Wow! Sorry for that long delay. Had some major plot changes happen which meant reworking nearly everything. Anyway, I'm glad to finally update. Enjoy!^^
Village of Pal'qui
District of Toculva
The pale, yellow light of dawn illuminated the room. Amira heard her mother rise, the quiet rustling as she dressed, and the sounds from the main room as she began to prepare for the day ahead.
Amira moved her sleeping brother out of the crook of her arm and stood, making her way to join her mother. Her eyes felt heavy after her sleepless night and she worried her mother might notice the bags under her eyes. Her father had already left for the day. As much as it troubled Amira to know that her father could be in danger, she took comfort in knowing that he was able to fulfill his ceremonial duties for today.
Her mother looked up from tending the newly light flames of the fireplace. She gestured to the table, "You can start on the bakora. I have the ingredients ready."
Amira shuffled over to the table, rubbing her aching eyes. On the table sat a large bowl of bluish-hued seeds, their shape reminding her of the small, oblong pebbles she would kick on her walk to and from school. She took out her mortar and pestle and began grinding the seeds down to a fine crumble.
After her hand began to cramp and the morning sunshine crept along the packed dirt floor, her mother checked on her work.
"Add these herbs to it and then take it to the Ysdrul's. Nariam offered to help prepare them and I told her you would be glad to help of course," her mother said with a smile.
Amira's stomach knotted at her mother's words and she felt her heart beat faster as she mixed in the minced black leaves from their garden's harvest of tarnwil. Changing into a faded green tunic and pants, she took the large, wooden bowl in both hands and made her way out the door.
With the absence of the daily bustle, the village was unusually quiet. The activities that would normally be taking place near Pal'qui's main square were gone, leaving the area open and silent. There were no merchants today or children running through the alleyways; she could only hear the sounds from the nearby livestock that her neighbors kept. The air was still with oppressive heat as the sun continued its climb in the sky.
As Amira passed the village's temple, she could hear many voices praying in unison. The doors were shut so she was left to imagine her father and all of the men of Pal'qui crammed together in the small space, beginning the day's numerous tasks with prayers of goodwill, strength, and gratitude. The wooden post that towered over the highest roofs of the village now held a decorative wrap made from the branches and leaves of the forest, woven together with cobalt and yellow thread. The spirits would have gathered in the temple by now to hear the devotions from their descendants. In a few years, her brother would be among those descendants as he became old enough to partake in the ceremony.
The Ysdurl's lived in the farthest corner of her village, nearest to the Ollothan. As she approached, Amira saw the temple next to the home had been completely scrubbed clean again, new and ready for the spirits as the festival approached. The Ysdurl's were the ones who cleaned and restored the temples that lined the Ollothan for miles in each direction.
Amira swallowed hard as she approached the stoop. Nariam came to the door as Amira was about to announce herself.
"There you are! Just in time," Nariam beamed, waving Amira in, her dark skin soft with wrinkles.
Amira dipped her head down, paying her respects to the hunched, older woman before entering the home. The Ysdurl's were considered "well off" as far as it went for her people. Generations of being revered for their religious roles made sure that the family was gifted with necessities made by the others in the village. Over time, those gifts piled up to where Amira found herself wondering what it would be like to live without wanting.
The home was made entirely of durasteel whereas Amira's hut had a few pieces where home improvements had to be made over the years. There were few durasteel homes in their village, most were like Amira's: a jumble of wood, mud, and metal. A passing thought of annoyance crossed her mind as she recalled the numerous times she had spent at Thad's and his gloating about his "top-of-the-line" metal house. The Ysdurls were not like the Koralls. They didn't place themselves above others for the sake of wealth. They were humble and kind, giving back to the community where they could. Nariam's husband was once an ambassador for Amerell before he was forced to retire due to "the changing needs of the planet" as Amira had overheard the adults say. They knew it was a jab at their people and their place in the greater galactic world that had been shrouded in discretion. Now that Amira was older was she starting to understand what those words meant.
Setting down the bowl on the table, Amira took a seat after Nariam told her so and found herself sitting on the most comfortable cushion. She wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and catch up on sleep, but Nariam was already bustling around the kitchen, gathering all the supplies and ingredients for the morning's work.
Amira looked around nervously, finding herself peering around the corner down the hallway. She wondered if they were even home right now… Maybe they had participated in the morning prayer… She thought.
"Alright, I will mix this up," Nariam gestured to the bowl Amira brought, a pitcher of water in her hand, "and you can start packaging up the na'udrl," she said, pointing to multiple glass jars filled with floating purple chunks.
Amira opened the first jar and a sour smell hit her, making her frown. Nariam noticed and laughed.
"There are few children who like the smell and taste of the na'udrl."
"I don't like anything pickled. It's so sour…" Amira grimaced.
"I imagine they are quite sour this year too. All of the fruit from the udrl trees weren't sweet like last year's."
"I remember last year I was able to eat it without stuffing a few bakora in my mouth," Amira remarked, as Nariam laughed again.
"I remember hating them at your age. Your taste buds will change eventually."
"You mean you don't like the taste of pickled fruit?" Amira tensed as she heard a voice call from the front door, the sound of footsteps heavy on the floor as they made their way to the cook room.
She looked up as Jayder walked in smiling. Amira shyly smiled back before busying herself with the na'udrl. The Ysdurl's were the family that stepped up to host Jayder and his family. Most in the village scowled at the thought of bringing an outsider into their home, let alone sharing it and their culture. Unlike the rest, Nariam and her husband were eager to bring in the Zancress'. Amira had secretly hoped that Jayder would be home when she had arrived.
"I didn't know you were coming to help us," Jayder said as he took a seat across from Amira.
Amira nodded, "I brought the grounded bakora crumbles."
"Ah, yes, something I haven't tried yet. Nariam says they are delicious," he had brought with him more baskets to pack and was lining them with cloth.
"Probably my favorite ritual food. But I like the festival food more," Amira felt herself rambling in an attempt to calm her sudden nerves.
She saw Nariam's face fall slightly at her comment.
"But our food is still the best. The labor we put into it makes the taste incomparable," Amira attempted to cheer Nariam up, for she knew she had sounded insensitive.
It was common knowledge that the Qui'al's tradition of the Aryt'al was a fading one. It was becoming harder to keep the new generation's youth interested when the entire event was overshadowed by the festival that was held alongside it. The Aryt'al was never meant to be an overtly festive time; it was only for the Qui'al to partake in. Over the years, more and more outsiders came and then the government decided to throw a festival in the village's honor. Her people didn't see it as an honor, but more of an insult to the holiest of days. But her people continued their rituals, even in the wake of the changing times, and she and the rest of the children were taught the proper ways in hopes that tradition would continue.
She decided to change the subject. "Is your mother here, Jayder?"
Jayder shook his head, "no. She went ahead with some of the other women to clean the Lydis' grounds. My father is with the rest of the men there as well. I forgot what exactly he's in charge of though…"
"The men purify the temple before anyone else can enter. I don't think he'd be allowed to go in yet." Amira shrugged as she guessed.
Nariam answered the question for the both of them, "he was told to observe from outside. After the Lydis is purified he can enter. He'll help clean before the rest of the men get there for prayer with Al'Tayoen."
"Is she really the first women to serve as the Qui'alton?" Jayder asked.
"Yes," Nariam began, choosing her words carefully, "it was a tradition reserved for men to become the next Qui'alton but Al'Warlyn, the last spiritual leader, chose her as his successor. It surprised everyone."
Nariam's smirk provoked another question, "I take it some didn't like that?" Jayder commented.
"Oh, you can imagine. There was much debate with the elder's for weeks on it. At first, they were ready to discredit Al'Warlyn's decision. But in the end, they realized that the choice is entirely the right of the Qui'alton as not just anyone can be a successor."
"How do they chose?" Jayder passed Amira another basket to fill, their hands touching lightly, causing Amira's heart to beat faster.
"Potential candidates for the Qui'alton possess a power to link to our ancestors, some can even contact them or have visions of the future. The current Qui'alton can sense this."
"It reminds me a lot of The Force."
Amira could feel the smirk in Nariam's voice as she went to grab another jar.
"The Force," Nariam began, her voice light with ridicule, "has no place here. The connection we share with our ancestors is ours alone. Only a true Qui'al could have that connection. The Force is what non-Qui'al's refer to as they try to explain something they cannot possibly understand."
Amira looked up and saw that Jayder was but not offended by the words that Nariam said but looked to be deep in thought. Nariam cleared her throat and quelled her hostility.
"As you are aware, Jayder, my people have been ostracized in many ways in the past by fellow Amerellians, the galactic government, and the outsiders that venture this far. You can understand then why we feel the need to correct those who think they know us, when in fact, most don't ever try," with that she took Jayder's hand in hers, adding, "I appreciate the work your father is doing here. It is long overdue. In my lifetime, I've met a handful of people at most who truly wish to know us. For you and your family, I am grateful to share all I know."
At that Nariam looked out the window, before standing, "the sun is nearing its peak, we should finish up and you," she gestured to Amira, "should head home and get ready. I'll finish up."
Amira got up and bowed to Nairam before turning to Jayder. Her mind went blank as to what to say or do. He gave her a warm smile, his eyes regarding her with a strange look Amira couldn't quite figure out.
"I'll see soon. I'll be walking with you to the temple," he said.
"Ah, right…" Amira trailed off awkwardly. "Um…" She was scrambled for words before Nariam rescued her.
"Yes, we'll be bringing everything over shortly. Now go!" Nariam light-heartedly shuffled Amira out the door, Jayder's expression held the same as he followed her with his eyes.
Amira returned home to find her mother dressing her brother, all the while he squirmed and kept yelling "no", his new favorite word.
"The bath is ready for you next. I have your clothes in their as well."
Quickly, Amira ran to the back of the house, stripped and jumped into a tepid basin filled with water. She sat back for a moment and thought about Thad's home and how they had a refresher, an odd contraption that was no bigger than her family's shed. He had once explained to her how it worked but the whole idea of it seemed odd.
Her mind wondered to Jayder and the swimming hole yesterday, how he had looked under his clothes, and the look he gave her last night when they said goodbye. It was the same look he gave today when she left the Ysdurl's. She was both excited and nervous to see him tonight at the festival. She still couldn't pinpoint why she felt nervous. It was a different feeling than the nervous feeling she got before a test, or when she saw her father last night with that strange man.
The stranger… Amira has almost forgotten and now she felt the worry creeping back.
She took a deep breath and busied herself with drying off and braiding back her hair, trying to push the hostile man she'd seen last night from her mind. She made her way over to the bench where her clothes were laid out and was stopped short by what she saw. Next to her freshly dyed and pressed dress was a pair of slippers, except they weren't the slippers she wore every year.
Unlike her old, scratchy ones that only had a few decorative threads and beads on them, the slippers before her were cobalt blue to match her dress, an off-white color creating a swirling pattern. Picking them up, she felt the luxury of fabric on her fingers and was enthralled by the sheen of it as she tilted the slipper in the light. The pattern had been embroidered in an intricate form, the small round beads were pearlescent and milky. Amira was unsure what to do. She'd never held anything this beautiful and delicate in her life. Surely these couldn't be hers?
She finished changing and gingerly carrying the slippers found her mother in the main room.
"Are these mine?" Amira asked, holding up the slippers.
"A gift from your father," she could hear something in her mother's voice she couldn't name though it matched her sour expression, "he bought a pair for all of us."
Amira slowly looked down at her hands, afraid that the smallest movement would crush the beauty in them. How could her father have afforded these? Is this why he'd been staying late at work so much for the last year? Is this what her parents had been arguing about? Why would he buy new slippers when he needed a new speeder bike, the one he had now was so unreliable… Or when mother needed new shears for her herb cutting? She could think of so many things they needed but slippers wasn't one of them.
Was this her fault? Had she mentioned being embarrassed by her slippers? How the left one had a growing hole? Sure, she was jealous when Odala got new slippers last year, but she didn't remember telling anyone. She swallowed the guilt that could only be hers.
"Wrap those up and help me with your brother, will you," her mother's voice brought her out of her thoughts.
Once wrapped and safely secured next to the other slippers in a basket, Amira took her brother's hand and joined her mother outside. Neighbors had gathered since Amira returned home this morning, meeting up with familiar faces.
Amira turned to see Jayder and Nariam making their way over, baskets stacked in a hover-cart that Nariam controlled. She noticed that Jayder was barefoot.
"You're not wearing shoes?" Amira asked incredulously.
"I'm going to try not to. But Nariam tells me the walk to Lydis is rocky. I bought them just in case."
"Are you two ready?" Nariam called, "Let's go!"
They had made it out of the village and were now walking on the crest of a steep hill, either side of which dropped dramatically to a rocky valley. The Edonain Mountains grew ever closer as their hike's elevation climbed higher and higher. Soon, they came to a lush valley that sat surrounded by tall peaks. There, the Sacred Grounds of Co'r would be waiting along with Lydis, the Grand Temple. Amira's mother and Nariam were farther ahead, her brother strapped into the hover cart with the rest of their goods.
"Tell me about another planet," Amira asked Jayder, who had fallen into step behind her.
"What kind of planet do you want to know about?"
"I don't care! Maybe something you think that's very different from mine?" Amira asked thoughtfully.
"Hmm… Well, there's Kamino. It's a planet made entirely of water."
"Wow," Amira said in awe, "I've never even seen the ocean here! That's in Illtheria, the main district. My father says he'll take us one day after his next work promotion."
"Do you think you'll travel off-planet one day?" Jayder asked.
"I don't know, really. It sounds so exciting, your adventures. And I know there's so much to see," Amira stated, watching her step over a large rock.
"You should visit the Hosian System. That's where the new galactic senate is. They have such beautiful landscapes there. They're sometimes compared to those that were on Alderaan."
They both went quiet. Jayder was the first to break the silence, "does anyone here ever talk about it?"
"My mother has told me her story. She and my father had just met and he took her to Illtheria for the day. They were on the shore having a picnic when it happened. She said Amerell is too far away to really see Alderaan, but if you knew where to look you could see a small shape in the sky. She happened to be looking at it when she saw it disappear. They had no idea what had happened until they went back through town and heard it on the holonet."
"Apparently there's a station in the asteroid field that acts as a home for the remaining survivors," Jayder remarked.
Amira nodded, "Amerell stepped in and offered immediate citizenship to any survivors but some chose to stay in orbit."
"The conflict might have had something to do with that…"
"Sure. I mean, Amerell was originally created as resort planet by the Alderaanians. That backfired once the locals discovered ambestine."
"What about your people, what did they do after the discovery?"
Amira shrugged, "they tried to control the ownership. The Qui'als were the first here. Their argument was that because of that, the crystals were ours. But then the locals organized themselves and created a new government and won the rights. And we were overlooked. My mother tells me that's how it has always been."
"It makes sense why you don't like outsiders then."
"I feel like outsiders are what make life interesting. And you can learn from them," Amira paused her hiking and looked over her shoulder at Jayder, "I didn't know a lot of things before I met you."
They smiled at each other for a moment before Amira turned back around. The path became wider and Jayder came around to walk beside her. She couldn't help but notice how close he was. If she moved her hand, she could touch his… Amira swallowed, looking at the landscape around them.
"You don't think like the others do," Jayder remarked.
"My people are stubborn and prideful, I guess I'm not old enough to understand the issues around it."
"But you're curious. Most Qui'al's seem content to keep to themselves."
Amira kept to her thoughts. Jayder had a point. Her curiosity in school had caused some of her classmates to tease her, once she was pushed to the ground because she questioned why her people seemed to be so intolerant. She always had a hard time with herself when she constantly questioned why her people insisted on being withdrawn from the galaxy. She felt torn in so many ways. These were her people, her family, yet the way they thought didn't always sit right with her.
"We're here. The valley is over this hill," Amira said, pointing ahead.
"Come on, let's go catch up with everyone," Jayder walked faster, leaving Amira in her thoughts.
Later, Amira wiped her forehead as she walked over to join Odala and Thad. They looked eager to leave the ceremony, their legs were still asleep from constant kneeling. The heat of the day was starting to die down as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
"Come on, already!" Thad called over.
His face fell and Amira turned to see Jayder walking behind her. Thad scowled, a snark comment forming on his lips but before he could say anything Amira cut him off.
"Let's go." She must have used the right tone and look because she was met with silence. She wasn't in the mood.
Odala didn't look at Amira. Ever since the ceremony, she had been quiet with her and Amira knew why. She had seen her slippers. Odala didn't try to hide her stares, she stared at them as if trying to calculate something.
By the time they made it to the base of the valley the festival was in full swing.
"I don't know about you guys but I'm ready for some real food," Thad exclaimed, his hands clasped behind his head. "Then we can play skipper's knots. Bet I can beat all of you!"
Jayder waved to his parent's before turning back to the others, locking eyes with Amira, "I'll catch up with you later."
"Okay," was all Amira could think of to say.
She swallowed as she thought back to what he had whispered to her earlier while they were kneeling outside the temple waiting to go in.
" Meet me by the pond…" She wasn't sure why he wanted her to meet him there but she got the feeling he didn't ask anyone else.
Thad led the way through the festival, weaving around throngs of people until they found a group of classmates that Thad wanted to meet up with. Odala met Amira's glance and she knew she had the same idea.
Odala clapped Thad on the shoulder, "Amira and I are going to go talk about girl things, we'll be back later. And I want that stuffed tauntaun," she pointed to the wall in a stall next to them. Thad smirked and nodded.
As they walked away Odala muttered, "that'll keep him busy for awhile. He is terrible at juna…"
Amira snickered, "we should go get some rysh candies. I see the tent for it way down there," she pointed as a large group of people shoved past them.
"Here, come on," Odala grabbed Amira's hand and led her away from the crowd, "we'll cut through the backside, less people."
A while later, munching on their newfound sweets, they made their way to the back of the stalls and found a large rock to sit on. A slight breeze rippled through the grass around them. The high walls of Lydis towered over the festival, the highest windows lit with flames.
Amira could see the question in Odala eyes, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she spoke, "so your new slippers are nice."
Amira gulped down a mouthful, "Yeah, they are…"
"Did your dad say where he got the credits?" There was something hidden in Odala's voice.
"No. I guess it was from all his hard work. He's been working late for a long time now."
Odala made a noise but didn't say anything else. Amira felt the intensity in the air between them, as if Odala was holding back something.
"Look. Amira. I have to tell you-" Odala began before halting her sentence. Amira followed Odala's wide eyes as an unfamiliar sound hit her ears. It reminded her of her father's speeder bike.
A black, V-shaped ship was flying over the mountains towards the Ollothan. The hum of its' engine echoed in the cliffs around them before disappearing below the horizon line.
Amira felt her pulse quicken as her head suddenly felt too heavy for her body. She narrowed her eyes as the heaviness dissipated. A strange feeling of familiarity rushed over her. Bewildered she looked at Odala. Her amazement was reflected in Amira's eyes. They had never seen a ship before.
"I wonder what a ship is doing way out here?" Amira wondered.
"I don't know. What could possibly be past the Ollothan?" Odala whispered back.
"Let's go find Thad and the others. They must of have seen it." Odala abruptly said, taking off towards the festival.
Amira wanted to find out what she was about to tell her earlier but she decided to ask her later.
As they got up to leave, a loud, boisterous voice called behind them, "look boys, we found ourselves a Scath."
Odala halted and Amira watched Odala's face contort from shock to anger. She whipped around to face her accuser. Amira turned to see a group of boys older than them. She recognized the leader who had spoken; it was her neighbor's oldest son, Holko, who never paid any attention to Amira or her friends. He was accompanied by two others who had congregated threateningly around him.
"What did you say?" Odala's voice was frighteningly low.
Holko snickered to his friends before swaggering over, coming nose-to-nose with Odala.
" What does a scathed filth have any business being here for? You're not even Qui'al. You don't belong anywhere." The boy whispered to Odala, towering over her.
Amira could see Odala trembling, and as Holko laughed and looked back behind him, she was clenching her fist. Before Amira could warn her not to, Odala let out a yell, charging the boy, throwing him to the ground. As he rolled to turn around, a sickening thud was heard as Odala's fist made contact with his cheek. The boy cried out, his friends coming to his aid, pulling Odala off of him, restraining her, while Holko stumbled to his feet, aiming a fist into her stomach. Amira ran forward, attempting to push him away. When he didn't move, she mimicked Odala and threw a clumsy punch at his head. The contact caused an immediate pain to bloom in her wrist. He recovered quickly, and before Amira could move, his fist connected with her eye. She stumbled backward, yelping, clutching at her eye. She tried to throw another strained punch but Holko shoved her hard. She felt gravity pull her down fast, her head smacked into the ground as the air was knocked out of her lungs.
Stunned, she stared up at the sky. She could faintly hear Odala shouting profanities in between cries of pain. Amira managed to lift her head to see the two boys holding Odala down, while Holko straddled her waist, delivering punch after punch to her face and ribs. He paused, giving Odala enough time to spit blood in his face. He forced her head down, pinning it to the ground. He leaned over, speaking to Odala, but the ringing in Amira's ears was too strong to make out the words.
Odala struggled as Amira saw Holko snake his hand under her shirt. She couldn't figure out what was happening but Odala had suddenly gone still. The other boys were smirking. She could see a horror in Odala's eyes and although Amira didn't know why she knew she had to stop whatever was happening to her. She staggered to stand as the boys were distracted and with all her might she ran at Holko and flung her weight into him, throwing him off. She felt arms wrap around her chest as one of the other boys grabbed at her, sending her sprawling, dirt flying into her mouth. She heard the boy's heavy footsteps as he stopped short next to her, hovering. She shut her eyes as her body tightened, anticipating pain, but she heard a yelp. She looked up to see Jayder hurling the boy to the ground. He whirled around and with a heavy punch, the smallest boy fell, moaning on the ground, clutching his side. Holko had finally regained his composure and hit Jayder, causing his head to turn violently to the side.
"What is going on here?!" They all halted mid-action to look over as a group of adults approached.
Amira was about to respond before she felt a hand grab hers, forcing her feet to move fast. Odala held tight, yanking Amira as they ran back into the crowd. The lights seemed too bright for Amira's eyes, the air too hot, the laughter and voices of the crowd too loud. As suddenly as the flood of activity began it stopped. Odala had taken them to the lake. The few people around didn't bother to look as they moved out of the bushes.
Panting, Odala stared at the water, her mouth turned down. Amira could see her fighting tears. Amira's right eye was swollen now, her vision narrow. A dull pulse of pain radiated over her face. Her limbs felt heavy. She wanted nothing more than sleep. She swallowed a lump in her throat.
Odala looked far worse. Her lip was cut. Her jaw had a nasty bruise blooming. The skin around her cheekbone was split open, blood that had run down her face was starting to crust as it dried. Odala kept her gaze on the water, silently refusing to meet Amira's eyes.
"Where'd you run off to? I got your tauntaun, Odala."
Amira looked over to see Thad approaching, thankfully alone. He stopped short upon seeing Amira's face.
"What happened to you? Fall onto a rock again?" He asked, trying to make a joke, but she could see he could sense something was wrong.
That was when he noticed Odala, still turned away, hunched over and clutching at her side.
"What… happened?" He started; when Odala didn't answer he moved in front of her trying to see her face. She finally glanced up and Amira heard the sharp intake of a gasp from Thad.
"What the— Who did this to you?" He looked concerned as he put a hand on her shoulder.
Odala just looked away, silent. Thad jerked his head up to look at Amira. He moved quickly, coming over angrily, "who?!" He demanded, his face inches from Amira's.
"Holko. And some other boys." Amira mumbled. She knew better than to keep Thad waiting when he was upset.
Thad walked around aimlessly, his hand ruffling his hair as he shook his head, trying to process it.
"I'm going to kill him." The intensity in his voice scared Amira.
"Thad, you're only going to make things wor—" Amira tried to reply before Thad yelled in her face.
"Don't. Just don't. Just shut up." Amira winced as drops of spittle hit her face.
Amira had seen Thad angry, but never like this. There was something feral in his eyes. A need that Amira didn't understand. Odala finally moved and took his hand.
"Stop," she whispered, her voice nearly floating away on the wind that rustled Amira's disheveled braid.
Thad's composure immediately relaxed. Odala turned to face him. Amira didn't know why but she felt the need to give them privacy. She wondered over to the edge of the pond. The stars reflected off the water, calming Amira's nerves until she felt numb.
"Hey," the voice she heard seemed so far away, as if she was underwater, "you alright?"
She turned to see Jayder, unharmed, the only sign of his struggle was a few locks of hair out of place.
"Um, yeah, I guess." She managed. Her bones ached. She was so tired. And to think they still had to walk all the way home…
"Let me see your eye," She felt Jayder tilted her head up as he studied her eye, his touch too warm, his face too close, "it doesn't look as bad as it probably feels. You'll have a nice black eye though. Here, come on. Let's go find your parents. I'm sure they'll want to take you home."
Amira was too tired to even process what was happening as his hand slipped into hers, gently leading her away.
"She fell. On a rock?" Amira's mother asked incredulously, "and you saw it?" She looked to Jayder.
"Yes. I'm happy I was there to help her. Nasty fall and all…" Jayder trailed off.
"I see. Well, thank you for helping her. I'll get Nariam. She and her father are staying to help clean up. We'll take Nariam's cart back. And we can put you," pointed to Amira, "in the cart with your brother."
A short while later, Amira was cramped among baskets and her brother. The smooth movements of the cart lulled her to sleep.
She awoke as her mother stopped the cart in the back of their house. She felt her brother's warmth leave her; she assumed her mother had taken Desaquin inside.
"Here, let me help you," she felt Jayder take her hands, hauling her up, her feet felt clumsy as exhaustion took over her. She stumbled as she got off the cart, almost falling. Jayder kept her upright. She felt weightless as his arms wrap around, lifting her to his chest. He was so warm she couldn't help but curl up against him, her head finding his neck. The next thing she knew was that she was carefully set down on her bed next to Desaquin and as much as she wanted to say goodbye to Jayder, she fell into unconsciousness once more.
A fog. A shadow. A shape.
Amira began to see as the haze lifted. Her mind was abruptly clear. She looked around and found nothing around her. She peered ahead to see the sole shape in front of her becoming more prominent.
It was a boy.
He was older. Maybe even older than Jayder by a year or two. Amira walked forward; the strange boy had noticed her. She stopped a few feet away. They studied one another.
At first she didn't recognize him. Then she noted his dark hair that had grown much longer, falling around his pale face that was freckled with moles. He had grown nearly a foot taller than she had; his lanky frame swathed in layers of black fabric, hiding his skin. What she recalled the most was his dark brown eyes that used to hold sadness and uncertainty. That uncertainty still lingered but the sadness had been replaced with something more menacing.
She could feel him. The emotions that he never bothered to hide. His emotions felt like a volatile mix as if at any second they would explode. What were once feelings of hope and goodness were now sinister with something lurking beneath: a darkness that took her breath away.
She had never remained in the dream this long. One of them had always disappeared before either could do or say anything. She hesitated before crossing the gap between them. Now as they stood closer, she could feel his darkness spreading, worming its way into her mind. She fought it, let her own emotions fight it. She could feel it reach him, feel the anger he felt because of it, though his face remained neutral.
Amira wanted to know who this boy was. Why was he here? Why now? After so many years absent? She called to him, her voice echoing out, much louder than it seemed possible.
Despite her voice, he remained the same, as if he didn't hear her. She repeated. Still, nothing changed. She reached out a hand to grab his shoulder but her hand came short, hitting an invisible wall. She moved her hand up, down, and around. Still, the barrier held. She called out again, quieter this time. His brows furrowed. She realized he could see her lips moving but he couldn't hear her.
She felt a rush of his emotions fall over her. She felt lonely and hopelessly lost. A struggle she didn't fully understand. The forces of this insufferable darkness and a… light? She could feel the light all around her. She pushed it, trying to rip him from the darkness that loomed. His anger sparked before the feelings of utter loss overcame him. His face contorted into anguish. She could see fear in his eyes. His control was slipping and it terrified him.
Amira's loose, dark brown hair fell over her shoulder as she tried to communicate with her eyes that it was okay. She knew that he could feel her. He didn't resist her this time. She felt a surrender and subtly, an acceptance.
She held her hand up, her fingers slightly splayed, her palm placed firmly on the invisible barrier between them. She tried with all her might to communicate with him, that it would be okay. He looked down at her hand, and slowly he brought up his own, his fingertips touching the other side of the barrier where her hand would have been.
Together they stood there like that, seeking solace in each other, strangers that understood one another…
Amira moved and slowly opened her eyes. Sunlight was filtering in the room. Her brother and parents were absent. Judging by the height of the sun on the window she had slept in. She gazed at the beam of sunlight crossing the room, watching the particles lazily floating in it.
The boy… she closed her eyes, the dream lingering behind them, burned into her head like a memory. It had been years since she had seen the boy. He used to be happy and mischievous when the dreams had begun in Amira's early years. Over time, the dreams became more rare. She remembered from the few she had that he seemed to grow taller each time and something in him changed.
At first, she thought he had acquired the subtle quietness of maturity, but then she could sense something was amiss with him. First, it had been fear, then it had slowly transformed into an anger that fed the dark thoughts that slowly seemed to be consuming him. The despair in his eyes still haunted her.
"Finally awake, I see," Amira snapped open her eyes, jumping at the sound of her mother's voice, "are you hungry? I have some stew ready."
Amira got up, and her head began to pound. She went to rub her eyes and flinched at the pain. Memories of the fight came back to her.
"…we found ourselves a Scath," Holko's malicious voice rang out in Amira's thoughts.
The curtains were drawn and the room was bright, making her head hurt worse as she took a seat at the table. The room felt stifled from the heat. It was another hot day. Amira ate her chilled stew in silence, barely tasting it, deep in thought about yesterday's events. When she set her bowl back on the table, her mother broke the silence.
"What really happened last night, Amira?"
Amira shuffled in her seat. She wanted to lie but she knew at this point it wouldn't do her any good. Her mother saw right through her and Jayder's feeble pretext.
"Some boys were picking on Odala and she got in a fight. I tried to help her…" Amira studied her hands, noticing a scab had formed where her knuckle had split.
"Did you know these boys?" Her mother interrogated.
Amira shook her head, not meeting her mother's gaze.
"Amira…?" Her mother pressed.
"Only one of them. It was… Holko."
Her mother sat back in her chair, "I'll have to tell Odala's parents. She doesn't look too good. Holko's parent's need to know what their son has done."
Amira played absentmindedly with her spoon.
"What does 'scath' mean?" Amira asked.
Her mother paused, like she was choosing her words, "there's a criminal group in Nal'Com called the Scathed. We don't hear much about them here in Pal'qui but in the larger districts they make the holonews quite a bit."
"One of the boys called Odala a scath. Is she part of it?"
"No. Odala's grandfather was an ex-scath. He came here to make a new life for himself. Your grandparents were good friends with him. I remember he used to give me sweets his wife would make," her mother smiled lightly at the memory, "but our people and many other's do not like the scathed. They steal and hurt people."
"What happened to her grandfather?" Amira knew that Odala never got the chance to meet him, she only ever said that he had died when she was a baby.
Her mother's face pinched, "one night, a group of angry Pal'qui boys attacked him."
"So they… killed him?" Amira assessed quietly.
Her mother nodded, pausing before continuing, "yet another example of why I think our people's closed-minded views do more harm than good. That's why I've always tried to teach you to be open-minded to the differences in people."
"I thought the other kids gave Odala funny looks and picked on her because she had light skin and hair," Amira asked, peering down at her own dark olive arms, "but is it because of her family's history?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, her family will never truly be a part of the Qui'al because of the prejudices that our people have. I thought that perhaps your generation could change that. Maybe if more children thought like you did our world would be a much better place. I'm proud you stand up for your friends when they need you," her mother stood up, going to a cabinet in the corner, "speaking of which," she came back with a bottle of dark green paste, "let's take a look at that eye."
The sun was nearly at its peak in the sky when Amira arrived on the Lorsen's doorstep. Odala's mother came to greet her at the door.
"You're mother told me about what you said what happened last night. I appreciate the honesty. I couldn't for the life of me get Odala to talk about it."
"Is she here?" Amira asked.
"She's out back."
Amira found Odala in the middle of chopping wood.
"Hey." Amira began, unsure of what to say.
Odala didn't immediately respond, instead, she placed another log on top of an old stump. She swung her arms up and the ax came down hard on the wood. Chink .
Odala still didn't look at her as she placed another log, but she did mumble a greeting quietly.
"How are you?" Amira asked.
"How do you think?" Odala jerked her head up, her tone sharp.
Odala recovered quick, "I'm sorry. I'm just a little," she brought the ax down, " emotional ."
Amira opened her mouth to reply, but Odala cut her off, her eyes softening as she spoke, "thanks. For yesterday."
"I knew you'd do the same for me. Only I wouldn't be the one to throw the first punch…" Amira joked lightly.
Odala smirked, "yeah well, the kriff had it coming, didn't he?"
Amira's eyes widened at her cursing. They both started to laugh.
"Hey! Glad I found you two here!" Thad shouted as he ran over to them.
His eyes were bright with excitement. Odala leaned on her ax, "what's up with you? You look like a school girl who just got kissed by her crush."
"Shut it," Thad fired back before running his mouth faster than Amira had seen him do in a long time, "me and Truk decided to try and track where that ship flew to last night. You are never going to believe what we found!"
Odala gave a dramatic sigh, "let me guess? You want us to go there."
"Duh!" Thad exclaimed, "come on! Let's go."
"That's like at least a two hour walk, isn't it? Hello!" Odala waved a hand over her body, "I'm a little sore."
"I know, but I swear this will make everything better!" Thad was itching to move.
Odala rolled her eyes to Amira.
Amira shrugged, "Why not?"
Odala stuck a finger a Thad, "You have to help me put this wood away. Amira, I'll tell my mom we'll be gone for awhile. She can tell your mom if she starts wondering where you are."
Amira's feet ached as it seemed they had been walking forever through the Ollothan. Odala, ever the trooper, never once asked to stop for a break, though Amira had noticed she had slowed down a bit.
Right as Amira was about to ask Thad if they were going the right way, he halted, Odala cursing as she ran into him.
"Okay, so we're basically here. Stick close to me and stay low and really quiet." Thad said, dropping his voice to a whisper.
Amira felt a twinge in her stomach, "Are we not suppose to be seen?"
"Let's just say we're not technically suppose to be here," Thad said with a wicked grin.
Amira swallowed hard. She felt dizzy suddenly, her intuition kicking to life, screaming at her that this was clearly a bad idea. Thad saw her face and rolled his eyes.
"Come on already," Thad shrugged, "Or you can just stay here and wait for us to get back and tell you all about it."
Amira heard the mockery in his tone. She squared her shoulders, willing the voice inside her to go away, "No. I'm coming."
They followed Thad as he suggested, low and quiet. The forest here was thick with ferns that came to Amira's waist.
"Now, seriously, stay as low as you can. I'll put my hand up when it's time to stop. Hide in the ferns," Thad whispered. As they continued forward, Amira picked up the distant echo of noises: people yelling to each other and the distinct sound of machines.
Thad threw up his hand and they all halted. Amira moved to crouch beside Odala. She moved the fern fronds aside and gasped at what she saw.
They were hiding at the top of a valley and down below the trees had been completely cleared for almost as far as Amira could see. The ground in the clearing had been stripped of all vegetation, the land like a brown scar. Several massive metal machines ripped at the earth as people ran back and forth, shuttling hovercrafts filled with chunks of rock to a pile nearly as tall as the machines. Temporary living spaces had been erected all around.
Amira noticed that many of the people working were thin and dirty. They were under supervision by others who stood close by, watching them work, large blaster guns in hand. She watched as a man collapsed trying to haul a large stone. One of the armed men went over and instead of helping the man to his feet he kicked him in the side, yelling at him.
"They're using slave labor…" Odala whispered watching the same scene Amira was.
"But… that's illegal, isn't it?" Amira said, the disbelief of what see saw echoed in her voice.
Amira's eye traveled to a group of identical soldiers marching together, their faces and bodies swallowed up by gleaming white armor that shone in the dingy landscape around them.
"Those are… Stormtroopers?!" Amira exclaimed rather loudly, causing the other two to shush her.
"They were here earlier when I found the place," Thad explained, "there were more of them too. I wonder where the rest are…"
As if to answer his question they heard a low, mechanical voice in the near distance.
"Sector Three. Clear. Moving on to Sector Four."
Amira froze as one of the troopers walked in front of them no more than three yards away. The trooper paused, adjusting his armor before heading the other direction.
"Okay, time to go. Now." Thad said, his eyes wide with alarm.
"Follow me!" Odala said as she started to make her way through the undergrowth, making sure to stay low in the ferns.
Amira followed. No more than a few minutes went past and then they heard the undergrowth shuttering as more approached. This time there were three. Amira and the others froze in place. Amira desperately hoped the fern's movement hadn't given them away.
The troopers paused, one of them looking down at a device in their hands. The other troopers were already walking away before the other called out to them.
"Wait. The scanner is picking up something. Looks like lifeforms."
"What? No way. Must be a glitch." One trooper, a man by the sound of it, made his way back and yanked the scanner from the other's hand, knocking it against his armor.
"That's no glitch. Right. Spread out. Search the area."
The three troopers split up and they all were heading in the direction where Amira and the other's were hiding. Amira felt her pulse pounding in her head. She held her breath and didn't dare move. She was helpless as one of the troopers walked right in front of her. She was thankful the ferns were so tall here and that the troopers seemed to be looking out instead of down. She was eye level with the trooper's gun.
"I don't see anything. Let's keep going. Probably some of those damn creatures we saw last night again." The trooper said, the voice sounding feminine under the mechanical distortion.
As the trooper turned to walk away, Odala stepped back, snapping a branch in the process. The troopers all turned and Thad whispered, "run!"
Odala and Thad took off before Amira had a chance to gather what was happening. The troopers yelled out and one fired a few shots. Amira knew she wouldn't be able to follow the same path. She took off in the other direction. Completely disorientated, she ran. She could hear a trooper behind her, yelling for her to halt. Blaster shots seared past her, connecting into tree trunks and undergrowth, causing grit to fly in her face.
She veered left and before she could stop herself she was tumbling down a steep ravine. Winded, she paused when she came to a stop, only to heave herself up as scorching bolts of plasma rained down around her. She saw a patch of thick bushes ahead and ducked as she tore her way into them, hoping desperately they would conceal her. The branches snagged at her clothing and her skin burned with scrapes. She felt a tug around her neck. She was stuck. She heard that awful mechanical voice ring out somewhere behind her. She had to move or else she'd be trapped. She felt a panicked cry rising in her throat as she gave one last tug. She was free. She ripped herself out of the bushes and took off, slipping on a patch of moss. She was certain she had lost them. She kept going, stealing a glance behind her, only to see a trooper making their way toward her. She whipped her head around and cried out as something smacked her in the face. Falling to the ground, her head ringing, a pain bloomed somewhere behind her eyes. She blinked, clearing her vision, only to find herself staring into the barrel of a blaster.
"Don't move!" The trooper looming over her commanded.
She was caught.