By the time they were ready to leave the path along the river, Briné’s hands were full of plants. Saché was very glad indeed to have found her.
Several times they stopped, until Saché was sure her ears were playing tricks on her on purpose. Perhaps all their ears were. But finally they all heard footsteps at once, but after a moment or so Briné whispered, “Those aren’t battle droids. They don’t sound like that.”
Saché was trying to think of anything hostile that wasn’t a battle droid when Ardré said, “Wait, it’s someone injured.”
Without asking how Ardré knew that, they hurried in the direction of the footsteps, and Saché’s suspicions were confirmed when she heard Coté’s voice say, “I hate to say it, Ené, but I don’t think Yané should have kept us together.”
“Kept you together?” Saché pushed her way past some trees and she and Coté took a look at each other. “What happened? Where are the others?”
“On their way to the swamp, which we think is inhabited. They left us behind for speed. They hoped I could keep track of them, but I’ve lost the others completely.”
“Never mind that,” replied Saché, “if we know where they’re going we can still follow them. Though Briné should take a look at Ené first.”
“Oh yes, thank you,” said Briné, pushing past the others. She sat Ené down and examined her.
“Can you fix it?” Coté asked.
“With only a few herbs, and I’m out of swamp country? No. But if someone will help me crush these, I can reduce the pain.” At these words, the relief on Ené’s face was visible.
Saché kept her dismay at the delay to herself. In fact, she wasn’t pleased with herself for feeling it. This was the only thing they either could or should do, and surely Yané and the others could take care of themselves if need be. Yet she could not shake a feeling that something was about to go terribly wrong with them.
Ardré helped Briné mash the herbs into a fine paste with a pair of rocks, and Briné carefully applied it to the burnt area. She then tore off a piece of her skirt and wound it around Ené’s head as a makeshift bandage. “Not the most effective or even most sanitary thing ever, but I imagine you’re feeling better, aren’t you Ené?”
“Yes,” breathed Ené. She smiled and looked at Saché. “I’m ready to do whatever you need of me.”
This made Saché feel a little better, but her vague uneasiness about their situation was continuing to grow.
She wasn’t the only one. As they got underway, Coté and Ardré found themselves bringing up the rear again, and Coté muttered to Ardré, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Ardré rejoined.
“I thought you’d lost all your mental abilities.”
She probably meant it in jest, yet Ardré was irritated. “I didn’t need them there. Couldn’t you tell?”
“No,” smirked Coté, though Ardré was quite certain she could. “Unreliable, remember?”
Ardré decided it was best to end this conversation, but after a short span of walking in silence, she found herself commenting out loud, “I’ve never heard of anything like that, though. Even younger Initiates are pretty predictable in what they can and cannot do.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Coté informed her.
“Knowledgeable, aren’t you?” inquired Ardré, trying to imitate the other’s tone.
“Not especially,” answered Coté, “but there are certain conclusions I can draw, from details about myself, which I’m afraid I’m still reluctant to share.”
“Coté, don’t tease me like that,” sighed Ardré. “If you don’t want to talk about yourself, then don’t go dropping hints.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think,” said Coté, and she genuinely sounded sorry. But then she added, “I suppose you still think there is no ignorance.”
“We can’t help the way we’re raised,” said Ardré. After another pause, she added, “I don’t feel entirely right about this either.”
“Neither does Saché,” replied Coté, confirming what all three of the other girls had to be suspecting. Indeed, as if on cue, Saché turned back to them and asked, “Anything either of you two can sense I should know about?”
They shook their heads simultaneously. “Sorry,” Coté added unconvincingly.
Saché looked as if she wanted to punch Coté, but nobly refrained.
It was a good thing all of the handmaidens had spent so much time training in swampland. Yané didn’t think they were even at the official boundaries of the Small Swamp, and already the ground was more liquid than solid. This naturally hindered their progress somewhat, but Yané had other concerns on her mind now.
She had hoped to find traces of anyone or anything that had converged on the swamp, but the swamp was wide enough around that it didn’t happen. Nor did her ears pick up anything other than the normal sounds of the swamp, and the sound of Trade Federation ships patrolling overhead. At least those weren’t a worry for the moment. There was no way they could be spotted through the thick foliage. As for Saché and Ardré, and Coté and Ené, well, in all likelihood they would likewise keep themselves covered.
She hated them being separated like this. Briné too. Where was Briné, anyway? Was she even alive? Yané didn’t want to think about that idea. Well, there was no need to. Yet.
They were walking in complete silence now, nearly jumping when Vatié broke it by saying, “Swamp’s boundary, I think.” Then they were further on edge, and suddenly a speeder came crashing through the swamp out at them, piloted by battle droids.
Two seconds and Yané had the speeder’s pilots out, causing the vehicle to careen wildly, until Losté jumped up on it and had taken the wheel. Several seconds more and she had brought it to a halt.
Then there was a sound of beeping, and Losté hastily let go and backed off the speeder, waving her arms and yelling, “Back! Back! EVERYBODY BACK!!”
The speeder exploded, throwing Losté through the air, until she crashed into Lané and Moré, then Lané crashed into Vatié, then Vatié crashed into Yané and they all fell to the ground as Yané hit on the nature of the explosion. “It’s a trap. The swamp’s a trap.”
She saw their eyes travel over each other’s bodies to her. But before Yané could think of what to say next, there was the unmistakable sound of countless battle droid feet treading the ground all too near to them, and from all around, the sounds of blasters being readied, then a mechanical voice saying, “Get up.”
They obeyed slowly, untangling themselves from each other. If we had all ten of us here, Yané thought, we might stand a chance. But with this amount of droids...this was why they shouldn’t have separated.
“Hands up.” Yané obeyed. The others followed suit. But Yané could feel their eyes on her, accusing her. They were right to.
Their blasters were taken and they were prodded together by the battle droids, who then gestured them forward.
At first as they walked, Yané’s mind went blank with despair. She took no notice as they walked back the way they had come, reacting neither to her feet clumsily getting caught in the treacherous ground nor the droids prodding her back into movement. Occasionally someone fell forward, but whoever was next to her quickly grabbed her arms and steadied her. They did this without thinking, without feeling.
But then they cleared the trees near the river, and suddenly Yané realized the droids were tracing all of their trails, if they hadn’t already, and she knew she couldn’t just surrender without a fight. Not if it put Saché and Ardré and Coté and Ené in danger. She had to do something, and she had to do it now.
She tried to think of everything her father had ever told her about battle droids. The one thing she could remember was his insisting on their extreme stupidity. She'd have to try to use that.
She gave out a cry of "Oh!" and turned back towards the woods. As she’d hoped, the battle droids were distracted, but it wouldn’t be enough. Now came the risky part. She back up, then dashed between two battle droids, still staring back at the woods. Don’t shoot don’t shoot don’t shoot...
The battle droids didn’t shoot. They all turned and stared at her. Then several of them hesitantly stepped forward.
That’s right... Meanwhile, the other handmaidens seemed caught between staring at her and staring at the woods. And then she saw understanding cross Losté’s face, and she gasped, loud as she could, and stared in the same direction as Yané, then yelled, “Up there!” Everyone, droids included, looked up, and then on either side of her, Losté nudged Vatié and Moré. They looked at her in confusion for a second, then understood, and Vatié nudged Lané, and gestured to their skirts. With a rush of relief Yané realized the four of them all had extra weapons on them.
Five of the droids were down before the rest realized what was going on. Two more fell as Lané tossed her pistol to Yané, who took out the first two to have their guns properly trained.
Every single blaster turned to her. Shaking, Yané fired wildly, then fell as one of the blasts hit her, burning her hip, the pain so great it was all she could do not to black out. She was dead now; another blast was sure to finish her.
She could hear shouting as if from a distance, and strangely enough, it sounded like Saché, who was safe for the moment, but she had to keep the droids away from her, but it just hurt so much...
“Yané?” Was that Saché’s face in front of her?
“There are about thirty of them...” Yané tried to warn her.
“They’re all gone now. We blew them all to pieces.”
“Good,” she choked out, and everything went black.
“I’ve been thinking about the speeder that exploded,” Losté commented to Saché. “It wasn’t thoroughly destroyed, though enough so that they left it where it was. I think we should go back there and see what we can find.”
But the speeder seemed unlikely to have any medical supplies, and so Saché put it out of her mind for the moment. Instead she was mentally traveling the surrounding area, trying to think where they could possibly...
“She may not last if we don’t get something for her,” Briné was warning her.
The only place Saché could think of was inside the city, if they could get into it. She decided they had to make some attempt, if Yané’s life was truly in danger.
That meant splitting up again. Only one, two people at most, could go into the city. Two, she decided.
It could not escape Saché that because of her history, and the large amounts of time she had been in Theed hospital, she herself was by far the one most suited for the job. Now that Yané was out of commission she could be accompanied by either Vatié, who aside from her and Yané had the best knowledge of Theed, or Ardré, who had an uncanny ability to be unnoticed. Did it come from the same place as her fighting skills? There had to be some sort of Jedi or Jedi-like training in her upbringing, definitely.
But Vatié might get distracted with the idea of rescuing her father, which was far too risky, and he seemed to not want them to try. There was her arm wound to consider too, especially because her marksmanship wasn’t her strongest point in the best of times. Ardré, then.
“How much can we move Yané about?” she asked Briné.
“Now that we’re here, I wouldn’t advise it.”
Her decision made, she said, “I’m taking Ardré back into Theed. They’ve probably finished evacuating the city by now, so we might be able to make it to the hospital and see what’s left there. The rest of you are to stay here.” One look around at them did away with any fear that they might so much as disagree. None of them wanted a repeat of what had recently happened.
Saché and Ardré left the others with them positioned in a circle around Briné, Yané, and Vatié, who Saché thought was still in some pain, though she seemed to be bearing it well enough. It was a short walk to the waterfall, which was still deserted. Neither spoke as they slipped into the secret passage, but both had their blasters out, and this time they had not even a feeble communicator light, but navigated the pitch black by memory alone, their ears straining for the slightest hint of droid feet.
There were none. The passage remained unknown to the invaders.
The museum basement was also deserted, but both girls knew they could not hope for that luck to hold out long. Stealthily they crept across the room and up the stairs, clutching at the walls, fingers itchy-until they came to the top of the stairs, and found the two droids Yané had shot still lying there, guns pointed at each other.
If the situation hadn’t still be so dangerous, Saché could have laughed.
They traced their way through the museum, following the line of battle droids they had shot down. It felt like walking through a tomb at first. But eventually, at last, they heard first a faint whirring sound, then the sound of clinking metallic feet, and finally a voice saying, “Trouble happened here. Rebels?”
“They carved quite a path if it was.” They were coming in their direction. Saché and Ardré flattened themselves against the walls as best they could, but even the battle droids would notice them after only a moment or so. Ardré didn’t look ready to flee yet, but she had to knew they were depending on there not being a whole army of them in the museum. It didn’t sound like it...
The two battle droids rounded the corner alone, and in another moment two blaster shots had blown their pieces back the way they had come until they slammed into the wall behind them.
“Run for it,” Saché barked, and both girls raced down the corridor, kicking aside droid parts which clattered against the walls and floors, ringing in their ears and making them run faster.
They burst out of the museum and into an empty street, which they dashed across and into the nearby alley, where they stopped to get their bearings. Much as Saché strained her ears, she could hear nothing but the sound of the STAPs above.
“The hospital’s five blocks over and three blocks up. With any luck we can get there undetected, but I’m not so sure about back.”
“I really think back’s going to be more of a problem than to,” said Ardré, and Saché, remembering how the older Jedi had proclaimed Sabé to be in danger based only off his feelings, and how readily she’d believe him, decided to keep the idea in mind.
This was the tensest situation yet, either way. Saché later thought the lack of any sound (except for those ever-cursed STAPs) just made it worse. That both she and Ardré had been trained to walk soundlessly only led her to wonder who else might be able to do so, even if those droids could be heard from across the city.
At the entrance to the hospital, they pressed their ears to the door, and heard nothing. “Those battle droids really are very loud on stone and metal,” said Ardré, “but does the hospital have carpeting?”
“Only on the upper floors,” answered Saché. "Most of what we need is downstairs.”
The problem was the elevators, Saché thought, as the doors opened on command. The hospital had a wonderfully complete elevator system, complete with most of the elevators carpeted, which was working against the two of them, as it allowed any battle droids on the upper floors to come down without warning.
In other ways, however, ways which under normal circumstances inconvenienced people, the design of the hospital was in their favor. It was made for all the storage compartments to be built seamlessly into the roundish shining silver walls, to the point where it wasn’t easy to tell where they were. During her multiple stays in the hospital, Saché had watched as the staff had shown all the interns and other newcomers how to access everything, and so she, unlike the Trade Federation, knew where almost everything was.
Time was short, so Saché, with Ardré guarding her back, went straight to the ward she’d been in when she was six. Her memory of it was very strong, because it was where she had learned that she was leaving her parents at last. It had been years since then, but sure enough, when she slid her nails into the subtle cracks in that old familiar wall, the drawers slid out over her hands, and the top one was full to the brim with bacta packs.
They stuffed them in the compartments in their undershirts and underskirts, and Saché also stuffed her hood. Into her hood, sleeves, and belt sash she also slipped many vials from the second drawer, and into the bend she tucked a hypospray and a pair of medical instruments from the third. She handed several more to Ardré, who tucked them into her own belt.
They carried several more packs each, wedged under their arms, as they left the hospital. Saché felt twice as heavy, and the going was much slower.
Much to her surprise, she and Ardré traveled the three blocks down without incident. Then they rounded the corner and came face to face with five rows of battle droids.
Both girls fired off two shots before diving behind the adjacent building. Then Ardré turned to Saché and said, “Saché, I think you need to run.”
When Saché failed to move, Ardré hissed at her, “Look, there’s no way you can fight your way past those droids. I don’t know if we could even manage it together. But I’m pretty sure I can hold them off long enough for you to escape. And those medical supplies have to get back to Briné. Yané’s life may very well depend on it.”
She knew that Ardré was right. She also knew her stomach revolted at the idea of deliberately leaving one of her sister handmaidens behind to die.
Ardré was already pulling the most important medical instruments out of her sash. Dumbly Saché took them and tucked them into hers. “Saché, we have to hurry!” Ardré urged her. Saché jammed the rest of the instruments in, turned, and forced herself to run.
The bacta packs weighing her down felt heavier than ever. Her feet were working, pounding loudly on the pavement as the gunfire faded unnaturally fast, which meant her head had to be playing tricks on her. Something else was weighing down her legs, dragging her steps, making her feel nauseous and off-balance.
Completely on autopilot, she turned out of the final alley and ran towards the museum entrance. She dodged a wild streak of blaster fire, then turned and shot the two droids responsible before they could fire again. The distraction brought her back to herself; as she charged into the museum she took note of a new clanging sound from where the droid storage units probably were, but there was no time to worry about that at the moment. She kept on running, back through the hallway of strewn droid parts, past the pair with the blasters pointed at each other, down the stairs to the basement and into the secret passage.
Once the door was sealed behind her Saché allowed herself a moment to catch her breath. She could hear nothing behind her; she was probably safe.
One thing she hadn’t done yet was travel the secret passage alone. With her footsteps echoing against the narrow walls and down the stairs in front of her, Saché had to fight the impression that there was someone stalking her. Nearer to the bottom she briefly lost all sense and started running, then tripped and only by a movement with her foot that was half training and half sheer miracle did she avoid a tumble which might have damaged or even destroyed her fragile cargo. When she at last emerged into the sunlight, it was too relieving to even feel blinding.
She got back to the others, who looked at her, opened their mouths, and closed them again, unable, in the end, to quite find words for the loss, for all that it had been anticipated, for all that it was to be expected. There certainly were no recriminations spoken to their leader by the others. It was pain and punishment enough for Saché to see Coté lower her head and sink slowly to her knees, and Lané hastily wipe her eyes, while the others just looked around at each other.
Even Briné’s smile was weak when she saw Saché unload her cargo, and said, “You really went all out. This much I could probably make last a month.” It was their only consolation, so Saché took what comfort she could from it, and knew that the others were doing the same.
She wondered if she ought to offer any comfort to Coté, who clearly was taking the loss of Ardré harder than the others, but she was quick to realize that she truly had no idea how. She also took a look at Ené and Losté, who had also been close to their agemate, and saw Ené move to place her hands on Losté’s shoulder, and Losté brush them away before marching off-towards Saché herself.
“Have you considered what I said about the speeder?” It wasn’t just bringing them back to task either, Saché thought; they would fight in Ardré’s name now, so only wanted to resume all the sooner.
With that thought, she gave a quick consideration to the distance and said, “We’re going for it. You and me. Knowing Briné, she’ll make Ené stay here longer than I want to wait.” As she spoke, she was aware of the others’ attention focusing back on her.
She took a quick look around. Briné was carefully applying bacta to the wound in Yané’s side, Moré acting as her assistant, while Vatié and Ené waited nearby. Coté had pulled herself up and was dully staring at Saché, not quite recriminating, but close to it. Lané was watching her with concern.
“Keep everyone here again,” she said to Briné. Briné nodded absently.
“One minute,” she said to Losté after another moment’s consideration, who nodded and went to sit with Ené. Saché then met Coté’s eyes and beckoned her over.
Coté came sullenly. Saché kept eye contact with her, more to keep her own mind calm. When Coté was close enough, Saché said quietly, “Of course I’m leaving Briné in charge, but with three patients to see to, she’s a bit distracted, so you have to keep yourself focused. Understand?”
When Coté didn’t respond, Saché got angry. “Look, you have to know that losing Ardré was the last thing I wanted. Forget your psychic abilities; you should be able to figure that out without them. It was the only way for either of us to get out of Theed alive.”
“I’d assumed that.” The quiet pain in Coté’s voice felt to Saché like a slap in the face. For a moment she wondered exactly when Coté and Ardré had gotten this close anyway; she’s never seen any evidence of it. But ultimately it didn’t matter.
“Look, maybe you should talk to Ené or something,” she suggested. “It would probably be better for you to talk to her than to me. Or Lané.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you.” Coté clearly wanted the conversation over.
“You’ll keep a lookout, meanwhile?” Coté nodded very firmly, and Saché decided to trust her.
She went over to Briné to take a quick look at Yané. Briné didn’t look up, but said, “I’m almost done with her. She’ll still have scars; I’m not wasting bacta on that right now, but she can get rid of them when all this is over if she wants to.”
“When all this is over.” Saché somehow felt better hearing the reminder that it should be eventually. At the moment, she couldn’t think that far ahead.
“Time to go,” she said to Losté, who nodded, turned, and began walking back towards the Small Swamp. Saché followed.