst these people and hear their thoughts and their stories, all the while having to resist every one of his natural instincts to ask his own questions and add his commentary. He had no control whatsoever over the course of the conversation, although he’d had to admit their decision to speak Cardăsda was most kind.
And it had taken every last shred of self-control, though, once the topic of the radio had come up. The people of Kekil-haaf had, for the past five hundred years, kept one to maintain some sort of knowledge of the outside world…undoubtedly the doing of the Kekilda townsmen, who had wanted some sort of memory of home. There was still no signal, they said, no broadcasts whatsoever on the subspace band, and only sporadic bursts of activity on the encrypted military bands, only audible as bursts of static. “There must still be resistance,” Gharumef had speculated…but there was nothing, no real news, upon which to base that conclusion.
Oralius, please—let us still have a chance!
Dukat prayed in solitude now, kneeling in the desert sand, his recitation mask sitting securely on his face as Rulaahan had permitted to him in isolation. His stomach churned as it worked on his meal, and a pang of guilt sliced through his spirit. Had his family eaten so well tonight? Were they safe from Bajoran depredations as he currently was? Why had he been singled out for this strange and bittersweet blessing?
At last, a tear slipped free from the corner of his eye, running down his face and soaking into the inside of his wooden recitation mask. He made no move to remove the mask even though it was entirely possible they might stain the wood on the reverse side; the honest tears of an anguished and prayerful spirit were about as far from desecration of the consecrated object as one could get.
It was time now. Now that the second day of the Bajoran invasion of Cardassia and the first day of Skrain Dukat’s pilgrimage in the desert of Kurab drew to a close, it was the time to mourn. And as he silently wept, kneeling in the sand with the mask of Oralius upon his face, he got the distinct sense that another spirit moved through him…and grieved through him…as well, for the pain of a beloved people under siege.