A plaintive baying noise cut across the sparse brush. It wasn’t the call of a zabou
…no, Dukat recognized this
sound. It was a riding hound. The hound bayed mournfully once again; it wasn’t long before Dukat heard the familiar galloping cadence of paws against earth, charging right down the middle of the zabou
herd, scattering them, much to Etil’an’s consternation. The particular breed used by the Kurabda had no fur whatsoever peeking out between its scales, which were grey, but of a much deeper shade than any person’s skin, making this hound look something like a stormcloud on four legs. There was a flash of a large object dangling from the hound’s mouth; Dukat couldn’t quite make it out as the riding hound streaked by.
Etil’an shouted a command in Kurabda—it took several tries, but eventually the hound froze almost comically mid-gallop and sat on its haunches, thumping its tail on the ground. Unlike the za’abou
, the end of the riding hound’s tail was devoid of fur and more clublike though it bore the same basic, bifurcated design, the same one often seen on the backfins of Cardassian starships. If necessary, it could be used as a bludgeon against other predatory species, or a rival hound in a fight over a female…or simply used to beat the ground to convey excitement, as it was doing now.
The face, as was typical of the more intelligent predatorial species, had a slightly more personlike aspect than the zabou
: the eyes aimed forward rather than sitting on the sides of the face, and Dukat could clearly distinguish hooked eye ridges much like his own encircling those of the hound—thickest above the eyes, but receding into the face a bit more quickly than his as they traced down from there and around the eyes. The ears were much like that of the zabou
, but taller, narrower, coming to sharper points as they stood from the skull. The ridges were less mobile, more of the musculature in that area needed, as in the direct ancestors of the Cardassians themselves, for the killing bite.
Now Dukat saw what the hound carried in its mouth: the animal gripped its own saddle between its enormous jaws, and gazed expectantly, almost plaintively, at Etil’an—and at its sitting height, the riding hound’s intelligent eyes met Etil’an’s almost straight on. The herder wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated; he just barked another Kurabda command. Gharumef leaned close to Dukat and translated with a whisper, “Drop it!” After the third repetition, the riding hound finally let its saddle fall to the ground, baying once more once its mouth was empty with the typical ba’ou-ba’ou
sound hounds made.
Etil’an said something else—“Stay!” came the translation—and he strode up to the riding hound, picking up the saddle, carefully avoiding the end that was covered in hound slobber. Now Etil’an, remembering Dukat’s presence, began to speak in the common tongue. “Ratoukhit, look at this…you chewed through the seat! You are a crazy boy—how do I sit on this now?”
Though Ratoukhit might not have understood the foreign words Etil’an spoke, he recognized the tone well enough and bowed his head and emitted a tiny, whining noise not unlike a child being chastised. In a way, that was exactly what Ratoukhit was doing; riding hounds possessed a pack instinct that was a stronger equivalent of the Cardassian hierarchical instinct, and this hound was quite aware of the fact that he had displeased one ranked higher than him in the pack.
“I will have to see Intehek about this,” Etil’an murmured to himself, still in the common tongue. “He bit a piece almost out of it. Have you learned to ride, Dukat?”
He shook his head, though a touch hesitant. Not really
. When he was very little, his primary school class had taken a trip to a petting zoo to get a chance to see some of the animals up close that city children would never have a chance to see in person otherwise. He remembered his father, who had managed to clear his docket for a day to be one of the chaperones, lifting him up and putting him on the back of a docile old riding hound. I didn’t
ride so much as let someone lead us around
, he thought—but at the moment, it had sure felt like the crowning achievement of his brief life.
“You will need help if you ride,” Etil’an said—and this made sense. Riding hounds were extremely auditory animals; while they responded to touch commands from their riders, they much preferred to hear the voices of their masters, even if only as a whisper. Being unable to speak, Dukat would have a difficult time bonding on his own with a riding hound, teaching it to heel and obey his wishes. A riding hound without a sense of proper discipline from its master could accidentally throw a rider in its rambunctious sense of play—a state of affairs that hounds seemed to find just as upsetting after the fact as the person unfortunate enough to be thrown.
Thousands of years domesticated, aggression towards Cardassians carefully bred out of them over the millennia, they seemed to truly care for their Cardassian masters, recognizing them as smarter, skilled with weapons and fire, but physically weaker than themselves: creatures at once deserving respect and needing protection. That was why, predatory animals that they were, they willingly allowed themselves to be ridden—it was the instinctive understanding that without them, a person had nowhere near the speed, the ability to rout prey and flee other predators, that they did. They needed the protection a riding hound could offer, as far as the hound was concerned; in return they received companionship, shelter from the elements, and not just the spoils of their own hunts but the great beasts the Cardassians speared or shot at a distance.
And in this relationship was the great blessing about riding hounds, compared to the mounts he had heard of some other species riding, especially the prey-animal steeds: a hound was not filled with the deep and constant fear of the very thing they had been bred to do. The thought unnerved Dukat on some level...to break an animal until it wanted to do something against its nature because no other option was left--it didn't feel right somehow.
Hounds did have to be trained, taught their place in the pack, and taught their own strength so their enthusiasm would injure neither hound nor master, but whatever instinctive fear their ancestors might have had of being saddled and ridden was largely gone. And like Ratoukhit, they often expressed their willingness to carry their Cardassian masters by grabbing pieces of their riding tack in their mouths, if they happened to find it, and presenting it in a hopeful invitation. One could really and truly know that a riding hound wanted
to fulfill its purpose.
Ratoukhit whined quietly once more, shifting his hindquarters in the sand, long snout craned up towards the sky. “I know, boy,” Etil’an was saying. Now that Ratoukhit had been sufficiently chastened for sinking his teeth into his saddle and charging through the herd of za’abou
, the herder took the time to scratch the riding hound under the chin. “This is not the time—we have guests.” He turned back to Dukat. “Maybe someday, you can ride. After your vow…or with someone to lead. Would you like that?”
Dukat smiled, letting the wideness of his eyes and their encircling ridges transmit his pleasure at the thought.
“Now…” Etil’an murmured, “time for you to learn how to skin a zabou
. The kill is already done this time—away from Ratoukhit,” he specified. “Never kill the animal a hound guards where it can see you.” Dukat nodded understandingly; to do so would suggest to the hound that its charges were instead acceptable prey. “Come with me. I want to see how you use the knife. You will need this for skinning—and for riding. You know why, yes?”
Dukat nodded. Riding hounds shared their kills with their masters as they would with the leaders of their packs. One thing every rider had to be prepared to do—even the most refined competitive rider—was to slice a symbolic bite of meat from any freshly killed prey, lock eyes with the hound, and immediately eat it in the animal’s presence, before allowing their steed to partake. Even when pups were first weaned, this was a hard rule that established dominance over the larger, stronger animals: their masters might be far more generous than a fellow riding hound, allowing them nearly all the rewards of their kills, but it was theirs, and theirs always, to take the first spoils and grant permission for the rest. Whatever the hound ate, the master ate from first.
Before they could make it more than a few steps away from the herd and the hound, Ratoukhit stared up into the sky somewhere around the peaks of the distant Noumara Mountains, opened his mouth, and let out a mistrustful, strident ba’ou
. He no longer thumped the weighted end of his tail on the ground. There was no more excitement…this was urgent—a desperate warning.
At first nothing was obviously wrong. A zerayd
hovered overhead, but imposing as the obsidian-feathered carrion-eaters might appear, they would never attack a zabou
, let alone in the presence of a riding hound and a group of Cardassians. Etil’an scrutinized the hound; Gharumef did as well. Ratoukhit still refused to tear his attention from the sky. Whatever the threat was, it was there. Dukat tensed, mentally whispering a prayer to Oralius—what was happening?
His ears did not hear it at first…they were nowhere near as sharp as a riding hound’s. Ever since the era of jet travel had passed, aerospace engines had become much quieter though still quite audible at near- and supersonic speeds. These hurtled overhead at what seemed to be just below the speed to avoid a sonic boom. They flew daringly low as they crested over the mountains, their courses straight, unharassed, the ships themselves showing few battle scars in the moments they were visible—
—and they were entirely the wrong shape, the wrong color, not rust and ochre, but maroon with accents of blinding bronze.
No one’s fighting them—why is no one fighting them…oh, Oralius, dear Oralius, we’ve truly fallen! The Bajorans…are those troop carriers?!
Nothing had stopped them—they had to be headed straight for Culat—
Dukat’s finger stabbed at the sky, his jaw dropped involuntarily and he emitted a terrified, sharp, yet voiceless gasp that startled him just as much as it did Gharumef and Etil’an.
He wasn’t sure what stunned him the most about it: the fact that he’d had enough control, even now, not to cry out despite every nerve in his body clamoring to do so—or the mute sound that had
escaped. It almost, almost
reminded him of the awful sound the dying soldier had made.
He knew how odd his wild gesticulation and voiceless outburst must have seemed to them; he tried to compose himself as quickly as he could, but his effort was faltering at best. His eyes were still so wide, and his hands still trembled and his heart beat furiously in his chest.
He felt something cross into range of his bioelectric sense and he spun, the most primitive part of him wanting to lash out at the intruder—but he breathed deeply, let his eyes focus on the source. It was Gharumef, who had drawn his hand just near enough for Dukat to detect the bioelectric field, but not yet touching. Only after he made eye contact did the warrior lay that hand upon his shoulder…touching a Cardassian without warning in a moment of such extremes could trigger a defensive instinct strong enough that he might strike even the dearest friend or family member before he realized what he was doing.
“Were those the outworlders you told us about when you first came here?” Gharumef questioned.
Dukat confirmed, lips pressed into a tight line that had less to do with suppressing speech and more to do with the awful gravity of the situation.
“We should warn the others,” Gharumef determined. “Etil’an…your lesson will have to wait. We will return to inform you as soon as there has been a decision. As for me…I intend to recommend that we break camp. They were headed for Culat; even old Kekil village is too close for me.”