There was more traffic in the farmlands that morning than Cliegg had seen in a long time. Clodhoppers, landspeeders, scoops, even domesticated banthas. After a while he stopped giving Beru directions. A wet-haired Outlander would have been able to locate the Tusken settlement in these conditions, even if his ship had landed smack in the middle of the Dune Sea. The thick, foggy air and the deep tracks on the ill-used sand lanes pointed a steady arrow to the Tusken settlement better than any compass.
There was a build-up of vehicles on the overhanging crag that overlooked the settlement. Beru parked further off from the build-up - so they could leave as soon as they needed to - and they got out.
Beru went to the Darklighters who had just alighted a few metres away from the family landspeeder. Cliegg hovered near their own clodhopper and kept his distance. Ruth Darklighter, his childhood playmate and life-long friend, had never actually come right out and told him that she hated him and blamed him for her husband's death. But she did not have to. More effective were the cool way she treated him and the quick exits she always used in the few occasions they had met since Shmi's abduction. Cliegg did not for one minute fault her or anyone of the score of widows and fatherless children who occasionally regarded him with something less than charity in their eyes. How could he? They had lost their husbands and fathers because he could not take care of his wife.
So he watched Beru and the other women talk animatedly and he wondered what under the suns had the Sand People done to warrant rousing the whole of the farmlands.
Memories of the last time he had stood on this crag - the last time he had stood at all - suddenly hit Cliegg.
Dust. Blood. Sand.
Twenty-five of his best friends and their sons.
Cliegg looked down at the stump that used to be his right leg and wondered if the nightmare would ever end.
Owen made a detour before he got to Jenny's. He had been to the settlement twice but he would have found it just as easily all the same. A convergence of speeder tracks marked the route and when he got to the site, there was a crowd of farmers.
Owen fought his way to the centre and stopped. One glance was all it took to confirm that this was not the work of krayt dragons and it certainly was not the work of Jawas. The regimented village he had spied on a few weeks ago had been - there was no other word to describe it - ravaged. There was blood everywhere. The red liquid had mixed with the sand, splattered against the brown canvas tents. The entire place literally looked like a slaughter house. Some people were gathering the corpses and piling them into a heap. Owen stared at one, broken and mutilated. He looked away, and turned his gaze through the crowd until he spotted a young man standing at the edge of the settlement, apparently organising the people that were gathering the corpses. Owen made his way over to Marxus Jin.
"Hello, Marx," Owen said.
"Owen," the man turned to him. A few weeks ago, Owen's father used to call Marx a boy; Marx was a season younger than Owen in age and five seasons younger in behaviour. A few weeks ago. Like the other three farmers who had gone to rescue Shmi Skywalker and survived that first raid on the Tusken settlement, Marx had aged. Visibly and permanently. There was a borderline of gray hair along the edge of his scalp and the petulant knot that used to form between his brows had become a more adult and more permanent feature.
Now, that knot seemed to have temporarily cleared. Marx almost looked like his old self. He was grinning wildly, his eyes almost glowing with glee at Owen.
"What happened here?" Owen asked.
Marx shrugged. "Who knows? Who cares? They're gone and that's all that matters."
Owen frowned. "If another tribe did this to them, we would have to care."
"It was not another tribe. Yesterday, Nat Kendall recognised some of the stuff in the Jawas brought out of their sandcrawler. So he followed them, tracked them down to here. And he found this. According to him, there were no bantha tracks to show that another tribe had been here of late."
"Nathan Kendall? Nattie Kendall? You're taking his word for this."
Marx smiled darkly. "Nat is crazy and I'm the first person to say so. Talking nonsense... sneaking out of his house to look for Raiders... But when it comes to Sand Folk, he's a very good authority."
"That's when he's the most crazy."
"Yes. And that's when he's the most correct."
Owen looked around. "Is he here?"
Marx snorted. "He went into another convulsion soon after he led us here. His daughters had to carry him home."
Owen stared silently as at the pyre building up around the heap of bodies.
"So if the dragons didn't do this, or the Jawas" - Marx laughed - "or another tribe. Then who did?"
Marx shrugged again. "I don't know. But whoever it was, I wish he had stuck around so I could thank him."
Owen started and he looked sharply at Marx. But his friend was already going forward to claim the torch that someone was handing to him. Marx stared down silently at the pile of bodies for a long time; then he said something, low and indiscernible but unmistakably vicious. He placed the torch on the pyre and it enflamed immediately.
The crowd cheered.
Owen looked around. The numbers had increased. People must have come as soon as they got wind of the news. He glimpsed Jen Dorr's younger sister's tear-stained face beneath a hood; beside her stood Col Darkligher's widow, her eyes burning fiercely, and his small son, his tiny face contorted with macabre glee. Father and Beru would also be here somewhere but it would be almost impossible to find them in this crowd.
Marx came back to stand beside him. Owen remained where he was, watching those monsters burn completely; and along with the immediate rush of vindictive pleasure that the sight afforded him, there came as well a vague but definite sense of foreboding.
Long after the majority of the crowd had dispersed, Beru and Father Cliegg were still watching the ashes smouldering in the twilight. That was when they saw Owen, standing at the other side of the bonfire. They made their way across to him. Owen didn't notice them at first because he started when Beru took his hand.
"Father Cliegg, Owen," she said gently. "It's getting late. Let's go home."
Father's eyes, bright and hard in his old, old face, gave the bonfire one last glance; then he turned his chair and started moving away.
Beru squeezed Owen's hand. He looked into her face; his own was pale beneath the sheen of ash, and she could see her own trepidation mirrored there. Then he pulled his hand out of hers and threw his arm around her shoulder, holding her to him. They walked like that behind his father's chair to the speeders waiting a few metres away.
The Lars went home.
author's note: Thanks so much for following me on this journey. As I've mentioned to a few readers, writing 'Healing' was a cathartis for me during some difficult stages in my life. I'm very grateful to all my reviewers who left feedback and let me know how much they empathized, and enjoyed the story.
May the Force be with you, always.