With directions from the Sokol-haaf, Dukat and Gharumef had saddled a riding hound the next day—Yaaras, this time—and left camp the very next morning. Taking leave of the people who had taken him in for the past six months proved more difficult than Dukat would ever have anticipated…though the words of Rulaahan provided him at least some consolation. This would not be their final parting.
You are a son to us now, Skrain—free to use anything we have taught you or given you, to dress as one of us if you wish. You will never be a stranger to the people of Kekil-haaf. You know our ways…you know how to find us. If we can help you to free our world…simply ask.
Their journey had lasted the better part of a week; without the encumbrances of the entire tribe, they covered the wilderness territory much faster than they had on the migration. The lights of the city still weren’t visible from here—but Dukat had sensed it nonetheless…Culat, albeit the south side now, was near.
On the final morning, Gharumef had turned back. If there were soldiers, rebels in this area, best not to alarm them…if not, then Dukat had enough supplies to last him until he reached the edges of the city. Or, if he wished, to turn back and find the Kurabda warrior, who insisted upon waiting in solitude for three days until Dukat’s decision was made.
And if Dukat encountered the rebellion…that would release him from his vow.
Now Dukat froze at the mouth of a cave—if that was truly what it was. The lightless entrance barely reached cardasdanoid height, though wide enough for a person to slip inside. Is this it?
he wondered. Is this all there is? Or have I strayed off course?
He contemplated entering…but if this was nothing more than some hole in the rock, he had no wish to get trapped inside. And if they were
in there, and he wandered in uninvited…
A pinprick of light blinked out from the abyss, and then another: wristlights, he figured, from the way they bobbed up and down. The approaching beings fell into single file as they neared the mouth of the cave, and cast the lead figure into silhouette: a tall figure with a runner’s physique and a precise step, ridges that held closer to his long neck than Dukat’s did, only flaring out as they drew almost all the way down to his shoulder.
Dukat’s heart sang out as sunlight painted the man’s features into reality. He wore a neatly-trimmed beard, as only a man of Hăzăk could. His brown hair was slicked back and trimmed severely in the military fashion even though he no longer wore his armor. His skin seemed to blend with the stone around him—Hăzăkda beige, almost , yet a slight hint of grey revealed his connection to Rivçal. The rough ridging of the Hăzăkda continent merged with a set of features Dukat had watched develop in centuries of family photographs and videos…
Dukat rejoiced, grinning wildly. Truly you are sovereign over all possibilities, that I came out of Culat and Akellen from the other side of the world, for us to meet
here, in the Desert of Kurab!
Akellen’s eyes narrowed, scrutinizing this strange tribesman with a crossbow slung over one shoulder and a rucksack over the other. Then those brown eyes widened in the shock of recognition. “Skrain! Dear Oralius, Skrain—what are you doing here?” For those first few seconds, Dukat simply beheld the face of his cousin. His lips parted, but no words, no sound came forth.
Then he reminded himself: the vow held no more force now. He could speak again—but he never expected that it would be so difficult. His voice was weak and sounded rough, dry to his own ears as though he’d been wandering the sands for days with nothing to drink. His lips, tongue, and throat felt…sluggish—not numb, exactly, but a bit unresponsive. “Akellen
,” he managed, tasting each syllable carefully, tentatively as though it were new to him.
And even then, it still didn’t sound quite right. Akellen put his beige hands on his younger cousin’s shoulders, eyes boring into him with deep concern. “What happened to you? Are you all right?”
Dukat smiled warmly and nodded, trying to convey his emotion with every inch of his demeanor. This time he spoke and signed simultaneously, hoping that if anything he said aloud got mangled, his gestures might clarify things a bit even though Akellen wouldn’t know the Kurabda sign language. “Don’t worry for me. I’ve been with the Kurabda—a pilgrim.”
Now Macet relaxed slightly. He turned first to the man and woman who had accompanied him and announced, “It’s all right…this is one of my cousins on my mother’s side. Follow me,” he instructed Dukat. “I’ll go ahead of you—just follow my bioelectric field until we get to the inner sanctuary.”
Dukat responded by a wordless nod as he fell into step behind his cousin. After a minute, the corridor widened out into a great chamber worthy to be called a sanctuary of Oralius. Flame and shadow danced upon the walls—though a string of electric lights ran along the ceiling, they were switched off to preserve power. Faintly something bubbled…an underground stream, Dukat understood, the water source for the rebels.
Now Macet turned to regard his cousin once more. “You took the discipline of silence, didn’t you?”
“All the way from the invasion to now?”
He nodded once more—but reminded himself this time to speak. “Nearly so.”
Macet let out a low, soft whistle. “I understand now,” he quietly replied. “Not that I’ve done it myself, but I can see why you’d have some difficulty speaking after that. It’ll get better the more you talk, I think.”
One of Macet’s comrades interrupted, her eyes narrowed with—well, not suspicion towards Dukat, but uncertainty. “I didn’t realize he was deaf,” she remarked, addressing Macet.
“I can hear,” Dukat replied before Macet could. “I just…have not spoken for six months,” he said with both voice and hands.
Macet favored his younger cousin with a warm smile. “You don’t have to sign; we can understand you. Besides—that language isn’t the one I learned.”
, Dukat thought. You learned the common sign language
. That had been part of Akellen’s basic training as a soldier of the Cardassian Guard…any Cardassian with military experience would be fluent. But
not everyone will know Kurabda sign!
A glimmer lit in his eyes. “I can teach you…I think it might serve us. The Kekil-haaf have also taught me how to live in the desert…and they have given us their blessing. They are trying to avoid the fighting themselves, but if you need something, I can talk to them.” Though I think I will be happier to sign!
Macet tilted his head slightly, seeming to regard Dukat with new eyes. “I shall be most interested to hear more from you in all of those areas,” he affirmed. “I think those are skills—and connections—we could use…and we need everything we can get. I was in an air shuttle with some other junior officers on the way to the capital when the Bajorans broke through our lines. They scrambled our guidance systems and we were forced to make an emergency landing out here in the desert.”
Dukat swallowed hard. Months had not dimmed the memory of that vision of a man aboard a starship sealing his soul away—a man who had looked so much like Akellen. But if he understood Akellen right…now he was left with an even greater mystery than before. “You were never deployed into space?”
Macet gave a somber shake of the head. “I believe I would have been; the capital was one of the largest staging areas. But the last signal we got was one warning us that they and Culat were under attack…to wait for further instructions. None ever came. We found we were completely cut from the rest of the Guard…there are no senior officers among us. We also have some civilians we’ve rescued, and others who have stumbled upon us.”
There was something reflected in Macet’s eyes and posture—Dukat couldn’t exactly put his finger on it, but it was a sense of a man unmoored. “Who is your leader?” Dukat asked.
At that, his cousin shifted his weight—and Dukat knew he was right. To be without a stable hierarchy, even in the absence of serious conflict, was taxing upon the Cardassian psyche and it was taking its toll on Akellen. “I am not sure,” he replied at length. “The ‘senior’ officers here are a group of ri’iyak
, myself included. The civilians…they are from several walks of life. The oldest here is almost 60…young, but older than any of us. And she has expressed no wish to lead. I pray about this every morning…”
“As will I,” Dukat offered.
“I appreciate the offer. But I believe we still have time to resolve that.” Macet gave a wan smile at that—then he reached out then and set a guiding hand upon Dukat’s shoulder, leading him to a more secluded corner of the…cave? Room? Leaning close, he continued with a far more solemn expression. “Right now, I’m more concerned to know, is there anything you
Reluctantly, Dukat nodded.
“How much time do you have?”
Now Macet clasped both of Dukat’s shoulders with strong hands. “If you can tell me exactly what it is you require, we will do everything in our power, Skrain…I swear that to you. As for myself—I will stay behind. I don’t want you to have to be alone if it should take longer…”
He had no need to finish his sentence—Dukat could see it in Macet’s face, feel it in his bioelectric field. Dukat’s heart welled over. His throat already ached from the few words he had spoken today…so instead he pulled his cousin into his embrace. A tear slipped free—for even though there were still so, so terribly many he loved that he still could not be sure actually lived, Oralius had returned someone
to him he could truly call kin. And here, in this makeshift base underneath the desert, he prayed that what he was about to do might someday help to set his people free.
The vigil was over.
Soon, with strength and temperance from the spirit that moved within them—Cardassia would rise.