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Chapter 02

Mandalore, Kyrimorut outskirts, dawn, 1,325 days ABG

Three more hills. Keep going.

Boots crunching through snow, twigs and frozen dirt, breath grating in his throat and sweat rolling cold under his heavy armor, he ran as fast and as steadily as he could. He knew there was no rush to finish his morning jog through the forest but timing still mattered. He lept, fell, climbed and crawled, deafened by his own raspy breathing inside the helmet. Muscles were screaming for rest but he kept going.

The physical effort wasn’t the hardest part for Bardan Jusik, he could take that kind of pain. Going through that without help from the Force however, was another thing completely. The Jedi training required a physical trial: padawans were pushed to their full capacities until they had to enhance them with the Force. It gave them strength, endurance.

Looking out for the a fallen tree ahead of him he got to a crouch and rolled over. His old training would have let the Force guide his body into performing that move, this time had to do it consciously. Just as he got to his feet again something blocked his ankle and made him loose balance. The ground met with his breastplate, knocking the air out of his lungs. Elbows pushing forward he felt the urge to lie down for a minute… Jusik mentally slapped himself to his senses and shook his foot free from entangling roots, crawled on all fours and stumbled to a run again.

Better this here than somewhere under fire.

He came to a halt about fifty feet from his starting position, marked by a white cloth tied to a branch. His mouth tasted of iron and his throat ached for a drink of water. He couldn’t feel his legs below knee level as he kept going at a slow pace this time. He finally reached the finish point and checked his Heads-Up Display for the chronometer. A little over fifty minutes. He had run five miles, which was not an amazing feat for a regular mando’ad, but he did it without cheating.

He sat on a flat rock to take a bite from a protein bar. Being short and slender made wearing the armor a real challenge each day, so there was no miracle for that besides improving his constitution. If he wanted to be able to rely on himself only in battle, he needed to be mandokarla, having what it takes to be a Mandalorian. And ultimately, he would only use the Force as an absolute last resort.

He breathed in the icy air of winter, wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove. The forest was silent and calm, which would have made an excellent meditation spot but that was none of his business anymore. Experience told him that battle situations only gave you minutes worth of rest. Washing down the nutty bar with a sip of water his Force senses flared up: someone was coming his way. All his will couldn’t shut down his awareness of the living, it kept him prepared at all times. He felt for his light saber at first, because of that deeply honed skill, then corrected his move to go for his blaster.

He waited a few heartbeats before spinning around. The muzzle of his gun pointed straight at red and gray beskar.

“Woah, Bard’ika!” It was Fi, having completely recovered his chuckling abilities. “Aren’t you a little jumpy this morning. And what is that? A blaster?”

“You would’ve liked the light saber, I know.” Jusik bit another chunk of his snack and holstered his weapon. “But I don’t feel like smelling roast flesh just yet.”

“So I heard you were drilling yourself the hard way now, like us ordinary men,” Fi said, sitting down next to him. “Hopefully not trying to set a new record.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Fi’ka. This no-Force-allowed rule is giving me more trouble than I expected.” Yet necessary. Things were different now: Jedi were an endangered species so dragging attention with public displays of super powers was nothing short of stupid. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell which are the passive from the active abilities. Sensing people is passive, so I can’t help that.”

“But that’s a good thing. Parja is jealous of your ultra-precise target locator.” Fi stood up and placed his helmet back over his head, making him speak with a disembodied voice. “And speaking of that, she wants you to join us for lunch today. The house-building can wait a couple hours.”

Jusik smiled and complied. Finding shelter within the buy’ce was comforting. Not being Bardan Jusik the Jedi Knight anymore, always gave him renewed confidence.

Fi found his speeder parked outside the soon-to-become house that Jusik insisted on building himself. Every mando’ad needed his home and shelter. Jusik already had his Aggressor class starfighter to earn his keep, and the house was coming in nicely. Soon it would have a solid bunker and a single underground hangar was also planned, the Nulls had already designed it.

He took care of showering and changing the sweat-laden clothes he wore under the armor, and packed the remaining half of uj cake he had bought in town the other week.

They went to Fi and Parja’s home like any other day since Jusik had become their closest friend while healing the now-recovered clone commando from brain trauma. Parja had taken on the healing process by reeducating Fi and teaching him to be happy, bringing love in his life. And hope for the future. All three of them formed a tight group within the Skirata clan.

They sat in the main dining room with its largest table, while the others were always occupied by spare parts, tools and dismantled machinery. Parja had that keen sense of fixing everything and wouldn’t give up until it all worked. Still the house was very tidy. Rav Bralor, Parja’s aunt and one of the Cuy‘val Dar, also slept there from time to time.

She placed platters and a casserole of stew, wearing her beskar’gam like any true Mandalorian, minus the helmet.

“Lots of proteins for Bard’ika!” she said. “One day you might be able to take me in a fight.”

Fi playfully smashed his fist on the table. “Oh no, you just did not! Now it’s out there, cyar’ika. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be calling the bets. No weapons, no Force powers. No armor…”

“Deal!” Jusik grinned.

Parja waved her hand across Fi’s face that dodged the hit. “I don’t remember raising you to become such a di’kut, or have you been spending your creds in Keldabe with Mereel again?” She didn’t stop smiling, but her tone was firm. “You see Bard’ika, what happens when you let impressionable children play with the big shots. They get funny ideas.”

Fi stuffed his face with the hot stewed meat in his plate, still busy chuckling.

“You hung out with Mereel?” Jusik asked him. Mereel was one of the Nulls that used to worked at Intelligence and as a spy for Kal Skirata. He had the reputation among them to be the most frivolous, if not the more promiscuous one of the clones.

“Just once. Yeah we did go to Keldabe for a few drinks when you were off planet. When was that again, last week?”

He had been traveling to Ord Mantell then, meeting with some Zanim, a rogue Mandalorian wishing to join their clan since he heard the Republic - now Empire - had placed an outpost on Manda’yaim. Zanim was supposed to contact him about his resources to help them.

“About that much, yes. How is Mereel?”

“Oh he’s keeping busy. With the genetics, the bounties and the Imperials it’s hard to be idle around here.”

“Yet you still find time for clubbing,” said Parja. She did not smile so she was either playing games or being funny. “Mereel should get himself a girl once and for all.”

“Well he tried, believe me since I was there. They just won’t play his game, at all.” Fi took cover in his mug.

Jusik decided to come to the rescue. “Not the player type, Parj’ika?”

“Oh, we mando women are all just fun and games.”

Again, he couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. Even Force powers couldn’t help understanding the opposite sex it seemed. He settled for simple point-of-view interpretations.

“So what about you then.” She noticed his puzzlement. “When will you introduce us to your future wife?”

Mandalorians didn’t beat around the bush. You had to be prepared for anything in a conversation, or you just had nothing to hide. Jusik wasn’t ready with either option.

“Still far from that. Haven’t taken the time to look…”

Parja smiled and grabbed his wrist across the table, hard.

“Who are you building that house for? And if you want to be a better mando’ad you’ll need someone to beat you around with a stick once in a while.”

“It works,” Fi added. “That’s one of the things to look forward to.”

“You need a cyar’ika to take care of you, Bardan. You don’t look too shabby to me right now.”

She let go of him to resume eating. He wasn’t going to contradict her because he did feel weak and alone since the house. Everyone around him had close family and friends to fill the rooms.

“Don’t worry about me, vod’ika.” Little sister, or brother. Mandalorians didn’t distinguish male from female in their language. “Someone’s got to be out there for me and when the time comes, I’ll know it.”