rang broka Mando'ade ka'rta.
Dha Werda Verda a'den tratu,
Manda'yaim kandosii adu.
Duum motir ca'tra nau tracinya.
Gra'tua cuun hett su dralshy'a.
The ash of the Taung beats strong within the Mandalorians' heart.
We are the rage of The Warriors of the Shadow,
The first noble sons of Mandalore.
Let all those who stand before us light the night sky in flame.
Our vengeance burns brighter still.
- An excerpt from the ancient Mandalorian war chant, "Rage of the Shadow Warriors"
The muscles in Canderous' arms burned as he executed another set of push-ups. He grunted and worked through the pain, gritting his teeth together in a steady rhythm. Pushing himself until the ropey veins in his arms felt ready to burst, until he panted with rage, he managed nine more reps and then slowly clambered to his feet. His face was a mask of grim resolve as he rubbed the beads of sweat from his hairline with a ragged towel.
Canderous stretched the arthritic joints of his left hand. He could always tell when it was raining up on the surface of Taris because his left hand would become a claw, his knuckles swollen knobs of bone. On those days, he'd have to straighten the fingers out slowly, working at the stiffened joints until they could clutch at a blaster. It was alright. He got along. In his line of work, all you really had to do with your hands was make a fist.
Somebody rapped on the steel door of his apartment.
His eyes narrowed, deeply shadowed by the prominent ridge of his brow.
"What is it?" he growled.
"I have a payment from Ondrick Tare."
A female voice. He should have known. Men like Tare always hid behind their women.
He plunked down behind the rusted barricade of shrapnel he called a desk and pushed the button to activate the door.
A woman stepped into the apartment, her thin body draped in a grey jacket far too big for her. Her angular face still held traces of a ravaged beauty. The Lower City was good at wearing anything too pretty away, leaving only the raw necessities of skin and sinew and bone. It was the one thing about the place Canderous could admire.
She dug into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a fistful of credits. "156. For Ondrick's account, You can count them if you want."
"I will," Canderous reached across the desk and seized the money from her hand. "Kang doesn't pay me to take street scum at their word."
He rifled through the credits quickly, feeling the pale eyes of the woman upon him as he scanned for signs of a counterfeit. Everything was small denominations, torn, dirty, probably picked off the sticky floor of some backstreet cantina or rolled off a bloated drunk gone belly-up in some alley. He hated his job. It disgusted him. That was probably why he was so good at it.
"Hmph," he snorted as he counted the last credit. "Good. It's here."
He yanked open the desk drawer, slipped the money in and locked it.
"Tell Tare he still owes 544 credits. I'll be coming by next week to collect the interest."
"Can you put that down in the file? The last time I-"
He leaned forward on the desk, glaring at her. "Do I look like an accounting droid? Next time you want to pay, go see Shevya Jink at Javyar's."
"The last time I paid that other man, he just took the credits. He never deducted anything off the debt. I need to know that you're not going to cheat us."
Canderous shot to his feet so abruptly he sent the chair toppling backwards, crashing to the floor.
"I don't cheat anybody. You can be damned sure of that."
He circled around the desk, looming over her. She was taller than he'd thought at first, the stark architecture of her raw-boned face more apparent up close, the crescents of her cheekbones cradled by the shadows. When he glowered down at her, she looked him straight back in the eye, defiant as all hell. The woman didn't flinch. It made him think he was starting to lose his edge.
"I'll be coming by next week and if Tare doesn't cough up a payment, I'm gonna beat those 544 credits - exactly 544 credits, no more, no less - out of his filthy hide. You can trust me on that count. I'm a man of my word."
She shook her head and gave a strange little smile. "I can't let you do that."
"Yeah? And what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to do this," she said. Her hand darted out of her jacket, poking a blaster into the hard flesh between his ribs.
"Gutsy, but not a smart move. You shoot me, you better shoot me dead," he snarled. "Even if you do it, the bounty hunters will get to you. My employer always collects."
She pressed the muzzle of the blaster harder into the damp white fabric of his undershirt. "If they come for the bounty, I'll shoot them too. My husband is sick. I'm not going to let you touch him."
Canderous reached out and clutched the blue-veined hand holding the blaster, crushing it in his fist. She didn't pull the trigger. The weapon slipped out of the woman's grasp, clattering to the floor.
Before he could savor his triumph, she hit him with an impressive uppercut. His teeth chattered together, he choked back on his own spit and then a laugh of genuine surprise rumbled in his throat.
The woman dove for the blaster, her hands groping desperately on the metal floor, but his boot stomped down on the weapon before she could recover it.
Canderous wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, biting off the end of his mirthless chuckle. He kicked the blaster across the room, far out of her reach.
"Stand up," he said.
The woman rose slowly to her feet, her balance unwavering, her face resolved, her eyes glittering like shards of glass. She reminded of him of a cornered animal, still ready to bare her teeth to death, still prepared to fight impossible odds, rejecting mercy as the weakness it was.
Her fist shot towards his throat but this time he was prepared for her. He caught both her arms with his hands and spun her around as easily though they were dancing to the steady rhythms of the Twisted Rancor Trio. Gripping her crossed arms, he pulled her back against his chest and enjoyed the gentle shudder of her breath, the only sign of fear he had detected in her.
The woman stood, imprisoned in his arms, her head lowered, her spine arched, her light hair falling over her face in snarls. He eased his grip slightly, experimentally, and then she tried to make her move, as he suspected she would. Her body writhed and thrashed, her elbows and knees became jutting angles as her shoulders tried to shrug off the weight of his body, but he held her until she wore herself out with struggling.
"What do you call yourself, woman?"
She paused for a long moment, reluctant, stubborn.
"My name is Iseni Tare. I'll let you know when I give you permission to use it."
He smiled, pressing her closer to him, more amused by the way her body stiffened and refused to surrender to his embrace than by anything else he had seen on this Force-forsaken planet.
"I like the fight in you. Who taught you? Not your husband, that's for damn certain."
She strained her neck to look back at his leering face. "Who taught me to fight? Davik Kang taught me. You taught me. You, Kang and all the thugs just like you."
"You've got more spirit in you than all the snivelers in this worthless city put together. So when I don't break your neck, let's not call it mercy. Let's call it a sign of my respect."
He loosened his hold on her. "I let you go and you walk out of here. That's the way this is gonna go."
He chuckled, enjoying the bristle of hatred in her body and the anger in her voice.
He let her go, let her walk back out into the starkly lit corridors of the apartment complex. He knew that even without a weapon, she'd manage to wend her way home through streets riddled by blaster fire, narrow battlefields without a scrap of honor. Canderous gathered up the credits from his desk drawer. Crouching down, he pried up a panel in the floor under his desk and withdrew a small lockbox. He stowed the credits inside, returned the box to its hiding place and then shambled to the backroom and his hard bunk.
He slept well that night. In his dreams, he circled above a jewel-like planet, a Basilisk war droid thrumming victory through his body.
Nearly two weeks passed before Iseni discovered what he'd done.
Late after his Atunda rounds, Canderous hunched over his desk, carving a nerf steak. It was singed at the sides and rare in the middle, the way he liked it. He forked a good-sized chunk and stuffed it in his mouth, savoring the tender flesh and the metallic tang of blood on his tongue.
Her voice outside. He'd wondered if she would return to confront him, to look him in the face. It didn't matter either way, that was what he reasoned, but the idea of her coming back was a little private joke he'd had with himself over the past few days. Sometimes, at inconvenient times when he should have been stone-faced and menacing, a smile would creep across his lips when he thought about how she might react.
He chewed his mouthful of meat, forced himself to swallow then clanged his fork down on his plate.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"Can I come in?"
"I don't know. You here for another fight?"
"Alright." He activated the door. "How's that debt coming along? Davik wouldn't like it if you fell behind on those payments."
Iceni smiled at him and he was struck by the sharp curve of her lips, as beautiful as a blade. "I expect you know more about that than I do. I came to thank you. And to ask you why."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know what you did. I went to Jink to ask for an extension. He still had the imprint of your boot on his neck. He told me everything had been taken care of."
Canderous shrugged his shoulders and stabbed another chunk of meat with his fork. "He was skimming from the take. It's bad for business and it's bad for morale. So I made him pay it back. With interest."
"Thank you. Ondrick and I – it means a great deal to us."
Canderous shoved his supper away from him, his knife and fork rattling against the edge of the plate.
"I don't want his gratitude. In fact, he'd be smart to stay out of my sight "
He drew himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders. He approached her, venturing close enough to see his own face burning in the ember darkness of her pupils.
"I didn't do it for your weak man," he said. "I don't do charity."
She stared at him and he loved the watchfulness of her face, a face that would never reveal itself, that would always appear half veiled in distrust, strategizing escape routes. "Whatever it was, it was help. I didn't expect that. Not from anyone."
Canderous leaned forward slightly, enough so that their heads were almost level. On his neck, he could feel the steady current of her breath. Dry and cool, it reminded him of a desert wind, the one the clan called adenn vode. Merciless Sister.
"You and I, we both know that pity is for fools. But you - you're strong. You have life inside you, enough life to not fear dying. I respect that."
Iseni scoffed. "I thought I was street scum. I believe those were the words you used."
His hand coiled around her wrist, pulling her towards broad barricade of his body. Her head and its fine hair brushed softly against the tendons of his neck.
"Words are a lot of empty promises," he said. "If you want to judge me, judge me by what I do."
"And what is it that you do?"
She looked up at him, the purple shadows under her eyes suddenly giving her a look of weariness that was somehow utterly seductive.
"I take what I want," he said.
Canderous' hand tangled in her pale hair, clutching the fine strands in his fist. Her lips opened in a sigh and a gasp that he wanted to take in, to claim for his own. Her surrender wasn't complete, her body never seemed to yield entirely to his, to meld itself into his shape, but it was good. It was good to feel her fingertips like cool water on the leathery skin of his arms, skin perpetually sunburned from years of campaigns in hot, dusty country, her nails pressing into the flesh of his back as they tussled against the wall. It was good to taste her ferocious, beautiful lips, to glimpse the white flash of her teeth. It was good to have a woman again.
Canderous saw her again and again, enough times to think he could possess her. Iseni came at the same time every night, after her husband had taken his pain medicine and fallen into the death-like sleep of the dying. They had a tacit agreement never to speak about him. She had a guilty conscience. He was just disgusted at the idea of the sick man, one who had drank himself into illness and now sank into a drugged stupor every night on sheets yellowed by his own filth.
On days when he thought about it, he had trouble looking at Iseni or letting her touch him, as though weakness could be passed from body to body, a plague as terrible as the rakghoul disease. But other times, he would see her and marvel at the spare lines of her body, her clean, glacial strength, and he would swear that she had been born a daughter of Mandalore, one who had never claimed her heritage but possessed it, inexorably, in the very marrow of her bones.
They sparred together, the thrust and parry of blades quickening their blood for other pursuits. The heat of battle enlivened him and surged through their locked limbs. With practice, she became an increasingly adept fighter, quick with a blaster and surgically precise with a blade. He was proud of her, his protégé, the only warrior he had left. Sometimes he would duly inform her that they were training to tear down Taris, to raze the blasted dar'yaim to the ground. It was a joke they shared, but sometimes he felt half serious about the thing. It would be a last mission worthy of Clan Ordo.
And then one day, she managed to find a way into his apartment before he even came home. He discovered her slashing a vibroblade through the air, her eyes red and puffy with ignoble tears.
His face gave an involuntary spasm of disgust. She was too good, too strong to weep like some frail Republic woman. "What are you doing?"
"You shouldn't be here. Not when I'm gone."
Her mouth twitched, the white lashes that framed her eyes fluttered once, twice, blinking away tears.
"He's dead, Canderous. Ondrick died today."
"I don't want to hear about it."
She glared at him. "You wanted him dead. I thought you'd be happy to hear it."
"I am. Dying was the smartest thing he ever did," he growled. "I just don't want to see you crying. Not over him."
She rubbed her eyes raw. "Sometimes you don't get what you want. I have the right to cry for my husband."
Canderous grimaced, his hand clenching into a fist. "And what did that husband ever do for you? Did he treat you like a man should? No, he gambled you into debt and went crawling on his knees begging for scraps. He dragged you down to the gutter and you -you thanked him for it. I don't know which is more pathetic."
She sneered and tossed the vibroblade at his feet.
"And what about you? A crime lord's kath hound, beating credits out of people who can't fight back! You have to pay for your women. And I'm not any different from them. You paid for me and so I paid back my debt."
He gave a dry husk of a laugh. "You made yourself a whore. Don't blame me."
"I'm done paying," she hissed. "Go find yourself another whore."
She tried to sidle past him, to slip out into the night, but he blocked her path. "You're angry. You hate me. That's good. Keep that inside you. It'll make you strong."
"I don't hate you," she said, pushing him aside even as he stepped away. "Not enough. But one day I will."
The ghost of her voice lingered in the room after she was gone. For a few days, her words reverberated on the walls, the way blaster fire echoes over distant hills, and then they went away, leaving a silence that was even more ominous. Canderous found himself alone in his old regimen, doing his push-ups, his chin-ups, his sit-ups, drinking his protein shakes and eating a nerf steak every other evening. He tread heavily over the metal floors, feeling the full weight of his hulking body, the strain of his muscles, the pull of gravity upon his aging flesh. It rained and his fingers ached.
When one of Kang's lackeys stepped out of line, he beat his face into a pulp with the butt of his carbine. He got a reprimand, a slap on the wrist. Kang was a little impressed, a little shaken by the effects of his rage. That smart-mouthed twi'lek had been ugly before anyway – he'd just rearranged the features a little bit. Eventually, his hatred became a low simmer, controlled, barely detectable but always present.
Eventually he earned back Kang's trust and even gained new privileges, including an invitation to the boss' private balcony overlooking the dueling ring.
"You ain't seen nothing until you've seen a fight from these seats," Kang told him, shifting in his seat. "You can smell the blood, the dust and the sweat. You can take it all in. Best seats in the house."
Canderous sat down in the chair to Kang's right. He noticed that it was slightly lower, smaller than the one the crime lord occupied. Before this would never have bothered him, but these days, it rankled.
He'd watched matches from the stands before. They reminded him of home, made him strangely nostalgic, even if he despised the press of the crowds and their petty affections, which swirled one week around Marl, the next around Twitch. It would have been glorious to see Bendak Starkiller take the ring, but those times were long past.
The stadium speakers buzzed and crackled. The announcer's voice rang forth.
"We have another spectacular show for you this afternoon, folks! Another pulse-pounding, knuckle-chewing, heart-skipping event! Before the incredible combat between our current champion, Twitch and scrappy underdog Gerlon Two-Fingers, the ever-persistent Dead-eye Duncan is going to take on some frrressh meat!"
"Eh, this should be quick work," Kang said, digging his elbow into Canderous' side. "I oughta hire that Duncan for my gym. He'd save us the cost of punching bags."
"On the right, a man who falls down but never gives up! Every week you feel his pain, but this time he may be claiming his very first victory in the center ring. The insensible, the indomitable, the insufferable….Dead-eye Duncan!"
Duncan staggered into the stadium, squinting into the overhead lights with an air of dauntless fatalism. Canderous would have been impressed by his capacity to withstand pain, if he wasn't so stupid, such a flimsy puppet of a man.
The announcer gave an ominous chuckle. "But oh, Duncan, do we have a contender for you! A beautiful newcomer with a heart as cold a winter night! She never cries but if she did, the tears would freeze in her eyes! On the left side of the ring, I present to you…Ice!"
Canderous' face didn't change, didn't show the moment of recognition. He just leaned back in his seat, his eyes trained on her lithe body, a body poised for action. Her pale hair was almost electric beneath the blinding lights.
"Nice little piece," Kang said. "I wouldn't mind having a match or two with that little number."
Canderous just ground his teeth together and nodded his head.
Kang grinned. "What do you say I try and invite her up, after she wipes the floor with Duncan? Sound like a plan?"
"You can try."
Kang's eyes narrowed. "What? You don't think she'd be grateful? I can have - "
"Anything you want," Canderous growled. "I've got it."
"Don't be getting too smart for your own good. I don't keep you around for witty remarks."
The bell rang and the fight started before Canderous could answer him. He hunched over in his seat and seethed, imagining what might happen if he picked up Kang by the scruff of his neck and flung the bottom-feeder off the balcony. Watching that chakaar flail in the air, hearing the pleasing crunch of his skull against the ground, it would be satisfaction almost worth getting spaced for.
Dead-eye Duncan fired a few disconsolate blaster shots at Ice, but she dodged them easily, running at him with a pair of curved vibroblades. It was almost enough to take Canderous out of his brooding, to make him smile at the thought of what was certain to come. The blades gleamed in the air and sliced at Duncan's torso, his arms, his legs, all the permissible zones. He didn't even have time to switch weapons. The blaster flew out of his hands and then the flight impulse took effect: he ran.
Ice could have stood in place and claimed her victory. Duelists weren't allowed to run out of bounds. It was a forfeiture of the match. The crowd booed and hissed, swearing in a garble of galactic languages. Fights with Duncan were always disappointments, but usually they had the satisfaction of seeing the fool thoroughly pummeled.
Ice could have stood and waited for her prize, but Canderous knew already, could tell from the expression on her beautiful, merciless face that Duncan's battered body was the only trophy she wanted. She dropped one of her blades and chased him down.
He cowered and she laced her arm around his throat, flexing the muscles of her forearm to control the air to his windpipe. She half marched and half dragged him into the center ring. Duncan writhed in her grip.
Ice pushed him onto the ground and began to kick his ribs, the announcer gleefully detailing every blow.
"Oh, Duncan, you can't escape that easily," the voice from the speaker cackled. "Not from our fierce Lady Ice. Ohhh, that last hit has got to hurt! Let's be glad we've got kolto, folks!"
Ice gestured at her opponent, urging him to get up, but when he tried to scramble to his feet, her fist flew forward and rammed against his mouth. Canderous knew that punch, that movement well enough to recoil in his seat. She hit hard and her jagged knuckles cut flesh. Ice's arm drew back again and this time, she crushed her victim's nose.
Duncan's nostrils became two faucets gushing blood. His mouth gaped and he spit red saliva, a broken shard of tooth, into the sand.
Ice's heavy boot thudded down on his stomach, a hunter gloating over her prey.
Duncan fell back onto the soft ground and stayed down, his head pillowed by the sand seeping up his blood.
The crowd roared in the stands, their cheers floating upward on shafts of blinding light, past rabble hanging on the edge of nosebleed seats, up to the dizzying heights of the rafters, where techs perched on narrow metal beams, staring down at distant carnage with unblinking eyes.
"Ice is the winner, folks!" the announcer crowed. "I don't know about you, but I foresee a bloody, blistering career for our latest fighter. Today she's making easy work of Dead-eye Duncan, but someday soon, she may be taking on the likes of Twitch and those lightning reflexes! What will happen? Who will triumph? Well, folks, you'll have to stick around and find out. Don't blink or you're sure to miss some action. Twitch and Gerlon Two-Fingers are coming up next!"
Canderous stared down at Ice in the center ring. She did not smile or raise her arms in the typical victor's salute to the crowd. Her face appeared in close-up on the series of flat, over-head screens, each larger and more unnervingly vivid than the next. He could see every bead of sweat on her brow, the flecks of blood in her pale hair, the faint scar on the side of her cheek that his lips had touched more times than he wanted to remember. Her face was impassive, expressionless. He could not glimpse a hint of remorse. And suddenly, she looked directly into the camera and he felt as though she had seen him. It took him a moment to realize how ridiculous that was.
want you to go down to the fighters' lounge. Go tell Ice that Davik
Kang wants to see her."
Canderous glared at his employer. "I'm not your damn errand boy, Kang. Go get somebody else to chase skirts for you."
Kang grimaced, slicking his hair back with a fleshy paw. "I don't like the way you've been talking me, Candy ol' boy. You're getting mighty insubordinate. I've been nice. I've given you a second chance, a third chance, hell, even a fourth one. But from now on, if I ask you to do something, you do it. It ain't hard. You can be replaced. You can be erased, my friend."
Canderous entertained the balcony scenario again, but this time he imagined hanging Kang by his ankles, letting him get a good look at the ground before he plummeted. It was a nice fantasy. If he were wearing his helmet over his face, if his body was encased in that old red-plated armor, he wouldn't have thought twice. But these were different times now. The era of glory had passed him by. It was all history now and te kandosii Mando'ad were just memories now, brave bodies rotting in the ground.
"Yeah, I hear you. I'll do it," he grumbled.
"And try not to look like such a miserable son of bantha when you do it, eh? I'm inviting the lady for a nice evening out. We're gonna celebrate her victory."
Canderous ignored him and trudged down the stairs to the central hub of the building, where the dueling ring and the Upper City cantina connected. He moved through the circular corridors of the stadium, cutting through the herd of bystanders with the jut of his broad shoulders. A simple glance was enough to push the more fearful of them aside. One of the gamblers recognized his face and scurried into the press of the crowd, his betting slip clutched tightly in hand. Ordinarily, it would have been enough raise a contemptuous laugh on Canderous' lips but now it just seemed to emphasize the degrading nature of his latest commission.
Finally, he spotted the door marked "Fighters' Lounge, Authorized Personnel Only". There were two Gamorreans entrenched outside the door. He didn't understand their revolting language, all snorting snouts and yellow-tusked snarling, but he knew that he only had to speak two words to make himself understood.
They rolled out of his path like a pair of ugly green boulders and he marched through the door.
Gerlon Two-Fingers stared at him. "Who are you?"
"Somebody you don't want to mess with, Two-Fingers. I'm here for Ice and I suggest you give us some space."
At the far end of the room, Ice spun around in her seat, almost spilling the glass of ice-water in her hand. Her pale eyes widened. "What are you doing here?"
He sauntered towards her and leaned down over her chair, pleased at the shock he'd given her.
"Thought I'd come congratulate you on your victory. That Duncan was quite a challenge."
"I was thinking about you the whole time, Canderous. You taught me everything I know," she said. "I don't suppose I could persuade you to take the ring with me?"
He paused, eyeing the scar on her cheek, the one he'd inflicted in a sparring match, the one he'd regretted and loved ever since.
"Ha, no, I've got other work to do. I just stopped by to let you know Davik Kang is looking for the pleasure of your company tonight. I told him it was a lost cause, but he said I should ask anyway. What do you want to me to tell him?"
"You tell him I'm nobody's whore."
"I will," Canderous said.
He glanced at the door, at Gerlon Two-Fingers trying look like he could mind his own business. "You stay safe, Iseni."
"I can take care of myself. And I go by 'Ice' now. Nothing else."
"It's a good name. It suits you."
She smiled at him, that unbearable dagger of a smile. "I know."
"Ni kar'tayli gar darasuum.That's my language. You know what that means?"
She gave a bitter laugh. "No. You know I can only speak Basic."
"It means 'goodbye'," he lied. "I'm not going to bother you again."
"Goodbye, then. Good luck, Mandalorian."
He saw her take a long sip of ice-water and then she turned her face to the wall.
Even many years later, encamped in a sweltering jungle on a distant moon, Canderous remembered her. He remembered everything too well. It was a bad habit for a warrior, to live too much in memory, to keep battering against the walls of the past. But he held her in his mind. He made her a hostage there. He saw her brittle smile again and again amidst the smoke and the ash, the raging bonfire of the city. He heard that last unforgiving laugh under the screaming sky on the day bombs rained down on Taris.
Duum motir ca'tra nau tracinya.
all those who stand before us light the night sky in flame.
Gra'tua cuun hett su dralshy'a.
vengeance burns brighter still.
Ni kar'tayli gar darasuum: colloquial expression meaning, "I love you."
Dar'yaim: A hell, a place you want to forget
Chakaar: Low-life, grave-robber, thief, a term of disrespect
Author's Note: All of the Mandalorian phrases and translations in this story are derived from the language developed by Karen Traviss. I would also like to send a big "thank you" out to the good people at Wookiepedia for compiling information on Mandalorian culture and clans, including the excerpts I quoted from "Rage of the Shadow Warriors".