The Keepers of the Flame
Started: May 15th 2000
Finished: June 23rd 2000
It was called the Pillar of Blood, and once it had been bathed in the blood of sacrifice.
Kassim knew this, for his father had told him. What unknown fearsome god could have crafted such a wonder - a pointing finger reaching even to the sky, wrought of some impossible silver stone? An old man, old even when his father's grandfather was a child, had seen a draigon hovering in the sunset, and had watched as it impaled its still-living prey on the needle-sharp point. It was a sign, he had said. Even the wild creatures knew that the pillar demanded sacrifice. Human blood would bathe the stone plinth at the base.
His father had seen a screaming youth slain on this stone, and, at the moment of his death, their eyes had met. He had spat into the sands, and turned away. The youth had once been his friend.
"It demands blood," he still sometimes said, looking into the east at sunset, when the pillar glowed with what was surely more than just reflected light. It was two days away from their present camp - in the desert, all distances were measured in days - but at sunset the pillar rising from the flat sands could be seen from twice as far. "The Keeper has no right. He should be confronted."
"No-one else minds," Kassim used to murmur, weakly. Over time, he had learned not to waste his breath arguing. His father feared the Keepers as much as any old god, but respected them too. He spoke only empty words.
Sixteen years now since the Keeper had walked, solitary out of the sunset, with his black robes and tall wooden staff. The tribe had been an hour from the pillar, then - as close as they dared. Kassim had still lived, with the other children, in the women's tents, still years away from receiving his weapons and moving to the men's side. Like all boys, he had been wily as a snake, and as slippery, evading all attempts to hold him. Secretly he had watched the meeting between their lord, Khalid, and the stranger.
"Lord Keeper." The ritual bow, hands spread to the side and behind, and head and shoulders deeply inclined.
The stranger had responded with the merest nod. Kassim had almost gasped aloud, but Khalid had not reacted to the insult. The Keepers, Kassim knew now, followed different laws. Such a paltry bow, which could earn another man s flogging, was no insult from them. Even being spoken to by a Keeper was a great and rare honour. This he learned even later, talking to travellers over the years. This Keeper - _their_ Keeper - was different from the others. He tolerated, just, the near-worship he received, but did not encourage it.
"There is blood on the steel pillar," the Keeper had said, that first day, without preamble. "Human blood. They died crying out to their own kin, but it was their kin who killed them."
Khalid had licked his lips, shifting on his feet. Who was this, who made their great lord so nervous? Kassim, aged seven, had thought that, if he had a weapon, he might have struck the stranger then. "They died as sacrifice for their kin. It was appeasement. Life comes from their death."
The Keeper had folded his hands in his sleeves. "The pillar is a Relic. You are not to use it in this way."
In hiding, Kassim had blinked, licked his suddenly dry lips. The Keeper seemed, in that moment, impossibly tall, his words deeply resonant and impossible to disobey. His eyes had seemed to spill brilliance over his face, and Kassim had been so sure that he had seen him. Almost he had stepped out and confessed all, but then the man's eyes had moved away, and he seemed again diminished and human.
Kassim's heart had been racing.
"All lives are valuable," the Keeper had said, quietly and almost tender. "The Sands take so many. Do not add to that number, by killing your own. You should live as you can, and flourish."
That had been the start of it. The sacrifices had stopped - no-one then had dared disobey a Keeper - and the Keeper himself had made the Pillar his home, knowing some secret way to slide away the sacrifice stone and reveal... what? A network of chambers, most guessed.
Some, though, spoke of a darker explanation, and said that the Keeper walked down those hidden stone steps and out of this world entirely, and lived in the land of the spirits. These were the men who had most favoured the sacrifices. As they were in awe of the Keepers almost more than a nameless ancient god who was not even theirs, most willingly swapped the shedding of blood for the living presence of the man, and felt equally fearful and protected by both.
The Keeper was often absent, though. As with all his kind, he travelled much, obeying the summons of his petitioners, and occasionally entertaining other black-robed traveller, who walked alone or in pairs, with their staffs and their relics and no apparent need for water.
Once, Kassim had been high in the hills to the east of the pillar, days from home and hunting. At dawn, he had been able to see forever - to the pillar that marked the border between the Sands and the hills, and beyond to the smears of smoke of his own small tribe, and others still further.
The black robes had looked like tiny insects, dancing lazily on the plain. One had emerged from the pillar, greeting two who had come together. Only one had departed, alone. Where one had emerged from the pillar, two had returned, close, as if hand in hand.
The newcomer was a child, Kassim - little more than a child himself and arrogantly dismissive of anyone even just a year younger than himself - had realised. A Keeper child. He had been both intrigued, and deeply jealous.
All knew that the Keepers knew mysteries, and had powers. What future did he, younger son of a younger son in a smaller tribe of the Sharai, have to compare with this boy's, who would grow up to be called Lord Keeper and would know unutterable truths?
And what future had the Sharai themselves, unsure of their past and their future, wandering restless through the desert to no clear end?
He had been fifteen then, and this was long before Hasan came with his own answers to those questions, and changed everything.
Kassim squinted in the sun-drenched Sands, his forearm pressed against his brow to shield his eyes from the glare. The pale sands and the silver pillar shone cruelly. He knew of men who had gone blind in the desert at midday.
It was like walking in a field of light. The sacrifice stone shone brighter than the sand, and surely it produced light and did not merely reflect. As always, he felt the fear he had been taught. As always, too, the awe.
He swallowed hard, and began to skirt the pillar round to the north.
The sun was just past its highest, and the shadow of the pillar was still short, but immensely black. To his eyes, dazzled by the sun, it could as well have been a black pit. Men could have sat there, their backs to the pillar, and even if they had been wearing white, he would have been unable to see them.
A figure unfolded itself slowly from the darkness - no, two figures. The tall Keeper and his smaller apprentice faced him silently. He blinked hard, but their faces were still only blurs in the darkness. Knowing they could see him clearly, he wanted to shiver, feeling naked and exposed. It was irrational; even if he stood in the darkness and they were blindfold, they would see him clearly.
"Lord Keeper," he began, bowing, but then the Keeper gestured with his arm, inviting him into their small shade. He stepped forward, and turned away from the light to force his eyes to adapt. As if understanding his need not to speak until he could see the faces of those who listened, the two men stood silent and still, waiting for him.
When he could see, he saw two men who were strangers. The apprentice he had only seen from a distance, and always with his hood shading his face. His eyes were as blue as the sky, he saw now, and his hair the colour of sand at sunset and worn, neither in the style of his Master, nor in the long single braid of the Sharai, but loose around his face to his shoulders.
Like his Master, his skin was pale. These two, Keeper and apprentice, were the only white-skinned men Kassim had ever seen, but the Keepers were not a race apart. He had heard of Sharai Keepers, and of one whose skin was as dark as the brown of Sharai eyes.
Their eyes met, himself, and this Keeper apprentice, a young man only a year or two younger than his own twenty three. What could they possibly have in common? Almost fiercely, he looked away.
The Lord Keeper, next - a man he had seen this close only once before, when a child, and should not have had even that one glance. He had changed. The eyes were the same brilliant dark blue, but the face was more lined and the hair just touched with scatterings of grey. Most shockingly, a livid recent scar marred his face, reaching from his cheekbone and upwards into his hairline, only just missing his eye.
Those eyes met his consideringly, and then looked away. Suddenly aware that he had been staring - and that the Keepers could read secret thoughts, or so it was said - Kassim started speaking - awkwardly and to the point, and not the practised polite words he had been coached in.
"Lord Keeper. I come from the Sanamaya. We've... Someone's found a Relic. Would you consent to come?"
The Keeper folded his arms. Kassim remembered when he had seemed as tall as a god. He had been young, then, and foolish. This man had wisdom and powers, but was still a man. His eyes were piercing, but with no unearthly light. "What manner of Relic?"
"I didn't see it, my lord. A man was digging a pit for keeping meat cold, and he found it. No-one has touched it, of course, or gone near it." He allowed himself a wry smile to cover his nervousness. Could these men truly sense his thoughts, of know if he was lying? "They're scared stiff of it, naturally."
"Naturally," the Keeper said dryly, but the other one, the apprentice, gave a small smile, his eyes dancing and seeming, once again, to be seeking Kassim's.
"Will you come?" he asked, uncomfortable, and suddenly very keen to get away. The Keepers had always fascinated him. Now, in their living presence, it turned out he was as fearful and superstitious as any foolish old man. And, of course, Hasan had been talking, and he wasn't sure about it yet, but it made one think...
The two men exchanged a long look. Strangely, it was the younger one who seemed, at last, to give a barely perceptible nod. But it was the older one, the Keeper, who spoke, so perhaps he had imagined it. "We will come. Ride ahead and tell them. We know where the Sanamaya camp, and will follow after on foot."
Kassim bowed his thanks - the deepest bow of respect, as to a Lord, even to the boy who was younger than him.
Only when he stepped out of the shadow did he feel he could breathe easily. Even though it was hot, he rode fast.
When the cloud of dust on the western horizon dispersed in the still air, Qui-Gon Jinn turned to his apprentice. "He was hiding something."
It was not phrased as a question, but Obi-Wan knew what was meant. Even when they were alone, his Master refused to speak openly of the true state of affairs, acting as if all was well.
"I don't think so," he said, slowly. "He was uncomfortable, but no more. At least, nothing I could sense."
"It means nothing," Qui-Gon said, musingly. "If it was a trap, they wouldn't dare send a messenger who knew of it."
"You think it's a trap?"
"The news has been dark." Qui-Gon spoke of the messenger birds only. The other Keepers had not been yet learned the particular signature of Obi-Wan's mind, so could not reach him that way.
"Master," he began, speaking quickly before he could regret it. "This can't..."
"It can, Obi-Wan." The word was almost like a slap, demanding obedience. His Master had not lost that. "What choice is there?"
He clutched his hands tight. "The truth."
"Who is served by that? They..." - an expansive gesture at the Sands - "need a Keeper to calm their fears and protect them from the power of the Relics. I know you are skilled, but they still see a boy. For now, and for a few years more, they need me."
"I'm..." He swallowed hard. Perhaps this was the heart of it - not concern for his Master's pain, or guilt at deceiving people, but simple, selfish fear. "I'm afraid I'm not strong enough for it."
Qui-Gon touched his hand briefly, and, far from being angry at Obi-Wan's outburst, his eyes were tender. He had changed so much since the accident, and not all changes were bad. As if recognising his own mortality, he had grown more ready to express his feelings. "You are strong, Obi-Wan, and able to do anything these people will ask of me, and more."
He tried to smile, but found it was more like a sigh. "I don't like lying."
"But I am your Master, and order you to." Qui-Gon's face was less harsh than his words. "The Keepers pride obedience before even honesty."
He held his Master's gaze, and when he spoke, his eyes were smiling, though his voice was solemn. Let Qui-Gon take it as a joke if he wished, but it was serious. "You never agreed with that rule, Master. You never really agreed with any rulings of the conclave."
Qui-Gon passed his hand over his face. "No." He sighed, and said, "no," again. "It's hard to face it, Obi-Wan, or even to think about it. If I ignore it, it..."
"Might stop being true?" Obi-Wan said, very quietly. "Oh, Master..."
Then, without further words, he moved forward and took his Master into a close embrace. Giving, or receiving, comfort - who could say which was which?
Eyes watched them from the hangings of tent doorways; few dared stand in the presence of a Keeper. Like the mirage of heat rising from the Sands, Obi-Wan could sense the awe and fear rising, almost visibly, from the hiding places of the Sanamaya.
Only Khalid, their Lord, came to greet them, walking slowly and bowing with the deference Obi-Wan knew his Master hated. A few others, young and rash, stood openly before their tents, with a nonchalance in their eyes and posture that was not reflected in their sense.
The young man who had come as messenger was one of them. Obi-Wan wished he could catch his eye, or even smile. As a child, far away in the north, he had had friends. Since the dark man had taken him from his home and brought him here, to the desert and Qui-Gon Jinn, all he had known were old men, and heavy talk of the ancient past, and a sacred trust. He loved his Master, but sometimes he was very lonely.
"My Lord Keeper." Khalid straightened from his deep reverence.
Obi-Wan almost started, returning his attention to the scene. However trivial this exchange, Qui-Gon would demand a full report afterwards, absorbing the details almost hungrily - who had thought what, what had they felt, what undercurrents had there been.
"This way, my Lord." Khalid gestured expansively. Outwardly, he was all honour; inside, Obi-Wan thought, he was very much Lord of his tribe, and resented this very much.
Qui-Gon did not follow. His sense was all hard cold stone. "You will treat my apprentice with the same respect you treat me," he said, his voice chilling. "You will include him when you speak to us. He, too, is a Keeper."
<No!> Obi-Wan thought, sharply, but of course Qui-Gon could not hear him. He had been so unpredictable these last few months. They had agreed to deal with the situation one way, and Qui-Gon would, on apparent impulse, do something totally opposite.
"He has a Keeper's full powers," Qui-Gon continued, as if heedless of - or not caring about - his apprentice's consternation. "He is twenty one, and far older than the age when your tribe makes a boy a man."
Obi-Wan knew what Qui-Gon would say - what words he would speak, afterwards, when he turned his placid eyes upon Obi-Wan. "It would have happened soon anyway. One day I won't be here, and you _will_ be their Keeper. Before that time, they have to be taught to see you as one, not as a mere boy. All that's changed is that it's happening sooner rather than later." Then, perhaps, softer, "you're right, Obi-Wan. I have been hiding from the truth, thinking I could live this... this charade."
Would he soften then, once again, and respond to that terrible pain in his Master's eyes? He hoped he would stand firm. "Today was too soon, Master, and too sudden. We feared it was a trap. We agreed that our best weapon is what it has always been - for them to discount me, or, at least, for them to think my powers are nothing compared to yours."
Stubborn, of course, and listening to no-one - neither his apprentice nor the conclave - Qui-Gon, whom Obi-Wan loved but was frequently infuriated by, would doubtless just fold his arms, and concede nothing at all.
Here with the Sanamaya, Khalid bowed again, stiffly, boiling with a resentment that Obi-Wan could sense only too well. "My Lord Keepers." He stressed the plural. "Will you follow me."
As they walked, Obi-Wan shot Qui-Gon a long questioning look, but Qui-Gon only looked straight ahead.
All resentment fell away at the sight of the Relic, of course. It always did.
Khalid had led them to a hole in the ground, twice the height of a man. Obi-Wan had simply jumped down without an invitation - doubly rash, perhaps, but the physical danger at least he had alleviated, cushioning his landing with the Force. While Qui-Gon, more slowly, had climbed down the ladder, Obi-Wan had enjoyed a few moments in the damp darkness, taking a few deep cleansing breaths, seeking focus.
"Where?" Qui-Gon had murmured, when he stood beside Obi-Wan.
But there had been only one place to go. The hole opened into a small chamber, no different at first sight from any number of such chambers dug by the dwellers of the Sands to keep their food cool. As their eyes had adapted to the darkness, though, they had seen that one wall of the chamber was made of stone blocks, as if a man had been digging a hole and come up suddenly against some long-buried structure.
In the wall was a doorway, and, beyond the doorway - curiosity temporarily overruling superstition - someone had begun to excavate the sand from a roofless stone passage. Four steps forward, they had walked, then round a corner, and one step forward, then another...
The Force sang to him then.
"Look." He crouched down, reaching with a trembling hand towards the Relic. "Look," and "Master..."
It had fallen, long ago, in the middle of the passage, as if some long-dead man had been fleeing desperately to reach the door, but had been struck down mere paces before. He had fallen forward, hands flung out to cushion his fall. Still he had clutched his precious Relic, refusing to let even the approach of death steal it from him. His decaying hand had held it even after, though carrion creatures ate his flesh and scattered his bones.
And then sands of a thousand years had fallen through the roofless passageway, burying man and Relic. Waiting, waiting, spirit and Relic, for one of the man's own people to return, and use the Relic once more in the service of his cause.
"Obi-Wan?" he heard, as from an immense distance. The long-dead man was calling to him, calling...
...and was his Master, crouching behind him, one hand on his shoulder.
He shook his head fiercely, and the vision dispersed. Just imagination, he was sure, prompted by the Relic, and that white end of human bone protruding from the impacted sand.
"Take it, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon whispered, strangely naked looking, his face pale in the darkness, and his mouth uttering words he would once never have thought to say. "If it's safe."
Some Relics exploded on touch. This, he knew, would not. As instinctively as using his eyes, he had touched it with the Force and knew its workings. It was safe to hold, though, in human hands, it could still be deadly. He thought he knew what it was.
He touched it reverently, and knew that his sense was as much full of awe as any of the Sharai's would have been, faced with a Relic. He closed his hand round it, and drew it free.
"See, Master." He stood, his voice like a breath, and his eyes shining. He held it out in his right hand.
Qui-Gon frowned. There was something hungry about his sense, and his voice cracked a little as he asked, "what?"
Obi-Wan stepped past his Master, back into the chamber. He needed space for this, and was not entirely sure how much. He only knew legends.
Qui-Gon stood in the doorway, one hand on the ancient stone. He came no closer.
Was it because of the vision he had imagined, and the almost palpable sense of the Force pulsing in the Relic in his hand? He felt as if he was part of something infinitely old, and vast, and eternal. With a thought, he could rise up now and walk to a greater destiny than anything Qui-Gon could now aspire to. Standing in the doorway, an onlooker, Qui-Gon looked frail and empty and human, like a child eavesdropping on things he could not understand.
Then, with a thought - <no!) - the feeling vanished. Qui-Gon was his Master, and immensely wise, and had used powers Obi-Wan could only dream of. They would share everything, for he loved him.
"Master," he said, inviting him closer and needing him to know everything. "This is like no other Relic I've seen. It was crafted with the Force. It positively sings with it. I think..."
And then, because to see it spoke more loudly than words, he pressed the button on its side.
Nothing, not vision, or Force, or any legends that told him what to expect, could stop the gasp of sheer awe that escaped him when the blue blade of pure light emerged from the end of the Relic. The air pulsed with sound and the very living essence of light. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, and he shivered. The Force was as thick around him as if he had been bathing in an oasis pool.
"The sword of light," he breathed, aloud. "Master, like you told me... The swords of light that the Keepers used to wield, in the days before."
"Yes," Qui-Gon said, his face unreadable, and bleached, drained of life, in contrast with the vibrant blue that responded to the every movement of his hand. Then he gave a small strange laugh. "I hardly believed it. I have seen such wonders, but still I thought this was more likely to be legend than truth."
"It's truth." Obi-Wan laughed with pure joy. He swung with sword, using it like the staff Qui-Gon had long ago taught him to fight with, if needed. It was shorted, and responded differently. He would need to learn, but the feeling was still exhilarating. He swung high, then low, then in a complete circle, pivoting quickly on his feet. Then, on sudden impulse, he lunged at the stone wall, and watched the sword sink into it to its very hilt, as if it was cutting through nothing more than the finest of sand.
He turned to Qui-Gon, ready to speak - what? What could speak of his awe, his reverence, his joy? He had no words for it, and Qui-Gon could never sense it. Qui-Gon was not the only one trapped in loneliness, unable to truly communicate.
"That's enough, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said. His words were cold and disapproving, and would have punctured Obi-Wan's elation if it had not already faded.
He switched off the blade, and, like falling off a cliff, was back in reality, far away from that wondrous existence in the Force, when pure light had danced to his command.
Too late, then, he became aware of the man who watched them from the top of the hole.
"There was a man," he had tried to tell Qui-Gon. "Watching us."
"I saw him too," his Master had said, "and before you did."
A glance only, and perhaps even a meeting of eyes. Lost in the wonder of the sword, Obi-Wan had not sensed him in time. He had flailed for the Force - to step down from that almost mystical world of light and use it for ordinary prosaic things like sensing a man's emotions - but could only reach out like a grasping hand closing round empty air as its quarry slipped away.
He had made no attempt to hide his fault from his Master. "I'm sorry I didn't sense him earlier, or learn his intent. I was distracted." So much unsaid, with shining eyes even though he was contrite - <Oh, Master, if you had felt it...>
"Probably just curious," Qui-Gon had said, with an air of finality. He had reached for the ladder, so easily leaving behind a chamber where they had seen wonders. "Not all fear the Relics. In my opinion, as you know, that is a good thing."
Sword hastily stowed in his pack - as if it was of no account, and not a marvel, not a living link with the Keepers who lit the flame so long ago - Obi-Wan had been left with nothing to do but follow.
All the known familiar words and actions, as if nothing had changed. "I have taken the Relic into my care. No harm will come to you." Deep bowing, and words of gratitude. Food offered and accepted, though a feast declined. "We will be on our way, Khalid."
And then walking on foot into the desert, slower than they were used to, for Qui-Gon had not his old endurance, and needed more water. A Keeper on foot could usually equal a man on a camel for endurance and pace.
"I'm not happy about it," he tried again, as the sky reddened towards night. "The other Keepers have been reporting trouble - tribes turning against them. Why dismiss it so quickly?"
Qui-Gon walked a few steps, looking straight ahead. Two days distant, their home shone like a beacon of fire. "What could we do, if he _did_ mean us harm? Should we have stayed with the Sanamaya? What could we do there, that we could not do here, or at the Pillar?"
"We would not be alone." <_I_ would not be alone> he meant. Alone in a desert night, with unknown threats galloping over the Sands towards them, and him alone to save his Master and the precious burden he bore...
Qui-Gon stopped, and turned to him. "That worries you still?" Tenderness and ferocity warred in his face. He spoke with a mixture of both. "I would give anything for you not to be in this position, Obi-Wan. You know that."
Qui-Gon bore the greater burden, surely. He knew that, but, still... His Master wavered between denial, and almost rash acceptance. At times he insisted that nothing need change; other times, Obi-Wan almost felt his Master was willingly heading for self-destruction, and would take Obi-Wan with him.
He searched for words that would be understanding, and yet say this. He delayed too long, and the moment was past. Qui-Gon was back on practical matters, coolly proving his objections to be foolish. "As you reminded us, our brothers tell us of this Hasan, and how he is turning the tribes against us. Are we not then safer here, in the Sands, than with the Sanamaya?"
<Safer> he thought, recognising the wisdom of his Master's words. <Perhaps. Safer, but alone.>
The last sliver of sun sank below the flat horizon, and night fell like a veil.
<Alone> he thought, suddenly cold, but walking on. Alone in the whole vast Sands, and his Master had come here, not because it was the wise thing to do, but for his own reasons - reasons that had little to do with wisdom, and everything to do with desperation.
"I'll take first watch," Qui-Gon said, when they had finished their scanty rations and built their fire for the night.
Obi-Wan was about to object - <you need more sleep, Master. If there's danger, I can do a better job> - but Qui-Gon looked at him with undisguised ferocity. "I am not yet incapable, Obi-Wan."
Although wrong in so many things these last few months, Qui-Gon was human, and hurting deeply, and who was Obi-Wan to say that he would have acted any better, had he suffered such a loss? "No, Master," he said, quietly, and meant it. "Of course not."
He curled on his side, eyes open and staring past the fire to the great inverted bowl of night. Alert for the danger he was so sure was coming, he thought he was stay awake; mindful of his Master's feelings, he thought he would at least feign sleep.
He closed his eyes...
...And opened them to Qui-Gon calling his name, quick and urgent, as hoof beats pounded the sand, and men shouted.
"Why didn't you wake me earlier?" he hissed, pushing himself quickly to his feet. Really he was cross with himself, for sleeping. He had expected something like this.
"I woke you as soon as I heard them," Qui-Gon said quietly.
Take away the enhanced messages of the Force, and perhaps they were not so very loud after all. Those shouts were not even real, but twenty silent war cries, and emotions straining for battle.
"What shall we do, Master?" he asked, contrite. Qui-Gon was still the Master, and could still order him with a word.
"We stay." Qui-Gon raised his head, his arms at his side, and his face all quiet dignity and acceptance of anything fate had in store for him. "Where can we run?"
Obi-Wan glanced at the pack that contained the sword of light, and then his wooden staff, resting still on the sands. But Qui-Gon's hands were empty, and he would follow his Master's lead.
Side by side and unarmed, they stood.
They were pale figures against the darkness of the night - white-clad men on white horses. When they were still a spear's throw away, they wheeled out, half going left and half right, and then around, until the two Keepers were surrounded. Then, slowly now, they advanced.
"Stand," Qui-Gon murmured, without moving his lips, or once breaking that mask of dignity and acceptance. "Do nothing until we know their intentions."
Obi-Wan locked eyes with the one he knew was their leader, both by his clothes and the arrogance that suffused his sense. Cool and aloof, and slightly challenging. It was not his Master's way, but he had been forced to grow up fast and was learning his own way.
The man blinked, and looked away. When, angry, he met Obi-Wan's eyes again, Obi-Wan was all mildness.
"Keepers!" the man shouted, all haughty command, and only Obi-Wan knew that it was a cover for his discomfiture. He gestured at his men - commands deftly given with a few hand movements - and they stopped in a loose circle. Two men in three dismounted and drew their scimitars.
"Who addresses us thus?" Qui-Gon asked, calmly.
"I am Jazra." He did not wear the dress of the Sanamaya, or any other tribe Obi-Wan knew. His dress suggested he was tribeless, an outcast, though his arrogance and confidence suggested something else entirely.
"And what is your intention, Jazra, in coming upon us in the night?" Too late to pretend that they were not hostile. Qui-Gon spread his hands, in that old practised mildness, that promised so much more. "Do you dare try to take us?"
Jazra waved one hand, dismissively. "I know of the famed Keeper powers."
Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes. "Do you?"
The smallest flick of his finger, and it was his signal. In one single dramatic gesture, Obi-Wan spread both hands before him, all ten fingers spread. He had thought to go for one of the drawn swords, then changed his mind, and plucked at Jazra's own dagger, pulling it from its jewelled sheath and drawing it over the sands towards him, with beckoning fingers.
He almost smiled at the startled gasps of the men, and Jazra's instinctive, too-late lunge for his stolen weapon. This was a game, after all - a show, though beneath it everything was deadly serious. He could have done the same without any hand movements at all, of course, but this was their performance, and they had good reason.
"That was my apprentice, and such a little thing." Qui-Gon raised his own hand slightly, inviting them to wonder what he, the Master, could do. <Don't provoke me to worse> was the silent threat.
Jazra laughed. There was a secret glee in his sense - a jealous guarding of some secret weapon, and joyous anticipation of the moment of revelation. He spread his hands. "As I ordered... Go."
The dismounted men surged forward, scimitars drawn, half heading for Obi-Wan, and half for his Master.
<Master!> Obi-Wan cried, in sudden silent fear. It was time - the time he had long dreaded. The burden all lay on him, and what could he do against so many? He saw their teeth in the darkness, like the monsters of nightmare. Their swords shone.
For the merest instant, before the surge of men separated them, Obi-Wan saw his Master nod.
But what could he do? <It's too much, Master> and <I'm sorry. I can't.> Two or three men, perhaps, he could deal with - disarming them with the Force, or physically pushing them away. He had not yet been granted the permission to kill - to burn the whole lot with an arc of spraying fire - though he knew how to. Qui-Gon was allowed to, but the charade would not stretch that far.
"Obi-Wan," he heard.
Turning a bleak look on his Master - <it's wrong, Master, to force me to go along with this> - he pointed with his fingers, and pushed away one of the half dozen men that were closing on him. He was weary - what good would it do? But Qui-Gon, too, was spreading his hands and pointing, and he obliged, wrenching at the man with the Force without any visible movement.
A token resistance only. Allow him his staff, and allow him to fight only for himself, without this charade, and perhaps he could remain free. This was too much.
"You will not hold us," he heard Qui-Gon say, though men held both his arms, and three sword points were at his throat.
<Master> he could have groaned. <Don't. It's not _like_ that any more...>
"No?" Jazra dismounted, and walked slowly up to Qui-Gon.
Obi-Wan, ignored, was held in the same way as his Master, but thought it was perhaps less firmly. If so, that was surely good. They had planned all along to encourage people to discount Obi-Wan.
"What do you want?"
"The Relic." Jazra paced round Qui-Gon, round the men who were holding him. Qui-Gon listened, but looked only straight ahead. "The one my man saw your apprentice using. The one he says is a shining sword that can cut even through stone. The one..." - pacing - "that I want."
Jazra laughed - a practised laugh, designed to intimidate and not for true mirth. "As a weapon. Why else?" He paused, stopping directly behind Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan could see his Master's muscles tense, as if expecting a blow in the back, but thought no-one else could see it. "I have enemies, Keeper. You have a weapon. And how many more do you have, hoarded away in your pillar?"
Obi-Wan could sense his Master struggling for a response. He disapproved of his Order hoarding the Relics and not sharing their benefits, but had no desire to put instruments of death in the hands of unscrupulous men. "You are not with Hasan, then?" he asked, instead of any true reply.
"No." An expression of disgust, and, inside, pure, elemental hatred. "One day, I will kill him." There was utter confidence in those words.
It was enough to make Qui-Gon make up his mind. "Not with a Relic as a weapon," he said, firmly.
"And you will you stop me, old man?"
The glee was rising to the surface, bubbling forth. Any moment now... <No> Obi-Wan cried, as if, with enough willing, his Master would hear. <Be careful...>
He was poised and ready, Force leashed and waiting for his word, his whole mind focused on the men who held his Master, sensing each one individually and knowing him. The sword points just inches from his throat... If they all moved at once, Qui-Gon was dead. But if he had time - just instants between each man - he could strike the sword aside the moment the man's brain signalled to his hand to move.
He was ready.
Lips moved distantly - Jazra and his Master, talking. He heard no words, barely saw them. The minds of six men filled his whole being. He had never attempted anything like this - never.
His Master turned then, facing him full on. His lips moved in a single scream, as if crying one word, or two, maybe - two syllables. His name, perhaps?
He couldn't understand.
And then a massive weight crashed down on him. The Pillar crumbling, the very sky falling... Enormous pain exploded in his skull, blossoming red to fill the whole world.
Someone was laughing.
His mouth was full of sand.
He saw images only, flickering like a dream.
"No." That was his Master, and the sound of struggling. "Let me go to him."
Later, there was metal sliding on metal. He thought it was a battle, but opened his eyes to see men with swords sheathed, stepping back. Only two men held his Master now.
Despite himself, he groaned. His Master's head whipped round, both relief and pain on his face.
"You are as weak as anyone now." That was Jazra. "Weaker, for I hear the Keepers do not like to kill."
"I am the Master. You have seen only a tiny part of my powers." Qui-Gon fought with the men who held his upper arms, and managed to raise his hands, his fingers spread. He was threatening, bluffing. Surely he knew the bluff had failed? Or had it finally come - the culmination of all those months of denial? Did he really believe his own words?
"No," he moaned. His fingers clawed impotently at the sand. There was a weight on his back, as if someone held him down with a foot. It pressed down harder, and darkness rose to swallow him...
He saw blood on the sand, and was unsure how much he had missed. Seconds, only, for his Master still stood as he had last seen him, and Jazra had his hands on his hips and his head thrown back in laughter.
Or had it been hours, and they had stayed like that, frozen in this tableau, just waiting for him to see it? He laughed, sobbed, laughed.... A moment of lucidity told him that he was hurt indeed, that he could even think this, and, for a little while, believe it.
"We both know that isn't true," Jazra said.
Qui-Gon looked startled, naked, like an animal frozen on the ground as the claws of some predator swept down on it from the sky. Then he blinked, and was the Keeper Master again. "I have done things you could only dream of."
"You can do nothing. You are powerless, old man."
"I'm..." And Qui-Gon broke before Obi-Wan's eyes. The truth he had been running from for so long had cornered him, and forced him to face it. Sometimes Obi-Wan had longed for this moment, but not like this - never like this. "Why... why do you say that?" he managed, as if it wasn't clear to anyone with eyes that Jazra had spoken the truth.
"My man saw your apprentice wield the sword, and says he had to explain it all to you." Jazra lazily enumerated on his fingers. "That show with the hands, when I know that Keepers can use their powers without moving. Your sudden insistence that the Sanamaya treat your apprentice as a full Keeper. Shall I go on?"
"You are gambling on little evidence." Weakly.
"Yes." Jazra folded his arms, triumphantly. "I am a gambler. I live for risks. But you have proved me right." He nodded towards Obi-Wan. "He was the only one of you with any power, and look at him now."
Obi-Wan refused to meet those dark eyes. Instead - and even focusing was almost more than he could bear - he met his Master's eyes, in commiseration and support.
Qui-Gon's lips moved. "Can you...?"
And then he almost wept. "No." Hard enough just to remain conscious. Qui-Gon wanted him to find the strength to use the Force, just enough to show Jazra that he was wrong and Qui-Gon still had his powers.
<You want the deception for yourself, Master> he thought, sadly. When Qui-Gon moved his fingers and Obi-Wan made the Force respond, Qui-Gon would almost convince himself of the fiction that he still could sense the Force, that he had not lost everything.
"Give me the Relic," Jazra demanded, and all the oily silkiness was gone from his voice. This was a ruthless killer speaking. "Or I'll kill him."
<Him> he thought, stupidly, and <who?> Then feet padded close by his face, on the blood-stained sand, and he saw a flash of metal. A sword at his throat, and not just threatening. It was cold. Something tickled his skin and he thought about it awhile, then knew that warm blood was trickling down his throat. Still, the sword was cold, and that was the dominant sensation. Strange, and he almost laughed.
"Give it to me."
Something in the tone of that voice made him remember where he was. He looked past the metal and saw his Master's face, bleak and bereft, torn between betraying his Order, and killing his apprentice.
How wrong this was. Qui-Gon had lost so much, losing the powers that made him what he was, and forcibly locked alone in his own head. How wrong it was to force him by a word to lose his self-respect - to condemn him to a life of guilt at his own failure, whatever answer he gave.
"No," he said, aloud, his voice far louder than he could have thought possible. "Don't ask him." Just speaking made his throat move against the tip of the scimitar, and fresh blood flowed.
Jazra turned to face him, eyebrows raised expectantly, mockingly. "And what do you have to say about it, half-trained boy, injured, broken?"
He met those eyes. Better those than the eyes of his Master, about to freeze into shocked betrayal. "_I_ will give you the Relic."
"No!" Qui-Gon gasped, when he heard Obi-Wan's words. But he was a nobody now, and no-one heard him. All he saw was Jazra's back as he stood over Obi-Wan, focused only on him.
A nobody, and without the Force, cut off from the whole world, and useless next to his apprentice - an apprentice who now betrayed them all.
"No, Obi-Wan. Oh, no..."
He had pushed him, he knew. "I can't play this charade, Master," he had said so often. "I'm not strong enough to use the Force for the two of us. It's too much of a burden." And, in rare moment of painful treacherous cruelty, spoken clearly in his eyes if not with his voice: "Who are you seeking to deceive with this, Master? The Sharai, or yourself?"
He had pushed him - forced him to be the eyes and ears and mind and soul of their partnership, while he, Qui-Gon, did nothing but give the orders. Was it any wonder now that he rebelled, and sought to make the decisions, too, as he did everything else? He, Obi-Wan, who talked so often of the heavy burden his Master made him bear... Had he not been driven to say anything, to betray anything, to spare himself further pain?
For the sword withdrew from his throat, and the foot on his back stepped back. He was still sprawling in the sand, bleeding and broken, but was no longer in danger. Jazra paced up and down, passing between the two Keepers, and Qui-Gon could never focus clearly on Obi-Wan's face. He wasn't sure he wanted to.
Naked and exposed, his secret shouted to the vast endless Sands, and there was no hiding place left for him at all.
He closed his eyes.
"It's in my pack," Obi-Wan said, his voice broken to little more than a ravaged whisper. "Take it."
He heard rather than saw Jazra's eager rummaging through Obi-Wan's belongings, and the exclamation avaricious glee as he took the sword.
Betrayed, and nothing. The Master was broken in mind, without the Force, and the apprentice was broken in spirit, betraying them all for lack of a little strength.
He opened his eyes. He had lost so much, how could watching it make it worse?
Jazra stood, the metal cylinder in his outstretched hand. With a gleeful expectant smile, he pressed the button on its side.
Nothing happened. Frowning, he tried again, and then again, in increasing anger. A fourth try, and he whirled on Obi-Wan.
"It only works in the hands of a Keeper," Obi-Wan said, calmly. Qui-Gon knew him well enough to see that he was struggling terribly, just to concentrate, to stay conscious, to present this facade. "The same with all of them."
Jazra fell to one knee. "Only you?" Immediately he discounted Qui-Gon.
"Only a Keeper."
Oh, but it was so hard...
Darkness swirled around him, pulsing in his head. The Force was something clear and oily, slipping away from his touch. He had enough for just this - to hold down the button on the sword, and prevent Jazra from activating it, while he lied.
<Let him believe> he pleaded, though who would listen? <Please let him believe, and give up, and leave us alone, and let me rest...>
Jazra laid the weapon down, just as his control slipped and, for a moment, the button was unguarded. A second earlier, and Jazra would have ignited the blade, in the very moment of turning towards Obi-Wan in his anger. He could have died then, though, worse, he would have lost.
"Only a Keeper," he said, struggling for, and finding, that faint sliver of Force again.
Why was Jazra smiling? Without proper command of the Force, he was blind.
Was this how Qui-Gon felt, waking up from the scarlet darkness to a head that poured blood, and a body that was paralysed, and a silent mind? Had he lain there, reaching with increasing desperation for the Force that had always before responded to his call? Obi-Wan had found him, later - Qui-Gon had never told him how long - lying on his back, blinking with dark terrified eyes. Over days the movement in his limbs had returned, but his Force sense never had, and it was months ago now.
He thought he would forgive his Master anything, if this is what he had felt - and worse, too, because Obi-Wan knew his Force sense would return as he healed, and Qui-Gon had no such certainty.
"Only a Keeper," he murmured again, and with one hand, and no apparent effort, he reached for the sword and brought it close to his body.
"Is that so?" Jazra smiled again. "Then you and your Master will just have to do my killing for me."
They sat in a circle round the fire, Jazra and Qui-Gon a little apart. No-one held him now; he was treated as honoured guest.
Obi-Wan lay beside him, unconscious or asleep, the sword still clutched in his two hands. If anyone tried to touch it, he came back, forced by this trigger to return to consciousness. Nothing else, not the fire, or the men's songs, or Qui-Gon's soft incessant touch on his hair, could rouse him.
Qui-Gon felt only the smallest guilt for doubting him. Deprived of the Force, how could he make true judgements of intentions? The Force had always told him if a man was lying or if he was worthy of trust, and he had obeyed his Force-given instincts, never needing to look further. He thought he knew Obi-Wan, but, without the Force to explain his intentions, how could he really be expected to know? So many things had
changed in the last few months.
"This is my problem," Jazra said, when dinner was over. He chewed his last mouthful, washed it down with some wine, then stretched both arms in front of him, like a man settling down for luxury on a couch.
Qui-Gon raised his eyebrows, inviting him to continue. They were two men discussing business in the Sands. There was no Obi-Wan, able to sense far more than he could, and with a word able to influence decisions. That moment of contempt earlier - "old man" - but now he was treated as important, and the Master. A Keeper felt no pride or arrogance, but he was weary of feeling useless.
"My problem is with a man named Shurif Al-Barad," Jazra began, his voice surprisingly quiet. "He..." And then he shrugged, shaking his head. "There's no need to make a long story of it. He has kidnapped my son."
"And you want him killed."
"Yes." Jazra spat into the fire. "Blood vengeance demands it." Then, softer, and surely sincere. "Most of all, I want my son back."
Qui-Gon never once stopped that rhythmic stroking of Obi-Wan's hair. "You want us to help you?"
Jazra didn't reply. For a long moment, he looked up at the distant stars. Then he looked, not at Qui-Gon, but at Obi-Wan - at Qui-Gon's tender hand in his hair, and his lips parted in far from restful sleep. "You must know what feelings I have for my son, Keeper. He... he is twelve."
Only just younger than Obi-Wan, when he had been brought to him, away from his family, but to a man who would grow to love him. Had Obi-Wan's family wept? But they had agreed to Mace Windu taking him, and it had been for the best. Still, Qui-Gon thought he understood how a man would want to kill the man who hurt his child.
"My name is Jinn," he said, softly. "Qui-Gon Jinn."
He woke slowly, like wading through sand that reached to his chest. His head still throbbed, but the Force was a little stronger. A hand rested on his hair. Once, perhaps, it had been stroking, but now it lay still.
He heard words.
"Yes," said his Master, and "I agree" and "I will do it."
Too weak to move, or even to open his eyes - and perhaps it was better this way - better to feign unconsciousness and hear his Master speak his betrayal aloud - he reached out with the small tendril of Force he could muster. Deception clung thickly to the honeyed words, but it was all Jazra's. Qui-Gon spoke truly; this was no trick to get Jazra to lower his guard, or buy them time to slip away.
He had risked death and suffered pain to stop this man, and Qui-Gon just freely handed over anything demanded..
He bit his lip to stop himself moaning aloud.
"I won't kill for you, and neither will Obi-Wan." Ah, that at least was an echo of his old Master, firm and sure, daring all for what was right. Had he imagined everything that had gone before - heard it in some nightmare of delirium?
Anger sparked in Jazra's sense, though, when he spoke, his voice showed nothing of it. "I won't expect you to. though, perhaps, when you see the provocation, you will change your mind." He had changed tactics, that was all. His politeness was pursued with the same ruthlessness as his earlier threats of violence.
"Perhaps." He sensed rather than saw Qui-Gon incline his head. "I make no promises. But we will do what we can do rescue your son."
He thought Jazra smiled then.
"Do you mean to escape? To make him lower his guard and escape?"
This was later, much later, when most around the fire were asleep. The flames, too, were fading and almost gone. Obi-Wan and his Master spoke in hushed whispers, slightly apart. Jazra was watching, but the faintest of breezes blew their words away from him.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "No, Obi-Wan."
It was infuriating - just that "no", and nothing more. Obi-Wan made a secret vow in that moment, then, if a time presented itself, he _would_ escape, and Qui-Gon too.
"We are not prisoners, Obi-Wan."
But of course they were - prisoners by soft words and an unwise promise given, bound as tightly as by chains. Qui-Gon might bear a scar on his face that told always of what he had lost, but Obi-Wan had his own scar, still damp and bloody under his hair. _His_ scar told him that - and how even those that loved you could betray.
"We are," he hissed. "Why can't you see that?" They were bound by a promise, and outnumbered in the hands of a dangerous man, heading for a task that was not as he had described it. Heading East, too, towards Hasan's heartlands, where Keepers were no longer respected.
Qui-Gon folded his arms. "I no longer have your... advantages, Obi-Wan. I made a decision based on my own judgement, and long-held beliefs."
"You made a decision based on..." he began, hotly, then stopped. He knew how his Master was hurting, and how much of behaviour came from that hurt. "We should have discussed it," he said, instead, quietly.
"I am the Master, and will be, still, for a few years. I do not need to discuss things with you. You are still the apprentice, despite... despite everything."
<No> he thought, infinitely sad. It wasn't true. Qui-Gon was his Master and he owed him obedience, but he alone had the Force, and, increasingly, their very survival rested on him. He had not wanted that burden, doubting his worthiness, but Qui-Gon had insisted on the charade, forcing him into that position. He gave his Master every
respect, and honoured his greater experience, but things had changed - his Master had made them change. They were less Master and apprentice now than partners. If they were to have any future, Qui-Gon needed to accept that.
But, oh, that he had to be the one to teach him... He feared they could not, and never, survive it. Qui-Gon, hurting and sensitive about his perceived uselessness, could only see it as arrogance and betrayal.
He had not the heart to say it now.
He bowed his head, and it was not so very difficult; all he wanted to do was bury his head in his hands and rock for the pain pulsing in his skull. "Yes, Master."
It was enough, and he hated himself for it - but why hate himself, when his little lie had eased the pain in his Master's eyes, and make him, for a moment, his old self again, confident and sure in his abilities and position? "I know he has secrets, Obi-Wan, but I believe this is right. It is... I think I've been waiting for this excuse for a very
He knew that, of course - knew how his Master increasingly chafed against the restrictions of the Order, and believed that the Relics should be shared with the people, and that the Keepers should cease to be hoarders and historians and instead use their gifts to actively help people. "Break the link between the Keepers and the Relics," he had said, so often. "We spend all our time 'saving' superstitious people from Relics that are no threat to them at all. We could be so much more."
"Some of the Relics are capable of great destruction," Obi-Wan would respond, quoting Keeper orthodoxy. "We don't know what caused the ending of Before, but is it not reasonable to assume it was war, with such terrible weapons in the hands of man? It is our duty to stop that."
"And some are capable of healing, and other great benefits," his Master would respond. "We encourage superstition and ignorance. We treat the people like children, arrogantly assuming that only we can be trusted with the Relics. We devote our skills to a... a foolishness."
They had argued often. In truth, Obi-Wan thought he agreed with his Master, but he always put the opposite view, forcing himself to consider every merit of the orthodoxy. He admired his Master, and it was only natural that he would agree with his opinions. Only this way could he be sure that his agreement was genuine, and didn't merely come from Qui-Gon's influence, and a boy's natural tendency to believe what he had been brought up with. He thought Qui-Gon knew this.
"I know," he said, now, quietly, touching his Master's hand. "But..." <Jazra isn't..> he had been about to begin, then remembered he was the dutiful apprentice, and Qui-Gon needed, for his own happiness and sanity, to be obeyed. "Do you really think Jazra is the right... the right excuse? Or that this is the right time?"
"It is precisely the right time." Qui-Gon, though whispering, was cold and over-whelming. "Our own misguided policies have produced Hasan. Our own misguided policies could cause us all to he wiped out."
And what could he say? He believed it was truth, though at the same time he believed so very much that his Master was wrong - that the promise he had given, and not Hasan at all, would kill them.
He closed his eyes, and remembered his promise. And then Qui-Gon's hands were on his head and his neck, comforting and easing his pain. It was far easier this way, far safer.
He surrendered to the comfort, and tried not to think of the truth, or the future, or Jazra's eyes, watching all.
They were treated with all honour, and given horses to ride. Qui-Gon had thought to refuse - he was not incapable yet - but Obi-Wan was not fit to walk, and surely he would follow his Master's example and struggle on on foot, if Qui-Gon chose that way.
He rode, then, and accepted the fluid flowery politeness of Jazra who rode a while at his side.
He had no illusions. He knew they were in the company of tribeless men, who were doubtless called bandits by all who feared them. But he and Obi-Wan, too, would be called criminals in Hasan's lands, outlawed and hunted just for what they were. Labels did not always reflect truth.
And even if they did - and he had no illusions on that, either, and knew that Jazra had stolen and probably killed in his time - it was wrong and arrogant to refuse him help. An innocent child had been kidnapped, and that was a wrong, regardless of the conduct of his father. He was setting a precedent for the Keepers, and refused to let that precedent be that only those judged - judged by whom? - to be above reproach deserved help.
Obi-Wan did not approve, he knew, but he obeyed, and tried hard to hide his feelings. Qui-Gon was grateful for that. He _was_ the Master, and he was sure he was right.
He was riding into the East, and into something dangerous, but new and full of promise. He was leaving behind the old tired life, spent following a tradition he no longer believed in. He was leaving, too, his home of almost twenty years, where the memory of his loss and his maiming hung like a miasma.
He was riding into the future, setting a precedent, creating a new role for the Keepers.
He was riding into hope.
A gentle hand on his shoulder shook him awake, pulling him to a wakefulness that was still darkened with dull pain.
Obi-Wan sat up, hiding his weakness as best he could. "Jazra."
Darkness had found them not far from the Pillar, but Jazra had consented to camp without a word. He and Qui-Gon had talked, two hooded heads in a private huddle, but Obi-Wan had not been told the outcome.
"We need to talk." Jazra's eyes were heavy-lidded and secret, but he was close enough for Obi-Wan to feel the heat of his breath.
He glanced over the sleeping camp. Qui-Gon slept deeply, exhausted from a day's riding as he never would have been before, and needing his sleep. A few of Jazra's men were awake, resting in casual poses and eyeing their leader and Obi-Wan with lazy interest. Had they been given orders? Did they hold their swords ready?
"Yes," he said, non-commitally.
He sat very still.
"Walk with me, Obi-Wan."
His mind was racing, at a loss. <Master...> He had never been so alone, so forced to make his own judgements and decisions. Qui-Gon had been his Master, and he had not even begun to think about the time, three years away or more, when he would be on his own, making decisions without the security of a Master who was wiser and more skilled.
Jazra laughed, low and throaty. "I mean you no harm. You know I need you. I just want to talk where none can hear us."
Those lazy eyes of the watchers hid minds that were utterly alert and ready. Going with Jazra was a risk; lying back down and sleeping, when twenty armed men lay beside him, could hardly be any safer.
He made his decision. "As you wish."
He stood, forcing himself not to sway, not to grab reflexively for the support of Jazra's arm, although it was offered.
One last look at Qui-Gon sleeping - it wouldn't be the last, no he wouldn't let it be the last - and he walked from the camp.
As soon as they started, he knew where they were heading; every step merely confirmed it.
Dread settled in his stomach. But he would do nothing, not yet. He would wait, and watch, and consider, and learn. He was well practised in living a charade.
"Your Master has promised me the use of all your Relics," Jazra said, mildly. "And your services, too, of course, as the only person who can use them."
Obi-Wan clasped his hands under his sleeves, and carried on walking. He merely nodded in acknowledgement - both of them habits he had learned from his Master. Jazra was probing him with words. He knew he had Qui-Gon bound; whether Obi-Wan's obedience to his Master meant that he, too, was bound, he was less sure of.
"And I can count on you?"
This time, he merely inclined his head, in something that could have looked like a nod. He was not a traitor or oath-breaker, and would make no firm promises, only to break them later. But he could misdirect, and tell only half truths, and deceive. Once Qui-Gon would have sensed him deception, but now only he, and he alone, knew the secrets of his heart.
They were almost at the Pillar now. The Sands played tricks with distance, and they were camped far closer than he had realised. The second of his two homes, and the place where he had learnt his powers and become a man.
There would be one last moment - time enough to lay his hands on the stone of just one wall, and close his eyes, and remember the past. Time enough to murmur a farewell.
Qui-Gon intended a new life for them, and there would be no going back. He would turn his back on the past, and not even ask Obi-Wan if _he_ wanted to be taken away from the home he loved.
He could almost feel angry at that, except that his crime, his betrayal, was worse. He had vowed secretly to escape, and, on the run, their home would no longer be safe.
And their home might not even stand until morning.
Here he had stood and watched the sunset, sometimes with his Master's hand on his shoulder, and once, the night before the accident, leaning back into his Master's embrace. They had watched it together. He had found himself wishing fiercely that the moment would last forever. A little tendril of his happiness then had embedded itself into the stone. He crouched and touched it, and felt it, like a ghostly echo.
"It can't be rushed."
He moved his hand further, fingertips brushing the stone slab. Here, blood had been shed, and he shivered, though the old evil had long been overlaid with the auras of his Master and himself. Further, and he remembered weeping, falling to his knees and sobbing for a Master who was now a stranger.
He reached with his mind, too, inwards. He was still not strong, and the Force didn't respond to him as it ought. The Force was not finite, but for him, tonight, it was. He would do what he had to do, but after that he would be exhausted, his Force skill and strength like an empty bottle, drained to the lees.
"You're stalling." Jazra's voice darkened with suspicion.
"No." And, in truth, he wasn't. He knew what he had to do, and was as ready now as he would ever be. Just a moment to savour the memories and say farewell to the past...
"Then do it." Cold as the blade of his sword. The Relics not yet in his grasp, and already the masks were slipping.
He touched it then - the small patch of stone that was no different in appearance from anything around it, but the Force revealed the truth. Who, and how long Before, had crafted this secret entrance? Qui-Gon had told him that the chambers below had been devoid of life for untold centuries.
He touched it, and, as it had responded to his touch so often before, it dipped into the stone, like a button pressed. Something loosened inside. It was no magic or fearful mystery. The Force merely guided him to the hidden button; the workings were not of the Force. The stone slab slid sideways by some mechanism that, though long forgotten, had surely once been simple.
He heard Jazra gasp behind him. He did not look up.
"There," he said, pointing to the stairs that led downwards into the dark - every step well worn with footsteps from half his lifetime.
Jazra's avarice coiled thickly in the air, but there was fear, too. He sought mastery of the Relics, but he had once been of the Sharai, taught to fear them.
He stepped into the darkness. He needed no light - every step was as familiar to him as his own body, and, even if it were not, his Force sense allowed him to move freely in the darkness. Jazra stumbled behind him, and cursed, and Obi-Wan smiled a secret smile in the darkness.
"You will lead me true." Jazra's voice held a threat, but Obi-Wan read the truth. Living in tents in a desert that was never without starlight, the Sharai seldom knew true darkness. Obi-Wan could move silently, and Jazra feared he was left alone, lost in the vastness of eternal blackness.
He said nothing, neither reassurance nor threat. He could slip past the man in the darkness and seal the stone before he even knew. Their home would be the grave of a man who doubtless deserved it.
Instead, when the time was right, and without warning, he stopped. "You want light?" he said, almost gently.
It was theatrical and over-dramatic, and he was acting like a child to do it. But he had his excuses, surely. One way or another, this could be his last moment alive; even if he lived, his Master might never forgive him. If this small foolish bit of irony made things better, then why not?
He made his voice laugh. "Then let me give you light."
He raised his arms - no excuses this time, and not attempt to hide what he was doing, or where responsibility lay. With the Force he reached to the Relic Chamber, passing over each one in turn without a moment's glance, and settling on the one he had located earlier. A small touch - gentle but with acute excruciating control - and the button was pressed.
The world seemed to split in two.
Jazra would see him, arms spread, a dark silhouette against the sudden flash of blinding rending light.
Afterwards - a whole span of a whole world later - he lowered his arms, limp and exhausted. It was all he could do not to collapse.
After the explosion, even the very silence was violent. The Chamber of Relics was all twisted broken stone, but worse damage had been done. Dust trickled, faint as a breath but promising more. Above him, the vast towering weight of the Pillar groaned. He felt it was aware of him, and knew what he had done, and intended repayment.
He shivered. He felt he was waking to a terrible bleak World After. His home destroyed, the place of a thousand memories. The Pillar would fall, and there would be no going back to how things used to be. He had thought perhaps to die, though that had never been his wish.
Now, as Jazra fumbled in the darkness and managed to find his throat with his claw-like fingers, he thought he might still die - his grave underground in the same place he had been birthed as a Keeper.
"You tried to kill me," Jazra hissed.
Oh, but he was weary... There was blood on his face, though he didn't know how. "I went before you. I was more at risk."
The fingers tightened. His head was pushed back, and breathing was hard. He could feel the sharp point of a dagger at his ribs. "What did you do?"
Useless to pretend. "I destroyed the Relics." His voice did not waver. He felt little guilt, and even that was only for doing this without his Master's permission. Nothing was irreplaceable. Except for the sword of light, safely attached to his belt, none of their Relics had been unique. The great Keeper Reliquary in the far east held the true and priceless collection.
"Oh, but you will pay for this..." The dagger twisted, enough to hurt like red fire, though not enough to threaten his life, not yet.
He was weak and drained, without the strength to fight this. All he had as a weapon was his own words, and there were many ways of dying, here in the darkness beneath the Sands.
"I..." he began, choking, but never finished. The silence shifted and split; the trickle of dust became a roar. Beneath their feet, the very ground shook.
Both men froze, assailant and victim - though not a victim, never a victim in this, for he had come here and done this with his eyes open, always knowing that this could be the ending.
Jazra's breathing was high and fast. Obi-Wan, outwardly calm, was crying out silently in fear, suddenly so very sure and certain that he did _not_ want to die like this. In the fire he had summoned, or at the dagger-point of Jazra's vengeance, but not like this, buried in an unknown grave between the two of them.
"We should go," he said, calmly, though Jazra's strangling hand and the all-consuming roar drowned his words.
Jazra's hands fell to his side.
Obi-Wan swallowed hard. He took a deep long-needed breath, then another, though almost choking on the dust. "Come." He took Jazra's arm. There was never any question of leaving him. He had openly declared himself an enemy, but was no murderer.
Stumbling, pursued by falling rock, they made their way towards the light.
Instinctively, before even fully awake, he reached for the Force.
Every morning was thus - every awakening, every surprise or sudden noise, and he sought the Force, only to find a vast nothingness. Every day, he lived again that first terrible moment of realisation, after the accident. He died again and again with every new day.
Around him, men were starting to their feet with sharp cries, and their minds were surely crying out in emotion to the very air. Somewhere, and everywhere, the earth was roaring, and a noise that great would surely be not without great resonance in the Force. Message crowded deeply around him, and he could not read them.
He was blind, in the darkness just before dawn, with eyes that saw no more than any man's. He was deaf, although the stillness of the Sands was alive with noise.
"The Pillar," someone breathed.
More blind than they, for they were used to it - used to living with five such puny senses. Only when he frowned could he see it through the darkness, and only then did he know.
The Pillar, his home for half his life, had fallen.
He ran wildly, crying out incoherently in the sudden piercing silence that following its fall.
No-one stopped him.
He was lost in a darkness that was all noise. A great wind from nowhere had buffeted him, and now his lungs could not take air, though he sought it with great terrifying gasps. His mind was blank, knowing there was a name for what had happened to him, but too stupefied to supply one.
<Master> he called, scared and needy. Then, like stars emerging one by one from the dusky sky, thoughts and truths came into his mind. This was the first: that he could call and call and would never be answered. His Master would never again know his mind, or feel his need - never again be there for him the moment before he realised he needed help; never again know exactly what words he needed to hear.
He flailed with his hands, seeking... what? His Master had always been there to catch him, with hands and words and thought. Now there was no-one, and his hands closed on empty air.
<Falling> he realised, belatedly, his mind finally able to supply the right words. Falling, and winded by the thing - what? - that had struck him in the chest.
He struggled, and at last his tortured body could draw breath. Again, and he coughed; the air he had drawn into his starved lungs was not pure, but more than half dust and Sand. Eyes streaming, he coughed again, each instinctive breath sucking more of the dust into his lungs.
Death stared at him, face to face and laughing, wherever he turned. He had faced death by fiery underground, and walked away from that into the knife-point of Jazra's anger. He had faced death by burial, and emerged into the Sands under the stars, to meet death by suffocation in the dust of a fallen Pillar.
He could have laughed. If he was spared to tell this tale... If his Master could smile again and hear it... "I think fate was trying to tell me something that night," he would say, raising his eyebrows in wry irony.
Lights danced before his eyes. His laughter was only the foolish delirium of impending death.
He pawed uselessly with his hands and his fingers brushed cold metal. Something had hit him on the chest. Was he pinned, his ribs shattered and broken, the shock blinding him to the pain? He had felt the wind of the Pillar's passing, and now could touch its surface, without even reaching.
Something hit him again. It felt like a foot. A hand closed on the fabric of his tunic, hauling him upwards. His upper body followed, and he was pulled to his knees, hands limp and useless.
"Fool," someone hissed. He blinked through the grit in his eyes, and caught the briefest glance before the pain made him close them again. Jazra held him with one hand; the other held the trailing end of his turban over his mouth. Of course. The Sharai mode of dress, suited for desert sand storms. The Keepers could do the same with the Force.
It was slow to respond - painfully slow, as if filtered through deep water. His head still hurt terribly, and his was mind still felt drained half dry. He had just enough to ease his breathing and filter out the worst of the dust. The dust already in his lungs had to remain.
"What...?" he rasped.
They had both faced death and survived. For a sudden wild moment, he saw them laughing together, bonded by facing shared danger. But Jazra's eyes and cruel fingers told a different story. Jazra thought Obi-Wan had tried to kill him, and would reciprocate as soon as the moment was right.
"I _will_ kill you for that," Jazra hissed.
He had strength, just enough, to breathe without coughing, but not enough to pull against the man's hold and support his own weight. He had not been crushed by the Pillar, of course, but something _had_ struck him in the chest, and hard.
"You tried," he gasped, realising the truth. In that desperate wild flight from the hidden doorway, and in the moment of chaos just before the Pillar had landed, Jazra had whirled on him with linked fists as hard as stone, and struck him down. He had fallen. A moment later, the Pillar had fallen, missing him by the merest chance. Jazra, running free, had not even been knocked from his feet.
Jazra's eyes narrowed. He looked utterly venomous, totally without mercy. "But I won't, yet." There was no attempt to disguise it. His murder attempt had been an impulse. Really, on reflection, he preferred Obi-Wan alive, for he still believed that he was the only one who could use the sword.
Alive, but bound. Obi-Wan laughed. "You seek to bind me with threats?"
"Oh no." A smooth smile. "I don't seek to bind you. I have merely noticed how your Master smiles to be on this mission of ours. How hurt he has been... Already he looks ten years younger than when we met you in the Sands."
It was an assault where he had least expected it - and the only place where he had no defence. Jazra was a master when it came to reading men. A master, and a victor.
Qui-Gon had chosen to travel with Jazra and do his bidding, and something in the decision had rejuvenated him, given him hope when nothing Obi-Wan had done since the accident had been able to do so. It was like water to a dying man, to him - making decisions again, being obeyed, being listened to and treated as important.
"What will it do to him, I wonder, to know that you betrayed him," Jazra said, musingly. "How it will hurt him. And..." - his eyes flickered to the knife at his belt - "he has no defence against other hurts now, does he, now he has lost his powers."
Obi-Wan wanted to slump to the ground, all strength, all resistance bled from him.
He was bound - of course he was bound. He had vowed to escape, but how could he? That decision - the realisation that it was necessary - _had_ to be Qui-Gon's. Anything else would be a betrayal.
"Fool" was right. He had declared himself an enemy of a man he was bound to, and could not leave, not without hurting his Master deeply.
"And here he comes," Jazra said, brightly. He let Obi-Wan go, and he slumped gracelessly to the floor, coughing.
He barely heard Qui-Gon's shouts, and the sound of running feet.
"What have you done, Obi-Wan?" he shouted, when a moment's anxious glance showed him that Obi-Wan was unharmed. Standing, at least, and unbloodied, though his eyes blinked stupidly and his face looked strangely naked and young.
"I..." Obi-Wan coughed raspingly and painfully, then swallowed and seemed to get himself under control. He looked first at Qui-Gon, then at the fallen Pillar. Dawn came fast in the Sands, and already it was light enough for Qui-Gon to see every tear on his clothes, every streak of dust on his face.
"Did you do that?"
He looked around, almost conspiratorially. Other men had run here with him, and they were back a little bit, talking to Jazra. No-one was listening or watching. What happened here would not be witnessed.
He felt his fist curl into a fist. The pain of that wakening... The fear, when running, that Obi-Wan might be dead, for he had had so little time, but time enough to see that Obi-Wan's place by the fire was empty... And now his home destroyed, and Obi-Wan just standing there like a stupid boy, hands limp at his sides, blinking.
Obi-Wan looked at the ground, then raised his head, and looked his Master in the eye, unflinching, though his eyes told such a different story. "Yes."
Oh, but it was too much. The fist lashed out. Just before impact, it relented a little and straightened into a flat palm that struck Obi-Wan across the cheek. Not hard, surely, but Obi-Wan let out a small moan and fell clumsily into the sand. One hand flew out, striking the metal of the fallen Pillar with a dull ringing round.
"Why?" He was unforgiving. Had he been planning insurrection all along, ever since he found he had powers that exceeded his Master's? Had he watched Qui-Gon blossom as he set off on this first mission of a new course in life, feeling the first hope since the accident, and delighted in crushing it?
"It was an accident," Obi-Wan said, in a little voice, not looking at him.
An accident. His hand, half raised for another blow, faltered.
"Jazra came to me in the night. He said you had promised to give him the Relics, and that I was the only one who could open the doorway." Obi-Wan spoke fast and desperate. Making excuses for his carelessness. He thought he had raised him better than that. "I took him, but I... my head still hurts. I can't use the Force easily yet, or make good judgements. I... miscalculated. The Relic in the blue casket... I was showing it to him - showing off a little, I think, telling him what it could do, taunting him and trying to make him scared, because he had his men hurt me that night. I think I set it off by mistake."
Emotion like dark cloud rose higher and higher, threatening to strangle him. Towards the end, he barely heard Obi-Wan's words. He knew the meaning, and that was all. The fist curled again, and hung high in the air, threatening. To Obi-Wan, blinking on the ground, he was a towering avenger, standing astride his fallen body, punishment latent in his raised fists.
"How could you be so stupid, Obi-Wan?" he hissed. "How could you be so careless? Stupid. So stupid..."
He saw past the anger, and knew the pain that lay beneath it.
"How could you be so stupid?"
No. <How could _I_ be so stupid?> his Master was screaming, angry, _furious_ at himself. To handle a Relic he knew to be unsafe, without the proper precautions... To lose everything as a result, and know, with every breath afterwards, that it was his own fault. If only he had been more careful. If only he had stepped back one instant earlier...
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry, Master."
Twin fists shaking once, sharply, at nothing, Qui-Gon turned and walked away.
Later, much later, Qui-Gon came to him, as he rode apart from the others, as his horse picked its delicate way up the first of the eastern hills.
"I'm sorry, Obi-Wan."
A hesitant hand reached towards his bruised cheek, and the fingers almost brushed it. Obi-Wan wanted to lean forward and receive that touch. He wanted it very much indeed. Instead, he sat very still.
"I would hate for you to be hurt as... as I was. Promise me you'll be careful."
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. "I'm sorry," he mouthed, but he had no voice to give it sound.
They rode a little while in silence. It was cooler here, in the hills. Small patches of greenery grew at the side of the path.
"Thank you, Obi-Wan," his Master said, at last. "I know it's been difficult for you. I know you doubt this course of mine. But thank you for coming with me. Thank you for... for your obedience."
Obi-Wan couldn't bear to look at him. His Master's face was alive, full of light. It was as if he had been liberated. His home had been destroyed, breaking his last link to that old past life. Now, free, he was heading into a new life, where he might not have the Force, but he would still be listened to, and followed, and see gratitude in men's eyes just because he had spoken and acted.
He had hope, and it was based on a lie. A lie, and he, Obi-Wan, would _never_ be cruel enough to tell the truth.
"I _will_ go with you, wherever you go, Master," he said, simply, and it _was_ the truth. There was nothing else - no other answer that was truthful, but would not break Qui-Gon's heart.
In his life, Obi-Wan had travelled far. First, a little bewildered and lost, when Mace Windu brought him from his home in the north, and then many miles and years at his Master's side. Travelling was the life of a Keeper, even for those, like his Master, who chose to make a home in one place.
But these hills, just three days east of the Pillar, were new to him. Even through everything else - through the pain of coughing, and the concern, and the watchfulness - he could see look at them, and marvel. He had lived too long in the flat baked Sands. He had forgotten what it was to see life sprouting between stones, or for the horizon to be anything other than a straight line.
He had forgotten, too, what it was like to be in a land where any stranger was not visible for miles across the bare Sands - where ambushes could wait around the next bend, and men could hide or appear without warning.
Sitting heavily on his horse, fighting the constant coughing of his tormented lungs, he thought he had forgotten - or never known, for what child needs to be in guard for him life, and he had been but a child before he came to the Sands - how deeply wearying it was.
The Sands had no concealment, but this was a land of secrets.
It was Jazra's land, too. His men were travellers in the Sands; here, they were at home. They knew the paths, and seemed to relax, as if knowing that the land around them contained friends.
Only three days' ride away, and it was a different place entirely. Sands, and hills - it was as if they were two different worlds. The Sharai of the Sands made forays into the hills for hunting, but almost furtively, as if they knew they were trespassing.
Qui-Gon never had. "We serve the people of the Sands," he had said, merely, when Obi-Wan had looked East, and wondered. "Others serve the hills. We are far too few, and do our best work when scattered."
If he called out with the Force, he wondered now, would the Keeper of the Hills hear him, and respond? Would he ride to the rescue, a Master with Force blazing, and take this burden from him?
Would he have the strength to heal Qui-Gon?
Almost he called out then, then bit his lip, and silenced that mental cry. He had done so much harm to his Master, going behind his back and making the wrong decisions. From now on, he would ride silent and unprotesting at Qui-Gon's side, until the moment that his Master, by his own free will, gave him permission to resist.
Even if, by doing so, he was riding to his death.
Evening, and his Master and Jazra spoke, sitting too close to each other, and looking like brothers.
A little apart, Obi-Wan watched, afraid to approach.
He had never felt like this - never. Even when he was a child, Qui-Gon had always treated him with respect, keeping no secrets, letting him listen when other Keepers visited. He was encouraged to speak and express his opinion - for Qui-Gon had taught him well, and knew he could be trusted to know when it was best to stay silent and learn.
Never had Qui-Gon been more the Master, and Obi-Wan more the excluded child.
"How many Keepers are they within a week's ride of here?" he heard Jazra ask, casually. Obi-Wan had the Force now - and that was one blessing - and felt the tension vibrating in him like a drawn and deadly bow string.
Qui-Gon answered, but the crackle of the fire, and a sudden burst of laughter from behind him stole the words.
Obi-Wan edged forward. How could he not?
"Hasan has sworn to kill you all. His followers increase daily. The Order of Keepers has reached its end."
Obi-Wan froze, mid-breath. They had deduced as much, but to hear it stated so bluntly... His mind started racing. What could they do? They had to preserve the Keepers, and the Relics, and the flame of age-old knowledge. Save their own lives, too, of course, but that was almost an after-thought.
Thoughts battering his mind, like the fluttering wings of insects. His Master stayed calm. His lips moved, but Obi-Wan didn't hear him. He wondered if he could have heard anything, in that first moment of realisation, like a black gaping chasm opening up beneath his feet.
"I am a sworn enemy of Hasan." Jazra looked at his clasped hands, feigning awkwardness. "I should have told you before, but didn't know how: the man who has my son is his right-hand man. I plan to go to war against Hasan."
He looked up then, deeply disingenuous. His eyes were all innocent, as if any deeper intent that could be deduced from his words was only in the suspicious mind of his hearers.
Obi-Wan wanted to cry out. Something of the cry was real, for his gasped, then coughed. Both Jazra and Qui-Gon turned round.
Time seemed to stand still. Qui-Gon's eyes, so steady, so dark... He would be rebuked for eavesdropping, caught almost crawling from his station at the fire, to the dark shadows behind the talking men. His cheek smarted with remembered pain.
But then, amazingly, he smiled - but why was it amazing, that his Master should seem to like him and take pleasure in his company? Had they really fallen that far?
"Obi-Wan," he said, holding out his hand, invitingly. "Jazra has some... interesting things to say."
It was just a flicker, but it was there - a tiny shared glance, a moment in which they knew each other's minds entirely. He saw his own suspicion reflected in his Master's eyes.
Obi-Wan thought he could have wept at the relief of it. He moved to his Master's side, far closer than Jazra would ever be allowed to come, and, for a moment, the tips of their fingers brushed against each other, down in the darkness at their sides.
It was time.
Obi-Wan rose silently to his feet, pulling his robe close with one hand at his chest. That hand served a double purpose. Pressed flat against his chest, he felt it helped prevent him coughing, though it probably made no difference.
With the other hand he checked - for the hundredth time that night, surely - the sword at his belt. It still hung as it always did, whispering with the Force as he brushed it with his fingertips. Even without that wondrous blade of light, it still spoke to him - it, or the memory, in vision, of the long-dead man who had once wielded it.
On sudden impulse he knelt, the soft whisper of his clothing the only sound. <I will strive always to be worthy of the trust> he said, in silent fervent vow.
He had expected no answer, surely, but still he waited, not breathing, counting the long seconds of silence, before he stood up again, shaking his head a little at his foolishness.
Around the fire, Jazra's men slept. Somewhere out of sight, a horse quietly chewed grass. That, and the soft snore of many men breathing, was the only sound. The sentry stared at the skies, and his mind was full of waking dreams of love and homecoming.
<Sleep> Obi-Wan thought, touching that mind, and identifying it, and reaching for it. It was close to sleep already, and open to suggestion. <Sleep and dream of her.>
Very still for a long moment, and then the sentry's head slumped forward. The feel of his mind winked out, and Obi-Wan found he was reaching for him, longing to hold onto it for a moment longer. There were tears in his eyes, for a love he would never know, and a home he had destroyed.
<No> he thought, sharply, and snatched that hand back. He had vowed to be worthy, and this was weakness.
He stepped forward, and no-one stirred. Twenty minds slept. Perhaps the horse stopped chewing and looked at him, but he must have been dismissed as of no account, for, after the space of a few short breaths, the sound resumed.
Just a few more steps, and he was there. He crouched, and touched that much-loved face with his fingers, brushing up across the scar into the hair. "Master." He felt suddenly immensely tender, like a parent with a sleeping child. Asleep, there was none of that anguish that lurked always behind Qui-Gon's waking eyes. Obi-Wan could care for him and cherish him and keep him safe, as Qui-Gon had so often done for Obi-Wan in the past.
But there was no safety here. He could not remain sleeping, but had to be summoned from the restful peace, into the pain and anguish of this night.
He reached out a probe of Force to a mind that could no longer sense him. Cajoling, wakening... "Master..."
There was a hitch in that steady breathing, and Qui-Gon's eyes opened. "Obi-Wan?"
Too loud. Obi-Wan pressed his finger again his Master's lips. "It's time, Master. They're all asleep. We can go."
"Go?" Qui-Gon sat up, pushing away Obi-Wan's offer of help.
Obi-Wan nodded. He stood, and reached out a hand to help his Master up.
That, too, was rejected. "You want us to leave?" Qui-Gon was standing, and spoke too loudly. "I have given my word to help find Jazra's son."
"But..." Obi-Wan shook his head, feeling as if he had been struck, reeling in confusion. That shared glance of suspicion when Jazra spoke of his plans... He had thought that was it - the signal that Qui-Gon agreed with him about Jazra, and that he was free to arrange their escape. In the past, greater communications had been given in just one glance, or the merest silent thought.
"You just decided this without consulting me?" Qui-Gon said, and he, too, looked as if this pained him - as if someone he loved had just betrayed him. "How many have you killed?"
He blinked hard, his vision blurring with unshed tears. "No-one. I..." He held onto his control, just. "I thought you wanted this. I thought, once Jazra revealed his true plans..."
Qui-Gon heaved a sigh, exaggeratedly patient. He folded his arms. "Jazra as good as admitted that he wants to use Keepers in his army, and go to war against Hasan. Yes, I heard that. But he also has a son, and I have promised to help him. I do not go back on my promises, Obi-Wan. Have I taught you so badly that you believe I should?"
He was beyond words. Welling tears made him choke, and the cough returned. If he opened his mouth, he would cough, or wail in tearful pathetic sobs: <I thought you wanted this, Master. He's sworn to kill me. Don't you care?>
"Obi-Wan?" A hand closed on his chin, pulling his face up, forcing him to meet eyes that looked as if they hated him. "Talk to me, Obi-Wan."
His lungs and throat screamed at him, needing to cough. He felt himself growing dizzy from lack of breath. <Master...> Would he die at the innocent unwitting hands of the man who had raised him?
"What's wrong?" he heard from behind him. A dark brown voice, all honeyed concern now, though, before, it had threatened him and promised to kill him.
"Nothing." Qui-Gon let Obi-Wan go. No need for secrecy now. Obi-Wan slumped to his knees, and coughed until the tears poured down his face. And that was the only reason for the tears, he told himself.
"No," Qui-Gon interrupted. He stepped over Obi-Wan's heaving body, and touched Jazra's elbow, his voice low and confiding. "Obi-Wan merely wished to talk to me. Nothing is changed, Jazra. I hold to my promises."
Jazra smiled. "I'm grateful, Lord Keeper." He gave a small bow. "I shall leave you to resume your interrupted sleep."
A nod in response. "Thank you."
And Qui-Gon returned to his station and lay down, without a further glance at Obi-Wan.
He blinked fiercely, pressed his hands to the ground to push himself up... and met Jazra's eyes.
<Tonight> they promised, his politeness removed like a mask ripped from his face, showing the malice underneath. <I heard everything, and it will be tonight.>
It had not even needed words, to plan his death.
A few silent hand signals was all it had taken. Was this a practised routine, so familiar that it didn't need words? How many others had these men welcomed to their fireside, and murdered in the night, buried before morning in a hastily scratched grave?
Quick chilling signals, and four men had been singled out to watch him, daggers ready under their clothes. Jazra himself watched with them - ten eyes ringing him in the darkness, and five blades hungry for his blood.
<You will not live till morning> those eyes told him.
Discarded by his Master and left on the ground like an unwanted cloak, Obi-Wan could do nothing but sit, fighting the sleep of exhaustion and a still weakened body.
Close by him, but not close enough to touch, his Master lay, his breathing slowing into sleep. Once, Obi-Wan had made as if to move closer to him, and the five men had moved fluidly and instantly into motion. Hands raised high with their short daggers, weighted for throwing, their murderous eyes had looked only at Qui-Gon's unprotected back.
<Seek his help, and he dies> had been the message in Jazra's smug threatening smile.
His head felt heavy; his body ached from too little sleep and too much ill-usage. If they came for him, he would not go quietly. He had the Force, and his sword, and though he had not yet received permission from the Order to kill directly with the Force, he could still strike hard and well.
When they came for him, he would be ready.
He would be ready, he told himself, for the hundredth time.
Star had risen in the east, circled high, and reached their zenith. He saw the Hunter, and the Keeper's Star, pure pale blue above the northern mountains. He recited their names to keep himself awake, almost smiling as he remembered Qui-Gon's hands on either side of his face, directing him to some faint star his eyes stubbornly refused to see.
Were they cruel and heartless, to watch man's suffering, and still move on? Child-like, and not understanding, he had asked his Master, echoing something he had heard an old man ask in some Sharai camp.
His Master had shaken his head, saying he had no answers. Although a Master, he didn't know everything, he had said. Years in the future, when Obi-Wan himself was a Keeper Master, he too would realise how little man could ever know. "We are working in the dark. We see but the tiniest part of the old knowledge, and perhaps even the people who came before knew only a fraction of the truth. Perhaps the stars are a mystery man is never supposed to understand."
It had been too deep for him, only thirteen, and still a child. "I think they're pretty," he had said, inadequately, though he had been the one to ask the question that had started it.
"Yes." His Master had smiled. "This is a gift, Obi-Wan - to see the beauty and value in something that you do not understand. Some never learn that. Some, like the Sharai, merely fear that they do not understand. Some, worse, hate, and seek to destroy."
Like Hasan, he thought now, denouncing the Relics as evil, and the Keepers with them. Hasan would kill the Keepers, and Jazra was Hasan's enemy, but better, surely, for the Keepers to struggle on in oppressed hiding, than to ally with an evil cruel man, simply because he fought Hasan.
Better... No. He shook his head. He was an apprentice. He had no right to make such decisions, not when they concerned the fate of the whole Keeper Order. He would do nothing that would compromise any future decision by the Conclave. He had destroyed the Relics, but made clear it was his own personal defiance; should the Conclave decide to ally with Jazra, that path was still open to them.
All he had done, and all he could continue to do, was to think of his own fate, and his Master's, and act to spare their lives, and in accordance with his conscience.
He almost laughed then, in the darkness, surrounded by death. A bit late to be questioning his course, now when the drawn daggers around him showed how committed he was. He had stumbled blindly into this situation, from the moment the messenger had summoned them to the Sanamaya - his lack of discretion with the sword, his defiance of Jazra, his destruction of the Relics, and then his decision to hide the truth from Qui-Gon. What irony it would be if he cried out, as the blades plunged into his body, "I've made a mistake! I was wrong!"
He took a deep breath. Time had slowed so that every moment stretched into hours, with only those watching eyes, and his mind, questioning and asking.
<Yes> he thought. If he could do it again, he doubted he would act much differently, though the past few days read like a catalogue of mistakes. Perhaps an apology to his Master. Perhaps a word of love, and a protestation of honour and obedience.
Yes, he was ready, in mind and body. When they came, he would fight. Perhaps he would die a martyr to a cause history would prove to be wrong, when the Keepers allied with Jazra in long and honourable alliance. Perhaps. But he would die true to himself, and the teaching Qui-Gon had given him first and foremost through the years: "follow the Code of the Keepers, Obi-Wan, but, above all, follow your own judgement, and your conscience which is sometimes the will of the Force."
He was ready.
If only they would come.
Dawn, and he felt he was almost too weary to stand. A night of such extreme, constant wakefulness, expecting deadly assault at any moment.... He felt drained and empty, almost disappointed to be whole and safe.
<Taunting me> he thought, when Jazra smiled at him with white teeth and feigned jollity.
Oh, but he couldn't take another night of this....
Qui-Gon's voice was cold and unreadable. He stood, picking up the robe he used as a blanket and putting it on.
Was an apology expected? He had no energy for one, and no heart. He had suffered through a night of agonised fear and expectation, and Qui-Gon had slept beside him, ignorant, and not caring. Ignorant, of course, and he knew he couldn't blame him, but it was hard not to feel bitter.
Qui-Gon looked at him. He seemed about to speak, then pursed his lips, and was silent. He half raised his hand, then let it fall.
"Ready?" Jazra said, brightly. He clapped Obi-Wan on the shoulder. Despite himself, Obi-Wan flinched, and fought the urge to pull out his sword there and then.
Qui-Gon nodded. His face looked closed off, as if something important was locked inside him and would never now be uttered.
"It's a long journey today. If we travel hard, we should reach our destination tonight. We'll eat breakfast in a few hours. There's no time to linger." He sounded positively joyous.
Obi-Wan, swaying on his feet and white-faced and exhausted, knew his condition was no doubt a cause of Jazra's good mood. "Master," he began. So much to ask. <Can we talk?> The line of horses tended to spread out on these narrow mountain paths, and they could probably ride side by side without anyone else being within hearing. He had got himself into a position where he couldn't tell Qui-Gon the whole truth, not without hurting him, but he could at least tell him how scared he was for his very life. Two of them awake, side by side, as they had always been.... The coming night would then be just bearable.
Qui-Gon held up his hand. "Not now, Obi-Wan." He gestured with his chin. "Everyone else is ready. Get on your horse."
Obi-Wan swallowed hard, and obeyed.
The night. The coming night...
He heard it in every step of his horse, every soft crunch of stone pathway under foot, every call of the birds.
Night, and eyes watching him, and knives, sharp cruel knives...
Thoughts and memories and the soft regular footfalls lulled him. Once he started awake to find that he had gone from a soft green hillside to craggy mountain top without seeing the change. Between the two, all he had seen had been eyes in the night, and stars in the darkness.
He shook his head, forcing himself awake. His sword was still at his side. All was silent, and no-one leapt laughing from the crags to pull him from his horse.
All was silent...
Another jolt, and the crags were still there. Nothing had changed, but something had made him start, bringing him sharply out of a period of nothingness.
Everything was still. The crags, and a bird, perched above him and watching him with eyes like berries.
His horse whinnied. He sensed a sharp pang of distress.
It was limping, he realised, putting as little weight as it could on its right foreleg. Sliding off its back, he murmured soothing words, both aloud and through the Force, and bent to examine it. His focus was all on the horse's anguished sense, protecting peace and comfort.
The arrow caught him totally by surprise. A flash of something in the air, and twin cries - anger, as he found the caltrop in the horse's foot, and pain as the arrow grazed the wrist he instinctively flung out as soon as he saw the movement.
He fell to his knees. The horse's brown eyes seemed to speak to him, with almost human intensity.
He had no time. With one hand, he pulled at the caltrop - a harsh stab of pain, and the horse would see it as a betrayal, but it was better thus than drawing it out. Then he pressed his palm to the wound, bringing the Force to bear.
With the other hand, and the other half of his mind, he reached for the sword at his belt, igniting its pure blue blade.
An arrow came, and he slashed at it, slicing it into two halves, which spiralled away, falling harmlessly to the ground. Another, and the horse whinnied, as if to say <it is enough. It is well.>
He stood, then, both hands on the sword, striking the arrows away, some with the sword, some with merely the Force. One he incinerated into blue flame, but the effort of that left him sagging.
Blood ran down the sword handle from the gouge on his wrist.
From somewhere he heard the sound of movement - small stones rattling. He hazarded a quick glance, and saw another bowman, grinning as he raised his bow. Two, and then, whistling past his ear from behind, a third. Three, and Jazra leading them, with his sword raised in one hand, and eyes that seemed to flash fire.
<Master> he called, desperately, silently. The path ahead rose to a peak, went over the top, and twisted away downwards. Qui-Gon was over the peak, looking only to his distant destination, not even thinking of him. <Master...>
Nothing, of course. Two more arrows, then a third. He lunged, and almost didn't make it. "Master," he cried aloud, but his chest was heaving with exertion and his breath was painful wheezing. His voice was little more than a croak.
"Master!" He opened his mouth to try again, and lunged with his sword in desperate swing, slicing an arrow that was heading straight for his face. One half, the tail half, tumbled to the ground; the other, with deadly point, lurched off course, but carried on, plunging, gouging, still lethally fast...
It was all he knew.
Those last few minutes of life were a waking torment.
His eyes fluttered. He tried to cough, but searing fire was licking at his throat, and his had no voice.
His mouth tasted of blood.
"Jazra," he mouthed, but even that small movement set the fire blazing.
His body was lurching, as if he was carried like a dead burden between two men. His hands were limp, trailing on the floor. His knuckles were being skinned. Strange that he cared - strange that it seemed such an outrage, when it was such a little pain compared to the others.
He tried to protest. Someone laughed.
"Here," he heard.
He was dropped, and hit the ground heavily. He blinked at the sky, and the dancing dark faces that passed in and out of his vision. <What's happened to me?> he asked, with all his strength. With one trembling hand, he touched his throat, the source of that fire, and touched something alien and protruding. His hands came away dark and sticky.
Blue light hurt his eyes.
"So you lied to me, Keeper," Jazra said. His eyes were wide and radiant, lit by the sword he bore in his hands. "I _can_ use it."
He couldn't be strong; he had no voice for defiance. He couldn't even be weak and moan, for he would never utter a true sound again. He could only blink, knowing that this - this cruel man in his moment of victory - would be his final sigh on earth.
Jazra flicked his hand, dismissively. "Throw him over."
He was raised and manhandled. When he was thrown out into a plunging nothingness, he could not even scream.
Qui-Gon reined in his horse. The motion of the animal beneath him had lulled him, always so tired now, and he had almost slept in the saddle, oblivious to how the land was rising and turning into crags, or how the long legs of his horse had taken him almost to the head of the line.
He turned in the saddle, looking back. They had mounted a crest in the path, and were now descending. One horseman was ahead of him, and several more were visible behind. Another was silhouetted on the top of the rise, his arm raised, looking back the way they had come.
He couldn't see Jazra, or Obi-Wan.
He reached out as he fell, hurling his entire being outwards in a silent desperate scream. He cast himself to the air that surrounded him, like a pleading hand reaching for something, anything, that could save him.
<Master!> was the word of that cry, that desperate outpouring of the Force.
Somewhere, far away, he thought he brushed against his Master's mind, but it was closed to him, forever locked away.
Somewhere still further, he thought someone looked up, gasping, dark brown eyes searching the empty air almost hungrily.
And closer, far closer, that wild reaching, that searching for a hand to save him, caught on the rocks, the trees, the very sides of the cliff. As if he was throwing out invisible ropes that clung and stuck, his uncontrolled descent slowed.
Perhaps he had been harsh in the morning, when Obi-Wan had come to him, wanting to talk. Perhaps there had been an apology on his apprentice's lips, and he had just mounted his horse and ridden ahead, refusing to listen to it.
Perhaps Obi-Wan sincerely believed it was better for them to leave Jazra. He frowned, truly considering it for the first time; before, the simple fact that it was disobedience and a betrayal had made him deaf to the merits, if any, of Obi-Wan's position. Jazra was a dangerous man, as he had known from the start. He had already decided that he would still help find his son, despite the man's sins.
But things _had_ changed. Jazra had as good as said that he wanted the Keepers, and their Relics, in his army when he fought Hasan. Qui-Gon firmly believed that the Keepers should start actively helping people, but never like this, never by taking sides in a war.
He had told Jazra clearly and unambiguously that he would not kill for him. He had also sworn to find his son. <I keep my promises, Obi-Wan> he had snapped, angrily, when he had thought Obi-Wan was implying that he would not.
But which promise took priority? Heading into Jazra's heartland, bound more closely every minute to his violent cause, was it not understandable that Obi-Wan should think that the second promise, to find the boy, could no longer be fulfilled without breaking the first?
<It can> he thought, confidently. He had told Jazra his position on killing, and the man had accepted it with good grace. The man had dreams of a Keeper army, but it was only natural for him to try every avenue open to him. Qui-Gon would find the son, and explain carefully that this was as far as his help could go, and the man would accept it.
He would. He had to. He had agreed to go with the man on this understanding, and was committed to it, at odds with Obi-Wan because of it, staking everything on it. He _would_ be right on this.
But - and he had to admit it, with a heavy sigh... But Obi-Wan's position was understandable too. They had talked so little, and Obi-Wan didn't know what he planned. He was young, too, and inexperienced. He was wrong in thinking it was time for them to flee, but he could understand why he had thought it. It had been no betrayal.
The path was wide enough for two to ride abreast. He would wait until Obi-Wan caught up, and then they would talk, and all would be resolved.
It was enough to save his life, but only just.
His shoulder impacted first, smashing into a boulder. Bone shattered; pain like liquid fire danced in his veins.
An age later, but the merest instant, the rest of his body hit the stony ground.
Darkness swallowed him, and, even in the darkness, there was pain.
They had killed his apprentice.
Men who cried the name of Hasan's One True God had broken his body with their stoning. He had tried to defend himself, desperately battering the stones aside with the Force, but there had been so many of them...
He had been too far away, high in a tree top, cajoling down a message bird that had strayed. The boy had been at home, sleeping, behind the wards and safeguards. Why had he opened the door? Why had he strayed?
<Master!> he had heard through the Force, puzzled and surprised. The trees had seemed especially green that day. <How can I die on such a day?> had been the message in that cry, and <I am only sixteen. I have not begun to think of dying.>
The bird had flown with desperate flapping wings. Leaves had scattered. Gracelessly, crying out, he had thrown himself from the tree.
Running, coldness twisting in his heart, he had felt everything. The touch of the boy's mind had been like tongues of flames, at times incandescantly bright, then flickering away to darkness.
He had sensed them tie him to the post, and spit in his face, and call him demon. He had sensed the first stone strike him, shattering a rib. The second, and then darkness, as pain broke the connection. "No!" he had cried, close to sobbing, thinking it the darkness of death.
Would that it had been.
Every step bringing him closer, but still so very far away. Pain, and faint flickerings of agony in the Force, lingering on while he had run a mile, and more.
Death had come as almost a relief to the boy. Head slumping forwards, hands tensing, then going limp. A small exhalation, and a faint moaning cry, as if to say "Master, why did you come."
They had left the body, still tied to the stake, for carrion.
"No. No, oh no..." he had sobbed, untying the cold body, letting it slump into his arms and almost falling gracelessly under the weight.
Triumphant, feeling themselves one step closer to their god, the men had left. He had been alone with his grief, alone to bury the boy, alone to face the life after.
Almost, he had simply stayed, holding the body, and waiting for them to come - for they were surely hunting him. Almost he had taken up his staff, and gone to war for vengeance, ready to smite them with the fire of his Force. Two different paths of damnation, and he had been so close to walking down either.
He hardly knew what had decided him - what had led him to pick up his pack and travel into the west. Survival, perhaps, for Hasan's preaching had not yet taken root to the west of the hills. Survival, and hope, perhaps, too - for what was life without hope? He would join the other Keepers, drawing comfort in this dark time from seeing another known face. Together, they would talk, and plan, and decide how to face the coming darkness.
He would be a messenger of doom and death, staggering in rags from the mountains, like a crow before a storm.
Perhaps, out of the darkness, _they_ would find a path that offered hope, but he no longer looked for hope for himself.
Jazra rode slowly over the hill top, and up to his side.
"Where's Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon asked.
The other man frowned. "Behind us." He waved his hand vaguely, as if the answer was both obvious, and of no account. "Coming." Then, "Shall I send someone back for him?"
"No." He shook his head. "I'll wait. You carry on."
Someone had called him. No, not him - not his poor dear boy, trapped underground in a living grave, or calling to him from beyond death. Not that, although at that first desperate call he had started to his feet, his apprentice's name on his lips, his paltry meal scattering to the ground.
Not him, and, though he had never truly believed it, the realisation that it was not was still a bitter blow of fresh grief.
Not him, but someone in desperate need, crying out with all his soul for aid and comfort.
He was a Master who had failed his apprentice and let him die, unable to respond to those desperate dying cries. Never again. Though he walk until his feet were raw and bleeding, though he run until his lungs were screaming, he would give help where it was needed. When boy needed the love and protection of a Master, he would offer what he could, though no boy could replace the one he had lost, and he could be but a shadow of a Master, and never the one wanted.
Staff in hand, he walked.
Men rode over the brow of the hill, clothes streaming. They were panting with urgency.
Jazra turned round, his eyebrows raised, mildly enquiring. It was only a mask, Qui-Gon knew. He was instantly alert to this unknown threat, and ready to shout orders, and act.
"The young Keeper..." They were wild with long galloping. Behind them, slower, another rode, leading a riderless horse. "He ran. Back..." They waved their hands vaguely back the way they had come. "We chased him, but he lost us. We... We found his horse, but no sign of him."
Jazra curled his fist, an impotent expression of anger on his face. Anger at his men for losing him, or at Obi-Wan, for running? He couldn't tell. "How hard did you look?"
They shrugged. "We thought it best to tell you, and the Master Keeper. There are so many paths that a horse can't walk, and so many hiding places..."
"Yes." Jazra sighed. "Men have lived as outlaws for years in these hills without being found," he said, to Qui-Gon. "But..." He raised his hand as if to call to his men.
"No," Qui-Gon said, sharply, surprising himself.
How did he feel? Numb, he thought. A companionship of ten years ended, and surely he should have felt more than this. A faint spark of anger - and that would grow, he knew - that Obi-Wan should do this, after everything. A distant ache of hurt, at the betrayal.
Pain, yes, but he had already lost his home and his life and his Force sense, and was striking off into the future - a new role for the Keepers and himself. Perhaps Obi-Wan, with his disapproval and his doubts and his warning talk of the Code, had only been a relic of the old life, like a weight around his neck, slowing him down when he wanted to soar into the future, unencumbered.
Perhaps. Or perhaps that was only a defence to numb the pain, here on the bare mountainside with Jazra watching every nuance of his facial expressions. Unseen at night, he could mourn the boy he had loved, and rage at the betrayal by the man he had become. Later...
Now he would be as grey and featureless as the crags.
"No," he said again, coldly. He remembered how Obi-Wan had wanted to flee in the night, but had agreed to give that up and obey his Master. He had thought they would be together, and that, for Obi-Wan, that was paramount. "He chose this. Let him go."
Jazra opened his mouth to protest, but Qui-Gon turned away.
How cold it was on these mountain tops...
At times, he thought he woke. At least, his eyes opened, and he saw images that could have been real.
He thought he lay in a pool of blood.
He thought it rained, light drizzle on his face, and water ran into his mouth, tinged pink and tasting of iron and salt.
He thought carrion birds pecked at his flesh, and his blood stained their feathers red. But the next time he waded through the fire of pain and saw them, they were circling overhead, crying hoarsely and eyeing him eagerly, so perhaps that had only been a dream.
All the while, he cried out, uselessly, weakly, whimperingly, to his Master who could never come.
Still he heard the call.
His apprentice had called to him like dancing tongues of flame, burning bright with desperation, then flickering away into darkness when pain and despair overwhelmed him. If that had been flame, this call was like the faintest tendril of mist. It touched his mind, weak and tenuous - touched, and slipped away, back into the darkness.
He had no bond with the one who was calling, calling so agonisingly for his Master. With his apprentice he had seen the stake and the stones and the brown-skinned men with the burning zealots' eyes. Now, he saw nothing, merely sensed the call, and the need, and the pain.
He had the vaguest idea of the direction. He could walk like this for days, until the call faded into silence, but still could not give up. Unconscious past calling, the boy could still need help. Even dead, he needed a burial, and one of his own kind of murmur the proper words over his body.
He would not give up. Something inside him - some deep part of him that had been wounded almost beyond repair - demanded this.
He would not give up.
"There," Jazra said, as the sun began to set behind them, way beyond the mountains, like a red road scoring the place they had come.
He gestured ahead, proudly, at the square stone roofs of a settlement. It had low walls, but men were working on them, building them up. Metal of helmets and weapons glinted in the light.
"My home." A broad smile. "Welcome."
He had walked through rain, and out again to the other side, to sunlight. The sun had peaked, lowered, and reddened.
The call in his mind was silent.
Birds screamed. Ahead, not far, he saw a dark cloud of circling carrion birds, awaiting the last breaths of their dying prey.
He paused for moment, then started running.
A bird perched on a rock next to his outstretched hand.
He saw death in its eyes.
Dying by inches, pecked apart by its cruel beak...
Death in its eyes, and death in the faint footsteps that grew ever louder. A man in black, dark robed and dark faced, with its glowing red blade of death. It was the Sith Lord, legendary personification of Death, it he had come for him. His dark bird servants would feed on his flesh, and he would consume his soul.
He had no strength even to cry.
His eyes told him that the boy was dead, for who could lie so still and so broken, and still live? There was a faint sense of life coming through the Force, but surely that was his imagination, wishful thinking.
He approached, wanting to be slow, but needing to be fast. He half stumbled on rocks. A bird eyed him reproachfully and flew off with a whirr of black wings, but not far. It guarded jealously its first claim on this feast.
Somehow this was the worst. "Go away!" He flapped at it. A Keeper apprentice, surely, and this was to be his end, pecked apart by carrion birds...
He fell to his knees beside the boy. He found his hands were shaking. Twice he almost touched him; twice he pulled away, afraid to have that terrible moment of encountering no pulse, or, if he was alive, of worsening those terrible wounds by movement.
The bird screamed, and he started, gasped aloud. He felt it like a slap in the face, bringing him to his senses, making him act.
No hesitation now, and no delay. His hands were still shaking, but they were firm and urgent. The boy was half on his side, turned away, and he couldn't move him without assessing for neck injuries, but he reached round, finding the lips by feel, and smiling at the soft breath that touched his skin.
Doubts fell away. Emotion would hit him, afterwards, but here was a life to be saved - a Keeper apprentice, as lost and alone as he was.
Neck... Yes, it was whole and undamaged. Back, too, running his hand down the boy's spine, probing with both touch and the Force.
"I'm going to move you now," he murmured, touching the back of his neck, stroking the damp fair hair that fell across his face. The ends of it was dark with blood.
He positioned his hands, and pulled, rolling the boy gently onto his back.
Nothing could prevent him from crying out when he saw the arrow protruding from his throat, angry and purpling and still bleeding. Swallowing hard to quieten his horror, he wrenched his eyes away... oh, but there was a fearful terrible fascination about that horrendous wound.
Torso... "Torso," he murmured aloud, reminding himself of his duty. He would do a complete assessment first before acting. Torso more or less whole - deeply bruised and lacerated, of course, and one rib broken, but that was merciful, after all. Legs whole - he ran his hands down both of them to the feet, checking. Arms... Right one whole, left one... He frowned. Whole, but lying dead and useless at an impossible angle. Ah. Shoulder. He nodded, satisfaction at finding the answer mingling with fresh despair. The shoulder was shattered.
There. He rocked back on his heels. He had his answers. The boy surely clung to life by a thread, and, even if he lived, would surely be forever maimed by this.
He found he was crying, silent tears that were for all dead boys, and all Keepers, and the whole world that saw such darkness.
The Dark Lord had him. Hands were pawing at him, touching his frail and useless flesh.
He heard a voice, and dark wings fluttering.
Pain exploded, and he moaned.
He wanted his Master.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," he exclaimed, when those eyes fluttered open, blue and dazed with pain.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn's apprentice. He had last seen him as a child, and held his hand, and walked with him for many miles, calming his bewilderment with reassuring words. He had liked the boy. Almost, then, had he changed his mind and asked to take him himself. But Qui-Gon had had prior claim, making it clear a year before that he was ready for an apprentice, should - and this happened less and less with every year - a suitable child be found.
For himself, it had probably only been a whim - a reaction to the boy's open honesty and promise. He had long declared himself too fond of an independent life to ever take an apprentice, and, since suitable children were so rare, he was never pressurised by the Conclave.
But the memory of what it had been like to hold a young life in his hands, and answer the questions of that upturned open face, had never left him.
Seven years later, he had found a child for himself, had given up travelling, and had lived more fully in the three years together than in all the years of loneliness.
"Obi-Wan," he said again, gently. He touched his face. Not the Master the boy so longed to see, but _someone_, at least, and someone who would never let him die alone.
Obi-Wan's eyes flickered in his too-pale face. Blood stained his lips. "Master Windu."
Not death. Not alone. Not a nightmare. Not the end.
He surrendered himself to care.
Days and nights, one following the other, over and over with no change, were a nightmare.
He pulled Obi-Wan into the inadequate shelter of a small cave - not even a cave, but just an indentation in the cliff side, protected from the worst of the rain but none of the cold.
The boy was racked with fever, crying out to his Master in his mind, but without true voice.
With one hand at Obi-Wan's throat, and the other on his forehead, he used the Force with all his skill, easing the arrow out, slowing the burst of dark bubbling blood from the wound.
He murmured soft words. With water brought from the far away stream, he cleaned away the blood, and wetted those parched lips.
He was sure the boy would die.
Once, with a stone and with anger, he killed one of the carrion birds, and heated its flesh over a damp fire. It tasted bad, but killing it had caused a fierce guilty surge of satisfaction.
Obi-Wan raved in his fever, flailing out with the Force in wild desperate pleading. Equally desperate, Mace joined that cry, calling to the man he had never known well, but who, in the short acquaintance they had had, he had thought _could_ have been his friend.
He thought a week passed, but maybe less.
At the darkest hour of night, as a wolf howled on the distant hilltops, Obi-Wan Kenobi opened his eyes, and they were lucid.
"Master?" It was a hoarse and broken whisper - all the voice had had, or would ever have. The movement of his throat must have pained the still healing wound, for he winced.
"No." Mace shook his head sadly.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes for a moment. "I know," he whispered.
Mace twisted the fabric of his robe, forever stained now with the blood of two apprentices. "I grieve for your loss, Obi-Wan."
In the silver light of the moon, he saw tears rise in Obi-Wan's eyes, but they did not fall. He frowned, looking puzzled. His lips moved, but every word pained him so, and he didn't speak.
Careful. Very careful. "I, too, have suffered a loss, Obi-Wan. My apprentice..." No more. Perhaps it was too soon, and neither of them could replace the ones they had lost, but here were too bereft souls, needing companionship.
"No." Obi-Wan shook his head. "Qui-Gon isn't dead."
His eyes widened. For an instant, he felt shock. Then, on its heels, sorrow and pain, that Obi-Wan was still delirious, or that grief had turned his mind and made him deny his Master's death. "But he..." But what could he say? Not what he felt - that no Master would leave his apprentice to suffer like this, or that he had felt only blankness in the Force when he had sought Qui-Gon Jinn, and that meant only death.
"He..." Obi-Wan touched his throat, as if that gave some small relief from the pain. "Accident. He... He lost the Force. He..." Pointing to himself, his throat and shoulder. "He doesn't know.. this."
Lost the Force... It was beyond thinking about. How he must feel... How helpless and lonely and useless... It would be like losing part of yourself, of being permanently maimed.
He gasped. Memory swirled around him like liquid, elusive and strange. A voice spoke, and it was low and warm and long forgotten.
"...recover?" he heard Obi-Wan say, as if from an immense distance. "The truth."
He shook his head, knowing that the memory was important, but the comfort of one who needed him was more important, always, than anything else. "Not fully," he said, gently, answering the question that had surely been asked. "It is likely that you will never have full use of your left arm, or be able to speak much more than you can now." He touched his hair. "I... I'm sorry, Obi-Wan."
And then, as if it had been a door with two locks, and this was the second key, the memory was there, living and present, inescapable.
A dream. It had been a dream, long ago, perhaps, though time had no meaning in this reality. He thought he had been fevered, lost in illness and close to dying. Had some hidden doorway been opened, some barrier that his conscious mind erected been dissolved?
Or perhaps it had only been a dream, and this only coincidence, this memory.
He had dreamed...
Laughing darkness had swelled, until he had thought he would scream from it. The sound of horses galloping, and swords clashing, and wild quick glimpses of faces twisted in hate and anger. Images whirled like a tornado. He heard, but never long enough to identify voices. He saw, but never enough to see the place, or the person, or the time.
He was the stillness at the heart of the whirlwind, watching, slowly being destroyed.
"No!" he had cried. "No!"
And then, just as he had thought he could take no more, no never take _any_ more, a voice had spoken, low and solemn and full, somehow, of kindness.
The noise of chaos had fallen away, imperceptibly lessening to silence. There had been nothing left to him but that voice, but that voice was all he wanted.
"It will be a time of gathering darkness," he heard. "The Keepers will fall."
Held by the voice, he had not even felt horror, not even cried out.
"There will be a Master maimed in mind, and an apprentice maimed in body. Yet they will speak with the stars, and that which is sundered will be whole again."
<Not me> he had known, instinctively. <Not me, either of them, but I will know them, and have been given this trust, that they are told, and know this.>
"What good will it do to know about the darkness, when it can not be prevented?" the voice had said, gently. "Live in the expectation of life, of hope. Live, and forget this." A touch like a whisper on his brow. "When the darkness has come, then you will remember."
He had cried out then. He cried out now, in a small wind-swept cave under a mountain, as the darkness swirled outside and around him.
"Don't try to talk," he murmured, knowing he needed time with this, time alone to think. And Obi-Wan was too hurt, too weak, for this burden of a world's destiny. "Sleep."
Days had passed - the first, then the second, and stretching into a week, and more.
The wind blew chill. Jazra draped his walls with tapestries from the east, and tried to pretend his home was a palace, but, beneath this veneer, it was a rough-hewn fortification, on a gaunt hillside. Qui-Gon never felt truly warm, though Jazra had girls dance for him, and poured rich red wine, and gave him all luxury.
He had expected to stop for but one night, then travel to seek the boy. When the second day had almost passed, he had sought Jazra out and asked him about the delay.
"I need time."
There had been a coiled tension about the man. Evenings would become the only time Qui-Gon saw him - saw the smooth host with the mellifluous manner. During the day he was Jazra was urgent and busy, and Qui-Gon was alone.
"I can go now," Qui-Gon had said, almost fervently. The thought of the boy who needed his help was the only thing that could ease that aching void of his heart.
"No." Jazra had shaken his head. "I need time to collect my men, and call in the other chiefs from the hills."
"I am not going to war," he had said, firmly. "Nor with force of arms or numbers. I won't kill."
For a moment, Jazra had almost seemed on the point of a sharp rejoinder. But then he had merely nodded, patiently. "Yes, but the men holding my son are not stupid. They will give chase, or raise an army to besiege me here, in retaliation. If you act before my men are ready, you will kill both my son, and me."
It had made sense, but still... He had curled his fists, powerless and impatient. So much time alone, to know himself betrayed and bereft... He had walked into a new life. He had - and he had to admit it - made decisions that had led to Obi-Wan leaving him. He had not done all that just to sit uselessly in a mountain fortress, doing nothing.
A tearful reunion of father and son... Justification, and a new role for the Keepers proudly proclaimed... Anything less would unthinkable. Obi-Wan had left him for this, and it _had_ to be worth that loss.
To come this far, and find he had been wrong, that he had driven Obi-Wan away for nothing... No, it was more than could be borne.
But he had died a little more with every new day of inactivity.
"Can we leave today?" It had become like the refrain of a child nagging his parents. "Can we leave?" as he watched the ragged columns of men march over the mountains and camp before Jazra's walls. "Can we leave?" as he watched them drill and practice with their weapons. "Can we leave?"
And still he had to wait, inactive, and the pain grew worse and worse each day.
It was a clear night. Master Windu threw another piece of wood on the fire, then settled back down. The flames danced on his dark skin.
"What happened, Obi-Wan?"
It was come. He had been asked, and had to answer, but what could he say? He would say nothing to damn his Master in the eyes of another Keeper.
His awkwardness was taken for pain, and that was good. The pain, too, almost choked him - jangling molten metal fragments in his shoulder, and sharp pain in his throat whenever he swallowed.
"Another day, then," Master Windu said gently, touching the back of his hand - a touch full of intended comfort, but only a pale shadow of his Master's touch, or the security he had felt just by being near him.
The Master who had ignored his calls for help, and ridden ahead, and never once come back for him.
"No," he managed to say, suddenly resolved. It had happened, and nothing could change that. Remaining silent didn't make it any less true. And he would need to speak of it one day, and it would be no easier tomorrow than today. "No. I can speak."
He told him then, in hoarse whisper, omitting none of the facts, but all of his feelings. Why tell this man how he had cried in his heart and cried real tears because of his Master, when he cried still at night, and called Qui-Gon's name in his nightmares, and Master Windu stroked his hair and heard every word?
"I destroyed the Relics without permission..."
The Master's brows had lowered, probably with anger.
"I tried to escape with him. I would never have left him. Never..." Voice shaking, and perhaps his emotions were coming through into the story after all.
He found he was crying - silent painful tears that burned his throat.
"He took the sword and threw me from the mountain..."
"I know." Two large hands enclosed his own, clasped and shaking.
He looked up gratefully. Words came so painfully. Could he be silent now? Silent, and sleeping, and wander, in dreams, in a past when his Master had the Force, and loved him...
"You did right," Master Windu said, quietly.
He looked up, surprised at the difference these words could make. Until this moment, he had not realised how much he had doubted this. Had he failed, somehow - failed to show Qui-Gon the truth about Jazra, or failed in his obedience to his Master by even trying? Guilt and doubt had been his unrecognised enemies, eating at him as much as the pain of his wounds.
He saw from the frown what was coming, and interrupted. The words came easy enough past his ravaged throat, now he truly wanted to speak. "Don't blame him, Master Windu. Losing the Force... It hurt him so much. He has lost everything. He just needed to make a decision, and for it to be right. It would have hurt him so much to admit he was wrong. It... it hurt him so much when I disobeyed him. He thought even I had lost all respect for him, after the accident."
"A Keeper should not act on hurt," Master Windu said sternly.
He had been so close to death. All the old things - tact, and caution - seemed somehow less important now, compared with the vastness of dying, and of life. "Can you say you never have?"
Master Windu flinched. Real pain crossed his face. But, when he spoke, his voice, his eyes, were softer. "No. You're right, Obi-Wan. I know what pain is, and how it can blind us."
It was an opening. He had bared his own soul; he could ask Master Windu to bare his, and perhaps he too could say "you did right", and ease a man's pain. He opened his mouth to speak, but Master Windu, an almost scared look on his face, spoke quickly, pre-empting him. "Will you... Do you want to stop him?"
"Jazra. Qui-Gon." Master Windu was suddenly intense. "I know of Jazra's reputation. Even if I did not, the way he treated you shows how dangerous, how treacherous he is. Qui-Gon is vulnerable right now, and easy prey for Jazra's deceptions..." He left the sentence hang.
"I must rescue him," he completed, with certainty. The Master who had left him, but he understood why. The Master who had let him die, but he understood why. The Master who... The Master who would never again be his Master, but was still the man his whole soul cried out to see again, and to feel his touch, and his gentle words of love and protection.
"You..." There was something strange in Master Windu's sense - some strange dark emotion swirling in his eyes.
"You..." he said, and stopped, suddenly unable to say anything more.
Obi-Wan had told such a story, of a Master who had let him down at every turn, and hurt him deeply. Yet still, though he cried in the night and raved in his fever of the pain and injustice, he loved the man, and defended him, and wanted nothing more than to rescue him, though he could barely stand.
Emotion surged, and it was jealousy.
He had lost his apprentice. Obi-Wan, he had thought, had been an apprentice without a Master. He was not foolish enough to think that either could replace the lost loved one, but the Force had brought them together, surely. In _some_ semblance of togetherness and comfort, they would forge a new life together. Obi-Wan would come to call him Master, and it would only be shadowed slightly by the sad memory of the man who had taught him for so long.
Had he really dreamed this? Foolish, futile dreams...
"You..." he said again, as Obi-Wan could only stare at him, bewildered.
And then, amazingly, Obi-Wan smiled, a rueful smile, almost tender. "Would you help me?"
"Yes," he said, at once, and found he meant it, and it pleased him, and, for the first time since his apprentice's death, he was smiling.
He would have a companion, and a goal. Only for a little while, perhaps, but it was something.
And the other thing - that voice of his dreams... He would think of that later.
"How?" Obi-Wan said, the following morning. "I..." With his one good hand, he gestured at his ugly broken body. "I'm not sure I can..."
An expression of pain passed briefly over Master Windu's face. Then he seemed to consciously collect himself, and, when he spoke, he was the calm Master, in control, tackling the situation with logic. "You can walk. You can't use your left arm, but your right is undamaged."
"Yes," he said, although every step caused his still-healing shoulder to jolt painfully. "Yes," although lunging with a weapon - he had tried it, experimentally, when Master Windu wasn't looking - caused shards of pain to explode even in the shoulder that wasn't used.
"And," Master Windu said, gently, "I'll take the lead. If you prefer, I can go alone, and you...."
Master Windu touched his hand. "You have nothing to atone for, Obi-Wan," he murmured, reading him too well. "You..."
"But I want to," he interrupted, fervently.
Later, when they stopped barely a couple of miles from their starting place, when Obi-Wan knew his face was white and pinched with the strain, he spoke again.
"I don't want him to know me."
Master Windu looked up, questioningly.
How could he explain, revealing his secret fears and doubts to a man who was a stranger, when even his Master had never truly known him? How could he explain how, the moment they had moved, he had heard a taunting litany in the jolting impact of his every step?
<He won't want you. He's given up on you. And now you are maimed, and no use as an apprentice.>
That was the voice of his fear. The other, equally treacherous voice, spoke with every second step, and was the voice of his hope.
<He'll stay with you forever now. He has to. When he sees how you've suffered, and how he's wronged you, he'll cherish you forever. He has to.>
The voice of hope was the worst enemy, he thought.
"I don't want him to know me," he said, again, firmly. Master Windu needed something - some explanation to pay him back for all he was doing for Obi-Wan and his Master, and the days he had given up, and the comfort he had offered. "He... I don't think he knows I've been hurt. He and I... disagreed over things. I don't want him to be bound to me by guilt."
"He will have to know, Obi-Wan." Gentle.
"I know." This was so important to him, but what weapons did he have? If Master Windu refused to go along with it, he would still go with him, still do everything he could to rescue his Master from an unwise promise to a violent man. "I just... I just need to walk beside him as a stranger, and hear how he talks about his apprentice."
Master Windu seemed to understand. Obi-Wan thought he knew more about what had happened than he had ever told him. Perhaps he had raved in his delirium or nightmare. "Are you prepared that what you hear might hurt you?"
He was. He had thought about this. To walk, unrecognised, and hear his Master tell Master Windu about the treacherous disappointment of an apprentice, who had betrayed him and disobeyed him... How could he bear it? But how could he not? Better to know the truth, than to reveal himself to his Master, and hear lies uttered out of guilt - "I never truly believed you could wrong me, Obi-Wan. I was blind. I was foolish."
A Keeper shouldn't act out of hurt, Master Windu said, and he knew his Master had done so, and understood, and forgave. But if his Master truly believed he was capable of leaving him in danger, or deliberately betrayed him, or wanting to supplant him as the Master.... If his Master truly believed this, then it was over. He would forgive him - how could he not, when it came from such hurt and loss? - and he would stay with him, and help him, and serve him, but it would never be the same. He could not accept love from someone who so fundamentally distrusted him, and knew him so little. It would be a hollow companionship, without love, without trust.
But better that, surely, than a pretend-relationship based on guilt and lies.
Master Windu nodded slowly. Obi-Wan blinked, clearing the tears that had welled up in his eyes, and watched as the other man opened his pack, and pulled out a crumpled dark robe. A Master's robe, he knew, and well hooded. "Wear this."
Men mustered in the hills, and still Jazra did not speak of the time when they would go.
Once, Qui-Gon strolled outside, crouching down beside the camp fire of one small band, and tried to talk. Their faces closed up, as if they were keeping some secret, or had been ordered not to talk to him.
"When are the rest of you coming?" one asked, then stopped suddenly, rebuked by a sharp look from another.
"What have you been told about why you're here?" he asked, in sudden dark suspicion.
They said nothing. A man who looked like a leader came up, with the rag still in his hand from polishing his weapon. He shouted crisp orders, and the men hurried away.
"I won't lie to him," Master Windu said, firmly, on the second day of their journey.
Had Obi-Wan been whole, and had they been able to travel openly, they could have done it in a day, perhaps. Their rough cave at the base of the cliff had been deep within Jazra's territory, but on unwalked paths leading neither to settlements nor good hunting grounds. The journey was not far, but bands of armed men glittered on the horizon, and they needed all the Keepers' skills of walking unseen.
"I won't tell him who you are, but neither will I lie. It is not the way of the Keepers to lie."
Obi-Wan remembered how he had lied to his Master about the destruction of the Relics, and how his Master, for months, had encouraged him to live the falsehood that he, Qui-Gon, still had his powers. He had not once taught Obi-Wan that Keepers never lied.
Was it good, he wondered, that a Master and apprentice lived alone, so seldom meeting other Keepers? How much of the man he now was had been framed, not by the Keepers' teaching, but by Qui-Gon's own interpretation of it? Had he been shaped forever in a wrong form, taught by a rebel, who thought it acceptable to lie - and what other sins?
But then, he thought fiercely, loyally, the Keepers _did_ lie, for all the high and moral words Master Windu could utter now. Every one of them, every day, lied about the nature of the Relics, encouraging the people to believe that they were fearful things of dark magic, and that the Keepers could somehow exorcise that evil. Only Qui-Gon had spoken out against that, advocating truth.
He said nothing of this. Perhaps Master Windu sensed his disquiet through the Force, but this was no time to debate such matters. If Master Windu was uncomfortable about lying about his identity, then he would respect that. He knew all too well what it was like to be pressured into living a lie.
"How will you explain the fact that you knew he was there, with Jazra? That he needed rescuing?" he asked, instead.
Master Windu shrugged, and smiled, and for the merest instant looked like the Master he remembered from childhood. "I'll think of something."
He cornered Jazra, putting the old steel in his voice, long forgotten. "You're still after that, aren't you? Still hoping I will bring all the other Keepers into your army to fight Hasan?"
"You promised to find my son," Jazra said. His eyes looked cold. He wondered if that could be true.
"But not to fight a war. Not to make decisions for the other Keepers."
Jazra waved a casual hand, signalling the dancers to start again. "I thought you did. I thought you promised to help find him in any way possible, and war is the only way, and only with the Keepers on our side can we win. And, as for the second, I am aware that no Keeper, before or since, has made a promise like yours."
He was caught. He had thought - of course he had, seeing hope in such a dream - that his decision was the start of a bold new path for the Keepers, actively helping people, and not just condoning a lie about the Relics, and "saving" them from a fear that was never real. Of course he had made decisions for the others, setting a precedent, the moment he had uttered his promise. He had though that, because it was a "good" promise, it didn't matter.
He should have consulted Obi-Wan, who was only an apprentice, but _had_ been affected, and affected to such a degree that he felt he had to leave the Master he had lived with for so long and travel alone. And he should have consulted the Conclave - tried to argue them to his point of view, instead of silently objecting, and feeding Obi-Wan his doubts when he should have taught him orthodoxy. Failing that, he should have made clear all alone, as he made his promise to Jazra, that he was promising for himself alone, and setting no precedent for the Order.
All these "shoulds". And now, rightly or wrongly, he was bound by a promise to more than he had ever intended.
"I still intend to find your son," he said, his voice measured. He could not use the Force to shield, but still had all his old mental discipline, his ability to keep a calm facade. "Nothing more. Never more. I will not fight, and I will not speak your cause to any other Keeper."
He had a sudden insane fear that he was signing his own death warrant, with those words. But Jazra just smiled, as if to say "we'll see about that," and turned back to the dancers.
"There!" Master Windu hissed, grabbed Obi-Wan's good arm and pointing ahead.
Obi-Wan saw nothing. He blinked, forced himself to focus - oh, but he was weary, and the fever had left him weak and prone to dizziness - and saw a faint glow as of a damp fire, and heard the low murmur of voices.
"Some of Jazra's recruits," Master Windu said, "unless I'm mistaken."
How he had changed, these short days since they had set out. Obi-Wan could still sense that deep core of grief that he bore in his heart, but he seemed imbued with fresh purpose, with hope.
"Shall we listen to what they talk about of an evening?" The Master's voice was almost light, as if he was enjoying this. Obi-Wan didn't understand.
"I'm not sure I can," he replied, honestly, knowing that, forever after, he would be forced to admit his weakness, and the places where he would fail.
With the Force he could walk silently, and pass unseen in the night, through the open country between camps. He could even misdirect thoughts, should he be seen, and make a man believe he had seen an animal, somewhere else entirely. With this, he hoped he could reach Qui-Gon without raising an alarm. But he was weak, and how it would drain him - how deeply he feared it would not be enough.
"I will do what I need to do," he said, "but I daren't risk more."
Master Windu looked at him with sympathy. "Stay here, then. Rest, ready for what is to come. I'll go."
With a single raised hand, in salute and farewell, he walked into the night.
Qui-Gon stood up.
"No," he said, firmly. "No more games."
The dancing girl was had been close enough to touch, swaying suggestively, her red-painted lips promising kisses. She froze now, and for a moment he saw the fear beneath the powder and paint.
"I'm leaving tomorrow. I _will_ look for your son, but I refuse to stand idly by any longer."
He wasn't sure what he expected. Perhaps it would have been wiser to say nothing, and just slip away in the night, but that was not his way. Obi-Wan had left secretly, without a word, but he would be open and honest about his intentions. It felt good to take control like this.
"You're right," Jazra said. "It's time to go. My men are as ready as they'll ever be." He waved his hand, dismissing the musicians. "This is no time for fripperies. This is the time to ready ourselves for war." He stood up, and his voice rang out clearly to the other captains, as if he was already addressing an army on the battlefield. "In the morning, we ride. Have your men well rested, their minds honed like a sword blade."
His eyes gleaming - was that a look of triumph? - Jazra turned back to Qui-Gon. <And you?> his eyes challenged. <How will you spend this last night, knowing I have outmanoeuvred you?>
Qui-Gon nodded in calm acknowledgement, inwardly swearing that he would not let this be true. "Then I will spend my night in contemplation. That is the Keeper way."
Jazra frowned, as if looking for deception, then smiled.
<He's dismissed me> Qui-Gon realised, shaken. <He's played me for a fool all along, and thinks I am still blind. He thinks I utter empty objections, but will still go where he wishes, tomorrow.>
Strangely, the realisation did not break him. He had derived such comfort from making decisions, from going with Jazra and defying to world to do so. It should have hurt so, to know how weak and foolish he had been, and how his so-brave words had only made Jazra smile with derisive triumph. It should have shattered him, making him believe himself pathetic and forever broken by his accident - no Keeper, and no judge of men, his every decision wrong.
But all he saw was the awakening. He had been wrong, but now he was alive again, defiant, not giving in. He was so much stronger than Jazra believed. He was fighting, and sticking to his principles, and refusing to let his past mistakes break him. He was being a Keeper, rising above his mistakes, and fighting on.
And he would win. Even if he died tomorrow, he would have already won.
Footsteps in the darkness, and Obi-Wan, stiffened. Then Master Windu spoke, crouching down beside him beneath the broad sheltering tree.
"We have a solution to one of our problems." His teeth were a white smile in the night.
"What?" Obi-Wan whispered. Every fresh conversation, and he seemed to discover all over again how broken his voice was.
"I overheard them talking about the Keeper who is a prisoner but doesn't know it. I have my reason, now, if Qui-Gon asks." Then he grew sober, his sense darkening. "And I heard that they're marching to war tomorrow. Against Hasan, eventually, but first they believe that Qui-Gon will take them to the place the refugee Keepers are, and that they will join their army, using the Force and the Relics against their enemies."
"Qui-Gon would never do that," Obi-Wan said, hotly.
"Are you sure?" Master Windu said, darkly. He was about to say more: <You should prepare yourself to find that Qui-Gon has betrayed us all, Obi-Wan, as well as you.>
Obi-Wan felt a sudden grim understanding. Master Windu had lost his apprentice. He looked upon Obi-Wan as a substitute - a second-best apprentice, but _someone_, at least, to ease the loneliness. He would do all he could to help rescue Qui-Gon, but deep down he wanted Qui-Gon to prove himself unworthy, so he could become Obi-Wan's Master. And who could blame him? If that happened, Obi-Wan thought he would far rather cling to Master Windu than be alone.
He felt no resentment, only sorrow and sympathy. Perhaps he was wrong about the man; it _was_ best, after all, that he be prepared for the worst and didn't pin too many hopes on Qui-Gon. And even if he was right, Master Windu kept it as a secret hope, and was not working in any way to sabotage the rescue. Should Qui-Gon prove himself still a Keeper, and a Master Obi-Wan could trust and love, Master Windu would step aside without a word, he knew.
"I'm sure," he said, gently, touching Master Windu's arm in silent apology for everything he could never be to the man. "Even when he was most passionate in his defence of Jazra, he refused to kill for him. He is no traitor to the Keepers."
<Only to me> a part of him was crying out - the part of him that would ever afterwards dream of what it was like to fall, reaching out to a mind that didn't sense him, and just turned away.
"Well," Master Windu said, briskly, with a smile - a smile that they both needed, and which healed much. "Let's rescue him - that's the first thing."
"Yes." He stood up. He was ready to dare anything to bring his Master back - just to get the chance, even the smallest chance, to hear him say the words he longed to hear.
Qui-Gon stood on the walls, and watched.
<How confident he is> he thought, with a twist of disgust - at how badly he'd been tricked, and at the man who had done it.
A week ago, the walls had been thickly guarded. Now they were almost empty. Thousands of allies, in their ring of camps, surrounded the building - protection against a besieging army more complete than any wall.
<How little he suspects treachery on the inside> he thought, almost proud to think that he was the traitor, alone defying a thousand men.
<I could walk out, alone, now, and never look back>
Camp fires glittered. From the light of the near ones, he could see that the men were settled down for the night, sleeping. Their swords were close at hand; they could leap to their feet in an instant, should the trumpets sound for war. But would they notice a man they had seen at their lord Jazra's side, wending his casual way, unarmed, between the camps? He doubted Jazra had even given orders to stop him, so confident was the man that he held his promise sacred.
He looked once more at the stars. <I think I will.>
"Wait," Obi-Wan said, before they had gone more than three steps.
Master Windu watched patiently, as Obi-Wan returned to the tree he had been resting against. He pulled himself up, with one good hand, until he was resting with his back against the trunk, twice his own height off the ground. Then he drew the knife from his belt and cut off a straight branch, as thick as his wrist.
He thought Master Windu would offer help, and was glad that he understood enough to stay silent. Cutting with one hand, bracing himself with only his back and legs, made the sweat stand out on his brow, and his wounded shoulder hurt with a jangling pain. But it was something he needed to do. A new staff, cut from the tree which had seen him go to war for his future. A symbol of his resolution, and new life, whether that life saw renewal, or the solitude of betrayal.
One day, he thought, if - _if_ - he was back with Qui-Gon and everything was healed, there would be room in his heart for other dreams. First, then, would be the dream that the sword of light would be returned to him, and that one day he could fight with it, feeling that infinite oneness with the Force and the long-dead.
One day. But before this night was out, he could be shattered, and never dream again.
On silent feet, Qui-Gon walked past Jazra's room. A pale blue light seemed to shine from beneath the door, and there was a noise, strangely familiar.
He paused, and for a moment almost went in.
Footsteps shuffled on the stone floor, as if Jazra was dancing.
<No> he thought, paused mid-breath, with his hand half reached out for the door. He had resolved not to slip away in the night like a coward or a treacher, but Jazra was no friend. This was closer to an escape, surely. Best if Jazra thought him in his chamber, deep in meditation.
But this was not the end. He and Jazra _would_ meet again, in the east, when he would prove to the man what he was, and his worth. They would meet again - he swore it.
"We travel together, and close," Master Windu had said. "Two men walking apart are two different men to be seen. Two men close are no more visible than one."
So side by side and silent they walked, close enough that their sleeves brushed. Master Windu bore his staff in his right hand, ready to fight if that was needed. Obi-Wan felt his own was more for support. He hugged his left arm close to his chest, instinctively holding it more protectively now there was hostile men so close.
Dark robes in the night made for invisibility. The enemy's very nature played into their hands. The men of the hills, like the men of the Sands, thought in terms of tribes. Perhaps Hasan could over-ride that and create a sense of unity, but Jazra could not. Although all followed him in this war of his, the tribes stayed apart, in their separate camps. There was much empty ground between them, and places to hide.
"So easy," Master Windu whispered, confidently.
Obi-Wan said nothing. Unlike the Master, he had suffered at Jazra's hands, and knew he was as sly and slippery as a snake. Almost, he could imagine that he saw Jazra on the battlements, hands on hips, smiling that silent triumphant smile as he watched his foolish enemies enjoy their false sense of victory.
"Over-confident, that's Jazra. He thought he'd killed you. He thinks this land is all his, and there is no threat, except from Hasan's army. He makes assumptions, and that will be his undoing."
"I hope so."
It was all he could say. His every step was soft, not just for silence, but to lessen the pain. He knew he had walked too far, too soon. He was nowhere near recovered, and lack of sleep made the fever dance again, just within reach, threatening.
The walls loomed up, high by themselves, but set on craggy rocks, and made higher still. They blocked out the stars. Somewhere inside was Qui-Gon, and around them men slept with their hands on their swords, ready to kill without a thought, if they were awakened.
He looked round anxiously, almost expecting to see them now - a wide bank of armed men, their eyes and swords glittering, bearing down on him. Had they smiled as they had sent the arrow into his throat? Had they laughed as they watched his body shatter on the rocks far below?
They would kill him three times over, and still they would laugh.
He shuddered. Then even that movement made his shoulder scream, and he couldn't suppress a small moan.
He saw that Master Windu was looking at him with concern.
"I'm all right," he said, gruffly. He was not all right, and perhaps never would be, unless his Master was returned to him, still loving him. Only his Master could hold him and truly comfort him - though Qui-Gon too was maimed, and needed him to be strong for him.
"Obi-Wan?" Master Windu's eyes made him feel trapped.
He looked round desperately, seeking something to do, something to say, to distract him. This was no time to fall apart, or to have it witnessed. "I..." And then he saw it, and his urgent whisper was real, not feigned at all. "A man. There."
Master Windu whirled round, following the direction of his gaze, and his hand tightened on his staff.
Qui-Gon raised his face to the sky, and savoured the feel of the wind on his skin.
<Free> he thought. Out of the house, and so easy. There were a thousand sleeping men to walk between, but he was free, out in the open air, no longer bound by Jazra's deceptions.
Their eyes met - Obi-Wan, and the man who could be their killer.
Master Windu raised the staff, but made no further threatening move. They would not kill, unless necessary; nothing aroused suspicion more than the discovery of a body. Best to walk silent, leaving people unaware.
The man looked over his shoulder, as if seeking help - someone else to ask. The tribes had probably never met before now. Obi-Wan and Master Windu could just be allies from some other camp fire, out walking in the night for some reason of their own.
Then the cloud shifted, and a shaft of moonlight fell on Master Windu's dark face - a face that proclaimed himself unambiguously other, an enemy. Obi-Wan's own pale face would have done the same, but he was shrouded in the shadow of his hood.
"Now!" Master Windu hissed, urgently.
Obi-Wan raised his hand. Suddenly, irrationally, he was back with his Master, having to use the Force to his command, while Qui-Gon pretended it was him. But then he shook his head abruptly, and focused, and it was not the same at all.
They worked together, not apart. Though they were not bonded and their minds were closed to the other, their Force powers merged, instinctively working to compensate for the other's omissions. Obi-Wan held the man still and silent; Master Windu worked on his mind with soft words, suggesting that he was tired, that his eyes were heavy, he wanted to sleep now.
He fell to the ground. Obi-Wan and Master Windu looked at each other, and shared a brief moment of communion, smiling together about their victory.
SO it had been with his Master, once, and not just a brief moment, but a life-time.
Sobered, he looked away, pulling his hood closer over his face. "We should hurry."
But Master Windu didn't move. "Another one."
He looked, and one look was all it took. "Qui-Gon," he whispered, feeling suddenly cold all over. He tugged at the hood again, and found that his hand was shaking. "It's him."
Master Windu was silent for a few seconds. "I keep my promises, Obi-Wan," he whispered. But he didn't relax the grip on his staff.
Two men. He still has his staff and knife, and could fight if he needed to, though he had sworn not to. To shed no blood for Jazra, but neither against him either, not until a formal challenge lay between them and it was in the open.
He paused, then walked forward.
One step. Two...
They were robed like Keepers.
His mouth felt suddenly dry. Were they come to stand in judgement over him, and find him wanting? To drag him off to Conclave to face his mistakes?
They stood silent, as if he was already condemned in their eyes.
"I did no great wrong!" he wanted to cry.
They would see his robe and know who he was, but fail to sense him through the Force, and know what he had become. They would expel him, as if he was of no further use to the Order. <I can still serve!> he protested, fervently, although for months he had told himself that it was over, that he was useless.
So he would stand and face them, firm and strong. He had made mistakes, but seen them, and would learn. He would approach them with no shame.
He walked forward.
"Qui-Gon Jinn," one said, with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
His eyes widened. "Mace Windu." Almost a friend, and now coming to deliver him to judgement and expulsion.
But he kept his head high.
He sensed fear from his Master. Why did he fear them?
Even if he had not been vowed to silence, he could not have spoken then, or only to say "Master", and run into his arms, and sob his name.
"Are you all right?" Master Windu asked. His voice was low, but he spoke as if they were taking a leisurely stroll, making social conversation, not walking through camps of armed men.
"I was travelling through the hills, when I overheard some men say how Lord Jazra had a Keeper prisoner, who didn't realise he was a prisoner. I thought he might need help."
Qui-Gon's breathing checked for a moment. Was it only Obi-Wan who knew him so well, and only Obi-Wan who could sense both the fear, and the relief he now felt. What had Qui-Gon feared? "I did realise," he said, merely. "Somewhat late, but I did, in the end. Which is why you see me now."
Master Windu nodded. "Come."
They walked silently. It was not wise to talk, though Mace would surely demand so many explanations, soon.
Qui-Gon found he was glancing increasingly often at the other one - the man robed like a Master, who moved like an old man, as if every step hurt him. He almost offered him his arm, but something about the man radiated solitude, or self-reliance. He was a man who would cherish his pain and share it with no-one - a man who would rather stumble alone, than seek help.
The man he thought he might become, if he was not already.
No-one challenged them. Back to the tree, and beyond, to a place where the fires were like distant stars in the night.
Obi-Wan sank to the ground, gracelessly, as soon as Master Windu signalled the halt. He saw his Master looking at him with concern, and looked quickly away.
Master Windu passed around a water bottle. "So, Qui-Gon, tell me," he asked, wiping his mouth with his hand. "Why were you there?"
It was come, the moment Qui-Gon would open his mouth and utter damning proofs of how little he had ever trusted him. It was come, the moment he had carefully manipulated, with this disguise and deception - the moment he had thought he wanted.
It was come, and all he wanted to do was shrink back into the rocks until he ceased to exist at all - to become a wisp of air, insubstantial and invisible.
Anything but hear the words.
It was come, the time for explanations.
Qui-Gon folded his hands in his lap. He would remain dignified, if nothing else - that he would never lose. "It's a long story."
"We have time," Mace said, almost coldly. "Hours until morning, and you can talk while we walk."
He took a deep breath, not knowing where he would start. He closed his eyes. He would follow what he had once called the Force, and now called his instincts, and speak what seemed right.
"I had an accident." He pointed at the scar on his face. "I've lost the Force."
Strange how easy it was to say. He had never uttered it aloud before, not even to Obi-Wan, who had sensed it, and had to ask the question himself. All those months of charade, and he thought, perhaps, Obi-Wan had been right. He had been lying to himself, as much as anyone else, as if never saying it aloud would mean that it wasn't true.
What had changed, in this last week? For months, he had thought he could act as he always had, and still be a Keeper, pretending all was well. But this had led him into mistakes - trusting Jazra, judging men poorly but acting as if he still had the Force and knew all secrets of all hearts. The loss of the Force _had_ changed him, and he could no longer hide from that fact.
But it didn't need to destroy him. Without the Force, he was not a nobody. Some of the strongest of men - the Hasans of the world - were without the Force, but they could still do deeds that shook the world. But he could only grow and become like this if he admitted his weaknesses. Acting as if he still had the Force had made him weak. He had to accept that he did not, and rebuild his life on its new foundations.
Mace was nodding, his eyes sympathetic. There was not the horror or revulsion in his eyes that he had thought to see. The other man was tightly curled in on himself, rocking a little as if in pain. The one hand Qui-Gon could see was white clenched and shaking.
He half turned to him. "Are you...?" And then, to Mace, "who is your companion?"
Mace pursed his lips, as disapproving, but of what? "I met him in the hills," he said, carefully. "He isn't a Keeper Master, though he wears that robe. He didn't tell me his name. His throat has been badly wounded and his speech affected."
"Is he...?" It was wrong to talk about someone in their presence, but things had changed. He had thought himself in the presence of two Masters, who might deliver him to the judgement of the Conclave, but were not enemies. "Can I speak freely in front of him?" he whispered.
"You can trust him," Mace said, firmly.
"You can trust him," Master Windu said, but, oh, it was a lie.
Qui-Gon didn't trust him. Until this moment, he had hoped that Qui-Gon thought him dead or injured, and that his face would be ravaged with grief or worry. But this calmness, this dignity... Qui-Gon had no worries for his apprentice's safety. He had just accepted that he had left him, without a word of farewell or any intention of coming back for him. He thought so little of him that he cold believe this.
He didn't trust him.
If he had a voice, he would have sobbed, alone and forgotten in his borrowed robe.
It was not be easy. It never was easy, to confess faults, and Qui-Gon had done less of it than many men had.
"I... I made a mistake. Jazra asked me for my help in finding his missing son. I promised to help him." No word about his reasons - how the pain had driven him to want, to _need_, to make a bold decision and be in control once more. He knew that now for folly. "He manipulated me. His intention was... other."
Mace nodded. "I know Jazra's reputation."
"He wants to go to war with Hasan. Since Hasan's men are murdering the Keepers, he thinks we will be persuaded to join him - to use the Force and the Relics in his cause."
"Never," Mace said, fiercely. Qui-Gon looked up, and saw him truly. His face was twisted with pain. "Violence is no remedy for violence."
He thought he understood. He was having to feel his way in this - reading people, without the Force. He would have to learn again, as a child learned, but he was surely right on this. "You lost someone to Hasan, Mace?"
"My apprentice," Mace said, shortly. There was so much pain, still unhealed, behind that word.
Qui-Gon remembered how Mace had come to him, ten years before, leading a wide-eyed boy by the hand. "Your apprentice, if you will have him," he had said. "His name is Obi-Wan Kenobi." Obi-Wan's hand had lingered in Mace's, seeking one more moment of security with a man who had come to half-know, before being handed over the a stranger. They looked good together, but Mace was sworn to the life of a solitary wanderer, and would take no padawan.
"I changed my mind," Mace said, as if reading Qui-Gon's thoughts. "My time with your Obi-Wan showed me what I was missing."
"My Obi-Wan," he echoed, bitterly, as was back to his own pain again. "No more."
"Where is he?"
Qui-Gon closed his eyes. What could he say, when he scarcely knew himself? <He was disobedient and betrayed me> he had thought, once, in his anger. <He was no great loss> he had told himself, in his numbness, to ease the coming pain. <He was from the past, and this is my future.> He no longer believed either.
"I don't know," he said. And then he wanted to echo it again and again. <I don't know. Oh, my Obi-Wan, I don't know where you are. Come back to me. We can start again...>
"He left you?" Mace was incredulous. "Surely not."
Just two days before it would have been different. "Yes," he would have said, coldly. "He left me because he could not obey me." But now his eyes had been opened to Jazra's deceptions, and he knew how he had been manipulated. Obi-Wan had seen the truth. Time and again he had tried to tell him, but Qui-Gon had refused to listen.
Almost he said that anyway, reluctant to reveal his true pain to a man who was little more than a stranger, though he had liked him when they had last met. "He left me," he would say, putting Obi-Wan in the wrong, and he would be the wronged victim, suffering a pain that only another Master could truly understand and console.
But why lie? He had made mistakes, and, like a true Keeper, would admit them and face them. And he was defenceless, too, and Mace, strong in the Force, would sense his lying anyway.
"I... I think I drove him away," he said, heavily. "He knew the truth about Jazra. He tried to get me to leave with him, but I wouldn't. In the end, he just slipped away. I... I never said goodbye to him." He wiped fiercely at his eyes at treacherous tears he had never thought would fall.
The other man made a strange strangled noise.
He resented that - a stranger, seeing this. Pain was so close to anger, after all, and he whirled on him.
The tears were the undoing of him.
"He left me," Qui-Gon was saying.
It was the words he had dreaded - the words that showed how little faith Qui-Gon had in him. It was the words that would signal the end between them.
Oh, how wrong he had been....
Qui-Gon didn't trust him. Why should he? Obi-Wan showed himself unworthy of trust by this charade. "I want to hear how he speaks of me," he had said, as if he alone was suffering in this. He had feared a lack of trust, but at the same time had showed a lack of trust himself, wanting to test his Master with this cruel trick.
"I... I never said goodbye to him." Those words, and tears - tears in his Master's eyes, who had not even wept as he faced those first days without the Force.
Tears he had caused, by deceiving him, and not, in that first moment, running to him and saying, "it's me, Master. It's Obi-Wan. I never left you. I'll be at your side forever."
He thought he sobbed then, and Qui-Gon whirled at him, hatred in his eyes.
Hatred that would only deepen, and deservedly so, if he lowered his hood right now and showed who he was. Hatred that would darken into betrayal, that Obi-Wan had tricked him so. Hatred that would poison forever what they had had, and it was _his_ fault, and not Qui-Gon's at all.
Knowing that it would be the end, but unable to hide any longer, Obi-Wan pushed the hood back from his face. He could hardly see for tears. "Master," he mouthed, in his broken voice. "I'm sorry, Master..."
It was Obi-Wan, here, at his side - Obi-Wan, who had left him, but now come back for him, as he had surely always intended.
For a moment, anger warred with joy... and then awkwardness - the awkwardness of any reunion. There was so much to say - a whole new foundation of their life together to be built, and apologies to make, and explanations.
Obi-Wan whispered again, another apology.
And then he frowned, moving closer, almost violent as he pushed Obi-Wan's cloak aside. "Your throat..." A horrible livid scar marred the very base of his throat. He touched it gingerly, but Obi-Wan cried out with raw agony. As if burned, he snatched his hand back.
"My shoulder," Obi-Wan whispered. Qui-Gon had not been aware of his other hand resting on it.
"Oh, Obi-Wan." He touched his face, wishing with all his soul that he could hold him closer, and comfort him without pain. He saw the truth in its sudden shattering clarity, and it dwarfed all past disagreements they had ever had. The truth made him angry. "What have they done to you? Tell me what they did to you."
Fingers touched his face. Eyes burned into his, demanding.
He couldn't help it. "Master," he pleaded, his ugly broken voice cracking. The command in Qui-Gon's eyes, forcing him to talk. They didn't need words. Words just obscured the truth and drove them apart.
"I'm sorry, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon softened, immensely tender. "I'm angry at them, not you. It... It doesn't matter. If you don't want to talk about it... All that matters is that you're alive, and here, and with me."
<No> he thought. Qui-Gon said exactly the same as he had just thought, but both of them were wrong. Talking _was_ necessary. It wasn't enough just to be together, letting truths be obscured because they were unspoken. Too much silence had driven them apart, feeding distrust and the fear of betrayal. Before, when Qui-Gon had the Force, they understood each other without words. Now things had changed, and words were all they had.
"No," he said, aloud, in that painful broken whisper. "I will talk. And you, Master... So much to talk about...." It was almost a sob.
"Yes." The hands were back on his face, pawing almost desperately, as if his Master needed to hold him more closely, but was scared to hurt him, and limited to just this touch.
This time he _did_ sob. "Master." He pulled him close with his good arm, taking the initiative - so much had changed since the accident, and much of it would never change back.
They held each other, and, for that moment at least, no words were necessary.
"Do you need help?" Qui-Gon asked, quiet and solicitous, when they started walking again.
"No." As if to belie his words, a sudden jolt in his shoulder made him hiss with pain. "Walking hurts," he explained, when he could talk again. "But it's the impact of my steps. Master Windu tried, before. It was no easier if I leant on him." Worse, perhaps, though he had not said it. He had suffered the jolts of two sets of footsteps.
Qui-Gon walked silently for a short while, his footsteps careful. "I... I need help myself, Obi-Wan, I think. Without the Force, it's not easy to travel in this terrain in the dark."
He stopped walking. He knew what it cost his Master to ask that; this, more than anything else, was a sign of how much he had changed. He could not deny this request for anything in the world. "Take my arm, Master," he said. "We can support each other."
Arms touching, they could talk, and talk of so many things.
"I would never have left you, Master. Jazra...."
"Jazra did that?" Fierce hot anger. He curled his fists.
"By his command. He laughed in triumph, and had his men throw me from the cliff."
"It wasn't your fault."
Tactful, but of course it was. He should have gone with Obi-Wan that night, when he had come for him to escape. And he should have had more faith, and known that Obi-Wan would never leave him, and slipped away from Jazra that very day and searched for him.
But it _was_. It was something he would never be talked out of, and never forget. He had lost the Force, and it had made him stupid - not the loss, as such, but his proud refusal to accept it, and to adapt. Obi-Wan's scars would be a permanent reminder to him of how much he had fallen.
"No." Firmer. Even that voice, that broken voice.... Every word he uttered was a reminder. "Master." Obi-Wan stopped, turning to face Qui-Gon in the darkness. "We both made mistakes. I lied to you. I kept secrets..."
"To protect me," he said, bitterly, knowing his Obi-Wan - never again would he doubt him.
"I lied," Obi-Wan repeated, firmly. "I destroyed the Relics deliberately, to keep them from Jazra. That broke my sworn oath of obedience."
"That came to an end the moment I lost the Force. Why should you obey me in situations where you understand, and I am blind?"
"You are my Master, and I love you, and that demands truth between us."
"You have the Force, and I do not. That makes you the Master. I should have listened."
"No." Obi-Wan tightened his grip on his arm, almost painfully tight. "We both made mistakes, Master. Why let them poison the future? Can we wipe the slate clean and start again? Jazra's the one to blame, after all."
Suddenly, insanely, he laughed - closer to tears, perhaps, and coming from tension, but it felt good. "Jazra, yes. Let's blame everything on him."
"Everything. Yes." Obi-Wan's laugh was only a breath - never again would he do more. "The time I broke that Relic when I was fourteen.... The time I wandering into the hills and found that lizard, who bit you..."
They laughed, and it was only a short respite. It was good, but he, Qui-Gon, still had his own lessons to learn from this. He would not drown in the guilt - what good could it to do Obi-Wan? - but he would never forget it, and everything would be different in the future.
Shortly before dawn, they halted. Obi-Wan immediately fell into a deep sleep that was closer to unconsciousness.
Qui-Gon hovered over him, touching him constantly, stroking his hair, his back, his hands. He was only faintly aware of Mace, as dark and silent now he was sitting as he had been before, walking always before them.
He started, looked up.
There was something strange about Mace's face - pain, almost, but much suppressed. He had lost his apprentice, he remembered, and had now been witness to a reunion that he would never have. He still had the Force, and had been there for Obi-Wan. How much more deserving he was as a Master than Qui-Gon, he must surely be thinking.
"Mace," he began, stricken again with guilt, and the need to apologise.
"No." Mace held up his hand. He looked at Obi-Wan, but he still slept. "I need to tell you something, Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan doesn't know this yet. At first he was too weak, and then... He was so afraid that you would hate him, Qui-Gon. How could I lay another burden on him until he knew?"
He said nothing, prompting the other man with his silence. <Hate him...> he thought. <Oh, Obi-Wan...>
Mace settled down on the ground, as for a story telling, though his voice was awkward, without the practised grace of the storytellers. "Long ago, I had a dream," he began. "I... I saw darkness, and war, and death. It was.... horrible. But then, out of the darkness, I heard a voice. It told me the Keepers would fall to the darkness. 'There will be a Master maimed in mind, and an apprentice maimed in body,' it said, 'yet they will speak with the stars, and that which is sundered will be whole again.' I knew it wasn't me, but that I was somehow being given a sacred trust, to tell these two, when it was time, and when I knew them."
His hand paused on Obi-Wan's hair long before Mace was finished. "You believe it's us," he said, simply. It was not a question.
Mace clenched his fists. "I believe the voice was... I could have been the Force itself. It told me I would forget, but would remember when the time was come. As soon as I saw Obi-Wan, I remembered."
"It might not mean anything. Obi-Wan is maimed, and if he told you that I am too... It might have just prompted the memory. It was only a dream."
"Only a dream." Mace stressed the first voice, his voice very quiet. "You know what the Keepers teach about dreams?"
"It was long ago."
Mace lunged suddenly, grabbing his wrist. "Why are you afraid to believe it, Qui-Gon?"
Afraid? <No> he thought, but he was cornered, both by Mace's eyes, and the truth. Afraid, yes. Afraid that he, without the Force and with such grievous mistakes in his past, could do nothing but fail, if given the burden of such a destiny.
"I have told you," Mace said, almost angrily. "I have done my part. Do not run from yours, Qui-Gon."
He lay very still, hearing all, making no sign.
<Oh> he thought, stupidly. Nothing changed - nothing he could put his finger one. But at the same time everything changed. It was as if something invisible clicked into place in his future, and suddenly made sense. He saw the stars above him, and seemed to see a bridge of silver reaching to the stars, and himself and his Master walking up it hand in hand.
Qui-Gon's hand was on his face, and it was trembling.
"I have done my part," Master Windu hissed.
And he was strange this night, gifted with understanding as well as vision. He knew the truth of Master Windu's words. "I have done my part". He was not just referring to the telling. He had obeyed the vision and brought Obi-Wan to Qui-Gon, though part of him so desperately wanted to run the other way - to take his new apprentice and cherish him, dismissing Qui-Gon entirely as unworthy.
He would not even tell the Conclave that Qui-Gon was without the Force, or report anything that would cause censure. The Conclave were increasingly narrow in their view, Qui-Gon said, and perhaps would dispute a long-ago vision, and still insist that Qui-Gon be expelled from the Order and Obi-Wan given another Master. Master Windu had done his part, bringing them together, and then stepping aside while they healed their relationship. He would do his part, too, by leaving them alone - no, not alone, for they would have each other, while _he_ would be the one who walked forever alone.
For the sake of the voice in his vision, and the tenuous hope for the future, he had sacrificed his chance of some small happiness.
"I want to tell Obi-Wan," his Master said, slowly, as if he had fought some fear, and emerged on the other side, resolved, but still not liking it.
It was time. Obi-Wan opened his eyes. "I heard." He sat up, and ever so gently pushed Qui-Gon's hand aside. Instead, he moved to Master Windu's side. "Thank you," he whispered, and embraced him.
His face hidden in his chest, a long time later, Master Windu finally wept.
"Talk with the stars," he mused, the next time they stopped. "What could it mean?"
The two Masters turned to face him, both calm and controlled, and both, inside, anything but. There seemed to be a dark fatalism about Master Windu after his weeping - an acceptance that he had performed the duty he had been destined for, and now had nothing left. He had handed over everything - vision, destiny, and apprentice - to Qui-Gon. Never again would be weep for it, but neither was he healed.
"Ascariel," Master Windu said, at last. "The name means Place of the Stars. Perhaps..."
"It is a place of legend," Qui-Gon said, gruffly. "No-one knows where it is, if it exists at all."
<The swords of light were true, Master, after all> he thought, but did not say it. Instead, on sudden impulse, he asked a question. Their resting place was well sheltered, and they would stay here for several hours, and there was time for this. "Will you tell me the story of Ascariel and the rebirth of the Keepers, Master?"
Qui-Gon froze, a strange, almost wistful look on his face. "You know the story, Obi-Wan," he said, slightly choked.
Was he remembering how they told stories, he and his Master, while sunset painted their home red? How their hands had entwined, and fingers had absently played with hair? Was he remembering the bonding that was far closer than words, as their two minds had touched in the telling?
Or was he angry, hurt? Did he see through Obi-Wan's intention, and feel patronised by it? <Tell the story, Master> Obi-Wan had meant. <Pass on the old wisdom, like a true Keeper Master. Feel important and cherished again. Things can still be the same between us, or almost the same.>
"Master," he began. His hands were trembling slightly. Master Windu was looking at him intensely, almost pityingly. "I wish to hear it again."
Suddenly Qui-Gon smiled. If he knew the intention, he was not hurt, but grateful for it. "And I to tell it, Obi-Wan."
In the world Before, or so goes the tale, the Keepers were strong and mighty. They carried swords of light, and walked with the Force, and all men revered them. They were many.
The world, too, was populous. The Relics were not then called Relics, but simply _were_. Men thought nothing of them. They understood them, and created them, and used them to work wonders. The things they wrought, with their hands and the Relics, were marvellous beyond imagining.
And then came war. Some tell that man fought man, and their weapons, marvellous in their creation, were yet terrible in their destruction. Some say further, and darker - that the Sith Lord of legend walked upon the earth, and cities crumbled beneath his gaze. But this is a tale told at night to scare children. Although some of the people believe it, the Keepers do not.
Whatever the cause, many died in that war. Many, a thousand times many. What tears that scattered survivors must have wept, when the war swept past them, leaving them in the rubble to rebuild their lives.
They never got the chance. Like a hound following the heels of his Master's horse, plague followed the war. The men Before could cure most things; they must have thought there was no disease they could not master. But they were weakened, and the disease was new. All fell. All.
A pause in the telling - a rueful look of distant pain. In the time Before, would the injuries that had maimed them be tiny and insignificant? Would their lives, that were torn apart, be healed and whole?
But no man could choose the time of his birth. What good came from asking what could have been?
"Master," Obi-Wan murmured.
Qui-Gon shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts, and continued.
All? No, not all. These are the ritual words of the telling, spoken by teller after teller, though the long ages.
Not all died. Better for them, they must have thought, if they had died with their loved ones, than to face this terrible World After. Better for us, surely, that they lived. The loss of a race, and all its learning, is a terrible thing. This is what the Keepers believe, and the basis of everything that we are.
Except for one, the survivors did not see it like this - and how can we blame them, who have never known such destruction of everything we know? To them, the world Before, and everything about it, was to be feared and forgotten.
How did this happen? Perhaps it started with the Relics that are weapons. War was caused by man, but, to them, it was made so destructive by the weapons that were wielded. The war mongers were dead, and could not be feared; their weapons survived, and the survivors feared them.
Or perhaps it was the Relics of healing that were the start - Relics that had always healed all ills, but had betrayed them in their greatest need and let their world die. Perhaps, in betrayal and hurt, the survivors turned away from the Relics that had led them to believe they were immortal, then showed them, too late, that they were not.
Or maybe it was just ignorance. War always kills young men first, and maybe the survivors were the young or the old, or men who knew little of the workings of these machines and devices - for that was what they called the Relics, before. Perhaps they turned away from them because they did not know how to use them, and for no other reason. Perhaps, then, it was not hatred or fear, but that only came later, when the time Before was forgotten.
Whatever the reason, the people became as we know them. Every generation knew less and less of what had gone Before. They looked upon the Relics, and no longer even remembered that they had been wrought by man - by their ancestors - and that they obeyed, not magic, but simple laws of what had been called science. They saw only metals that did not exist in the earth, and heard them emit noises and lights that the could not understand.
Magic, they grew to call them. It is the nature of man to distrust what he does not understand, and so the people feared the Relics. They forgot that they came from the time Before, and came to believe... what? They have many stories. Favourite is that the Relics have been planted by some dark demon, to threaten them and harm them.
Hasan tells differently, of course.
A long pause. This last part was new, of course. Everything else was as his Master always told it, though he changed the exact words, and his mood at the time led to different intonations. Sometimes one part was given significance, sometimes another. That was how histories were told - adapted to suit the hearer and the teller, but the essential truths unchanged.
"Ascariel," he prompted, gently.
Qui-Gon smiled faintly, and spoke.
This is how it went with all the survivors, except one.
That one was... We do not know. We, who owe him so much, do not know his name.
He was a Keeper, in the time Before, and the only one who survived. Ascariel was the place he clawed his way out of the broken wreckage of the earth, and looked again at the vastness of the sky. That is why he called it the Place of Stars - or maybe it had been called that Before, and this was the first act he did as a Keeper in the time After, for a Keeper seeks always to preserve, and Ascariel could be the only name from Before that is still remembered.
Alone, he lived, keeping the memory of Before. Alone, walking with the Force, but without another mind to share it with. Alone, knowing that the past, however cruel, _must_ not be forgotten. A people without a history is a people adrift. This he knew.
And so, in time, he found an apprentice - a boy who, like him, was strong in the Force. Although the people were closing their mind to the time Before, they remembered the Keepers, and still honoured them. The boy was handed over to the Master, and taught the truth.
"We are Keepers of the Flame," the Master said to the boy, entrusting him with the tale of the long years that had gone before. "The Flame of history. If we do not remember, no-one will. One day, perhaps, the people will be healed enough to hear it, and understand."
It is possible, then, that the Keepers from Before had had a different name, but, if that is so, we do not know it. In that moment, he ceased to be what he had once been, and became the first Keeper of the time After.
But, though he had survived the ending of all things - of all things but the flame of truth - he was not immortal. He died, and too soon. His apprentice was but a boy. All could have ended then, the rebirth strangled before it was fully formed, but the Master had chosen well, and the boy, left alone without guidance, grew up to be wise and devoted, still holding true to the teachings of his Master.
But what teachings had not been passed on, before the Master died? What were changed, in the still-forming memory of a child? All that we know comes from that boy, who lived to be an old man, and taught many apprentices. But what if everything he knew was only a shadow of the truth? We find truths where we can, but we are working in the dark, seeing as through a veil of shadows. This we know, and it reminds us of our frailty, so that we guard against arrogance.
For good or ill, then, that boy made us what we are. He was called Ascarion, for the Master named him, first Keeper of the rebirth, after the place of his own rebirth.
It was he who started collecting Relics, and keeping them safe. It was too soon, then, to know how the people would come, over time, to view them. Would they worship them as works of mystery and wonder, or fear them, or grow to hate them? In case of the latter, Ascarion collected Relics to keep them safe, should the people want to destroy them.
The first was a Relic he called a telescope, high on the mountain top above Ascariel. It now lies at the heart of the Reliquary. Glass and mirrors allow the one who looks through it to view the stars, as if they are close. There is no magic in it, but great wonder. It should stand again on a mountain top and not in a vault, but the people are still not ready.
For, over time, when it became clear that their fear would lead them, not to destruction, but avoidance, the collecting became a service to them. The Keepers, they started saying as generation succeeded generation, could exorcise the evil in the Relics and make the place of their finding safe again. The Keepers knew it wasn't true, but that the people needed to believe it, and did not correct them.
But this was long ago, or legend. Perhaps Ascariel did not exist, nor Ascarion. Perhaps they are only a symbol, for _some_ person had to be first, one _some_ place had to be his home. It is easier - it makes a better story - to give them names, and make a human tale of it, and not just dry facts and speculation.
If Ascariel exists, no-one has been able to find it. The Keepers Ascarion taught scattered to the four corners of the earth, and took their own apprentices. They travelled, but never home. Ascarion died an old old man, and alone. This was his own request, for he knew his apprentices could do more good out in the world than staying at the side of an old man who had outlived his time.
After his death, there was no need to travel there, and the place was forgotten. We have never been enough to map the whole land, and know even a part of its secrets. It could be there still, waiting for us. Or it could be a place constructed only of words, and only real in that it has lived in a story, and been spoken by a thousand Masters to their apprentices, in unending tradition.
For that is the way of the Keepers.
Master Windu broke the spell. "You had a sceptical Master, Qui-Gon," he said, though even he was visibly moved. "Mine told it differently. Mine told it as if it was truth."
Qui-Gon looked at him, surprisingly passionate. "How can you believe that? You teach it the way your Master taught you; I teach it the way _my_ Master taught. We all know different versions passed down by word of mouth, Mace, as you just said. How can we know anything as truth?"
"It..." For a moment it looked as if Master Windu was about to fight. But then, with a heavy sigh, he subsided, looking strangely subdued. "It's the best clue you have, Qui-Gon. Even if you don't believe it, you have to take the chance."
Obi-Wan was silent, his head moving from one to the other, watching. Not as an apprentice watching his betters, though, and perhaps never again. They were Masters, but they could make mistakes, and act, not through principle and the dictates of the Force, but through pain. He was no better, of course, but neither was he worse, or a mere apprentice whose opinions were to be overlooked.
"Ascariel," Qui-Gon said, heavily. "You want me to look for Ascariel, on the basis of a dream, and a guess based on a legend. Even if it exists, no-one has ever found it."
Master Windu leant forward eagerly, warming to his theme. "No-one has looked, not really. Like you, they believe it a legend."
"No," Qui-Gon said, firmly. "I will not commit myself or Obi-Wan to a fruitless search that could take all our lives. Imagine living like that, Mace. For him to die, thinking he has failed, simply because his foolish Master committed him to a search that had no end or chance of success."
Master Windu clenched his fists. "If you don't, Qui-Gon, he won't live until he's old. He won't live another year. The time of darkness is _here_, Qui-Gon. I have seen a young innocent boy murdered in the name of Hasan's god. If this is the one chance to bring hope to the darkness... Whatever the personal cost, you must take it."
"You feel this personally," Qui-Gon said, suddenly gentle. He looked suddenly very frail, very weak, confronted with a realisation he once would have sensed hours before. "I'm sorry, Mace."
"It is your time, Qui-Gon." Master Windu was low and intense, diverting attention from his own pain. "The time of darkness demands sacrifices of us all."
"I'm sorry," Qui-Gon said again. Obi-Wan suddenly knew what was coming, but had remained silent too long to speak now. "I have no wish to do it." He held up a hand, stopping Master Windu's objection. "It is not that I refuse what you say is my destiny. I just believe... Mace, I could waste my life in searching, and what would be the good of that? Better if I do what good I can, and, if it is indeed my destiny, it will still come to me, unlooked for. What will be, will be."
"In my vision, I knew that my task was to tell you of this destiny. Why was this necessary? Because acting in ignorance - or as if in ignorance - would mean that you would make wrong choices."
"How can we second guess the future, Mace?"
Qui-Gon seemed rueful. He was sure of himself, but he had been so sure of Jazra, and yet so wrong, and so blind. Obi-Wan had suffered because of his stubborn conviction of rightness, and the guilt still racked him, yet here he was, only hours after the discovery, once more hurting a friend with his words. He hoped he was being wise, not blind. He hoped his conviction came from wisdom, not pain.
Obi-Wan truly didn't know if this was reason to love his Master as he had never loved him before, or to hate him. He had seen how his judgement had been flawed in the past, yet still he argued for what he thought was right. Either he was strong beyond imagining, or stubborn to the point of arrogance. Qui-Gon, the Master he knew, could be both.
"Perhaps it could be the opposite," Qui-Gon continued. "Perhaps, if I act to hasten this destiny, the future will turn out different from how it should have, and it will not happen at all. Perhaps..." He spread his hands. "Mace, we can not know. All I can do is act according to my own conscience, doing what seems right. Anything else, and I betray myself, Obi-Wan, and... and everything. This... this destiny is meaningless otherwise."
"And what does your conscience demand, Qui-Gon?" Master Windu's voice was cold.
Obi-Wan wondered when either of them would think to ask him.
As if he had heard him - though his Master would never again know his thoughts - Qui-Gon turned to him, his eyes gentle with apology. <Please understand, Obi-Wan> they pleaded. Obi-Wan thought he would try. "I made a promise to find Jazra's son," he said, quietly.
Master Windu exclaimed in hot fury. "After everything..."
"After everything." Qui-Gon managed to sound both certain and humble, hands folded in his lap, eyes lowered. "I know I was wrong about him. I know how much Obi-Wan suffered as a result. I know... oh, of course I know the sins that will be eternally mine to account for. But I know, also, that this child is not responsible for his father's evil, and I know that promises are still sacred to the Keepers."
"You will put this man, this Jazra, above your own Order? You will risk the entire future for him?"
"For what I believe is right. I have already explained that I do not believe that this decision risks the future." Qui-Gon's face twisted in pain. "Do you think I haven't asked myself, again and again, if this is right? Do you think it hasn't occurred to me that this could be another mistake, like I made over Jazra? It has, but I believe I am deciding this with my head, and not my heart."
Obi-Wan shook his head, imperceptibly. <Not true> he thought, suddenly understanding. Mostly true, yes, but Qui-Gon _needed_ this, more than he had ever needed anything. He had been faced with the awful consequences of his past mistakes, and his life could now go two different ways - a future in which guilt broke him utterly and he was scared to make another decision ever again, or a future in which knowledge that he was fallible only made him stronger. When a man fell off a horse, he got straight back on again, for delaying would only cause the fear to fester. This was the same, and it was _right_, what Qui-Gon was doing.
He wished he could tell him, but where had he got this sudden wisdom from, and how could Qui-Gon believe him, when he was still a child in his eyes? He had not once asked him what he felt about their future, and that was his only wrong.
"Obi-Wan," Master Windu said, and it was the wrong person after all - not his Master who first remembered his existence. "Haven't you learnt, Qui-Gon? You dragged him unwilling into one foolish adventure, and see what it cost him."
<He knows> Obi-Wan thought, almost angrily. Could Master Windu see how Qui-Gon was hurting - how he made this decision haunted with the fear that it could be wrong?
"Obi-Wan must surely be full Keeper by now, after doing the work of a Master for months. Treat him so."
It was designed to hurt, and Master Windu, too, was not beyond reproach on this. He had looked upon Obi-Wan as a surrogate apprentice, and cosseted him. Only when Qui-Gon came did he tell of his prophecy, and that when he thought Obi-Wan was asleep.
He spoke, firm despite his broken whisper. "I have listened, Masters." He bowed his head, in the taught mark of respect. "I know you both want the same end. I would not presume to call either of you wrong. But my place is with my Master, and I agree with him."
Perhaps a little of that anger was speaking, that he could hurt Master Windu so. But it was wrong to equivocate, and pretend that he saw good in both arguments, and patronise them like that. He _did_ agree with his Master. A destiny would come whether or not it was sought. He knew it. The Force seemed to flow around him, immensely rich, and he knew it.
"You speak out of the loyalty of habit, and not true agreement." There was... _something_ in Master Windu's eyes. It could have been fear. Perhaps, as Qui-Gon had argued, he had allowed himself to hope again.
"Perhaps I do," he said, calmly. "But the Keepers are built on loyalty. The whole teachings, history... everything is passed on, only by Master to apprentice. Some apprentices never see another Keeper but their Master. If loyalty of an apprentice to his Master is lost, what do we have left?"
Qui-Gon, he saw, was looking at him wonderingly, and perhaps with a little fear, as if he had suddenly revealed himself to be a stranger. <Why?> he thought. What he had suffered had changed him, but surely not that much.
He dug his nails into his palm, and stilled that sudden disquiet. "I will go with my Master wherever he chooses, whether right or wrong, and , on this, I believe he is right."
Master Windu looked at him for a very long time. "Then this is the end. I can not go with you on this. I will go alone, and into the west, as I had planned."
"I am sorry for that," Obi-Wan said, gently. In that moment, there was only Master Windu and himself, their eyes meeting, and the Force connecting them, for an instant, closer than Qui-Gon could ever come.
Master Windu blinked hard, and looked away.
The parting was quiet and immediate.
"Mace," Qui-Gon said once, reaching out his hand and beginning to speak.
"No," Master Windu said, quite coldly. "You have made your decision."
Only to Obi-Wan did he say a word of farewell. "Goodbye, Obi-Wan. I'm glad we met each other."
He remembered his training, and was polite, though this situation was unbearable. "And I too, Master Windu."
"Call me Mace," the older man said, quietly, but pointedly, looking not at Obi-Wan but at his Master. "You've earned it."
Obi-Wan felt a sudden spark of anger. Master Windu was so cold with Qui-Gon, blaming him for the decision, yet Obi-Wan was spared his anger. He was treated as a boy who could not be blamed for the mistakes of the Master he was bound to follow. And yet, when it suited him, Master Windu told him he was now a full Keeper, almost an equal. As a Keeper, his decision to go with Qui-Gon was his own, and he deserved as much blame as his Master.
But what was the point? He knew how hurt Master Windu had been, and he was doubly bound to him - bound by gratitude, for his life saved, and bound by empathy for a fellow man who was grieving. Why part in anger when it could be amicable, and Master Windu could travel in solitude, warmed a little by memories of a brief but close companionship?
"Thank you, Mace." He gave a small smile. Then, instinctively, "are you sure you won't come with us?"
For a moment, he almost thought Mace would say yes. He frowned, looked east, then west. He seemed to shiver, as if the darkness of his vision was a thing visible, welling just beyond the horizon. "No," he said, at last. "Your destiny is not mine."
For the second time, Obi-Wan embraced him, holding him close with his one good arm. "Perhaps we will meet again."
"Perhaps," Mace said, with a strange sigh, almost longing.
When Obi-Wan glanced up, he saw his Master, watching everything as if he was watching a horror that fascinated him, yet pained him terribly.
When he saw Obi-Wan watching him, he smiled.
"Master," he began, later, long after they were only two again, as they had always been - but, then, never again like they once had been.
There was a small check in Qui-Gon's stride. "No," he said, his voice gruff. "Not your Master."
He was hurt as if his Master had struck him. "You don't..."
"Oh, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon whirled to face him, and was almost fierce in his movements as he grabbed Obi-Wan, one hand on his good shoulder, the other on the back of his head. "I love you, Obi-Wan. But Mace was right. You are a full Keeper now, tried and tested. And I am no Master now. This," as Obi-Wan tried to interject - <you are a Master in every way that counts> - "this is not grief or guilt talking. I have to accept it. Without the Force, I can be no man's Master. I can't even be a Keeper, although I can still serve their cause."
Freed to speak, he spoke the truth. "You will always be my Master. From love and loyalty and respect for the wisdom, I follow you."
"No." It was surprisingly fierce. "Don't follow me, Obi-Wan. Travel _with_ me. Accompany me. Advise me of those things I can no longer sense. But challenge me, too. Contradict me. You are no longer bound to obey me." His eyes were burning. "Promise me this, Obi-Wan. Forget that I was your Master. I think... I feel our survival could depend on that."
"But..." He stopped the protestation just in time. This was the time for truth, not flowery words of love. He had been so quick to promise devotion and obedience, but he had already shown that he would disobey his Master if he needed to. <You are my Master> he wanted to cry out, but that was emotion speaking - the promise of a child who could see no future in which his Master was not everything to him.
Instead, he nodded, as well as he could against Qui-Gon's iron grip. "I will try." Then he took a risk. Qui-Gon had initiated this, and demanded truth. "But you might find it harder, Qui-Gon. You and Mace, back there... You neither of you once consulted me, as you planned our future."
There was no anger. Qui-Gon looked at him fiercely, then lowered his eyes. "No. You're right. I... I'm sorry, Obi-Wan."
"But if you had," he said, quickly and fervently, "I would have advised exactly the same as you did. I _am_ here by choice and not blind loyalty." Though even if he had disagreed with every word, he would still be here, of course. Even without the bond of obedience to a Master, love was an unbreakable bond, and that was his choice as an adult.
Qui-Gon didn't appear to have heard him. "I was wrong."
"I understand," he said, firmly. How easy it would be to hold his Master by the power of his Force - to hold him still and _make_ him listen. <I forgive you, and love you, and you are strong again> he could say with a wave of the hand, and it could be true. Qui-Gon's mind was strong, but had relied overmuch on the Force. In the shock of losing it, and the pain and confusion he was in, his mind was as weak as anyone's, and could be open to suggestion, perhaps.
Would that it was that easy... Would that...
But then Qui-Gon's eyes widened, and Obi-Wan sensed his spark of anger.
"I understand," Obi-Wan said, and sudden fierce anger rose in him, that he could say this.
"I understand," and he _did_, seeing all Qui-Gon's insecurities - how he had needed to take control just one more time and make one good decision, or else be forever broken by guilt for his past mistakes.
"I understand," and he did, possessing the Force still when his Master had none, intruding into his mind, reading him and knowing him when Qui-Gon was naked and powerless against him, and could not read him in return.
"I understand," in that terrible broken voice, when every word he uttered was a reminder to Qui-Gon of his own wrongs.
"Obi-Wan," he began. Obi-Wan looked as if he had been slapped. Not one word uttered past his name, and Obi-Wan could read him, and knew what was coming.
"Qui-Gon, I'm sorry."
He might have hit him then. But of course he would not. Like a candle flame blown out, taking the world from darkness to light, everything shifted.
"I understand," and he did, and that was good. He had wronged Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan knew him, and knew to forgive him and understand. They could move past anything, and grow.
"I understand", and of course Qui-Gon understood Obi-Wan too - he always had, despite the Force. When was the last time he had really used the Force to sense Obi-Wan's thoughts? He had just known, reading it in his face, and the small movements of his hands and his body - tiny gestures that no-one else could read but him, and which he could still read, even now. Even without the signs, he had usually known, since he knew his Obi-Wan, and knew how he would react before he even did so. Even without the Force, he still knew his Obi-Wan.
"I understand," and that voice was a reminder of guilt, yes, but of how he could not let the guilt break him. He needed to be strong for himself, and for the destiny Mace spoke about. Above all, he needed to be strong for Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan was not served by a broken Master who sobbed of guilt and apology and made his apprentice make all the decisions, so scared was he of making another mistake.
<For you> he thought. <To make your loyalty and suffering mean something. Weakness - weakness in the form of _fear_ of weakness - made me stubborn and caused this. Now I will be strong, in the knowledge of my flaws. Now _we_ will be strong together, maimed but stronger than ever.>
Perhaps he said it, too, or some of it; sudden tears blinded him, and he hardly knew what he spoke. Not of anger, though - not that.
He found he was clinging to Obi-Wan as if he was the most precious of Relics, holding him tight, hurting him even, but Obi-Wan was willingly, almost gleefully, feeling the pain, deeming it a small price to pay for this closeness. He knew this. Even without the Force, he knew this.
"Oh, Obi-Wan." He released him, but not completely.
"Will Jazra follow, do you think?"
They were walking with their arms linked, though Obi-Wan wasn't sure who had initiated it, and who was supporting whom. It was a whole day and night since Mace had left, and the evening of the day after that.
"You understood him better than me, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said at last.
Obi-Wan stopped walking, and looked back across the hills to the very peaks. All the movement he saw was birds, but did an army follow them, hidden in the ravines and rocky terrain? Were they prey, being hunted?
"He's persistent," he said, considering. "Implacable in hatred." Those eyes, looking at him with contempt, calmly ordering him to be thrown to his death... He shivered, but forced himself to speak calmly. "But pragmatic. If he thinks finding us. You," he corrected. Jazra thought him dead. "If he thinks this war of his will be served by finding you, then yes."
"It was worth killing you, to keep me with him," Qui-Gon said, with distaste.
"Killing me was nothing to him." He dug his nails into his palm, and fought the shudder. "It may be that you were a useful weapon, when you were there with him, but he thinks he can pursue his war without you. If so, he'll be angry that you've escaped him. After his war, he will seek revenge - his pride will demand it - but he won't divert from his campaign now to seek you."
There was more. How could he say it without seeming critical of Qui-Gon's choices? But Qui-Gon had urged him to tell the truth about his opinions, and he must surely know it already. He took a deep breath. "And then..."
"And then there's the fact that we're going the same route as he will follow," Qui-Gon said, heavily, echoing almost to the word Obi-Wan's own thoughts. Obi-Wan started, but his Master was still deaf to the Force, and they were not bonded like that any more. "By seeking his son," Qui-Gon continued, "we are making it easy for him to find us, even if he isn't even looking."
Obi-Wan nodded. It had been like this all the time - charged emotions, guilt and fear of provoking guilt. They were close and not at all at odds, but every silence could be a questioning of their course, every word an issue to debate. He was tired of it. "Clever, aren't we?" he said, with a somewhat desperate laugh.
Qui-Gon frowned, then gave a small hesitant chuckle. "Yes. Foolhardy. Foolish."
The forced laugh seemed to want to become real. "You taught me well in that, Master."
"What a pair to bear this destiny of Mace's..."
Obi-Wan felt closer to him, then - far closer - than when Qui-Gon had held him so fiercely, weeping and intense.
Noon the day after, and Obi-Wan stumbled. Instinctively lunging with both arms to stop himself from falling, the sudden pain in his shoulder made him cry out.
"Let me see," Qui-Gon murmured.
"I'll... It'll be fine," he hissed, through gritted teeth. He had no intention of letting Qui-Gon see or touch, or bathe his wounds with guilty tears. Bad enough that he had to hear his broken voice and blame himself for it - he still did, although he was not letting the guilt break him.
Qui-Gon didn't argue or ask again, though Obi-Wan felt a small pang of hurt deep inside, and well concealed.
He lay awake and looked at the stars, while Obi-Wan slept beside him, still not healed enough for this long arduous walking.
<Talk to the stars> he thought, then gave a wry laugh. How could he do that when he could hardly talk to Obi-Wan. He was like a blind man feeling his way in the dark, constantly tripped up by the obstacles of his past mistakes. They had been reunited, they had hugged fiercely, and they had laughed together. Three times now they had seemed close and everything healed; three times, it had been such a small victory, a tiny illusion of closeness.
Obi-Wan didn't trust him to see his injuries. He had been the strong one ever since the accident, and wanted to remain so. He could see deep into Qui-Gon's soul and knew the details of his hurting, but would keep his own pain to himself.
As a child, with a child's trust and a child's conviction that the adult he loved could do _anything_, Obi-Wan would rush to him with every small ailment, every bite from a desert animal, every bad dream. Even as an adult, he would do the same, trusting his Master utterly, and not seeking sympathy or cosseting, but simply wanting his Master to know everything he did.
He was no longer Obi-Wan's Master, and no longer strong in the Force, and any illusion Obi-Wan might have had about his Master's infallibility was thoroughly shattered. Those days were gone, and some things, once broken, could never be healed.
Obi-Wan woke at dawn. He glanced over at his Master, and saw him asleep, a faintly troubled look on his face.
They were close to a stream. Knowing himself safe and unobserved, he rose and walked to the water, awkwardly shedding his clothes on the red stone bank.
The water was cold, and he gasped, but it was a good cold, cleansing. Water distorted vision, and his body felt similarly unreal and distorted, beneath the water. It was numb, and not wholly real. Instead of the constant jangling pain of his shoulder, he felt the all-over assault of the coldness. His body felt light and not really connected to him at all.
Above them were rapids, but they had camped by a deep placid pool, deep enough for swimming. He floated on his back, and, buoyed up by the water, even his useless arm could move a little.
He closed his eyes. He felt the first touch of the morning sun on his face, but didn't open his eyes.
How long later - minutes, or hours? - he opened his eyes, and stood in the water.
Water had lapped and the sun had touched his skin with soothing sensual fingers. Thoughts had ebbed and flowed, and he felt he was on the cusp of something - close to some decision that would change everything, but not even aware, in his conscious mind, what it was.
Almost brutally, he started washing, cupping his good hand and throwing water over his face and body, rubbing hard. The dreamy feeling bothered him, as if his subconscious was making decisions without informing him of them. He had had enough of that.
He touched his wounded shoulder, then forced himself to touch harder, washing the skin that he had scarcely dared look at before. Ugly, and how could he let Qui-Gon look at it? Ugly, and maimed, when Qui-Gon was the one who was hurt and needed him to be strong.
Ugly. He froze, slowly realising. It was like piecing together a secret, with the constituent parts gradually being plucked out of the mist. He felt he still did not have the whole truth of that dreamy realistion, but he had some of it, at least.
He knew why he had pulled away. Not to protect Qui-Gon from the guilt of seeing his wounds, but because he was afraid - afraid, surely, of rejection, and afraid of being the weak one, the needy one. Qui-Gon had held him and sobbed, and everything had been well between them, with him giving comfort. He was scared to face it the other way round. Qui-Gon had left him once. If he was ugly or too needy, he would do it again.
"I won't," he heard, as clearly as if Qui-Gon had spoken.
He looked up, and found that he _had_. Qui-Gon, his robe pulled clumsily around his body, stood on the bank, watching him. How had he known? Obi-Wan's hand flickered worriedly to his brow, then down again. Qui-Gon had no Force, yet time and again, these last days, had read him well. He was growing past his mistakes and his pain, and rebuilding himself into a strong man, without the Force and not a Keeper, but a force to be reckoned with.
He, Obi-Wan, was the one keeping them back, sabotaging the healing.
"I won't leave you, Obi-Wan."
When had he started crying?
He could have stood there for hours; he had wanted to flee.
Obi-Wan, immersed in dark water to his chest, pouring water over his pale skin. Horrible livid wounds stood out on his throat, and his left shoulder was dark with bruises, the bones visibly misshapen and twisted.
<Ugly> he read, perfectly, in the disgusted twist of Obi-Wan's mouth as he looked at it. <Ugly and weak.>
Some of the water on Obi-Wan's face was tears, he thought.
His lips seemed to move - two words, or a single word with two syllables. "Master," perhaps. <He'll leave me for this> he read, as clear as if he had spoken.
"I won't," he said, fervently.
Obi-Wan looked up. Hope and confusion warred in his face. He looked very young. Here, in the light of early morning, was an Obi-Wan he had never thought to see again, and never _had_ seen, since his accident. Against his will, Obi-Wan had become a full Keeper in that moment, thrown from childhood into responsibility with no preparation.
Helpless love and gratitude overwhelmed him. "I won't leave you, Obi-Wan."
"Not even..." Obi-Wan gestured at his shoulder. Qui-Gon sensed that he still wished he could cover it up and hide it.
Qui-Gon stepped closer and crouched on the bank. The noise of the rapids above made it hard to hear Obi-Wan's broken whisper. "Why should that make a difference?" He was honestly baffled. But then Obi-Wan was young, and the young so often confused love with physical perfection. The love of a Master for his apprentice was deep and profound, but not physical, so no maiming could affect that. And the love he had for Obi-Wan was only that. Only that, surely. But if it had been more, and had been romantic or sexual as well, no mere physical injury like that could have marred it. Standing in the water, Obi-Wan had never seemed more beautiful.
"Because it did to me," Obi-Wan said, painfully. He took a faltering step forward, water surging as he moved. "I thought it showed me to be weak. I..." He swallowed hard. "You're growing past your injury and your mistakes. Can you help me to do the same?"
What could he say but yes? he would give all he could, but the truth was that Obi-Wan needed very little help, he was sure. He had coped with everything admirably. This was his first sign of trauma. Earlier, with Mace, he had amazed Qui-Gon wish his wisdom - and it had pained him too, how far Obi-Wan might surpass him one day.
"Thank you." Another step forward. He was close enough to touch, now, his fingers on that naked skin.
Why did it matter, he thought again, blinking to stop staring. How pale it was. His hair was dark with water, but shining gold in the sun. Why did it matter to Obi-Wan that he would think he was ugly? Why?
Unless Obi-Wan wanted their love to be more than it was...
Unless... - and Obi-Wan, quite unperturbed by the nakedness just barely hidden by the dark water, smiled tremulously through his tears and managed to look ravishing, yet supremely innocent... Innocent. "I'm sorry, Master." Innocent and ignorant of it, if it was even true. Wanting a love he didn't even know about, and one that Qui-Gon had never considered, and didn't feel.
But if that was so, why did he feel like smiling?
It was the last barrier. Qui-Gon never spoke of his realisation beside the water, and neither did Obi-Wan, if he was even aware of it.
They walked, touching frequently - who sought out the most touches, he wondered? - though nothing that hinted at more than their usual closeness, except perhaps in the frequency. Qui-Gon felt himself grow in confidence, and again and again could almost fool himself into thinking he had the Force again, so clearly could he read Obi-Wan.
In the nights, he held Obi-Wan as he shook and cried out in nightmares of falling, falling, without anyone to hear his silent screams. Had he dreamed this every night before, but somehow repressed it into stifled silence, so Qui-Gon would not know? If so, he could have wept for him, but was glad that he was able, now, to let him see.
He had his own nightmares, too, in which he walked in the darkness between the stars, as if through a dense mist, seeking the light of the Force, that was the voice of the stars. Seeking, seeking, and "I hear it, Master," Obi-Wan said, his face transfixed with joy, and like a blind man he could only call out "where?"
But in the day the spoke of none of this, although they _could_ - nothing was secret now between them, and there were no attempts to hide fears and doubts. They spoke a little of what they would do when they reached the Eastern Sands beyond the hills, and how they would find Jazra's son. Most of all, though, they spoke of little things - nothing at all. They shared memories, and told stories, and found out things about each other than they had never known, despite living together for so long.
As the days became a week, Qui-Gon thought he was almost content.
Then, like a shimmering haze ahead of them - a ribbon of light - was the eastern desert, Hasan's Sands.
It had just been an interlude. Everything would change here. Everything.
It was time to forget all things but the task that had brought them to this place.
"We should get new clothes," Qui-Gon said first, breaking the spell of silence that had held then as they stood on that high place and overlooked the unknown Sands.
Obi-Wan frowned. "Yes."
He knew what would have to be done. If the reports were true, simply by wearing Keepers' robes, they would be distrusted, or worse. But, wearing them, they would not be able to walk into a village and buy what they needed - even if they had possessed what counted as currency in this place. They would need to steal.
In the land before Hasan, where Keepers were respected, the people had provided for all their needs, giving them, as gifts, everything they needed to live. Qui-Gon had disapproved. "They're repaying us for a service that is not even real. The Relics we exorcise are not evil, or no true threat, and yet they willingly give away the fruits of a month's labour for it."
Obi-Wan had argued. A threat exists in the mind, he had said, and, rightly or wrongly, they were giving the people peace of mind and happiness. And some Relics _were_ dangerous. Men had been killed by them, and maimed. While he would accept no great honour - some Keepers, he had heard, accepted everything offered and demanded more - the people needed to feel they were repaying the debt. He always wore the proffered clothes with gratitude and honour.
But a gift, freely given in exchange for some perceived service, was no robbery. He had never stolen.
"Is it worth it?" he asked, suddenly, meaning _it_, everything. Jazra's son... Qui-Gon's self-esteem had needed it, but surely that was healing now, his spirit growing daily in strength.
"I believe so," Qui-Gon said, quietly. "I promised. And it _is_ a wrong, to hold a boy against his will."
"I know." He shook his head, at a loss to explain it. Qui-Gon seemed to have forgotten, but Mace's words had prompted his own elusive vision. They _did_ have a destiny. He agreed with his Master about the need to follow their conscience and not deliberately seek it, but if their first act in their chosen course was to be a robbery, a wrong... It seemed a betrayal of the trust laid upon them. Such a small simple thing, but could it be a sign that their whole course was wrong?
Qui-Gon shook his head, once again answered his unspoken thought. "I believe not."
"What?" Obi-Wan asked, almost sharply, needing to know if it was true. Was it only coincidence, how often Qui-Gon seemed to read him so well?
"That it is a reason to rethink our course," Qui-Gon said, gently, touching his cheek. There was something like an apology in his eyes, but for what?
Suddenly unreasoningly scared, Obi-Wan asked wildly, "are any wrongs acceptable when done in the cause of something good?"
"A question I have no answer to." Qui-Gon looked into the distance beyond the Sands, as if seeking answers there, from the Conclave of the wise. But then he shrugged. "This is not the time to debate it, Obi-Wan, and we are not philosophers."
<He doesn't want to answer> he thought, painfully. <He is no longer a Keeper and doesn't think himself bound by their rules any longer. In his stubborn insistence of finding this boy, he will commit any wrong he deems necessary.>
And then, in sudden horrified reaction - how could he think that? - he knew that Qui-Gon had not answered because he, Obi-Wan, had not wanted an answer. He had asked desperately - just _something_ to say to distract from his sudden warring hope and fear. Qui-Gon could read him so well. Dare he let himself hope that he was healing and all would be well? And why did he feel cold fear - the utter conviction that Qui-Gon saw something about him that even he did not yet know?
Qui-Gon closed his eyes for a moment, as if he knew this secret, and knew to hide it. When he opened they again, they were deep and tender. "We needn't steal, Obi-Wan. We can find an outlying settlement and trade, with you using the Force to ensure that no questions are asked." A long pause. "Or we can go down there as we are, and take what comes."
Obi-Wan considered it. He had been taught the simple dignity of a Keeper - calmly proclaim who you were and what was your truth, and accept the consequences. Keepers made no attempt to deny who they were, thinking it close to being a betrayal of the Force.
But the men in these Sands were killers. Under Hasan's leadership, they had murdered Mace's apprentice without mercy, simply for being trained as a Keeper. If they walked from these hills proudly proclaiming themselves to be Keepers, they could suffer the same fate. Did Qui-Gon not realise the full extent of their danger? Dignity was one thing, but when it became foolhardiness, it was no dignity at all.
"We must not go down there as Keepers," he said, firmly.
Qui-Gon nodded, accepting it. So where did that leave them?
Perhaps fate _did_ smile on them. Perhaps the Force, or whatever had uttered the words of their destiny to Mace, was ensuring that they lived. Or perhaps it was simply luck.
Out of the Sands had emerged a trader caravan, not bound to Hasan, and, both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon suspected, though they said nothing of it to the trader or to each other, not entirely honest. Yet he traded their dark robes for light ones willingly enough. Perhaps he knew them as Keepers and remembered respecting them once; perhaps - and Obi-Wan sensed some anger in him that made this guess credible - perhaps he had no love for Hasan, and this was his quiet risk-free way of aiding his enemies.
But the dark fabric was good, and the white robes he gave in return were only half their worth and not new, so it could have been that he saw them only as a good deal, and, if he knew they were Keepers, did not care.
He decided to chance his luck. Asking was the only way they would get anywhere, they had already decided. "We are looking for a man called Shurif Al-Barad. Do you know of him?"
He hardly expected success, but why not, for traders travelled widely and usually picked up gossip wherever they went. But there was recognition in the trader's eyes, and it was not pleasant. He knew the man, and had no liking of him. "Last thing I knew, he was in Balsham. Walk four hours to the east, and you'll find it."
Nothing more. No questions, of any signs of curiosity about why they should be seeking him.
Qui-Gon leant forward. "Can you tell us about him?"
The trader spat. "You'll see." Then, "I tell no tales. That way I stay alive." He fingered the dark cloth of their Keeper robes as he spoke. "No tales," he said, again.
But he would for profit, Obi-Wan thought, but he and Qui-Gon had nothing to loosen his tongue.
"Thank you," he said, nodding his thanks. "As you say, we'll see."
"Strange," he mused, as they walked, "for a criminal to be so open about his whereabouts, when he must know that Jazra wants him."
"Not if all who live here are his friends, or in fear of him," Qui-Gon relied. "In his own land, Jazra had no secrets, yet he too is a criminal."
But that wasn't his true objection after all, it seemed. "The first village after the hills, and he's here? He could hardly make it easier for Jazra to hunt him."
"Maybe he's as confident as Jazra, and expects no opposition. And there are many paths from the mountains. Jazra could emerge in another place entirely, and have days of unfriendly Sands to cross, to get to this place."
Obi-Wan stopped. "You don't distrust this?"
Qui-Gon folded his arms. "You are so sure that you do?" He was changing and growing, but still, at times, there were hints of the old stubbornness - the old insistence that Jazra's son had to be regained at all cost, and his own salvation depended on it. This Qui-Gon would brook no obstacles or doubts.
"It's too easy." So many doubts - that Shurif Al-Barad was just a scapegoat and had not wronged Jazra at all; that the trader had led them into a trap; that Balsham was a great war camp, armed and ready to face all comers... "You have no doubts at all, Qui-Gon?" he asked, incredulous.
Qui-Gon sighed. "I have doubts." Suddenly fierce with pain veiled as anger, he whirled on Obi-Wan. "Of course I have doubts, Obi-Wan. After what has happened, how can I ever _not_ have doubts?" Then, gentler, "but what else can we do? No-one will know us as Keepers. What else can we do but go to Balsham and watch and observe - find the truth?"
Obi-Wan bowed his head, and spoke sincerely. "You're right, Master. I'm sorry." Sorry not only for doubting him, but reminding Qui-Gon how much he doubted himself, and being the cause of fresh pain in his Master's eyes.
Qui-Gon shook his head, wearily. "I'm sorry, too," he murmured, passing his hand over his brow - though what he was apologising for, Obi-Wan did not know.
On sudden impulse, Obi-Wan took Qui-Gon's hand, trapping it as it moved to wipe his brow again, and pulling it close. "We're together in this, Master, and for always."
Qui-Gon smiled, strangely tremulous. "Yes," he said, shakily. "Whatever is head of us, in Balsham or beyond..."
"We will face it," he said, simply.
Suddenly serious - why was he looking at him so intense and strange - Qui-Gon raised their joined hands and kissed Obi-Wan's fingers. He had never done that before.
"This must be Balsham."
Qui-Gon was whispering. He so often found himself doing so now, copying Obi-Wan's own forced whisper. At times he hated it - hating how Obi-Wan had been wounded this way. More and more, since that morning by the stream, he felt a secret liking for it. Whispering suggested closeness, and secrets known only to two. Always when they spoke now, out of necessity, but also for other reasons, surely, their heads moved close, lips whispering soft breaths on the other's cheek.
"Yes," Obi-Wan whispered, quieter than he had to.
There was something about the place that compelling silence, Qui-Gon realised. Empty streets between lifeless stone houses; the people of the Eastern Sands had long ago laid aside their tents and their wandering and taken to a settled life and built in stone, though they still called themselves Sharai, and tribal loyalties still held.
"Dead?" he murmured, feeling the growing chill of ignorance. Had they come to a town of the dead, where Shurif Al-Barad presided over his court of murder, surrounded by the skeletons of those who had once lived here?
Frowning, Obi-Wan shook his head. "They're here. Ahead."
Rounded from their homes, roped and gathered together, forced to slave, or suffer for entertainment...
"And not in pain. Joy. Anger." Obi-Wan turned to him, a bewildered look on his face. "It's very strong. Stronger than I've ever felt." Briefly he touched his brow with his fingers. "Strong," he said, again.
"Shield it," Qui-Gon said, unable to prevent the pang - he too should have felt this, not remaining deaf and blind to all sensation. "You know how."
Obi-Wan swallowed. "Yes. I haven't..." He seemed to visibly take control of himself. "I know what it feels like, when a crowd all feel the same emotion, very strongly. We felt it with fear, when the tribes found a Relic. This... It's similar, but stronger. It may just be because the crowd is far larger than I've felt before, but..." He shook his head. "It feels like something... other."
Qui-Gon curled his fist. He should have _felt_ this... He was older and had experienced more. Perhaps he could have recognised this for what it was in an instant. Obi-Wan's words could tell him but a pale shadow of the truth. Words were so inadequate to one who had sensed the glory of the Force.
"Can you feel what I feel?" Obi-Wan said, suddenly, glancing briefly at him, then looking away, almost embarrassed.
Qui-Gon thought about it, and realised that he could. Of course he could. Obi-Wan was fighting the emotions of the crowd, and those twin feelings of joy and anger rippled through his mind, like a small current - there, but well controlled. Stronger was his bewilderment at not understanding the cause, and his fear that he was letting his Master down by not knowing the truth. <Qui-Gon would have know what to do> he was thinking. <And he knows it.>
"Maybe not," he said aloud, and he was not answering Obi-Wan's spoken words. "Maybe I could have, once, but what does that matter, really? That's over now, and this is what I am." He meant it. Of course he would regret what he had lost, but this was now, and regrets solved nothing.
Obi-Wan looked at him, his face naked and vulnerable. "How much...?"
"How much can I read?" he said, gently. It was the first time he had truly thought about it. "Only your thoughts and feelings, because I know you, and know your face and body and how to read them." He shook his head, speaking out loud the denial of Obi-Wan's hope. "It's not the Force, Obi-Wan. I can sense your emotions, but I can't begin to sense what is out there, what you were feeling. I only know what it makes you _feel_, not what it is you see."
"Only because you know me - because you're guessing what I'm feeling? Nothing else?"
But it was more, surely. At times he heard words in Obi-Wan's thoughts, like stray snatches carried on the wind. It was not like it once was. In a way, it was closer. It was... No, it was guesswork, as Obi-Wan said - informed guesswork, based on his knowledge of Obi-Wan.
"No, Obi-Wan. Nothing else," he said, gently, and then, sensing Obi-Wan's keen disappointment, he raised his chin with his fingers, so they were looking deeply at each other. "But it is _not_ nothing. It is based on my knowledge of you, from our closeness. It is an intimacy from years of getting to know each other, and not simply using the Force to read a thought, as can be done equally on both stranger or lover. That need not be closeness; knowing you, truly knowing you without the Force to help me, is so much more special."
He knew what Obi-Wan was thinking. <I know, but how much _more_ close would we be if we knew each other like this, but also were able to touch minds through the Force.>
"That's over, Obi-Wan. I will never have the Force again, but we can find new ways to be close, just like I will find new ways to serve the Keepers and the people."
They were in a silent deserted village where some unknown threat waited in their path, and watched by the silent dark windows of stone houses. Wind whistled down the sandy streets and their robes stirred around their ankles. They were in new and unknown territory, altogether strange.
In some strange way, then, it seemed right to kiss him, ever so gently, on the side of the mouth, close enough to the cheek to be chaste, yet close enough to the lips to be so much more. He had not planned it, nor expected it. Before the stream, he had never even considered it.
It seemed right, though after it - a second only had it taken, but long enough to change his world - he felt himself flushing terribly, wondering what he had done, what he had risked by this.
"Master?" Obi-Wan said, huskily - and how far had he fallen, and so fast, into this new-found lust that he could hear that broken voice as irredeemably sensual and alluring.
He pulled away. "Obi-Wan." Obi-Wan's mind was closed to him now, as if, by kissing him, he had created a new Obi-Wan, different from the one so known to him.
Obi-Wan frowned, bewildered. Yet, almost protectively and quite unconsciously, his fingers touched the place he had been kissed, as if to cherish the memory and protect it from the unfeeling winds. In that simple movement, Qui-Gon derived hope.
He held it close, and it gave him strength to do what needed to be done. "Let's go, Obi-Wan. Let's see what lies in Balsham."
It was no time for talking, and no time to do what he wanted to do so much - to hold Obi-Wan again, and kiss him longer and deeper. Obi-Wan needed time to work out his feelings about a desire he had never consciously recognised. It would be wrong for Qui-Gon to take advantage of his confusion. Until Obi-Wan came to him, asking to talk, or asking for more, this was the end of it, although he would be close and attentive, and give Obi-Wan no cause to think he regretted what he had done.
He had planted a seed; Obi-Wan could decide whether it would grow.
They walked. He gave Obi-Wan frequent glances, growing more and more concerned with every one.
The younger man looked dazed, and still totally unreadable. Perhaps, as Qui-Gon should have been, he was focused entirely on the task and was following that mental presence of the people of Balsham. Certainly it was he who took the lead, turning down side streets without warning and without apparently awareness, as if walking in a dream.
Or maybe - and Qui-Gon feared this - his kiss was the cause, and the bewilderment it had produced. Qui-Gon had shaken Obi-Wan's equilibrium at the very moment he most needed to be calm - when an unknown danger could threaten his life. Part of Obi-Wan's mind was following that call, but he was distracted, asking himself if he had liked the kiss, what it meant, it he wanted more.
Just for such a tiny moment, that sense of rightness. Already it looked tawdry and selfish - not the act, perhaps, but the timing. They needed time to talk. He should have made sure Obi-Wan was ready. He had known that Obi-Wan kept his desire so deeply suppressed in his subconscious that he was not even aware of it.
Unless - and he had to face the possibility... Unless he was just a selfish old man, who had imagined Obi-Wan's desire, and used it as an excuse to legitimise his own suppressed desires. It had been a moment of insight by the pool, derived from wondering why Obi-Wan minded if he thought him ugly. He could have been wrong. "Guesswork," Obi-Wan had called the way he read his apprentice's thoughts, and guesses could be wrong.
Right or wrong, that had not been the time for it. He did not need the Force to sense their danger, and with Obi-Wan distracted...
He called to him. "Obi-Wan!"
As if hearing distantly through a thick fog of sleep, Obi-Wan turned round. "Hush." He pointed. "There."
And Qui-Gon found that he had been the one distracted after all. The crowd was ahead, in uncanny and total silence. They were clothed in desert colours - cream and beige and white. None were chained or mistreated. Rapt, and over a thousand strong, they gathered in the public square at the heart of their town, their eyes never leaving the raised platform in its midst.
"Blood," Obi-Wan whispered, clutching Qui-Gon's arm. "It was shed here recently."
Qui-Gon looked, squinting against the lowering sun and the heads of the crowd, but could not see. There was something on the floor of the platform that could have been blood, but the unarmed man who stood there was clean, neither executioner nor sacrifice. Some of the men who flanked him could have had blood on their white robes, and they bore heavy swords. They eyed the crowd coolly.
"A guard," Obi-Wan said, echoing Qui-Gon's own conclusion. "For him."
"But who is he?"
And then the man spoke.
Everything narrowed. There were things to think about, and things to say, but nothing existed but the man's voice. His eyes seemed to speak to Obi-Wan alone.
"You know the story," he said. "You know why the men whose blood was shed today, and the men whose blood will be shed, died. You know the reason."
"No," he mouthed, almost aloud. Qui-Gon, he heard, _did_ speak. No-one heard them. A thousand voices cried "yes", and "tell us!"
"Because they were sinful. Because they did not heed the word of God." Low and regretful.
The crowd hissed.
<They all feel that> he realised, with a wrench, and far later than he should have. All here heard the man's message personally, as if they were alone with him in a room. Singled out and special, they would die for him, and stake their lives on the truth of his words. His words spun the hatred; the very fact that he was speaking to them created the joy. This was a man of immense charisma, and with word and presence only, and nothing of the Force.
This must surely be Hasan, he thought, but then knew immediately that it was not. Hasan went always armed, he had heard, and this man wore only simple white. A preacher, spreading Hasan's message, and close to him. If this was the disciple, how much more powerful would the man himself be.
"Hear now the tale of years, as revealed by God to our leader, Hasan. Hear it, and believe it, for all who do not will be struck down, unworthy of life in God's new kingdom."
Beside him, Qui-Gon started. He too had emerged from the spell. They and only they. That mere words could do this... Words coupled with zeal and belief. The people were as if held in a trance.
"Long ago, there was a great civilisation in this land. Its works were mighty beyond our imagining. Men lived in giant towers that touched the clouds, and towns a thousand times more vast than Balsham. They could fly like the birds, and live as though young for a hundred years. They could cure all diseases, and no secrets of the world were closed to them."
He paused, his eyes holding the crowd captive. Obi-Wan turned to his Master. "How does he know?"
"Speculation. A story," Qui-Gon said, heavily. "Or else Hasan heard the story the Keepers tell, and made it his own."
"Great?" the preacher resumed, his long fingers stabbing in the air. "No, it was not great. It was evil, corrupt. God does not intend man to fly, or to conquer death. The men wrought marvels with their hands, and came to believe that they were gods themselves. They forgot to true source of their life. They lived only for their sin and their pride, waging war with terrible weapons, pursuing pleasure with their ungodly designs.
"God tried to make them see their error, but they were puffed up with pride and blind. Their sinful life pleased them, for they could live forever, and travel at will. A few listened, but most did not. They gave God no choice but to destroy them, to wipe their wicked civilisation from the face of the earth.
"This he did, with fire and pestilence, with famine and flood. Their mighty buildings crumbled like sand, and all their medicine served them nothing. Unrepentant, unbelieving, they died.
"But not all. God is merciful and well as vengeful. Some he spared - some few who were less tainted than the others, by being young, or wise, or separated from the men who governed. He spared them because he had placed life upon the earth, and it pleased him. It would have grieved him to see mankind perish absolutely.
"Those he spared he plucked out like seeds, bearing inside them the fruits of godliness, but as yet unsprouted. Ignorant, they lived and died in the darkness after the ruin of their world. Ignorant, too, their descendants lived in their shadowy half-life, between the evil of the time before, and the glory of God's future kingdom.
"You are those people, and now is the time of fruition. God had spoken to Hasan and shown him the truth, and Hasan, through the mouths of his preachers and servants, shows it to you. There have been a thousand years of sleep. Come now into the light."
Many people were weeping, supporting each other and wailing. Obi-Wan felt their joy at living in this moment, at being offered the chance to come so close to their god.
<I didn't know> he thought, awed, and very afraid. Like them, he clung, cleaving to his Master as to a branch in a raging river. He knew something of Hasan's words, but not this. Nothing would convince these people that their cause was anything but holy - _nothing._ This was a force that could change the world.
The preacher's face darkened. "But not all accept the light. Some there are who know this tale already, and have always known it, but had kept silent. Their ancestors escaped God's destruction by trickery, and have passed on the truth for a thousand years. You know who these people are."
"The Keepers," the crowd bayed.
The preacher nodded. "The Keepers. The men who understand so intimately the things they call Relics. And what are the Relics? They were wrought by the men of that sinful world, before God's justice. They are not works of magic or evil in themselves, as the Keepers tell you, but they were made by the hands of evil men, so are not to be tolerated and are to be destroyed. But they are not evil.
"So why do the Keepers tell you that they are? To keep you blind and ignorant. To set themselves up as priests and magicians, who alone can save you from the evil. To gain themselves honour." He clenched his fist and thundered. "To hoard the Relics for themselves, so they can recreate that lost civilisation. So the evil that was the world before can live again on God's earth, ruled over by them.
"For this is what they want." Quieter, after the battle cry that was his last words. Quiet, and sorrowing. "Why else do they understand the Relics so well? Why else do they have powers that no godly man possesses? Are they merely men who serve evil, or are they demons incarnate? I do not know. But Hasan wishes to build God's kingdom on earth, and the Keepers only wish to recreate the devil's.
He held up a hand, halting the baying of the crowd. "God is merciful. It is His wish that all mankind come into his kingdom. When we come upon an unbeliever, he is not to be killed, but to be converted. It may take time. It may be that we must imprison him while we work on him, but we are not to kill him."
The crowd's anger was barely leashed. He was playing them like a master, bringing them to fever pitch, and holding them there, denying them release. <Any minute now...> Obi-Wan thought, his grip tightening on his Master's arm.
"But some do not deserve clemency. Those who claim to be a true believer, and then slide back into wickedness. Those who seek to harm a believer. Those who stand in the way of Hasan's God-given design to conquer the world and bring every man alive under the earthly sway of God's kingdom. Those who aid the Keepers to escape justice. And..." A long pause. He had them, totally and completely. All knew what was coming, and their hearts longed to cry it out, yet they stood in rapt silence, awaiting his word. When it came, his voice was low and almost gentle. "And the Keepers."
In their hearts they were screaming, but the crowd just sighed, like a ripple of wind or water, like a consummation. Obi-Wan shivered. It was the most eerie thing he had ever heard.
"This is the end," he gasped, to his Master, knowing that no-one else would hear. "The Keepers will not survive this."
Qui-Gon looked grim. He shook his head, but had no words.
The terrible tragedy of it... By keeping secrets, the Keepers had set themselves up for this. By knowing the truth about the Relics and the world Before, but not telling anyone, they had allowed this story to develop in Hasan's mind, and it would set the world on fire.
Had Hasan overheard a Keeper talking to his apprentice, and warped the legend to his own ends? Had he heard a Master like Qui-Gon, with his own doubts, express them aloud, and taken them further. He denounced the Keepers, and every word was true, and yet, at the same time, so completely false. To true to be argued with, though. They would _never_ find proof to counter this zeal.
"This is the truth." The preacher spread his hands. "As told by God to Hasan, and as told by me, Shurif Al-Barad, to you, the people of Balsham in God's kingdom."
"The preacher," Obi-Wan gasped. The fears for the future were too vast, too terrible. He clung to this chance to focus on something smaller, more immediate. "Master, it's the preacher."
Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed. "Yes."
"Why would he take the boy? He can hold men prisoner with his words. He has no need to kidnap them by force."
"To exert pressure on Jazra, who stands in the way of Hasan's conquests?" Qui-Gon shook his head. "I don't know, Obi-Wan." He looked deeply weary. "He is a preacher, but not a man of peace."
Obi-Wan sighed. The crowd boiled around them, crying for blood. Two guards delivered, dragging some screaming man onto the platform.
A knife flashed. They cried their joy for a sinful life removed from the earth, and prayed that God would smile on them for this act of justice.
Obi-Wan clenched his fist. He was a Keeper now and could strike them down with blue fire; in the cause of justice or defence, it was permitted for him. He could use the Force to snatch the knife from the executioner's hand. He could...
"No," Qui-Gon said, firmly, wrapping his trembling hand in his own, imprisoning.
"Why not?" He was close to tears. He had never seen murder before. Jazra at the cliff top had been his first sight of murderous eyes, and this was his first sight of a man dying a violent death. "Why can we risk so much for the life of Jazra's son, but nothing for him?"
Qui-Gon looked at him with infinite understanding and pity. It made him want to cry out. "We are surrounded by a thousand enemies. Stop one man killing him, and another will in his place, and will kill you, too, and me. Some causes are best served by stealth."
Oh, but he wanted to argue. He had lost all certainties. He stared into a future with Qui-Gon that confused him, and a future in the world that terrified him. Balsham had changed everything, and he no longer knew who he was any more, or what the future could possibly hold for him. He wanted to strike out, to do something, to act... He had just stood there, passive, as Qui-Gon had kissed him.
"I know it's hard, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon whispered, holding him.
The crowd screamed, and Obi-Wan clung to his Master, the two of them together against the storm.
He cried. He was still crying when the white-clad guard stopped before them, and ordered them to follow.
"Why?" Qui-Gon asked, his gaze level, his voice low and non-provocative.
In his arms, Obi-Wan stiffened, and he could sense the shame in his apprentice - shame that he had not noticed the danger earlier, and protected them both from it.
<The burden is not yours> he thought, sadly. He had seen the guard approaching and known there was nothing Obi-Wan could do. Just a single extra second of security and comfort, weeping in his Master's arms and surrounded by love, but oh so valuable. He would willingly suffer a lot to give him just one more.
"You are not believers," the guard said, stony-faced. "You were observed. Your reactions were not as they should have been."
Obi-Wan stirred, tried to pull away. Suddenly realising how vulnerable he must feel, held close and unmoving, his back to the enemy and his vision hampered by the embrace, Qui-Gon released him. Obi-Wan stood calm and defiant, and brushed fiercely at the tears on his cheek with no outward sign of the shame he felt. When the hand fell to his side again, Qui-Gon took it, subtly but meaningfully. He squeezed it, and meant <do nothing>
"How do you answer that?" the guard demanded, impatient with this silent charade, and deaf to the layers of meaning.
Qui-Gon nodded. Obi-Wan's fingers twitched, eager to use the Force on the man's mind and escape that way. Qui-Gon held them tight, imprisoned. "No, we are not, yet." He showed no fear. Enemies of Hasan's god were killed, but if he showed no fear, no signs that he expected this fate, people would tend to assume he had nothing to hide. Confidence was often the best ally in dangerous situations; acting scared and guilty was a death sentence.
The guard hesitated just a little. "And you are strangers."
Again, he nodded. Useless to deny it. The colour of their skin labelled them as such.
Qui-Gon glanced around briefly. Most of the crowd were watching the executions, but a few - too many - were watching then with interest. There would be no back-up plan of resistance or escape. If this went wrong, they were lost.
He blinked, his expression cool. He knew he looked like a man used to command. "We are from a land in the north. Our King is considering alliance with Hasan. He has sent us as envoys to observe and report. If we are pleased with what we see, the whole land of the north will be brought into god's kingdom."
He felt Obi-Wan start, and only just suppress a more visible reaction. There was shock at the blatant lie, and fear that it would not be believed. Qui-Gon could only hope that, on this, his greater experience of men would serve him. The preacher had spoken only of zeal and belief, but that was only his way of stirring up the crowd. To get as far as he had, Hasan's zeal had to be tempered with practical politics. He would recognise a sound alliance, and know that the best way to convert a new land was with the co-operation of its leaders.
The guard frowned. "I heard nothing of such envoys." He still bore his naked sword, but it was faltering, half lowered.
"Yet it is so," he answered, calmly.
The crowd screamed, their fury peaking. One quick glance at Obi-Wan, and he saw his apprentice was almost white, weak from battling other people's emotions, his resistance and shields next to nothing as a result of his own horror at death. Sharply, he squeezed his hand. <Obi-Wan?>
Blinking like a man roused from sleep, Obi-Wan looked up. He swallowed hard, seemed to flail for focus, for control.
The sword was high again, ready for violence. The guard's eyes were cold.
<Obi-Wan!> Another squeeze. He had nothing more.
"Yes," Obi-Wan whispered. Then, stronger, "Yes." Qui-Gon found he had hardly been breathing. He took a deep shuddering breath now. Although he was blind to it, he knew what Obi-Wan was doing. Had he not been forever excluded from its glory, he would have sensed the Force coiling around them, strong and sure. "You are satisfied with our explanation," Obi-Wan said, carefully, his voice as commanding as a shout, even though it was only a whisper. Qui-Gon was proud of him.
The guard lowered the sword. With the other hand, he touched his brow, a bewildered look on his face. "Yes." Then the expression cleared. "Yes. I am satisfied with your explanation. I shall take you before our lord Al-Barad."
Obi-Wan was about to speak. <No> he would have said, using the Force again to let them be free and on their way. He stopped him almost brutally - a firm squeeze, and physically stepping forward, speaking louder than Obi-Wan could manage. "That will be welcome. I thank you."
Hasty whispers only, hissed through clenched teeth as they wove through a crowd where every man alive would have killed them, had they known the truth.
"It will get us close."
Obi-Wan's head ached mercilessly. So much hatred... He had influenced one mind, but it had been pliable, bent first by Shurif Al-Barad into fanatical murderous devotion, and then by him. Al-Barad was a different type of man, and the very thought of Hasan scared him.
"The boy. You know this."
"They won't..." Believe it, he meant.
"They do already. I know the ways of man."
And then hands jostled his arms, both whole and wounded, and he was taken, with a firmness that could _just_ pass as respect, before Shurif Al-Barad. There was no blood on the man's robe, but so much on his soul. His eyes were deep. His hands he dipped into a bowl of rosemary water. shaking them off, he turned to face them, and his eyebrows rose, enquiringly.
He man frowned, and Qui-Gon knew in that moment that he had been right. A pragmatist, for all his talk of zeal and gift to move the minds of men.
"Allies?" he said, with feigned unconcern, when the guard had finished his speech.
"Not believers," the guard repeated. "But willing to become so."
Shurif Al-Barad looked at them long and searchingly, Qui-Gon first. Qui-Gon stood firm, returning the gaze coolly and levelly. He saw him as a man he could match in a duel of words. The zeal, the charisma, were nothing to him, and he would not challenge in that arena. All he had left was strength of purpose and skill with words, and that was his chosen battlefield.
When it was Obi-Wan's turn, he felt, rather than saw, his apprentice blanch. What did he see? Did the Force show him the stench of blood shed, or the dark aura of a preacher who goaded men to murder? Did he see a mind surrounded by an unreachable shield of strength and presence, too strong for Obi-Wan to control? Was it fear of evil, or fear of his own weakness that made him react so? Qui-Gon still knew his apprentice's mind only partially, and not on this. All he knew was that Obi-Wan stood firm, and showed nothing of this fear to the man who appraised him.
For the first time, he felt a seed of doubt. He had spun a tale of words, and been believed. His role ahead was to keep spinning, to say the right thing, to avert suspicion. What role would Obi-Wan be called upon to play in this life of deception he had created?
Had nothing changed? They had left their home, and travelled so far, and suffered so much. He had learnt of a love he had never imagined, and learnt to live with his loss of the Force. He had grown so much.
But he had come full circle. Again, he had over-ruled Obi-Wan and forced him into a charade he was unhappy with, forcing him to bear a burden he had not considered, and which he feared. "I can't..." Obi-Wan had said, and he had coldly and stubbornly cut him off with a "we will." All his growth had been an illusion. He was still a stubborn proud man, determined to be proved right, determined to rescue a boy he did not know for such selfish reasons, even if it cost him the boy who had become so dear to him.
Vaguely he became aware of speaking. "...excuse us."
He forced himself to focus. Nothing had changed. Al-Barad still looked at them, the guard still stood close. Seconds had passed. Only Obi-Wan was different, standing tall, a step in front of Qui-Gon, as if he unconsciously sought to shield him from all harm. "We had a difficult journey south," he was saying. "Bandits attacked and I was hurt, as you can see. My Master caught a fever in the mountains, and still gets dizzy spells. I apologise for his... distraction."
Maybe more than mere seconds. Had he been asked a question and failed to answer? Had he harmed their cause? But Obi-Wan, whose strength was _true_ strength and not like his own stubborn pride, had once again taken the burden and saved them. Once, before, the thought that Obi-Wan had surpassed him pained him. Now it only filled him with humble, guilty awe.
But guilt had almost lost them everything. He would remain in control. "Yes." He bowed. "I apologise, my lord."
Shurif Al-Barad nodded. "Rest, then. We will talk tomorrow, when we resume our journey."
Another escort - ears to overhear. They were led towards a large building that surely served some role in the life of Balsham, but was now the home of Al-Barad's entourage. They would have no freedom to talk. Qui-Gon longed for the mental closeness they once had. He could read Obi-Wan's thoughts, at times, but it was not what it once had been. There was no point in even trying to be heard that way.
"Obi-Wan," he whispered. The crowd was slow to disperse, each talking loudly to their neighbour. No-one would hear them. "Obi-Wan..." Oh, so much that needed to be saying, and so few words allowed to him. "I'm sorry."
"No." Obi-Wan's eyes were clear. He still looked strained, but suddenly so very sure. "I understand."
Suddenly fierce: "I don't want..." Don't want mere understanding - Obi-Wan tolerating his foibles, but never truly able to love him because of them. If he only took, and Obi-Wan always gave, then that was no true relationship.
"I understand." Firm. "I agree with you. You were right."
And everything was changed after all. Obi-Wan was smiling - a grim smile, for this was a place of death and their future was dark with danger, but still a smile that held no resentment. "Obi-Wan," he began.
"I thought it wouldn't work, that's why I tried to set us free." There was a fierce determination about him. He suddenly knew that, despite what he said, Obi-Wan had moved ahead of him somehow. "But it worked, and it can work. We can do such good..."
He frowned. Guilt refused to be let go of so easily. "Are you sure...?"
"Yes." Despite everything - the crowd that would have killed them and the guard that led them - Obi-Wan stopped and turned to face Qui-Gon. He took his hand. "It is not like it was, Qui-Gon. I fear this course, and it pains me, but I do not doubt it."
Suddenly almost overwhelmed by emotion, Qui-Gon blinked back tears. "I don't deserve you, Obi-Wan."
Those tears were reflected in Obi-Wan's eyes. "You don't understand, Master. You think they're flaws and things to change. You _are_ stubborn, and it's you, and it's the Master I love. You are strong. You are a leader... If that changed, you wouldn't be Qui-Gon Jinn."
"But you've changed, Obi-Wan." His voice was choked. "Changed and grown. You're not the Obi-Wan I once knew. You're not the Obi-Wan who was my child apprentice, whom I loved like my son. You are Obi-Wan, a man fully grown, whom I love with my whole soul. That Obi-Wan was but a shadow of the one I now see. My love then was sincere, but the love I feel now exceeds it like the sun exceeds the moon."
The words poured from him, without control or forethought. He had thought to make an awkward apology - Obi-Wan had grown, and so he should, and Obi-Wan should not make excuses for him. It had turned into a declaration that choked him - words he had never thought to say, and not even known he bore in his heart. It was not the time for it, surely - but how could it not be the time? When love was realised, it should be spoken without delay or doubt.
Feeling elated and terrified, his soul totally exposed, he stood. The crowd, the guard, the smell of blood was like a thing remembered from a dream. The one real thing was Obi-Wan's hand, reaching for his arm, holding him tight, clutching him...
Clutching him tight and fearful and horrified, and no love in his face at all.
Qui-Gon spoke, words of love ill-timed but beautiful. He wanted to cry. He wanted to feel that kiss again, but deeper. He wanted the world to disappear and they to be the only two in existence, exploring this new and overwhelming love in a deserted street.
He spoke, and the world was there, tugging at his mind through the Force. The guard, who watched them stop, and thought he knew the reason. He too stopped, attention held by the sudden reappearance of Shurif Al-Barad on the platform. The crowd, whose shouting changed quality, and who now howled in expectation of their ultimate wish.
And one, a still presence at the centre of the storm, whose thoughts were a carefully schooled calm. One, shackled and hurt and held between four men. One, who had thought everything else lost to him, and now, though death surprised him, was ready to face it with dignity.
One, whose eyes met his, though a thousand men separated them, and they were not supposed to know him at all.
He clutched his Master's arm, unable to even give a sound to his horror. His broken voice failed him. His lips moved, but only silence issued - a breath that was the quietest thing in all that blood-laden nightmare town.
The breath and the lips said the name of the doomed man.
<Mace> The horrified thought was like a shout in Qui-Gon's mind, but he stopped himself saying it aloud. He could show no recognition, and hope to live.
Why was Mace here? He had loudly, even angrily, proclaimed his intention of going into the west on a journey of warning to the Conclave. Had he changed his mind and followed them, planing to catch them up, or else to watch and protect from a distance, reluctant to intrude on their growing love?
He clenched his fists in impotent anger.
"This man is a Keeper, self-confessed," Al-Barad cried, after a whispered exchange with the men who had brought their prisoner in.
<Self-confessed? Oh, Mace...> He could have wept for him.
"You know the manner of death reserved for Keepers?"
The crowd cried out, many not knowing, and all wanting to hear it. Many of them had been peaceful men before Hasan came, surely, but he had turned them into monsters, by labelling this enemy as demons, less than human. Many would never have shed blood in their lives; now even women and children relished the thought of Mace's slow and agonising death.
"God has spoken and Hasan has decreed: their death will be three-fold," Al-Barad said, low and confiding. "Stoning until their bones break and can not hold them. Then, for their dark powers make them hard to kill and stoning, which would kill a true man, seldom kills them, they are to be strung up by the feet in the square for a day and a night. And then, if their spirit still clings to their flesh, they will be burned."
Mace had been shot in the shoulder with an arrow. The wound still bled, staining the hands of his captors. He could perhaps have resisted more. Qui-Gon dared to look at him, and saw he was crying. "They killed my boy," he cried out, suddenly, his voice broken. "They stoned him. Only a boy, a child. Nothing was his fault..."
Perhaps he imbued his words with the Force, touching the minds of his hearers; perhaps the veneer of blood-lust was a thin one, and the peaceful men beneath it were not so deeply buried after all. Blind and deaf, Qui-Gon could not know. All he knew was that the baying faltered, just a little. Some - women, and men who were parents - showed the first signs of doubt.
"Do you seek to avoid your fate?" Al-Barad hissed, low and chilling.
Mace stood tall, wearing the tears on his face like a badge. "All my life, I have served. I have wandered without a home, without love and comfort, always at the call of those - people like you - who needed me. I have eased fear. I have never once, in word or deed, taught that the Relics are things of magic. But the people believed this, and feared it, and begged me to ease that fear. I have done so, living always to serve. I have sought nothing for myself."
The people were silent, listening, judging. Qui-Gon could not tell which way it would go. On Al-Barad's face was a small tight smile.
"And then, when I was no longer young, I found a boy who could become my apprentice. I stopped wandering, though I did not stop serving. He became like a son to me. Everything he became is what I taught him. And he was killed - killed because of a lie. Killed because a lie made you hate me, and because he was a child who knew me. What justice is that? How can that be the will of your merciful god? If I had sinned, I would face my punishment. But a child can not be held accountable for my actions, or those of my forefathers. I seek nothing for myself, but only to die knowing that no other child will suffer like mine did."
He almost had them. Surely he almost had them. Or was it just hope speaking - wild and desperate hope not only that Mace could be saved, but that the people he had served still had a scrap of humanity in them?
Qui-Gon found his eyes were swimming with tears.
"If rats were eating your hard-won grain," Al-Barad asked, with quiet assurance, addressing the crowd. "If you found a nest of young rats, would you choose to kill them, or would you spare them, and let them grow into adult rats who would eat your grain until your children starved?"
Some shouted their answers: "we would kill them."
"Yes." He was triumphant. "Kill the young before their threat can grow. A Keeper child is not a child like yours or mine. He is no innocent. Any innocence he may have had had been corrupted by association. If he is left alive, he will grow in evil, a dangerous enemy of God's kingdom."
A ripple ran through the crowd. It was relief. For a moment, they had doubted, ever so slightly, their certain course. They wanted to believe it. Al-Barad gave them a way. They could hear Mace, and dismiss his words without guilt. Their belief was as it had been.
If Qui-Gon knew this, Mace, with the Force, knew it even more. He straightened his shoulders, his stance one of dignity personified. "Then kill me," he said. "I have lost everything. The people I have served are not as I knew them. The son I have loved has been taken from me. The land that shaped me is lost. A new age is dawning, and it is not _my_ age. I do not wish to see it. I do not wish to live in a world that can kill children and call it right."
<Kill me> It was as if those words made it real. This was Mace, a man who could have been his friend. Mace, about to die, and he was just watching. Could he save him? When it had been a stranger, it was been easy to urge Obi-Wan to silence. If there had been any chance of success, it would have been different. He would risk his life to save an innocent, and account it a worth-while sacrifice. But to face certain death in an attempt doomed to failure... Instead of one death there would be three.
Now it was Mace, and nothing had changed. Morality was still the same. If he tried, Mace would still die, and so would Obi-Wan and himself. Mace would die with that guilt on his soul. There was nothing he _could_ do.
Oh, but it was agonising... The hardest thing he had ever done, to stand and watch, choosing - for though it was the only possible choice, it was still a choice - to do nothing.
Belatedly, he turned to Obi-Wan. He would urge him to caution. He would hold his close through what was to come. He would comfort him, and love him.
Obi-Wan was like a statue, and his eyes... His eyes were a blank, as if no life remained within them at all.
"Kill me," Mace said. "Kill me," in perfect dignity, his words flung to the crowd like a battle cry - a simple statement of what he was, and how he had lived.
But, coiling through those words, there was another message, for Obi-Wan alone. Their eyes had barely met, merely brushing past each other in a recognition neither had shown openly.
<Let me die.> He spoke through the Force. It should never have been this clear. Even with Qui-Gon had it never been this clear. The Force - _destiny_ - was giving the connection strength, so what needed to be said was said.
<Let me die, Obi-Wan. These words I say to the crowd are what I truly feel. This world is no longer my world. Destiny lies with you and Qui-Gon now. I no longer wish to live.>
There was more - a connection deeper than words. Obi-Wan knew the words to be true. Any attempt to save Mace would fail, and would just cause their own deaths as well.
<I don't care> he cried out, silently, his mind screaming. <I can't watch this and do nothing. If I die fighting such a wrong, then...>
<No.> A firm voice, the voice of a Master. But it was scared, too, terrified by what he was saying far more deeply than any of Al-Barad's threats could scare him. <The only fresh horror I can suffer would be to know that you died in a vain attempt to save me. The only joy left to me would be to know that you still lived. I still believe that you and Qui-Gon can salvage something from this darkness. I beg you, Obi-Wan, on my knees. Do not force me to bear the guilt of knowing that all hope has been thrown away on my account.>
He saw, as in a dream - the physical world was nothing to him now - that Mace did indeed kneel. It was not the pose of a man pleading for his life. It was a dignified noble man, prepared for his fate, committing his soul to the god or power or Force he believed in.
Weeping inside, he sobbed his question. <How can I make it easier?>
<You can't.> Mace smiled, a smile both resigned and at peace. He looked like a man who had been lost for so long, and had finally found his centre of calm. <I will face this.>
But although the impossible connection between them had been initiated by Mace Windu, and enriched by the Force, Obi-Wan was not powerless in it. He read closer and deeper than Mace meant him to, and saw what the Master was hiding. He was ready for death, but the manner of death terrified him. He was hurting, and a day and night of agony lay ahead of him.
Obi-Wan took a deep breath. <Can I...?>
<No.> As firm and fierce as his last denial, though desperate hope was warring in Mace's heart. <Don't think of it, Obi-Wan. I can't let you bear that burden of guilt.>
<I can.> He was infinitely tender. <It you wish it, Mace, then ask me. Please. Accept this gift.>
He would not, could not, do it without consent. He showed the man his whole heart, and the sincerity of the offer. That was all he could do. Mace would die a prisoner, his life cruelly curtailed, but this would remain his own choice.
Then the first stone hit, and the connection exploded into a fire of pain and red noise.
Obi-Wan felt his knees sag. He was without strength. He would surely fall.
Mace was struck, but even that was only a little pain, like a needle pricking the edges of his mind. All he saw was Obi-Wan, his lifeless eyes suddenly aware, and suffused with pain.
He caught him as he slumped, holding him upright with sheer physical strength. Obi-Wan was limp as an unconscious man, not helping at all.
"Obi-Wan," he hissed. Men were watching, surely; after last time they had to assume they were.
Obi-Wan shook his head briskly, as if shaking the fog from his mind. Slowly, strength returned to him. He moved one hand first, as if it was enormously heavy. Then his head, and the movement was easier. Finally, he pushed away from Qui-Gon and stood, holding himself upright. He looked far stronger than he was.
No longer needed to hold him, Qui-Gon still touched him, his hand fluttering anxiously around his lower back, offering support both emotional and physical.
Another stone struck. Qui-Gon heard it in the impact on Mace's flesh, and the cry of the crowd. He did not watch. Mace was doomed, but Obi-Wan still had a chance of life, if Qui-Gon could keep him safe. Mace himself would agree that his priority was to tend to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan, though, stared at Mace with an intensity, a longing, that was uncanny. He had moved past anything Qui-Gon could hope to read. The grief was clear, but not this longing, this pleading.
He wondered suddenly if Mace knew they were there. Would it help him, to know he was not alone, and that his death was watched by his own kind? Or would it be the final, most cruel torment?
Another stone, and Mace spoke at last, his voice surprisingly clear, and not at all touched by pain.
"Yes," and although Mace was not looking at him, Obi-Wan knew the message was for him, and knew what it meant.
The connection was gone now, closed by pain. They were back to the way they should have been. He was aware of that particular presence in the Force that was Mace Windu, but nothing more.
It was enough. He had never done this, nor even heard it talked of, but he knew instinctively that he could do it.
He touched that presence, wrapping it in soothing words and thoughts, He summoned the Force, and saw the pool below the waterfall, and the sunlight dappling, and the soft embrace of water on his skin, and his mind wandering on hidden pathways of contentment. The Force flowed like that water, easing, coaxing...
<Come into the peace of the Force> it coaxed. It flowed from his control, and swelled and peaked, becoming something greater than he could have imagined. <Come. Step into the water. Let it surround you. Let it carry you away. Leave your body, and come away.>
And Mace responded.
<Thank you> Obi-Wan heard, and it could have been hours later. Something brushed his cheek like the whisper of a departing soul. <I am free.>
Somewhere beyond, and it was like a snatched whisper overheard on the wind, and not for him... Somewhere beyond, there was the sound of laughter as a Master and his apprentice held each other in the sweet joy of reunion.
Murmurs of discontent. Someone stooped, their shoes padding softly on the platform.
The crowd hissed, denied their sight of torture. Three or four stones only, and barely a bruise to show for it. The demon had tricked them. He had died, yes, but too soon, and without the agony that was due to him.
"He's dead," someone echoed, and Qui-Gon found it was himself.
Obi-Wan was deadly pale, his hands trembling minutely. He looked as if the merest breath of wind would fell him, and his eyes seemed, for a sudden deceiving instant, like the eyes of an old old man.
"Yes," he whispered, his words lost against the shouts of the crowd. Only Qui-Gon would hear them, and even he would doubt what he had heard. "I killed him."
Then, soundlessly, and not reaching for support, he crumpled to the ground in a faint.
They had allowed it, but not helped. Dispassionately, the guard had watched as Qui-Gon picked up his fallen apprentice, and held him gently in his arms.
"Show us where we can rest," he had asked, knowing that to offer an explanation could be taken as a sign of guilt. Obi-Wan had already explained that they were both weak. Let the guard remember that, and make his own conclusions.
The guard had torn his eyes away only reluctantly. He had smiled at Mace's execution, triumphant and satisfied. "Follow me," he had said, grudgingly.
And so he sat now, kneeling by Obi-Wan's bedside in a small dark room that was probably guest accommodation, but could have been a cell. There was no lock on the door, but a guard stood in the corridor.
"Obi-Wan," he murmured, gently stroking his forehead, his soft hair. "Can you hear me?"
As if he had spoken at some deeper level than words, and had reached Obi-Wan even in his deep unconsciousness, Obi-Wan's eyes began to flutter open.
"Stay still," he urged, still not knowing what had caused the faint. Emotional trauma, most likely, but Obi-Wan was still vulnerable, both physically, and through the Force.
Obi-Wan blinked. He gave three tremulous breaths. With the first, his eyes were barely aware, with the second he was fully awake, with the third he was intensely aware, and his eyes were deep and profound.
He pulled himself awkwardly up, using his one good arm. Qui-Gon hesitated a little before offering help, but Obi-Wan had never seemed to mind before, or feel lessened by needing help. It was a thing Qui-Gon thought he himself would never find easy, but then he had been a Master when he had been maimed, and Obi-Wan only an apprentice, used to needing support.
"Can I...?" he started, awkwardly.
Obi-Wan leant into his aid, letting Qui-Gon draw him upwards into a sitting position. He seemed to get closer than he needed to. Qui-Gon could feel his warmth, and his cheek pressed briefly against his shoulder.
Then he pulled away, strong again. He looked intensely at the guard, and Qui-Gon suddenly knew what he was doing. He looked up, frowning at the air, even now seeking to see some sign of the Force thickening about him, but of course seeing nothing. Yet he was sure of it. Obi-Wan had used to Force, not to make them invisible and silent, for that was beyond a Keeper's powers, but to make them unobtrusive. If the guard looked closely, he would see them. If the guard came close and really tried to listen, he would hear them. But, most likely, he would barely think of them at all, or dismiss them as being just as he had last seen them - Obi-Wan unconscious, Qui-Gon silently watching.
"Master," Obi-Wan said, his broken voice low and steady. "I killed Mace. I used the Force to kill him." His eyes were dry. Qui-Gon thought his pain went too deep for weeping.
He folded his hands in his lap. Obi-Wan needed the reassurance of his words, like a man, and not, child-like, to be merely enfolded in an embrace. "I believe you," he said, first, for he could not sense the Force, and Obi-Wan feared he would not. He could say nothing more, not until he knew the answer to one crucial question. He knew Obi-Wan, but any man could break under severe emotions, and become less than worthy.
Obi-Wan blinked. "He asked me to. I offered, and he accepted. He spoke aloud, saying yes. That was his signal." He twisted the rough blanket in his hand. "I longed to do it anyway, to spare him that pain, but I am no murderer, Qui-Gon." This last was said with a bleak kind of defiance, terrible to hear.
Qui-Gon found Obi-Wan needed an embrace after all - or _he_ needed it, and needed to give it. "I know."
He held Obi-Wan close, stroking his hair. Obi-Wan clung to him with something close to ferocity. He was shaking, Qui-Gon could feel. Tears soaked through his robe.
All the while he spoke, saying the words Obi-Wan needed to hear. "I am so proud of you, for giving him peace. He died smiling, Obi-Wan. You gave him back the power over his own destiny. You saved him from pain. You gave him peace."
"No." He pushed Obi-Wan away from his ever so slightly, so he could hold him and look at his face at the same time. "If I had been able, I would have done the same, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan sighed. He brushed the tears away from his face. <It's all right to cry, Obi-Wan> he wanted to say, but knew he could not. Obi-Wan had things he needed to say. He had wept, and now he would be strong again.
"I do not regret it, Master," he said, controlled and with simple certainty. "It has changed me. How can it not? I have taken a life." He closed his eyes. "But I do not regret it, or feel guilt." His voice shook slightly. He was less sure than he was trying to appear.
"Neither should you feel guilt," he said, gently.
The doubt faded, the tremor left his voice. Obi-Wan felt no guilt, but he needed his Master's approval to feel utter certainty. Qui-Gon could marvel at that, or find it frightening - that Obi-Wan, so strong and skilled and a Keeper, still needed his approval before he could be truly at peace. It was an awesome responsibility. With a single foolish word, he could condemn Obi-Wan to misery, and had done so, once before.
"What now?" Obi-Wan said, moving on.
Qui-Gon leant back on his heels, only now fully pulling away from the embrace. Obi-Wan had moved the conversation on, though he sensed that things had been left unsaid, and would be returned to later. He glanced quickly at the guard, who was cutting his nails with a knife, showing no awareness of them at all. "I still intend to seek Jazra's son," he said. "That is why I'm here."
Obi-Wan nodded. "And when you find him? You can't take him back to Jazra. He will never let you escape him a second time."
Qui-Gon frowned. He had considered this already. "I will take him as far as I can - until sight of Jazra's men. Then I will let him go, and watch from a distance to see he is safe. When he is back with his father's allies, I shall slip away."
Obi-Wan lowered his eyes. <He's afraid> Qui-Gon realised, suddenly. Obi-Wan was afraid. He wondered if he was being foolish. He had risked his Master's disapproval by admitting what he had done to Mace, and now, after only seconds of contentment, he was deliberately jeopardising it again.
<No> Qui-Gon almost cried out, as if his imaginings of Obi-Wan's feelings were true, and as if he had the right.
He had no right. Obi-Wan had made his choice. He sat, digging his fingers into his palms, facing what was to come. Obi-Wan feared it could separate them forever. Obi-Wan....
<No> he thought, fiercely, and this time his silent cry was to himself. He was guessing Obi-Wan's feelings, and nothing more. Even with the Force, he could never read him that clearly. His fears were talking. Obi-Wan would open his mouth, in just a moment, and speak, and his words would be nothing to worry about at all. Nothing.
"Master," Obi-Wan began, carefully. "I will not go with you."
He felt as if he had been struck. He cried out. Oh, but this was pain...
Obi-Wan's hand reached out, half pleading, half comforting. Qui-Gon sat still and solid, and did not move towards it.
"I love you, Master. I want us to be together. I would never betray. Whatever our choices, I hope we will come together again, and keep coming together, even if we choose different roads."
"What are you saying, Obi-Wan?" he said, somewhat harshly. The pain of abandonment was very bad.
"I...." Obi-Wan shook his head. His eyes were dry. He seemed to have trouble ordering his thoughts, and deep a deep breath, as if to force control. "Practically, I think it makes sense. Our position is... shaky. If we both disappear at the same time as their prisoner, we will be clearly labelled as the enemy of their god. We will be killed on sight. We will never be able to rejoin."
"We don't need to."
Obi-Wan curled his hand into a fist, and pressed it into his chest. "I do. I want to. I need to." His face twisted - the first sign of pain. "I have killed a friend, Master. I can never be as I was before. I have grown, and I have seen this new world that Mace spoke of, and I know what I want to do."
He knew what was coming, but he needed to hear it - needed to hear Obi-Wan speak it in words. "What?"
"Help them. Stay here. Build on the position you won us. Travel with Al-Barad, and even with Hasan. Use the Force to warn Keepers in hiding when danger is coming, or help them escape. If necessary, kill them peacefully, as I did with Mace." Now, at last, his eyes were full of tears, but he was very sure. "I have seen this. I can not walk away."
Qui-Gon had no words. Obi-Wan showed him a whole new future, a whole new question. He had been blind indeed. He had looked always towards finding Jazra's son, as if this was the only goal he had in his life, and it would redeem him and give him strength and validation. But a whole long future stretched ahead of him, after that. What had he planned for it? That he would find the boy, and wander off into safety, his duty done?
"I need to stay here," Obi-Wan said, quietly. "If you take the boy, and I stay. I can cover for you, somehow. If you return..."
"If I return," he interrupted.
He saw things clearly. He saw the depth of Obi-Wan's fear, so well hidden. He was so afraid that the "if" would be a "never", and that Qui-Gon would walk way and never return. He thought his statement of his plans for the future would seem like a betrayal, and that he was destroying everything. He feared all this, and yet he still spoke. His courage and devotion to duty left Qui-Gon feeling awed.
"I want to be with you," Obi-Wan said, desperately, the facade cracking. "I love you. My body had felt half dead since you kissed it, as if I can only come fully alive if you kiss me again. I had never realised I was living only half a life, without knowing my true love for you. I..." He dashed at his eyes with the back of his hand. "I love you. But I believe it is right to stay here. The darkness is here, and it is selfish to put love before duty. If I walked away, to be with you, I... I would stop being Obi-Wan. I would be eaten away by guilt and regret and shame, until... until I was not worth loving at all. I...."
"Stop." He could hear no more. He closed his two hands around Obi-Wan's trembling one, then withdrew. Instead, he touched Obi-Wan's cheeks, his fingers tangling his hair, his palms cupping his face. "If I return, you said. I say "when", Obi-Wan. You are right. I will stay. Both because it is my duty, and because I love you."
Obi-Wan smiled, and it was as like the flooded water of a dam, suddenly released. His fear, his guilt, his dread... All flowed from him. In that smile, he showed only love, and contentment.
They would have much to talk about, and their future was dark with danger. In that moment, touching the man he loved and was loved by, Qui-Gon thought it didn't matter at all. All that mattered was this moment, and this moment could sustain them forever.
They kissed, and neither sought the other first, neither took the lead. They kissed, and it was infinitely sweet.
Just one kiss.
"I can't hold it any longer," he whispered, when they parted, when Qui-Gon seemed about to come in for more. He tore his eyes away from that dear face he could have gazed at for his whole life, and looked quickly towards the guard, indicating what he meant. Always, even through the fears and the grief and the fear, he had remembered, and sought the Force, and kept up the protection. He had kept it up through pain. Now it was as if the sudden unlooked-for happiness robbed him of his last reserves of strength.
Qui-Gon nodded, understanding. He did not argue. Obi-Wan knew he was disappointed, but would never say so, and a fresh surge of love rushed through him.
"Lie down," his Master urged, softly, offering his arms as support.
He knew the game they were playing, and agreed. When the guard saw them again, they would be as they had been, with him only just emerging from unconsciousness. It was as if they had been given a short space wholly outside time, to argue, and weep and love. Now time was as it had been, though how deeply changed things were, for them and only them.
Helped by his Master, he lay down on the rough bed. Qui-Gon's eyes held profound messages in their depths. <One day I will hold you in my arms and lower you back onto a bed like this and make love to you> was his silent message.
Obi-Wan shivered. It was amazing, incredible, how one kiss could change things entirely. A simple act of support, helping him move with his useless arm, became an act of love. But perhaps it always had been, and he had simply never realised it.
"Rest," Qui-Gon murmured. "Let it go."
He obeyed - but, really, he could have held it no longer. He released the Force protection, and the guard, reacting as if to some sudden itch, jerked up his head, and looked at them.
He saw what he expected. Obi-Wan had not released how weak he still was, how maintaining the protection while facing such deep emotions had strained him. His eyes closed; his limbs felt heavy. Qui-Gon murmured his name softly, and the concern was not entirely feigned.
"You will travel with us," Al-Barad said, without preamble.
Qui-Gon turned round slowly. He had been standing at the window, the wooden shutters pushed back so he could watch the last of the crowds dissipating in the growing darkness. Obi-Wan was sleeping deeply, and he was reluctant to leave his side. Four paces from his beside to the window - that was the extent of his world.
"To Hasan." The preacher's eyes were cold.
<As prisoners?> Qui-Gon thought, but did not ask.
"You are envoys, and he is our leader. He will want to... talk to you," Al-Barad said. Without the Force, Qui-Gon could not read him. Was the preacher entirely satisfied with their story, or did he barely believe them at all? Was this a promise, or a threat?
"And I to him," he said, simply. It was probably meant as both. Al-Barad was astute, and knew how to play this. "How long before we reach him?"
"Never," the man said, bluntly. Then, with a tight smile: "he will find us."
"When?" He would remain patient, refusing to rise to the deliberate provocation.
"That is for God to decide."
In the darkest hour of the night, Obi-Wan awoke.
He had dreamed... what? His cheeks were bathed with tears. He had a vivid memory of sitting up and screaming, but all was peaceful, and he was the only person awake.
Qui-Gon slept beside him, curled on his side on the floor. With one hand, in his sleep, he had claimed one of Obi-Wan's blankets, pulling it half across his own body. Awake, he would have denied himself even that.
Still silently weeping, and utterly desolate, Obi-Wan stood awkwardly, with his one good arm, and gently covered his Master with the blankets. He wouldn't need them now. He wouldn't need them ever again, he thought. The time of perpetual cold had come, and no mere blankets could make him warm.
He walked to the window and opened the shutters. The whole town was asleep, though somewhere a dog barked. Some distant part of his mind noted this. The rest knew that it did not, could not, matter.
He had never felt death so close. He could jump from the window and break himself on the ground below. He could stand in the square where Mace had died, and say, in his broken voice, "I am a Keeper," and say it again and again until someone stirred, and someone heard. This world was no place to live in any more. He would die, and Mace had found peace in death.
He leant forward, his whole upper body out of the window, supported by nothing but the night air. His tears fell and splashed on the uncaring ground below.
As if another mind controlled his own, he knew what he had to do.
Still half asleep, Qui-Gon's hands pawed at the blankets, pulling them closer. He had dreamed that he was cold.
No-one stopped him. Al-Barad's men slept deeply, confident and secure in the protection of a town full of friends, and of their god.
Obi-Wan moved on silent feet. Still he felt that strange dream-like sense of detachment. Still he felt that deep rending emptiness, the sorrow that could never be undone, but could only be abated, just a little, by healing.
<That which was sundered shall be whole again> he heard, and the echo of Mace Windu's voice seemed to whisper like wind across the empty square.
His feet were bare. The hard sand and hewn stone was cold against his skin, and small stones cut into his flesh. He noted this with a kind of detachment, as if it was not truly real.
He walked alone and unseen. Only when he reached the spot where Mace had died did he stop. Standing thus in the day, a thousand men would have seen him, on a stone platform, elevated above the crowd. He was on the stage in an empty theatre, and yet the act he was about to perform was the most important thing of all. It was his chance, his only chance, to ease that sorrow.
He raised his arms, almost moaning aloud at the pain that even this movement caused in his shattered shoulder. He was whole, and he was maimed; he was strong, and he was weak. He would do this thing with both arms, with both parts of himself.
Qui-Gon woke, jolted to full wakefulness by.... something - something that was forgotten even before it had happened.
His mind was slow. Slowly, far too slowly, he understood why he was warm, and what it meant. Only after that did he understand that he was alone, and that Obi-Wan had gone.
He stood, knowing better than to cry out and wake anyone else. The shutters were open, and he could see it was still the intense dark of a desert night.
He took one step towards them. Half way through his second, and the darkness became pale blue.
It was done.
Obi-Wan released the power. He let his hands fall, but it did not stop there. In a single fluid motion, he fell further, slumping backwards into a sitting position.
He blinked, temporarily blinded. The blue lightning had flowed from his fingers, and, after it, the darkness seemed doubly deep. At the same time, though, that bone-deep sorrow that had overcome him seemed lessened, just a little. He felt like a sleeper just beginning to struggle towards wakefulness.
<Obi-Wan> he heard, urgent and fierce in his mind, and surely it was his Master's voice, although Qui-Gon was forever unable to speak to him like that ever again.
He looked up, and saw his Master leaning from the window of the house on the fringes of the square, too far away to speak without shouting. It was too dark to see, but love made him know his Master, and so he knew that his face was twisted in anguish.
<Master> he thought, shaking his head in stupefied amazement. <It was a necessary thing that I did. Why are you looking like that?>
Mace Windu's body had been left where it had fallen, denied either burial or burning. In the morning, they would strip him and mutilate him and hang him up by his heels to slowly rot. The men who slept so soundly had gone to their beds smiling with the expectation of that treat. Al-Barad too had smiled, knowing it would draw the townsfolk to him for a second day. One day away from the herds and workplaces was all he could normally expect in a town, however zealous they were, and however dazzling his rhetoric.
<I completed what I started> Obi-Wan said. It was so simple, so clear. <Gave him a pyre of the light of the Force.>
Blue fire had surged like a living thing, swelling and becoming more than he had made it. It had consumed Mace's body, burning for such a short time, but taking him entirely. Only his robe remained, untouched and not even singed.
<Yes> he thought he heard his Master say. <But it woke me up. Who else did it awaken? Even now, they could be watching you, or arming to come and take you.> Desperate. <Come back, Obi-Wan.>
He shook his head, bewildered. But, yes, his Master's words were sensible - if indeed they were his Master's words at all. Strange that the more cautious part of his mind sounded like Qui-Gon, for his Master had never been cautious.
He stood. There was still a feeling of unreality about things, as if he was not truly awake. It seemed natural, then, to walk on silent feet towards the house, in a straight line, diverting for nothing, not even stones in the path, or patches of lighter darkness between the shadows.
It seemed natural, too, to return the way he had come, not past the front door, where an armed guard slept lightly, ready to awaken if anyone touched the latch, but through the window. Not so very far - only one storey. The jump had not harmed him, despite his visions of dying smashed on the stone beneath him. Aided by the Force, the climb would be no real challenge; there were gaps between the coarse blocks of stone.
He climbed. Pain exploded in his shoulder as he forced his useless arm to move, to take his weight, but even that seemed like nothing at all, nothing of any importance.
"Obi-Wan." He was deeply worried, watching Obi-Wan climb towards him, his face distant and closed. He didn't dare speak louder than a whisper. "Let me help you."
Obi-Wan said nothing, but when he was close enough, Qui-Gon leant forward and took hold on clumps of his robe, of his shoulder, his arms, until eventually he was able to pull him over the windowsill and into his arms.
"Obi-Wan," he hissed. He was torn between fury and helpless love. He had seen enough to know what Obi-Wan had been doing, and how he had spared Mace's body from torture, just as he had spared his soul. But the terrible risk he had taken... After everything he had said about wanting to stay alive in order to help people in the future, and he would risk everything for one man who was dead and far beyond their help anyway.
"Why?" he hissed.
"I..." Obi-Wan shook his head, and slowly, very slowly, his eyes cleared. "I..." He touched his forehead with a hand that bled and shook. "I don't know. I... Already it's... vague. It's... It's like a dream, Master."
A deep breath. As soon as he understood things, they changed beyond all recognition, and he was lost again.
"I..." Suddenly Obi-Wan pulled away from his embrace - for he was still embracing him, he realised, without knowing it. Already it was an instinctive reaction. "Something happened, Master. Somewhere, and I felt it in my dreams, through the Force. A hundred Keepers all dying at once, their souls passing into the Force, lamenting the loss of everything they knew and loved..."
"You saw this?" He held Obi-Wan by the upper arms, looking at him intensely.
Obi-Wan looked very lost, very young. "I don't know. I hope.... oh how I hope it isn't true. I just... I woke with a feeling of utter emptiness and sorrow. I..." He bit his lip, and looked at the ground, like a child confessing a naughtiness. "I even considered killing myself, Master, in a vague way that didn't really seem real. Then I thought about Mace, and knew that this was the only thing that could save me."
Qui-Gon swallowed hard, at a loss. Obi-Wan spoke of the Force and visions, and he was blind to them all, forever doomed not to understand. But he remembered, and knew how the Force could speak, and how it had to be obeyed.
His anger faded, and perhaps it had never been there at all, or had only been a manifestation of love. "I was so scared I'd lost you, Obi-Wan." He knew he would dream about it for the remainder of his life - of Obi-Wan, so small and frail in the middle of a vast square in a hostile town, as the fire died down from his fingertips, and seemed to take his whole strength with it.
Obi-Wan gave a rueful smile. "I am myself again, Master."
Qui-Gon knew he was talking about something else entirely. Qui-Gon meant that he had lost Obi-Wan to Al-Barad's soldiers, who would rush from their houses, armed and murderous. Obi-Wan was talking about that terrible and strange vagueness that had suffused his eyes, making him act as if in a dream, leading him to climb a house as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Your arm," he whispered, suddenly remembering. Obi-Wan had climbed with both arms, when he had seen many times how he could barely move his left arm more than two inches without excruciating pain.
"Yes." Obi-Wan nodded, tried to smile. But the last of the dream had faded, and with it that impossible resolution and strength. It was like a drug wearing off. Pain suddenly flooded his eyes, and he was a small child again, needing his Master. "It hurts."
Back in a place he knew well, in a life he understood, Qui-Gon became the Master, tending to his apprentice's hurts. Just for a few minutes, perhaps, he could pretend that everything was as it always had been, and nothing would change.
At first, Qui-Gon would wonder how it had happened, how they had been so lucky. He tended to Obi-Wan, and waited, but nobody came. They were biding their time, he thought, and laying an ambush. After a while, though, he realised that no-one had seen Obi-Wan's solitary defiance in the square. It had seemed so bright to him, that pure blue light in the darkness, but he had been awake and heading for the window. The others slept with the shutters closed against the cold of a desert night, that not even the buildings and paved roads of this town could defeat.
After a while, he stopped wondering. It had happened, and that was all that mattered. Their future was clouded enough without filling his mind with worries and what ifs. It had happened, and they had been granted this second chance to make this work.
Still, he did not let himself sleep again that night. As Obi-Wan sank into exhausted slumber, he sat and watched him, alert for the twin threats, of armed men at the door, and of Obi-Wan waking to another silent calling, another walking dream.
At dawn, someone noticed the disappearance of Mace's body, and roused Al-Barad's retinue with a cry. Qui-Gon roused with the rest, and shook Obi-Wan awake so he could do the same. Rubbing his eyes and blinking, he went out into the morning with the rest of them. Dark looks were directed towards them, but the guard at the door swore that he had not slept all night, and no-one had passed him.
Al-Barad stood silent, his brow furrowed with thought. "Seeking the word of God," someone said, their voice low with awed admiration.
One of the guards, a young man with the wiry body of a mountain dweller, muttered too loudly that some of the inhabitants of Balsham should be killed over this. One of their number had stolen the body of a demon Keeper, and interfered in natural justice. If they could not find the culprit, then let the whole town suffer. It was only right, for unless people feared God, they would obey him.
Qui-Gon held tight to Obi-Wan's arm, urging him to caution, for he sensed Obi-Wan's rising anger.
"No." Al-Barad spoke at last, crouching above Mace's clothes. "This is the work of the dark spirits. The power the Keepers call upon came here last night, and took his body. No man did this. See how the very stone is blackened as if with fire." He touched the ground, then clenched his fist, as if collecting a fistful of dust. Then he stood, his fist raised high. Qui-Gon knew it was probably empty. "Let this be a reminder of the magnitude of the evil we face. Let it be a sign that we should unite as never before against this threat."
Qui-Gon let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. They were safe. No, not safe, and probably never safe again in this new world of Hasan's, but safe for the while, safe from punishment for Obi-Wan's impulsive act.
Subtly, fingers hidden by their long sleeves, he touched Obi-Wan's hand, just brushing against the skin. It made him shiver with delicious anticipation.
But it was not to be. Their love had been spoken between them, and was a thing known about and cherished, but they had no more kisses.
At noon on that first day, the bags were packed and the oxen and horses readied, and the entourage set off, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon travelling with them. The men of the eastern Sands were still Sharai at heart, even though they now lived in stone houses, and travelling came easily to them. Every night they pitched their tents in a different place, and every night Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slept in the large communal tent with the guards, or around the fire, with never a chance at privacy.
Al-Barad drew more and more towards Qui-Gon. To his surprise, the preacher chose to walk, and often he opted to walk with Qui-Gon, and not one of his fawning admirers. The two men talked of many things, and though Qui-Gon could never relax with him, and never trusted him, he grew to feel a grudging respect for him. He seemed to believe utterly in what he preached, and in his God. Both his simple clothes and his decision to walk showed a humility that he could only admire.
Perhaps because he had touched Mace's mind at the moment of his death and knew first hand the pain this man could inflict with his words, Obi-Wan could never bring himself to walk long beside his Master when Al-Barad joined them. Making his excuses politely, and always managing to imply that he was too humble to join in the conversation of such great men, he would slip away.
Qui-Gon was glad of it. Deception came harder to Obi-Wan than to him, and he worried about his apprentice's ability to live this charade. And, away from him, Obi-Wan made his own contacts. With the considerable charm that still came easily to him, he won the friendship of some of the younger servants - the horse boys and couriers - that travelled with the retinue. With his one arm, he worked alongside them, and in return they gave him moments of smiles and laughter, and, perhaps more importantly - though Qui-Gon could never see it this way - information.
Between the two of them, between Qui-Gon's talks with Al-Barad and Obi-Wan's with the servants, they learned that the journey they were one would likely take two weeks. Hasan had gone into the east on a military campaign. In his absence, and preparing his way for his next planned campaign, Al-Barad had travelled to the west, to the very edges of the mountains, winning over the towns and people there.
Balsham had been the last. Now he was returning to his own home town, which was only a day away from the site of Hasan's planned City of God. Once that new base was established, the army of soldiers and preachers would sweep west, supported by the converts Al-Barad had made, and storm through the mountains and to the Western Sands. They expected little resistance there from the Sharai, and planned to crush the Keeper Conclave by the end of the year.
This they spoke of only briefly, more in the silences between the words than the words themselves. They knew each other so well that they could communicate in virtual silence.
"His base," Qui-Gon whispered.
"Four days from now." Right from the start, Obi-Wan had been counting the nights. Except for when he laughed with the servant boys, he was deeply uncomfortable living a lie, forced to say nothing when murder was plotted around him.
"Then that's where he is." Jazra's son, he meant, and Obi-Wan knew it. He could only hope that it would be another town, and they would be back in stone buildings, assigned their own private room.
For now, all they had was snatched words, and fleeting touches that could be explained away as an accident - fingers touching an arm, or shoulders brushing against each other.
The night before it all ended, Qui-Gon awakened in the night, thinking he had heard the sound of horses' hooves on the sand.
He lay still, not showing that he had heard, that he was awake. But the sound was not repeated, and neither did he hear any voices. A horse whickered gently, and stirred a little. That was probably all it had been.
It started like so many other days.
<Two to go> Obi-Wan thought, with relief, as he woke to the sunlight.
He hated this life, although he had chosen it, and would choose it again. If he had not, he would not have been able to save Mace. Unless he stayed with it, he would have no chance to save anyone else in the future. At night, he would dream of a future with Hasan's army, as an ambassador, riding into the west and warning the Conclave of their coming, or standing, beyond suspicion, and easing their deaths.
<Two to go> as he made his usual excuses and left his Master talking to Al-Barad, walking along with their heads close and their words private.
His friend Jemel would smile to see him. Yesterday they had worked side by side after the entourage had stopped for the night, wiping down the horses and giving them water. They had splashed each other in a tentative game, and Obi-Wan had laughed. For that moment, he had not been a Keeper, not been a man living a lie. He had simply been a young man, little more than a boy, enjoying the moment.
It was barely a friendship, even. They hardly knew each other, and he had too many secrets. But it was a companionship of sorts, as, as such, precious to him. He loved Qui-Gon with all his heart, and a friendship with Jemel would never lessen that, but Qui-Gon was part of the lie, the intensity, the destiny that weighed so heavily upon him. Jemel offered a tiny, fragile, moment of... of lack of complication.
Back before Mace Windu had found him and taken him from his home to become a Keeper, he remembered he had had friends, and had laughed with them, worrying about nothing but the arguments of childhood, and whether his team would win the day's game of ball.
Smiling ruefully - it was either that or tears - he walked back towards the pack animal. The servants greeted him easily, their earlier suspicion of him for his obviously foreign appearance totally eroded, mostly by Jemel's first offering of trust.
"Where's Jemel?" he asked, after a little light-hearted banter.
They pointed back the way they had come. "An ox went lame. He's tending to it."
Obi-Wan squinted into the light of the sunlit Sands. In the Sands, visibility could sometimes be as poor as in thick fog, due to the haze, and the dazzling sand. Obi-Wan used the Force to enhance his vision without even thinking about it, and saw a small figure that could have been Jemel, bent over his ox. Seeing no need to rush on their horses, some of the guards also travelled far behind him, strung out in ones and twos. Others, of course, had pushed their horses to the limit, and were already far ahead.
"I'll keep him company," he said.
Jemel did indeed smile to see him arrive, but it was an exhausted smile. His face was bathed with sweat.
"She's resting." He gestured to his ox.
Obi-Wan looked at him in concern. It had taken him half an hour to reach his friend, and every minute put the main party further ahead. "How fast?"
Jemel shook his head. "Too slow." He had taken most of the packs from the animal and transferred them to the other oxen. The small one that as left he was now carrying himself. "She can walk, about half the pace she would normally make. But I need to allow her frequent rests." He was suddenly fierce. "She shouldn't be travelling."
Obi-Wan didn't know what to say. It was one of the things that had drawn him to Jemel, that he cared passionately about the well-being of his animals, with an intensity that was almost empathetic. On a long journey like this, a lame animal, however valuable, would probably be destroyed. Jemel could perhaps hope to get the ox through the day, but what about the next day, and the next?
"Tomorrow night we should be there," Jemel said. "I'm travelling half their speed, but I can walk through the night."
Obi-Wan hesitated but for a moment. "I'll travel with you." What was loneliness for one was pleasant company for two. He could almost enjoy it, he thought - to be free from the constant vigilance in the camp, and to be himself. Not his full self, of course, for he could not be a Keeper, but the boy Obi-Wan, warm and quick to laugh, still lived within him.
Jemel smiled. It seemed to cover something else - awkwardness, perhaps, or gratitude. "You know what they'll say," he said, with a tight laugh and feigned ease. "That we've stayed behind to play boys' games with each other."
Obi-Wan froze. "That's not..."
"I know." A quick touch on the arm. "I know you love the man you call Master. I've seen how you look at each other."
Obi-Wan dared to face him. He looked for any signs of sadness, but found none. "Does anyone else...?"
"Perhaps." Jemel shrugged. He _was_ feeling more than he wanted Obi-Wan to know. Obi-Wan ruthlessly suppressed his Force sense. Sensing potential enemies was one thing, but this would be violation of a friend. "They might not have looked as hard as I did. I've watched you, Obi-Wan, when you thought you were alone."
Afterwards, it occurred to him that he could have heard this as a threat. At the time, it only struck him as infinitely sad. He and Qui-Gon had not touched, but...
"They won't mind," Jemel said, suddenly. "They don't."
Obi-Wan recognised the gift he was being offered. "It's not... against the word of God?" They had wondered about this, and played for caution. The Sharai had no objection to men loving each other - in fact, love of two men, blood-brothers in life and in the dangers of the hunting trail, was considered a very noble thing. But Hasan's God had changed many things.
Jemel shook his head. "It is a private thing, but not forbidden."
Obi-Wan smiled, then, belatedly realising how hurtful his smile could be, tried to suppress it. They might not be free to talk or to be themselves, but at least they could be free to love. It made him feel like laughing, like throwing his head back and crying aloud his joy to the sky. Nothing had changed, and they still walked in darkness, but they had been granted one spark of light, of hope.
"You'll be rejoining the main party, then," Jemel said, quietly.
He shook his head. They could love tomorrow as well as today, and the day after that as well as tomorrow. But Jemel was here, now, and hurting. "Of course I'll stay with you, idiot," he said, disguising his feelings with a laugh, a playful flick of sand.
Jemel laughed, and joined in the fight.
Afterwards, they brushed their clothes down, smoothed their hair, and carried on.
Obi-Wan carried the pack; Jemel spoke soothingly to the ox, murmuring soft meaningless words. They walked slowly, but steadily. Without giving any sign, Obi-Wan channelled the Force into the ox's leg, easing the pain and accelerating healing. Jemel began to exclaim with delight. "We might catch up by nightfall."
"And why have you fallen behind?"
The voice made them both start. His attention focused on the animal, Obi-Wan had not sensed the mounted man approach, and now he berated himself. For a moment, sickening terror threatened to overwhelm him. Last time he had stopped to tend to a lame animal, he had been half killed and would never be free of the scars and the horror.
"The ox is lame," Jemel said.
Obi-Wan took several deep breaths, forcing himself to be calm. He did not speak. The truth of Jemel's words was self-evident, despite the healing he had effected.
The guard - it was the one who had wanted to kill the people of Balsham when Mace's body had disappeared - jumped nimbly from his horse. "Then you should have left it. God's work is too important to be jeopardised by one beast." He smiled, a thin and cruel smile that reminded Obi-Wan suddenly of Jazra. "Or is the animal just an excuse for you to dally and neglect your duty?"
Jemel stood firm. "My duty is to tend to the pack animals. There are few of them and every one is precious. My orders are to look after each one as if it was as valuable as a guard, as one of your kind."
Too late, Obi-Wan stepped forward, intending to grab Jemel's arm, to physically pull him back. His talk was defiant, and his stance was too.
If he had seen it coming, he could have stopped it. but Obi-Wan, watching silently, never expected what came next. He had deliberately not touched the man's mind, having learnt days ago that the single-minded zeal he found in the minds of his travelling companions made him feel physically sick. He had never seen a guard mistreat a servant, so had let himself relax, thinking it would only go as far as words.
Within a second, though, the man had produced a heavy club. He swung it twice, once to impact on Jemel's head, the second on his chest. The first blow drove him instantly into unconsciousness, and he fell; the second caught him as he was falling, and threw him to one side, where he landed broken, like a pile of rags.
"No," Obi-Wan cried aloud, horrified by how fast things had gone, by how he has lost control of the situation. How could he hope to change the world when he just stood idly by and watched a boy struck down?
"Do you want to stop me, white boy?" the guard jeered. "Just try, and you will pay for it, like all insolent scum like you will pay."
He could have tried using the Force on the man's mind, but the force of his hatred was like a physical thing. Minds that could hate with such intensity were seldom open to suggestion. He could talk, like Qui-Gon could do, summoning words to support his argument, and show the guard why fighting him was a bad idea. But his skill with words was not like Qui-Gon's, and he doubted he was up to it.
Or he could fight.
He sent out with his mind, through the Force, wildly and desperately, seeking help. Of course all he met was silence. Just one more presence, approaching through the haze, and no friend.
He swallowed hard. Two of them. Two of them, and no way out of this situation. There was murder in the man's eyes. If he gave in, and apologised to the man, resuming his charade, they would walk side by side away from this place, and Jemel would lie forgotten and dying in the sand - either that, or the guard would simply kill him where he lay. He would live to save further lives in the future, but what possible worth could that be, when he did so only at the expense of an innocent life here and now? He had commenced this charade in order to save lives, and would not, _ever_, let any innocent die in order to maintain that charade.
All this in but a second, the moment between the guard beginning to swing his club, and bringing it down.
Obi-Wan jumped out of its way - a sudden movement that surprised the guard. He had thought him a cripple, and a mere envoy, a soft man of peace.
Obi-Wan meant to surprise him further. He was unarmed, but had a weapon in the Force that no-one knew about. He had practised, too, long hours working with the long staff that the Keepers bore, and knew how to fight. He thought he could - _could_ - disarm the man and use his own weapon to knock him out, and then do the same with the second man when he arrived. Then he would tell Al-Barad the truth - how a cruel man, who liked violence for its own sake and not for his god's, had attacked them without provocation. Hasan's force could not exist as it did without discipline, and surely they _might_ believe it, and punish the guard, and let the charade continue.
Another blow whistled towards him, and again Obi-Wan jumped, landing easily on the sands further away than most men could reach in a single jump. Instantly, before the guard could recover from the surprise, he aimed a kick at his side, impacting solidly and firmly, and making him stagger.
The guard's eyes burned with a dark fire. Obi-Wan knew he was seeing true hatred. Jazra's eyes had burned like that, just before he had fallen, fallen into the vast and terrifying eternity...
That was enough. Just that single, short, memory was enough to make him falter. He jumped, but not fast enough. The club impacted against his ribs, not as hard as it should have, but enough to make him gasp aloud in the horrified surprise of pain.
He shook his head, as if he was shaking water out of his hair. His mind cleared. He called the Force to him, using it to help him focus, to find that calm centre of certainty that he needed.
Moving more as an instrument of the Force than as a man, Obi-Wan lunged for the club. It impacted against his palm with a sickening slap, but he endured it - he has intended it - and held tight. His fingers closed round it, and he pulled, his strength, amplified by the Force, far greater than the guard's.
The weapon was his.
"No," the guard whimpered. Like many bullies, he was a coward, and now he begged Obi-Wan not to hurt him.
Disgusted, Obi-Wan placed his foot in the middle of his chest, and pushed. The guard sprawled in the sand.
"You are despicable," Obi-Wan hissed, with all the force he had in his broken voice.
"It is God's work," the man protested. When the knock-out blow did not come immediately, he had already grown hopeful and confident. Obi-Wan was weak, he was thinking, without the nerve to truly hurt him. The battle could still be his, in words if not in blows. "You interfere in his work. When Al-Barad, when _Hasan_ hears of this, you are dead."
He lowered the club so the tip was pressed into the guard's throat. He knew from his own wound how much it could hurt, how terrifying it was to feel that every breath could be stolen away. "I think not."
"We need obedience. All must obey God's design. That boy was insolent and dawdling. Only fear makes men obedient. Hasan knows this. When he hears what you have done today, you and your Master are finished."
"No." Something snapped inside him then. For too long had he carried his disgust deeply buried inside him, unable to speak. "No, you're wrong,. So very wrong. There is never an excuse for cruelty. You hurt him because you wanted to, because you like it. You hurt him because you're a sadistic little bully." Each word was emphasised with a twist of the club. "It is _wrong_ to hurt the innocent. And..." He laughed suddenly, close to hysteria, and he knew it. "And it's not even sensible. Fear is not the way to rule people. Men's hearts can not be won by violence. 'That Hasan,' men will come to say. 'He talks of a merciful god, but all we see from him is violence and fear.' His Kingdom of God won't last more than a generation, and will be forever hated."
The guard was looking at him, eyes wide with hatred. Realising that he had gone too far, and breathing deeply, Obi-Wan gently withdrew the club. He knew the truth now, and knew how futile his resistance was.
While he had been talking, heedless of everything but his words, the other man had approached on silent feet, and now stood behind him, his sword drawn and inches from the back of his neck.
Obi-Wan turned round slowly. The man was dark clothes and hooded, almost like a Keeper, but not. He was quite short, with his blade was deadly. "Kill me," he said, with perfect dignity, though inside he was crying aloud. Oh, to see his Master one last time... "I stand by what I said."
Behind him, the fallen guard scrambled to his feet. Obi-Wan felt a surge of real murder coming from him. At the hands of one or the other, he would die.
He raised his chin, and the sword did not falter, even when the swordsman saw, as he surely had to, the livid scars at his throat. "Jemel is innocent. Please look after him." Although he said "please," he did not beg.
"No," the swordsman said, sharply, and Obi-Wan knew he was talking to the guard behind him, urging him not to kill him. Perhaps he wanted the killing to be his own.
Somewhere, he thought he heard hooves, far and distant. Neither men seemed to hear them, or to react.
The man held the sword in one hand. With the other, he pushed the hood back, revealing a sharp-featured brown face, with intense dark eyes and a scar across his cheek.
"Hasan," the guard gasped. Then, firmer and more confident. "Hasan, you heard what he said..."
"Silence," Hasan snapped, and Obi-Wan felt as if he had been slapped. The sheer physical power of the man's will... That single word of command had a compulsion about it, difficult to resist. And, like Al-Barad, there was nothing of the Force about him.
"Silence," he had said, and even the very Sands seemed to obey him. Obi-Wan stopped breathing; the soft breeze that teased the sand into small whirling twists died down.
And, in the silence, and clear now to all of them, was the distant drumming sound of a troop of horsemen, and, on the western horizon, the pale clouds of dust that marked their coming.
<Jazra> Obi-Wan thought, knowing it could be no-one else.
"My father," the guard murmured.
Hasan still did not sheath his sword. "Then we should return to the others," he said, patiently. He reminded Obi-Wan suddenly of Qui-Gon.
The guard, Jazra's son and not twelve at all, but a grown young man who had followed Al-Barad for reasons of his own and not by force, licked his lips. He was very pale, but there were hectic patches of colour high in his cheeks. Eyes like those had looked at him and ordered his death; a mouth like that had smiled to hear him scream.
"Come," Hasan said, and it was an order. He still bore his naked sword, and his eyes held no clues at all about what he was thinking.
Qui-Gon winced. He felt a stab of ghostly pain around his ribs, and an after-echo of disquiet. "Obi-Wan," he murmured.
Al-Barad looked at him sharply.
He shook his head, forcing himself to focus, and the feeling of concern faded. He felt as if he was shutting a door in the face of distant calling, but it was nothing. His mind was closed, and he could have no true premonition, no true sense of Obi-Wan.
"I thought I heard someone call," he said, by way of explanation. He looked around deliberately, emphasising every move. "I haven't seen my apprentice for a while."
Al-Barad folded his hands. "There are many sounds," he said, simply. "And your apprentice likes to walk with the servants, I have seen. One in particular. They are both such pretty boys..."
Qui-Gon clenched his fists, fighting the sudden spark of anger. "He..." Then he frowned, looking not at Al-Barad, but further, beyond him. Behind, too. A murmur rose to a shout; other men, too, had seen what he had seen.
"Horsemen," he cried, sharply.
Obi-Wan swallowed hard. "No," he said.
The sword would rise, and fall. A flash of light, and that would he be his last sight.
Hasan's eyes glinted. "You defy me?"
The guard, Jazra's son, raised his club. "Leave him. My father's men will trample him to death. He will show him no mercy. He will be punished enough."
He did not raise his head. He did not even look at Hasan. Instead, he crouched beside Jemel, who was moaning, his head tossing from side to side as if searching blindly for something he could not see. "I will not leave an innocent man to die. If he can't walk, I will stay and protect him as I can."
The horses' hooves were a constant low drumming now, closer every second. Sound travelled in the Sands and they were not as close as they sounded, but it would not be long. Minutes, and not much longer.
Hasan frowned. Obi-Wan fought the feeling that the world had narrowed until only the two of them existed, bound together by the intensity of that regard. "And risk Jazra finding you and taking you himself? I think not."
His punishment would be public, then. Hasan wanted to question him, perhaps, at leisure and have him incriminate his Master. Or else his death would be a slow and bloody on in some public arena. He would not be robbed of his prisoner, by death or by his enemy.
Fear fluttered in his breast; his breathing was harsh and laboured, hurting his bruised ribs with every inhalation. Yet he forced himself to remain calm. He would die with dignity, and comfort Jemel with soft composure. "Still, I will stay."
Without another word, Hasan bent and picked up the semi-conscious Jemel, holding him with firm gentleness and a strength that belied his slight figure. Then he simply turned, and walked away, with fast short strides that were closer to running.
He turned back once, and smiled. <No excuses now> that smile said.
As soon as his back was turned, Jazra's son grabbed Obi-Wan by the wrist of his wounded arm, and dragged him after.
Al-Barad shouted orders, but all Qui-Gon could see was the absence of Obi-Wan.
The guards rallied, on horseback and on foot, with their swords drawn. They would stand, but they were not many. If this was indeed Jazra's army, it outnumbered them at least ten to one.
They would be massacred without mercy, and Obi-Wan was not at his side. He would die alone, and Obi-Wan was with a boy, a pretty boy. Dead too, and not with him. Where was their rich and beautiful mind-connection they had once shared?
The army was on all sides. Dust billowed to the west, back the way they had come, and ahead too. Surrounded and cut to pieces, and he was without weapons and without the Force.... but what did any of that matter, when he was without the one person who made him complete.
"Form lines," someone shouted.
He scarcely heard them. <Makes me complete> he echoed, and the force of the revelation was like the impact of a cavalry charge. He had lost part of himself when he had lost the Force, and that was true. But to lose Obi-Wan was to lose part of himself as well. If he lost them both, he was lost. Obi-Wan kept him true to himself, true to the Keepers. Obi-Wan kept him alive. Just looking at him could pluck him from the darkness of despair. Holding him made his emotions run so richly he could almost believe he had the Force again.
All this, and <too late> he moaned, biting his lip with despair. A realisation on the very brink of death, and Obi-Wan was not here, and he was alone, only half a person, and how could he stand?
"Obi-Wan!" he howled, and no-one could hear him - no-one wanted to hear him. They were grim faced and ready to stand, and the army from the east was almost upon them, almost there...
They ran, and every step was a jolting agony in his shoulder.
"Let go," he hissed, through gritted teeth.
Jazra's son strode onwards. Perhaps he had not heard - the sound of the hooves was almost deafening now. Even if he had heard, he would not obey. Obi-Wan was his personal prisoner, and whatever fate Hasan ruled for him, this man would have his own personal agonising revenge.
"Let go," he gasped, louder. He used a little of the Force, all he could spare - the rest went towards keeping himself on his feet, for if he fell, Jazra's son would just continue to drag him forward. But the man's mind was like solid metal, set in its course of cruelty and hatred and blind zeal, and nothing could divert it off its course.
Almost there. Ahead, swords glinted in the sunlight. He saw smears of colour that were the faces of a row of men, determined to face their doom.
What would it look like to them, staring into the clouds of dust, watching, waiting? Three figures would emerge from the dust, tiny and on foot, running desperately? Would their nerve break, and, in panic, they would fire off a barrage of arrows, thinking that anyone from that cloud brought only death? Would they kill their leader, and Obi-Wan with him, an unmourned and unnoticed victim of a war that was not his?
<Master!> he called out, through the pain and the fear.
And then the horsemen were upon them, and everything else stopped.
"Hasan!" someone cried, and hope lit every face as the news spread.
Weapons flashed, and the world was full of pounding hooves. The army surged past him and in front of him, leaving him alone and behind. Colours whirled. He caught glimpses of one face, then another, and they were grim and hard faces, well lined with travel and killing. Which one was Hasan?
"Form two lines! Bowmen shoot the horses!" someone shouted, and perhaps that was him. But surely that was the same voice that cried, "for God and Hasan, we will stand, and we will prevail!"
Not Hasan, but his personal guard, surely - his seasoned veterans, arriving just in time to give them a chance. They could still survive this.
Voices shouted incoherent words. Like a rushing wind, arrows darkened the blue mid-day sky, and horses screamed.
The Force swirled darkly and terribly, and it was full of death and pain. He moaned.
"Father," someone cried, and the grip on his arm loosened, then slipped away entirely.
He looked round wildly, first one way, then another. The first rank of the charge was down, the fallen horses stopping the second one. Men drew swords and clambered over the corpses, ready to hack to pieces anyone they encountered. Teeth were bared white with hatred and fear.
Noise swelled, and then, strangely, seemed to quieten and fade away entirely, until there was nothing in his world but silence. <Perhaps this is death> he thought, strangely detached. Or maybe it was the soft soothing river of the Force, and he was travelling along it seeking his Master, seeking any truth and comfort. Almost there...
"I can walk," he heard, clearly in the silence.
It was like pulling his hand back deliberately when he could almost touch the thing he most desired. That voice called him. The thickness of the Force withdrew; the silence slowly filled with swelling noise.
Jemel. Ahead of him, Hasan lowered him to his feet, and the boy managed to stand. Almost instantly, Hasan rushed forward, his sword whirling. One man fell in that first mad charge; another a second later. Then he was gone, into the rank of men before him. Long after, and ever after, his voice could be heard, shouting orders.
Obi-Wan blinked. Jemel. That was his priority now - Jemel, and those like him. He would take no sides in this war, for neither side was his own. He would fight to defend the helpless and to prevent atrocities, but for no other reason.
"Come," he said, to Jemel. "Lean on me." He shored him up with the strength of the Force, making his limbs firm, his head clear.
He would stand. In his own way, he would stand.
Hasan's men surged forward, pushing their advantage.
Standing silent and still at the back of their ranks, Qui-Gon watched it, almost detached. He felt frozen. Lack of the Force cut him off from the pain and fear of the battle. It was as unreal as a dream, as if he watched two dimensional figures who fought on some other plane, and were not truly real.
Jazra's men were twice, even three times as many. But they fought as a rabble - a score of independent tribes and bands, allied with Jazra, but following no orders other than their own. Hasan's men fought as one, bound by discipline and devotion to their cause.
<The world is theirs for the taking> he thought, awed and horrified. Even in the north, where they had countries and kings, in practice each small town was more or less independent, feuding constantly with their neighbours. Never before had there been such unity. This God of Hasan's could unite the world.
He swallowed hard. _That_ could move him, even if the battle could not.
A man fell dead at his feet, cut down by a horseman. Obi-Wan pulled Jemel down with him, and stared up, at the blood-stained metal raised for another death blow.
Time seemed to slow. Sunlight glinted on weapons and thick dark blood. Clutched in a dying hand, he saw a sword, and grabbed it now. Blindly, acting on impulse only, he swung it upwards, needing both hands for the action. The two swords clashed, and pain exploded in his shoulder, making him cry out in agony. The other man's lips curled back from his teeth, and his answering cry was all of hatred and exhilaration.
All this in a second. A second later, a spear appeared through the attacker's throat, and blood bubbled from his lips.
Obi-Wan felt sick. Battle was a thing of legends and stories. Never before had it been real - had it been sounds and cries and whirling colours and acrid sweat and blood and the stench of fear, choking his throat with every inhalation.
Every afterwards, he would remember it - blood and red and the white of the sands; screaming of horses and men; the sight of flies on a man's spilled guts; noise and noise, and whirling, maddening noise...
His face was damp, and he thought it was probably tears.
Qui-Gon shook away the last remnants of the paralysis.
The pack animals were huddled together. Behind them, sheltered by their bulk he could see the heads of the servants.
Obi-Wan was with them. He knew that, and had known that from the moment he first saw them. Obi-Wan was safe. It was not cowardly to stand back as he himself was doing. This was not their battle. It was wrong to take life in this cause - in either cause.
Somewhere ahead, battle raged, as if in another life time.
As if he was taking a gentle stroll in the morning, Qui-Gon walked towards the animals. Perhaps they could even slip away now, and who would know?
His breath came in wrenching gasps. Blood pounded in his head.
The battle was fading, he thought. Everywhere they were bodies, and already flies and carrion birds hung thickly about the blood-stained sands. More of Jazra's men lay dead than Hasan's, though perhaps the heat and exhaustion made him delirious, for how could that be? Jazra's men had been so many.
He killed twice. Once, swinging wildly with the sword, he struck a mortal blow to a man who was intent on killing Jemel. He sensed the cruelty from the mind of the attacker, and knew he killed for enjoyment, and not just as an act of war. Even so, he stepped forward afterwards, closing his eyes, touching his sweat-drenched forehead, and used the Force to ease him gently towards death. There was no pain in his ending.
That was one of Jazra's men. In that moment of dying, he thought - but perhaps he was wrong - that it had been the man who had borne him to the cliff edge. But every man in that army made him remember that scene and that moment, so he could not be sure.
The second death was one of Hasan's. Holding Jemel's arm, he was stumbling from the field, moving from the front line to the place where battle no longer raged. Corpses littered the ground, blood seeping into the sand. Many still groaned in pain, mortally wounded and dying without comfort.
Two wounded men had fallen side by side, though they were enemies. The man from Jazra's army was shrieking in agony, while Hasan's man smiled, resting on his elbow, for his broken leg would not support him, and casually tormented the helpless man with the tip of his knife.
"That is torture, not war," Obi-Wan hissed.
Jemel tried to hold him back, but Obi-Wan saw nothing, felt nothing, but the knowledge that this was right. He walked forward, saying... what? Words, he knew not what, urging the man to stop.
The man laughed wildly, his knife poised above the other man's staring eye.
Obi-Wan killed him in that instant.
Afterwards, breathing heavily and leaning on his sword - he would never use it again - he looked up and saw Hasan, pausing briefly, and watching with predatory interest.
He met that gaze, and held it. The guilt would come later, for even then a small part of him knew that killing had not been necessary, and that, for a moment, wild anger and outrage at the same casual violence that had maimed him had surged red inside him. But that was guilt as a Keeper. As a man, held in Hasan's camp, he felt no shame. Let Hasan kill him.
"Obi-Wan," he heard.
He blinked, and slowly the rest of the world came into focus. Jemel stood at his side, and was reaching for his hand. "It's nearly over. Come on."
Crude staves in their hands, the servants surged forward from their hiding place, ready to rush in for the killing, even when they had hidden from the heat of the battle.
Obi-Wan was not there.
Their clasped hands were wet. Obi-Wan looked down stupidly, and saw blood.
Jemel looked at him with concern. "Nearly there."
Concern? He frowned. He made a conscious effort to check his body for injuries, and gasped aloud when he found the sword cut on his upper arm. He had no memory of getting it, even when he forced himself to look again at his every memory of the battle and play it again in his head. It was his left arm. he was so used to constant pain there that perhaps he simply had thought this no different.
"Over? Yes," Jemel said, answered a question he had not meant. Qui-Gon always answered right, as if he could read his very thoughts. "We've routed them. God has protected us."
A friend, perhaps, but never an ally, Obi-Wan reminded himself. Jemel was genuinely loyal to Hasan and a believer in his god. He would denounce him in an instant if he showed any use of the Force, even if that was in healing.
<What now?> he thought, though every step felt heavy, and he wondered why he was bothering to think. He would fall before he got anywhere. He would fall, and Hasan would drag him to his feet again, and kill him.
Two figures hand in hand, and one was....
He ran. Heedless of everything - heedless of the way the other boy tightened his grip on Obi-Wan's hand, possessively, heedless of the fact that desultory fighting was still happening far away, and scores of men were riding after the fugitives.
Obi-Wan raised his head, and he was blood-stained and dirty and lines of exhaustion were etched into his face, but he was smiling as if there was nothing in his life but happiness. "Master."
The boy's hand fell limp to his side, and Obi-Wan was free, and falling forward bonelessly, inelegantly, into Qui-Gon's embrace.
Just for a moment, their lips found each other, and then Obi-Wan was falling further, further, a dead weight in Qui-Gon's hands.
So many things to say...
A hand was stroking his brow.
"Jazra..." He blinked. "His son. A guard, here. Not a child. He's here of his own free will."
The muscles round Qui-Gon's eyes tightened, but he said nothing.
Qui-Gon nodded. "His personal guard came just in time to save us."
"Us?" he hissed, beginning to pull away. Qui-Gon was speaking as if they were on Hasan's side.
The hands became firm, not gentle, holding him still. His cheek rested on his Master's chest, he realised. The sky was above, and they were still outdoors, just two more bodies on the sands. "Yes, Obi-Wan. Us. Hasan wins, and we still have a chance. Our story is believed. Jazra wins, and we are his prisoners again. He knows us."
All anger faded. How could he have doubted his Master, when it was he, and only he, who had ruined things for them? "No," he had to say. How to tell Qui-Gon that everything was finished? How to tell him how close they were to death? Only the truth, simple and without attempt to excuse himself - for, truly, he would do the same again. "Hasan wins, and we are still prisoners. He knows me. Not for what I am, it is true, but as no friend of his."
Qui-Gon closed his eyes.
Obi-Wan moistened his lips. "We could run."
Qui-Gon was silent for a very long time, looking first at Obi-Wan, and then beyond him, towards the battlefield. At last, he shook his head. "Too late, Obi-Wan. Someone is coming." The hands holding his face relaxed, letting him move, letting him look. "Is that him?"
One glance was all he needed. "Yes."
Their eyes met - his, and the man who would kill him. He pulled himself to his feet, and stood, still and silent, his hand in Qui-Gon's.
This was the end. Here, in a place of death and blood, surrounded by the groans of the dying, he would be just one more body for the carrion birds to peck.
"I heard what you said, and I saw what you did," Hasan said, his voice like a sword.
Obi-Wan met his gaze. "And I stand by it."
Hasan nodded, his lips curling in a tight feral smile. "I thought so. And you would die for that belief?"
Qui-Gon's grip on his hand tightened. Obi-Wan squeezed it once, though whether for his own reassurance or his Master's, he didn't know. "Yes."
There was blood on Hasan's naked sword.
How best to die, Qui-Gon thought, when dying was inevitable. Should they stand tall and accept the execution that was their lot, and find dignity in submission, or should they turn now and run, fighting those who sought to stop them, and at least die resisting?
He knelt on the sand beside Obi-Wan, and everything was intensely real. Hasan's eyes - most of all, Hasan's eyes; the sunlight muted and white through the fabric of the tent; the guards at the door; smears of blood where Obi-Wan knelt; the distant sounds of screaming wounded.
"Water?" Hasan offered, holding out a jug.
Qui-Gon shook his head. Obi-Wan did not move. Through their linked hands, Qui-Gon could feel his minute tremors of fear and exhaustion.
Hasan drank, then put the jug down slowly and deliberately. He wiped his mouth delicately on his sleeve.
Each small movement had been like this, agonisingly slow. Almost, outside, had he rushed forward to dash the sword from the man's hand, and gain Obi-Wan a second more of life. But Hasan, who surely intended murder, had lowered the sword of his own will, and invited them to follow him to his tent. They had been here long minutes, and with every second he saw a fresh image of death.
"What happens now?" Obi-Wan asked, suddenly. There was an undisguised defiance in his voice. Obi-Wan thought he had already lost, and could lose nothing more.
Hasan shook his head, as if he regretted the deaths he had caused that day. "The enemy is scattered. There are fugitives, but they will not be pursued far. Their might is broken. We will tend to our wounded, and proceed. The rest of my men are waiting two days ahead. This will not cause anything to change."
"Change from what?" Obi-Wan asked bitterly. "More violence and murder. How many have you killed now?"
Qui-Gon squeezed his hand, warningly - though surely it was too late now for placating words. And maybe Obi-Wan was right in what he was doing. Maybe it was better to die violently on this man's sword, provoked into anger in this tent, than before the eyes of thousands, an agonising slow death.
Only one thing was sure, and that was that he would die by his side. As they had walked behind Hasan, Obi-Wan had looked at him long and hard. <His argument is with me, Master> his eyes had said. <You can plead ignorance of my actions, and denounce me, and live.>
"No!" he had snarled, aloud, though Hasan had not turned or seemed to hear him. They had been apart too often, by misunderstanding and betrayal. At the very end, they would be together.
"Not many," Hasan said, mildly. He steepled his fingers. He looked like a man of indolent peace; only the intensity of his eyes and those scared hawk-like features showed him for the warrior he was. "Too many."
"I have seen murder committed in your name," Obi-Wan hissed.
"In my name, perhaps." Hasan heaved a deep breath, and seemed to make some internal decision - to trust them and confide, it seemed, but that was surely a deliberate false mask he was portraying. "I will waste no further words. I think you are right. What you said earlier... I agree with it, with every word. My cause is not one of casual cruelty and torture, and any of my men who commit such evils will be punished severely and at my own hand. I have a cause, and I will bind people to it by belief and zeal and their own free will. I will not have my cause become a byword for cruelty."
He leant forward, and for a wild moment, Qui-Gon thought he no longer existed. Hasan saw only Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan was held by his eyes like a wounded animal, unable to escape.
"And I admire you," Hasan said, and Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wan shudder. "A man who will die for what is right is a man after my own heart."
Obi-Wan jolted physically, as if making a desperate effort to wrench himself free from Hasan's spell. "The Keepers are such men," he said, bitterly, "and I have seen how you treat them."
Hasan shook his had, regretfully. "Nothing unites men like hatred. A common enemy welds the tribes and towns into a coherent force, following me. By the time the last Keeper is dead, I will have created other ties to bind them, and that hatred will no longer be needed. But, for now, I need them to hate the Keepers so publicly. I need to give them blood."
Obi-Wan's revulsion was unmistakable. "So you kill the Keepers for no other reason than that they are _convenient._"
Hasan frowned, his eyes like coals. "No. There is more. I will tell you."
"I do not wish to hear it."
"I wish you to." The voice was like a snake striking, sharp, and an order.
Qui-Gon squeezed Obi-Wan's hand until they were both shaking. <I am here> he thought, and <careful.>
"A few years ago," Hasan said, without preamble. He did not settle back, did not cup a drink, did not do any of the other customary mannerisms of a story teller. His story was told with all the immediate focus of his every other action. "A few years ago, I was deep in the hills above my home, when I found a land slide, very old. I had more leisure than I should have had, and I started to dig through the rocks. It took a long time - months. Every time I was able to, I returned there and moved a few more rocks, using branches as levers, or with my hands." He held out his hands, and the palms were dense with old scars.
"Why?" Qui-Gon asked, despite himself.
Hasan shook his head. "I do not know. Maybe God was speaking to me, a quiet voice in my mind that I did not then know. I felt I _needed_ to do it. That is all I knew then, and all I know now." He shrugged. "But at length I was through. The last stone was removed, and I saw what was beyond."
This time Qui-Gon would not ask. Obi-Wan, too, was silent.
"A pass between two high cliffs, barely wide enough for two men on horseback. It was dark and silent as a grave. I walked like a man in a dream. And then I saw it."
His face was transfixed. <This is truth> Qui-Gon thought, instinctively. It was not a polished story, though some of the turns of phrase were those of a story teller. Hasan was not afraid to seem weak by showing emotion. It was truth, surely, and... oh, and how Qui-Gon hated to even _think_ this.
"It was a tower - a whole network of towers - carved into the cliff. The sun was setting as I stepped from the pass, and the rock glowed red. It was beautiful - beautiful, but locked. The doors were sealed and I could not open them." He blinked, but made no attempt to hide the tears that started in his eyes. "And then, as I was about to turn and walk away, I found a small indentation in the ground, and a human skeleton, white and scoured by centuries of wind, but still whole. I touched the bones, and God spoke to me."
Qui-Gon was very aware of Obi-Wan's breathing, fast and awed. He was held by this story, despite how his whole soul revolted at the teller.
"He showed me pictures, without words - images like a soundless dream. I saw the world as it was before, and men with their mouths open in silent screams as they died before unimaginable weapons. I saw murders and robberies. I saw a man in black who raised his hand and men fell before him. I saw death, and the world ending. I saw a man crawl on his hands and knees, bleeding, from the wreckage, and blink at the stars. I saw, and I knew it was true.
"And then I heard his voice, and it was both immense and intimate. 'Darkness reigns, my child, but you can guide them back to the light.'" His fists were clenched and shaking. "I knew then what I had to do. Everything was clear to me."
Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "Did God speak to you again?"
Hasan closed his eyes. "Yes."
<He's lying> Qui-Gon thought - though surely it was not his thought at all, but Obi-Wan's, for only Obi-Wan could sense such things about a man. <A lie, but the rest was truth.>
"And the Keepers?" he forced himself to ask, through his suddenly dry throat.
"God led me to them. I stumbled from the pass, little knowing where I was or where I was going. Darkness fell earlier than I expected, or maybe I had stayed too long, held out of time in communion with my God. I had to sleep under the stars, though my mind was too full to sleep. As I lay awake, I heard distant voices. I crept forward, and God gave me the gift of silence and invisibility, even to the dark sense of a Keeper."
He met Qui-Gon's gaze, steady and defiant. "For it was a Keeper I heard. A Keeper and his boy. 'I feel we are close,' the Master said, then, 'sleep. You will feel stronger in the morning.' 'Tell me the story,' the boy asked, and the Master did."
"The story?" Qui-Gon asked, though he knew the answer - knew it with a bone-deep aching dread of certainty.
"The truth the Keepers have hidden from us." His voice rose. "They knew of the world that came before. They knew that the Relics were not a thing of evil magic, but were wrought by the men of that time. They knew all this, but they kept us blind, honouring them to the point of worship because we knew no better."
"We have heard this," Obi-Wan said, his voice strangled, unable to hear more.
Hasan nodded, smiled. "Yes. I know how Shurif tells it." Then cold again: "I killed him then. God guided my hand, and I was upon him before he even knew I was there. He was stroking his boy's brow, looking only at him. So complacent was he, so sure that the people he had deceived would never dare rise against him. I killed him - one blow for him, one for his boy. Both dead, and they were the first blood shed in the name of God's new kingdom."
Qui-Gon dared glance at Obi-Wan, turning away from Hasan and twisting towards him to look him full in the face. His apprentice was utterly white, smears of red on his skin standing out lividly. It was a horror that went beyond Hasan's words.
"Since then I have killed more than a hundred of them. Last week, I took the place in the east that they call their Reliquary. They used their power to protect their beloved Relics. What did I want with the Relics? They were foolish. An unbreakable dark power still holds those Relics safe, but their bodies were unprotected and frail. All died."
Obi-Wan moaned aloud.
Qui-Gon stood up. "He is hurt," he said, desperately. Blood was still oozing thickly from the wound. It was a lesser wound than the wound in Obi-Wan's heart, but it looked messy and more serious than it was, and would - _could_ - buy them time.
"I do not want to hurt him," Hasan said, almost gently. "I'm sorry to have detained you. Rest. Give him the care he needs. We can talk in the morning."
Obi-Wan struggled. "I don't..."
"You are not in danger, Obi-Wan," Hasan said, though Qui-Gon did not remember saying his name. "My war is with the Keepers, and my cause is God's. I admire your courage, and your principles. You could serve me at my right hand. I wish it."
Obi-Wan slumped forward, fainting. Qui-Gon felt himself close to tears. It was no true faint, but a pretence, an act of desperation. Obi-Wan could think of nothing he could say, nothing he could do. He was trapped.
"A hundred dead," Obi-Wan sobbed, rocking to and fro, his face pressed into his hand. "I felt it, in Balsham. Such immense sorrow..."
Qui-Gon tried to pull him close.
"And the visions he saw... It was the Force, Master. I felt it as he spoke. He doesn't use the Force, or know about it, but he _is_ Force sensitive. It was true vision. The words he heard as his God were spoken through the Force."
Qui-Gon stroked his hair. He could do nothing else. What words could he say?
"Have we fallen so far? Have we been wrong all along? Does the Force wish this? Is Hasan its chosen one, chosen to destroy us, chosen to bring the world into the light? Have we only served evil?"
Oh, but it pained him unbearably that all he could say was, "I don't know, Obi-Wan. I hope not." He was blind to the Force. What comfort could he give?
"Is everything wrong? Everything?"
This he could answer. "No, Obi-Wan. I have lived my life with the voice of the Force, and it flowed strongly with me. That did not feel wrong. I have lived according to a Code, and have never killed if I could help it, or refused help when asked. That can not be wrong." Tears fell on Obi-Wan's hair. "And I have loved you, and whether the Force wills it or not, I can not see that as wrong."
Obi-Wan paused in his rocking. Slowly, he raised his head. "The Force is still with me. It gives me no answer, but it feels right. I believe we are still right." Then his face twisted with pain. "But why did it speak to Hasan so? How can it favour him?"
Again, but gentle, "I don't know." Then, because a guard was coming close to them, gently bearing a wounded man in his arms - a man from Jazra's army, he realised - he had to stop. Just when they most needed to talk, they were forced to silence - and, like Obi-Wan when he pretended to faint, Qui-Gon was almost glad, glad for this escape from the need to speak words he could not say. "Give me your arm, Obi-Wan," he said, loudly. "Let me tend to it."
"I want to help the wounded," Obi-Wan had said, at last.
Qui-Gon had simply nodded, understanding.
Hours later, deep into the night, he still understood, though now he silently begged Obi-Wan to stop. <Enough. It is time to rest.>
Obi-Wan just turned towards him mutely, then turned away, back to the man he tended with such gentleness. None of his turmoil showed in the soft touch of his hands.
Qui-Gon understood. Perhaps he should have shared it, but he was grey and blank inside now, without the Force. None of the revelations of the day had truly touched him.
It was Obi-Wan who had sensed the echo of the Force in Hasan's memory, and Obi-Wan who had been held by the man's deadly stare. It was Obi-Wan who felt the sudden doubt about their course, and Obi-Wan who felt the wisest of their order die, and Obi-Wan who had been offered a future with their murderer. It was Obi-Wan who needed this so desperately - needed to fill his mind with hope and healing, and the sense of suffering men, and the knowledge that here was something real he could do.
Except for his empathy with Obi-Wan, and his pain at the suffering of the one he loved, Qui-Gon felt little. The numbness of watching the battle was back. He had lost the only aim that has sustained him - finding Jazra's son. He should have felt more. He should have been as lost as Obi-Wan. He should have been clinging to every wounded man, drawing validation from the fact that _they_, at least, could be helped by him.
Except when Obi-Wan needed him, when his emotions blazed bright and intense, he was under a spell of deadness, untouched by anything.
His hands moved over wounded flesh and brows drenched with the sweat of pain. He had no Force to heal them, but his hands remembered when he had, and still worked with gentleness. He knew the right words to say to ease a troubled mind. He did almost as much good as Obi-Wan, who had the Force, but was unable to use it in an obvious fashion.
He was saving lives. He had lost the only thing that had given him purpose. The Keepers were dead. Why did he feel dead?
Much later, he paused, hands still stained red and not yet wiped clean.
Perhaps, he thought, and it was almost an idle thought, a tickle in his mind that scarcely seemed real... Perhaps he had got it all wrong. He felt dead inside, unaffected by what was happening, but when he looked at Obi-Wan all this changed. His heart bled for Obi-Wan's pain. What Obi-Wan dreaded, he dreaded. Obi-Wan's future was his future.
His life had changed. He felt no real grief for the loss of his quest for Jazra's son, because, for weeks, he had no longer really lived for that. For weeks, it had been Obi-Wan, and he had been blind. He had not lost his only aim; he had been freed from an old obligation, freed to love Obi-Wan with his whole heart.
Even the death of the Keepers left him strangely untouched, for they were no longer his people, and he had not sensed their passing. He was no Keeper, and, like Mace, he felt the world he had served was already lost. Hasan was unstoppable; the Keepers' world would fall. But _his_ world was Obi-Wan, and there was still light in a world with love. There was still hope, too, wherever even one Keeper lived, true and strong and of the light.
At Obi-Wan's side, the only horror that could truly touch him was his apprentice's pain. At Obi-Wan's side, when Obi-Wan was every day proving himself a Keeper of immense strength and light, it was hard to see the world, or the Keepers, as truly lost.
The Keepers believed that a world was only lost when its last Relic was lost, or when the last person who remembered its stories died.
Obi-Wan would be the last, he knew suddenly. He would be the last, and the first, and he, Qui-Gon, would remain always at his side. The world they had known was falling, and it was to be mourned. But hope still survived, and somehow some part of him had already known this.
"Master?" he heard. Obi-Wan, roused from his hours of impossible focus by the only thing that could reach him - concern for his Master.
Qui-Gon smiled, ruefully. His eyes stung with tears, but his voice was strangely certain. "I'm fine, Obi-Wan." Then, shaking his head, and very tender: "but you aren't, Obi-Wan. Rest now."
Obi-Wan was still and silent, fighting an internal battle. Finally, with a small sigh that was closer to a sob, he nodded.
He barely had strength to stand. Qui-Gon held him up, first with a hand hovering at his back, ready to support him when he stumbled, and then with his whole arm around his body.
Obi-Wan's mind was restless. He had saved many lives, but others had died beneath his hands. He had saved lives on both sides, but rather more on Hasan's. Qui-Gon worried about the implications of this. He had visions of Obi-Wan, fighting and struggling in his mind, being drawn ever closer to Hasan's cause despite himself.
"You did well, Obi-Wan," he murmured.
Towards the end they had wandered far away from the camp, finding bodies scattered in flight and pursuit. Others worked close by, bearing the wounded back, and burying the dead. For the last hour, they had worked alone, seeking to find life among bodies on the fringes, left for dead.
They had found none. They walked now through a field of death, and only ghosts could hear their talk.
"Obi-Wan?" he started. "We have to..."
"No." That single word was full of pain. "Not now."
There only chance to speak freely, their only time of being truly alone, and Obi-Wan was simply too exhausted to think of it. Who was Obi-Wan to deny him this short rest. Obi-Wan had saved lives, and sacrificed a lot of himself for others, and was returning, supporting by his Master. Let that remain the only truth for him.
Almost at the camp, and Obi-Wan stopped. He was like a sleeper awakened. Before he even spoke, Qui-Gon knew that his words would be about the future - about Hasan, and his offer, and the fate of the Keepers. He had buried himself in healing and hidden from the realities of the problem, and could hide no more.
Qui-Gon could have wept for him. He had hoped he would be allowed sleep, just the few hours left before dawn. He had hoped the awakening would not be until tomorrow.
Obi-Wan pointed, with a hand that did not shake. "Hasan."
Qui-Gon frowned, looking into the darkness. He saw the dark figures of bodies on the sand, and knew they were the wounded. A figure moved among them, his late night ministrations seen by no-one. It was this man Obi-Wan's finger was following.
"Hasan?" Qui-Gon whispered.
The finger lowered. "We could kill him now, and no-one would know," Obi-Wan said, in a flat, unnatural voice.
Qui-Gon looked at him for a very long time. "We could," he said, at last.
They could not risk further words. His mind raced, debating the issue. Obi-Wan's did too. They had but fleeting moments of touch - thoughts communicated by hands and eyes - to trust that they understood each other.
Was it right, to kill one man to save a million in the future? Yes, he thought. Yes, perhaps. Not right, and to be done only in sorrow and contrition, but sometimes necessary.
But was Hasan this sort of threat? He meant death to the Keepers, but hope to so many more. He had seemed sincere in his intention to avoid cruelty, and to draw men to him willingly and never by force. The world, the people, had _chosen_ to follow him. They saw clearly now, seeing a new future, a new unity, a new purpose.
Who was he to say that this was wrong? It was not the world he had known, and not the world of the Keepers, but he had known all along that their world had been based on a lie. Even the Force, perhaps, favoured Hasan, its ways forever a mystery.
And things had gone too far. That first night, as Hasan had watched the Keeper and his apprentice and chosen his course... If that Keeper had known the future, he could have killed Hasan, and perhaps have been judged right.
But by now Hasan's cause would outlive the man himself. It was welded together by belief in a God, and was no mere collection of loose allies that would slip away after their leader died. His followers would still follow him after him death, twice as devoted to the cause of their martyred leader. They would still follow, but without Hasan's commitment to unity. More violent men would rise. New leaders would bicker about who was his true heir. The unity would collapse, and the bloodshed would be terrible.
Obi-Wan's eyes met his. "No," he murmured, and Obi-Wan shook his head regretfully, arriving at his own decision at the same time as his Master, though maybe for different reasons.
"If we commit cold-blooded murder and claim it is in the cause of good, then we are lost, and our cause is nothing," Obi-Wan said, dreamily. But then he raised his chin, defiantly. "But if it comes to a fight - if he threatens your life, Master - then I will have no hesitation. I _will_ stop him, and to the death if necessary."
Qui-Gon shivered a little at the fire in his apprentice's eyes. How Obi-Wan still constantly surprised him...
In the morning, too early, Hasan woke him with a soft touch to the arm. Beside him, Qui-Gon still slept.
Obi-Wan stiffened. Whatever Hasan said, nothing would stop him expecting a knife in the heart - to be killed by a man who wore a smile, while his Master slept and was ignorant.
"You will ride with me?" Hasan asked.
"Why?" he asked, sharply. He would not condemn himself and his Master to death by revealing that they were Keepers, but he would compromise himself in no other way. He could not pretend friendship. If he thought Hasan wrong, he would say so. Only the memory - distant, like so much of the previuos night, and seen as though through a mist - of him labouring among to wounded long after everyone else slept stopped him from saying more, and harsher.
"Shurif, and others, have eloquence; they are my voice. You have principles you would die for; you can be my conscience."
<I don't want to. I'd die rather> his soul wailed. <What a chance to do good> his mind told him.
But, "why?" he asked, again. "Why me?" Hasan had told a truth, but not the whole truth. He thought he knew the true reason. Perhaps it was a test, that he asked again - testing Hasan to see if he would be open and honest. But why was he testing him, unless he was considering agreeing, considering the possibility that he was a good man?
Hasan spread his hands, palm upwards, as if showing that he had no secrets. "Men call me a visionary, and that is true. Men call me a warrior, and that, too, is true. But most of all, I am a practical man. I act for a reason, to bring about the end result that I wish."
He was young, Obi-Wan realised, with a start. Several years short of thirty, and only a few years older than he was. He was young, and tired, and had not spent a night at home in over a year. He was devoted to his cause, and would kill when he thought it necessary. His strength and intelligence was prodigous.
<I could like this man> Obi-Wan realised, horrified. He wanted to clap his hands over hsi ears and moan <no more> Every word brought him deeper and deeper into Hasan's trap, caught by his spell. He wanted to ecape it, to be free.
"All my followers are from the Sands - Sharai, and those who used to be Sharai." He smiled. "It is inevitable. I started by home, and and moving outwards. Soon, very soon, I will have united all the tribes in the Sands on both sides of the hills." There was no pride in his voice. He stated it as simple fact, as if it was such a little thing.
"I wish for more," he continued. "The Sharai are not God's chosen people, to be brought into the light while the rest of the world languishes in the darkness. After the Sharai, I will bring the word of God to the Kings and the villages of the north, to the tribes of the southern forests, to the people further east than travellers have ever gone." His fists were clenched, his eyes blazed. "I will unite the world."
Obi-Wan ran his tongue over his dry lips. Hasan could do this thing. He only needed to speak a thing, and it was done. His will was unassailable. They were like flies, caught in the web of a spider, as nothing to his will.
Hasan shrugged, and the spell was broken. He was just a man, confiding as to a friend. "For this end, I need you, and men like you. If I ride north, and all my men are Sharai, I will be seen as an invading army, a conqueror. I am not. I do not wish to rule, only to unite, to bring people towards God, and liberate them from the rule of the Keepers. But who will believe me, the moment I step away from the lands of the Sharai? Who will believe me, unless I have men with me who are from all races and all colours?"
Obi-Wan felt a heavy sinking feeling in his chest. Hasan spoke the truth. He was honest, admitting even to cold practical reasons for his friendship, admitting even to things which made him look bad.
Like a moth to a flame, he was being drawn ever closer, forced into alliance with the man who had murdered a hundred Keepers in one night. Every objection, every doubt, was being crushed.
He felt naked, defenceless against this man.
"I..." He swallowed hard. "I can make no promises to you."
"I know that." Hasan touched the back of his hand. It took all Obi-Wan's control not to pull away, crying out with revulsion - revulsion most of all for the fact that part of him had liked it. "I know you have principles. I know you do not yet believe that I dislike violence. But ride with me a while. See for your own eyes, and then make your decision. I compel you to nothing."
"And if I refuse?"
Hasan looked strangely hurt. "You are free, Obi-Wan. Did you think I would kill you just for that?" He looked like a man used to being misunderstood, who had grown to despair of every being known for what he was. He would never show his hurt, and never let the hurt divert him from his purpose. But he was only a few years older than Obi-Wan, and, in that moment, Obi-Wan felt he understood him.
He hardened his heart, and turned away. If he went along with this, it was for his own reasons. He would not let himself care, or he wuold be lost. "I think you would. Not just for that, perhaps, but one day, and any day, you will want me dead." And then he shook his head, aware suddenly of how his voice had deepened, taking on the tone of prophecy.
Hasan stood up, brushing the sand from his clothes. His voice was different. "But you will ride with me?"
Obi-Wan sighed. What else could he say. "Yes." And, "where?"
"The capital of God's new kingdom," Hasan had said, his eyes full of light.
"It will not be big," he had explained, once, riding beside Obi-Wan. "It will not become a city, or a place where the streets are full of sordid life. It will be a Temple, a holy place, spiritual home of us all. Men will think of it as God's earthly home. They will pray towards it, and seek it on pilgrimage."
"Will?" he had asked.
"Soon. Not yet." He had turned in the saddle. "I will show you the site of the place of my dreams, Obi-Wan."
Young. A young man. Sharing secrets. A friend.
<No. Oh no...>
He glanced round, desperately, a day later. Qui-Gon walked beside Al-Barad. Only in the evenings were they free to be together, to entwine their fingers in gentle silence, and murmur soft secret words that could yet speak of nothing important.
A small party, each one chosen by Hasan. The bulk of his force was travelling with the wounded, taking them to the town that was Al-Barad's home. A messenger had ridden ahead, to summon another contingent of Hasan's army, which had been resting there after their campaign in the east. This new force would replace the old. After tonight, Hasan would be well defended again - though Obi-Wan thought that his best defence would always be his own skill.
"You will love it," Hasan said, with a grin.
Obi-Wan had never felt so trapped. This was worse, a thousand times worse, than riding with Jazra, bound by loyalty to a cause he did not trust. Every day, every hour, took him closer to losing his soul. He did not regret playing along with Hasan and winning his trust - he could use that for good, and it had been his intention all along, from the moment in Balsham when Qui-Gon had shown that it could work. He could spend his whole lifetime as Hasan's conscience, urging him to spare people, living in lie in order that others could live. He would do that.
But he was too weak, and Hasan too clever. His act would become reality. He was slipping, slipping, and how could he resist? One day he would ride beside Hasan as Obi-Wan, a Keeper playing a part. The next day he would be Obi-Wan, Hasan's friend and devoted follower, killing because he believed it was right.
He was losing himself. He was losing himself, and it terrified him.
Once he tried, and then again, again and again in silent pleas.
But perhaps Qui-Gon did not understand, or he understood but was not at liberty to speak. "You're doing fine, Obi-Wan," was all he said.
Obi-Wan was left alone at night, staring into the dark. Qui-Gon held his hand and stroked him and frowned with concern, but what could he know? He had experienced neither the immediacy of the Keepers' deaths, nor the allure of long private conversations with Hasan. He knew neither the evil, nor the charm, of this man's cause.
He was blind, ignorant. They had come full circle. Another journey with an unwanted ally, when Qui-Gon was content, and Obi-Wan screamed silently, trapped.
"Obi-Wan," he tried, once, on the third night and the last.
Oh, but he was powerless, weak, useless. He had sworn his life to Obi-Wan, but he could not even understand what pained him so. Two days' journey, and Obi-Wan was eaten up with silent misery, his eyes bleak and desperate, like a prisoner's.
He had understood at first, when Obi-Wan had been revolted at Hasan's compliments. But then he had accepted the charade, and decided to go along with the offer. He had said ever since Balsham that his aim was to be the enemy undercover and trusted in the middle of Hasan's camp. Why then did it hurt him so?
"What is it, Obi-Wan?"
Obi-Wan whirled on him then, his good hand balled into a fist, raised as if to strike him. "You need to ask?"
He shook his head, hurt. "I need to. I can't sense you any more. I've lost..." The Force, he meant. Sleeping men were too close, and he could not say it.
Obi-Wan was tight with anger and pain. "Again and again you read me in the hills. In Balsham that night, I heard you. Why then and not now?"
"I can't..." He ran out of words. It was as if Obi-Wan had struck him. How could he...? What...? "I... You think...?"
"Ask yourself, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan said, cold and bleak.
Oh, but it was not possible. He had read Obi-Wan's thoughts because he knew him, and could predict his feelings, and read his body language. Everyting else came from the Force, and he had no Force. If the closeness of their bond allowed them to touch each other's minds even without the Force...
No, it was not possible. He could not let himself believe that. The experience with Jazra had taught him the terrible consequences of denying his loss. Since then, he had sworn to accept his new limitations, and find a new strength as a normal man, with words and nothing more. If he let himself hope that things could be as they had been, he would be lost. He had accepted his new life without the Force. Why couldn't Obi-Wan?
"I think I knew it in Balsham," Obi-Wan whispered. "I missed you so much. The loneliness in my mind..." He shuddered. "I barely thought of it. I suppressed it. I dared not let myself hope. Only now, tonight, did I realise..."
"We are togther in so many other ways, Obi-Wan," he said, placatingly. "You need never feel lonely. I _am_ with you."
"No!" It was a whisper, but it was a howl of utter desolation. "You don't understand."
"Then tell me."
Obi-Wan cried out incoherently. They were back where they had started. How quickly had things shattered between them.
"Hasan," he said, as if he cared about nothing at all ever again.
Qui-Gon looked up and saw him, walking towards them with his usual cat-like grace. For a moment he started. So like Obi-Wan... Obi-Wan had moved like that, before one arm was forever stilled, and he heard learnt to walk as if every step pained him. He had never noticed. How many thigns about his apprentice had he never noticed, not until it was too late?
"Obi-Wan," he began, but Obi-Wan, moving like a man going towards his execution, was slowly standing, and turning to face Hasan.
They were still apart at dawn. Qui-Gon felt empty, lost, betrayed. He had realised his love for Obi-Wan, and spoken of it. Had he just assumed that everything would be right between them - that, by speaking of love, he had guaranteed this?
<This was not supposed to happen> he cried out, silently.
His destiny was with Obi-Wan. He had been so certain of it, so sure that his place in life, his very source of hope, was with his apprentice. Enemies were things outside; the two of them, together, were secure and unassailable. So he had thought.
"Today you will see," Hasan cried, addressing everyone. He had woken them early, with the first light of dawn.
Everyone looked alive with hope. Qui-Gon saw them only barely. His eyes rested only on Obi-Wan, sitting disconsolately on his horse, eyes downcast.
"No-one has seen this place but me. Today, I show you the future. Today, I give you a spiritual home, an anchor when the war takes us far from here, further than we have ever been."
SOmeone cheered, a lonely sound. Everyone else was held rapt by his words, in reverent expectation.
"We are close now. I show it to you today, and not yesterday, for it is fitting that it is seen at the dawning."
<Obi-Wan> he thought, quietly, weakly. Obi-Wan did not look up.
Stupid. No. Stupid and wrong, to let himself feel such vain hope.
"So ride with me. Ride!"
One bleak look back at him, and Obi-Wan rode.
He rode, and he knew.
His mind pulsed with emptiness, and he knew.
The land rising slowly, then meeting sheer cliffs. A crevice between the cliffs that cut them in two - a pass, immensely steep, and wide enough for two men on horseback abreast. A long pass, dark. Hasan's eyes glinting.
The realisation that he, and he alone, rode at Hasan's right hand.
"I want us to be friends," Hasan said, as if he had heard him. "When I united the tribes, I had to take into my counsels the tribal elders. I spend my life with old men. The soldiers... They do not see as I do. You are the only one who does, and is still young."
A lonely young man who wanted a friend.
<Stop. Stop it, Obi-Wan.>
"I want you to be the first to see it with me."
It was too dark for Hasan to see his face, and he was grateful.
He was alone in his mind. He wanted his Master. But Qui-Gon had turned away and refused to reach out to him. Qui-Gon left him straved of compansionship, and deeply lonely even when he was with a man who said he loved him. Qui-Gon was making it harder and harder to resist.
He had been so lonely all his life, until he had found love, and even now he remained lonely.
"Nearly there," Hasan murmured.
And then they were in the daylight, and Obi-Wan was falling, falling... No, not falling. Walking, arms spead wide and smiling, into a wall of Force, vibrant and lovely.
<Ascariel> he thought, he _knew_. <Master, Ascariel...>
He rode at the back. An army, and so much more, separated him from Obi-Wan.
His mind was silent.
Smiling, laughing, he turned to Hasan. Who he was didn't matter. All that mattered was having another person to share this with. "It's wonderful."
Hasan turned back. He had been gazing seriously at the faces of the soldiers behind them. Now he smiled. "Yes. I hoped you'd feel it. They feel nothing." He waved his hand, dismissively. "Oh, they see a marvel, but they _feel_ nothing."
It was as if the Force brought his emotions close, too close, to the surface. A moment ago he had been laughing. Now he wanted to weep with pity. The Force was so present in this place, so beautiful, and Qui-Gon was as blind to it as the soldiers.
"It is the living presence of God that you sense, Obi-Wan," Hasan said. "I think I saw it in you right at the start. Something about you, something that told me you would feel it."
He had to bite his tongue. So easy, so tempting, just to speak bitterly and have it all it be over, one way or another. <If you looked at the Keepers, really looked at them, you would see the same quality about them, too. Instead you just see them as the monsters you have labelled them.>
"You're special, Obi-Wan. I thought so, and now I know it. God has chosen you for some end, and I hope it is to become my closest friend, my right hand."
He had to look away. The Force flowed thickly about him. Why did it not rise up in revulsion at Hasan's words?
Hasan touched his hand where it held the reins. "I need to address them now. Then there's something I want to show you."
At the back, unnoticed, he heard Hasan's words faintly, deadened by the mouth of the pass. Everyone else had emerged into the sunlight; Qui-Gon still stood in the darkness.
"This will be the heart of God's kingdom," Hasan cried, his hands spread wide. "Look on it well, for it is your spiritual home."
No-one spoke. the man in front of him shifted on his horse, and the horse, feeling his unease, whickered and pranced forward a step. They were unsure, Qui-Gon realised, not knowing why their leader placed such great store on a ruin.
"Ride forward now, ride, and form up in order before the central door. Look at the walls and the cliffs and the sky. Look, feel, think. This is the place where God spoke to me."
Someone cried out. They were with him again, understanding, and loving it. Their zeal was intense. They loved Hasan and loved their God. They would stand here in silence for a week, if Hasan only commanded it in the name of God.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes.
"They don't feel it," Hasan said again, ruefully, as they rode away, alone. "They cheer and fall to their knees because I _tell_ them the majesty of this place, but they do not feel it themselves." Then he shrugged. "Still, it will become real to them. What the mind believes is real, the senses soon make real. Soon they will all think they feel it, and it _will_ be real to them They will shiver at the name of it. They will fall to their knees when they emerge from the pass. That is the power of words and belief."
Obi-Wan had no answer to that. He knew it was the truth.
Then Hasan smiled, as if deliberately throwing off his reflective mood. "But you I know will understand. That is why it is you, and you only, who rides with me now."
He swallowed. "Where?"
True to Hasan's order, the soldiers had lined up in front of the sealed door. Hasan, though, signing for Obi-Wan to follow him, had ridden to one side, the length of the ruins and away to one side.
One last look over his shoulder - <Master> - and Obi-Wan looked. Almost hidden between the rough cliff and the carved stone was a doorway. Enough light penetrated to darkness for Obi-Wan to see that a rough and narrow stairway wound upwards.
"The only doorway that was open to me," Hasan murmured. "I had tried all other doors. I was about to give up. Just as the darkness as at its most extreme, God showed me a tiny beam of light. It fell on this doorway. I was already turning away to go, and then I saw it."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes. Alone with the man who had Keepers' blood on his hands, and leaving the sunlight to enter to darkness, utterly alone.
If he ran now, if he cried out, or struck him, or fell to his knees and poured out the truth, what would happen?
"This is the start of everything," Hasan said, his voice low and thrilling. He stooped a little and entered the darkness.
Qui-Gon held back. These were not his people, and not his cause. He was alone. Even Obi-Wan had ridden away.
Once, Al-Barad turned and gave him a searching look. Qui-Gon simply blinked, and studied the towers.
He was on the fringes, forever excluded. These men felt this place to be holy and wonderful because Hasan told them; their zeal was almost tangible, but he was outside it, untouched by it. But Obi-Wan, too, had found something profound in this place. Qui-Gon had caught only a glimpse of his face, far away and close to Hasan, but it had held the same transported joy as when he had first held the sword of light.
He, Qui-Gon, would be forever an observer. This place could only be cold stone to him.
Obi-Wan followed. What choice did he have?
He was cold, and he shivered, the wound in his shoulder responding with fresh pain.
He felt he was caught between two lives - or between life and death. Outside, in the sunlight, the Force pulsed thickly in the air; here, in the darkness within the cliff, all life was suspended. The stairway would lead... where? To the light of the glory of the Force? Or to the Force, but in grief and tragedy, as it favoured Hasan and called him "child", and denounced the Keepers utterly?
This was the start of everything, Hasan had said. Maybe it was for him, but, Obi-Wan was certain, it was also the end of everything - the end, for him.
The numbness was back. He felt as if he was trapped beneath water, watching the world through a distorted mirror. He could reach out and touch, but the image only rippled a little, then resumed its old form. He could only watch. He could change nothing.
He had pinned his hopes on Jazra's son, but that goal had been stolen from him. He had taken the lead and spun a story to win Al-Barad's trust, but now it was only Obi-Wan that Hasan saw. He had pinned his focus on Obi-Wan, seeing his destiny as nothing more than to love him, but that had never been enough, and now things were in ashes between them.
He was nothing. Every step towards healing, every fresh hope, had come to nothing. He had lost the Force, and was doomed to perpetual silence, watching the world but unable to act.
That man there, clad in dirty black, emerging from the pass behind them while no-one watched... That man, hooded and armed, who skirted the cliffs, while a hundred soldiers obeyed their leader and looked only forward.... He could watch, detached, but what could he do?
Ahead of him, Hasan emerged into the light.
<Not yet> Obi-Wan thought. <Please...> He built unassailable shields around his mind, excluding the power of the Force. He was as deaf and blind as any normal man, locked in his own mind. Just for a moment, just for this one tiny instant... One more second of life believing that the Keepers followed the will of the Force and did right. Just one more second...
Then, taking a deep breath, he followed.
Why did no-one see him? Qui-Gon thought, vaguely.
The sun glinted on his naked sword. Then sun fell on his face, too, when he turned in just the right way, and light illuminated his face beneath the hood.
<Jazra> he thought.
They were on the roof, he saw; it was safe to let his eyes work properly. They were on the roof of one of the lower towers - a small area between the cliff rising behind, and the fall to the sand below.
Hasan was on his knees, joyously humble. Beneath his extended hands was a skeleton, bleached by an age of sun, each bone eroded by the sand to little more than a sliver. Not a single carrion bird had touched the body, for the bones still lay in human form, almost as if they could rise again at any moment.
"Can you feel it?"
<No. No, please, I don't want to...>
He saw white bone, and Hasan's dark bent head, and sunlight making his hair silver. He heard Hasan's breathing, and his own, and knew they were breathing as one. He smelt sandy rock - a rich smell, almost fleshy. His tongue tasted sand and fear. He ran the rough cloth of his robe again and again between his fingers.
Five senses. He was trapped. Wanting to scream, wanting to beg, he knew he had to learn the truth
He lowered the shields. Without even knowing it, as he did so, he fell to his knees, head lowered, as if awaiting execution.
<Jazra> He frowned. What was he doing here?
Jazra, going slowly, inexorably, towards the place where Hasan had taken Obi-Wan.
He had been a boy once, and he had had a Master, tall and wise. His Master's robe was brown.
"Such ignorance, my child," he would say, beneath the stars, as the young boy slept curled up in his cloak at his side. "Such darkness. But the light will never truly go out, not while the flame of knowledge survives. I am passing you the flame, my child."
The boy slept, and now he was older by several years.
"Such a burden, my child. I am so sorry. Not even old enough to be a padawan yet, and I am placing upon you the burden of bearing the knowledge of a whole age." A hand in his hair, tears in his eyes.
Night after night, speaking to the sleeping boy. "My child", and once, "my child of the stars."
"Master." Voice broken with tears, and he was around fourteen. "I know so little. I have so much still to learn. I can't do this. Don't... Don't die."
A sad smile. Still in this place, always in this place. "You can. We are Keepers now. Create the new order as the Force guides you; you have no need of knowledge of the old. The old world is gone, and we who came before did not stop it. I have passed on what you need to know; let the rest be forgotten. All that matters is that we remain true to the light."
Tears. "But I need you, Master. I. Me." Love unuttered.
"I will always be here, my child. Always. I give myself willingly to the Force and part of me will always live in this place. Be strong. Darkness reigns, my child, but you can guide them back to the light."
Sobbing, as the dying cold hand faded away into nothing, and he held only empty robes.
Those final words carried on the Force, ever afterwards. Sometimes more - sometimes a glowing blue presence that spoke in the Force, never to guide a specific action, but to give strength and love. For the child came here as a man, young and strong, and as a man whose hair was greying, and as an old old man who climbed these stairs and knew it was for the last time, that he could never leave this place. And why would he want to leave this place, for his Master was here?
"Darkness reigns, my child, but you can guide them back to the light."
"I think I have begun, Master." Lips moving as he died, as his body was an empty vessel and a small child took his Master's hand and walked among the stars.
His limbs moved as though through thick mud. He tried to run but fell, his ankle turning painfully. He lay, sprawled in the sand.
He wanted to laugh; he wanted to cry.
A mistake. He shook his head, wondering. How amazing, what he had seen; how tragic, the way Hasan had seen it.
A mistake, a misunderstanding. The first of the Keepers and his apprentice, Ascarion. The Master had become one with the Force in this place, and years later the apprentice had come here to die. There was something of their presence here still. Like a ghost in the Force, their words, their feelings, still lived in this place.
"He spoke to you," Hasan whispered.
Obi-Wan looked up, and realised his face was wet with tears. The Force still surrounded him. His skin felt sensitive to every touch of the wind, his every sense for intense and sharp. Every nuance of Hasan's emotions were clear to him, without him even trying.
<He wants to me have heard his God> he realised. <He truly does.> Hasan had no arrogance, no desire to be the only one chosen by his God, the only one who could hear his voice. The thought that Obi-Wan could hear it too gave him nothing but joy.
"What did you hear?"
The taste of sand was immediate, it was real. Like ice melting under a trickle of hot water, his numbness faded.
Everything was real - everything. Jazra was out of sight; Obi-Wan had gone. No-one else saw.
"Stop him!" he could call, and "enemy" and "Jazra." They would whirl round with their swords and bows and ride towards Jazra, and cut him down. But in the last moment of his life, Jazra could raise his hand and point, once at him, once at Obi-Wan. "Keepers," he would say, and the soldier's hatred, their cruel weapons, would turn on a new, more longed-for target.
He could run, but he would never catch up. He looked around - quickly, now, and with none of the stupid vagueness of before - and saw no horse. He must have dismounted. He must have let the reins slip through his fingers, and the horse had followed its fellows.
He started to run anyway, but it would not be enough. Did Jazra even now stand over Obi-Wan with his sword? Was he laughing, and telling Hasan who he was?
Did Obi-Wan still live?
<You can do it> Obi-Wan's eyes had said, dark and bleak with hurt. <You can touch my mind, but you are scared to try.>
<Scared... Yes. Yes...>
So many false starts at healing, so many times when he had truly believed he had found a fresh basis for his life. So many mistakes. So much blindness. All along, the loss of the Force had still scarred him. He had been scared to reach out, scared to hope. Only when he had not even been trying - when he had thought he had merely been reading Obi-Wan's body language or guessing his reactions - had he been truly close to Obi-Wan.
But he would try now, and he would believe, truly believe, that he would succeed. Act as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and the most natural. Try, call... touch the mind of the man he loved more than anything in the world. Touch his mind, be one with him, _save_ him...
How could he answer? How could he lie? He had deceived Hasan on so many things - though maybe, really, only on one, on not admitting to being a Keeper. He had never hidden his opinions, or pretended to agree when he did not, and Hasan had respected him for that. Even so, his life was a lie.
On this, though, he could not lie. There were some things he would not do, not even to save his life. He would not deny his Master, and he would not deny the Force. If he said, "Yes, I heard him. I heard your God," the words would be like ashes in his mouth, and he would be no true Keeper.
He took a deep breath. "I heard what you heard," he began, carefully. Tiptoeing between truth and suicide. He would not deny the Force, but he was not ready to die, not estranged from his Master.
Hasan leant forward. "Tell me."
Only believe, believe that he could do this. So effortless...
Sand mired his feet. Surely he had never run so slow.
<Obi-Wan! Jazra! He's here.>
His mind exploded in light.
<Jazra> he heard.
Time seemed to slow. He turned his head, and it was like moving through
thick water, slow and painful. He saw Hasan, his chest rising and falling as he breathed, his lips parted with expectation. He sensed love and desperation, and a twisted focus of hatred.
<It's over> he thought, he knew with certainty. <This is the end.>
All doubts fell away; he had only one regret. <Master> he said, reaching out through the glowing chord of light that linked him with Qui-Gon. <I love you.>
<I love you.>
"No!" His breath caught in his throat like sobs. He knew it for what it was - a farewell.
He should have felt joy at the light that bound them together, joy at finding that connection before the end; all he felt was grief.
"Jazra," he said, aloud. "Draw your sword. He's here."
Hasan's eyes narrowed, as he had known they would. "How do you know?"
"I sense him." No need to incriminate Qui-Gon. "I am a Keeper."
Hasan just looked at him. Moving as if in a dream, he drew his sword.
Close enough now to hear the sudden cry of battle anger, to see the figures dancing on the rooftop, and sun flashing on a drawn sword.
Jazra froze. "You." His eyes flickered towards Hasan, and, even through the hatred and madness that darkened there, there was a cruel amusement. "Do you know what he is?"
Hasan nodded. "I do." He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. In that moment, he looked feral, cruel as Jazra.
"A Keeper? You know?"
"I only just found out." Calm.
It was as if the calm response infuriated him. His focus shifted from Obi-Wan. "You killed my son!"
Dead, then. He had never found out. Had Jazra truly mourned him, or was his loss only a blow to his pride - that his son could chose a cause that was not his, and die in its service? Whatever the reason, it had broken him. Obi-Wan could almost pity him, and would have, had it not been for the memory of those cruel eyes on a cliff top.
"I did not." Still that unflappable calm, but there was steel in his eyes, and his sword arm did not waver.
Jazra screamed then - an incoherent cry of hatred. Sword raised over his head, he charged towards Hasan, slashing blindly.
He took only two steps. Quick as a darting snake, Hasan's sword tip found his throat, pulled out, and lunged into his chest. One hand briefly clutched at the wound - <so now you know how it feels, Jazra - how every breath is tearing agony, how it feels to taste your own blood> - and then he fell.
Hasan closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, they were cold. "A Keeper, Obi-Wan?"
Jazra still breathed - a horrible rasping breath. What good did it do to repay evil with evil? He would just lose himself. Gently, he knelt, and closed Jazra's eyes. He was beyond healing, but his passing could be easy. Two breaths more, and he was still.
He felt the cold touch of a sword point at his back. This was how it had begun. Hasan had drawn a sword on him that very first day, and every day, every moment, since then the sword had been poised, ready to return. This moment was inevitable.
"Yes." He turned round, and stood, and the sword followed him up, always touching, never drawing blood, moving from his back to his chest. "Yes, Hasan. A Keeper."
Hasan's face was cold and impassive, but Obi-Wan sensed hurt and betrayal. "I liked you."
"So how do you judge us now? From what you believe about us, or from me, and how I have shown myself?" He had told the truth, but he would not walk willingly into death without a fight.
"Were you planning to betray us?" A tiny blossom of blood welled onto his clothes;
It was a strangely personal moment. He was aware of nothing but Hasan. "No. I did nothing more than you knew already. I wanted to save lives. I helped your wounded. I would have urged you to mercy. When Al-Barad was killing a Keeper called Mace Windu, I made his death peaceful. You knew my beliefs."
Hasan nodded. "I did. And that is why I do not hate you. I will not kill you in anger."
He swallowed hard. He knew the truth - saw it in Hasan's eyes. "But you will kill me."
"Yes." There was real pain in Hasan's eyes. "The people need to see it. From the start, I swore that I would follow the same rules as anyone. I would not put emotions before duty. If my friend, if my lover, or my father, or any sons I should have... If they sin against God, I will myself strike the blow that kills them."
His eyes held apology, but also utter certainty that this was right. He would bear no guilt for this, Obi-Wan knew. It would pain him, but he would never doubt that he had done the right thing.
Obi-Wan raised his head, and met Hasan's gaze, like a man meeting death with dignity. <He even expects me to admire him for this> he realised, and in a way, he did. There was a strange honour in their enmity, as he had never felt in their so-called friendship.
But he would not die for it, not like this. Not for a cause based on a mistake, not for a mistaken sense of honour that was only cruel betrayal cloaked in fine words.
He said nothing, no final words. As Hasan's eyes sank into his, he reached out with the Force. He had eased Jazra's passing, but his eyes had been open and searching, and he had seen the glimpse of metal at the man's belt.
Quick as thought, he called it now, through the air and into his hand.
Hasan's eyes widened. His brain gave commands for his hand to move, but not quick enough.
The muscles were just tensing for the forward lunge of the sword when Obi-Wan ignited the sword of light. The point had just begun its movement when the blue blade sliced through the metal as if it was air.
The severed sword clattered to the floor - the blade end. Hasan still held onto the useless stump, his eyes wide. Amazement clouded his sense; his fingers wanted to go limp, to let the sword fall beside its other half, but he had enough strength of will to stand firm.
"No," Obi-Wan said, through blue light. "You will not kill me."
Even now, Hasan showed no anger. He had been humiliated, and perhaps feared for his life, but he faced Obi-Wan with dignity. "I was right to admire you, Obi-Wan."
"What sort of a world is it where you kill your friends for imagined sins of their forebears, and not for their own deeds?"
Emotion seeped into his voice. The time for honour was past. They could stand all day, cloaking the truth in politeness, and Hasan would still believe a lie. He had been silenced for too long, unable to speak the truth.
"What sort of a world..." - closer, voice lower, like a hiss - "can kill men on the basis of a mistake? Yes, Hasan, a mistake. The voice you heard.... You asked what I heard, Hasan. Shall I tell you?"
He heard something behind him - a whisper of cloth, a weary breath. Qui-Gon was here. He could spare nothing to greet him; this took all his focus.
He lowered the sword. Simultaneously, the other hand - the wounded one, and it hurt like a thousand knives - came up, touching Hasan's face. He saw the Force like a pale fire, licking the man's skin, holding him still. His thoughts were like tendrils of flame, reaching into Hasan's mind, impaling him.
It _was_ a rape, a violation. It was a little seed of darkness within him, and he would never forget it. <Forgive me> he had said, and _this_ was what he had meant.
But it was necessary.
Hasan was Force sensitive, just. When Obi-Wan willed it, he could see what he needed him to see.
He showed him the truth, exactly as he had seen it - the Master and the apprentice, the words that were never meant for Hasan's ears.
<A Keeper> he told him, his thoughts like steel. <One Keeper to another, long ago. Never a god. Never you.>
And, as he summoned the Force, it seemed to well up, away from his control. It swirled and took form - a ghostly outline of an old man, lined with care and wisdom, and a smaller figure that was both a tall youth, and an old old man.
The Master's lips seemed to move. "Darkness reigns, my child, but you can guide them back to the light," came like a whisper in the wind, and a swelling echo off the cliffs.
"Never you, Hasan," Obi-Wan whispered, suddenly at the end of his strength, his shoulder screaming, his limbs weak. "It was the power of the Force - the same power that gives the Keepers their strength. You were but an observer to a scene long gone, to a private moment that has passed into the Force."
With the last of his strength, he reached for the broken sword hilt, plucking it from Hasan's hand. The Force seemed to flow like something blue and visible - a gift from the dead - unmistakably, even to Hasan's eyes, the same force as created the voice.
"You see?" he managed.
Then his hand fell, his knees gave way. He fell forward, hand still on Hasan's face. The other man fell too, and suddenly they were both on their knees, looking at each other, touching each other in grotesque embrace.
"Yes," Hasan rasped, though his eyes were dark with betrayal, and Obi-Wan knew there was more.
Something hissed, then, and a shadow passed over them. With a small moan of pain, Hasan fell.
Obi-Wan was shockingly pale, kneeling on the ground and looking up like a humble child. His eyes were not humble, though, but clouded with confusion and reproach.
Qui-Gon lowered the sword. The handle was encrusted with blood where Jazra had held it; now fresh blood marked it. He had driven the hilt into the back of Hasan's head. He had not killed him, or even hurt him badly.
"I had to."
Obi-Wan shook his head, as if he was searching for something. So dear, so hurt... Qui-Gon wanted to take him in his arms and hold him against the world.
"I was reaching him..."
"There is no time."
He had watched it all, awed by Obi-Wan, and scared by him, unsure whether he should be prizing Obi-Wan's hands away from Hasan and urging him to stop, or encouraging him to go further. When the spirits had appeared, he had _seen_ them. He had choked on the pain of that. To see such a wondrous reminder of how marvellous the Force was, but only to _see_ it, and not feel it, never again to feel it...
"No," he had moaned, when they had faded again. He had found he was reaching, pleading. No-one had seen him.
The pain, the wonder, of it... When Obi-Wan had raised the sword and the Force had flowed like blue mist, he had turned away, unable to bear it - turned and walked to the edge of the wall, and raised his wet face to the wind, and looked at the world of people and sand that was not beyond his comprehension.
And then he had seen him...
"Al-Barad," he said, now. "With one man. Close."
"If he finds him unconscious, we are dead," Obi-Wan said, sharply.
"We are two, and they are two. Better than three against us."
"I will not kill." Then, "I was winning him over, Master. He will never trust me now." He seemed almost tender towards the fallen Hasan. Awkwardly with his one good hand, he was pulling him into a position that aided his breathing, even touching his hair as if in comfort.
Was that why he had knocked him out, he wondered, suddenly. Jealousy, and to break that horrible touching, to break a friendship that could even survive such revelations as this day had seen?
He faltered. "I... I think we were lost anyway, Obi-Wan. It has gone too far. Hasan won't admit publicly that he's wrong."
"He could surprise you."
Qui-Gon clenched his fist. On this he was sure. "He is not the leader you think he is, Obi-Wan. There are others - Al-Barad is one - who have their own agenda. They follow him for now, but that could change. If he starts backing away from his war, if he starts showing mercy on the Keepers..."
"We could have tried." Obi-Wan was almost in tears, he realised. He had mistaken the hoarseness for anger. Only now remembering that he could - and this was one true joy in this day - he touched his mind. Theirs was a bond that transcended the Force, and something wondrous. <Forgive me, Obi-Wan> and <I love you.>
Obi-Wan wiped his face. "I love you, Master." A strange smile. "I can still love you even when we disagree."
Qui-Gon touched his hair - a moment only, but it sufficed. That touch, both mind and hand, and they were healed again. Had it always been that simple?
"And now it's too late," Obi-Wan said, calmly. His head tilted, as if he was listening. "Not just Al-Barad now. More are following." He frowned. "Why?"
<If Obi-Wan hadn't argued, we could be away by now, and safe> As soon as he thought it, Qui-Gon realised that it didn't matter to him. Better to stay here and talk and set things right than to grab Obi-Wan, make him flee or fight against his will, and gain... what? A few minutes of freedom? This place offered no hiding places, and they were in the middle of an army of enemies.
The time for bluffing was past. They would face their enemies hand in hand.
<Obi-Wan?> He reached for his hand.
But Obi-Wan only smiled a crooked smile, and pulled away. "Let's hide, then."
Voices murmured beneath the tower. He heard sounds of metal.
"Obi-Wan..." He shook his head.
"No." Obi-Wan stood. "There's a trap door." He pointed at his feet. "It was where I fell. Perhaps even if was _why_ I fell."
Qui-Gon frowned. He could see nothing.
"Sealed with the Force, and hidden," Obi-Wan said gently, knowing it would hurt and regretting it. "But I can open it."
Footsteps sounded on the steps, echoing and distorted.
Qui-Gon licked his dry lips. "Do it."
There was no time for feelings.
Obi-Wan just turned once. "Goodbye, Hasan." Only now everything was in the open could he like the man, without risking his soul. <I can still love you even when we disagree> he had said to Qui-Gon, and it was the same with Hasan. They were on opposing sides, and had incompatible views on right and wrong, but he _did_ like him.
They could have been friends, fighting on opposite sites by day, but meeting by night for companionship. The fact that they could well end up killing each other would have been accepted, but would not truly have mattered. A strange friendship, perhaps, and never approaching the sort of love he had with Qui-Gon, but _something._
"I love you," he said, impulsively, as if Qui-Gon could feel the tenor of his thoughts and feel threatened by it.
Then he opened the door.
A ladder, stretching down into the empty darkness.
Qui-Gon put one foot on it, and it splintered into a million fragments.
He gasped. He lunged with his hands, for the stone at the rim of the trapdoor, for Obi-Wan's arm. Pain flooded his sense, and he knew he held half his weight on Obi-Wan's wounded arm.
He let go. Just for a moment, all his weight hung from his five finger tips, clutching onto the lip of stone, and he couldn't hold it, he couldn't hold it....
He fell backwards into the darkness...
And was held, invisible arms supporting his body, holding him safe, lowering him gently to the floor below. He would have stumbled on the piles of broken wood, but the invisible hands held him as he walked, wood shifting beneath his feet, until he found solid stone.
The Force, he knew, flowing and beautiful, and he was blind to it...
"Master," he heard, from far above.
He looked up, blinking to clear his eyes and his mind. A square of sky showed in the darkness, at least two storey's height above where he stood. Obi-Wan's head was silhouetted against the blue, peering down anxiously. Then, as Qui-Gon was about to shout a reply, that same head turned quickly away, as if peering anxiously over his shoulder.
They were here.
Was he hurt already, bleeding, impaled? Was that cry a cry of farewell or appeal?
"Hasan!" he heard, and "murderer!"
A dark shining line cut across that square - a sword blade, swung in a wild arc. Where was Obi-Wan?
He bit his lip until the blood ran. He was viewing the world, and the desperate struggles of his Obi-Wan, through a tiny square of light. Everything else was dark. All his earlier fears of powerlessness - that terrible feeling of being forever an observer - returned to him, fluttering around his heart like whispering bats' wings.
"Obi-Wan?" he cried, but it was only the smallest croak.
A sword swung. Only Al-Barad at first, and he bore a sword, though Obi-Wan had often heard him say that he would carry no weapon but the word of God.
"Murderer!" he cried, his eyes dark with hatred and something else.
Obi-Wan dodged and the sword missed him, though he felt the wind of its passing on his cheek.
Too late. Fighting the pain in his shoulder, lowering Qui-Gon with the Force, had exhausted him, but he had needed just two seconds of rest, a few long steadying breaths, and he would have been ready.
The sword swung again, and he was not quick enough. Its point cut across his ribs, not deep, but it was like a ribbon of fire cutting him in two. Despite himself, he doubled over, his wounded arm pressed to the welling cut.
He could fight, but more were coming. One man burst from the stop of the stairs; more were following.
He was clumsy. No time for fine judgement, for caution. Desperately, he lunged for the open door, and jumped - fell, rather.
For the second time in his life, he fell blindly into the darkness.
Something wet splashed onto his face. He touched it with his fingers, then raised his fingers to his lips. Blood.
The square of light was blocked out by a body. <Obi-Wan!> A sword slammed into the stone and shattered.
Obi-Wan fell. Time seemed to slow, and Qui-Gon saw every small moment of that fall - Obi-Wan as a grey form in the darkness, one arm outstretched, robe billowing upwards and almost beautiful.
And then it was not time that had slowed, but Obi-Wan's fall. He had summoned the Force around him like a cloak, and fell, slower and slower, until he hung in the air, immobile, just out of reach.
Qui-Gon stood on tip-toe, clutching, reaching out. His fingers brushed coarse fabric once, but that was all.
He was an observer only. Obi-Wan was suspended in the air like a creature of legend - the winged messenger of God that some of Hasan's men spoke of, already embellishing Hasan's story of his revelation. As Qui-Gon watched, he reached out his hand, and summoned invisible Force. Far above, the trap door closed. He heard a cry of rage, then nothing.
Then Obi-Wan made a small strange sound - a release of tension that was almost like a whimper. His strength, his will, seemed to leave him.
Just a normal man, unsupported by the Force, he fell. Qui-Gon lunged, but was too late. Obi-Wan fell heavily on his back on the uneven pile of wood from the splintered ladder. Over-balancing from his desperate attempt to catch him, Qui-Gon fell on his knees beside him.
Everything hurt. Everything hurt, but something was calling to him.
"Master." He sat up, pushing away the hand that tried to ease him back down.
"Obi-Wan." Anxious hands fluttered on his face.
"No," he said. "There's something..."
Useless again, and he could only follow.
"What is it?"
Like a sleepwalker, answering some call that was not even earthly, Obi-Wan led him through the darkness, through doors, down stairways, across silent stone floors.
"Where it is." Simply. Then, with awe in his voice. "Here, and everywhere."
"I wish I could feel it." It was the first time he had spoken such a wish aloud.
Obi-Wan stopped, and touched him briefly. "I do too."
Everywhere, but here, _here_ most of all.
Obi-Wan opened the door, and he would have fallen to his knees, if that had not kept him from the heart of the room; he would have flung both arms wide and whirled around in joy, had his body not been too broken.
Instead, he just walked forward reverently, his feet barely touching the ground.
"I see it," Qui-Gon said, in a small voice.
Obi-Wan could have wept for him. The room glowed with everlasting light, coiling blue and white and all colours, soft as a caress. A casket at the centre of the room was the very heart of the light, but the light was such a small part of it. The Force was as thick and present in this room as water was in air in a thick fog. It was beautiful and amazing like nothing he had ever seen.
Obi-Wan stepped forward.
One step, then two. Qui-Gon was frozen, standing back in the doorway, as Obi-Wan walked forward, his face transported with joy.
This was not for him.
He wrapped his arms tight around his body, and half turned away.
It hit him like an assault on his mind, strong as a thousand suns.
He staggered and fell to his knees.
His last word, his last thought, before the light overwhelmed him was, "Master."
He reached out his hand. A small hesitation, and fingers curled around his.
No, not alone. Obi-Wan reached, and he responded, and now what Obi-Wan saw, he saw; what Obi-Wan felt, he felt.
He saw a building, massive and beautiful, larger than a city. Its pinnacles touched the sky. Wise men in brown robes walked with measured stride through its corridors, and sat in a high place and touched the Force.
<Jedi> he heard.
He saw a world where people lived free, able to do anything - to fly, to cure all ills, to talk in an instant with someone across the world.
<Before> he knew.
And then he saw darkness, slow and insidious. He was gifted with foresight. <There!> he wanted to cry, gasping with horror. <Over there! Can't you see it?>
They did not. The wise men looked upon a young man and a small boy, and nodded. A man with noble features and eyes of feigned mildness watched on a screen, and smiled, and there was nothing mild in that smile, now he was unobserved.
The young boy grew strong and tall, and his eyes flashed like dark fire. The mild man watched all and smiled at all. He stretched out his arm, and gave orders, and all things changed.
Lines appeared in the faces of the wise men. The young man, Master of the boy, was haunted with grief. <My fault> he said, again and again. He had something of the look of Obi-Wan about him. Very like, perhaps, at times. Qui-Gon longed to comfort him.
The boy wore only black.
Men in white armour, whose Relics spat fire, came in massed ranks against the wise men. The boy in black led them, and now he called the mild man "Master." Though there was no mildness in his eyes now. All things crumbled beneath his touch.
<We are falling> he heard. A man with dark skin. He remembered Mace Windu, and wept.
<Many resist the Emperor.> That was the young man, prematurely aged by grief - the one who reminded him of Obi-Wan.
<Yes. And that is the tragedy of it. Master Yoda has foreseen it. The two sides are well matched. There will be no quick victory. The war will tear us apart. And, in doing so, the Sith Lord will open doorways that should remain closed. There will be plague such as we have never known. Few of us will survive this.>
The young man raised his head. <But some will.>
<Yes.> A sad smile. <The Temple will not. They are almost upon us. It has days, not weeks. The Jedi has few material possessions, as you know, but we have our treasures...>
A curl of the fist. This grim determination even in the face of pain... _so_ like his Obi-Wan. <They must not be lost.>
The dark man shook his head. <No. And you have been chosen.>
<Me?> Wild hope, then a moan of pain. <After I failed...>
Hands enclosed his. <You did not.> And, <this is your destiny now, and
perhaps something else, too - something hidden.>
<Destiny> he heard again, over and over. It gave the young man hope, hope of redemption. <Destiny> as he entered his small solitary vessel. <Destiny> as he piloted it through the stars....
<Through the stars!> he gasped now - he, Qui-Gon, pulled from the vision by his amazement. <Obi-Wan, is that...?>
And then the two places - reality, and vision - merged. He was present in both, for both were present in this place.
<Here> the young man said. <Here I hide them, until light has returned. And here I die.>
Reverently, he placed his casket on the plinth at the heart of a long-deserted chamber.
Another lost civilisation... - Qui-Gon could sense his thoughts now, this long-dead man from the vision, as if they were his. Glories rising and falling throughout history. This was the citadel of a great Empire, which had long ago died. A thousand years on, the land was still sparsely populated, cut off from the wider world, only just beginning to trade with the Republic. A few cities had sprung up, and local traders took modern technology into the wilds, but it for the most part the people lived as they always had lived. A few Jedi, a few Republic officials, had settled here to guide it in its modernisation, but still a world the war would pass by.
Then, how much later - months? years? - knowing he had been wrong. No longer young, he sat with his head in his hands, his heart bleeding with the feel of a million deaths.
Fire flashed in the skies. People died in the streets, choking on their own blood. The cities crumbled. Even in the wilds, tribes who had never thought of the existence of a world beyond theirs looked at the skies with terror, and died.
A Jedi died, pursued in a tunnel, his lightsabre falling before him. In his death, he called out, seeking a fellow, seeking _anyone._ <Let this not be the end.>
"No." He curled his fist, standing, weeping. It would not be the end. The Republic had torn itself apart; a thousand cold planets revolved round their suns like dead stone, bearing no life. But he still lived, and he still remembered.
Blinking, making no attempt to wipe away the tears, he walked from the chamber of his own seclusion into the night sky he had not seen for ten years. Looking at the stars, wondering which one was even now dying, was too painful. But he looked at the stars now, embracing that pain.
All dead. He could be the only person alive in the galaxy, forgotten by war and plague, deemed ten years dead. The vast sky pressed down on him, cold and dead.
He fell to his knees. His hand flailed, and closed on a handful of sand.
"No," he said. "There is still hope." The sky was dark, but there were still the stars, still blazing in their solitary light.
And, as if by opening himself to hope, he had opened himself fully to the living Force, he sensed them. Not all were dead. Scattered survivors crawled from the wreckage and blinked at the same sky he himself saw. Someone far away, a mother cried out and gave birth to a baby, strong in the Force. Her grip on life was weak. She would feed him as he needed, then fade away. He would pass from hand to hand, and stay live.
"My new apprentice," he said, smiling through his tears. "My new hope. I will call him Ascarion, my child of the stars, my child of hope. The cause of light will never be forgotten. The Jedi are gone, and now we are Keepers - Keepers of the flame of hope, or truth."
He let the sand trickle from his fingers. This was a rebirth for him. His old name would never again be uttered or known. His old name went with his old life, and was dark with mistakes and griefs. Only now, now he had lost everything, was he being given a second chance.
He was the last, and the first.
It was so inadequate for what he felt, but his mind could not frame words.
Obi-Wan was crying openly.
"I didn't know. I never thought..."
"But now we know, and we will never forget."
Obi-Wan raised his hand, as if searching for something, then let it fall. He just shook his head, mutely.
"Jedi." He tried out the word. "We were Jedi."
"No." Obi-Wan's face held no doubt. "We are Keepers. Didn't you see?"
So much more to say - so much wonder, and words utterly inadequate the express it.
"There are worlds beyond ours. This isn't the only one..."
"I never thought..."
He held tightly onto Obi-Wan's hand. "He was like you. Did you see?"
Obi-Wan frowned. "I saw shades of you in him - in the way he moved sometimes, his mannerisms."
"What was his name?"
"He didn't want it known."
He shivered. He remembered the revelation he had had over the wounded. "Last, and first..."
They were held as in a spell, expressing their wonder in small fragmentary words.
"I'm glad I was able to see it with you. Thank you, Obi-Wan."
"Together, Master. You are not blind, for now I can help you to see."
They clung together, more close than they had ever been.
All things end.
A long time later, Obi-Wan flinched, pulling away from the embrace. He fell to his knees, gasping with pain.
The world was outside. Lost in the distant past, and then in Obi-Wan's arms, he had forgotten that anything else existed. Now he looked for it, sounds came back, quietly first, and then swelling louder. Someone, many men, were hammering at the door of the chamber - not the door they had come through, but the main door that must lead to outside. Metal scraped on stone, as if they were trying to use their swords to prise open locks that only existed in the Force.
"What has happened?"
Obi-Wan's face was twisted with pain. One hand half rose to his brow, trembled, then down again. "I touched his mind. There is still a thread of a link between us. He..." Another gasp. "He is hurting. Al-Barad...."
A long silence. "What?" he dared ask, at last.
Obi-Wan took a deep breath, shaking his head. "I don't know. Either he is dead, or he knew how to break the link. He bought Al-Barad. I don't know who won."
He swallowed. "I'm sorry." He touched Obi-Wan's shoulder. Although he could never begin to understand it, he knew that Obi-Wan had some kind of link with Hasan, and even liked him.
"If they fought, it shows that Hasan believed me," Obi-Wan said, hopefully.
Qui-Gon said nothing. He could not bring himself to agree.
Hours passed. The noises died down, but, "they're still there," Obi-Wan said, when Qui-Gon looked at him questioningly.
How long, he thought, grimly. They had no food or water. Soon they would have to open the door, and face what was out there. Perhaps it would be Al-Barad, with Hasan's blood still on his sword, stirring the men to a brutality and zeal that Hasan would never have allowed. Or perhaps it was Hasan himself, eyes dark with pained betrayal, seeking vengeance in Obi-Wan's blood.
<What now?> he thought. Did he have regrets? Yes, many. He had lost the Force, and his life since then had been a wild catalogue of mistakes. But the first Keeper had suffered more and lost more, and in the end he had found hope. There was hope and light in little things - the sight of a star, the smile of a loved one.
Strangely, then, few of the regrets could truly touch him. He had Obi-Wan, and they were one. Hand in hand, they had seen a sight that no man had seen, and had been entrusted with a truth across the space of a thousand years. If he had one wish, one desire still unfulfilled, it was to be one with Obi-Wan in body as he was in mind, just once before they died. But even that was but a small, unimportant thing. Many enjoyed a physical union without true love. What they had together was so much more.
"Obi-Wan?" he began, tremulously. He had to try - for him, for both of them.
Obi-Wan met his gaze, very steady, very deep. "Yes." He touched Qui-Gon's lips. "Soon." Amazingly, he laughed, a sound of thrilling joy, and trembling fear, both at once. "We have a destiny, Master, remember?"
"Us," he said, as Qui-Gon merely looked at him, sitting on the floor, lips parted in invitation and wonder.
He stood up, and held out his hand, for the second time. "We came half way together, Master. We saw what was. Now we shall see what is, and what shall we."
Qui-Gon licked his lips. "How...?"
"You, Master. You made it speak again."
The Force, like a whispering in his mind, constant and vibrant. It had granted one vision. Fear for Hasan had made it turn dark and jangling, the truths retreating out of reach - but that was only right, for his link with Hasan had been born of darkness and violation. Only when Qui-Gon's mind had been full of true love and peace - only when those thoughts had lapped against his own mind like soothing water - had the Force returned, beautiful and pure.
He knew what had to be done. They had come but half way. It was time to complete the journey. It was time to fulfil their destiny.
"The casket," Obi-Wan whispered.
Qui-Gon let himself be led by the hand, though not like a child. This was his choice, to follow Obi-Wan, and be with his now and forever.
Qui-Gon met his apprentice's eyes. As he watched, he felt Obi-Wan lift his hands, first one, then the other, and lay them gently, palm down, on the casket lid. Then he laid his own hands there, both the whole and the wounded. Their fingers touched.
"Reach out," Obi-Wan murmured.
Once, not too long ago, he would have shrunk away. "I can't," he would have groaned, despising himself as useless, resenting Obi-Wan for possessing a power he could no longer possess. But, like so many things, he had changed. Effortlessly now, he reached out with his mind, and touched Obi-Wan's, using that bond that transcended the Force.
Who was helped? He did not know. Perhaps both of them were strengthened by this, both needing it. Obi-Wan drew on his strength, and knew himself to be loved, possessing of a home, and a place where he would be forever cherished. For his part, Qui-Gon touched, if only second-hand, the majesty of the Force. He saw what Obi-Wan saw, and felt an echo of its glory.
This place was like no other. Touching the casket was like being in a maelstrom of Force, at the very heart of everything in creation.
Obi-Wan threw his head back. Qui-Gon blinked, but the blue light surrounding him did not fade. His own hand, too, was limned with blue fire.
And then he heard the voice.
"The stars," his Master breathed. "We are talking to the stars..."
If he could have moved, he would have smiled fondly, and shaken his head. <No, Master. To men beyond the stars.>
<Jedi> he heard. It went beyond words. <Where?>
<Calling so strongly...>
Two voices, two distinct presences. An image filled his mind, of a tall man and a short gnarled creature with eyes like living light, sitting in a high place.
<The casket> he said, and sent an image of their hands, touching, on its simple plain lid.
<The treasure that was lost...>
<The one who bore our hope...>
Two faces turned towards him. <Where?>
He shook his head. <I don't know.> How could he know? Until this day he had not even known that other worlds existed.
<We can find you. We know you now. Wait, and we will come.>
"Wait," Qui-Gon said, a long time afterwards. His voice was hoarse. "How long?"
Obi-Wan slumped onto his knees, and then further down. His strength had been channelled solely into the Force, and he had none left for his body. He was dimly aware of all the pains he had neglected. The front of his robe was dark with blood.
"Too long," he said, heavily. "Too long to save us." He gestured weakly at the casket. "They will come in time to find our bodies, but they will find their treasure. That which is sundered shall be whole again."
"No." Qui-Gon curled his fists, and spoke fiercely. "The Keepers here, and the Jedi there... _That_ is what has been sundered. We _will_ live and find them again."
He could not believe it. He had worked far in excess of his strength for too long, and had nothing left for himself, nothing left for hope. He could hope for the Jedi, but not for himself. Yet he would not die unhappy. He had found love, and his Master was at his side. He had spoken to the stars, and given hope to a wider world he had never known existed.
He smiled faintly.
With horrifying rapidity, Obi-Wan slipped into the stupor of fever.
Exhaustion, Qui-Gon knew. His shoulder pained him always, filling his every waking hour with a low jangling pain. Since Balsham, he had barely slept, hating the strain of living a lie. And then there was the half-healed sword cut on his upper arm, and the fresh laceration across his ribs. He had been a fool not to notice how close Obi-Wan was getting to the end of his reserves, how close he was to losing him.
"Obi-Wan," he murmured, stroking his hair, his dear face. "I need to leave you for a while."
Tendrils of blue fire snaked out from the casket, and he was caught, held.
He moaned - <Master!> - but to no avail. He was ripped from his body, and transported on wings of the Force.
"There." Someone frowned, and pointed to a screen.
"I still feel him, but he is close to death."
"We can go no faster?"
They wore brown. He had seen a vessel like this in the vision of the past, but this one was smaller and more crude.
<Yes> he heard, and felt a smile. <Everything was lost. We have only just relearnt how to travel between the stars. Our new Republic is but a dozen planets.>
<The Jedi?> he asked. Somewhere, he thought, fire was burning hot and close. His skin was blazing, his throat parched and agonised.
<We have rebuilt them as we could, but we know so little. We feel we are but pale shadows of those who came before.>
<Sundered> he whispered. Two only survived the cataclysm, he realised. Two orders, each only half of a whole, had developed in two different places, on remembered teachings passed on from Master to apprentice by word of mouth. Only together would they be complete and strong again.
<And you, too, are in need of healing> someone said, gently.
Then the Force spiralled away from him, and he was alone in the darkness of space, whirling falling.... Hands throwing him from the cliff. He cried out soundlessly. He balled his hands into fists, and pounded at the empty air. Where was the silver-walled ship that was coming for him? Where was his Master? Where...?
"Here," he heard, soft and crooning. Hands soothed his burning flesh. "Here, Obi-Wan." Something tickled his lips, and it was cold and glorious.
He swallowed, then coughed, choking on his relief and fear.
Three days. Three days since he had left Obi-Wan to wander alone in the darkness, seeking what he had realised must be here. Ten years had the first Keeper lived here, never leaving. There had to be a well, or an underground river with fish and plants.
Three days since he had found it, returning that first time with water trickling from his cupped hands. Three days since he had found Obi-Wan lashing in the grip of delirium, crying out in horror. Three days since he had first dripped water into Obi-Wan's lips, and Obi-Wan had choked and swallowed none.
Did they come? Could it be possible that man could travel among the stars? Would they be returned to the fold, reunited with the Jedi, forging their future in some other land?
Obi-Wan moaned. Qui-Gon shifted position, touched his cheek, then settled down again, still.
He still heard noises at the doorway - voices, and horses neighing. Had they brought more of Hasan's army? Did a thousand men wait patiently, like a cat watching a mouse hole, for the moment they had to resurface?
They could wait forever. With Obi-Wan unconscious - <not dying. No, Qui-Gon, not dying> - this place was his prison. He had no Force to open the sealed doors, and there was no other way out. Once, he had swum the underground river, but the roof had sloped down too soon, and it was not possible to swim further.
A prison... He gave a rueful smile. If Obi-Wan died, it would be a prison for not much longer. He had no future in this world, torn apart from a mob, and no future beyond the stars with strangers. His place was with Obi-Wan. If Obi-Wan's next tortured breath was his last, he would simply sit here, holding his body in his arms, and never again seek water. He would die fast, he thought. All the water in his body would flow out in tears.
And if Obi-Wan lived - <he _will_ live, Qui-Gon. Just believe that> - it was no prison at all, but a refuge - their own private place together against the world. They would hold each other. Perhaps they would kiss, and perhaps more, but they would be together.
He thought he could even be happy.
Why was he crying?
"Close," he heard, and "where?"
His eyes flew open. Why was his Master crying?
"Obi-Wan." He touched him, fingertips only, and they were shaking.
The flesh was no longer burning. Obi-Wan was painfully weak, but his eyes were lucid.
Obi-Wan looked faintly puzzled, as if unsure of where he was. "They're close."
How to say it? But he would be forever honest with Obi-Wan now, and hide nothing. "I feared you would..." He swallowed.
Obi-Wan was having trouble keeping his eyes open. "Touch me, Master," he whispered.
He held him as he slept, his hands forever stroking his face.
He held him as he quivered into wakefulness, his hands coaxing him, touching his neck, his chest.
He held him when he was awake, and smiling and languid. Then his hands roved everywhere, always asking for permission, always receiving it in a smile.
"I like this way of getting well," Obi-Wan said, once, with a smile.
"Oh," Qui-Gon said, with a frown. "You're not strong yet, Obi-Wan. I think you need more healing..."
The air pulsed with the Force in this place. The Force in all its majesty poured from the casket, and had seeped into the very stones. And, entwined with it always, were the deep emotions, that lived forever here in vision.
There was the grief of a man in exile, solitary and alone while his world crumbled.
There was hope as he raised a child, and love of a father to a son, and a son to a father.
Now, and stronger than anything, there was true love. For a thousand years afterwards, those sensitive in the Force would feel it, and smile.
Obi-Wan slowly rose, pulling his discarded robe around him. He was still very pale, and wavered a little on his feet. Qui-Gon's hand hovered at his elbows, but did not touch him.
Obi-Wan tilted his head, as if listening. "It's silver," he murmured. "It hovers in the air, and a shining pathway is lowered from its side. A man walks down it."
"The army is there. It's night, and they see something impossible in the darkness. They are terrified. Some fall to the ground. Others, a few, are reaching for their bows..."
He swallowed hard. "You see it?"
"The man who comes sees it, and he shows me. He is close. It is time."
He turned then, and walked to the casket, and picked it up reverently, in both hands. Not even the majesty of the Force within it could spare him the pain, but he did not falter.
Another swallow. He was fighting tears. No farewells? No final protestations of love? When Obi-Wan opened the door, they could die in an instant, cut down by a hundred arrows. This could be the end.
Then, as if he could sense his thoughts - and of course he could - Obi-Wan just looked at him.
<Our whole life these last few days have been a protestation of love, Master. Our every breath is a farewell. We are together. We need nothing else.>
Yes. He nodded, smiled. "Yes."
And he walked at Obi-Wan's side to the door, and to their future.
He paused on the ramp. Men fell to the ground in terror. Others reached for bows and fired arrows. Easy to deflect. He simply raised one hand, pushing them away with the Force; the other drew his lightsabre and slashed them from the sky.
Behind him, his partner laughed, a low chuckle in his throat. He too was using the Force to deflect the attack.
They were here. Ahead of them was an ancient tower carved in red stone, and the Force was thick in the area. Neither of them could have repelled such an attack by themselves. The very air of the place responded to them, enhancing their efforts.
"Sundered," he murmured, remembering what the one who had called them here had said. "Sundered, and now whole." Every molecule of air seemed to be leaning forward expectantly, willing this meeting.
And the door opened.
He saw two men, walking close. The younger was one immensely strong in the Force; the older one was... He frowned. <Broken.> But it was he who showed strength now. He moved surely, his hands always ready to help the younger one, who was deathly pale, and moved as if every step pained him, though his eyes were clear.
In his arms he bore a casket.
An arrow whistled close. For the first time he realised that he could die in this place, and that it would be a good death. Everyone had their own role in the future, and perhaps his was to die so the treasure could rejoin the Jedi. <One was chosen to bear away the treasure to safety, and with it our hope. When he returns, then we are whole again.> That had been the dying words of Master Yoda, long ago, back home on Dagobah, to the apprentice who had recreated the Jedi Order.
Above all, he knew, the casket needed to be preserved, and one to bear it safe back to the Temple.
<A bridge of silver reaching to the stars, and himself and his Master walking up it hand in hand.>
Long ago he had seen it, and not understood it. Now the moment was here.
"Take it," he said, impulsively to his Master - though surely it was right. "Hold it under one arm, for I can not. We need to be holding hands."
One step, two. Qui-Gon gave a strange fond smile, and did what he asked.
A tall man stood on the ramp, his hand raised, deflecting arrows with the Force and a green sword of light. Their eyes met.
Obi-Wan did not use the Force at all. He felt he didn't need to. The casket, and what was inside it, would protect the one who bore it. He was strong in the Force, or so Qui-Gon had always told him, but he knew that even the strongest human was as nothing to the glory of the Force itself.
Hand in hand, they walked. Three steps, four...
Qui-Gon squeezed his hand. Hand in hand, they would walk the bridge from one world to the next.
Soft sand gave way to hard metal, and they began to ascend the ramp.
And then he lost Obi-Wan.
"Hasan," he gasped.
Where was Hasan? The disquiet that always filled his mind when he thought of him surged to the fore. His connection with the Force faltered. His hand began to slip from his Master's.
What sort of a world were they leaving? Did Hasan still live? He could see neither Hasan nor Al-Barad? On one human life could rest the whole future of a world.
"Obi-Wan," he heard, quick and urgent.
An arrow passed close to him, and luck, not the Force, protected him. He was standing on a silver ramp, raised above the ground, a clear target for everyone, and unarmed. He looked up, and saw Qui-Gon frozen in the doorway, straining against the tall man's restraining arm. The other Jedi had disappeared into the ship, and with him the casket.
"Go," someone said.
"Hasan," he cried, aloud. He felt like crying. <Forgive me.>
Forgive me for showing you the truth, and for what? Forgive me for pretending friendship only to betray. Forgive me for showing you the hollow lie at the heart of your cause, and leaving you unconscious and defenceless against Al-Barad's treachery, with no will to fight.
Then, right at the end, uttering a truth he had never before known: <Forgive me for not being able to love you.>
One last look, and no answering cry, and he turned and slowly climbed the ramp.
He saw the stars, and they were moving between them, living the impossible.
Obi-Wan was sleeping. He had left him just for a few minutes, needing to see this view again. He found it hard to keep away.
"They could travel much faster, before."
He turned, and saw the tall Jedi, who called himself Master Raphael.
"The heart of the Jedi, and of the Republic, was on Coruscant. It would take us two years to reach there, and we suspect it was wholly destroyed. We have sent out scouting parties in these last decades, since we discovered how to travel between the stars. Only on the planets on what used to be the called the Outer Rim did any sort of life survive."
It meant little to him. He smiled, admitted as such. "The whole concept of there being life in the skies is still amazing to me."
"Yes." Raphael chuckled. "You will see much more that is amazing. The worlds in our New Republic were far more completely modernised, before the end, than your world. We lost so much, but are beginning to rediscover it all."
Wild hope gripped him by the throat. Could it be...? He pressed his hand against the glass, and did not dare turn round. "You have healers?"
"Yes. His injuries can probably be healed. I suspect his shoulder will always be a little stiff and not at full strength, but it will be free of pain. His voice, too. Scar tissue will mean that it is never quite what it was, but it will be mostly healed."
Qui-Gon smiled - a genuine smile of sheer joy. <Oh, Obi-Wan...>
Behind him, Raphael cleared his throat. "You were a Master once, weren't you?"
The joy faded, but not completely. He refused to let it go. "I was." Stiffly.
"I lost the Force." He touched his head. "An accident."
"And yet you can speak to Obi-Wan in his mind. I saw you."
His fingers, pressed against the glass, were white and tense. "I don't know how. Our bond seems to transcend the Force." Love is as powerful as the Force, in its way, he thought, but did not say it. He had lost one, but gained the other.
"Interesting. We will need to study that."
He whirled round then, suddenly angry. "I don't know why you came. I don't know what we are to you. But we are not just interesting specimens to be studied - to be patched up, observed and then... then what? You have taken the casket. That was all you wanted. Let us be free."
Only the stars made him feel at peace. Two days on the ship, and this disquiet had been building up, finally breaking forth in this moment. He had gone from being a Keeper, solitary and honoured, to being broken, yet bearing the destiny of a world. What now? Were they to be just two of a thousand Jedi, and the most ignorant of them all, knowing nothing about the technology and learning of those who had taken them in out of charity?
Raphael was silent for a long time, watching him, waiting until the moment came when he was ready to listen. "No," he said quietly. "Our knowledge of the universe is more than yours, as is our technology. But the Jedi themselves are not strong. We know the knowledge of the past; we do not _feel_ it. Obi-Wan is stronger in the Force than any of us, and if you are his Master, you surely were too. We are two broken halves that can become one whole. Both of us have so much to teach each other."
<Were> he thought, bitterly, hearing only that word.
Raphael took a deep breath. "Perhaps that too can be healed, Master Jinn. If it was an accident... If it was something physical..." His voice was tight, as if he was anxious about speaking. "You may have scar tissue pressing on the brain. The Force is everywhere, but, like with any other sense, a human only senses it through a certain area of the brain. It is mystical and wonderful, but physical too."
Qui-Gon simply clenched both fists, and dared not let himself hope.
One month later, on a red-curtained bed in the Temple on Dagobah....
"I love you, Master." Obi-Wan said, his voice low and husky now, though earlier he had cried aloud and Qui-Gon had thrilled to hear it. He cupped Qui-Gon's face in both hands.
"Show me again," Qui-Gon growled. He used the Force like a fist, gently cuffing Obi-Wan away so he sprawled on the tangled sheets, arms spread wide.
"What now?" he asked, afterwards. The sun was rising on an unfamiliar planet. They had not slept all night, and his limbs felt heavy and languorous.
Obi-Wan wrapped his arms around his body. Pressing up behind him, Qui-Gon did the same, folding his arms around on top of Obi-Wan's. Like they used to do, long ago, when watching the sun set in the Sands, Obi-Wan leant back on Qui-Gon's chest.
"Obi-Wan?" There was something about his sense.... _Something_... He had given himself, soul and body, yet still feared this was a farewell. He had something he needed to say, and he feared it would tear them apart. "Obi-Wan, what?"
Obi-Wan heaved a shuddering breath. "I want to go back."
Qui-Gon stiffened, said nothing.
"We are Keepers, Master. It was his will that we were Keepers, not Jedi. You saw it." _His._ The first Keeper. Obi-Wan seemed to identify with him very closely. This was only the most recent of many things he had said, on the voyage and after, that showed him this. "Oh, we have the heritage of the Jedi, and they are our people too, but we are Keepers, and this world is not our world."
"Our world is lost."
"Is it? A world is not lost when even one remains, and remembers the light." He was quoting old Keeper orthodoxy. "So many unknowns, Master. Is Hasan still alive? Did he put down Al-Barad's rebellion? Who leads them now? Is it Hasan, and he believed me, and everything is changing? Or are they even now closing in on the Conclave..." He shuddered, suddenly. "Twelve Keepers, in their tower, facing the coming darkness, and we have left them there..."
"So many questions..."
"And I want answers." Obi-Wan whirled round, fighting his embrace. His eyes were on fire. "If there is only darkness, we can fight it. We can take a ship and offer the Conclave passage to safety. We can retrieve the Relics."
"They have them all here, Obi-Wan, and far more than we ever collected."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "You don't understand, Qui-Gon. The Relics are _our_ history. Perhaps we no longer need them in order to remember the time before, but we need them... We need them in order to remember a thousand years in which we were Keepers, and they were our truth. If we abandon the world to darkness, then he lived for nothing. For a thousand years, we laboured so the world Before would not be forgotten. How then can we condemn those thousand years - the suffering, the striving, the men who lived and died as Keepers - to that same forgetting?"
Qui-Gon closed his eyes. "Yes, Obi-Wan, you're right." He gave a wry smile. "I think I knew it too. I shouted at Raphael, you know." Leader of the Council, they had since learnt, and all the younger Jedi were in utter awe of him. "I could find no happiness in the situation. The ship was travelling, and I could not think of it as a rescue, only as a...."
"An exile," Obi-Wan finished. "A rest. It has healed us. But...." He spread his hands. "It is not our destiny."
Without the Force, he had become accustomed to deferring to Obi-Wan, trusting his instincts. It was a hard habit to break - and perhaps he never would, for Obi-Wan had grown so much, and was in many ways more wise and strong in the Force than he was. There was an otherworldliness about him at times. He often seemed to be living more in the Force than in reality. He was skilled at premonition, and at understanding cause and effect. Qui-Gon, though, still exceeded him in skill at healing and sensing emotions.
"I don't know," Obi-Wan said, ruefully. "No more visions. No guidance. We're on our own."
"No." Gently but firmly, Qui-Gon took his hands, and raised them to his lips. "Not alone, Obi-Wan. Never alone."
"Together." Obi-Wan smiled. "Yes."
They spoke little. What were words, when they were bonded so closely?
A smile. "Keepers."
Solemn. "Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon Jinn. Master."
And together they watched the sun rise, and the last stars fade from the sky. To the east, invisible now, was the star that was their home, and their future.