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Gestahlt
12.31.2011 , 08:42 AM | #8
Chapter Seven: End of an Era.

By the time that the next year and a half had passed, neither my mother nor Cassir had returned from Uncle Valgor’s expedition. We received updates infrequently of how things were progressing, and much to our dismay they were not going quite as well as initially projected. Uncle Valgor had been wounded in battle and many of his men lost in a foolhardy charge that to this day I suppose was his attempt at capturing the esteem of his brothers. The expeditionary force was placed on the defensive and there were rumors that Vace would surrender to Hundar.

Even if not for Cassir’s messages though, which he attempted to deliver with as much verve as possible, we would have known that things were changing in the war. Refugees from engagements were moving closer to our home, and while we tried to feed and shelter some of them, the tide continues to grow at such a rate that it became obvious we needed to turn others away. The violent storm that my father had mentioned was brooding on the horizon, and we could only hope that our family could weather the storm.

I had grown another meter in the interim of the expedition’s departure, now standing at 1.67 meters. While nature and biology ensured that I would continue to grow, Astra was the driving force behind my development. When the refugees began to arrive she made sure that I was at all times prepared for moving, and sometimes woke me up in the middle of the night to be certain that I could move silently out of the house. I told her that as long as we didn’t head to a river I would be fine, but my jesting only caused her to frown. She was scared. I was scared. The difference was, she was the one that we were depending on.

It was late autumn when we heard that the Clan Daue had been dealt another harrowing defeat. I had been outside, practicing my knife training with a displaced soldier by the name of Fendar, when a disheveled man from the north arrived with the news. I quickly retrieved Astra from the kitchen and told her we had another visitor. She prepared for him a meager helping of food and met him at the door. I had not recognized him, but she did.

“Vasmus,” she gasped as she helped him find a seat. Once I heard his name I recalled that he and his brother Ryk had been amongst the youths that left with Uncle Valgor. His face was covered in soot and there was a good deal of scaring to his armor. I excused myself from the training session with Fendar and looked to my sister. I was hers to command. “Go find Dad and tell him that Vasmus is here.”

I acted without hesitation. The wind was hard to run against that evening, no doubt an aspect of the approaching storm. I ran with all of my might, arms pumping and lungs laboring, until I saw my father working in the field. We had allowed several of the refugees to stay on as hired hands, exchanging food for services. His works looked up and gave me varying degrees of salutation, but my focus was singularly on my father. I called out to him and he dropped his hoe, and then ran over to me.

“What is it?” He asked.
I took a moment to catch my breath and then pointed back at the house. Before I could even get a word out, he was already moving for our home.

When we returned home Astra had removed some of Vasmus’ armor and was applying bacta to his wounds. He looked up first to my father and gave him a tired nod. It was a nod I would come to understand in years later to be the expression one had when they realized they were on death’s door. Despite his acceptance of that fate though, Astra worked tirelessly to stabilize him.

My father knelt beside Vasmus. I had never seen someone as battered as he was, so I hung back. Foolishly, I thought that his weakness might actually be contagious.

“Vasmus, what’s happened?”
“Ambush,” he began and then shook his head. “We were ambushed.”

“By the Hundar?” My father asked.
“By the Hundar and the Vace.”

The latter part struck each of us with a severity that could not have been prepared for. I gasped, Astra slowed in her mending, and my father clenched his jaw. He placed a hand to Vasmus’ cheek and willed him to look into his eyes.

“Tell me what happened.”
Astra interjected. “Dad, he needs to rest.”
“After he tells me what happened!”

It was very rare that my father raised his voice, and I understood at once that he was beyond concerned. After all, not only was Clan Daue now in a precarious situation, but mother and Cassir were amongst those that were in the field. Vasmus struggled to think and then nodded.

“Aliit’alor, your brother, told us to assist the Vace in protecting their western region. Intelligence told us that the Hundar were preparing for a big offensive there, and if we could cut them off then we’d effectively have smashed them in a blaze of glory. It was the kind of battle that the clan leader always wanted for us to experience.”

We all listened patiently, waiting to hear of what happened to our loved ones. It was a sad day that any of the Clan Daue died, but the Mandalorian generalities that family did not matter as much as the clan is something I doubt anyone truly believes. Vasmus had not been the one to hold my hand through storms, or who taught me how to shoot. That was Cassir or my mother. It was only logical that we should care more about them.

“Commander Sala moved her auxiliary forces into position back in a collection of trees. You know, a crow’s nest,” he paused and rubbed at his throat. “Could I have some water?”

“Siana.” Father and Astra spoke at once. I complied.

With the water nearly spilling out of a cup, I lowered it to Vasmus’ mouth and allowed him to drink. His thirst must have been great, because no matter how much I tipped the cup he made sure to swallow it all up. Once I had done he smiled up at me, a dejected expression that showed thanks. I nodded and quickly retreated to stand behind my father.

“I was assigned to the clan leader’s squad: I didn’t get to see too much of what happened up there, but I can guess.” When no one moved to stop him from continuing, Vasmus went on. “We’d been expecting the Hundar forces to be surprised, so Commander Sala put most of her men on the offensive. I’m sure that she had an escape route – she always does, but… I don’t think she was prepared for them to hit her position as hard as they did.”

I saw Father’s jaw clench once more and placed my hand to his shoulder. Astra tried her best to look strong as she wrapped Vasmus’ wounds.

“They wanted her. I mean, she’d been sniping them for a year now. By the time that we realized her position was being attacked, the clan leader’s forward guard was already taking casualties. We had prepared to catch them by surprise, so most of our heavy gear was left behind. It was frantic fighting, but…”

“My wife,” Father began. “My son. What happened to them?”

Vasmus was quiet for several seconds. It was the most gut-wrenching pause I had ever experienced in my life, and I would never wish it upon anyone else. We all knew that it was possible Mother or Cassir could die, but we placed it form our minds. Nearly three years worth of worry was suddenly brought to the fore and it was eating away at us. I stood as strong as I could for my father – for Astra.

“I don’t know,” Vasmus finally said. “Cassir had been with us in the clan leader’s group, but broke ranks when we found out that Commander Sala was under attack. We tried to offer them as much support as we could, but when the Vacian forces swarmed us, it was all too much. I can’t swear to the fact, but I can’t imagine anyone surviving everything that they were throwing at their position.”

I was waiting for Vasmus to continue with the story and say that against all odds he saw my mother emerge from the smoke and ash, but he fell gravely silent. I thought back to the micro-smile she had given us when she first reported back from the frontlines, and felt my knees grow weak. Everything in me wanted to collapse and begin to cry, but I managed to hold on. It was impossible that my mother, the Mandalorian matron, had been killed.

I didn’t want to believe it – I couldn’t believe it.

Vasmus looked between us and lowered his head. “I’m sorry. If I could have done anything to save her, I would have, but…”

“It’s alright, boy. Sala knew what she was doing when she went to battle – it’s as fitting a death for a warrior as anyone could ask for.” I had never heard my father sound so cold, but there was sincerity to the edge of his words. He didn’t blame Vasmus at all and he did believe that my mother died as she would have wanted to, but that did not deny the grief I knew he felt. He was too strong to show us it though – I know that he had vowed never to let us see him despair again.

“I can’t say what’s going to happen now,” Vasmus muttered. “I heard report that the Clan Leader’s pulled back to Wesmer province, but there aren’t enough of us left to assist that position. If I were you, uncle, I’d look into arming these refugees you have here and preparing for what’s coming.”

Father took the suggestion and nodded. His voice was heavy, bitter. “I told Valgor this would happen,” he said when he stood up. I took a step back and looked up at him. “Can I count on you to help protect the remnants of the clan, Vasmus?”

“With my life, uncle.” Vasmus stated.

I looked from Vasmus to my father. “Are we going to leave our home?” I asked, my voice awash in sadness. It was hard enough to comprehend that my family members had died, but for some reason the thought of leaving our home was nearly as painful. It didn’t matter if Mandalorians were a nomadic people – we weren’t. My father shook his head without needing to think, much to my relief.

“This is where we make our stand,” he answered. “After we have some defenses set up here, I’ll go around and gather those that are willing to fight. This home will be our base of operations.”

Vasmus nodded with complete agreement and spoke again, obviously hoping to temper the bad news with a bit of good. “Two days from here I know where there’s a weapon cache. If you’ll lend me some men we can get it and come back. I don’t know how long it’ll be before the Vacians and Hundarii make their way down here, but when they do we’ll need everything we have to hold them off.”

My father looked to Astra then. “Gather some supplies and men and go with your cousin to this cache. He’s right – while our stockpile is decent, we’ll need more if everyone is to be outfitted.”

I do not know what Astra said in response; I only know that she replied. While they went about the business of preparing our home for defense, I found myself swimming in a maelstrom of grief. It didn’t seem possible that one minute my mother could be alive in my mind and the next she was dead. Shouldn’t I have felt something? Shouldn’t I have known that she was dead? She was the woman that had given me life; how was it fair that the only way I’d know that she passed was if someone told me?

I’ve given the speech to men and women time and time again, how we should grieve but take joy in the fact that our loved ones have fallen in battle. I know them to be inherently empty words that actually provide little more than shame for feeling what any sane person would. At my current age I do not take much joy in having to tell anyone the news or hear it, and just on the cusp of adulthood I certainly did not want to imagine that my mother was in a “better place”. I wanted her here with me.

I could hear the others talking and further strategizing. This river would be defensible, or that valley would have to be abandoned. Some of the field hands were experienced soldiers and could fight for us; others were changeable and didn’t seem like the sort to trust. While I heard what everyone was saying I did not comprehend it. It was not until I heard Astra saying my name that I realized they were speaking to me, and more importantly, that I had cold tears dripping down my face.

“Sis, I need you to help me with the travel provisions.”

Travel provisions? Was I really supposed to care about travel provisions? I wiped my eyes and fought to see through my sorrow, but it was a difficult task to complete. Astra needed me and I was only going to bring shame to my family if I didn’t get it together. I swallowed down a sob and nodded, then followed her in as she moved ahead of me. Before I left my father’s side I felt his hand take hold of mine, and I looked back to see what it is he wanted.

The pain that I was showing on my face was hidden deeper within him. If not for the look in his eyes I would not have known it was even there. He did not speak and instead squeezed my hand to express all the affection that he could muster at the time. It meant more to me than anything else in the world, and ashamed that I was acting like such a child I turned and followed quickly after Astra.

We worked in silence. I was still in a state of disbelief and Astra was fighting to keep herself from entering one. Travel supplies for a small group were easy to come by, especially when we had yai’yai, a specialized food group that was high in calories and low in density. It would give a person the energy they needed to get from point A to point B and was a common component in most field rations. I knew that Astra did not really need my help in gathering the provisions. She just wanted me to be away from Vasmus.

“Aren’t you sad?” I asked emptily. I knew that she was – I could see it in her eyes, but the fact that she hid it so much more effectively than I did was infuriating. Why was she such a better woman than me? Why did she grasp our culture in a way that I could not? I wanted her to be upset so that I had an excuse to be upset, but she mechanically divvied up the rations.

She gave me a very short look and then went back to work. “Of course I am,” she told me. “But that isn’t going to make this get done any faster, is it? The time for crying is behind closed doors, Sis. You need to pull it together.”

Had she yelled at me, I would have had an excuse to run out of the house and cry somewhere, but she didn’t. I don’t know if it was because she knew that was what I wanted to do, or she simply didn’t see a reason for being harsh with me, but in either event I had to accept what she was saying like an adult. We were in crisis mode, and there was no time to sit around and mope.

After the kits were readied, I helped her carry them to the door. “Do you think Cadim is alright?” While I did care greatly for Cadim, he had understandably been lower on my priority list than Mother and Cassir. As my brain began to play over the reality that most of the men I had met were now to be numbered amongst the dead, I found it difficult to wrap my head around it. They had all been so strong – so imposing.

Astra’s response was a practical one. “I hope not,” she said. “But if he isn’t, worrying about him won’t bring him back.” There was a noticeable lack of compassion to her words; a tone that indicated she was more interested in the present than my childish questions. I picked up on it, but still I continued.

“What about Uncle Valgor?”
“I wasn’t there, Siana,” Astra said plainly. “I can’t tell you what happened.”
“I asked you what you think,” I protested.
“And I told you to help me with this. Now do what you’re told and stop wasting time!”

I had thought I wanted to hear her be upset, but as I heard her voice crack I realized I was horribly wrong. The sternness with which Astra spoke was not at all like what I had become accustomed to from her. It was staunch and unrelenting; devoid affection or exception. In that moment, she sounded more like my mother than she ever had in my life, and I could feel my tears brimming again. Embarrassed, I preemptively wiped at my eyes and tried my best to hide the return of my weakness.

When we returned outside, Father had gathered up the men he wanted to go with Vasmus. They were mostly the men that had come from our area, the ones that I knew he trusted. Fendar was numbered amongst them and he gave me a sympathetic smile as I looked at him. I tried my best to return it, but knew I had failed from the sadness that crossed his face.

“Two days there, two days back,” my father repeated to the men that were gathered. “We’ll start setting up the area’s defenses now. If we’re lucky the Hundarii and Vacians won’t be coming this way for a week. Winter’s almost here, and if we start getting snow I doubt they’ll bother to march until next spring. That’ll give us all the time we can ask for.”

“If it snows,” Vasmus repeated.
My father looked at him and spoke without doubt. “It will snow.”

Before everyone left, my father took Astra and me aside. I watched them just as I had watched my mother and father before she left those years ago, and could feel sadness welling inside of me again. I didn’t want Astra to leave – I didn’t want her to vanish into memories just as my mother had. Once Father finished telling her his instructions she turned to me. I had been too scared to approach my mother when she left, but I wouldn’t let that happen again.

I hugged her. Even if she was covered in her armor, I took what warmth I could from her and held on with all of my might. I imagined that she was Mother and that if I could hold her strong enough – long enough, that she would not be forced to make a march that I knew to be doomed. I had felt that upon Mother’s leaving; however, I did not know if what I felt when Astra left was because I was sorrowful or if I actually did think she would not come back as well.

“I love you,” I whispered to her.
“I love you too, Sis. We’ll be back before you know it.”

I highly doubted that it would be before I knew it, but I did believe that she meant it. I finally convinced my arms to release her and she mussed my hair before shouldering her kit and moving off with the others. I watched them until they were in the distance and then looked back to my father.

“We have a lot to do here,” he said as he motioned to the area about me. I had expected him to tell me how he felt about Mother’s passing, but he did anything but. The way he spoke – the way he looked, it was the same manner that he had been speaking with Vasmus in. I wasn’t being addressed as his daughter; I was being spoken to as a Mandalorian. “We’ll need to have a few men bring down a few of those trees in the woods and have pits dug out. The cache’s mines are going to be vital in preparing.”

I stared at him, stupefied as he spoke. I understood him well enough and nodded, but I found it hard to believe that he was talking to me as though I was his equal. Was I supposed to respond to him? Was I supposed to wait for him to finish saying everything? Put on the spot like this, I didn’t even know what my name was. I wanted to curl up and cry somewhere, and yet he was applying pressure to make sure I did just the opposite. I had to throw my shoulders back and stand tall. I had to think, act, and look like an adult.

“Come with me and I’ll show you where I want the mines laid.”
“You want me to do it?” I asked in disbelief.
“Why wouldn’t I?”

If I was going to survive – if my family was going to survive, then I had to do what I was told. I nodded with as much strength as I could muster in response to my father’s directive and accompanied him as he detailed the areas we would be fortifying. In all, our home was in an advantageous place that I have come to believe he always expected to act as some kind of fortification. We were uphill so no one would sneak up on us, and with our vantage point we also had a superior firing range should we spot a distant enemy.

The fields could be turned into trenches; the river was a natural barrier against invasion from the west. While I knew that a person could easily cross it if they wanted to, to do so would give us enough time to snipe off anyone that thought they would get the drop on our base of operations. The woods were always a danger, but by the same token they could be converted into lookout and scout positions. If need be, they could be set ablaze and the enemy cooked alive within them. These things I was told with a rapid-fire pacing as my father explained to me the intricacies of combat. We would require watch towers to ensure that no aerial raids were coming, and the bunker he had built beneath our house would need to be expanded if we were going to accommodate the other warriors we had taken on.

There was definitely a storm on the horizon. Just as I felt the wind brush against my face, I could also sense the approaching chaos. I do not know if I should blame Uncle Valgor for what happened. Perhaps if he stayed where he was we would have been able to easily repel any invaders, or if he had not challenged my father so openly my mother would not have gone out as she would. But in that moment I realized the lesson that my mother tried to teach me those years ago – the lesson that I bristled under.

It didn’t matter whether or not something if might have happened, all that we needed to concern ourselves with was what did happen. There was now a war going on and the Clan Daue was in its most vulnerable position ever. The odds were certainly against us if Vace and Hundar were working together, and although I wanted nothing more than to make them pay for what they had done to my brother and mother, I could not forget that thinking like that was what had gotten us into so much trouble.

As though my father knew that I was coming to understand the ways of a warrior, he turned his attention to me. “So what do you think we should do, Siana?”

I wasn’t quite certain how to answer. I knew that attacking preemptively was a mistake. While defense would be nice, no Mandalorian would want to be stricken and not strike back. There was only one answer that seemed right to me – my first instinct. I didn’t question it and responded with confidence.

“We should persevere,” I said.
“So we shall.”

We made our way back to the home. Bird the Dog began running alongside us, seemingly aware that something in the air had changed. I still wanted to cry, but I had learned how to keep it buried deep inside of myself. The walk came to an end when we were at the porch.

“So are you ready for tomorrow?” My father asked. I looked at him without bothering to mask my confusion.
“Tomorrow?”

He placed his hand on my shoulder and nodded. “I can’t afford to look after my daughter in the coming times, Siana. I’m going to need a Mandalorian warrior at my side.”

But that transition required an act that I didn’t know if I was ready for. I opened my mouth in disbelief and then closed it. The denials that were welling up in me were weak; far weaker than the crying I had done previously. The Clan Daue needed me to act like a Mandalorian woman now, not a child. I had to sacrifice; I had to be willing to lose it all if it meant helping my people. My mother and Cassir had done that in the north.

The least I could do was continue that legacy.

“I’m ready,” I told him. I was scared and he knew it, but I managed to hide it just as he was whatever he was feeling. He gave me another pat on the head and then entered our home. I looked to Bird the Dog and sat down on the porch. When he nuzzled his head against me, I laid my head down and cried into his fur. I got rid of everything that I was holding onto: my fear, my sorrow, my grief, and my anguish. I emptied myself completely of these things, because I could not afford to carry them with what was on the horizon.

This was to be the last time that Siana Daue cried.
Tomorrow, I would become a woman of the Clan Daue.