Stonewall did not reappear until well into the morning, when I was starting to go slightly mad with worry, though I tried to keep my concerns to myself. We were relatively safe-for the moment-so Satine and I spent some time foraging and trying to clean off the worst of the dust and debris while we waited for the clone to return. Finally, I began quietly plucking at my dulcimer to soothe my nerves more than anything else, singing softly in an effort to distract us from our increasingly dire situation.
A twig snapped. I was on my feet in an instant, lightsaber activated.
Covered in dust and sand he stumbled into our makeshift campsite, saying my name once before collapsing to his knees. "I...they found me," he said, his voice hoarse. "So I tried to lead them away. I wasn't going to come back, but then I saw it." His eyes met mine. "A Republic cruiser. Reinforcements. Heading for the city. I wanted to contact them, but..." he held up his broken comm.
Satine and I exchanged glances, hope fluttering in my chest. "If they're here, they most likely brought a Jedi," I mused. "Which means they will be able to find us, soon." I reached out with the Force, but exhaustion had weakened me too much to feel anything beyond a vague inkling, and I stumbled to my knees.
"Kali?" Stone was beside me, his arm holding me up. "You're exhausted. We should wait for them to find us..." I tried to stand on my own, but my knee gave out, so he lowered me to the ground gently.
"And how will they do so?" Satine asked. "I dare not make our position any more visible if the Death Watch is still hunting us."
I felt dizzy and weak, but I tried to think straight. "Stone...do you have any of your armor?"
"No. I left it all at the palace when I had to put on this get-up...I mean, when I changed for dinner," he amended. "I have my belt, though."
Satine's eyes lit up. "Aren't all clone troopers equipped with a tracking beacon for emergencies like this? That is how you were able to be found during your last mission, was it not?" At the surprise in my glance she chuckled. "I confess, I did a bit of research once I learned your name, Kalinda. I read the account of your last mission to Basrah, and of the daring rescue by you, Stonewall."
Stone looked nonplussed, but checked his belt anyway. "It's here, but I think it got damaged earlier."
"Perhaps I can take a look," Satine said, extending her hand. "I used to be quite handy with devices like these when I was a girl."
"You are full of surprises," I replied with a laugh. She smiled as she worked over the small device, while I looked at Stonewall. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you found some food while you were lost in the wilderness?"
"I wasn't lost," he protested, though I could see him grinning. "Matter of fact, I did come across some kind of fruiting shrub..." He reached into his pack and pulled out something that Satine recognized as "sorchaberries," which were a bit tart but provided some welcome sustenance; following the sight of the Republic ship, the mood was considerably lighter than it had been since the mission had begun. After a few minutes I felt my eyelids growing heavy and I began to doze off, sitting up with a start when I realized what was happening. Stonewall crouched beside me. "You're exhausted, Kali. You need to rest. I'll keep an eye on things, don't worry." He placed a hand on my injured knee and regarded me; it was the first time that I could remember him touching me unbidden or to help me stand, though I was too tired to care.
"Stonewall is right," Satine added. "You've over-exerted yourself with all the Force tricks. We'll be fine for a little while." She held up the homing device. "It's nearly done, anyway."
I think I replied, but I don't really remember, as I passed out immediately after that. She had been correct about me, as the shield and mind-trick had sapped my energy reserves, so sleep was a welcome relief.
However, when I awoke, everything had changed.
My eyes opened to see a clone commander leaning over me, the blue markings on his armor indicating his status; indeed, something about him was familiar.
He nodded, stepping back as I sat up and got my bearings as a small contingent of clones stood around us, speaking amongst themselves while Satine stood beside me. There were several speeder bikes gathered around our perimeter. It was nearing evening already, the sinking sun tinting the sky saffron and crimson. Seeing my movement, Satine smiled at me. "Good, you're awake at last. We were growing concerned; you were practically unconscious."
"It happens sometimes, after using the Force so heavily," I replied. "Though you should have carried me out of here, or left me altogether, Cody."
"We caught Stonewall's beacon when we landed," Cody replied. "Though we didn't expect to find you and the Duchess here as well, General. Are you injured?"
"No, I'm fine," I replied. "But I'll be much better once we get out of here. Has there been any sign of Death Watch?"
Cody nodded. "Scanners picked up an anomaly-I sent a few boys to check it out. Stonewall said he remembered where some of them were from earlier and led them, though we had to give him some spare armor." I caught a hint of amusement in his tone and gave him a mild glare. "Anyway, now that you're up, we can get out of here." He raised his arm to his face. "General Kenobi?"
At this, Satine and I both grew very still and did not look at each other as Obi-wan's holographic image appeared before us. "Cody? Have you found Stonewall?"
"Affirmative, General. We came across the Duchess and General Halcyon as well-unharmed."
His hand crept to his beard as he nodded. "Excellent. The city seems safe enough for now. Return here at once-it is imperative that we get the Duchess to safety."
When Cody shut the hologram off, Satine and I exchanged a glance, and I wondered if all of our talk had been for nothing, in the end. However, as I was about to speak, the sounds of shouts and blaster fire pierced the air around us, immediately followed by Stonewall and several other troopers running back into the clearing as they fired at the Mandalorian warriors who had apparently ambushed them. Lightsaber ignited, I threw myself in front of Satine while Cody stood his ground behind her.
There were too many even for the brave soldiers of the Republic, and I could see that we were not going to win this battle. "Cody, get her out of here!" I shouted, parrying blaster fire while I tried to shield Satine. "Take the bikes and go-I'll hold them off while you escape."
"Kalinda, no!" She was shouting in my ear, though it sounded like a whisper in the chaos. "No, you can't..."
"Cody, that's an order," I called, ignoring the Duchess. "Get going!"
In response, Cody tossed a grenade in the center of the warrior's formation and we all ducked as the ground beyond us erupted with a boom and a spray of dirt; I could see that the Mandalorian warriors were not going to be held back much longer. Satine struggled to her feet and glared at me. "You can't do this...I won't let you." She grabbed my arm. "It will kill him if he loses you."
"I have a duty," I replied, trying to keep the sorrow from my voice. "As does he. Besides, I don't have any intention of dying. But just in case," I twisted the ring from my finger and pressed it into her palm. "Make sure that he gets this, please?"
"Duchess, we need to go!" Cody urged her.
She met my eyes, her head shaking slightly. "I..."
"Please, Satine," my voice was breaking. "Please, see that Obi-wan gets this."
Her shoulders slumped as she nodded, then turned to follow Cody to the speeder bike. Just before she boarded behind him she turned back. "Kalinda, of all the things that I thought would happen upon our meeting...I never expected to find a friend."
Despite myself, I smiled. "I know what you mean. Now go."
There was a familiar presence at my side. "Stone, you need to go too," I said. "I can hold them off, but if your brothers run into trouble, they'll need you alongside them."
The others had given him a helmet, greaves and gauntlets, though he still wore the tunic he'd had on from earlier. He looked down at me with an expression that I tried not to notice. "Kali..."
"Don't make me order you, soldier," I replied, turning my eyes away to the members of Death Watch who were starting to rise. "You must do your duty, or all that we've worked for will be in vain."
"As you wish, General," he said, his voice stiff, something that made me wince as he hurried to the transport.
And then there was one.
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I did it. At the time, it seemed like the only way, but with the gift of hindsight I see that it was rather foolhardy of me to order the others to leave while I remained to face what would most certainly be my end. In any case, I was prepared as I raised my lightsaber and focused on my shield, thankful that I'd been able to rest and regain some of my strength; I was able to deflect the fire of the warriors as they attempted to fire on the clones and Satine, eventually drawing them to me, which allowed my friends to escape at last.
I don't remember much of that fight, to be honest. I know that it felt like the minutes were stretched into hours, that time seemed to slow to a crawl as I ducked and parried and used the Force to push them back. But, stars and galaxies, there were more than I had realized and I soon realized that I was losing the battle-not unexpected, mind you, but certainly not a reality that I wanted to face at that moment. Too fatigued to be able to put much effort into my shield, I glanced around for an escape, noticing an opening in their defense that I thought I could slip through if I were fast and they were distracted. Gathering what strength I could, I used the Force to stir up the pale sand around our feet into a whirlwind; I only had enough energy to make it last a few moments, but that was all I needed.
Darting through them, I managed to hit the ground into a roll, springing up a moment later to start sprinting towards an outcropping of rocks. However, that was precisely the moment that my knee chose to give out entirely with a spike of searing pain lancing through me as my left foot made contact with the ground. I fell. The pain was disorienting, though I tried to work through it, tried to relax and welcome it as my body signaling me that something was wrong as I had been taught; it worked for a moment. However, as I struggled to my feet the Mandalorians came and surrounded me, one of them-the leader, I presumed, for his armor was more elaborate than the others-stepping close as he held out a metallic collar of some kind.
That is not a good sign, I thought as I tried to knock him back with my saber. But I was weak and unable to defend myself as my arms were held back and the collar closed around my neck. Nodding, the leader pressed a button on his arm which sent a current of electric shock through my body; though it was not like the containment field that I'd been held in on Basrah, it was bad enough, especially in my weakened state. I am ashamed to say that I stopped fighting them; exhaustion, pain, sorrow...these things took over my mind as I slumped in their arms and allowed myself to be carried off.
There was no way of knowing how much time had elapsed since I had been taken, but when I regained consciousness, I was bound and gagged in a fairly rudimentary prison cell, the collar still about my neck. My knee throbbed. It was impossible to stand as I was bound, so I lifted my head to try and see what I could from my position against the cool stone floor, which was the only pleasant thing about the situation. There were no windows and I could make out the dim outline of a door to my right; my awareness extended as far as I could, telling me that there were two guards beyond the doorway.
My head rested against the stone floor. I'm such a fool, I thought, closing my eyes. What is wrong with me? Could I have done anything differently? Casting my mind back over the previous day's events, I didn't think so. It doesn't matter, anyway, I thought. I need to deal with the here and now, not dwell on what has passed. But I was so tired, and it was nice, in a way, to just lie there and rest. Rather than fight the urge, I closed my eyes and focused on my knee, hoping to ease the throbbing pain; however, I was too weak to do much good, so I wound up just trying to sleep, trying to regain some of my energy.
It was then that I heard the most wonderful sound in the entire galaxy: the hiss of a lightsaber blade igniting, the quick tread of footsteps, and the surprised shouts as the Mandalorians were felled by a Jedi.
My eyes opened and I struggled to twist myself to get a better view of the doorway as it opened, a light shining down upon me. And then Obi-wan was beside me, deft hands removing my bonds and the collar. "Kali?" His voice was hesitant.
It was difficult to speak but I managed. "Ben." My hand went to his face. "I missed you."
He gave me a smile, though I could see his eyes taking in my battered and bruised state; I could only imagine how awful I looked after the rigors of the past few days. "And I, you. Can you walk?" He glanced at my knee but I had no patience for anything but his eyes. The pain in my knee was forgotten.
"Yes," I replied with a grin. "Yes I can." Of course he had to help me, but slowly we made our way out of the bunker-a remnant of Mandalore's violent past, I realized-to the surface, where the clones were waiting along with Stonewall, who hurried over to us and offered me his arm, which I accepted. They had come with speeder bikes, so I was eased behind Obi-wan and we made our way back to Sundari, my head resting on his back, my arms around his waist.
The damage to the palace had not been as extensive as we'd thought, so Satine requested that we remain for a few days while I recuperated. I remember being taken to a room with a bed, then nothing. By the time I had woken up, I was ravenous and my mind was ablaze with questions that demanded answers. However, as I was still filthy from the mission, I took the time to bathe and change into some clothes that had been provided. When I emerged from the bath, Obi-wan was seated on my bed, studying something in his hands; he looked up at me, sorrow in his eyes.
"Why did you do it?"
I ran my fingers through my damp hair. "I didn't think there was any other way," I replied. "The clones couldn't have gotten away unless I held off the Mandalorians and Satine's life is too important to risk just to save one Jedi." Sitting next to him, I tried to smile. "What would you have done?"
He shook his head. "That's not what I meant." Something small and silver glinted in his hand. My ring. "Why did you give this to Satine? It's like you were...giving up." He studied me and I was startled to see something in his eyes that I had seen only once before, when Qui-gon died: despair.
My throat tightened. "Maybe I was. I don't know."
His hands sought mine; he slipped the ring back on my finger and kissed it gently. "Don't."
I didn't know what to say, so I kissed him.
Later, when we emerged from the room, he mentioned that Satine had wanted to speak with me. "I told the Council I would contact them once you were...awake," he said as we stood in the corridor outside the guest quarters. Several servants walked by, sweeping up debris. "I'll join you when I'm done."
"Tell Mace I said 'hi,'" I replied with a grin as we parted ways. On my way to the throne room I heard my name being called by a familiar voice. "Stone!" I said as the trooper approached me, dressed once more in his armor.
"Kalinda," he said, removing his helmet. "It's good to see you up and about." He looked pensive. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
"Certainly," I replied, keeping my tone neutral as we slipped into an alcove beneath a stained-glass window. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to apologize," he replied. "For my insubordination on our last mission. It was inexcusable. I've already given my report to Cody; he'll come up with a proper punishment."
Not if I have anything to say about it, I thought as I regarded him. "You were concerned for my safety," I said. "Which, though commendable, is not wise." My expression softened. "I am a Jedi, Stone. My life will always be dangerous; even if we weren't in a war it would be that way. It's best not to get too...attached to me." I studied his eyes, hoping that he understood what I was trying to say.
He did; I could feel his emotions as clearly as if they were my own. How did I miss that? I thought as I watched him. After a moment he nodded, straightening his back and putting his helmet back on. "Of course, General. I suppose I'll go find the others and help with the repairs. General Kenobi's orders, until we leave." He saluted me once before turning to leave.
"There you are," Satine's voice startled me and I turned to her. "You look like you have much on your mind." She was wearing her traditional gown and headdress, though somehow she looked entirely different to me.
I smiled and approached her; we started to walk together to the throne room. "I was just wondering when life got so complicated."
She gave a small laugh. "I have often had the same thought. Who knew how drastically things would change in a matter of days?"
The sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows of the expansive room as we walked through them, the patterns staining our clothes with variegated colors and patterns. "Sometimes, Satine, the most drastic changes only take a moment."