“New rule,” she announced as they all slowed down their eating. “Do not try to destroy anything unless we can be certain it won’t backfire on you somehow.”
“That’s not going to be easy,” said Yané.
“Then what will we do?” asked Vatié. “Find refugees?”
Saché hadn’t yet thought that far. “We need more information,” she mused out loud. “But how could we get it?”
“They’ve got to have records of their doings somewhere,” said Lané.
“In Theed, probably,” Saché continued. “Unless they’re up on their ships, in which case we probably can’t get at them.”
“Where are we right now?” Coté. “How far away is Theed?”
“We’re about a quarter around the planet,” said Losté. “A little bit to the North.”
“Then we’re going to need to find transport. Losté, any ideas?”
Losté shrugged. “There should have been a speeder by the keeper’s cabin. There also should have been one here. Any vehicles I’d know about have probably been taken by the Federation.”
“At any rate, we can’t stay here; they’ll come here. We need to take what food we can easily carry and find a place to spend the night.”
“I know a place,” said Losté. “A cave. About an hour’s walk from here. The Federation may overlook it.”
“Then lead the way. Pack up, everybody. We’re going.”
They left the storehouses with their minds much more in place than they had been when they had gotten there. This meant they were no longer panicked or upset, but it also meant there was room for them to be nervous and wary, and they clustered behind Losté and Saché, each girl with her blaster in hand. “Don’t shoot,” Saché whispered, “Unless you’re sure. The power cells of these things have a lot of juice in them, but they aren’t going to last forever, and it’ll attract attention too.”
More than once a noise disturbed them in the bush, and one or more of the handmaidens raised her weapon, but they had listened; noone fired. “Large beasts?” Saché asked Losté in a whisper.
“Probably,” Losté whispered back. “The carnivorous ones usually don’t attack humans, but if anything charges us with very sharp teeth bared, we probably should fire at it.”
Nothing charged them at all as they crept their way through trees that started to grow taller as they went along, the plants under their boots getting thicker until they had to take care not to trip. “This is a place that is supposed to be left alone, undisturbed,” Losté said softly as she led them over a pile of sharp rocks. “By agreement of just about everyone who lives around here. Young people do come here sometimes to do various things.”
“Do you think we might find anyone there now?” suggested Vatié. “People who escaped the battle droids, like us?”
“I hope so!” said Lané. “Then we could help them.”
“Don’t rely on it,” said Losté. “It’s only a small portion of the planet’s population that knows it exists.”
But as they got closer, and found the faint vestiges of a trail to follow, Losté knelt several times to examine the ground, finally declaring, “Someone else has been here recently, and I don’t think battle droids.”
“How long ago?” Saché asked.
She shrugged. “At least a few hours. Possibly a week.” On hearing this last part, several of the girls sagged with noticeable disappointment.
At last the trees parted before them, and they came into a brown-green glen. The entrance to the cave was on the far side of the clearing, a low ridge of thick grey rock hovering over lichen-encrusted walls that swiftly faded into the darkness beyond.
Losté advanced first, Saché on her heels, the others not far behind. At the threshold the older handmaiden stopped and said softly, “We’re not alone.”
“Are you sure?” whispered Ené. “If there’s someone there, they’re being so quiet. Can you sense anything, Coté?”
Coté shook her head, and whispered back, “My brain’s still dead right now; I can’t sense a thing.”
“The footprints here have to be extremely recent,” Losté explained, still in a whisper. “They don’t last long on this ground; I’m surprise they’re here at all.”
“And you don’t think they’re...” Saché started.
“Not battle droids, no.”
“Very well, then. Carefully, even so.”
All was silence after that; the handmaidens taking care to make no sound even on this marshy surface. As the darkness of the cave closed around them, Vatié took out her communicator and held it out just behind the two leaders to help them, making Saché chide herself internally for not thinking of that herself. In the feeble light, she thought she saw the walls curve and bend a moment before Losté turned and gestured for the others to do likewise.
A moment later Vatié and her communicator made the turn, and a split second after that the inner cave was flooded with pale light, and three figures leapt to their feet and held out long knives towards the intruders.
They were young men, between fifteen and twenty years in age, one of them dressed in a militia uniform, possibly the youngest of them, but unquestionably their leader. It was he who first lowered his weapon and stepped forward, saying, “Royal Handmaidens?”
“That’s right,” said Saché. She too stepped forward, and lowered her blaster. “I’m leader of this little group, and I assume you’re the same.”
“I am,” he said, as they shook hands. “Tor Rorerrie. Behind me are Kladi Hock and Drosos Merine.” There was a pause as he clearly hoped to learn their names, but when Saché said nothing he seemingly remembered that handmaidens didn’t give out their names automatically, and he instead looked around behind her in order to count up how many of them there were. That Saché did not mind telling him, and so she did. “Nine,” he repeated. “There’s as many in your group as there is in ours.”
“Where are the other six?”
“About an hour’s walk from here. We left them hidden in a ravine.”
“In the Rashoon?” interrupted Losté. “I would think the Federation would find them there.”
“You know this area?” Tor Rorerrie turned his attention to her.
“I led them to this cave, yes.”
“Well, that was a concern of ours, but we were worried about the Federation finding us anywhere. But in the Rashoon, even if they do find us, they might have some trouble getting to us; we can use the ground to our advantage.”
“Should we join you there?” Saché asked, though she was not absolutely sure they would.
“If you can keep up with us,” he said with a grin.
“We can keep up with anyone,” Saché bristled. “Take us with you and you won’t regret it.”
“Where are the others?” Saché asked Rorerrie. “And how do we get to them?”
“The others probably aren’t where we left them,” he replied. “We told them to keep moving.”
“Why did you do that?” Saché asked, surprised. “That doesn’t make sense from a strategic stance at all.”
“So you know so much about strategy, then?” he retorted, and he tried to draw himself up above her.
“I’m trained for situations not unlike this,” she snapped, not wanting to be challenged in front of the other handmaidens.
“Are you really?” He almost was sneering at her.
She spent a moment too flustered to respond, before deciding that he had no right to ask such questions, and ignored it: “Where do you think they are now? Please say you have some idea.”
“Somewhere very far down.” He was still sneering. “Hopefully we’ll rendevous at the bottom.”
“The bottom’s pretty big,” said Losté doubtfully.
“Either way,” said Rorerrie, “we shouldn’t stay out here in the open.”
Though Losté kept close to the front too, when Saché didn’t know the Rashoon, she was forced to follow Rorerrie’s lead, and she was aware she would have to let him be in charge during the descent. She had a vague idea that she ought to act as if she was still commanding, but she didn’t know how to do that. All she could do was keep very close to him, force him with her questions to keep her continually informed about the route they were taking, and keep her blaster cocked, while telling herself when they reached the woods not to shoot at the first rustle this time.
They didn’t start to really descend until about half an hour of walking had passed, while sand and little pebbles got into their boots, and they breathed in air that stung their lungs and eyes. That only got worse, as the ground slanted and with each step it felt like slippery rocks would give way and send them tumbling. When they finally reached the forest, the shelter was even more welcome for the sense of security it gave the handmaidens; here the STAPs couldn’t see them, here any droids hunting them couldn’t get at them without noisily crashing through the neighbouring area, and here, surrounded by the wealth of their home planet, they felt as if somehow they were on their own ground, even though the whole planet ought to have been that.
It seemed kind of strange to them that their companions appeared to have the opposite reaction. But they got jumpy in the woods, looking around so much it was a wonder they could see navigate the path without tripping. Matters got worse as the deepening evening brought the bugs with it; the handmaidens in their skirts actually suffered worse from the flies, but the men reacted more, ducking around in vain attempts to evade what could not be escaped, swatting angrily, hunching over more. Though to be fair, Lané and Vatié did a bit of that too, but less.
There was a bit of a stench coming up at times, between some of the plants and the bugs. Saché didn’t know what generated what parts of it, though she assumed Briné did. Near her, she thought she saw Yané limping a bit; as Briné had warned, the injury was getting to her. She stole a glance back at Ardré and noted she seemed fine so far.
Then a foul scent hit her nostrils that she might not have been able to identify when she had woken up that morning, but she knew it now. She and the other handmaidens had been subjected to it for much of that day, until they had placed the source of it in a freezer because they hadn’t been able to properly bury her while on the run.
She was stunned when she looked at Rorerrie and the other young men, and they showed no sign of recognizing that smell. She wasn’t sure she wasn’t missing something. But then she looked at the other handmaidens, and they all nodded to her; they were smelling exactly what she was, and Saché thought it was close by. “I think we should find the source of that smell,” she declared.
“I don’t think it’s important,” said Rorerrie. “We need to find the others first.”
“It could be the others,” said Yané.
“You think so?” asked Drosos Merine.
“It’s a possibility,” said Saché. “That’s at least two corpses, I think.”
Rorerrie’s face flexed for a moment, as he tried to hide his shock and pretend he’d known that already. Saché knew she shouldn’t punch him, so she didn’t. “You have a good point there,” he said. “All right, we take a look.”
Not wanting to act only under his orders, Saché had already started to move in the direction of the stench, the other handmaidens following. They’d nearly reached it's origins by that time, she was now certain it was only behind the large dark fronds which she pushed aside.
The bodies were in the cloaks and gowns of civilians, but what hit Saché immediately was that they didn’t look like local farmers; they were dressed too fine, and the one face she could see was too smooth.
Then Coté said, “Look at the belt of the woman with the braid on the far right. I think I’ve seen that symbol before.”
Rorerrie joined Saché as she knelt before the woman in question and flipped it over. Even after handling Moré’s body it revolted her to touch the corpse, especially when she felt that she was bloodied under her chest, but even through the clothes soaked black she recognized the symbol on the belt. “The Lasara family symbol. This is Eirtaé’s relative.”
“We’re not far from Parrlay,” said Losté. Parrlay was the Lasara family stronghold.
“Parrlay was attacked,” said Rorerrie. He turned over another member of the party; he too had the symbol on his belt. “Though I thought everyone was either killed or captured on site; I didn’t know anyone escaped.”
“But if these people died here,” said Saché, “who killed them, and where are they now?”
Kladi Hock was stepping around the bodies, studying the ground. “I don’t see any footprints.”
“You’re on the wrong side,” said Losté. “Those two were clearly shot from this direction, which means we’ve probably stamped all over the footprints.”
“Are you so sure of that?” Rorerrie demanded, as if he was offended at being called wrong.
“If she says so she is,” Saché told him coldly. “Though we might as well look to see if there are any footprints left.”
Merine joined the handmaidens as they scouted around the path, looking for the tiny rectangular indentations of battle droid feet or damage to foliage. It was Ené who first spotted the latter, wandering a little further until she yelled, “Over here!” They all rushed over fast enough to nearly knock her into her discovery: a tangle of snapped branches and scattered vines, and the unmistakable footprints, more visible on the far side, going off and away from the path. “They don’t have a map of this place,” observed Rorrerie. “There’s nothing that way but steep rocks.”
“So there’s no need to follow them, at least,” said Saché.
“Then what should we do,” asked Vatié, hesitantly, “about the bodies?”
There wasn’t time to bury them fully, and Saché was vaguely aware that people from families like the Lasaras didn’t like to be buried just anywhere; they wanted their family plots. But they couldn’t just leave them there, especially not when they were family to a sister handmaiden. Also there was the growing question of how much ground they would be able to cover that night anyway, when Yané was starting to seriously limp, and even Ardré wasn’t fully steady on her feet anymore; she was trying to hide it but Saché had noticed. It might be just as well to pause for just a few minutes, let Briné look her two patients over, and throw at least some dirt over the bodies.
All this flashed through her head in less than a second, and then, as if on cue, Briné said, “If we toss a little bit of soil on them, it should give them at least a little protection from scavengers.”
“Do it, then,” ordered Saché. “Briné, you should take a look at Yané, I think.”
“Now wait just a minute,” said Rorerrie. “You don’t get to just give my men orders like that.”
Saché was aware a leader ought to have patience, but she didn’t. “Fine, then. We’ll do it without you.”
“We need to stay together; you can’t stay here.”
“Oh, so you can give us orders?” So much for avoiding the issue.
“Let me speak plainly,” he said coldly. “As a member of the volunteer militia, I do the authority, yes, to take command of anyone who joins my forces-”
“What’s your rank in the militia?” Losté interrupted.
“Huh?” Apparently he couldn’t take being interrupted.
“Your rank,” she said. “Are you a lieutenant? Sargeant? Private? Higher or lower?”
“Sargeant,” he growled. “And that’s why-”
“How long?” she pressed. “Two years? Three?”
“One year, nine months, and twenty-nine days.”
“Ah!” she crowed, triumphant. “Ené, Ardré, and I were made sargeants two years and three months ago, and we’re still members of the militia, and I don’t think we’re categorized as inactive, so we have seniority over you. Ardré, you were made a couple of weeks before us, right?”
“That’s right,” said Ardré, who was grinning too; so were all the other handmaidens, and the thought that it was the lowest ranking of those there that was authorized to take control was even more amusing-until Saché remembered why she was now the lowest-ranking. “I’ll be taking command here, Sargeant Rorerrie. And as a handmaiden, I then defer to the highest-ranked handmaiden present-your men, Saché.”
Rorerrie was gaping. The other two also looked a little dismayed. “Three of you in the militia?” Hock demanded, incredulous.
“Four,” said Coté. She didn’t mention she’d only been a private.
“Handmaidens are often recruited from the militia,” said Vatié. “And that shouldn’t surprise you. We’re trained for the same profession as you. Just because we spend so much time doing our mistress’ hair doesn’t mean we can’t fight as well as any soldier for our cause, and make no mistake, this is our cause now, as much as the Queen’s personal protection has normally been, for we are not confined to narrow roles, and what Her Highness orders us to do, as if her words themselves transform us, we do as if it was our only purpose in life.”
“That’s right, Vatié,” said Saché, very, very firmly; she was not in the mood for speeches from anyone. “Now as I was saying, if everyone could throw a little soil over the bodies, while Briné examines Yané at least, as well as the other injured if she thinks it’s a good idea.”
They all obeyed, but Saché was quick enough to see that while the other girls flew to it, grabbing their handfuls of dirt and hurling them down, the boys dragged their feet. She wanted to snap at them, but she was distracted, both by her own work with the soil, and because with one eye she watched Briné kneeling Yané down, both of them struggling to keep themselves at least partly out of the messy ground, and examining her bandaged sides. It wasn’t a sight for the faint of heart; they were covered with large red-purple blotches, possibly even black in places, which frightened Saché. But Briné looked very calm, and she was nodding and saying, “About what it should look like…this is going to hurt, Yané; tell me how much.” Saché nearly winced in sympathy as Briné began pressing down in places, very lightly, but it was enough for Yané to grimace, for her fists to clench, for strained whimpers to escape her gritted teeth. “Bad,” she squeaked. “Not as bad…very bad…even worse!” On that last she bent downward, hands pressing through watery soil now heedless of its filth.
“That’s not particularly good…” Briné mused. “Could be worse, but still not good." She replaced some of the bloodier bandages, then went to examine Ardré. It was clear immediately, even to Saché’s untrained eye, that the older girl was in better shape, her wrappings less colored, and with less signs of pain. Briné looked very pleased by her. “At this rate,” she commented, “by this time tomorrow you might be more or less back to normal.”
They were finishing up when Rorerrie suddenly asked, “Um, excuse me? Miss Saché? Do you think maybe Miss Briné could look at Mr. Hock?”
“Yes, please,” said Briné immediately, and at that Saché nodded. It troubled her, however, that she hadn’t noticed anything wrong with him, while Briné without being told immediately knelt and said to him, “Take your boot off so I can see that ankle.” There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the ankle to her, but Briné tsked on seeing it. “I don’t have much bacta left,” she said, “So I’m going to give you a thin layer. I need you to stay very, very still; I don’t want to waste a speck of this stuff.”
Meanwhile Rorerrie, trying to impress Saché even if he couldn’t give her orders, sidled up to her as they finished covering the corpses, and said, “I’ve been thinking about those footprints, and it’s rather odd. The battles droids seem to have somehow gotten away that dead end when I don’t know if they could have stayed up on those rocks.”
Saché had thought about this already. “There are two possibilities,” she said. “Either they braved the rocks and are somewhere on them right now, traveling very slowly, but they probably can transverse them eventually, or they went back the way they came-those footprints were blurred enough we couldn’t tell which direction they were doing in, and they could have easily walked back over them so only set remained, and then could be anywhere.”
He didn’t have anything more to say to that, except a dark mutter of, “They’d better be on those rocks,” he probably didn’t mean for her to hear, though she did agree with it.
“There,” said Briné. “Done.” She rose, and Hock carefully wiggled his ankle about before putting his boot back on. “We’re ready to go on.”
“Lead the way,” Saché said to Rorerrie.
Pleased to take the lead again, he strode forward along the path he’d been leading them, and Saché let Losté follow immediately after in front of her; as long as he submitted to her command she didn’t have to breath down his neck all the time, she supposed.
But as they got further underway, they quickly became aware that more time had passed during their pause than perhaps they had intended. They had men's lantern, but still couldn't see very far. "Do you have any idea how much longer we might be able to go on?” Saché asked Rorerrie.
Losté answered, “Probably until we reach the Thrushing Grove. That’s about an hour’s walk from here, I think, maybe more? Maybe less? Rorerrie, what do you think?”
“Definitely more,” said Rorerrie.
“Anyway, the trees there get really thick, and they go on for quite some length. They’d make for good protection, I think.”
“Then we spend the night there,” said Saché.
The next hour proved uneventful. There were a couple of times, as they penetrated deeper into the Rashoon, that they heard low thumps in the distance, but those, Losté and the young men were quick to say, were almost certainly the herds of hrumphs that lived in this part of the Rashoon. It was a good thing they weren’t near them, but the beasts certainly weren’t looking for them.
The trees grew so thick and the light so dim Saché wasn’t entirely sure when the sun officially went down, but she was fairly certain it was by the time the lantern barely allowed them to see anything at all, and she nearly called a halt to their march on those grounds when Rorriere reached his illuminated arm out and touched a trunk darker and broader than most of the ones they had seen so far, and on it was a distinct notch. “We’re at the grove’s entrance.”
“Shouldn’t the moons be up soon?” asked Lané. “Will the light get down here?”
“Rori should,” said Rorerrie. “But it’ll be at least another half hour. Ohma-D'un will take half the night, and Tasia's currently in its new phase.”
“How well do you know this grove?” Saché asked.
“Enough,” replied Rorerrie, “to suggest we travel about four more lengths, where there’s smooth ground and a growth of Yuu vines. The smell of the latter takes some getting used to, but it repels insects.”
At this point Saché’s thighs were riddled with bites, and as her leggings slumped down the skin below her knees was being attacked as well. Nor had she been able to swat away all the insects that had landed on her face and collarbone, and once she fell asleep she would be completely unguarded. She didn’t even have to look at the other handmaidens to know they were all thinking the same thing as her: “We should make use of it, then.”
The Yuu vines did smell, a punguant odor that laced the air and made them aware, before they even saw the plant clearly, how far it extended. The plant was parasitical, nestled in the folds of a very old and gnarled tree, and after many hours of trudging through swampland in dimming light, when the lantern light moved away from her Saché allowed herself to lean back and cling to the trunk, as around her she heard the quiet sounds of the others also getting off their feet. She also allowed her head to fall back, her eyes to fall closed, and her mouth to fall open. She felt tears start to well up, but even if the others could no longer see her, they could still hear her.
Not to mention her duties for the day still were not done, there were two sentries to assign to keep watch the next eight hours. She ran her way through handmaidens: Yané and Ardré both injured, Briné needed to save her strength, possibly Coté should as well. She wished she knew something about the strength and weaknesses of the two uninjured militia men.
“I would like to take the first watch,” said Rorerrie, and Saché felt a gut impulse to rule out Merine for the second. She wasn’t sure where it came from, but she said, after another moment to mentally consider ranking versus knowledge of a grove when everyone was staying put in it, “Very well. Wake up Lané for the second in four hours.”
She hoped he would in fact do so, though if he didn’t she would be brutal to him. But with this last command, she felt her strength for the day give out. As Rorerrie took position, and dimmed the lantern just a touch, she sank to the grass, not caring when dirt smudged into her hair, and a couple of tears did escape, if only for Moré, whose death her heart had still not accepted; perhaps it would never accept it.
She was exhausted, more than she had ever been in her life. For all she had insisted on retaining leadership, even over he who actually wanted it, she wished Sabé was there; she wouldn’t have had any trouble with this; she would have taken charge without fear. She probably wouldn’t have needed the others to save her when a young militia member challenged her authority. Maybe she could have even saved Moré. And she would probably have some far more real idea of just what they were going to do the next day.
To Be Continued...">