|The Price Of Freedom: Part 6
|"We have to wait for the shift change. It'll be in about five minutes." Riarda idled the engine at the bottom of the long ramp up into the first courtyard. "When the guard changes those outside have to come in, and the forceshield is lowered around the gate. We have to get through then, or not at all."
"Will they shoot at us?" Jemmiah tightened her grip on the soft leather of his jacket. It was cold down here in the perpetual shade.
"I..." she couldn't see his face for the helmet, but his head bent, oppressed with thought. "I don't think so. Not unless my father finds out we're gone."
"That's good," said Jemmiah, trying to support his courage with her own. "No really. He's not going to find out in the next five minutes is he?"
No. Qui-Gon had fought this opponent before. He knew its strength - and its weaknesses. This time it would flee from him. Jemmiah is alive. She will heal. I will not go down this road for any reason. Not even for her.
Still breathing hard, as the wave of rage broke and fell baffled away, he turned. Something was in the corridor, coming.
The door burst open. A man as scarred and feral as a Hutt's bodyguard surged in, waving a swoop riding gauntlet. "What's this doing in the corridor, boy? What the crob are you...?"
Qui-Gon's presence made him recoil angrily, as if he had walked into a wall. "Who the kriff are you? What have you done with my son?"
In the face of absurdity and threat, Qui-Gon found his balance once more. "I am a Jedi, sent to free Tawaline Zabrik. No doubt your son is with her. If you'll excuse me I'll go and find them."
The gently mocking tone did not go down well. The man - who must surely be Tunnoca Dubal - scowled, his pale eyes glittering. He looked - Qui-Gon thought - faintly absurd in his elegant clothing, like a wampa ice creature in a satin coat, but there was no doubt that, like a wampa, he would prove a bestial and dangerous foe.
Best not to fight him then. Warily, Qui-Gon retreated through the open doors onto the balcony. Looking down he saw a three story drop onto cobbles - That won't be a problem. Beyond that were two courtyards, and then the Outer Wall. Figures gathered. At the main entrance the forcefield flicked out, exposing a huge patch of new grey light through the arch of gateway.
His legs were pressed up against the balustrade. He put a hand on the cool stone.
"Where the kriff do you think you're going, Jedi? I want an explanation for this."
The swinging hand caught and pulled out some of his hair as he vaulted over the wall and fell. At the same time the courtyard's empty silence was shredded by the roar of a swoop's engines. It flashed past him as he landed, air wash buffeting him, driven like a bolt of lightning straight at the opened gate.
Jemmiah! Red hair spilled from the second rider's helmet. She'd seen Qui-Gon, was beating vainly on the driver's back trying to get him to stop, but he was bent over, urging the swoop to greater speed.
Are they escaping together? Or did he somehow have warning I was coming? Is he trying to get away from me? A split second of indecision when he didn't know whether to stop them or to hurry them. Then his Force-enhanced hearing picked up the sound of Tunnoka opening a comlink; the words "Forcefield up! Stop that swoop. Yes, yes - shoot them if you have to."
Like a plunging raptor the swoop hurtled toward the break in the forcefield. A hundred, a hundred and twenty miles an hour. There was less than fifty metres to go when the shield of devouring energy snapped back into place. No turning room, no time to stop. Gods! They're going to crash into the forcefield. She'll be vaporised!
Rushing air stripped the tears from Jemmiah's face. Shock dried her mouth. "Bassalas! Turn the swoop. Riarda!"
But Riarda had frozen at the controls, hypnotised by the onrushing wall of fire.
"Kriff!" she tugged at his arm, trying to reach the steering yoke, threw her weight to the side. Not enough! The speeding machine began a graceful shallow arc. "Riarda! Damn you!" Ahead, the forward ailerons impacted the surface of light, flashed into a wave of superhot particles, disappeared. Jemmy's last thought was It's not going to hurt. She closed her eyes.
A rushing moment - deceleration like a hammerblow in her back. Confusion. Riarda screamed as his legs broke against the handlebars. Jemmiah whiplashed forwards and the brow of her helmet smashed into the base of his neck with a crunch. Something was pulling them backwards. A tractor beam? Or...the Force?
The swoop's motors were still gunning, whining against the backwards pressure. Dizzy from impact, Jemmy twisted - ah, that hurt - and looked back to where Qui-Gon stood with his hand outstretched and a look of grim determination on his face. Fighting the swoop's engines.
Something about the idea horrified her. Gently, she disengaged Riarda's hand from the accelerator, toggled the motor off. Instead of falling out of the sky, the swoop moved backwards, weightless and unnatural, then settled carefully to the ground.
Qui-Gon came running. Guards, awed at the sight of a man plucking a flying swoop from the sky, fell back from him silently. When he unbuckled her helmet and pulled it off, Jemmy could not fight the desire to cringe. Gods he was such a...such a Jedi! With his power and his faith and his calm, what could she possibly be to him, except some kind of pet? And now - now she was spoiled - what would he be to her, if not another jailer, another Merdan?
"Jemmiah? Jemmiah, look at me. What's the matter?"
You scare me.
Adrenaline, receding, shook her. She didn't want to cry but couldn't stop it, couldn't bear to have him touch or watch her like this, pushed his attempt at a hug away, hands shaking.
"Are you hurt?" his eyes had darkened with something she would have called fear - if he had only been a real human being and not a Jedi. Was she scaring him? She turned her face away so she wouldn't have to see.
A sigh, and he moved back a pace. All at once she was terrified he was going to leave her. But he was only bending over Riarda, picking up one of the limp hands to take the pulse.
Is he alright? She didn't want to ask the question. She wanted to find a cellar she could hide in until all of this was over.
Qui-Gon took the boy's helmet off with dispassionate care. Closed the staring eyes. Lifted the limp body away from the wreckage of the machine and laid it down reverently in the new blue sunshine on the cobbles.
"He's dead." Qui-Gon returned to crouch before Jemmy, looking at her face intently, as if desperately trying to puzzle out what she felt. "His neck was broken when the swoop decelerated. Tangles...I don't know how you feel about this, but I'm sorry. I didn't mean to kill him."
You didn't kill him, Jemmy thought bleakly, remembering the crunch of helmet against spine with a wave of nausea. I did. Poor, cowardly Riarda. I killed him, like I killed everyone on Nargotria. He tried to help me and now he's dead. He's dead!
Running footsteps hammered against her ears. "What are you all standing there for?"
She looked up through swimming eyes and found the huge shadow of Tunnoka Dubal lying over her. Nervous but determined, a circle of guards closed in around the kneeling Jedi. Blasters powered up with a whine like wasps.
No! Not Quiggy too. Qui-Gon, just leave me and go, please. I don't want to kill you too.
Qui-Gon got to his feet, feeling the aimed muzzles like prickles against his skin. He would almost have welcomed it if they had begun to shoot - he could wipe out in battle the memory of Jemmiah's desolate face; the terror with which she had pushed him away. When he looked at Tunnoka he saw the man who had caused that, the man whose desire for power and affluence had lead to the kidnapping and abuse of a thirteen year old girl. The man who didn't have the grace to even look sorry when his son lay dead at his feet.
"Your son is dead," he watched for a reaction and found none. Didn't the man care? "Tawaline is therefore a widow. I will return her to her family as I promised."
Tunnoka loomed over Riarda's body, crouched to press his fingers at the broken throat. His mouth compressed with annoyance, nothing more, but Qui-Gon noticed how Jemmiah edged away from him, pressing back against the warm metal of the swoop.
I will not hate him. I will not even dislike him. I only want to bring her home.
Rising, Tunnoka stepped close. Qui-Gon had the novel experience of having to look up to meet someone's gaze.
"I have another son." Tunnoka dusted his hands off on his silk trousers as if to brush away Riarda's existence. "And the girl may even now be carrying my grandchild. She's worthless to her own family now. She stays."
Conscious of Jemmiah huddled, broken, on the ground, conscious of how obscene it was to squabble over her like this - as though she were an object, Qui-Gon half turned, so she could watch his face as he said, "Pregnant or not, her father wants her back."
He registered the fresh flood of tears as an admission of sorts. She was afraid I would reject her. But there was no time to be sad about how little she trusted him. They had to get out.
He could, of course, just fight his way out, take the force-field key from Tunnoka's belt, pick Jemmy up and walk away. But that would mean killing the guards - and they had done him no harm. He couldn't justify it.
A quick touch at Tunnoka's mind - to see if he was susceptible to the Mind trick - brought away an impression of strange integrity. The man had always had enough strength to get what he wanted honourably, within the ethics of his own society. Brutal and compassionless though he was, he was still an honest man.
Despite everything, there was a certain dour amusement to be had in the thought that it could come down to this. Qui-Gon folded his hands, shifted his weight comfortably and smiled. "I'll fight you for her," he said.
It was almost a relief to find a path in this world where being a Jedi and being a man coincided. How strange that it should be in something so primitive. Around him, the soldiers of the keep murmured in approval, pleased to find a simple solution. Tunnoka's scarred face twisted into a gleeful smile.
"Without the Force?" he said, almost mocking, "Man to man?"
A comcall brought a droid page, skimming fast on repulsors from the main castle. It handed Tunnoka a large, shallow box, the aura of which made Qui-Gon want to flinch away. Opening it, the warlord showed him a slave collar. A simple thing, hinged at the back, with holes at the front through which a padlock might be placed. A simple thing, but it was hard to look at - it tugged on his sight like a black hole. He could feel it, sucking all existence down into void. Inside it, everything would be hollow.
"I knew I would need this one day." Tunnoka must have seen the small, instinctive recoil. He gave a smile of great satisfaction. "Put the Force-inhibitor on and I will accept your challenge."
He chuckled as Qui-Gon tried to take the thing and winced. "I'm going to take you apart like an insect, Jedi."
The touch of the collar was an infection. It crept into every part of him, dimming his sight, dulling his senses. His back felt strained by gravity, his legs weak, and his heart laboured. A man buried alive could not have cried out more desperately for light and air than his spirit cried out for the Force.
Walking was meaningless. Fighting was meaningless. Carrying on living was meaningless. Jemmiah was...
He looked down wearily at the small, closed face. Her eyes would not meet his. She twisted the strap of her helmet back and forth, wringing it. Still in her fugue of shock and regret. Qui-Gon felt as if he was in the prison of misery with her - cut off from everything that made existence worthwhile.
Jemmiah was not meaningless. Jemmiah was depending on him.
He tied the inhibitor closed, his fingers clumsy from touching its vileness, staggered, held himself upright only by clinging to the shoulder of a guard. The man looked at him with barely concealed horror.
None of them understand what this is doing to me.
"This is..." Even his voice was unsteady, "Like having the air taken away. I can't breathe." Aware of how pathetic he looked he braced himself, faced Tunnoka with whatever dignity he had left. "Give me a moment to get used to the sensation."
"Of course. I wouldn't want anyone to say I took advantage of you."
Relaxed, confident, Tunnoka shrugged his jacket off and gave it to one of the pages. Another of the droids was marking out a chalk square on the ground within which they would fight. Quite a crowd had gathered by now - servants were even putting out chairs for the ladies. Qui-Gon was forceably reminded of the Malastare gladiator pits, though here he doubted if the match would go on long enough for refreshments to be served.
He knelt. Long ago, as a padawan, his master had made him train like this - cut off from the Force. Cut off from the Force! The choking sensation rose up again to claw at his throat. His heartbeat speeded, and he slowed it with deliberate, meditative breathing. He had trained like this before. He could do it again. My inability to feel it does not mean it's not there. It was just a matter of finding the appropriate memories.
"Are you ready?"
He rose, letting his cloak fall, bowed to the onlookers. Someone had found Jemmiah a chair - she sat next to Dubal's wife, fists on her knees, staring forward into emptiness. She does *want* to come home, doesn't she?
It was a bit late to worry about that now, when the hope was all he had left. They could discuss it later. If he survived. "Yes," he said, "I'm ready."
Smack! The crack of a bone breaking. Jemmiah couldn't bear to look. Couldn't bear not to look. A glance showed her Qui-Gon, bent over clutching his side. He looked slender beside Tunnoka, overmatched, face drawn and sickened under the touch of the slave restraint.
Everyone who tries to help me, she thought, looking at the collar, Ends up like this. A slave, and then...then... She looked away before she had to watch it happen.
Qui-Gon straightened against the pain. He half expected the punch to his jaw that followed. Block the punch, knifehand to the great artery in Tunnoka's neck - it should have knocked him unconscious instantly, but brawn was thick around the vein, protecting it. Dubal only stumbled briefly, shook his head, and came back snarling, with a body blow it almost hurt more to block than to absorb.
The broken rib flared in agony as he jumped over a kick. Bending forward filled his lungs with the taste of blood. Breathing came hard - as though the jagged point of bone was sawing flesh each time he inhaled. Not much time. He felt desolate and heavy without the Force. Unable to heal or endure. He would have to finish this fast.
But Tunnoka was so strong. Punches, even kicks, seemed to have no impact on his huge form. Qui-Gon's margin for gentleness was destroyed. I don't think I can stop him without killing him.
Another punch to the face. Catching the fist before it hit, Qui-Gon twisted beneath the outstretched arm, brought the hand down and drove his shoulder up into the man's elbow. It should have snapped like a twig under the combined force of leverage and direct impact, but Tunnoka's heavy muscles absorbed the blow, cushioned the joint. Damn!
Instead, he used the position to tug the warlord over his back - rib screaming red fire in his side - toss him to the cobbles. There was a bare instant when Tunnoka lay sprawled, face up, head smacking into the stones. Now And Qui-Gon leapt, brought his full weight down through his heels, and crushed the warlord's vulnerable throat.
Stepping away he waited to see if the man would rise. That mountainous being could not be so easily destroyed, surely? Nausea came over him suddenly. This was so like his dreams of revenge. Did I want this? No. No! But did I?
Tunnoka did not stir, flat on his back, open eyes staring at the clouds. Within the Force collar even the deadly silence around Qui-Gon was dreary. It was hard to think what to do next.
He loosed the collar, dropped it on the ground - astonished even after so short a time of deprivation by the amount of light there was in the world. Its clank on the stones was loud, inappropriate, in a courtyard full of people who could not believe their eyes. Guards' faces were washed blank with shock. Dubal's wife sat with her hands over her mouth. Jemmy looked up at him as if she loathed everything he was. Yes, Jemmiah, I'm a killer too. It was the first time she had had to see it.
The only thing unfrozen in the tableu of disbelief, he walked over to where the ladies sat, waited until Lady Dubal looked up at him. I did not want revenge. And now I have it, I hate it.
Their eyes met - a sensation of ice and extreme delicacy - and he bowed. "Your husband was an exceptional fighter. I regret I could not have defeated him in any other way."
She had been dazed, now she hardened. "Spare your regret. He would not have offered it for you." With a small gesture she dismissed Jemmiah, "I honour my husband's last oath. Take the little slut and go. She has brought nothing but misfortune to us."
Still with the sensation of unreality, as if moving in a dream, unsure if everything is about to turn horrifying or simply disappear, Qui-Gon offered his hand to Jemmiah. "Lets go home."
It was a hard thing, he knew, to watch someone kill for you. A hard responsibility to bear. He could see it in the dulled tarnish of her copper eyes. For a moment she stared at his fingers as though they were coated in gore.
Perhaps it was the novelty of being given the choice. After an instant of rejection which hurt much deeper than the broken ribs, she stood and allowed him to lead her out through the gates. But she remained mute and sullen, and did not take his hand.