He, the handmaidens, and the other militia members watched as they group began moving. Slowly the sight of them began to blend in with their darkening surroundings. It was about ten minutes later, and they could no longer discern individuals within the crowd, which was going as quickly as they could’ve hoped for, when Borreno said, “I will be leaving myself now.”
“Will you be back?” asked Yané.
“I myself will probably not be, but there may be someone who comes here tomorrow night. Although you shouldn’t wait."
Most of them went to see him off, but Briné instead went to take a look at Yolierre, and Kladi Hock and Lané both ended up going with her. They had already spent the previous hours packing up and dividing all the medical supplies they could carry; Latt had taken some of them with him. The only exceptions were the medical wrap and bacta pact currently applied to Yolierre. He had been taken out of the bacta tank two hours ago, and the wrap had a monitor on the edge that was able to confirm, when Briné looked at it, that he had remained unconscious since, which was what she had expected. “Can we actually take him with us?” asked Hock.
“If you want him to go with the third group…” Lané added.
“He may have to,” said Briné, although she hoped not; she wanted to keep an eye on him herself. He had gotten himself probably permanently disabled in the defense of a sister handmaiden, after all. The group in general owed him.
“We have any plans for that?” asked Hock.
“Schrulek’s going to rig an antigrav seat. It won’t be ideal, especially with the terrain we’ll be going over, but hopefully it’ll get him to safety without aggravating his condition further. Well, relative safety anyway.”
“Pity we can’t take the bacta tank anywhere,” said Lané. They’d looked to see if it could be taken out, although transporting it would’ve been a headache, and found it was firmly integrated into the building’s systems; taken away, it would be useless. There wasn’t much point in looking again, but Lané walked up to the emptied tank anyway, wrinkling her nose at the lingering smell of used and wrung bacta. “Don’t suppose there’s be any point in cutting the cables off?” She reached down and took one of the heavier ones into her hand. Hock clearly was surprised by the ease with which she lifted it, which had to be amusing her, though she didn’t show it.
Unfortunately for her, Briné had already made her decision on it: “If we had a use for them here, there might be. But it’s not worth carrying them.”
“Ah, well,” said Lané, and forlornly tossed the cable down.
To Briné’s surprise, the sound of it thudding hard on the floor of the tank made Yolierre’s eyes fly open. He exclaimed something incomprehensible, then tried to turn his head back and forth, but was still too weak to do so. His eyes moved; it looked like they were reacting to light, but Briné wasn’t sure. “What can you see?” she asked. “Can you feel your body beneath your neck? Don’t try to move anything, just…”
“Who are you?” he asked, but he stopped trying to move. “Where am I?”
“In Piyoeré. I’m Briné Salmune, here with Lané Catalin and Kladi Hock. You met us; do you remember us? Can you tell where we are?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I remember all three of you now. Two of you are near me, but you’re both blurs. I can definitely sense my whole body…”
He groaned that last bit, but Briné said, “That’s good; we were seriously worried you might be permanently paralyzed. It’s still possible you may never be able to walk again without assistance.” Harsh to say, of course, but at least her tone wasn’t as grim at Glose’s had been when he’d told her that. “Your vision should get back to normal, but it’ll take at least a couple of days, maybe as much as two weeks.”
“Oh, not good,” he said. “I’m not going to be of much use, am I?” He was trying to keep the tone light, and not really succeeding.
“You’ve been enough already,” said Lané. “We will always feel what you’ve done for us, all twelve of us.”
“And the girl you saved might just be the one to build our army up,” said Hock. “And your man Rosti Borreno apparently was very impressed with her marksmanship, and her ability to detect stealthy federation droids. Apparently her father makes weapons for a living, but even taking that into consideration.”
Yolierre chucked, then winced; his lungs hadn’t been ready for that. “You need to rest,” Briné said to him. “You’ve done everything you can for the rest of us. Now you need to focus on your own recovery from it.”
His only response was a slight groan, and then he closed his eyes and visibly relaxed back into unconsciousness. “This is a good sign,” Briné said quietly to her companions, “but we still must take nothing for granted. We shouldn’t even try to wake him up again if we don’t have to and he doesn’t again on his own, and we should keep him in the wrap until it wears out.”
“If someone else needs it?” asked Hock pointedly. The debt the handmaidens owed him meant nothing to him of course.
“We’ll deal with that if it happens,” said Briné, and hoped they wouldn’t clash over him.
“I should go tell the others he woke up and his condition,” said Lané. “They’ll want to know, Yané especially.”
“Yes, do,” said Briné, but she herself sat down on a spare cabinet against the wall. She was still worried about her patient, and also too fatigued.
Hock, thankfully, took pity on her, or maybe just didn’t want to stay around her until he had to, because he said, “I want to talk to my own commander before we part ways.”
Alone with her sleeping patient, Briné closed her eyes. She would be less worried about how in the galaxy she was going to lead a whole group of frightened people, she hoped, if she didn’t spent the next handful of hours thinking about it.
The mask-like cloth she held out to her looked like one of those things people used to avoid getting pimples. It was made of very flexible material, though; she wasn’t surprised when Saché said, “Put it for a minute on your face, and then another one on each side of your neck. Can’t do anything for your hair, I’m afraid, but it’ll make you feel much better.” That was a pity about the hair. They had all pinned their hair tightly to their heads before all this had started, and enough of the pins had held they had been able to leave their hair unworried-about since, but everyone’s had matted, and Briné thought hers still smelled of the water she’d started their fight against the Federation in.
But Saché was right. The mask flooded Briné’s skin with warmth and she felt all the dirt and grime and blood of the past few days be sucked right out of her. It felt perfect, even before she shifted it down to her neck, around which it easily curled. She nearly moaned her relief when she had placed it a third time to the back of it; the heat relaxed her tense back muscles as well-not much, but enough that as she took it off and rose to her feet, she felt surprisingly good.
“Unfortunately these are one-time use,” said Saché, taking the wipe back and tossing it into the trash sleeve in the wall. “So we have to restrict ourselves to that. Let’s see if Schrulek is satisfied with his creation outside.”
Schrulek had used one of the wipes on his face; Briné could tell that right away. He was underneath a modestly cushioned large metal chair that looked like it had been taken off the floor of one of those welcoming cafés small towns like this one often had where the main roads entered them. It had burnt marks on various parts of it; it had probably been broken off when Schrulek had found it.
On seeing them, he scooted back, stood up, and said, “Well, this is probably as steady as I’m going to get it.” It was still wobbling ever so slightly in the air, which wasn’t good when it was empty.
“Could someone go in there and carry the patient out?” Briné asked. Two strong boys stepped forward; they were introduced as Ravo Terderrie and Delic Uffus.
They were like shadows over her when all three were in front of the still sleeping Yolierre, not meaning to make themselves feel ominous, but Briné felt too much of a chill even before she removed the cold bacta pack. The patient did not stir as he was lifted off the bed, still in the wrap, and carried outside to his chair, or even when it rocked under his weight. Briné wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
A number of the refugees she would be trying to lead to safety had assembled there at the hospital. Terderrie took hold of the chair; Schrulek had thoughtfully attached a handle that looked like it had been made from a half-melted window knob. Wordlessly Briné led the way through the soon to be deserted Piyoeré, her charges trailing behind her. The rest of the group was waiting at the edge of the village. Hock was with them, and the other handmaidens and militia men were also gathered; Rorerrie was talking to his departing man.
As the two groups reached each other, Saché suddenly grabbed Briné, turned her around, and gave her a tight hug. “Do well, sister,” she whispered. “And please come back alive, if you can.”
“If I can,” Briné whispered back. She thought of Moré, someone she didn’t think any of them would ever think of without pain, she herself least of all.
“Remember,” she heard Ardré say to Hock as they two of them parted. “You are under her command. As your superior in the militia, I am giving you a direct order to do what she says.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said without protest. When Briné parted from Saché and walked to the head of the group, he handed her their own makeshift radio, and a tiny display holding their directions. She looked around, took in the group large enough she wondered how to steer it, the green fields ahead of her, and took her first step out of the village.
The later part of the route was through the territory of her childhood, though precious little of it was sections of the swamps she’d actually been exposed to; she’d never gone more a few hours’ walk from her family's home. To get there they had to navigate terrain unknown to her, these valleys around Piyoeré that would leave them exposed if they didn’t get through them before dawn. Briné wasn’t sure a group this big could move fast enough for that. It didn’t help that they only dared light as many lights as was necessary. They were actually glad Rori was currently little more than a crescent, and Ohma-D’un never gave out much light. Beside her Hock held one lamp, and there were two on the sides as well. They were dim enough she was relying on Hock’s light less than simply the display which also tracked where exactly they were, walking forward almost blind, hoping someone’s ears would tell them if there was anything in front of them they needed to steer to avoid before they came close enough for the lamps to illuminate it.
She could tell, more by the position of Ohma-D’un than anything else, that they’d been walking for a couple of hours, and the footsteps of everyone behind her was making clearly fatigue was starting to set in, when they first heard it. For the first moment or so she thought it was the swamp insects; she crazily hoped her display was wrong and they were in fact there already. But no, she knew the sounds of the swamp too well to mistake them for long, and that this sound was mechanical, and it wasn’t the whir of STAP ships the Federation couldn’t do much with on the night side of the planet anyway.
Hock had heard it too by that time. The two of them shifted towards each other until he could whisper to her, “Sounds to me like a low-hanging flyer. Not an armed drone, at least, but they’ll send those in the morning. If we don’t want the Federation know where we are then, we’ll need to shoot it down.”
“Can you do that in the dark?”
“Not without seriously injuring and possibly even killing anyone under it. We have to get it away from us first.”
He made no suggestions of how to do that, and Briné’s mind didn’t throw out any immediate possibilities. She found herself instead starting, “Do you think it would help any if we turned the lights-”
“The lights!” Hock exclaimed it just a little too loudly. He dropped his voice back down to whisper, “We turn off all but one of the lights and take the last one away, the flyer should follow it; we can get it away from the group.”
“Someone would have to carry it, then.” Briné thought of that poor girl from Julika who had sacrificed herself.
“One person I can keep from hurting. Though it still shouldn’t be you. You’re not only our leader, remember, you’re also our main medic.”
A tiny part of Briné was tempted to inquire why she shouldn’t do it if he really could avoid hurting whoever did, but she knew that wasn’t fair. Before she could say anything else, one of the people at the front of the group stepped up to them and said, “I’ve been listening. I’ll carry it.”
“Let me take a look at the display,” said Hock, before Briné could respond to that. He took a moment to study it, during which she leaned over and quietly asked the young man’s name: she wanted to remember it. “Donn Raetié, m’am,” he said.
“If you would take the light,” Hock said to him, “starting running downward in front of me, and stop and get down on the ground as fast as possible exactly when I yell.”
Four agonizing seconds following, during which Briné had time to imagine just about every possible outcome of this, from it working perfectly to them all getting killed. Then when Hock yelled it all went too fast for her to even tell what was happening before it was over; there was an explosion, then there scattered pieces of metal falling near Donn Raetié, but none hit him; he remained completely unharmed.
But she could see Hock shaking his head. “Not as clean as I was hoping for. The group preparing to head from Piyoeré right now might have just gotten into a little more danger.”
“Is there anything we can do about that?” Briné anxiously asked him. “How much help would it be if we warned them?”
“Depends on how they react. You’re going to do it, aren’t you?”
“I am,” she said. “The radio.”
He handed it to her without protest, and she quickly punched in the commands. Static. She breathed slowly in and out. Still only static.
“This is worse news,” said Hock. “We have to hope it’s only ours that’s not working, or it’s because of the area we’re in.”
“Sir,” spoke up a woman, “I think it’s probably the area. Or it might just be that you just exploded a droid right here. We walk far enough away, we could maybe try again?”
“By all means let’s, then,” said Briné. “That would be a good idea anyway, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, and raised his voice as he added, “And everyone needs to go as fast as their legs can carry them, at least for the next few minutes. Longer, if we can manage it without getting too spread out; we need to put as much distance between ourselves and this spot as possible as quickly as possible.”
They managed about five minutes. It was total chaos from the start, everybody sprinting at different times and colliding in to each other, people running in different directions until Briné and Hock took the lead and started yelling and waving their arms, parents stopping to pick their children up and carry them. They tried to go downhill as much as possible, and when Hock called, “We’d better halt to let everyone catch up,” they didn’t all even stop at once. Instead the people still at the front did, and slowly the others did, half of them by colliding into someone. As various members from the back of the group clambered to their feet, Briné tried the radio again. “Still static. Should we run further?”
Hock looked around, and said, “Maybe not right now.”
So they resumed walking, pace only a little more brisk. But now all the footprints her ears had tuned out sounded loud and frightening to Briné, when she thought about the likely audio sensors on those drones. She even wondered if maybe somewhere in the orbit, on those STAP ships or somewhere else, the Federation had something scanning for where they could hear lots of footprints at once. Who knows what technology they had on hand, what they’d managed to develop? They didn’t.
In the past, there had been little Briné had loved more than the earliest hours of the morning, when the sky began to lighten. Sometimes she’d snuck out of her family’s hovel and gone to play amid the dew-soaked ground around it while watching the darkness retreat and the world come to life around her. After she’d come to Theed, she’d still sometimes woken up early and gone outside just to see it.
Now she feared she’d never be able to think of the dawn as peaceful again. Now when the darkness fading felt like a protective cloak slowly falling away, and with the increase of the light came the increase of her feeling of their all being exposed, and helpless, if the wrong thing targeted them.
“We’re probably all right, now,” said Hock, as the sky grew all too pale. “If the drones were going to find us again based off that they’d have done so by now, and we’re nearly at the swamps."
Indeed, as they continued on, Briné caught the first, faint smell of her childhood home in the air. She thought the ground felt different too beneath her boots, although she supposed it was a bad idea to take them off and try to feel it with her bare feet.
The sun was decisively up when Hock said, “We should make another attempt to contact the last group before we get into the swamp. Our best chance at getting a signal is probably right now.”
They didn’t stop moving; no one even suggested it. But once again Briné turned the radio on, now dreading that the first thing she’d hear would be the sounds of an attack, or of people dying. But instead she just heard Lané’s anxious voice: “Briné? Is something wrong?”
Briné looked over at Hock, since he hadn’t really told her what to tell the other group. He reached out his hand, and she said simply, “We had some trouble, and we think you might be in danger too. Hock will give you the details.”
She strained to hear Lané’s responses as Hock explained and asked questions. He repeated Lané’s telling them they hadn’t heard any droids come anywhere near them, but it wasn’t the same as hearing her say it in her own ear would’ve been. They had the shortest route to their hiding place, and Briné could at least get herself to believe their chances were still good at making it there safe. She had to, she realized, because she couldn’t dwell on it right now.
She knew there was no way they were going to risk contacting them again after Hock cut the signal-without giving her a chance to speak again, and she supposed every extra second increased the risk of Federation detection but she still couldn’t help being angry at that. At least he let her hold on to the radio after she quietly asked for it, with no further comment. She clutched it tight, not even being sure why, thinking about Lané’s voice even when she tried not to, even as she kept her eyes and ears open for the slightest peep of another droid. Even as the smell of the swamp grew stronger, and she wasn’t the only one who could tell they were getting close, as those behind made comments to each other.
Even as it came into sight when they came to the crest of one last slope that led all the way down to its borders, and several people let out faint cheers from seeing it. That probably wasn’t very prudent of them, but Briné didn’t care. Staring at those familiar trees, hearing those familiar sounds, being confident that what they would find in there was only safety, Briné was the happiest since had felt since pulling herself out of the river, but none of her worries would flee.
It was cooler, here, than it had been in most of the places she’d been the past few days. It made her feel more than she had before all the rips and tears in her dress. There was one near her hip, barely noticed before that night, that was now driving her crazy, between the cold air and the feeling of her dignity being compromised.
An older woman who had spent much of the night walking at the front of the group seemed to also notice it for the first time. Lané saw her look down at it, and then said, “You know how to sew, I hope.”
“I’ve learned.” Once upon a time, she had hoped that was the most challenging task she’d ever have as a handmaiden.
“Haven’t had time? I suppose you wouldn’t have, these past few days. And I don’t suppose you know what to do when you don’t have any needles on hand.”
That definitely had not been a possibility imagined by their sewing master. “Do you?” Lané asked.
The woman took a look around the environment they were currently walking through. “Maybe not here,” she said.
Lané couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. She would have liked to have had that uncomfortable rip repaired. Then again, she was probably going to get a few more before this was all over. Probably none of them would ever wear whatever they’d been wearing when they’d fled Theed again.
If, a little voice in her head reminded her, this ever ended. She might get killed before it did, of course. But it wasn’t that she dreaded most. It was the possibility that it wouldn’t end, that the Queen wouldn’t reach Coruscant alive or would otherwise fail to get the Senate to act, that it wouldn’t be weeks, or even months, as the resistance was potentially preparing for, but years, or even a lifetime. Lané was trying not to think about the very real possibility she could have a lengthy rest of her life that would still be nothing but this, and when she was of too little use here, ultimately, much less than most of her fellow handmaidens. She was probably the worst shot of all of them.
Nor did she know much about mountains. When she first heard the rumbling, she found herself thinking back to what she’d learned about this range and about volcanoes, but she couldn’t remembering hearing about there being any of those in these parts. But as it grew louder, well, she didn’t know what volcanoes sounded like, but she knew that sound.
The problem was, it was too much all around, and too loud. She wasn’t the only one here with a blaster, but there weren’t enough around to give them a hope. They could contact the would-be army, but not only were they not an army yet, but they couldn’t get there for hours, and it would take them still more time to find the group.
It was only looking around and being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people under her protection that kept Lané from giving in to despair, that made her determined to find a way, any way, if there was one. Time, she told herself. They needed more time.
She would’ve liked more time before the group in general started to realize what that sound was. But while they might not have as fast as she had, she was soon hearing the murmurs pass throughout the group, and she knew she had to act before they started to doubt her, otherwise she might never get them all to follow her directions.
The woman was still next to her, and she said to her, “Pass the word back; anyone who believes they know these mountains well I want up here.”
She turned to the man behind her, who then turned to the man behind him. The group continued to move, but they had slowed down enough that when a woman who didn’t look much older than Lané and had a bruise on her face that looked disturbingly fresh started to come to the front, she didn’t even need to walk very fast to get there. “I know these mountains,” she said. “I did a project on them in school, and learned this isn’t the first time they’ve seen war. Back when we were at war with the Gunguns, there was a three-day battle where we are right now, which the Gunguns won because of their knowledge of these mountains. I studied all the hiding places and how they made use of them. Of course, the Federation might be a little more clever then we were. We were very arrogant and thought they couldn’t possibly beat us at that point.”
That was one mistake the Naboo wouldn’t make again, at least. “You do know a lot, I see,” Lané smiled at her. “Do give me your name.”
“Unaé Verderrie. I’m from Cotsworn originally.”
“I’ve heard good things about that town,” said Lané, truthfully enough, though she had never been that far north. “You must tell me how you got down here some other time. For now, we need those hiding places, and I need your opinion on which ones would take the longest for the Federation to find.”
“Those won’t hide that many people,” said Unaé. “But there are a couple of big ones not far from here. One of them’s mostly underground.”
Two. Lané wished even more she had one of the men with her. She thought about it another moment, then said, “We’re going to split into two groups. One goes to the underground place. The other goes to the other place, and also, tries to possibly draw the Federation towards them en route, to keep the first group safer, so I’ll want volunteers. And if anyone here knows about communications devices, I want them to at least give me some advice about how best to send signals in this mountain. I want to be able to send for help.”
Word passed around, and Lané allowed as much time as she dared for everyone to talk and decide which group they wanted to join. Everything around her seemed to get louder until she felt a crazy urge to scream.
They would have to stop to organize the groups. Lané told herself that three times, until they were sandwiched between two uprisings of rock, too small to even be called hills, but they might offer some protection. “Stop,” she ordered. “It’s time to divide up.”
Later, when she would think about it, it would make her break out into a cold sweat all over again, how long their foes must have waited for everyone to stop. It couldn’t have taken all the time they ended up with to get into position.
But at the time everything happened too fast for thought. The gap between the two groups was scarcely free of the final stragglers when it was once again filled hideous bug-like droids, with curved tops and bottoms, and glowing orbs that were obviously shields, and stubby parodies of arms out of which shot the blaster fire.
She would never know who pulled her back, even as she pulled her blaster out. “Run; we can move faster than they can!” someone yelled from somewhere. She also heard someone yelling what sounded like a protest, but most of them didn’t question anything, just turned and ran. Lané could do nothing but run with them, leaving behind those at the front of both groups shot down. Others fell as they ran, and even through whoever had grabbed her had probably saved her life, she didn’t know how she still didn’t get shot down, once those left between her and the droids had all either fallen or outrun the people in front of them.
The first person to yell had been right, though. The droids were pulling themselves into balls and trying to roll after them or take to the air again. But it seemed they couldn’t fly for very long at once, because none of them got very high or stayed up long. In fact, it made them easier to hit, though they didn’t seem to realize that, because they kept doing it. That, Lané found herself thinking, might just preserve them.
They were dividing themselves up as they ran, probably into more groups than they’d wanted. But there was nothing she could do about that. Lané continued to fire at the droids that followed her group, and when there were no more she could shoot at, she just ran.