The clouds had long since engulfed the sky of Naboo, giving, a bleak, gloomy feel to the countryside as daylight began to wane. The Gungan Grand Army continued its relentless advance across the plain, pounding the gorse as they moved ever closer to the mountains ahead.
Spots of rain began to fall, and General Neano licked his lips as a drop splashed onto his bill. Wesen great army, he thought as he led his troops along the Kathra valley. Wesen drivin da Mandalorey in ta da sea an be freein da Naboo. Mebbe deysen likin ussen den.
Kathra Sug loomed over the army as they plodded, single file, alongside the
stream. Drizzle lanced from the sky, stirring up the smell of the mud underfoot.
Visible like ants from the summit of the Sug, barely visible in the fading light, the warriors’ pounding footsteps echoed around the mountains like thunder. Nobody in their right mind would be foolhardy enough to stop them.
* * *
Yarua had returned with a vyona he had caught with his bowcaster, and now he, Ayo and Zibeon sat around the campfire as it turned on its makeshift spit. Fat dripped from the carcass and landed with a hiss onto the hot ash below. Ayo squinted at the sky as a raindrop fell on his nose. He rubbed his face and hoped that the rain would not extinguish the fire before the bird was properly cooked.
Tonight is the night, thought Ayo, the time, at last, to raid the farm for transport and get into the palace. They would eat, Ayo planned to himself, and then set off once it was properly dark and they could be certain that the farmer had gone to bed. Now that the Red Planet was destroyed, Mandalore’s palace was their only way off this planet and back to the Guvnor on Coruscant.
Thoughts of Thraurrallgisc crossed Ayo’s mind. The Guvnor was probably sitting in his senatorial apartment, chain-smoking his lethally strong cigarettes and wondering what the hell had happened to his crew and his ship. Poor old Ralrra would certainly be having a hard time. Ayo smiled as he listened to the babbling of the stream and the crackling of the fire as it struggled to cook the vyona amid the raindrops that plopped all around. They would have plenty of stories to tell when they returned to Coruscant.
Ayo carefully leant forward to inspect the sizzling bird suspended above the embers. The meat smelled delicious, and Yarua fidgeted in anticipation of the forthcoming feast. The three of them felt much happier now that the rain had eased.
"Won’t be long now, you two," said Ayo as he carefully lifted the vyona from the spit. Flinching with the heat from the skewer, he quickly dropped the bird onto the folded computer terminal, which had been hurriedly drafted into use as a makeshift plate. Meat juice overflowed from the sides of the thin, plastic slab.
Ayo reached for a knife that hung ensheathed from his belt, and deftly carved the bird. "Tuck in," he smiled as he tossed portions of the steaming meat to his two companions. Yarua and Zibeon began to munch hungrily. As Ayo chewed his vyona drumstick, he thought he could hear the lowing of a huge animal in the distance. He stopped eating, the mouthful remaining half-chewed as he strained his ears, hoping to catch the strange, low howl again.
Sure enough, it repeated itself, louder this time, as if calling for attention. The sound made Ayo’s skin crawl. It seemed mournful, sad, as if in pain. He turned to his companions, who were busy stuffing their faces, oblivious to the distant lowing. Swallowing his mouthful of food, he shushed Yarua and Zibeon.
"Did you hear that?" Ayo whispered urgently. Yarua grunted in puzzlement and Zibeon returned a passive gaze, the flames from the fire reflecting in his large eyes. They had heard nothing.
"Sounded like some kind of animal in the mountains," said Ayo, "in the direction we’ve just come from."
The three of them fell silent, listening. Something splashed in the stream. The low, plaintive howl once again echoed across the countryside. Ayo nudged Yarua and Zibeon cowered.
"Thay-taesss!" hissed the small Zephoid Zez. The noise reminded him of home.
"Did you hear it, Yarua?" asked Ayo. The Wookiee nodded and grunted the affirmative.
"I don’t know what lives out here," said Ayo as pictures of large, nocturnal predators danced in his mind, "but it sounds big and it’s coming this way."
Ayo reached inside the tent for his blaster and checked its power supply, just in case the source to the howling was hostile. He had learnt never to take things for granted.
General Neano lifted a long mountain horn to his lips and blew, the low note echoing round Kathra Sug and the surrounding hills like the howl of a fambaa. The horn, carved from the hollowed-out pen of a giant squid, was used by the Gungan army to warn of their advance in the darkness. In ancient times, the horn unsettled the enemy with its deep, mourning call, and over the centuries, it had become tradition, rallying the militiagungs and serving as the "voice" of the army.
Neano sniffed the air. He could smell the distinct but faint odour of roast meat. He sniffed again. Yes. Somebody was camping farther down the valley. With a sharp staccato from his mountain horn, he ordered the army to a halt. In response to their leader’s command, the convoy stopped in their tracks, the fambaas lowing impatiently in the darkness as Neano steered his kaadu over to his second-in-command.
"Brigda Nass," said the general to a burly Ankura Gungan seated atop a feathered kaadu, "Takin over command o’ da army. Mesa vestigatin da camp up ahead. Mesa gonna be callin yousa wit da horn. Okeday?"
Brigda Nass nodded. "Okeday, Genneral," he said in his booming voice. "Wesen gonna be waitin for yousen sigganal before proceedin."
The two officers saluted each other before General Neano sprinted his kaadu out into the night.
"Thay-taesss...eet...Zessssz!" whimpered Zibeon as he cowered behind Yarua’s large, furry form. The lowing sound was fast approaching. Ayo stood with his blaster ready, peering along the track, which, beyond the light of the fire, took on the appearance of a large cave. Ayo listened carefully, and he could hear the sound of approaching footsteps as if something small and fleet-footed were running towards the camp. Could it be something fleeing the creature in the hills?
Within a few minutes, the source of the footsteps revealed itself, and Ayo was relieved to see a mounted Gungan soldier sprinting into the firelight. The Gungan jumped down from his kaadu and strode efficiently to the camp. Ayo and Yarua greeted him.
"Captain Anatida?" asked Ayo. Yarua purred and Zibeon waddled up to him, relieved that the visitor was not a Despayrian thaytase.
The Gungan shook his head sadly, his long ears flapping to and fro. "Cappatain Anatida’s dead. Mesa Genneral Neano." The General’s eyestalks drooped. "Cappatain Anatida was muddered by da Mandaloreymen."
"Mandalore!" whispered Ayo in disgust. Yarua growled at the mention of that name.
"Da Big Boss was tellin ussen boot yousen goin ta Mandalorey’s palace to steal parten for yousen skeebeetle."
Ayo smiled. "We’ve just eaten," he said, pointing to the vyona carcase perched on top of the computer. "There’s some left over. You hungry?"
Neano accepted a wing and began to chew. "Dissen Mandaloreymen boomed yousen skeebeetle," he confessed.
"Yeah," said Ayo with a sigh, "I know. We had a computer link with the ship." He looked up at the Gungan warrior. "Still, one ship’s nothing compared to your loss, General. We can get another ship, but we can’t bring back the lives lost at the hands of Mandalore."
Neano threw the stripped vyona bones into the bushes.
"Ussen army’s waitin over da hills," he said. "Wesen gonna be attackin da Forrt Myreion an’ be razin’ it to da ground. Wesen drive da Mandalorey into da sea." Neano grunted with pride as he folded his arms.
"We’re on our way there, too," said Ayo, having forgotten that Neano already knew their destination. Zibeon waddled up to the Gungan general and bared his teeth in a smile.
"This is Zibeon, General," said Ayo. "Your people saved his life. Without the medicines the Boss gave us, he would have died."
General Neano crouched down and examined Zibeon, who gently stroked the Gungan’s bill.
"Hesa berry liddle,’ said Neano. ‘No from da Gunga-World?"
"Zibeon’s a Zephoid Zez from the planet of Despayre," said Ayo. "Mandalore’s killed lots of his people and we saw it for ourselves."
"Da Zez makin yousen happy mesa finkin," said Neano as his kaadu fidgeted behind him. "Hesa yousen...er..." Neano paused and scratched his bill as he searched for the correct word, "er...mascot?"
"Yeah," laughed Ayo. "Sort of."
Yarua ambled over with the map that had been given to them by the Gungans all those days ago. He grunted, beckoning for General Neano to study it with him.
"What yousa sayin?" asked the general. Yarua grunted and pointed to Fort Myreion, the position of which had been marked with a cross. The two of them sat down in front of the tent, where Ayo and Zibeon joined them. Ayo reached inside for the bottle of Merenzane Gold and took a long swig from it.
"Settles the nerves," he gasped as he offered the bottle to Neano. "Want some?"
"Mesa no drinkin," said Neano politely. He could smell the potency of the Gold.He was teetotal, believing that warriors should not dull their senses with alcohol.
"Would yousen wanna join ussen in attackin da Mandalorey?" asked Neano as Yarua rustled the map.
Ayo considered this proposition as he stoked the fading campfire with new sticks. He would like to join the Gungans, but he could see drawbacks in that plan. The pilot remembered something about MHG pioneering a new kind of secure deflector shield through which nothing could pass, and he used it on his estates.
"What sort of weapons have you got?" asked Ayo, concerned that Neano’s army would be ineffective against any shield.
"Wesen usin dem boomers," said Neano with pride. "Wesen frowin dem an deysen go boom!"
"I think I know what you mean," said Ayo, having a vague idea that a boomer was some kind of shell or grenade. "What does it look like?"
General Neano reached into his belt pouch and produced a glowing, blue sphere the size of a man’s fist. Streamers of plasma danced restlessly within.
"Dissen is an boomer," said Neano, holding the device in his palm.
Ayo frowned. "It’s a bit puny," he said. "Don’t you have anything more powerful?"
"Yes, Yes, Eeo," answered the Gungan enthusiastically. "Wesen avin dem big boomers as well." He indicated the size of these shells to which he was referring before putting the small boomer away.
"That’s all very well, General," said Ayo respectfully as he rubbed his short, fuzzy hair, "but Mandalore’s estate is heavily protected. It’s surrounded by a deflector shield matrix that activated at the first sign of attack." Ayo smiled and took a swig of Gold. "They’re probably tracking you by satellite."
"So deysen know wesa comin?" said the General with disbelief.
"Yeah," said Ayo, "and your weapons won’t get through that shield, I can promise you that."
"What wesa do, den?"
"Well," began Ayo as he straightened out the map so it was readable in the firelight, "we’re planning to raid that nearby farm for a speeder or some kind of fast transport that’ll get us to the mansion quickly."
"Mm-hm?" said Neano, inviting further explanation.
"With that head start, we could sneak in and knock out the shield generator. The palace’ll be wide open."
The general scratched his bill in thought. "Wid only free o’yousen?" he argued. "It gonna be ouch time! Deysen mudder da lotta Cappatain Anatida’s patrol!"
"We’ve still got to get in there, General," said Ayo. "It’s the only way we can get back home. We’ll make it, I promise you."
"Good luck, Eeo,’ Neano turned to Yarua, "and Ya-wa. May da gods be watchin over yousen."
"Thanks, General," said Ayo with a smile as Neano jumped back onto his kaadu. "See you at the palace."
General Neano raised his mountain horn to his lips and blew, startling Ayo, Yarua and Zibeon with its loud, low note. They waved as he rode into the darkness, back to his army that was waiting in the hills.
Once the kaadu’s footsteps had faded, the three travellers laughed at their initial fear of the horn.
"It’s getting late," said Ayo. "The sooner we get going, the sooner we’ll be home."
As the campfire faded, the three of them gather their belongings and folded up the tent. Guided by a small pocket luma, they set off down the overgrown dirt track that led to Kathra Farm.
The fire spluttered and died, plunging the meadow and riverbank into darkness. The stream was now alone, rushing and babbling, unperturbed by its visitors.Forward to Chapter 31 Back to Chapter 29 Home