"Here." Luke handed him the canteen again. "So how'd you get yourself in such a predicament anyhow?"
"It's a long story, kid." The man, Han Solo, had a boyish charm that came through the veneer of cynicism and the devil-may-care attitude. He wore what looked like the remains of a navy uniform; a white shirt and blue trousers with a stripe.
"We've got time," Luke shrugged. "You aren't ready to travel yet."
"No." Han shuddered. "When I saw that carbon-freezing chamber, I thought I'd never travel on my own power again." He breathed out. "Right. Find yourself a chair and I'll tell you the whole sad story."
Artoo made a strange sound. Threepio turned to him. "What ever would make you think that, Artoo? Does Mr. Solo even look like he is getting ready to sing?"
"The trouble started back when I was a dashing young Ensign in the Corellian Space Navy, and in love with a winkie maiden."
"What's a Winkie?" Luke wanted to know. He wondered if they were cute.
"No, she was as Corellian as I am. I meant she like to wink at other guys. We had a little talk about that. The problem was, her dad was an Admiral. Dad didn't think much of me, and he had me framed for theft then cashiered out of the Navy."
"How terrible!" Threepio said.
"Imagine how I felt," Han said dryly. "So I was left on my own with nothing but my wits and what the Navy had taught me. No-one believed I was innocent, not even my winkie girl, and work was hard to come by. I shipped on a tramp out to a no-where dirt planet I can't even remember the name of, worked dockside, and finally got a proper berth as navigator on a tekel-wood smuggler."
"She never believed you, Han?" Luke asked quietly. "Did you ever stop loving her?"
"I stopped caring, kid. She was the first thing I closed out of my heart. Bit by bit, then, I built a wall around myself. I took work on smugglers, I helped slip cyber-comps from Farbletoff and traded blaster shots with company security, I was one of the ships providing cover when the Ascendant of Neberdine was kidnapped and held for ransom.
"I was going to be as hard as battle-steel, as cold as space, and as forgiving as a blaster bolt in the gut. I made myself into as much a robot as a man can be. No insult intended," he offered to the two droids.
"Oh, no, no, not at all," Threepio said. "Don't concern yourself with us, Master Solo."
"I wasn't going to." Solo took another deep breath. "I was building my own carbon-freezing chamber without even knowing it," he said. "I made myself a notorious smuggler, but I had to seek out the Hutt, too. I offered a deal to Jaba that I couldn't deliver on. As careful and as paranoid as I was, I didn't even see Boba Fett coming."
At that moment he took a guarded look around. "What happened to him, by the way?"
"I sorta accidentally...a landing pod fell on him," Luke told him.
"Good." Han raised the canteen again. His eyes were hooded.
"Han..." Luke said suddenly. "It doesn't have to be that way."
"What's that, kid?" The smuggler looked warily at him.
"What I meant...Han, we are trying to get to the Emerald City. There are Imperials all over this world and they are holding a member of the Royal House of Alderan prisoner. We have to reach the Great Jedi of Oz and ask for help."
"What's that to do with me?"
Luke jumped to his feet. "Look around you, Han! There are people who need you! Now are you going to help or not?"
"Kid, I take care of one person and one person only, and that's me!"
"Fine. Fine then! Threepio, it's time for us to get going. We've got a long journey ahead of us." The boy clattered to his feet, angry at Han, and upset with himself for getting angry with Han.
They got outside, Luke covering his eyes against the brightness of even this shady forest after the dim confines of Slave-1. He pulled the direction finder out, toggled the control, got a soft beep and a yellow line that still pointed, he hoped, towards the Emerald City and the chance to rescue the Princess.
"Come on, Threepio," he said. The golden droid followed unsteadily across the forest floor.
"Hey," a voice said quietly.
The boy turned. The man they had unthawed from the carbonite block was in the hatch of the crash-landed spacecraft. "You think you could use the help of a Heartless Space Pirate? Then I'm yours."
"I thought you were a smuggler, not a pirate? Welcome to the group, Han."
The boy looked down at the device in his hands. "Follow the bright yellow line," he said to himself. "Follow the bright yellow line."
. . . . . .
The forest did not get bright and cheerful. Indeed, it got darker and more mysterious as they walked. Han took to walking on the outside, and he patted the blaster on his hip more than once.
"You expecting to use that, Han?" Luke asked.
"Always good to be prepared," the smuggler replied. "There might be all kinds of wild animals in these woods."
"Wild animals!" Threepio yelped. "Animals that eat...droids?" His metal knees were rattling like castanets.
"I've been around the galaxy and seen some pretty strange things," Han told the droid, cocking an eyebrow in a sardonic look. "But what I meant was animals like were-tigers, hexapumas and bugbears."
"Oh, my," the droid said.
Artoo added a comment.
"Oh, my," Threepio said again.
"Would you two stop with that!" Han said sharply.
"Oh, my. That is, my apologies, Master Solo."
"Just keep it quiet back there, okay? It's like traveling with a comedy team."
At that moment Luke stopped dead. The others almost ran into him. "Kid..." Han solo started to say.
"Wait," Luke hissed. "I sense something."
"You SENSE something? What are you, some kind of Boy Jedi?"
"That's not what I meant, Han, I just..."
And that was when the cowled figure stepped into the path before them.
His Imperial Lord Darth Vader, Sith Lord, Dark Jedi, Master of All He Surveyed (or nearly all) looked at the planetary data scans the An Suc Ran's automatics had picked up before it crashed on Oz, and scowled.
Or at least, he appeared to look, and to scowl. In the great black machine helmet he wore he might have been rolling his eyes and giggling inanely for all anyone knew.
Probably not. He was eight feet tall and black as space and the only person in the galaxy that was more evil than he was the Emperor himself. Evil wasn't a matter of looks; it was a matter of deeds. You didn't have to look far to find evil deeds. A few rooms over a royal Princess sat disconsolate in heavy chains.
On the other hand, anyone who had been the object of Her Highness's sarcasm for the last six months might find themselves not entirely unsympathetic to Lord Vader.
"There is a disturbance in The Force," Vader said in a dark voice, low enough to be heard by submarines. "I have not sensed its like since last I stood in the presence of my old roommate."
. . . . . .
All Luke could see was dark cloak; the stranger's face was hidden in shadow. The stranger moved deliberately into the path before them. One gaunt hand lifted slowly. "This is not the path you're looking for," he said and made an odd little wave.
"What is, this?" Han asked, doing the hand thing back at the stranger.
"You should go about your business," the stranger said. He made the gesture again, a little sharper.
"All right, I've had enough." Han hauled out his blaster and pointed it at the cloaked figure. "Now if you would just..."
What happened next happened very fast. In a blur, the stranger moved. A glowing wand materialized in his hand. Han's blaster spoke with a crack of sound and light. And glowing wand met blaster bolt in a sudden coruscation that knocked everyone back a step. Luke's own lightsabre was in his hand before he thought about it, the steely blue of the blade forming before his eyes as if summoned there.
"Whoa, whoa!" the stranger gasped. He fell back with one hand out, the other clutching at his chest. His lightsabre went off and he felt for a seat on a handy tree root with one hand as the other pushed back the cowl of his cloak.
"Whew!" The stranger said. He was still panting, and his hand had returned to clutching his chest. "I don't think I'd want to try that trick a second time! Now put away that blaster, young fellow, before someone gets hurt...namely me!"
He had a kindly, aged face framed by grey beard and uncombed hair. His voice was now cultured and mellow.
"Who are you?" Luke blurted out.
"Ben Kenobi," the stranger said. "I used to be a Jedi Knight."
"Jedi knight. Riiiight. You know, for an order that is supposed to be extinct there seems to be an awful lot of you fellows on this planet."
"I told you, Han, I'm not a Jedi."
"Never thought you were, kid."
They glared at each other. The stranger coughed respectfully.
"And you!" Han spun back. "Some mystic warrior you are! You're more like a spineless coward!"
"Quite right, quite right," Ben said with an added quaver in his voice. "I'm a coward. How do you think I got to be one of the last of the Jedi Knights? By seeking out danger?"
"Well, that's a damn pity," Han said dripping sarcasm. "Because, you see, this boy and these droids are on a fool's errand to rescue some kind of Princess right out from under the Imperial's noses. A real live Jedi Knight would be a big help."
"Well, sorry I can't help." Ben said. He stood up briskly. "I have to be going," he said. "I'm just a washed-up old man. There's no heroism left in me."
Han rolled his eyes. "Good riddance," he said.
Luke's expression was thoughtful. He seemed to be puzzling over something. "Oh!" he said suddenly as he realized Ben was almost gone. "Hey, wait!" he said. "That trick...that trick with parrying a blaster with your lightsabre. Is there any way you could teach that to me?"
Ben stopped walking. He stood still, then, his head slightly up. An odd, distant look was in his eyes. The wind rustled in the forest. "Young Luke," he said at last. His voice had a strange far-away quality too, yet there was a firmness in it that had not been there before. He frowned slightly as if grasping something that he should have known before.
"Yes," he said quietly. He had not yet turned, but was still looking into the distance. "I will teach you."