The general dreamt.
Martok knew he visited the twilight world of dreams, because he saw with both eyes. He saw the steaming cleaning solution sloshing around a rusting bucket near his right elbow and the quill-bristle brush in his left hand without having to move his head. He saw chech'tluth draining through the floor grates where First Officer HomQat had dropped his mug. He saw gnawed bones, greasy with fat, cast aside when the gagh had arrived. He also saw that much of the mess hall still required cleaning. So he crawled along the floor on his knees, dragging the bucket along with him, scrubbing the grates and the table legs and the backs of chairs.
Thick smells surrounded him, invigorated him. From the stench of engine lubricant to the overburdened waste processors and the sour sweat of too many bodies crushed in cramped quarters, he inhaled the essence of a warrior's life on a bird-of-prey. Only the deep woodflower tang of Sirella was more seductive than this! Soon he would be with her, presenting her an offering of power, of glory, of victory. For now, he would scrub. He scrubbed to the rhythm of a warrior's song, chanting the words as he worked.
He scrubbed until his scrub brush found smooth metal, glowing red in the half-light. He crouched low to the floor, eyeing his discovery: a bat'leth, forgotten amidst the kegs of flowing ale, the roasts, the gagh, the songs and stories. Martok ran a cautious finger over the tip, savoring the finely sharpened point. He jerked. A drop of blood drizzled down his finger. Throwing back his head, he laughed. A noble weapon, to be certain!
Gingerly, he lifted the blade off the floor, holding it on his forearms to admire the weight, the heft, the smooth perfection of each notch and curve. He flipped the weapon off his forearms, into his palms. Curling his fingers around the handle, he twirled it cautiously to the left and then the right, challenging his unseen combatant with a thrust-and-parry rhythm. He drew deep breaths, felt battle lust surge within him. Baring his teeth, he snarled, crafting a dance of spins and jabs. To the throat! And the belly --
A dull thud and a clank told him his bucket had tipped. A hot gush flooded the deck, soaking his boots before he could sidestep the filthy fluid.
"Come now, Ketha boy," came the mocking voice, speaking in the hated tones of the privileged class. "Startled by a little water? You'll have to do better than that if you expect a promotion -- to scrubbing the plasma conduits!" A deep, throaty laugh reverberated through the galley.
Martok felt the eyes of the despised one fall on his bat'leth. Clutching the handle tightly, he imagined how he would gladly thrust the tip into his enemy's throat. Or not. Why grant him a swift, painless death when he could slowly eviscerate --
"You are not worthy of such a weapon."
Turning around slowly, Martok saw -- as he expected -- the detestable grin: Kor. Growling, he lunged.
With an effortless twirl of his own blade, Kor deflected the blow, sending Martok's bat'leth clattering to the floor. He cackled, apparently amused by Martok's clumsiness.
With my bare hands, then! Martok thought, circling his foe.
"Fetch me some bloodwine, boy," Kor said, the edge of his bat'leth glinting in the torchlight.
"No." Martok willed the Dahar Master to meet his eyes. I challenge you to look at me, old man. Afraid of what you'll see?
Kor scarcely attempted to hide his disdain. "Make that ale, boy. Bloodwine cools a warrior's blood after he has tasted the fire of an honorable fight. But this..." He laughed. "...this was no fight. This was a jo -- "
Instantly, the d'k tahg slid out of Martok's sleeve, its extra blades deployed, and targeted on Kor's throat.
Kor tipped his head to one side and seemed to enjoy the breeze made by the blade whistling past his ear. Martok twisted around for another attack. But Kor pivoted behind him, slammed the back of Martok's knee with his boot, and wrested the knife out of his hand. Collapsing forward, Martok dropped onto all fours.
"Fool," Kor spat. "I knew of your strategy before you did. You will learn your place, mongrel!" He reached down and, with unexpected strength, pulled Martok to his feet by the scruff of his neck.
Martok resisted, twisting and jerking his body, struggling to break free. How can he do this? An old man in his dotage holding his ground against a man in his prime? Or was he? Martok's gaze dropped and, with horror, he saw his own withered, wizened body, his armor hanging off him like graveclothes.
And Kor? He tossed a great, glossy black mane, his clear eyes burning Martok with each glance. Kor released his grip; the general stumbled back a few steps, but remained standing.
Laughing with wild joy, Kor swept the blade up over his head, then around his back in a showy display of prowess. "For the insolence you've displayed, mongrel," he said, "the sentence is death, but I will not soil my noble weapon with your blood. A lesser one than I shall dispose of you!" The keen tip of the bat'leth spun down in a bright arc, finding purchase in the mess table and splitting it asunder.
The two halves teetered and crashed to the floor. Where the table had stood, the floor groaned, the deck plating peeled away like skin, and from the bowels of the ship, a dark vapor -- pierced only by a bright, flashing red light -- seeped through the floor. As the post ascended, Martok's heart chilled, for he knew whose hand Kor had designated to deal him death. He scanned the room for the Dahar Master, but the old man had already vanished, swallowed by the darkness. He threw himself on top of the post. If he could stop it, push it back to Gre'thor, from where it came...Grunting, he braced his hands on the light, pushing down with all his strength. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he bellowed mightily.
The post won. As it always did.
The force of the post's upward movement cast him aside like well-worn armor, throwing him hard. His teeth lacerated his tongue when his head slammed into something; he heard his bones crack.
There would be a battle.
Before the mists blinded him, he would find the bat'leth Kor had stripped from him. With a bat'leth, he stood a chance of defeating this challenger....
Dropping to his knees, he felt his way over the floor with his hands, sifting through dirt, seeking the weapon. With a dull thud, he crawled headfirst into a metal barrier, and his world spun with bright dizziness. Up the paneling with his fingers, touching the rivets, feeling the divots and dents, then something warm. Something scaly and dry with a smooth, knife-sharp claw. He swallowed hard. The mists dissipated, unveiling a score of chanting Jem'Hadar, their reptilian eyes glinting in the half-dark. The Jem'Hadar whose hand he touched gave his forehead a solid shove, sending him sprawling onto the arena floor.
Small bits of gravel clung like barnacles to his sweat-slick face, but he lay still, prone on the floor, waiting for any indicators -- heat, respiration, shadows -- of Ikat'ika's location. Sensing his attacker's position by the sound of movement would be impossible: the Jem'Hadar was far too clever to let Martok find him so easily. His best chance of survival would be to reach the post. Where was the post? How could he have forgotten the post? Of all the rules he knew from his two years in Dominion Internment Camp 371, one had been ground into his bones: Never lose track of the post, whether your face has been ground into the gravel floor or your innards kicked into pulp. He had to touch the top of the post, make it stop blinking, or he would be disgraced, defeated. Maybe they would drag him back to his cell; maybe they would kill him outright. Martok didn't know; he didn't want to find out. He would not give the Jem'Hadar petaQs the satisfaction.
How long had he been fighting? He needed to stand. Again, he tried to push himself up, groaned, felt ribs shift under his skin and tasted blood in his mouth. Standing would not be possible, so the general crawled -- damn all Jem'Hadar -- and prayed to Kahless that he was moving toward the post!
Behind him, he heard sounds: light footfalls and low Jem'Hadar voices. Then, before him, he detected the crunch of a boot on gravel as Ikat'ika shifted his weight. He wanted Martok to know of his plan, wanted Martok to hesitate as he anticipated the blow to his already cracked ribs. The bone would puncture his lung and the pain would be paralyzing. Martok expected the tactic because he knew he would do the same, given the circumstances. But he would not grant Ikat'ika even a hint of victory by hesitating. Dragging himself on by his elbows, he pushed toward the post.
Martok pulled -- clawed -- his way up. With only seconds left, he slapped the domed top and the blinking ceased. Martok spun around with surprising speed to face his opponent, d'k tahg drawn. Did I not lose this weapon at Kor's hand? The thought startled him.
The split-second reflection offered Ikat'ika an opening. The Jem'Hadar feinted to his left, dipped his right knee, then spun around, the edge of his hand moving at incredible speed. Martok had no reply for his enemy; he was helpless to block the blow. The bones of his cheek shattered on impact, splinters thrusting up through the muscle. From out of the cacophony of the roaring crowd and shouts acclaiming Ikat'ika's triumph, Martok heard a noise that might have been a small piece of overripe fruit dropping from a branch and realized -- or remembered -- it was his eye. The world turned black, then purple, then red. He heard a noise he recognized as his own bellow of rage and pain and tried to focus beyond the pain, the shouting, the lights, and run at his opponent, but his legs -- traitors! -- would not obey him.
The general staggered, dropping his weapon. Not even shame could move him. Like the implosions of an ancient star, his perceptions had shrunk into an infinitesimally tiny mote of agony that had once been his eye. He cupped both hands over the socket, and primitive instinct tried to tell him that if he just held on he would save his eye, he would stop the slippery wet sliding down his cheek between his fingers.
But if he stood paralyzed, the fight would be over. Ikat'ika would win.
He will not win, Martok vowed. As long as I have breath he will not win. Pushing aside self-preservation, he dredged the surrounding dirt with his boot, feeling for the d'k tahg. Whether he faced Ikat'ika's direction or not, whether he could actually find his weapon or not, Martok would attack. Proudly, he would wear the honored scar -- this warrior's mark -- and he would wear it as a warning of defeat to any who dared challenge him.
Elbows bent and fists balled, he assumed a fighting stance. Nearly blind, he sought Ikat'ika --
But found no one. No Ikat'ika, no Jem'Hadar, no Kor -- nothing except the damnable post, blinking steadily. He expected the low, grim laughter of a sated Jem'Hadar, but none greeted him.
Swirling up from the floor, mists of darkness crawled over the barriers, into the arena seats, smothering each light they touched. Time. He was running out of time. He took a single step toward the post, seeking to claim victory before the last light snuffed out. He realized exhaustion had left him; the pain from his eye socket disappeared. He took another step. And another, each one coming faster than the last. I will triumph, he vowed. He reached the post, raised his arm --
Slow, dull clapping broke the cavernous silence in the Great Hall, accompanied by echoing footsteps.
"Well done, General." Gowron emerged from behind a stone pillar and stood before him, wide eyes glittering with rage and madness. To Martok's eye, he was wreathed in shimmering silver as the metal links and decorations on the massive chancellor's cloak caught the flickering torchlight. The council chairs stood empty; they were alone, save for what ghosts of their ancestors had chosen to haunt this ancient place.
"Chan -- " He coughed. "Chance -- " His parched mouth refused to release the title. A fit of coughing overtook him, doubling him over.
"Tika cat bit off your tongue? Oh, wait." Gowron linked his arms across his chest, looking down his nose at Martok. "On second thought, that wouldn't be a Tika cat. Worf has your tongue. He does speak for you, does he not? You are his puppet."
"I speak for myself," Martok snarled. "I serve the empire!"
"Traitor," Gowron hissed, throwing a backhanded punch to Martok's face, followed quickly by a boot to the throat.
Martok reeled, his skull crashing into the post. He struggled for air. Had Gowron crushed his larynx? Would he die desperately wheezing for one more breath? Martok had seen more than one warrior -- Klingon and alien alike -- die that way, and it was not the ignominious end he had in mind for himself, his face first turning crimson, then black as he puffed and heaved. Salty thickness filled his mouth, gagging him; he spat out the clot, some fragments of teeth, and something soft and formless that must have been a piece of his tongue.
Using the post to pull himself off the floor, Martok twisted back around to find Gowron looming over him. Blood spraying from between his lips, the general roared, "I didn't send Worf to kill you, you stupid petaQ! He made that decision by himself!"
Speechless with rage, Gowron wiped flecks of blood from his face, then stepped back to set up another kick, but Martok was ready for him. When the foot came in, Martok wrapped himself around it, set his hands on either side of Gowron's knee, one above, one below, and twisted. There came a satisfying crunching noise and Gowron howled as he tumbled to the floor. Martok had lost track of his d'k tahg, but that didn't matter. There were many, many ways to kill a man with only one's bare hands and Martok knew them all.
The thought flashed through Martok's mind as he fell on Gowron that he must be quite a sight by now. Eye gone, mouth torn open -- not at all the way a general should present himself to his chancellor. Worf would not approve....
Kor had died in battle against the Jem'Hadar. Worf hadn't tried to assassinate Gowron, but rather had challenged him to honorable combat and won, then made Martok chancellor. The "leader of destiny," Worf had called him. What kind of leader could Martok be now? One with half a tongue to speak and one eye to see? Martok laughed aloud at the thought and spat blood into the pile of dirt beneath him.
Pile of dirt? The thing that he had thought was Gowron was only a rill of earth shaped like a prone figure. Martok focused his vision, saw that the body's "head" was lying against the base of the post. The post. Martok tried to reach it, but he couldn't stand. Too much blood loss, too much fighting. Collapsing in the warm dirt was better. Draw it up over his head like a soft blanket. Rest. That was what the general wanted. To rest for a long time. He closed his eye.
"You have won a great victory, my brother."
Worf? Go away and let me sleep or I will cut out your tongue and feed it to you.
"This battle is won, General. Gowron is no more than the dust you sleep in. We have been victorious thus far, but the war is not yet over."
Martok's eye fluttered open. He gazed up into the black velvet night of Qo'noS. He mapped the points of starlight and recognized them as the seasonal constellations over his homeland, Ketha. Each star pattern and the picture it formed had been etched into his brain alongside every other childhood memory. Breathing deeply, he filled his senses with the stench of refuse rotting and warq roasting on spits over open fire pits. Truly, he was home.
"You must not wallow in sentimentality, brother. The time to fight is now," Worf barked.
Turning away from the night canopy, Martok saw Worf trudging toward him, arms outstretched. He carried something in his arms. A bat'leth? No, that wasn't it. When he reached Martok's side, he dropped to one knee, bowing his head and holding out his arms for Martok to take his offering.
Martok rolled onto his side and considered the gift.
The chancellor's cloak. The heavy black cloak that bore the marks of many houses and many battles. Martok shrank away, throwing his hands behind his neck and returning his gaze to the sky. "You are mistaken, my brother. This is yours."
Snarling, Worf's eyes widened. "If you will not take it willingly, it will be thrust upon you! It is not for you to refuse!" And he threw the cloak over Martok like a shroud.
Martok struggled to free himself from the burial cloth. I will not claim this victory for my own! But the suffocating weight pressed down, smothering him. He gasped for breath, coughing, choking. He felt his way past the post, along the ground, reached beyond the span of the cloak and discovered the chains sewn into the hem. He threaded his fingers through each blade-sharp link; the metal sliced through his palms, but he succeeded in pushing the cloak away from his face, casting it off his body, ridding himself of the unbearable weight.
Stripped of the cloak, beaten and bleeding, he lay on his back, breathing heavily, staring up at the night sky.
The post blinked incessantly, mocking him.
Martok closed his eye. No. I. Will. Not.
"Son." The voice was pitched low, but it cut through the ache of Martok's lamentations. He knew the voice, but Martok refused to look up. He rolled onto his stomach, gripped the earth, and clenched his eye tightly shut. No! he thought. I will not look up. He cannot be here. Even if this is a dream (for Martok had suddenly remembered that he might be dreaming), he cannot be here. I never dream of him. This was, of course, a lie, one of the few that the general had ever told himself and believed.
Temptation proved irresistible.
Martok pushed away from the welcoming earth and looked up. Urthog, his father, stood waiting, his hand extended, proffering help, perhaps even comfort.
His father looked as he had when Martok had last seen him, before he had journeyed to Sto-Vo-Kor. At that time, so long ago now, Martok hadn't yet won honor on General Shivang's flagship, thus escaping the drudgery of the lower decks that Kor's judgment had consigned him to. His father had missed the chance to rejoice in his son's climb through the ranks to become the general...
no, the chancellor. He was the chancellor....And then a thought stabbed at him. What would his father think of his becoming chancellor? Would he be proud? Or would Urthog rather have had his son remain a general, or even a common soldier of the empire?
Urthog spoke again: "Arise, my son." He wore warrior's clothes, which was peculiar because on his infrequent visits to their home, the first thing his father did after greeting Martok's mother was don simple, gray robes. That was the way Martok remembered him: a quiet, reserved man, who spoke so softly that his son had always felt the need to lean in close and hold his own breath to hear him. Urthog's wife had adored him and mourned his passing for the rest of her life, which had always colored Martok's memory of the man. Urthog might have been a good husband and a great warrior, but he had also made Martok's mother suffer a depth of sadness that their son could never comprehend.
"Father," he said, "I have won great honor for our family," but as soon as the words left his mouth, he cringed to hear the desperation in them.
"You have lost your way," Urthog said, ignoring his son's words.
Martok shook his head. "Because I became chancellor? That was not my choice, Father. Worf...he thrust it upon me. Let someone else..." And, again, Martok was saddened to hear how pitifully sad these words sounded.
Waving his hand dismissively, Urthog said again, his voice sharp with impatience, "You have lost your way." He folded his arms across his chest and sighed. "You fight without ceasing, but this is not what I taught you. Do not waste your time, or mine, with these endless battles. You are a Klingon warrior."
Were these riddles? Martok's mind reeled. "Father," he stammered. "I don't understand. Help me to understand! If I am to be a warrior, then mustn't I fight? Isn't that what a warrior is? One who fights the wars?"
Urthog sighed heavily and shook his head. "If that is what you believe, I have failed."
"No!" Martok shouted. "You did not! Father, tell me what I should know. I need to know so that I can rule wisely." The general's shoulders drooped and his head sagged forward. "If only..."
Urthog leaned over and set his hand on his son's shoulder. " 'If only'?" he asked, his touch firm, but gentle. Martok felt himself being lifted up and set on his feet, as if he weighed no more than a small boy. " 'If only' what, my son?"
Tilting his head back, Martok gazed up into his father's eyes. "If only," he said, "I was not so weary. I have been fighting for so long, Father. So long...I am wounded and I fear I may never heal."
Urthog laid his hand on Martok's forehead and said, "You are whole again, my son. You have vision, you have a voice, you have a family. You have wisdom. You have everything you need."
Looking down, Martok saw that it was true. He was himself again, healed and whole. One-eyed, yes, but he had grown accustomed to that. He had everything he had brought to the arena, everything he needed, except for his d'k tahg. Without thinking why, Martok looked up at his father and said, "But I have no weapon."
His father nodded and, without another word, thrust his hand at Martok's chest. The armor dissolved at his father's touch. Flesh and sinew and bone parted until Urthog cupped Martok's heart and drew it forth, still beating, to present before his disbelieving son's gaze. Smiling grimly, Urthog said, "Then you had better use this."
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