Nothing makes sense. He stands staring at the clearing and the dead men, then down at his paws, steady and strong on the ground. Then at Jyn. She’s still crouched in the grass, with her clear eyes fixed on his. Nothing makes sense and he cannot tell what she is thinking. What has she done? - or what has been done to her? – for powers like these belong to no normal witch of the hedgerows.
He sees the moment she gathers herself together; arms withdrawing, face closing down. Even her scent grows thinner, as though she is shielding herself, from his gaze, and his judgement.
“This was no ordinary patrol,” she says to him. Her voice is unnaturally calm. Very quietly she sits up, straightens, looks around her. “Only three men? They never patrol with fewer than six. And no officer?”
It’s simpler to think about than the nightmare of what he’s just seen. The Empire is a clear-cut, easy subject; they are always the enemy, always known. He growls agreement.
The soldiers weren’t in full armour, only one of them had a crossbow and none carried the usual javelins. One didn’t even have a helmet. None of it fits with his knowledge of the Empire.
And Jyn just killed them, with her magic. A single blast of some power unglimpsed, unimaginable, till now.
He remembers how she shone. Burning like a sun in the mist. All three soldiers had dropped to the ground on the instant. Dead, and cold as stone.
Enough power still in her even after that, to pour out healing, energy flooding into him as the sun gives out light. He sniffs at the man who’d wielded the broom against him. This slack tumble of flesh had been trying to beat him to death for his skin, just seconds ago; he’s pretty sure he had several cracked ribs and a fractured pelvis, and he was dizzy and half-blinded from the blow to his head. Death had seemed only moments away. He’d meant to go down biting and fighting to his last breath. To save Jyn.
But she was a woman made of fire, and she had saved him too.
He can’t allow himself to think about it. There won’t be any answers until Jyn tells him what she did. If she does. If she even can. And meanwhile, they must protect themselves.
He grabs at one of the bodies, sinking his fangs between the rim of the arm-guard and the breastplate straps. Begins to drag it towards the woods. The limbs sprawl out, awkward and splayed and catching on the long grass. He grunts and snarls with effort. The dead man’s blood is sour in his mouth.
“Ah, you’re right,” Jyn says. She pulls herself to her feet. She’s moving cautiously, as if stiff or in pain, or not trusting her own body. “We need to do that, yes, hide them. Yes.”
She sounds calm still, but he sees how her hands hesitate fractionally, almost shying away, before she touches the second corpse. “Hold on a moment, let me get their gear off first. They’ll be easier to move without. Lighter.”
He wants only to get their filthy cadavers out of here and hide them; hide them where they’ll never be found. But Jyn is right, and he schools himself to let go again and step back. To watch as with shaking fingers she unfastens clasps and undoes buckles, and hauls off armour, weapons, clothing.
There isn’t a mark on any of them.
He’s pretty sure there’s not a mark on him, either. Not a bruise, not a graze. The mystery of that churrs and whines at him, an insect buzzing in his brain.
“I’ll sink this stuff in the marsh, come nightfall,” Jyn tells him. “I suppose I should keep the weapons though. I need a new knife, and it wouldn’t hurt for you to have something too, for when you’re – you know. When you’re human. I’ll hide the crossbow in the thatch. Never know when that might come in handy.” She prods at the pile of discarded gear. “That one’s boots might fit you. You should try them.”
She’s beginning to sound more like herself, and to smell right as well. The sour sweat of shock waning from her skin.
He sniffs at the pair of boots she indicated and wrinkles his nose in disgust; looks up to see her give him a small smile.
“I’ll air them, give them a clean. They won’t stink forever.”
It takes hours for the nausea to pass, and the pounding of her heart to quieten. Her head roars as though a storm is blowing all around her; even her blood feels hotter than usual, racing through her veins. The Force no longer tingling in her like a ghost, but burning so that her skin winces at every touch, and all through the afternoon her guts roil inside her at the memory. She finds herself stopping dead, swallowing and staring at nothing. As though the power will come bursting out of her hands again unbidden.
God, have mercy on me, Lord have mercy on me. They were right about me.
All the while, she’s aware of Cassian, hovering nearby, breathing hard, watching her. How much has he guessed? How much will he ask her?
Will he even want to know?
He’s still here, and that is more than she would have dared to hope. He knows now what she is, and he stayed.
He helped her drag the bodies away. One of them had worn an old silver amulet around his neck on a thong. A scrawny neck, now she saw it naked; she looked into the dead eyes and remembered the man advancing on her. Sword drawn, no hesitation or doubt in him, only the certainty of his own power, and her helplessness. Remembered him standing and laughing as his companion tried to beat Cassian to death with her broom. His face is empty now. She’ll never know what the luck-charm was meant to protect him from.
Cassian had dug the rough ground with his claws, snarling, and she’d dug too, barehanded, raking away the loose soil as he tore it up. They’d heaped the earth back over the three dead men and left them, to rot or to be eaten, she neither knew nor cared which. She wishes she’d had the strength to sink them all, corpses and gear and everything, deep in the marsh. But it will be all she can manage just to haul their armour that far.
The new moon is only a night away. Tonight, by the time the waning crescent rises, there’ll be only a couple of hours before dawn. No help from Cassian then except in wolf form. But there’s nothing for it, she can’t risk anyone seeing this stuff. “I want to ditch their things tonight,” she tells him. “I’m setting off as soon as it’s dark.”
She gathers up the bits of steel plate, the pair of bucket helms, the greaves and arm guards. Wraps them in last year’s potato sack and ties it tightly round. She hauls the bundle onto her back; it’s heavy, metal edges dig into her shoulder blades and the sackcloth scratches.
Cassian is at the door when she turns round. He stands across the threshold, head on one side, ears pricked up.
“Well?” she asks him. “You coming, or not?” He gives a little wuff of frustration and then bobs his head at her. It’s still startling-strange, seeing a wolf nod agreement as no dog ever did. The dark eyes holding her gaze are very human. Despite the blood on her hands and the fear still pushing her heart faster, despite the lingering nausea of self-knowledge, it’s comforting to smile at him. It has become very easy to feel safe in his presence.
“Let’s go, then. I’m not waiting till moonrise.”
She pulls down a glamor on the building as soon as the door is locked behind them, hiding her home, her garden, the well and the path to the door, the basket of mushrooms lying spilled where she dropped them; and the scuffed and bloody earth that marks where the soldiers fell. It’s taken all day to bury them. The sun is sinking low down the sky.
Cassian bounds ahead and back to her, sniffing the air keenly. He’s moving normally, unhurt and full of strength. What in the name of light did I do to him? He was wounded, and then, not. I am a weapon, a thing of death. Not life. What healed him?
Can it have been me?
But how can I be a healer when I don’t know how? That is not what my parents made me to be. Not what Saw wanted to train me for. I am a weapon. I am a monster.
He’s lucky I didn’t kill him along with them. How can I keep him here with me now, when I know nothing near me can ever be safe again? God, have mercy, Lord have mercy on me. I would not kill a friend, someone who trusts me. Who I trust.
But I couldn’t leave him for those brutes to kill.
“Come on then,” she says roughly, speaking to her own fear and need as much as to him. Cassian looks up at her, quizzical and sad, and nods again.
It’s the first time she’s taken him anywhere away from the cottage. She walks over the moors with his silent patience for company. The last remains of sunset are still colouring the sky as they come over the crest of the escarpment, and Jyn finds the long grey rock that marks the route down. The world is fading, into blue and shadows, dusk, night.
The switchback path down from the bluff is slow going. She walks placing her feet carefully in the gathering dark, feeling for lose stones that could trip or skid or turn her ankle. Cassian is surefooted beside her. The wintry veil of stardust above, a bright pathway right across the sky, as though the Almighty had flung it there like a rich man scattering coin for beggars.
She can see the lights of the village to the south, where the ground begins to rise again, and the starlight reflecting on the great river channel beyond the marshes. But there’s no time to check on friends and neighbours, her business lies in the marsh itself tonight. At the bottom of the slope she turns away from her usual route, towards the whispering of the reed beds.
The safe path runs along a narrow berm, curving about to join tiny islands of dry ground. By daylight she’s seen the layers of woven hazel twigs, the wattle and clay trampled into the ground, the handiwork of centuries threading in a hidden track among the bogs and pools. Dense stands of rushes and reeds tall as a man enclose her as she walks, and their solid blackness stirs in every faint movement of air. Jyn shifts the bundle from one shoulder to the other and braces it again. Reaches out with her free hand, fingertips brushing against packed canes and leathery leaves. The reeds whisper like spies in the night, and the whispering follows her, and murmurs ahead, and patters under her hand.
Cassian has been silent at her heels all the way over the moor and down the escarpment. He brushes past her now and she hears him moving ahead, sniffing. How can he smell anything enough to track it, in this cold, damp air that stinks of stagnant water and rotting green things? But his nose guides him when her nerves and her fumbling hand are starting to fail her, through the swishing, hissing darkness, along the ancient trackway. There’s a warmth coming off him in the Force, a sense of pleasure at being able to do something useful for them both.
Overhead, above the reed tops, the stars turn on.
It’s good to feel Cassian in the Force; his alert caution, his awareness of the marsh at night, of scents and sounds undetectable to her, the ripple of fish and breathing of otters, and the wind baulking at the ridge of the moors behind them. And his hope, his confidence that this is the right path, that she’s making the right choice, that she’ll let him lead and trusts him to find the path. Despite everything, he has faith in her, and in himself. She could cry with relief.
How much pain she’d felt in him, the night he came to her; pain, and a hunger for so much more than food. He’d been near-broken with desperation. Now when she feels her own despair sucking at her feet, he carries hope like a treasure, he treads lightly ahead and guides her faithfully.
Thank you. Thank you. I have not known this for so long, that someone would know what I am and still stay true to me, and have a trust in me.
She’s nowhere nearer breaking the curse. He’ll realise soon that her story of another spell to try was no more than a prayer whistled in the wind. Unless she can learn to harness this thing inside her for good ends, she’s at the end of her abilities now. And who can train her in that, when she fled the only teacher she’s ever known?
If I could learn that skill, learn to make healing and light from the darkness I was bred to, surely with that I could free him? Surely that could unbind this poison web. If only I could. If only I were a blessing on this world and not a weapon. A weapon half-formed and fearful, and dark as this night.
Suddenly the starlight opens out above them, from a narrow channel seen only where the reeds part, into a great ocean of space. The winter veil scatters stardust down in milky brilliance to the horizon, and the water reflects it back, shimmering and quivering in a faint cold breeze. The whispering banks of reeds are behind her suddenly, and only the open marsh before. The air is salty, the water tidal and quick.
The track goes on, she knows, open and exposed it continues right to the far shore of the delta and the rise of the Moel hills. But this is the spot she needed to reach tonight. Jyn stops, listening in the dark, watching the sky and the long sheen of the horizon.
She can hear a frog, some distance off, and the sleepy cackle of a moorhen. Nothing else but Cassian’s huffing breath, and her own. She remembers how Cassian’s intense hearing had caught so many inaudible sounds; feels for him in the Force again, and again finds the comfort of his certainty.
He doesn’t know what she is or how she was made, but he doesn’t fear her, and he stays.
She shuffles carefully to the edge of the raised trackway, feeing for the lip with her feet, and crouches down, slipping the heavy burden from her back with relief. Quickly she unwraps the ropes and sacking and tugs the unravelling bundle down the slope, towards the bright mere before her. One by one she lowers the pieces of armour into the dark. They slide into the black and the rippled starlight, and she presses them down, beyond the tide line, down until the darkest layers of silt close over them. Her hands and arms are bitter cold and soaked when at last she’s done. She sits back on her heels, breathing hard. Scrubs water and mud from her skin with the piece of sacking, rolls it up, ties it again, a small ball this time, that she can hang over one arm. All evidence that the three dead men were Imperials is gone, sucked into the saltmarsh.
Will it be enough? They’re safe, for now at least. Safe for now is as much safety as she’s ever had.
Cassian noses at her, standing above her on the track, and she feels a waft of air from his waving tail. Satisfaction coming off him like a wave. No doubt he can smell her relief likewise. She turns and scrambles back up the muddy slope to his side.
Impulsively she loops an arm round his neck for a moment, hugging him gratefully. He gives a snuffle of surprise and then surges closer, pushing his head clumsily against her shoulder. Rough wolf hair under her palms; and she wonders what the man’s hair would feel like, if it would be soft or harsh, long and unkempt as it is. They crouch together, tired muddy woman and panting wolf, alone in the moonless starlit night.
“All done,” Jyn says in a whisper. “Thank you.” The hissing reeds hush their assent along the path back. “Let’s go home,” she says.