We followed Navaari through a series of underground passages. It was hard to tell if they had been dug out from the ice and snow or constructed. Touch confirmed they were not created from ice. The walls were smooth and white, lit by small luminous globes that adorned the walls. They reminded me of moonlight.
I gasped when we walked through a set of large and ornate, double doors into a huge hall. It was as full of people as it possibly could be. Each and every one of them was masked. They looked like ghosts in the flickering light that came from the large fire which blazed in the central fireplace and the torches that adorned the walls. The ceiling was high and arched. This hall had been build from wood and stone, and it was cooler than the small guest room we had been in. I marvelled at the high beamed ceiling. I could only assume that the hall was above the surface of the ground and not below it as the rest of the complex was. Intricate tapestries adorned the walls depicting hunting scenes and daily life in the Dantassi world. The details were astounding and beautiful. I wondered how they had been made.
We walked into the sea of people who stepped aside, making a path for us as Navaari led us through the crowd. There were whispers and comments as I passed with Za’ar following behind me. I was an oddity, the outsider who was to become one of their clan. I sensed a strange mix of curiosity and trepidation which dominated the atmosphere.
Navaari brought us to the dais where the man I guessed to be the High Elder stood. I looked up at this imposing figure who stood three steps up on the stage. He was clothed in very ornate robes, and around his shoulders and covering his head was what looked like a wolf skin, complete with head. His bone mask was the most elaborate of any I had seen so far, covered with all kinds of symbols and carvings. It was very beautiful. Around his neck he wore many amulets and pendants and in his left hand he held an incredibly ornate culling staff. I hoped it was used primarily for ceremonial purposes but some how doubted that. He remained silent and motionless while Navaari placed me where he wanted me to stand. I was side on to the High Elder, facing Za’ar. Navaari stood directly behind me. For a moment there was absolute silence and then the High Elder began to speak.
His voice rang through the hall like deep clear bell. The cadence of his words rippled like music and I was mesmerized by it despite the fact that I could not understand what he was saying.
When he had finished speaking Za’ar translated. “He welcomes all to this celebration. He gives the reason for this gathering. He explains to the people who you are, that I am your Ta’kasta’cariad and that you will become a part of Kirja’navaar’inkjerii’s family.”
I glanced up at the High Elder who waited for Za’ar to finish the translation then continued. He gestured with his hand to me and spoke at some length, then gestured to Za’ar and spoke for even longer. Then he waited for Za’ar to tell me what had been said.
“He told everyone how you have earned your name and the story of your hunt. Then he explained that I had chosen to name you and take you as mine, that I accept responsibility for you and that you are under my protection. He spoke of my connection with this clan, this planet and of the relationship with the family of Kirja’navaar’inkjerii.”
The High Elder looked at me directly and motioned for me to come closer to him. When I hesitated Navaari nudged me from behind. I turned to face the High Elder and moved as close as I could without walking up the steps.
The High Elder leaned down and placed three fingers on my forehead and he began to speak. While he was looking directly into my eyes he was also speaking to the crowd. He said something that made everyone laugh.
“He speaks of your spirit which he says he can feel. He is telling everyone that he thinks you are both brave and graceful. That you have a good spirit but it is touched by much hardship and sorrow. He speaks of a long road ahead and of many choices laid before you. He says that he believes you will be a good addition to the clan and given time you will not be so ignorant. He says that you are also very young and are to be forgiven for not knowing their ways. He points out that this is my fault.” Za’ar said. I smiled.
The High Elder removed his fingers from my forehead and used them to raise my chin upwards. This time he spoke only to me. His voice softened becoming gentle and kind.
“He asks, if you understand what it means to become part of this clan, a part of the Dantassi and if it is what you wish?” Za’ar translated when the High Elder had finished speaking.
I nodded. “Yes.” I whispered. The High Elder nodded and let go of my face. He then turned to Za’ar and spoke to him. When there was silence Za’ar looked at me.
“He asks if I am ready to take my duty to you fully upon my shoulders. He has explained to me at great length what my duties to you are.”
Za’ar and the High Elder then spoke at great length and none of what was said was translated. I glanced at Navaari but he gave nothing away, if anything I sensed that he too, was puzzled by this conversation. When they were finished speaking the High Elder turned to me and asked a single question.
“He asks if you accept.” Za’ar said.
“Accept the tribe. Accept me.” He answered. His voice was cool and steady but I felt something underneath his words and there was an anticipation, a tension. As though there was a lot more than just being unmasked riding on my answer.
“How do I say yes in this language?” I whispered.
“Tja.” He whispered back. Teeya, it was a pretty word so full of promise and hope.
I turned to the High Elder and spoke that word in a clear loud voice. I knew that there was more to this than what Za’ar had explained but I could not dig deeper and figure it out so I accepted everything at face value, at least it wasn’t trying to kill me. There was a collective sigh from the crowd.
The High Elder spoke to Navaari who answered with yes. The Elder then turned back to Za’ar and with a nod and a hand gesture gave him permission for the moment everyone had been waiting for.
I was surprised at how nervous I was. Za’ar removed his own mask first and then with a practiced ease he found the release notches and drew the bone mask from my face slowly. He handed the two masks to Navaari and then before I could move or say anything he cupped my face in both his hands. I could not read the emotion that played across his face, in his eyes but I felt the heat of it and it was unnerving.
He whispered. “You honour me greatly.” And then much to my great surprised he kissed me passionately on the lips in front of everyone who was in the hall. I was so stunned by this turn of events that I did not notice that all around me each and everyone in the hall had also removed their masks and that the atmosphere in the hall had gone from austere and serious to charged and celebratory. The cheering was deafening.
I might have stayed locked in Za’ar’s embrace forever, searching his eyes for answers to what exactly had just occurred but Navaari was not letting that happen. He pulled me in to a crushing hug and then pushed me back held me by my shoulders at arm's length. For this first time since I had met him I got to look at his face. He was a lot older than I had imagined. His strong featured, square jaw face was weathered and lined and there were snow white streaks in his long blue black hair, beginning at his temples and trailing to past his broad shoulders. He was a mountain of a man. He grinned at my expression.
“Not what you expected?” he asked.
“No.” I reached up to touch him then hesitated, unsure if it was allowed. He caught my hand and completed the motion so that my palm lay flat against his cheek. He cupped my hand with his.
“But good, yes?”
I nodded not trusting my voice. How was it that I could have formed such a powerful connection with this person I barely knew?
“Tjällh,” he placed the flat of my hand against the center of his broad chest. I could feel the beat of his heart through the soft fabric of his shirt. “This bond, it is a gift, rare and precious. I feel it. It is as though we have known one another for many years. Accept it, do not question it. This Universe is full of strange and magical things, it has always been so. This is simply one of the wonders. We find friends, family, bond mates and there is no why there only is.”
I fought the tears that welled up in my eyes, too much emotion and I felt it keenly. His face softened and he nodded. “We are now family. This is a good thing.” He pulled me into another rib cracking embrace and then let me go. I looked at him then looked around me. He and everyone else around me had the same beautiful pale blue hue to their skin, long black hair and the same eerie glowing red eyes. It was a little unnerving to be the only one who was different. He patted my hand and smiled. I nodded and drew a deep breath. How was it that I could be such an outsider and yet feel as though I had found a home? I didn’t understand it.
“Come I will show you to where you stay with us and you can get ready for the celebration. No masks, no hiding. Now we will eat and dance and enjoy everything life has to offer. There is a storm howling outside but we will be louder inside.” He said. “Now, follow me.”
With Za’ar following very close behind me I followed Navaari out of the main hall down through a series of deeper tunnels to an area that opened up on to a large, bright space. I had not imagined that despite being underground the rooms would be so airy and spacious. In the center was a fire place that was unlit and all around were doorways. He led us to the door on the very left. The doors were old fashioned and had handles to open them. It led to a small suite with a small sitting area and a tiny kitchen.
“Your room is here, A’myshk’a.” he said opening up a door to a small but amazingly cozy little bedroom. Yours,” He said to Za’ar, “adjoins through that door and opens to the living area there.” He walked through the living area and showed me where the ‘fresher was and how everything worked. “We heat from geothermal source.” Navaari explained. “This complex is mostly under the ground.”
I looked around. It was beautiful. The furniture was carved and made from either wood or stone. The lighting was the same glowing globes and candles that I had seen before. There were beautiful carvings and sculptures decorating the shelves and tables. I was beginning to realise that not only were the Dantassi great hunters and trackers but they were also capable of producing the most astonishing works of art as well.
“I shall let you get yourselves ready, A’myshk’a, there are clothes for you in your room.” Navaari said, “I wait for you out there.” And he turned and left us alone, closing the door behind him.
I turned and looked at Za’ar who in turn looked at me. The silence was palpable and I was the one who broke it.
“You kissed me.” I said.
He smiled. “Yes, I did.”
“In front of all of those people.”
“I thought we were supposed to be keeping that aspect of what ever this thing between us is a secret.” I asked.
“It was appropriate to the situation.” He said in that tone of voice which told me he wasn’t going to elaborate. “Get dressed, something you can dance in, there will be a lot of that.” And he vanished into his room.
With a sigh and shake of my head I went to my own room to get changed. Navaari had not been joking about the clothing, there was a closet full of things to wear. They were not new though and as I brushed my hand over them I picked up images and sensations of a pretty young woman with long black hair and laughing eyes. I wasn’t sure who she was but she had been happy here.
The clothing was an assortment of hand woven cloth or softened animal hide and each piece was in its own way elegant. There were shirts and trousers, skirts and blouses and dresses. I chose a mid calf length dress and leggings to match that had been made from a soft, fine leather. The dress was dyed a deep forest green colour and had been decorated with intricate embroidered patterns of spirals and flowers, embellished by tiny glass beads. It was beautiful. There were slipper like shoes that had tiny beaded flowers decorating them, which matched the dress. To my surprise they fit as though they had been made for me. I took my hair down and let it fall about my shoulders and face. When I felt ready I left the room and joined Navaari and Za’ar.
Navaari smiled when he saw me. “I hoped the clothes would fit you.” He said, and then before I could ask he continued. “They belonged to my daughter, when she was about your age. It is good to see them being used again.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt suddenly very shy.
“Come, we go now, or you will miss this celebration and it is for you!” Navaari said, breaking the awkward silence.
The great hall had been filled with tables. Navaari led us to the one that was ours and we sat. The food was unlike anything I had ever eaten before, and while some of the meats and sauces were for me a bit of an acquired taste, I tried a little of everything that was offered. The water was cold and clear and was the best I had ever had in my life. The wine was a similar pale blue to the wine from Csilla that Thrawn had once shared with me. It was neither sweet nor dry and had the flavour of berries. It was very strong and heady.
People kept coming up to the table and touched both Za’ar and I on the shoulders, on the hands or making that strange three fingered touch to the forehead. It was a little unnerving and I had to fight not to shy away from them.
“It is their way of welcoming you.” Navaari explained. “They mean no harm and most here do not speak basic fluently. We do try to teach it but many of our people do not leave this world and see no use for the learning of a language they feel is harsh and ugly.”
Once the feasting had finished, people began to clear away the tables and I watched as musicians began to pull out their instruments and warm up. There were drums and stringed instruments that were either plucked or played with a bow depending on their size, strange wind instruments that created an eerie almost howling wind like sound. I watched with fascination as they began to play and suddenly understood where the music that I had danced to on Myrkr had come from. I looked at Za’ar but his face gave nothing away.
I was surprised at the speed and volume at which the music was played, and it was not long before the dancers took to the floor. At first it was a performance and the steps were memorizing. Some were intricate circular dances that involved the weaving in and out of each other’s arms, while others were more sets of four and the patterns square and box like. I had never seen anything like it and I was drawn in by the complicated beauty of it all.
Suddenly the show was over and everyone who had been watching joined in the dancing. I stood back, observing, would have stayed that way but Navaari wasn’t going to let that happen. He did not even ask, he simply grabbed my arm and swept me into the whirling circle of people. The music was infectious and while I was uncertain of the steps at first, they were easy to learn. Something I discovered about this was that once you were on the dance floor it was very hard to actually escape from it. Every time I tried to make my way back to the corner I had been standing in, hands grasped mine and hauled me back into the next set. I kept looking for Za’ar and once or twice I caught sight of him weaving in and out of a circle. I could not have imagined him laughing as he was or being as relaxed as he looked in this place. I could not superimpose the image of this man I was here and now with over the one I knew from the Empire in his perfect Imperial uniform and impeccable manners. I knew in my heart that they were the same person but it was two utterly different pictures. I wondered what the Emperor would say if he could see Thrawn now, then it occurred to me that perhaps it was this strange duality that made Thrawn so unique. Thinking about the Empire led to thoughts of Jyrki. Perhaps it was these thoughts which instilled the sudden sadness within me, I was not really sure. I just knew that suddenly the laughter and the music, the noise and the whirling motion of all these people dancing was too much for me and I had to get away. I broke away from the hands holding mine and slipped through the twisting, turning crowd to find myself at the front of the great hall. I felt a strange sense of panic rising in my chest and without really thinking about it fled from the hall altogether.
I found the main entrance and slipped through the great doors. Outside the storm howled and raged but I was sheltered by a large porch like structure so I could stand and watch the wildness without being in it. I was struck first by the cold, and then by the utter opaqueness of the snow. The wind was like a living creature and it was furious. The noise of it was so familiar to me, sand storms sounded very much like this, yet the mournful quality or perhaps the coldness of it instilled a melancholy in me that was hard to shake. I breathed in and out, fascinated by the white lacy mist of my own breath that hung on the air for a second only to be whipped away by a gust of stray wind that flung snow into my face. I was glad of the solitude but it did not last long.
Navaari slipped a blanket over my shoulders. Then he lit the pipe he had brought with him and took a long thoughtful draw from it. The tobacco was sweet and strong and made for a strange mix with the icy scent of the snow. I cuddled into the warmth of the blanket. I was colder than I wanted to admit.
“Good that you did not venture too far away, easy to get lost in a storm like this. When the white-outs come, you cannot see past your hand sometimes.” Navaari said. “And you should dress better when you want to go outside.”
“How cold is it?”
“By your reckoning, around minus twenty but with the wind it feels much colder.” He smiled slightly. “And this is by our standards warm.”
I looked at him. “How long could a person live in weather like this?”
He shrugged. “Depends on what clothings are worn. Like you now are dressed,” he shook his head. “Perhaps a few hours not more and you not long at all, you are unused to this cold. Look, already you shiver. With the proper clothings, in the right layers then who knows, hours or maybe days? You must keep your head, your neck and wrists covered. Then it depends on how well fed and watered you are. Energy is needed for the body to stay warm and it takes a lot to stay warm in such cold as this. You would not last so long, tiny little thing. You are too thin.”
“Have you ever been out in weather like this?” I asked ignoring his comments.
“Many times, but I have learned since a small child how to live in this environment. I know how to survive here. I would say that if I were to be on your home world then you would know what to do and I would be lost. I am unused to extreme heat.”
I laughed. “I think you would survive just fine.”
He just smiled and smoked his pipe. “Are you cold enough now to wish to return indoors?”
“Not yet. Too many people, it’s too much. I needed some quiet.” I said trying not to shiver.
“And this is not loud?” he asked with a smile, indicating the wind and the storm.
I just smiled because I was certain he already knew the answer to that then asked. “Why did he bring me here?”
Navaari was silent for a long moment. “Because I requested it.” He said. “And because he has fear.”
“Afraid? He’s not afraid of anything.” I said.
Navaari gave me a long steady look. “Of course he is. All living creatures know fear. Some just hide it better than others.”
“What was he afraid of?”
“You need to ask Nikätza’arth’pavjäska this question.” He answered simply.
Men and their secrets. I just sighed and looked out into the darkness and watched the swirling snow.
He tapped his pipe against the wall, knocking out the last of the smouldering tobacco and then tucked it back into his coat. “He worries for you, Tjällh. As do I.”
“He told you what happened.” It wasn’t a question.
“Only what he knows, yes. He says that you will not speak of it.”
I shrugged and pulled the blanket closer around my shoulders. “There is nothing to speak of.” I said coldly.
Navaari nodded. “When you are ready there will be words enough.” He said sagely. “Now before you freeze to death will you please come inside?”
I did as he asked, grateful for the sudden warmth. Back in the main hall the celebration was in full swing but I didn’t much feel like joining in, so I watched. The sea of people, blue skinned, black hair and glowing red eyes, swirling about the great hall, their laughter and their voices carrying over the music. It was a peculiar feeling to be the single outsider. I had never thought about being alien before, but here that is exactly what I was. Even though I had grown up on Tatooine and lived most of my life in Mos Eisley, perhaps the city most heavily populated by many different alien species, I had never felt as though I were on the outside. Here, with my pale pink skin, red hair and grey blue eyes, I stood out. I wondered why Thrawn and Navaari had brought me here, why making me a part of their people’s culture and lives had been so important, and what it all meant in the long run. I knew this was supposed to be a night of great celebration and that everyone seemed genuinely pleased to welcome me into their tribe but it made me despondent. I had no idea why though which was even more depressing. I looked over the mass of people for Navaari and Za’ar. They along with several other men were standing in the far corner having what looked to be a deep and maybe even heated conversation. I wondered what they were talking about. It became clear to me that I would have to learn this language sooner rather than later. My mother had once told me that one of the most important keys to understanding an alien culture was to learn its language. She had never been more right than now. Thinking of her made me even more morose, I was just not in a celebratory mood. I looked once more over at where Navaari and Za’ar were and then, like a ghost, I slipped away.
The little guest quarters were warm and cozy. Someone had lit a fire in the small fireplace and there was a tray of food and drink set up on a table in the corner. I looked around but I was alone and I was relieved for it. I changed out of the clothes into a long night dress and with a datapad book I curled up on the small couch in front of the fire and began to read but I could not concentrate at all. After an hour I gave up, went to bed and tried to sleep. That was also a complete failure. Instead I lay, straining my ears to hear when Za’ar returned. I had kept a single candle a light in my room, because I could no longer bear to sleep in a dark room with no windows. I watched as the dancing light from the flame created strange shadows on the walls. Eventually, I drifted into an uneasy sleep that was plagued by fragmented dreams and a nightmare which eventually woke me, gasping for breath like a drowning man. The candle had gone out and I had to fight the panic that rose in my chest to choke me as I searched for light.
I had no idea what time it was and I didn’t care. I only knew I needed to get out. With a grim determination I dressed warmly, remembering all that Navaari had said. I put on layers of clothes and finished with the warm boots, the mitts and the long heavy coat he had given me when he had met us at the landing pad. I slipped my bone mask in its satchel and slung it over my shoulder. It was not my intention to stray far from the main entrance but I wanted to be outside and I could stay out longer with better clothing. I left my room quietly, noticing that the door to the room where Thrawn slept was open. I had not heard him come back and for a moment I hesitated near the doorway torn between looking to see if he was really there and wanting to just leave. In the end I just slipped away.
The whole place was quiet, as though the energy of the celebrations had given way to restful exhaustion. I stood in the great hall for a moment surveying the chaos left behind. The Dantassi certainly knew how to celebrate. The hall was huge when it was empty and strangely peaceful. I sighed and turned away from it all and made my way to the main entrance and then I went outside. The storm raged still, if anything it seemed to have gotten worse. It was as beautiful as it was fearsome and I marvelled at its power.
As a child I had always loved storms. I had loved everything about them, the wildness, the ferocity and the sheer pure energy. My mother had once come into my room when I was very small, worried that I was scared by a particularly bad sandstorm only to find me standing on my tip toes to watch it through the cracks in the shutters of the window. I wondered now, as I stood in the archway of the front entrance if this love of storms was somehow connected to my own weirding ways. I wondered if some part of me fed off the wild energy such weather had to give. I knew that I felt more alive when I was in the middle of some wild weather then when skies were clear and calm.
I wondered, suddenly, what it was like to stand in the middle of this howling blizzard, to be engulfed in its natural and blind fury and without considering the consequences I stepped out of the shelter of the entrance and into the storm. The wind stole my breath and the snow stung my face as it smashed against my skin. I drew out the bone mask and placed it on my face. I drew the hood of the coat tightly around my head and turned around. I could still make out the vague shape of the Main Hall entrance way and the lights that adorned it but every now and then a huge gust of wind would sweep more snow around me and I would see nothing but the snow. I stood in wonder at this and without understanding why I turned my back on the entrance and began to walk. In the back of my head I knew this was not very smart but I was beyond caring. I was so tired of the nightmares and the fear. I was so fed up of everything and this strange numb sensation that had over taken my life. I just wanted an out and vanishing into this storm and snow was the perfect way to go. I was not cold and I just kept walking. Had I stopped for even a moment to think, I would have been appalled at what I was doing. Sometimes, I was just so incredibly stupid.