For the first time in its short history, Witchmoat bustled. People in Republic uniforms milled around the town, sometimes helping to set up new security systems, often looking up in wonder at the thick jungle the village lived in renewed harmony with. There were a few unique characters around, too. Worrex, the good-natured Hutt, had stayed behind with a few former hirelings to help the village take full and efficient control over their lumber mills, and had even offered a personal engineer to tear up and re-work the useless pleasure skiff into a wood hauler at his cost.
His brother was still on-world, as well. A storage tank had been quickly refitted into a temporary holding grid, with Voontu often found peering out at the ruins of his 'empire.' The Republic judiciary was humoring Worrex's request to hold at least part of the criminal investigation and trial on site, although his suggestion of certain rehabilitative criminal reforms for his brother were harder fights that would go on for days to come. Mo Deera, bemused by the kind Hutt, was at least hearing him out. Fadilan was less impressed, which was reasonable. However, Fadilan was also looking forward to the strong chance the Republic was going to remand the low-orbit port to him, and help fund the education plan he still had uploaded in its banks.
The other new faction left a riddle for the villagers. They acted like they might be some particularly eccentric group of archaeologists, whispering to each other and studying marks in the trees around the old Nightsister hut, but they didn't touch much. Also, they seemed to be waiting for someone important to arrive. The village took gentlemens' bets on who - a planetary governor to be assigned to them, perhaps?
The Mandalorian and his child were gone. They'd stayed one more night, shifting around in the quiet places that popped up as the Republic moved in, and the strange little child and Dyrric played with each other as Dyrric tried to explain to him why he was so sad. Losing a friend, even for good reasons, always hurt. Perhaps the child understood, but he still seemed happy when he hugged his new friend goodbye.
It wasn't until after he'd wiped away his last tears that the boy realized his friend had pressed something small and light into his hand. A strange crystal, taken from the hut that one day they'd gone to look at it. The child had taken something from the mysterious chests, after all. Dyrric kept it with him now, in his pocket, worried about its presence and already missing his friend. He doubted the accidental trade they'd done was a fair one - the plush old toy for this possibly magic crystal.
The Mandalorian hadn't seemed thrilled about the porg toy, though. That was kinda weird. At least Mo and Jerrit had shared a good laugh at him over it.
. . .
The important arrival was nothing anyone expected. She swept into the village in a long red robe, the hood of it thrown back to show gleaming hair, grey skin and darker marks along a face that gave no hint of her true age. She smiled easily at the knot of villagers that met her arrival, and clapped her hands together at the sight of the old hut, obviously delighted by it somehow. Her accent was unusual, clipped off in a way the villagers had never heard before. "Oh my, it's so alive!"
"Ma'am," said one of the strange researchers waiting for her. "The innkeeper's been watching over it. This is Jerrit."
She turned to Jerrit with a smile. "You've done well as a guardian."
Jerrit lowered his eyes, his hand resting lightly on his son's shoulder. "If I may be honest, ma'am, I think my son's done almost more."
Dyrric winced, knowing it was both a chide and an attempt to explain to the new arrival why anything might have been broken in there. Jerrit had taken his 'adventure' well enough, in context. He had wept, and he had hugged the boy, and then he had hugged Fala Deera and the old sniper for keeping him safe. Dyrric didn't understand why he hadn't gotten yelled at more. Just the crying, and more hugs after. He'd probably figure it out when he was older. "I didn't do anything to it, it was just too neat to leave alone. I just liked to play there sometimes, I-"
The strange lady bent down, reached out, and gently tapped his nose, giggling. "It's fine! I can tell its protections welcomed you, and it liked you very much. Shelish likes to play the mean old sister, but she hides a fine, strong heart deep inside her chest."
"Shelish?" Dyrric looked up at her. "Was she the witch who lived here?" He blinked, putting a guess together and coming up with something too awesome to contain. He almost squealed it. "Are you a witch?"
"Dyrric!" Jerrit sounded less furious and more like he was about to faint dead out.
"Yes, I am, young man!" She tapped his nose again and stood up, enjoying his look of awe and near worship. "My name is Merrin. I am a Nightsister of Dathomir, and these good people are helping me recover little bits my sisters left around the galaxy. So I may remember them, and gather them home."
Dyrric began to wriggle out of his father's stunned grasp. "Oh wow, oh great, that's so - who was there with her, there's this fur all over, and what sort of herbs do witches grow, and-"
"Dyrric!" It sounded defeated under the peals of Merrin's merry laughter. "Ma'am, I'm so sorry."
"It's fine, I assure you. I like enthusiastic people. My homeworld spent long years in glum and lonely shadow, and each day among you is a treasure I bring home to relight it. It's been a long journey, but a good one." Merrin crossed her arms and studied Dyrric. "Shelish is still roaming quietly, though I know she is safe. Old and grumpy, but safe. Like me, she found a certain kindness in a magic others dismissed as destined for darkness alone. She did have a friend, last I knew. I will need to see the fur to be sure, because they are not as easy to sense through our magic, but it is likely to be Wookie fur."
Dyrric gawped. Wookies! Oh, this was too awesome a day!
"His name is Owacchi, and he too is doing well." She cocked her head, happy to give him even more to be excited about. "He used to be a pirate, you know. The two of them used to help smugglers, ones that didn't like the Empire very much."
The boy practically shook, his mouth a frozen O.
She put her hands on her hips, becoming formal. "Innkeeper Jerrit, I should like to go take a look at my sister's hut. And I could use a guide. May I hire your son for the afternoon, to show me the little treasures he has seen within?"
Dyrric swept his face up to his father's, nakedly begging for permission. Jerrit, like the Mandalorian, knew when a battle shouldn't be fought. He sighed. "Dyrric, just be careful. And please don't get in the Sister's way."
. . .
Dyrric did his best, even staying behind and to her side. Sometimes he touched the crystal in his pocket, as if for luck, noticing it felt strangely warm. Once, when he did it, he thought Merrin noticed somehow, despite the fact that she was busily naming herb mixtures for a recording device in her hand.
He showed her around, asking about the big purple banner - it was the Dathomirian flag! - and the way the vines seemed to creep around the whole hut in a shield, and the way the wind didn't quite flow right around the hut, as if the hut was telling the weather what it wanted.
According to Merrin, that was exactly what it was doing.
He realized he was getting nervous as she got closer to the boxes that used to be sealed, over in the corner by the remaining potions, and his palms were sweaty and ticklish.
"Did you play here alone?"
"Usually. The other kids were scared of it. Their parents told them it was bad."
Merrin nodded. "Well, that's us adults for you, sometimes too cautious." She turned and tipped him a conspiratorial wink. "But there were a couple with you sometimes. One of them left a trail."
A knot hit his stomach. Had something bad happened? "A… trail?"
"More like a presence. See, Dyrric, my magic is a little like something called the Force. People often think my magic is automatically evil, and the Force is good. But nothing is quite that simple, you know."
He nodded. Of course!
"One of your friends is very strong in the Force. I don't sense them in the village, were they just a visitor, then?"
"He… he was." Dyrric liked this lady, she seemed really nice, but it also seemed smart somehow to protect his little friend. After all, how does a kid that small get a dad like a Mandalorian?
She smiled, trying to put him at ease. "The magic here tells me about them. A curious little shape, talking to it, listening back."
Him? The little one couldn't talk at all!
She saw his confusion. "In a way. But the magic here tells me something changed when this other child was here. Is that true?"
He bit his lip.
Merrin went to him and knelt on one knee, reaching out until he gave her one of his hands. "Young one, you are in no trouble, and your nameless friend will never find danger from me. I am no hunter, and I do no harm, except when I must save another. Something… happened in here. Shelish left a spell behind, a seal waiting for a day when others might need something she left. And that seal is telling me that day came. Can you tell me about it?"
Dyrric looked at her face and trusted his instincts. His other hand fished around in his pocket and found the little crystal the child had given to him. He held it for a moment, feeling its lively warmth, as if his friend was still here, and then unfolded his hand to show it to her.
Merrin breathed softly, shocked. She let go of his other hand and gently cupped this one, studying the crystal. "Your friend found this in here?"
Dyrric nodded, silent.
"In the chests by the table?"
"Were there more in them?" He nodded forcefully. The one chest he'd seen, it was like the old stories of hidden treasure, with goodies everywhere! "Many more. My goodness." She closed his hand around the crystal, gently pushing it back towards him. "I'm going to call to one of my assistants, so when I sound loud, don't be scared. Yes?"
He nodded again, still wincing when she sang out a name, touched with that strange magic of hers to boost the call. A young man popped into the door a moment later. "Mistress?"
"Please bring the Deera ladies, Jerrit, and the Republic adjutant in charge, immediately. Tell them this is a direct request from me. I want this to be in clear sight." She continued to gently hold Dyrric's hand, waiting for them to arrive.
When they did, she let the boy's hand go and straightened up. She nodded to each arrival in turn. "Thank you. Now, the reason I am asking you to be present is for purposes of your village's future and the legacy it was granted. This will be official record."
Mo Deera tugged nervously at the collar of her tunic. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything is excellent." Merrin smiled. "I want to be certain your village is credited and honored for its treasure." She didn't wait for a response and went to the small, unlocked chests, picking one up and gasping a little at its heft. She then turned to the village leadership and the Republic justiciar, lifting the lid so that all could see the glittering trove threatening to overspill just this one of three chests alone.
"They're beautiful," said Jerrit, still looking puzzled. "Lady Merrin?"
"They are more than beautiful," said Merrin, proud. "They are kyber crystals, and they are so rare now, because of the war, that there is a gentle sort of 'bounty' on any such discovery." She closed the lid of the chest and placed it on the old wooden table. "By law of the New Republic, Witchmoat is the keeper of a priceless cache. I will make some communications, and when they are done, you will be part of a new and interesting future. The crystals are yours, by this law, and by this gift left behind by my sister. The day will come when a new order may need them, and you will, between then and now, be both honored and repaid for this gift that you hold in trust for them."
"I don't fully understand," said Mo, flat-voiced in surprise. Her sister took her hand, laughing softly in delight.
Merrin laughed along. "From this day forward, Lady Deera, Witchmoat is going to stay very, very busy indeed. Innkeeper Jerrit, your son speaks well of your business. You may have to consider an expansion much earlier than you ever expected." She clapped, just as she had when she arrived. "Oh, my old friend's going to be so excited to hear about this!"
A voice coiled gently, beautifully inside of Dyrric's mind as Merrin's fingers twitched with mystic grace. And the crystal your friend gave you, that is to be forever yours alone. Remember your friend with it, and know that, in this small way, he helped your village almost as much as this mysterious mercenary no one seems to want to talk about.
Dyrric started and looked up at the smiling witch who would ask him no questions about that secret, a moment for the two of them alone.
. . .
Din Djarin sighed heavily, one booted foot up on the console of the Crest, the other tapping idly along the cockpit floor. He tilted his head at the sound of the gurgle behind him, the noise of hands patting at something soft.
That fragging, horrifying, staring toy. The porg.
Well, the kid did need more things to play with. That was unavoidable. And the kid was happy with it. He couldn't actually begrudge the gift, but damn if he had to like it. Oh well. Maybe the bean would glom onto something else eventually. Sooner, if he were lucky, rather than later.
"Yeah, I know. I wish we could have stayed longer, too. That was a good kid. Great inn. But at least we got all the laundry done, right?"
"Look, not everything about being a bounty hunter is shootouts and and following trails and getting crime lords arrested. Sometimes it's boring old adult upkeep." He snorted. "You'll understand someday."
Deeper, displeased. "Mehhh!"
"I know, right?" He took his boot off the console with another sigh and looked at his options. With a full fuel gauge and a little extra in storage - the villagers wouldn't let him refuse - he had his pick of the galaxy's lanes this time out. "There's supposedly some genetic libraries out there, a lot of them were Imp strongholds but they might have some clues about your people. Geonosis, Kamino, some weird places in the center of the galaxy."
The child made a gurgling noise.
"I'm not tickled about any of those, either." He didn't bother to suppress a shudder. The clones. The damn droids. "We'll keep them towards the bottom of the list for now." He flicked through a list he'd been putting together, muttering the names to himself. None of them were important, but all of them would be a new start.
The child puttered his way out of his seat and put himself next to Din, dragging his toy with him. He reached up and tapped at the display.
Din reached down and gently picked him up under the arms, settling the foundling on his lap. The child cooed and tapped at the shiny, scrolling screen again. "Oh no, you're not picking out our destination."
"I let you pick last time and look what happened!"
The child partially swiveled in his lap and gave him a solid blat of accusal. The porg toy smushed into his beskar plate, a hostile charge of the worst kind.
"You can burp at me all you want, but I'm gonna choose where we go this time." Din gave the child a squeeze to show he was only teasing and there were no hard feelings, and then, on a whim, he picked a destination and let the Razor Crest rip off into the welcome depths of space.
Only the two of them again. At least for now.
It was enough.
See you, space cowboy…