“Seeing Red” Short Story
Late again. Jek is going to kill me.
Rass Ordo was only steps away from the entrance to “Cover Fire”, the favored watering hole he and his brother Jekiah had been frequenting for years. When Jekiah wasn’t on assignment, it was a good bet he could be found here at about the same time of day, eating about the same kind of thing, surrounded by about the same kind of people. This was the unofficial cantina of warriors. Real blaster-and-blade types with credits to burn. Everything from the torn posters to the swinging sign, to the thick wood door was the rusty color of dried blood; stained from years of desert winds blowing over the red sand dunes surrounding the settlement. Rass wasn’t born on Geonosis, but he lived here long enough to miss the fiery sunsets and many moons when work took him off-world.
He pulled on the red-tinged brass handle. The heavy oak door couldn’t muffle the rowdy din inside. He swung it open in a piercing, unoiled grind and was enveloped in the spicy tang of cooking food, bitter ale, and the unchecked racket of soldiers on leave.
He stepped inside, squinting into the dim light. The regulars gave a loud cheer. Rass waved back with a big smile. Expecting a deserved dressing-down from his older brother, he quickly picked his way through the tables, nodding, saying hello and slapping a few backs, as he made his way to the familiar corner of the pub. Jekiah was head-down on his personal datapad, his face locked in grim concentration. He looked tired. Rass felt a pang in his chest. Things had changed for Jekiah. A victim of his own competence and leather-chewing stubbornness in the face of impossible odds, Jekiah couldn’t stay hidden from leadership. Shae Vizla, leader of the Mandalorians was hunting down a dangerous rival and promoted Jekiah to Arbiter. His brother was now her voice in all things Mandalorian. A great honor, or as Jekiah himself added, “A great pain in the shebs.”
Jekiah stayed on Geonosis to run the day-to-day operations, preferring a physical distance from the seat of the Mandalore’s power to help people understand he wasn’t Shae Vizla and had no designs on her title. Rass didn’t think it was necessary, but Jekiah was a loyal soldier and would take a wound or two for the good of the cause. He wasn’t rank and file now, but in this ratty cantina on a dusty planet the patrons gave him the greatest compliment they could muster by conspicuously overlooking his new status and continuing to regard him as one of them.
“No lecture?” Rass asked, his voice raised above the clamor as he sat down. Eyeing the datapad, “That must be bad news.” A glance at the bartender got him two drinks.
“Another one dead. Third one this week.” Jekiah said.
Mandalorians were seldom at peace and today was no exception. Jekiah set his screen down, pulling at his beard, more gray than brown these days. Mandalorians fought. It was a way of life and Rass was proud of that. “You don't sharpen a blade you don’t intend to use.” His brother always said. The drinks were dropped down without ceremony. Rass pushed one over.
“Another attack on Clan Shale. This one was barely out of training.” Jekiah handed over the datapad. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the body again.
“Nerak?” Rass didn’t have to ask. Clan Nerak wasn’t shy about making their point with spilled blood. Rass looked at the screen. This was them all right.
“Likely. They don’t know when to back down.”
“What a blasted waste.” Jekiah took a swig to wash down the frustration.
Clan Nerak was young by Mandalorian standards, effective but unremarkable and still finding its identity. So when the former leader mocked an impulsive upstart named Ballag and was killed on the spot, some called it a proper challenge, others called it a murder. Ballag became the head of the clan but his reputation was stained. He had a problem with appearing weak.
Ballag started picking fights and spilling blood to prove his strength. The latest and most daring trouble was with Clan Shale. They were an old and respected clan with the trophies and glory to prove it.
The body on the screen deserved a better death with a better enemy.
“What do you expect with Ballag running them?” Rass said. “He’s going to run Nerak into the ground if he keeps this up.” He scoffed. He didn’t like Ballag. Too stubborn to lead, too stupid to see it.
“I’ve spoken to Arla Shale.” Jekiah said. “Fought with her during that raid on Darvannis. She’s solid but won’t let her people be treated like this. It won’t end without a lot more bodies. With Mandalore gone, we need to stand as one.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Call them in. It’s time to talk.”
“A duel?” Arla asked, her lined and scarred face betraying no emotion. Without a moment of consideration, she nodded to Jekiah. “As the Arbiter decides.” No hint of fear in her eyes, only steely certainty.
Ballag hesitated. He stood a head taller than everyone. His eyes were an uncanny yellow and flicked from Jekiah to Arla, the tiniest hint of unease in his gaze. Arla was experienced- maybe not faster, maybe not stronger, but Ballag would have to be a blind to consider her an easy target. Arla arched an eyebrow at the pause.
“Agreed.” He said, his chest puffing out. Rass felt the need to roll his eyes but controlled himself. The matter would be ended. Maybe. Rass trusted Jekiah, but he wasn’t sure this would work. Too much had happened, and the cuts were too deep.
“Good.” Jekiah nodded. “But before I make it official, there’s one more condition.” His eyes were like two chips of obsidian. “If you’re defeated,” he began slowly, watching each leader, “You and your clan will be destroyed. No quarter, no exceptions.”
“What!” Ballag and Rass exclaimed at once. Rass stepped towards Jekiah, his voice incredulous.
Jekiah’s look stopped Rass cold. This wasn’t his brother. No friendly face from a thousand memories of wrestling in the training yard or stealing a ride on an unattended speeder parked behind the marketplace. This was the Arbiter of the Mandalorians. His word was law.
“You can’t destroy a whole clan over this!” Ballag persisted. This was a reasonable outcry, but at this moment it sounded weak.
“Agree to this duel or end your dispute.” Jekiah said.
“I agree.” said Arla. She remained impassive, but there was something on her face. A wariness and something else- amusement? Something passed between Jekiah and her. Rass couldn’t tell what.
That whisper of something on her face enraged Ballag. Spots of red began to appear. He glared death at her.
“Well?” Jekiah’s face was iron.
The young man clenched his fists and sneered. “Haar’chak!” He cursed. “Agreed!” He turned and stormed out. Arla nodded to Jekiah and followed, the door booming shut behind them.
“The clans won’t like this. Not one bit. What have you done?”
Jekiah leveled him unflinching glare. “Made a decision.”
The arena. As far from the grand halls of Alderaan and the greasy lights of Nar Shaddaa as any place could be. There was little distracting decoration set against the brutal stone. It wasn’t a place of entertainment like the Hutts’ foul death pits. It was a place of settling disputes between warriors.
The floor of the arena was a mixture of packed dirt, red sand and gravel that scraped off skin and snagged the feet of any who lost focus. It was a good place to fight and a suitable place to die. After centuries, the grey walls stood stoic to the sounds of battle. There were no seats for those who came to witness, no accommodation for any to be at ease in this place. When others fought, you stood. The assembled were calling out, clashing weapons against armor in a chaotic revery as they waited for the contest to begin.
A single horn sounded. An instrument of bone taken from an ancient beast to signal the start of a contest of honor. The crowd responded in kind with a thunderous howl. Jekiah Ordo, Arbiter of the Mandalorians appeared on the outer edge. The faint shimmer of a shield wall rose high into the air to ensure no witnesses were harmed or tempted to interfere. In the arena, all judgments were final.
Jekiah began to walk. The clamor began to fade with each step. When he reached the center, he paused to survey the crowd. They were as silent as the stone. They disapprove, Rass thought, watching the proceedings from high up in the stands. More than that, they were angry. Word had, of course, got out that more blood would spill when the victor of this contest was decided. Not since Mandalore the Vindicated, a generation ago, had ordered the end of Clan Cadera for their refusal to heed his call had such ruthless measures been taken. Rass had spoken to his brother many times over the last few days, but Jekiah would not yield. The leaders of these two clans would fight, the winner would walk away and the loser and all who followed them would die. Jekiah stood unmoving in the center. He nodded.
Ballag of Clan Nerak and Arla Shale from Clan Shale entered from opposite sides. Ballag wore trophies on his belt, skins, furs, and bones of monsters he had faced. He had a vicious, bladed buckler at his wrist and an ugly scattergun resting on his shoulder. He tilted his head to the crowd, raising his arms in premature victory. Arla had no adornments, save the worn finish on her armor and the long rifle with a sharpened bayonet attached at its tip. Her gaze never strayed from her opponent.
A clash of metal sounded among the witnesses. The noise grew louder and louder as everyone struck the ground, a chest plate or two weapons together. They would honor the combatants if not the man who put them there.
Mandalorians from the featured clans were there at opposite sides. There was far more at stake than this single match. Rass noticed that some of Clan Nerak were not present. Maybe they lacked confidence in their leader and tried to make a break for it. Cowards. They either supported who led them or they picked a new leader.
Jekiah raised his open hand. The chaotic clashing subsided. A flash of blue fire from his jetpack and he rose high into the air, his hand still open. Every eye was on him. He a looked at Ballag who nodded, beat his chest, and yelled a war cry. He looked at Arla, who swung her rifle forward and nodded. Jekiah closed his fist.
Ballag launched himself forward, his jetpack blazing. Arla sidestepped but he swung his buckler out and slashed across her chest plate and up over her helmet, knocking her down. A small splatter disappeared into the red sand. The crowd cheered. First blood. That was his intention, Rass thought. His life- his entire clan- on the line and he plays to the crowd? Ballag had raised his hands again as Rass watched Arla struggle to stand. The attack had done more damage than it seemed. Leaning heavily on her rifle, she braced herself once again. Ballag charged; this time he connected, throwing her back, almost knocking her off her feet once again. Landing, he leveled his scattergun, but she batted it aside with her rifle just as it fired in a deafening blast. Arla continued the swing of her weapon in a quick arc, and jammed her rifle butt into Ballag’s helmet, snapping his head back. She swung her bayonet back but Ballag ducked under the attack. Dropping his scattergun, he smoothly drew out a long, serrated knife holstered at his leg. He raised it between them, the blade swaying back and forth like a snake.
Ballag was unmatched in melee combat, relying on his strength and speed. He pressed forward with wild swings and short jabs. Arla barely turning each attack aside, using her long rifle as a staff. The ringing of metal on metal was the only thing that rose above the crowd’s noise. Arla was fighting defensively, never wasting energy, never moving a hair’s width further than she had to. She was frustrating Ballag, but her measured defense wouldn’t win this fight.
Another deflection. Ballag cursed and took a step back, spinning the dagger in his hand. Arla held her rifle in front of her. She sported a half dozen cuts across her arms and torso and was beginning to sway on her feet. Ballag let out a bark and spun his dagger once more, drawing her eye. He lunged, sparking his jetpack at the last second and twisting around to catch her with his buckler instead. Blood flew and Arla sank to the ground, one hand on her neck the other on her rifle for support. The crowd surged forward, pressed against the shield. A low rhythmic chant began as Ballag flew high into the air, crying out in victory. Arla gripped the rifle tightly, leaning heavily on it, but couldn’t pull herself to her feet. Rass looked to his brother, his heart racing. Jekiah watched from his hovering perch, his fist still closed.
Ballag reversed his grip on his dagger for a killing blow. Another spark from his jetpack and he streaked towards Arla, his weapon flashing.
With barely an arms-length between them, Arla swung her rifle around- its butt already firmly planted in the ground- and drove the bayonet point into Ballag’s chest, the tip bursting through his shoulder. Ballag cried out, blood rushing out of his mouth. Not a killing blow, but more than enough to end this. Arla caught his dagger as it dropped from nerveless fingers. His mouth opened and closed a few times in shock. Arla stood, no hint of her previous weakness. The wounds at her neck and elsewhere were bloody, but far less serious than they appeared. Ballag grasped at her rifle, but his strength was gone.
Arla raised Ballag’s own dagger high into the air, reversing her grip. The crowd grew silent. She eyed her own clan for several heartbeats. She nodded before turning her gaze on Clan Nerak who sat in silence across the arena. Some were stricken, some were angry, some accepted their fate and waited. She lowered the dagger to Ballag’s throat. Its serrated edge pressing against his exposed skin. He flinched, his eyes gleamed with hate and fear. Jekiah flew closer but said nothing.
“A draw.” Arla said, quietly.
Jekiah landed beside her. Those witnesses close enough to hear began to murmur. “A draw, Arbiter.” She repeated, louder this time.
More of the crowd began to rumble. Jekiah regarded her and the helpless Ballag for a moment.
“A draw is declared!” Jekiah announced, his voice carried to every corner. Cries went up. Rass couldn’t tell if they were angry or shocked. Probably both. Jekiah turned towards Ballag, who was losing a lot of blood. “Do we have agreement?”
Ballag gritted his teeth a few times. The fight continued to drain out of him, mixing with the widening red pool. He nodded.
“This duel is over.” He raised his fist and opened it for all to see.
Arla tossed the dagger away before turning back towards her clan. The clash of weapons on metal was deafening.
Ballag grasped for his dagger with numb fingers. Clan Nerak stood silent.
No sidewalk chats, today. Rass was going to make it.
He rounded the corner and Jekiah was standing outside the pub, looking at his datapad.
He looked up. “Rass. On time. Huh. Should I be worried?” Jekiah said. His eyes were bright. A rare but welcome sight.
“No traffic. Any news?”
“Clan Nerak found a new leader.”
“You don’t say?” Rass smirked. “And Clan Shale?”
“Going strong.” Jekiah nodded. “Arla is a fine warrior. You know I fought with her a ways back.”
“You mentioned that, yeah.” Rass smiled before stepping closer, his voice lowering. “You took a real risk, Jek.”
Jekiah nodded, his eyes darkening. Rass patted him on the shoulder. “Let’s head in.”
“Rass- “Jekiah stopped him, his hand on the door. “I thought we could try the place up the street. Change things up.”
“What? Why?” Rass pulled on the door.
“Rass.” The tone was soft, but he held the door closed. “Let’s leave them to their dinner.” Jekiah took his hand off the door, the red dust falling and swirling around them both. “C’mon. It’s on me.”
The familiar muffled sounds from inside were loud and comforting, but Rass let go of the door and the two brothers walked up the street in silence.