It took Coté about an hour to track down Losté, Ené, and Ardré. An hour during which she and Saché snuck around the borders of the city, Saché taking careful note of where there were battle droids, and where it looked like there were going to continue to be battle droids, though Coté’s concentration seemed to be fully on her task-by necessity, Saché assumed, though she didn’t ask. Coté led; Saché followed and guarded. The others were waiting by the waterfall.
It wasn’t Coté, however, who first alerted Saché to the exact location of the three handmaidens. It was the streak of blaster fire that flew dangerously near Coté’s arm and made both girls jump back, before returning fire, and then the yell of, “Wait! Stop!”
Losté emerged from the bushes; Ené and Ardré followed. “Terribly sorry,” she said, “we didn’t see you clearly, we heard footsteps and thought it was battle droids; we think we’re being followed.”
“That’s not good,” said Saché. “We were really hoping noone would remember our existence.”
“Little hope of that, I’m afraid. But they might think there are less of us than there are. Exactly how many are there? And where’s the Queen? Was she on that ship we saw blast out of the hanger?”
“She was. She’s off to Coruscant to seek action from the Senate. She took Sabé, Eirtaé, and Rabé with her. We’ve got everyone else with us except Briné. We think she’s been captured.”
“What did she expect us to do though?” Ené wondered out loud. “What can the nine of us do against-” There was another streak of blaster fire, and the five of them whirled around “-them?” she finished.
“Shoot them!” replied Saché, firing away as the battle droids emerged from out of nowhere, a whole stream of them.
“How many of them are there?” Losté cried.
“Too many!” answered Ené.
Too many sounded just about right, and the girls desperately shot and dodged, fleeing through whatever foliage they thought could help them shake the droids. Then three more droids appeared in front of them, too quickly to keep them from crashing right into them. But no sooner had they appeared when Ardré threw herself in front of the others and blasted them so hard they knocked over the droids behind them.
“Ardré!” Saché yelled, and quick as lightening, she was out of the way, and all five were quick to take advantage of the droids’ momentary unsteadiness.
“There are more behind us!” Even as Ardré yelled the warning, she was firing, moving to knock out front droids with her arms, amazingly fast-and suddenly Saché realized what about the Jedi had seemed so familiar.
But there was no time to think about that; they couldn’t assume at the moment that Ardré could really take all the battle droids down by herself, and so tried to assess the situation while she continued to fire. But Ardré had encourage Losté and Ené; they too had gone on the aggressive, knocking down droids as well as firing at them, and she and Coté then followed suit, until one of the droid’s blasts hit Ené on the side of the face, and she cried out and fell.
But now the ranks were clearly thinning, and the girls were fighting with everything they had, kicking with their feet when they could. Then it was over, they stood in a smoking heap of droid parts, and they all hurried over to Ené.
She was in clear agony, her teeth sunk into her hands to keep herself from screaming, but they were lucky; the blast had only grazed her skin, and left both her eyes and ears untouched. “Good thing you tried that,” Losté remarked to Ardré. “Our speed must have messed up their aim. If they had been able to aim, I admit, we all would have been dead...”
“I know some of us have to have some good medical knowledge,” said Saché. “Losté, you have some, don’t you?”
“A little,” Losté sighed, “but I’m afraid our real medic is Briné!”
“We’ll have to do whatever first aid we can, then. Anyone besides you and Briné with any extra knowledge whatsoever?”
“Moré, I think. But this looks pretty basic, anyway. It can only be a second-degree burn for the most part; otherwise she wouldn’t be in pain. But I don’t like this...” She gestured to the center of the burn. “I shouldn't touch it with dirty hands. Ené, can you tell me where the pain is?”
Ené shook her head. Saché could see tears in her eyes.
“Let’s get her back to Moré and others,” Losté suggested. “I can tell much better what to do with more opinions. Though I’m afraid they definitely know we’re here.”
“And that we’re to be reckoned with,” Saché mused, looking around again. “What we need to do now is simply not be found. Okay, you," she continued, turning towards Ardré. "You have some explaining to do."
"I don't understand," Ardré protested. She sounded genuinely confused. She hadn't expected Saché to notice anything. Now Saché really was angry.
"We cannot keep secrets from each other," she growled at Ardré, "but if you're keeping none, then there's something odd going on with you, because your fighting skills back there weren't natural. As a matter of fact, the only two people I've seen that quick were a pair of Jedi Knights!"
At this, Ardré visibly went pale, and Saché knew she had been right. "What is in this 'don't care to talk about it' past of yours?"
"You're being awfully intrusive!" Ardré snapped. "What business is it of yours what I did in my past?"
The two of them had been advancing forward on each other, and Ardré suddenly seemed much taller. Saché felt her young age, and very nearly backed down.
"Listen, Ardré," she said, "I am the leader here, like it or not. We all assume you to know better than to challenge my authority, especially now, when we absolutely cannot fight amoung ourselves. Keep your other secrets if you like, but I want to know what you can do."
“I will keep my secrets, thank you very much. Unless you’d care to say what happened with your parents, dead core calling the cosmos black! I can pretty much do what you saw me do back there. In fact, I can pretty much do what you saw me do at the training camp!”
Saché remembered what Ardré could do at the training camp very well: beat any one of them, including Captain Panaka, at hand-to-hand combat. It was the reason she was one of them even though she looked absolutely nothing like the Queen. “You can’t...”
“Move objects around with my head or wield a lightsaber without disastrous results? I assure you, I cannot provide you with those services.”
“She’s telling the truth,” said Coté. Even before Coté had admitted to anything special, the others had generally trusted her judgement on whether someone was being truthful or not, and Saché did now.
"Fine," Saché said. "Let's go rejoin the others."
She had been telling the truth, but Coté had not mentioned to Saché that she had not been telling the whole truth. If she said a superior form of ordinary fighting skills was all she could offer, that was true, and it was really all Saché needed to know. But her words had been carefully chosen. There were memories. They were vague to Coté; memories always were, but Ardré had once had other abilities.
Walking back, she found herself and Ardré falling behind slightly. She could sense, furthermore, Saché and Losté’s absorption is trying to figure out how to sooth Ené’s pain, which really was overwhelming. So she moved very close to Ardré and whispered, “I think if we wished to go over details, we would not now be paid attention to.”
“I can’t keep secrets from you, can I?”
“You can keep their specifics to yourself if you like.”
“Not as strong as I thought, then. But for mental abilities, when it comes to me...”
“You no longer have them at all,” Coté finished for her.
“So you know I once had them. What else do you know?”
“I know you once had all the abilities of the Jedi,” a slight amount of amusement from Ardré, “well, not quite...but clearly you had something to do with them.”
“I walked out of their Order ten years ago,” Ardré informed her. “When I decided I didn’t want to be part of it. And okay, when I started to believe they wouldn’t let me be either-long story. I decided against using what I’d learned. I even left my lightsaber with them, though I don't know if they'd have let me leave if I hadn't done that. You don’t use your abilities, you eventually lose a number of them.”
“What about you,” she asked a few minutes later. “The Force is strong with you, I think; I can still sort of sense that.”
“But I have the advantage over you here,” Coté replied, “in that you can't detect bits of my past, and I’m afraid I would not care to discuss it any more than Saché would. No, before you ask, I can’t tell much about her. I’ve no control of when my abilities kick in, though my mind automatically makes use of them, I suppose. You really stung her with that comment, you know.”
“Good, I wanted to," was Ardré's grim response to this. "If she wants to be leader, she needs to be able to take a few extra blows.”
“We really should get her to a hospital,” she finally said. Losté nodded her head in agreement.
“Well, we can’t,” Saché reminded them. “There’s not much we can do except keep her warm against shocks and such. Everyone lend me your cloaks. Do you think we can use that water on her? Is it cold?”
“Not as cold as I’d like,” Losté answered. “When the sun has warmed it a bit more, she should drink some of it to prevent dehydration.”
“These blasters involve a lot of chemicals,” added Yané. “We need to rinse the entire burn.”
The water was clearly soothing; Saché could see Ené relax slightly. She then submitted to being wrapped up in all the spare cloth they had and drank some of the warmed water.
“So what now?” asked Lané.
Saché wished she’d given more thought to that. “We can’t stay here,” she determined, “now that they’re looking for us. We need to find some place they won’t look at.”
“That’s nowhere in this area,” said Coté.
“We need a place they won’t look at immediately,” Saché continued, “but is still close enough so that if we get our hands on any charges we can blow the droid facility in the museum. Unless you think the addition of Losté and Ardré are enough-?”
“No,” said Coté immediately. “It’s going to be difficult enough to get the charges laid once we have them, and without them, we would only make a dent, easily repairable. So are you setting that as our priority?”
“Yes, I am.” Actually, Saché definitely hadn’t thought that far in advance. The realization that of course the others had been expecting her to hit her hard. But truth be told, she wanted that droid facility. In fact, she had to remind herself right then and there not to get too determined about destroying it until doing so was actually possible.
She considered the lands around Theed. There was a lot of swampland on Naboo, and some of it wasn’t too far away. The advantages against the battle droids were obvious, but they would be obvious to the Neimoidians as well, and it might well be the first place they would look. How long could they hold out? And was it a wise idea to take Ené into such an environment?
“There’s something odd about the river,” said Vatié, cutting into Saché’s thoughts. Her attention drawn to the river, she saw immediately Vatié was right. Normally after crashing at the bottom of the cliffs, the water continued to rush and froth for only a short length of the river before slowing down to an almost lazy pace. But even from their distance, there were visibly currents of water looking like they were running upriver, which broke against the more active water nearer the falls.
“Battle droids can’t swim, can they?” asked Moré.
“I don’t think so,” answered Yané. "They'd risk rusting up."
“Let’s take a closer look,” said Saché, beckoning to Yané.
Hands on their blasters, eyes scanning the surrounding countryside, Saché and Yané made their way down the river. But neither were able to make any sense out of the water’s behavior, and Yané called, “Coté, you don’t happen to sense anyone around?”
“No,” came Coté’s response, “but I can’t sense battle droids. I can’t always even sense people, remember.”
“Who says it’s so small as a few battle droids or some person? Anything could be happening to this river,” Saché mused to herself. In her head the thought that they should find out what was happening warred with the knowledge they’d lingered by the waterfall too long, and the entire group needed to move.
“Yané,” she finally said, “make for the Small Swamp with the others while Ardré and I go down the river a bit. We’ll circle around and meet you there.”
Coté took a place alongside Yané when they started fording the river where the water was slow. All of them could swim, but as the top of the water moved close to their shoulders, still flowing in the wrong direction, it made Yané nervous. She thought it ironic that she and Coté were at the front; while with the exception of the tall Ardre, all of them were roughly the Queen’s height, exact measurements had been taken and she and Coté were on record as being the shortest. The tallest after Ardré was actually Ené, but as Losté and Moré were doing their best to carry her above the water as they waded, this was only a disadvantage, even though Losté was third-tallest.
When the far shore was in her reach, Yané grabbed for it in a very undignified manner. Coté did the same. Behind them Lané laughed, and Vatié loudly shushed her. Yet when Yané and Coté had pulled themselves up onto the river bank, both girls grabbed for it in the same way. Then Vatié’s grip fumbled, and she lost her footing and was grabbed into the river current.
For a moment Yané, Coté, Lané, Losté, and Moré looked at each other in horror. Then Yané moved to jump back in, Coté pulled herself up and began running down the bank alongside Vatié, who was keeping herself above water but barely, and Lané began swimming determinedly after her. Losté and Moré began moving quicker, obviously hoping to put Ené on the shore before following Lané’s example.
When Yané’s foot caught onto a rock, her jump gave way to a tumble, and she hit the thrashing water headfirst. Her head bobbed above the water and then vanished. Lané promptly abandoned her pursuit of Vatié and went after the younger handmaiden.
Finally Vatié was able to grab onto the riverbank. The next second Coté had grabbed onto her and hauled her out of the river. The moment she was certainly of her safety she left her soaking and shivering and also ran towards Yané.
Panic had taken hold of Yané, pounded at her mind as she desperately tried to remember what to do. She could vaguely hear Lané, Losté, and Moré yelling. Then some calming presence entered her mind, and she stopped thrashing about so randomly, but concentrated on keeping her head above water.
“Swim, can you swim?” she heard Lané say, and felt someone grab onto her. But now they were in the thick of the current, and it was all they could do to keep a hold on each other until they were thrown against where the currents met, where Losté suddenly appeared in front of them, grabbed Lané’s hand, and yanked.
She was holding on to Moré, Yané realized a second later, and Moré was near the shore, reaching out to grab Coté’s hand. They had put Ené safely on the riverbank.
Fighting their fatigue, Yané and Lané swam through the contrary current, allowed themselves to be pulled into the bank, where Vatié was ready to receive them as she herself had been received. When there was once again dry ground beneath her sore limbs, all Yané wanted to do was collapse, and perhaps the only thing that kept her from doing so was Saché’s voice calling, “Are you all okay? We heard you shouting...”
She raised her head and saw Saché and Ardré standing on the other side of the river, out of breath from having run back. Saché’s question obviously was addressed to her. “I think we’ve got everything under control now,” she shouted in reply. “Have you found anything?”
“Nothing useful, except that the course of the river seems to have been altered, so far, in all but its very end. We’ll keep searching.”
“We’ll keep going this way. Come on, we’ve got to pull ourselves up...”
The sun would dry them out in time but as they walked at first, their heavy clothes weighed them down until several of the girls found themselves trying to simply tear off their hoods. Yané took the lead, blaster at the ready. “We’ll take as much cover as we can. Those trees should provide some.” Mentally she was mapping out the grounds surrounding Theed as she walked, tracing their diagonal route to where it could meet with another diagonal heavy in foliage.
The trees might provide good cover, but they also provided a chill, and shadows. Yané surreptitiously observed the others, but once they gave up on their hoods, they took it stoicly. She also noted that Coté actually looked more at home in the shadows. She beckoned her over. “Help me keep watch up here.”
She ended up bringing Losté and Ené with her, which Yané liked; it would keep Ené well covered. In fact, she made a mental note to keep Ené by her as much as possible from then on. Lané, Vatié, and Moré brought up the rear, and they had their pistols drawn.
It was Lané who alerted them who something amiss by firing her pistol. There was an explosion in the bushes. When no further blaster fire made itself apparent, Yané and Coté led the group over and discovered the remains of droideka which looked like it had a scanner attached. “They’re everywhere,” Vatié said simply.
“We’re walking quicker,” replied Yané.
Easier said than done, perhaps, when they had to deal with Ené. While she gritted her teeth harder and really did try to walk faster with the others, Losté kept having the pull her along, and Yané felt her patience start to give.
Then there was a rustling in the bushes, and six pistols were trained on a flock of nunas. “I don’t think we’re that close to the swamp,” said a confused Vatié.
“I think something’s driven them from their normal grounds,” said Coté.
“So we can’t go to the swamp?” asked Moré.
This innocent question sent Yané’s mind reeling, until Lané added “You know, if you think about it, the swamps are where everyone’s going to be taking refuge.”
“That settles it. We are to fight against the Federation in any way we can-that’s our exact orders, and if there are other people in the swamp, we have to get them to fight with us, or protect them if they can’t. And now we have to get there before the Trade Federation does.”
It was hard not to start running. It was only natural to start taking wide strides and force Coté to jog to keep up with her. She paid no attention when she heard a pained squeak which sounded like Ené. When Losté protested with, “We have to slow down; Ené can’t go this fast,” she didn’t think before she whirled and snapped, “Did I not say we had no time?”
She was louder than she intended to be, but even so she was stunned by the way the other girls, when they saw Losté flinch-which was infuriating enough-fixed her with their coldest stares.
“Yané,” Coté’s face relaxed, she moved forward and took a hold of Yané’s elbow, “if we can’t do it, we can’t do it.”
She knew in an instant Coté was right, and she was filled with a strong sadness and quiet desperation. Two options occurred to her. Either they could keep going at whatever pace they could manage, or they could spilt up. Both seemed extremely unappealing. She wasn’t so sure why she was so loath to split them up; it certainly hadn’t bothered Saché. Perhaps because there’d been more of them to split up when Saché and Ardré, who were already the strongest two fighters, had been with them.
But though her instincts were screaming against it, Yané was already trying to decide who was going to stay behind with Ené, who come to think of it, probably shouldn’t be near any kind of battle zone at the moment. Where exactly Ené and her companion were going to go to Yané hadn’t quite worked out, but vague ideas were floating through her head.
So who was it to be? Yané ruled out Losté immediately; she was the best fighter left after her. Either Lané, Vatié, or Moré could do, though Moré would no doubt take it the wrong way. But Moré did have the medical knowledge, so perhaps she should stay with the wounded. Of course she needed Coté, and her mental powers, even if they sometimes didn’t work. Surely if there were a lot of people in the swamp they would have to set something off in her brain.
Unless whoever stayed with Ené might be able to keep track of Saché and Ardré, and aid them if they ran into distress. “Coté,” she asked, “do you think if Saché and Ardré got into trouble, you would be able to tell?”
Coté considered, then said, “It’s possible, but you can’t rely on it, especially if they’re some distance away.”
Yané came to her decision. “Stay with Ené. And try to see if you can keep yourselves near the river, but make sure you stay out of sight. Everyone else stay with me.”
They covered distance much faster, and Coté and Ené were left far behind when it occurred to Yané that when Coté had taken her elbow, it might not have been just her words that had done away with her temper. She made a mental note to have a talk with that girl when they were reunited.
They both relaxed their arms a moment later, when it became the clear the mechanism was no more than just that, and could do them no immediate harm.
Still wary, they approached and examined the machine, but it seemed little more than a large cylinder, giving away no indication as to what it did. That it did something was likely, given the way it was humming.
The two girls walked around the cylinder twice before looking up at each other, and then Ardré asked, “What now?”
When they heard footsteps, Saché answered, “Hide!”
They dove into the brush nearby, but instead of seeing battle droids appear, they heard a splash, a good thirty meters to thirty-five meters from their hiding place. It was only over five minutes later when the battle droids finally appeared, and they were glancing about in clear confusion. Despite there being ten of them, Saché and Ardré quickly had them blasted apart before they could send off more than a handful of wide ineffective shots.
They were examining the droids to make sure they were all incapacitated when there was a loud splash almost right in front of them and a head emerged from the water, which both girls had their blasters fixed on before they realized it was Briné.
“Hi,” she gasped out, “take care of my droids for me?”
“Done,” replied Saché. “Where have you been?”
“With a bunch of civilians, being herded towards a prison camp of some sort. When we had trouble crossing the river I decided to break for it; there were only enough battle droids to keep the people in order so none could go after me from the crowd. I don’t know where those ten came from. But what have they done to this water?” To Briné swimming came as easily as walking, and she was treading water in an extremely aggressive current which Saché suspected would have swept any of the rest of them off. “It has to be that metal thing behind you; the current’s strongest here.”
“Whatever it is, it’s probably bad,” Saché decided, and she let loose her blaster on the cylinder. At once the river began audibly churning, and Briné, cursing, was carried downstream despite her best efforts, Saché and Ardré running after her. But she did not need their help; on her own she was able to grab on the bank, and kicking her legs sharp and hard she shoved herself onto solid ground. Ardré helped her to her feet, leveling a accusatory look at Saché as she did so.
Briné was much less bothered. “Maybe you should’ve waited until I was out of the river, huh? But let me at that thing.” And with that, she strode over the battle droids, scooped up one of their blasters, and fired at the cylinder until it exploded. “I hate things that interfere with the waters of Naboo,” she explained. Neither Saché nor Ardré were about to argue.
Instead Saché said, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re here, because Ené’s injured. We’ll go join the others in the swamp.”