She thought about the Queen, and Sabé and Eirtaé and Rabé. They had to nearly be at Coruscant by now. Unless the Trade Federation had captured them. She shivered at the thought. It had to be in all their minds, and there was no way for them to know what was going on out there.
And speaking of anxieties about people they could not get news about, from not too many feet away she heard a soft cry of “No!” and a gasp, and saw Vatié spring up into a sitting position, waking up from what was undoubtedly a nightmare about her father. She watched as the other handmaiden shook her head, coming to her senses, but did not lie back down.
Clambering over a couple of rocks between Losté and Drosos Merine, Lané sidled up to her and put a hand on her shoulder, “Hey,” she said. “It’s okay. They won’t hurt him. Or at the very least, they won't kill him, because he’s more valuable to them alive. They’re probably hoping if the Queen’s gone long enough, they can argue him into a position of acting King and try to force him to sign the treaty.”
“But that possibility wouldn’t have kept the Queen safe,” said Vatié, “At least not according to the Jedi.”
“But they didn’t offer any logical explanation for it,” said Lané. “Personally, I wouldn’t assume these Jedi are always right, just like that. I’m sure the Queen did what she thought was best, of course, and part of the reason she left was probably also so she could speak to the Senate in person, which will probably greatly increase her chance of getting something done. But maybe she wasn’t in that much danger, and therefore your father isn’t either.” She wasn’t entirely lying as she said this. Hearing Saché and Yané relate the way the Jedi Master had talked about it, it had sounded a little weird and without explanation.
“But if they think they can just replace a monarch,” said Vatié, “then they’ll just kill dad when he refuses to sign the treaty.”
That was something Lané couldn’t deny. “Still,” she said, “He’s safe for some time yet. They need her to be away for a while before they can even try anything.”
“How long, do you think?”
Lané hesitated. Interplanetary law was not her forte. It never had been, and when, last year, she had made the decision not to try for the highest-level political positions, she hadn’t thought herself needing to be much of an expert on it anyway. She wished Eirtaé was here; she’d likely be able to answer Vatié’s question no problem. It made her feel useless again.
But all thoughts about Governor Bibble flew out of her head a second later, because suddenly, above them, she heard a new humming sound, too loud to just be a STAP ship, though it didn’t sound like one of those searcher droids that had found them in the graveyard. Vatié heard it too; her hand reached for her pistol.
“No, wait...” There was something funny about the sound, as if it wasn’t from nearby. Lané tried to focus her ears. Then it grew louder.
Saché sprung up, and within moments had stalked over the bodies of the others to join them. “Why are you awake?” she asked Vatié. “You’ve got to sleep when you can. And what’s overhead?”
It was overhead; once Lané was told that; she identified it as so for herself within another moment. “We need to get a look at the sky, then?” But all the treetops were in the way.
“We’ll have to wake Losté up to ask for directions,” said Saché, and she leaned down and gently shook the older handmaiden.
“You’re doing it again, Rit,” Losté grumbled to the ground, but then she was fully awake. As she got up, Lané noticed Ené stirring, but she remained lying down.
Losté quickly led them around the others to where the trees were further apart deeper in the grove, and the sky was exposed. For several minutes the four of them stared up at the stars. Lané thought again of the Queen, and of the three leaders of their little group, somewhere amoung them, no doubt very far away now, whatever their fate.
Then the humming sound they had heard became much, much louder, until it was a dull roar, and they heard groans and mutterings from the group behind them because noone could sleep through this din. Just as the roar reached its height, the distant lights in the sky vanished one by one.
"Probably being blocked," Saché murmured. "We can gauge the size of what's blocking them maybe.
Five minutes passed without them reappearing, and then ten, and then more, until Lané murmured, “Stars and galaxies...”
Finally the first star to vanish reappeared, and for a moment, Lané felt relief, that whatever that thing was, at least it wasn’t any bigger.
But a moment later, there was a tiny flash of yellow light from the ship’s edge, and Saché swore loudly enough to jar everyone to full consciousness. “Are they aiming for here?”
“Aiming what?” They heard someone yell.
“Missles! I’m pretty sure they just launched one from that ship up there!”
A moment later they heard the explosion, from some way off, Lané thought, but if it wasn’t in the Rashoon, it must have been a pretty big one for them to hear it.
“Yeah, definitely missles.” Rorrerrie had joined the four of them under the stars. “How many?”
“No telling,” said Saché. “The ship’s out of sight, and they seem to just be dropping them without any specific aim, just to make the mud fly up.” They heard another distant explosion, from the other direction. “At least two, though. When we find the others, we need to find where they landed and if anyone’s hurt, we need to help.”
“If anyone’s hurt?” Rorerrie laughed scornfully. “If those things landed in habited areas, girl, it’ll be less people being hurt and more them being killed in large numbers and there won’t be much more we’ll be able to do by the time we get there.”
“Is there anyone else in the area, though?” asked Lané thoughtfully. “Surely everyone’s in camps now, unless they’re in resistance. The towns have to be emptied by this time, anyway.”
“That’s true,” said Saché, and Lané felt her squeeze her arm in gratitude. That was a trusting gesture, she thought, but it was okay; she thought Saché was holding her head together pretty well, considering the circumstances they were in.
They heard a third explosion, from very far away, certainly too far away for them to hope to get there in time to anything at all about it. And it was that thought, that they were helpless against that one, that brought the surge of grief to the surface, Lané’s heart crashing for Eirtaé’s family, for Moré, for Governor Bibble still in Theed, his life lasting only on the sufferance of their cruel captors, and for all the people they weren’t going to be able to save. Beside her, Vatié shook her fist up at the sky and sighed, “Federation! You’ll pay for this! If not here, then in years to come, for however long it takes...”
“We’ll exact our price on them sooner than that, I hope,” said Saché. “But for now, everyone back to sleep except Lané. We cannot afford to waste energy by standing here yelling like a pair of waterlogged whitewings.”
But even she had to know that was easier said than done. The five of them walked back and the other four lay down while Lané placed herself as a guard over them all, but as she listened to the uneven breathing in the night, she doubted that any of them slept straight through the following hours.
And Saché certainly agreed with them. Which was why it felt like a harsh slap in the face indeed when that planet’s bountiful flora turned on them.
Twenty minutes after sunrise, when they should have already been on the move, they were all gathered around Briné and Ardré, as the former pulled vicious black needles out of the latter’s hands. The wounds she’d gotten from their flight from the museum had been reopened, the effects of the bacta reversed, and despite her best efforts tears appeared in her eyes and her teeth ground against each other as Briné pried free one that had managed to get almost entirely below her skin. She’d woken up to find the vines had attacked her overnight. Both Briné and Merine, who had also recognized the plant, had assured the others they were extremely rare, but the former had still declared she needed to check their other wounded too.
When it was done, Ardré was panting hard through her mouth, while Briné shook her head. “When we can’t get her to a real doctor, the healing of her hands now is a matter of chance; they could be permanently damaged. You'd better hope hwatever you've got in your makes you chances better than normal.”
"Should," gasped Ardré, though now wasn't the time to push for more from her.
“Maybe we’ll find a doctor fleeing from the camps?” suggested Ené hopefully. “It’s not impossible, is it?”
“First we have to find people fleeing from the camps,” said Saché, wanting to keep them focused on the task at hand. But maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to say, because it seemed to run a current of depression through the group; several of them slumped down, and Lané sighed very softly.
None of their other injured had been attacked by anything. In fact, Briné smiled for the first time that morning as she announced that Hock and Losté were close to healed, and Yané was far better. The mood was further lifted when on the far side of the grove, they found the shuura trees were ripe, and so they ate well that morning, if quickly.
And finally, after an evening of wondering exactly how they were going to find the other six men in the ravine, they shortly into that morning came upon fresh footprints, and a group so large they did not find it difficult to track. Within another hour they heard their footsteps, and Rorerrie called out to them. A few minutes later the group of nine men were reunited and the newcomers introduced to the handmaidens, though they appeared a little miffed to hear they were to be under their command.
“We heard the explosions too,” said the leader of the group, one Tollo Mothemi, who appeared to Saché to be not much older than she herself, delibrately facing towards and addressing Rorerrie. “We’re trying to get back to the surface, but we couldn’t hear them very well."
“What are the nearest routes out of here?” she asked Losté and Rorerrie, stepping between the latter and Mothemi.
“Up over the rocks to the Northwest, probably,” said Losté, just as Rorerrie said, “Through the marshes to the Northeast, but the sooner we come out, the sooner we’re vulnerable to attack.”
Although Saché would have much rather taken Losté’s advice for more than one reason, the nearer explosion had been from the Northeast. “Through the marshes, then,” she ordered, “Quick as we can.” She didn’t know if they could get to the explosion within enough time to do any good, but she feared the consequences, now, of saying that out loud.
Once again under Rorerrie’s lead they trudged away, and as they walked, Saché tried to distract herself from the growing ache in her legs by sizing up her newest soldiers as best she could. Most of them were around her own age, but two, a tall man named Jon Kloiterrie (same last name as Yané’s mother; Saché wondered if there was any relation there) and a shorter one name Kitpat Arthi, looked a little older. Another, Yules Latt, was fidgeting about and looked more nervous than even was to be expected; that worried her. Something about him also reminded her of Moré, and she found herself, as they reached the marshes and she watched from the corner of her eye as he stumbled and visibly grit his teeth, growing very determined that he should not suffer Moré’s fate.
He wasn’t the only one struggling. The boys overall were dealing with the swamp slightly better than they had the previous day, but three days of stress and running and constant movement was taking a toll on everyone. She saw Lané was sagging, Ené leaning on Losté for support, and one Lexi Tenil, whom she thought might be the youngest of the militia members, had turned unnaturally pale. Uneasily she wondered when the six of them had last eaten.
Unfortunately, it was one thing for Saché to notice all this, another to know what to do about it. Especially when she still wasn’t sure just how much the boys had accepted her as their leader.
They must have made better time that morning than the previous evening, but noon was fast approaching when they reached the edge of the marsh, and found their way blocked by the thickest line of trees yet. “We’ll have to blast our way through this,” said Rorerrie, and noone made any protest, though certainly none of the handmaidens drew their blasters to help. Saché saw Briné, especially, try to remain stoic as he blew into the aged trees with more zeal than any of the Federation’s metallic minions would have bothered with.
Two minutes later they gingerly stepped over charred roots and fallen branches, and immediately saw rising smoke to their right, not far off. Saché again took the lead, her blaster drawn, but beckoned Briné to join her near the front.
“Miss, if I may,” said Rorerrie. “Glose is our medic.”
Hadri Glose, a stocky lad who looked only a little younger than Kloiterrie and Arthi, stepped forward. Briné looked at him, was it just Saché’s imagination or did she appear a little relieved? Saché obligingly crooked her finger for him too to join them, but she was not happy about Rorerrie speaking so challengingly to her now. The time coming up was for action, not arguments.
The grass here grew thick and solid, in contrast to the thinner ground they had spent so much time treading. But overhead, the gathering clouds in the more distant half of the sky gave Saché a new thing to worry about. Nearer, great plumes of smoke loomed over them and threatened to blot out of the sun.
The land was flat, and the going a little easier, even if occasionally their boots accidentally drove out small rodents who had borrowed into the dirt below. Within a few minutes their destination was fixed in Saché’s gaze as a far off fuzzy black sight, from which smoke continued to rise. After some hesitation, and mental cursing that she had neither the needed ability nor the knowledge of who did, she asked, “Does anyone think they can help me determine how far away that is?”
A pause, and then Yules Latt spoke up, “I...I think that may be Julika. If it is, it’s a little over an hour’s walk.”
“He’s from Julika,” one of the other men offered.
When Saché looked back, it was with the vague thought of seeing if anyone else might have something to say. But she was immediately taken with the sight of Latt, whose entire body was as clenched as his fists, and wasn't quite managing to fight back tears.
She walked over to him, and tried to keep her voice gentle, as she asked, “How certain are you that that’s Julika?”
“I don’t...” He started, then shook his head and said, “I think it must be.”
“I really think it is,” said Lexi Tonil, the man who had spoken earlier. “It’s in the right place to be, that’s for sure. And there's not much else around it for them to hit.”
“What can you tell me about Julika? How many people are there, usually? How much space does it cover? Do you have any idea when the Federation emptied it?”
Tollo Mothemi laughed scornfully. “How should he know when Julika was evacuated? We’ve all been in Keren for the past six weeks!”
She should have known that. Why hadn’t she paid more attention to what the militia had been doing? Especially when the possibility of invasion had never been out, to her own mind. But it was too late now.
At least Latt didn’t seem to hold it against her, answering readily, “It’s the biggest town in this area, but I think it’s only got about 2,000 people year round, 500 more during the winter. I think a lot of people might have fled to the country fields when news of the invasion came.” He sounded hopeful.
But Rorerrie shook his head, and said, “They’ve probably all been gathered up by now, if they have.”
“Well, at least they weren’t in Julika itself,” said Saché. “But if they've escaped the Federation they might not be far off.” And some of them might have come back, too, she thought; it would be a foolish thing for them to do, but on seeing their home bombed they might not be able to stay away. She personally thought a good deal of them might be at large; it had only been three days, and it was going to take the Federation time to track everybody down.
So they kept going, only now Latt tentatively moved close, as if doing so would get him to his burning home significantly sooner, and Saché again wished she had the ability to say the right things in this kind of situation. We’ll just get there, she told herself. We’ll get him there. That’s all we can do.
Which was why it soon felt like a curse rather than a blessing that the city was already in their sights, because it was so far away, and for too long they walked and walked and walked, and it didn’t get much closer. With the sun now directly overhead, and getting into their eyes, idly Saché wondered how far they really were from Theed in terms of longitude. Was it still morning there? Nighttime? She could ask Losté, she supposed, if she really wanted to know.
But at last, after the handmaidens’ gowns began to grow heavy with sweat again and the clouds grew closer, Julika began to grow in size, then take form, lines unblurring into low rectangles and cracked domes, and an enournmous gap to one side. It was confirmed as Julika, too, when Latt suddenly uttered a dismayed cried, followed by, “The bomb hit the school! Was it aimed at that building itself?”
“Don’t be stupid, Latt,” said Jan Kloiterrie. “How would they have known which building was the school?”
“Doesn’t matter, ultimately,” growled Saché, “whether they aimed there or not, if they did hit it.”
Maybe it was heartless of her, but at the moment Saché didn’t care exactly what parts of the city were damaged, so much as whether any people had been there to be hit along with them; they could be rebuilt anyway. But, of course, they didn’t have any knowledge of that.
At least until Coté came to the front and tried to catch Saché’s eye while looking around at the boys, clearly not wanting them to know her secret. For a moment Saché worried about the implications of keeping it from them, but then again, she couldn’t see any at the moment. If it became harder later to manage something without telling them...well, they’d deal with that then. Until that time trying to explain her just wasn’t worth the huge effort and amount of time it might take. Especially when her powers might just go out again if any of them were killed.
Meanwhile, she jerked her head at the ceiling and looked at Coté questioningly. Coté nodded slightly. There were people alive there.
But then a few minutes after that, she looked at Latt again, and knew she couldn’t do this. He deserved to know.
So when they got a little closer, she said, “I think there may be some survivors.”
“What?!” Latt didn’t react, but Mothemi did. “There were people still there?!”
It was Rorerrie who had the reaction Saché had been hoping against hope to avoid. “Funny that you should suddenly think that, madam. Or does she, perhaps?” And he gestured towards Coté; her and Saché’s silent communication had not gone unnoticed by him.
Coté turned pale, and pulled her arms up to her shoulders, as if drawing into herself. That reaction surprised Saché, but she, having already come up with a response, delivered it: “She sometimes has a sixth sense about these things.”
“Oh really,” he sounded extremely dismissive.
“I believe it,” said Latt softly.
Someone else murmured, “Superstition.” That made Saché angry, but given how Coté was now shivering, maybe it was just as well.
“Let us not dismiss something just because we can’t entirely understand why it might be,” said Vatié. “Remember the Jedi and their abilities. Coté helped us find each other during the Federation’s initial attack.”
“Did she really?” Rorerrie, who was near the front, stopped for a moment, as did Coté, who had already been stumbling over her steps. “Very interesting.”
Ardré stepped between the two of them, “Come on, we have to keep going.”
“She’s right,” said Saché. “Everyone carry on.”
If not for Coté’s intelligence on the matter, Saché would have for sure thought the city deserted by the time they got close. Fires ran unchecked through half of the structures that had slowly materialized before them, and rubble was scattered out through the fields before them where the impact had thrown it. They picked their way through it a full half hour before they at last came to the foundations of the first buildings.
There at last, and it took Saché a moment to decide what to do next. During which Rorerrie took action instead, gesturing to his men, and they spread out, just as Coté said, “There are about ten people in there,” and gestured to one of the few buildings that remained mostly intact, having only had the side of it’s two-story form blown out.
As one, the men stopped and turned back around to fix their eyes on the two handmaidens. Rorerrie was the one to finally ask, of course: “How does she know that?”
“I’ll explain later,” said Saché, and she started marching towards the structure in question.
As she passed Mothemi, he grabbed her wrist, and yelled, “Explain now!”
“And lose time we could be using to come to the aid of people who could be dying in there? It can be talked about later!”
“And what if we don’t believe it will?” demanded Kloiterrie.
“Doesn’t matter; now’s still not the time for this! Let me go!” She wrenched herself free, and her arm raised to slap Mothemi in her anger, though she managed to stop herself before she did. Still her wrist stung, and she had to remind herself this wasn’t like it had been when she was a child; he wasn’t going to hurt her further.
The other handmaidens were already making their way off, heedless of the power struggle, and the men really had no choice but to follow. It took several minutes too many to reach the building in question, and they were just at the entrance when a pained noise came from Coté and she announced, “One of them’s just died.”
“One of them?” asked one of the men.
“If there are others I won’t be able to tell,” she said grimly. Never mind, Saché told herself; at least her powers had been back long enough for them to find these survivors.
But now without further contribution from Coté they had to find which room their quarry was in by trial and error, and when she saw the stairway by the entrancem Saché ordered them to split into two. “Yané,” she said, noting that the younger girl was now standing up straight and looked like she was more or less fully functional again after her injuries two days previous, “take Coté, Vatié, Ené, Merine, Kloiterrie, Arthi, Glose, and Latt with you, The rest of you follow me.” She imagined neither Rorerrie nor Mothemi were happy about being kept with her, but she wasn’t having Yané bullied by then when her back was turned.
She knew she was right when both men walked up until they were standing on either side of her, and then as they stepped into the second room, positioned themselves to limit her view. Saché was just trying to decide whether she was justified in shoving when they heard Ené voice and footsteps coming up, her yelling, “They’re upstairs! We’ve found them!”
“Glose does have more medical knowledge than me,” Briné murmured to Saché as they hurried after her. Saché only shook her head; she felt ashamed that she needed to be told that, but she didn’t know how to handle these men. Yesterday when she’d realized she could lead the other handmaidens she’d finally stopped panicking over whether she could do this, but now she was once again wondering why had the Queen been so foolish as to leave the leader’s role to her.
There were eight people alive, as well as two figures already wrapped in dirty cloth, and a third half-covered who must have been the man Coté had felt die. Two men and six women, all of them looking older than their rescuers. Glose was bandaging up a grey-haired lady, one of two; there was an open medical packet next to them, so at least they had their own supplies. “Briné,” he said on seeing Briné, “the young woman in the corner needs looking at.” Briné probably could have told that on her own, since the woman in question was curved around one of her arms, which ended in a loose sleeve drapped around a wrist that obviously lacked a hand. Saché tried not to look at her too long.
The other grey-haired woman stepped forward, and Saché took her hand. “Saché,” she said, “I’m in charge. Do you know if anyone else is alive in the area?”
“No,” she said, “We hid from the droids from when they came and took everyone else away. I’m Reata.”
Yané, meanwhile, was in intense coversation from one of the two men, who looked like the youngest there. She joined Saché and Reata shaking her head. “It’s worse than we thought. They didn’t just drop a missile, they dropped timed explosives with it. They haven’t heard any explosions over here for a couple of hours, and we can hope none of them landed here, but moving out’s not going to be easy.”
“We have to help these people somehow,” sighed Saché, “get them out of here. A blast like that and the foundations of this place aren’t even reliable. Glose, can everyone here be moved?”
“I think so,” he said, from where he was finishing up with his main patient.
She knew then she was going to split them up again. It still wasn’t something she trusted doing, but the truth was trying to be ringleader to a group this big left her unable to think straight. “I want Yané and Rorerrie to lead a small group to search the city for any more survivors; the rest of us will try to lead these people out of here. The first group will be in more danger, so I want volunteers.”
All of the handmaidens and half of the men stepped forward. Latt took another step forward, and she saw his eyes beg. “Very well, then, Briné, Coté, Ardré, and Latt.” Which meant the militia men would outnumber the handmaidens, but either Coté or Ardré might still prove invaluable for finding people, and Briné would probably be needed when they did. “Good luck,” she said, squeezing Yané’s hand, locking eyes with her, hoping the younger girl could take the strength from her to assert herself as a leader. Poor Yané had to wrench herself away as the others began their way back down the stairs.
It took longer for the larger group to disembark; both the injured old lady and the girl without a hand were unsteady on the feet, and even with an assistant to each they moved slowly. The former especially had trouble with the stairs; at one point Saché feared there were going to have to pick her up and carry her down. However, she got down in the end, and they hobbled over the rough, debris-strewn floor. She led the group out of the city the same way they came in, knowing it wasn’t too long a walk and one they could all manage, even of both of the elders were looking pale by the time their feet hit the grass. “It’s all plains in the area, isn’t it?” she asked Losté. “No shelter anywhere?”
“Not for about five miles the other way.”
Their group couldn’t manage that distance, not in the civilians’ current condition. “Then we’ll have to do without it for the moment. Keep close to the city and if we hear any overhead ships, we go still, and hopefully they won’t bother looking too closely at us, think we’re debris or something."
As if on cue they heard in the distance the faint whirr of a STAP. Glose, who was standing next to one of his two main patients, quickly yanked his other one over and sat them down. Most of the others sat down too; Saché did so herself. She hadn’t known if her idea would actually work, but it looked like they were about to find out.
As the high-up ship came into her field of view, and seemed to be floating above them without any initial reaction, at least, her thoughts went from their safety to that of any other survivors who might be out on the plains. From mid-air they’ve be the easiest targets in the universe, and if there really was so little shelter in these plains, there probably wasn’t much she or anyone else could do to protect them. Thinking about those lives, which she might not be able to anything to preserve, made her want to cry.
Determined not to cry in front of the men, she instead pulled out her blaster, and examined it. She wasn’t exactly an expert on this brand the way she was the pistol she’d been issued, which had been taken away from the Federation, but she was pretty sure it needed cleaning. She tore off another part of her gown and started rubbing, but that wouldn’t get the job done completely. At some point it might be a good idea to steal new weapons, if they got another opportunity. Or maybe she should ask Yané for advice when she got back.
That led her to wonder how many refugees Yané and her little group might bring back with them, and how they were going to get them anywhere if there was a large number of them, especially if it started raining. Could they return to the Rashoon? Or could Losté guide them somewhere else?
Of course, that assumed Yané would bring back anyone. And as they watched, still unable to move until the STAP was out of sight, while a building that had been burning too long caved in and slumped to the ground, the loud thud it made echoing to them and long past them, she found herself doubting it.