It’s a long morning’s walk, descending steadily on a zigzag track across the side of the mountain. The constant downhill movement has Jyn’s legs aching before long, the muscles of her thighs twitching with every stride. But there’s no choice but to go on.
Midday is long gone and the shadows are creeping out across the valley when at last the path begins to level off, and curves round, snaking along the side of the slope. With Cassian trotting at her side she trudges in the direction of the river. The waterfall roars, getting louder as they pick their way towards it.
There’s still heavy snow on the ground, though the wind here has swept much of it into drifts. But there are trees around them again as they reach the level ground, and the air is full of birds calling, and the sound of running water.
She can see the bridge up ahead, a sharp line of stone, springing out over the ravine. Red Crag Bridge, the one high crossing on the whole of the False Larch River. A name, a place, a sight she’d once prayed never to see again. Yet it feels almost like a homecoming.
Let it be so indeed, let us not be walking into disaster and the hands of a madman.
“Once we’ve crossed the bridge we’re on Saw’s ground, for better or worse.” She looks down at Cassian and is calmed and reassured by the confidence in his eyes. “The firewood must have been his too. Good spot for a signal beacon, up there. Least we didn’t use up too much of it, eh?”
She shifts the straps of her pack, adjusts the crossbow on its sling. All this way long way to be hauling the damned heavy thing, and she hasn’t used it once; but better to have had it and not needed it than the reverse. She looks up and back, as a sudden memory prompts in the margins of her mind; and yes, there already is an overhang of snow on the ridge.
“I learned to shoot here, trying to hit one of those and set it off. ” She points out the white rim above them. “Hit a cornice like that at the right spot and you can trigger an avalanche. Arrow or bolt or sling-stone, or spell. Never know when you’ll need to block the way here.”
Cassian sniffs the air, considering, and gives her a nod. As she watches, he casts an eye over the silent woods flanking their path. She trusts his senses of smell and hearing; if there were anyone there, he’d soon notice. None of Saw’s siege tactics in play yet, then.
There are tracks on the bridge, though; the marks of many feet tramping up and over, and heading on towards the foot of the rock. So there have been people about, coming out this far since last night, and then drawn back into the stronghold.
Though Red Crag is lower than the mountains, it towers above them now. It strikes Jyn as they march on, how long it is since she last passed this way, and how unnerving it is that nothing has changed. The red-brown stone is a pillar of rust against the snowy ridge beyond and the white drifts at its foot. There’s no sign of anyone in the beast-hole entries above, yet she feels herself watched intently, as though the very stone itself has eyes. She keeps her right hand on the pommel of one of her swords, a light firm touch, seeking the comfort of weaponry in uncertainty. Hoping not to have to use the blade, or the crossbow. But better those, than to wake the power she’s come here to learn about, and lash out again with it, uncontrolled and unbridled.
There are animal tracks, and the prints of bird-claws, running in and out of the forest fringe. She identifies fox and hare and the scuffling, fuzzed marks of snow-grouse, and tiny lace-like skeins of prints from the feeding of finches and buntings. But most of the marks go straight on, over the arch of the bridge, above the roaring and the spray; a dozen or more sets of human footprints. The path they mark goes round and down, slanting through a belt of saplings, circling as it brings them inexorably nearer to the foot of the Crag.
The path is flanked by trees to the left, coming up close under the arrow-slits and rock-chutes on the rock, till it reaches the gates. A huge set of bronze doors, facing the sheer mountainside; and carrying the path out to them is another bridge, an archway hacked from the naked rock, with a wooden drawbridge halfway along above a deep chasm.
A spur of rock, seamed and veined and folded strata of grey slate and blood-rust granite, runs out from the base of the crag, half-enclosing the path as it runs up to the gateway. Their way is overlooked on every side now, and if entry were barred, the only way forward is through a narrow defile that could easily be blocked or over-run.
A perfect defensive entry. She remembers studying how to man it. Station spearmen there among the trees, harrying the attackers, place archers here, picking them off from above; have two of the gang throwing fireballs from that hole there. Any attacking force would soon be pinned, unable to protect both their shield-side and sword-side. Could be kept in disarray, picked off at leisure before they even reached the ramp up to that drawbridge and the gateway beyond it.
Well, so. Things could be worse. No-one’s shooting at us or throwing thunderbolts.
Well, she always knew she’d be walking into this place and trusting that no-one would look out of a beast-hole and spear her. And though she can still feel the unseen eyes on her, there’s no sign of anyone, neither manning the gate nor spying from above.
She marches up the final slope and onto the bridge. The wooden section rings hollowly under her boots. Cassian treading silently at her side. She reaches out, rests her left hand on his shoulder; and there it is, untamed and alive, pulsing between them like a thread of silver heat. She doesn’t fear the bond between them now. It’s a consoling certainty to feel the air around him full of his quiet alertness. It sparks a defiant tension in Jyn. She strides the last few yards beside him, up to the doors of what was once her home, and raising her fist she bangs on it.
Icy cold metal, ringing hard under her fist, and the dull sound of the wood under it. Echoes, muffled within.
She waits, but there’s no reply. Only silence and stillness.
It seems as though no-one’s listening, no-one’s watching; yet still the whole castle, every force of life within these walls, is. She can feel it with every pore, every sense prickling with awareness. Red Crag is watching intently. Waiting to see what she’ll do.
“Come on,” Jyn says conversationally to the towering doorway and the silence. “Open up, old man.”
She could unsling the crossbow now, plant a bolt in the bronze plating; she could yell curses, throw a few fireballs of her own if she can remember the incantation (oh yes, she can remember it, God have mercy on her). But what if someone were about to open the door? At this range a crossbow shot would spit them through the ribs like a spatchcocked chicken. A fire-bolt would cook them before she had time to deflect it. Not worth risking that as her greeting; and as she looks around at the drifted snow piled up against the doorposts another spell comes to mind. Well, if Saw’s going to play games then so can she…
“Bastard. Teaching me my place, eh?”
She looks around her and murmurs under her breath, a singsong of rhythmic words, familiar suddenly as the rhymes of childhood play. Cassian steps back with a snort as on either side of him snow rises from the ground, a floating cloud of white that slowly gathers itself into a dozen miniature swirling storms. Each nimbus of snow tightens, compacting together until they are surrounded by a set of fat, firm balls of snow, suspended in mid-air.
With a word and a smart gesture, Jyn send the first one thudding against the shut doors of Red Crag.
“Open up!” she shouts, and with a swing of her hand she slams the next snowball home after the first. “Come on! – open the fucking doors, you shit-suckers!”
Bang, bang, two more snowballs. Cassian is grinning up at her and for a moment his perception runs alongside hers, so that she smells the snow as he does, and the warmth of her own sweat under her clothes, and feels his amusement and the flicker of his admiration, his pride in her. It feels good. Warmth blooms inside her. She cannot remember when anyone last appreciated her in this way, without expectation, without possessiveness or greed.
There are still half a dozen snowballs left to use. “Shall I give them another?” He nods, wagging his tail. She’s so ridiculously fond of his toothy smile, the set of his ears and the light of his eyes. How much he can say without words. Dear Cassian, her friend. “Very well then...”
She slings a fifth shot towards the gates.
Just as they are hauled open.
The first figure to emerge takes a ball of snow the size of his head full in the face; he yelps, staggers, falls to his knees. Someone behind him shouts “Fuck!” and half a dozen fighters emerge, pushing the doors wide as if about to sortie. They stop, staring in bewilderment as they take in just two figures outside.
The man she hit is a thickset fellow with a pale face, a shadow of beard; he lurches to his feet again, swiping snow from his eyes and cursing. Around him the others heft their weapons, but they hang back, trying to keep out of range. She can’t make out any familiar faces. Doesn’t recognise the man she hit.
Jyn holds out her hands, palm up, calmly showing that she’s unarmed, and with a soft word she lets the remaining snowballs fall to the ground.
At least the doors are open.
The cavernous walls of the entrance chamber loom overhead, with pillars and arches cut out of the raw stone, and the floor stretching away in a series of rough bays. Freezing air and a few rays of weakening daylight come in through the arrow-slits in the outer wall. At the far side of the unfurnished space, a series of worn steps rises to an opening, a single passageway leading into the dark.
She’d forgotten how friendless the place could feel, with its unhomely chill and unglazed windows, and the bleak stone walls, their rust-red veined with black slate and narrow twisted threads of quartz.
The line of hostile faces watching her doesn’t help. Blades of swords and knives glint in the wintry light, and there are bows held half-drawn, with arrows nocked, in the hands of hard-eyed men. The man she hit with a snowball stands glaring at the front, facing off against her. There’s a sizeable bruise purpling on his jaw already.
If need be, she know she could hold them off; wooden arrows will burn easily at the sending of a spark, and in this familiar space she could defend herself against a dozen fighters with ease. Her training from Saw ran deep, she hasn’t forgotten how to strike blows, by hand, by blade, and by spell.
But there can be no striking with magic, not until she understands this; not one of the group facing her has so much as a breath of magic about them. It’s unnerving. She cannot bring herself to fight them, they are blind as mice beside her. There’s none of the shine and ripple that she feels when she reaches for Cassian, as the spells binding him shimmer in the currents of the Force; and not so much as a wingbeat of power, not even the ability to use it.
Are all Saw’s people now just ordinary soldiers? It’s a thought that had never occurred to her, that he might no longer have apprentices, might no longer wish to command a gang of witches. No longer be the master-mage of an army.
“Take me to Saw Gerrera,” she says.
She knows he’s here, she can feel him. His presence pulses in the rock, an earthquake’s heartbeat. But no-one else has that cloud of magic round them, that she had expected and braced herself to encounter. Just their angry eyes and frightened minds, their fists clenched on ordinary blades as they watch her.
Cassian is watching too; and he’s watching the snowball man in particular. He’d stood up straight, with his head held high and teeth bared, and he whined when the man came towards them out on the drawbridge. She’d felt his energy go taut as a bow-string; yet not with anger. There’s something there she can’t place, a tension that’s poised and ready, but doesn’t spring from fear. Just an intent focus. He quivers with it, watching the stranger.
“You expect to me to call the Commander for you, just like that?” The man’s accent is distinctive, it rings of the north. He has the stance of a soldier. Short-sword at his belt, an archer’s shoulders. He wears winter-colours, grey and greenish-white to throw the eye out in a snowy landscape. The front of his coat and his close-cropped hair are wet with meltwater from her attack. A mage would have dried himself with a single word. “You think you can just summon him, do you?”
“I do,” Jyn says simply. “He’ll see me.”
“Why shouldn’t I just clap you in a cell, you and your ugly mutt both?”
Cassian’s ears twitch and a sudden flutter of amusement comes off him, a ripple in the Force so strong she reaches out and lays a hand on his fur. Steady, steady, she says in her mind. Hoping, and somehow knowing, that he can hear her. Aloud she says “Oh, he knows I’m here. He’ll want to see me.”
“You think that trick of yours with the snow is enough to get his attention? The Commander’s not such an easy man to please. If I were you I’d turn back now, hurry along home. There’s no playing at war here, lassie, just real fighting.”
“Saw knows I’m here, just as he knew I was coming. He knows I wouldn’t have come at all if it wasn’t for the fight. He knows a sight more than you, I’ll warrant, and he won’t thank you for turning me away.”
“And why’s that then?”
“Because I’m the daughter of Lyra Erso.”