By sunset, the campfires of the approaching army are plain to see, lining the lower end of the valley. They’ll be at the foot of the Crag before noon of the next day.
There’s something horrifying about how openly they come. These are troops from an army that has Sith magic leading it. They could have marched in under cover of masking spells, bring their attack from nowhere; but they don’t. Their commander must know the value of demoralising your opponent.
Must know what it feels like, watching this great expanse of little flickering fires, seeing how far it stretches, how many thousand dark tents lie out there, and thinking of the forty or so defenders holed up here, awaiting the siege and fearing that something worse will come even than that, worse than the long slow death of thirst and starvation.
They’ve all heard stories of the cities and fortresses the Empire has sacked. A knowledge makes the heart weaken, the mind race in a maze of fear.
The summoning bell for the evening meal is slow and sombre, as though Edrio hasn’t the heart to ring it fast. But when they gather in the mess the food is plentiful. There’s enough fresh bread for several days piled in the wooden rack by the servery.
No-one takes extra. It may be days before there’s another chance to fire up the bake-ovens, and they all know this has to last until then.
There’s no sign of Saw, as usual, and the passage of the moon has shifted round enough against the cycle of daylight that it won’t rise until well after dark tonight. Jyn sees Cassian settled with a venison marrowbone and a plate of liver and lights. There’s something hugely reassuring in the grim crack his teeth make, shattering bone, hungry and business-like. He hasn’t left her side all day, watching and grinning toothily as she and Maia worked on their training.
She catches his eyes when he looks up and tells him “I’ll head upstairs, make sure the old man eats.”
There’s a steady energy around Cassian, the poised edge of calm, waiting for tomorrow. It’s a relief to touch him and feel that, after the taut rage that hung on him this morning. Elsewhere, there are ripples and flurries in the Force, and a new bright nexus wells out around Maia like a mountain spring. Some fear she senses, and much tension, but there’s not a breath of anything like hysteria in the room. They ought by rights to be in despair, these people, they have to know this is likely one of their last nights on earth. Yet their determination is almost glad, after this day of planning and waiting. For better or worse, now, the end is almost here.
She takes her own food bowl and a second one, and leaves friends and comrades eating. Soup and bread. Since his speech before breakfast Saw has kept himself away in his rooms, and Jyn has been entirely busy since then with Maia and their chaotic mess of lessons.
Her day was a frenzy of trying and trying again, re-reading spell-books, hitting one another with fire and light and blocking the other’s blows from dawn to dusk. She aches all over with tiredness. It would be comforting to stay in the mess and eat with Cassian. But she wants to know what Saw is planning. Since of a certainty, he must be planning something. He’d undone the spell on his wound, to get back the full strength of whatever power is left to him. He must have some larger aim for that. He was never one to leave matters of war unattended.
She pads upstairs and down the long passage, carrying two full bowls of soup carefully, and a broken loaf tucked under one arm.
The air in Saw’s chamber is sickly with a smell of rot, stale as death and as rancid. Jyn stands at the doorway for a moment, composing herself and suppressing the urge to cover her nose. Not possible with a bowl in each hand anyway. Pull yourself together. He knows he stinks, don’t rub his nose in it. She knocks her boot against the door jamb to signal her presence and then marches in, head up. “Hello? I brought you food.”
It takes a moment to spot him, hunched up in his chair in the near dark. The shutters are drawn and he hasn’t lit a single lantern, not even a candle. But she can hear his breathing, it’s grown so hoarse, and when he shifts she sees the movement.
“Soup,” Jyn says. “I brought you soup. You need to eat.”
She sets down one of the bowls on the floor and calls up a spark of light with her free hand.
“You need to eat,” she repeats. “Soup and bread, look…” The light gleams in his watching eyes until he blinks but he makes no other response and she adds briskly “I’m not going to spoon-feed you so don’t get that idea.”
Silence. Exasperating man. “Please,” Jyn repeats. “You need to eat.”
The smell from his festering leg is even worse now she’s close to it. It’s a wonder he’s still alive, with so much poison inside him; no wonder holding the infection back had left him barely rational.
Damn it, if she’d taken the risk to begin with she might have been able to fix this before they ran out of time. But now, with the enemy approaching, and Maia desperate to train and practice, would he even contemplate letting her work on him?
And would it be too late anyway? Twelve hours or more now since he let go the spells that were keeping him safe.
She sends the little glow-ball up into the middle of the room with a whisk of her fingers. Straightens, and sets a bowl of soup and a spoon, and a hunk of bread, in Saw’s lap.
Takes her own place on his unused footstool, and picks up her own spoon.
He isn’t eating. Fine, go hungry then.
She digs in. The soup’s good, a thick mess of pork and beans in salty, savoury broth. There are big juicy chunks of onion and turnip, and nubs of garlic melting on her tongue. She smacks her lips and licks gravy noisily, and when she next looks up, he’s holding the spoon she gave him. He looks at it, at the bowl, down at her; sighs at her and takes a mouthful.
Oh, you bloody-minded old man. No wondering where I got it from, I guess…
“You see? It’s good, isn’t it?”
Saw nods, chewing and swallowing. He lifts another spoonful and says over it, the steam rising across his gaze “You realise the enemy will be on us soon?”
“And are you ready for them?”
Jyn shrugs. At least he’s talking, and eating. Eating quickly, now he’s started. “I’ll do,” she says.
“Ready as she can be, in a single day.”
“And what have you readied yourselves for?” he asks. “To fight, or to flee?”
“Hell, Saw, to fight! I still don’t believe this kind of power was ever really meant to be used as a weapon. But what choice do we have? So yes, we’ve practised what we can, and we’ll do our best. Have a little faith, eh?”
“Do you wonder at all, that they come now?” He’s frowning at his spoon again. “How did they know to send their forces to this old ruin, against this handful of fighters, now of all times?”
“If you’re back to implying that poor bloody Bodhi is a spy, for God’s sakes, give it up! He’s risked everything he has to come here.”
“I’m not speaking of the herald.” Saw takes a last mouthful. Pulls off a chunk of bread to wipe the inside of his bowl. “If he had been the traitor, they would have come a month ago. Why now? What has changed?”
An uncomfortable thought. What’s changed? Very little. “You let go of your – whatever spell it was, to hold back the blood poisoning,” Jyn says slowly. “And I healed Mai. But - I had to try, you know that.”
“I’m not questioning that. You did the right thing. I wish there had been more time, for you to study more, for you to learn and research and rise into the fullness of your powers. But there is none. We must make do with the few hours we have. Think, Jyn; could anyone have sensed you, as you worked?”
“I shielded everything with a circle. But –“ painful though the idea is, she cannot ignore it now he’s put it in her mind – “there was a moment – right at the peak of the energy – it felt as though something was trying to break off my bond with the veil of stars, stop me from drawing down the fire. Just for a moment. Was that? – could it have been? –“
“I’ve long feared that this was what brought them to us at the Onderon. A traitor was the most likely; but my magic work had been jarred, in just the way you describe, for many days, before that. And if there’s no traitor here, then…”
“Shit,” Jyn says. Why he couldn’t have trusted her with that knowledge earlier? “So you think they’ve got someone with them who can sense us? Sense when someone works with a focussing-stone?”
“It’s possible. Think of your mother’s gift, to sense those who could touch the Force; maybe there are others like her, and similar gifts.”
“Or maybe the Sith train to smell us out.” A bad choice of words, as he shifts his stinking leg and winces at the movement.
He breathes hard. His face is kinder and sadder than she’s seen it since she came back. “My child, I am sorry. I’m leaving you with a hard mission, and a dangerous road.”
My child… It still hurts. There were so many years she would have cried with joy to have him call her that. Jyn’s voice comes out seven kinds of rough when she manages to speak again. “You were never a one to give anyone the easy way. You and Aunt Steela neither.”
“I’m sorry.” There’s an old pain in his eyes. “You were my best student. I was just trying to teach you what you needed to know.”
“I know.” There isn’t much she can give him but she can say this much. “I know you did your best.”
“I never expected to find myself raising a child. Trying to be a father to you. I didn’t know how to - the others – Maia, Sors, Tano - they were never mine the way you were. I’m sorry I didn’t do more kindly by you. Listen to you.”
Her heart is aching. There can be only one reason he’s speaking like this now. “You did your best,” she repeats. “I lost my mama and my papa and you knew my potential and you didn’t ask to be landed with a little scrap of a thing like me all crying and ignorant. You did your best.” She rattles her spoon down in the bowl and faces him with her shoulders squared. “Come now, let’s not dig our graves with regret, before the enemy comes to dig them for us.”
“You sound,” Saw’s smile is fragile and dark and proud “like Steela.”
“Saw.” God knows that makes her proud too; but “listen to me. The spell I did for Maia, the healing, it might work for you, I don’t know if it will but – do you want me to try?”
“No,” he says, a heart-breaking certainty against her uncertain hope. “It’s too late now for that. You will need all your strength for those who can be saved. Jyn, I want you to promise me you won’t allow yourself to be captured.”
“I’ll go down burning them sooner,” she promises.
“Better not to go down at all. Live, and take the way out that is offered you, and fight another day.”
This is Saw, who never turned from a fight in all the time she knew him. Who used to spit when anyone mentioned regrouping and say Only the defeated retreat in tones of ice. Who’d called her a coward when she left him, five years ago.
Should she say “This is new” and mock him for getting soft? – should she push, dominate, require him to explain this change of heart?
She looks into the weary eyes watching her. Remembers again how he was almost a new father to her, for a time, when she longed to hear those words he now says so easily; My child, my child... When she was the one who’d been there longest, the one who could welcome new kids to the ragged madhouse of magic that was Saw’s gang of witches.
All those years spent in the desperate need to prove and prove again that she was worthy of him, and the desperate hidden resentment of all he required of her.
His eyes are very bright now, and very, very tired. And he wants her to live. It’s probably as near as he’ll ever get to an admission of love.
She’s spent half the afternoon teaching Maia to translocate, in the hopes of saving her. Maybe one or two more. They’ll fight, of course, that’s a given; but if the Crag falls, there is a way out, and she knows it. For some of them at least. Perhaps for him too, if he’s got the strength.
It’s all too much to wrestle with. It hurts. And if she pushes, she’ll hurt him too.
Not worth the effort, just to cause them both pain.
“Maia’s been picking things up again really fast,” she tells him, brisk and business-like again. “I’d forgotten how bright she is. We’ve marked a few walls, broken a brick or two, throwing fire about. Made a bit of a mess. Sorry about that.” Saw is nodding, with the faint smile of a teacher hearing acceptable reports, and Jyn goes on, listing what they’ve been up to, ignoring the ache inside. “Fire throwing, yeah, and rock throwing and air blasts; the turn-swords spell and the turn-arrows one; smoke, we did that too, smoke and mist spells. She remembered the trip-you-up spell without even needing a reminder.” Please let him smile more, let him find satisfaction in this. “Gave me a scabbed knee, look. And we’re - working on the big stuff, star-fire stuff. She’s going to be okay. Promise.”
“Good. Good.” He leans forward, sudden urgency animating his voice. ”Jyn, promise me one more thing –“
Always the same, then; requiring more and yet more of her. She holds back a sigh as she leans towards him. This is his nature, I cannot ask him to change now…
It’s still a kind of peace between them, and more of a bond than she’d dared to hope for when she set out into the mountains to find him.
He’s digging in the front of his robe, and he pulls out the same handful of kyber stones that had moved her so much yesterday. “Parents and children,” he mutters. “I did my best, yes, God forgive me. How poor my best was, eh?” The golden-yellow stone gleams, swinging free, and the others are shining too in his knotted old fist. “You must understand, Jyn, what we planned and dreamed of, Steela and I, your parents – you were the first who could have been –“
“I know,” Jyn says with resignation. “You told me often. I was bred for it.”
Saw’s eyes are suddenly wild, tears and anger blooming together. “No! I never said that! You were a child of love. But you could have been so much. You could have been the first of a new kind and – I wanted so much to see your potential realised - realised to the full!” He thrusts the crystals at her, all of them tangled together by their cords. “I was wrong! I confess it, I admit it. But was it wrong to hope? All of our hopes and just the one of you, just one child –“
“I don’t want these.” Jyn pushes his hand back. Talking over him because her mind is screaming at the lie of I never said that when he did, he did, and I was wrong coming from him on top of that is almost overwhelming. “Why are you giving me these, Saw, stop –“
“Parents and children! We do what we can and I was never meant to be a father. You’ll understand when it’s your turn.”
“What? – no, no, stop –“ when it’s her turn? Had she really thought him no longer mad just a few minutes ago? He’s surely raving now, because what could be more insane than implying she’ll be a mother? If I had a child I’d carry them away to the ends of the earth, I’d give them to Cassian and tell him Run, run! and I would hack myself in two to defend their path, I’d break myself in a thousand fragments, sooner than let them live the life I’ve had - “I don’t have children, students, I don’t need these –“
There’s a bell ringing somewhere behind their crossing and tangling voices, and in her mind another muted voice pulls and tugs like a frightened hand trying to signal. There’s a noise like a wind rising. Shouting, under it. The hairs on the back of her neck rise. Her finger-tips tingle.
Cassian, Cassian, where are you? What’s happening?
Saw dumps the crystals in her lap and she fumbles to gather them up, saying “No,” again desperately. “What are you doing, I don’t have anyone to give these to –“
“You will.” The stones are warm from the heat of his hand. “There will be others. You will need them one day. You’ll save the hope we dreamed of, you’ll be the one!” He pushes back, folds her fingers around the tangle of crystals and cords. “Swear it to me!”
“Saw, I can’t!”
The bell is louder, so that he’s forcing his voice over it, and inside her now there’s a sound like a rising scream, pitched and breathless with fear, shock, haste. Then Cassian’s mind-voice, cutting through the frantic din to say her name, calm and tense, calm controlling tension, Jyn, Jyn, Jyn! and there are footsteps outside, pounding up the passageway.
The bell clatters on, urgent and ugly. Shouting downstairs. Smoke.
“Please, no,” she says, to Saw and to everything else, with no hope of any of it stopping.
Cassian appears in the doorway, dragging a sword belt round his hips as he halts. He’s dishevelled, half-dressed in his shirt and breeches, another belt carried slung over one shoulder and boots shoved onto unstockinged feet. “Jyn. Commander.” His voice is breathless but unhesitating. “They’re here.”