Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall, but by those who fought, fell and rose again - unknown
I don't go to funerals. They seem pointless. Watching a body burn on a pyre isn't exactly fun. You know there's nothing there anymore, yet, you cannot help but feel... that's got to sting a little.
I hadn't known the woman on the pyre very long, four years at the most. Though, I'd never known anyone better. Maybe I'd never been as close to someone. I was born on a backwater planet, never knew my father since he was at war from the day I was born and watched my mother die when I was young. Since then it was just me and my quick thinking. Or so I liked to believe.
I met the old woman when I was eighteen. I stole from her as she stood in front of a market stall, all dark robes and serious face, her grey hair in a long plait. She didn't even notice me slipping my hand into the crease of her robes and finding something rolled up, material perhaps.
I made a fast get away and then ran when it was safe to do so, all the way to the abandoned temple where my sort hid sometimes. That's what happens. The gods abandon the temples and it's the thieves and other ungodly sorts that move in.
Inside, I opened my fist to find the black material, neatly rolled and tied. When I opened it, I found it held nothing of value. Nothing at all. It was an old worn out patch of some kind, a familiar symbol taking up the circular span.
"Great. Worthless piece of-"
"To you perhaps."
I spun around to see her, the old woman. Her face seemed so rigid I imagined she'd never smiled in her whole life. Her eyes were on the patch in my hand.
"You're very good," she said smoothly. "I almost didn't see you stealing from me. Well done. Haven't felt my age in a while."
I shrugged, trying not to look afraid. I mean, she was old. What could she do? You know, unless she had a weapon under that cloak. Which... well, I later found out she didn't. But she could have, which is why I said, "Here, take it. I don't want it."
I held it out and she stepped forward, taking the patch and looking at it, her mouth quirking a little, like she might smile. "That's very short-sighted of you. If this was worth nothing, I wouldn't have followed you here. You could have bargained with me."
I snorted. "Right. And you could blow my head off."
She gave me an amused look. "With what, my dear?"
I sighed and rolled my eyes. "This is turning out to be a really bad day."
I went to my corner and switched on the lights I'd rigged up, kicking at the wall so a makeshift cot slipped out, ready to bed down on. Most of the day was gone, a meal looked unlikely, so maybe an early night was in order. "Look, you've got your thing. How about you leave and let me get some sleep?"
The old woman looked around the ruined temple. "You live here?"
"Sure," I said. "Someone ought to."
"A thief in a temple. I like it," she said with a nod.
I nodded back and smiled. "No one ever gets the poetry of that. Goodbye then."
The old woman watched me as I shed my jacket and rolled it up as a pillow. She was watching closely. Very closely. The twinkling lights above the bed, the bedding itself and me. It made me frown and step back before I realised that my stomach was grumbling and there could be a meal in this.
"Like what you see?" I asked in my most alluring voice, placing a hand on my hip and probably ruining the whole look by showing her the dirt on my hands.
She smirked. "Not ripe enough for my tastes, I'm afraid."
I made a face. "Well, you have to try. You'll be amazed by the amount of people that don't like ripe. Also, I'm older than I look."
"Nothing surprises me," she said. "When was the last time you ate?"
"Why? You're going to take me to dinner? Be the kind stranger that changes my terrible terrible life?" I asked with a smile.
She gave me long look and for a moment I swear she could see under the false bravado. See how fed up I was and just hoping someone would catch me stealing one day and shoot me through the heart. "Go away," I said. "You have your property."
"What's your name?" she asked quietly.
"Why do you care? I tried to steal from you," I said.
She looked at the patch in her hand, her face sombre. She held it up to me and said. "This has only led me to good things. What's your name?"
I looked at the worn out patch, wondering what it meant, why it was so valuable and above all, why it looked so familiar. Also, how much I could've gotten for it. "Vala," I said. "Name's Vala."
She smiled a little. "Strange. Not a popular name."
I shrugged. "Well, my mother was slightly mad."
The woman smiled. "Oh?"
"Yep," I said with a nod. "Spent most of her time blowing up appliances in the cellar. You know. Normal motherly things."
My stomach made growling noises and I rolled my eyes.
"Want to eat?" she asked me.
I gave a huffy, "No." Of course my traitorous stomach grumbled again and made me look like a complete idiot. "Food would be good."
She nodded and said, "Come with me."
I followed her of course, you know, the old woman with no name, who was probably going to drug me and sell me to reprehensible creatures. On the other hand, god, food. Sure, the knife in my boot wouldn't put up a huge fight with big bad monsters, but I could at least scar someone in a fight and know I didn't go down doing nothing.
Hunger really makes people take stupid risks.
I followed her to her home on the outskirts of the town. In the stone courtyard of her house was something hidden under a grey cover, something that was metal and poking out from underneath. Something shiny and mechanical and importantly, hidden from view. I stopped to look at it as we passed through a hallway, but she grabbed my arm and pulled me along.
It was a big place, stony and grey. The kind of place you imagined women of bad magic lived in when you were a child. A place where monsters and demons hid.
"Who else lives here?" I asked, trailing behind her.
"Just me," she said. "Some servants."
"Servants?" I asked. "Is that why you brought me here? You want another servant? I don't serve people."
She snorted. "No. Offering up your body in exchange for money doesn't count as serving."
I stopped following her and stared at her back until she stopped walking and turned around to look at me. I thought she was going to apologise, not that I was allowed to expect that from someone I didn't even know. Instead, she said, "You want to survive in this universe, you need to be able to listen to worse."
"I don't think it gets much worse," I said quietly.
She looked at me, her mouth holding the slightest of smiles. "It does."
I followed her with less enthusiasm. She didn't say anything about food with a dollop of harsh life lessons. Like I didn't know we lived in a corrupted universe. I saw it every day.
We climbed some stairs and finally reached a huge room decorated with wall hangings and plush furnishing. There were also unfamiliar objects I'd never seen before, yet some of them looked old, treasured perhaps. She nodded towards a large shining wooden table where there was a bowl of fruit. My eyes went to the shining red sehb, almost crimson in colour. She picked it up and held it out in her hand.
"Eat," she said. "It'll tide you over until dinner."
Poisoned, I thought. Definitely poisoned. Then she nodded and said. "Caution is a wise decision."
Then she took a bite, chewed and swallowed, holding the sehb out again. "Eat."
I took it and very unceremoniously demolished the thing in seconds. God, the sweet and the juice. I could have died right there and it would have been fine. I didn't even care that she was watching me, her brow high up and a too amused look on her face, wrinkled yet somehow still elegant and fierce.
"I feel like I know you," I said, mouth full of sehb. "Let me guess. A long lost relative come to make my life better."
She took off her robes, wearing a long black dress that accentuated a trim figure. "Sounds like a fairytale."
"Stories with happy endings," she said as if she didn't believe in such a thing.
"Happy endings? I like the sound of that," I said, finishing the fruit with a satisfied sigh and eyeing the bowl. She pushed the bowl on the table so it was nearer to me and I quite happily obliged and helped myself.
The old woman sat down in a wooden chair, legs elegantly crossed, gloved hands resting on the arms of the chair. I might have fidgeted as I stood before her in my muddy boots, worn out pants and shirt and dirty jacket, but I felt a sudden defiance and straightened up.
"Vala," she said slowly. "I haven't heard that name in a long time."
I shrugged. It made sense. Not many people wanted to name their daughters Vala. Of course, my mother had to be against everyone else in the universe. Where did it get her?
"Do you look like your mother?" the old woman asked, not looking curious at all.
I nodded and sat down on the edge of the table. "Mother said I have my father's traits but none of his features."
"Where are they? Your parents."
I flinched at the question, not sure why. Their absence had never mattered before. "My father has been a soldier in the holy armies since I was born. Never really knew him."
"A loyal servant?"
I shook my head. "No. Mother said they took him. She said he'd never choose to go."
"And your mother?"
"Was burned for being a heretic," I said slowly, watching for her response.
The woman smiled, something soft in her eyes. "Vala," she said. "A name for the seed of disbelievers."
"Is that why I'm here?" I asked. I smiled at her, though it left me hollow. "You're going to show me the way."
"Perhaps," she said.
I might have laughed. First the gods abandon you and then they send their messengers to reclaim you. "No thank you. Never really had time for organised religion. Especially one this organised."
She laughed and I hadn't expected to see her do that, a bright laugh that animated her face. Like, perhaps she did used to smile and laugh once. A long time ago. She got up from her chair and came to me, tilting her head a little.
"Why did she name you Vala?"
I shrugged. "She never said."
"You don't wonder? Named after such a despised figure?"
I smiled. "No. I think it fits my station."
The old woman chuckled at that. "Yes. That sounds about right."
She turned away, so I grabbed her arm. She looked at me with a frown and I asked her, "What do you want from me? You follow me, bring me here, feed me and ask questions. Why? Just ask for whatever it is. I might even say yes."
She watched me for a long time before saying, "If I take you from the streets and give you a home, will you accept Origin?"
I let go of her arm. "The Ori already have my father. They took my mother too. They gave me this life. How could I possibly be so sinful that I would return it?"
My eyes stung and I hoped she couldn't see it, how much her offer hurt. It was the least hurtful a proposition I'd ever heard, but there it was, cutting a thin line into my chest.
But then she said, "If you don't accept Origin, will you fight it?"
I laughed. "Do I look like a soldier?"
She shook her head. "No. You look like me when I was your age. Trouble."
I frowned at her, suddenly hoping for one of these fairytale endings where perhaps my mother never died, never burned to death in front of our whole village. In front of me. "Who are you?"
Her eyes seemed to sparkle, her mouth quirking into a smile. "It's very strange to be so widely despised yet unrecognised. You would think people knew what the traitors of the Ori empire looked like."
"There are so many," I said dryly.
"I should hope so." She smiled. "Do you know why I brought you here?"
"You're old and mad?" I asked her, swinging my legs back and forth on the sturdy table.
"I saw," she said, looking me up and down. "The other day. Picking pockets like no one could see you. Or perhaps, not caring if they saw you."
"Well, a girl's got to eat," I said.
"And then one of your friends called you. Vala, he said. You're going to get us killed." She had a smile on her face, but her eyes were bright. I began to wonder exactly how mad she actually was.
"It was the first time I'd heard someone speak my name in years," she said, quietly. She seemed lost for a moment, chewing the inside of her lip.
"Your name's Vala?" I asked, oddly warmed by this. Perhaps I was just desperate to find kinship wherever I could. I laughed. "Maybe we're related."
She shook her head. "I have a daughter. She is very much alive and well."
"What's her name?" I snorted, "Adria?"
She gave me a long hard look. "Yes. Adria."
"Her and every other girl in this universe. Every woman must now be named after The Chosen," I said rolling my eyes. "Burn all the scriptures, I say. Not just Origin. All of them."
"Harsh words," Vala said.
"Well, it's all I have," I said. "Vala... whatever."
"Vala Mal Doran," she said evenly.
I shook my head and smiled. "The Mal Doran line was extinguished in the attack of-"
"History on the streets? The Ori really are quite thorough," she said, walking away to a table by the wall, covered in bottles of various liquor.
"The Chosen said there would be no more of that line when she held up her mother as a traitor," I continued. "After the great battle of Earth, where Vala Mal Doran died."
Vala was nodding at the wall. "You know, Daniel always said I'd find an appreciation for historical accuracy one day. I had no idea he'd be right."
I slipped off the table and waved my hand at her. "Which is why there are no Mal Dorans. Especially of the Vala variety."
"Except for the one," Vala said smoothly.
"Who died," I said.
Vala blinked. "Yes. About that."
I frowned at her until it sunk in what she was implying. Then I laughed and shook my head because what she was implying was stupid. I had seen images of Vala Mal Doran and this woman was not her. The angles of her face might have matched Mal Doran's once, the shape of her body. Maybe if her hair was black and the wrinkles were gone. In her younger days she might have looked like her a little. A lot maybe.
"Earth," I blurted out, remembering what I had tried to steal from her. "The symbol. That's Earth. My mother showed me it once."
She just watched me quietly.
I took a step back, away from her. She laughed and said, "What? You're not afraid of the Ori, but you're afraid of me?"
I just shook my head silently. The more I looked at her, the more she looked like Vala Mal Doran. She could have been mad, lying or mad or all three, but something about her said she was deadly serious.
She took a step towards me and I ran to the other side of the table. She held out a hand, as if to calm me. "You don't need to be a soldier to fight the Ori. Just smart." Then she seemed to think about it. "It helps if you really hate them too."
I looked around the room, trying to find the door. She could tell and said, "You're free to leave, but trust me when I say that fate brought me to you, Vala. We've both lost people to the Ori. Not just us. Every day more and more people turn to Origin and one day no one will be left to fight."
"You want me to fight?" I almost shrieked. "Why me? I'm not built to fight. I'm built to run."
Vala smiled, something wide and pleased. "I saw."
"Cowards don't make good soldiers," I said.
"That's why I'm choosing you," Vala said. "You're not as afraid as you think you are. And you're smart. Very smart."
"I think you'll find I'm petrified. I'm hiding it well under the shaking," I said.
"The Ori are not gods," Vala said. "They can be defeated."
"What? By me and you?" I snorted.
"There are more of us," Vala said. "People like me. Like you. People who won't follow Origin."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "I'm just a petty thief, okay? I'm not... I'm not a hero."
Vala smiled. "I know. Me too."
I stared at her. The woman the Ori held as a traitor, an evil doer that tried to kill her own child, consorted with the enemy. Comparing herself to me. It was so surreal.
"My mother... she spoke of you," I said, my face burning a little. I laughed a little. "Like she knew you. She said everything the Ori said about you were lies. That you were a good woman. I asked her how she knew and she said she just did."
Vala shook her head and laughed wearily. "Madness must run in the family."
I looked at Vala, the way she looked worn out and tired, yet a bright burning fire in her eyes. Some kind of fight within her that was spreading to me, tingling in my fingertips. "I don't know," I said. "My mother had an annoying tendency to be right about things."
Vala nodded slowly, smiling. "I'll take your word for it."
I came around the table, feeling less cocky than when I'd met her. "So. You think I can fight."
"It's in your blood. You just don't know it," Vala said quietly.
"You seem to think you know me," I said.
"Well, I am the mother of The Chosen. It has its perks," she said with a shrug. "Think about my offer."
I nodded and watched her leave the room, Vala Mal Doran, traitor mother and enemy of the Ori. Alive. "My mother used to say she wouldn't be surprised if you turned up one day. How did she know?"
Vala turned to look at me from the doorway. "I wish I knew."
She left and I sat at the table, thinking over her words. Thinking about my mother and the father I never met. Thinking about the years I spent growing up and learning Origin was the true way in school, and learning at home that Origin was a lie. Watching my mother scavenge for parts to build strange contraptions in our home, as if she could win a war with them. Burning bright, defiantly, dying.
I pulled the tags out from under my shirt and held onto them, two pieces of metal bequeathed to me by my mother, and I made my decision. I could go back to being a thief or could do what my mother did. Fight for the right to live the way I wanted, not the way the Ori thought I should live.
The first thing Vala showed me was the ship hidden in her courtyard, an old Goa'uld vessel, practically falling apart. The first thing I did for her was to put it back together.
I talked about my mother a lot. She spoke of lost friends and ascension. We both wondered if the lost ever really went away.
By the time Vala's ashes cooled and were offered to me in an urn, I'd stopped mourning her loss, remembering her words that maybe ascension was part of the battle plan. Maybe someone was waiting to guide her there. Though I doubted anyone could ever guide Vala Mal Doran through anything.
I left the funeral, somber but not crushed. I could still feel her presence in the way I had never stopped feeling my mother's presence. I returned to the bunker, to the war effort. But for old time's sake, for Vala and my mad mother, I stole a guy's ship on the way home.
- the end -