The sky was quickly taking on a bright hue of magenta, which on the world of Straucal, meant mid-day had arrived. A gentle breeze played with the tips of various plants, all arranged in nearly uniform plots of land, indicative of heavy agriculture and farming. In this particular area of the eastern hemisphere, there were no buildings, no vehicles and no roads. So it was through these fields that two companions were forced to walk. Their hands carefully pushed aside vegetation, shuffling through stalks and stepping over sprouts, but mostly enjoying the peace and silence that the environment offered.
That is, until one of them sneezed.
Obi-Wan Kenobi frowned slightly and gave a sideways glance at his padawan. "I hope this doesn't mean we've discovered yet another of your allergies."
Anakin Skywalker rubbed his nose. "I'd rather have a few sniffles than a fear of hooke-snakes."
Obi-Wan chuckled at that. "Very well, apprentice. Since you're the brave one, you may have the honor of carrying me if we stumble on another group of those slithering devils."
The younger man grinned and quickened his pace. Kenobi watched his friend with amusement, counting the numerous roles Anakin played in his life - student, brother, confidant - but though he would never admit it, Obi-Wan's favorite was the role Anakin was filling right now: competitor. With long strides and quick steps, the padawan was trying to beat his Master to their destination, if for no other reason than because he could.
It was moments like this when Obi-Wan Kenobi felt much younger than his thirty years, as though he were immortal because time did not affect him. Briefly, he wondered if this might be a central reason for those who were not Jedi to have children.
Anakin suddenly stopped in his tracks and faced his teacher. "How long has Master Aurelius lived here?"
"A long time, young one," Obi-Wan said. "Certainly longer than either of us has been alive."
Falling into step once again, Anakin asked, "Does he test all Jedi?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "Again, don't think of this as a trial, Anakin. Master Aurelius will be imparting his wisdom, rather than evaluating you. However," he added, "the answer to your question is no. Today's lessons are more of a tradition in the lineage you and I share."
"Qui-Gon Jinn," Obi-Wan responded, a little sadness in his voice. "He introduced me to Master Aurelius when I was younger than you, just as his master did for him. And someday, you will do the same for your padawan."
Anakin beamed at hearing this and held his head a bit higher. Obi-Wan's own grin disappeared quickly as he was again reminded that his apprentice would soon be taller than he.
The shadows of numerous people tending the fields became visible as the two Jedi approached. The natives of Straucal regarded the strangers with brief interest, then returned to their work, clearly indifferent to the sight of brown robes. Finding themselves on a stretch of turquoise grass separating two plots of tall grain, Obi-Wan and Anakin halted when a young Straucalli girl ran across their path and stopped, staring at them with curiosity.
Obi-Wan decided to use this moment. Kneeling down, he smiled gently at the girl. "Hello, young one. Do you happen to know where we might find Master Aurelius?"
The girl lowered her face with a shy expression, then nodded vigorously. Scampering back into the tall plants, she emerged again holding the hand of a middle-aged man, wearing the same farming tunic as the other workers they had seen thus far. He was a little shorter than either Jedi and sported a bald head with the brown, leathery skin of a lifelong farmer. Seeing the two Jedi, the man whispered something to the little girl, who again disappeared into the field.
Obi-Wan stepped forward and bowed deeply. "Master Aurelius, it is an honor to see you again. Thank you for making time for us."
Grinning, Aurelius patted Obi-Wan on the chest as he moved to examine the padawan. Despite his master's words, Anakin still felt nervous and quickly noticed sweat form on his brow as he struggled to appear confident.
After a couple moments of squinting and eyebrow movement, Aurelius extended his hand to the teenager. "Jedi Skywalker," he spoke with a thick accent, "welcome to Straucal. Follow me and we'll begin."
Aurelius lead the Jedi through an adjacent field which opened into another plain of the turquoise grass that seemed to be abundant anywhere crops hadn't been planted. On the opposite end of the field, approximately two kilometers away, was the edge of a small mountain range. Anakin took this opportunity to focus his perceptions on their new guide, hoping to learn more about this Jedi/farmer.
What he found confused him. As Aurelius stopped to claim a sack of fertilizer from a depot set in the field, Anakin tried to read him once more. Finding the same results, he opened his mouth to ask Obi-Wan a question, but stopped when he realized Aurelius was bringing the fertilizer straight to him.
"Carry this, please, Skywalker," he requested, "your back looks a fair bit stronger than mine."
Nodding, Anakin held out his arms...and gasped as the forty kilo sack almost brought him to the ground. Regaining his balance, he looked at Obi-Wan, whose eyes betrayed the laugh that his disciplined face was concealing. The padawan chose not to return the favor when an identical sack of fertilizer nearly toppled his master to the ground as well.
"Don't think you're off the hook either, Kenobi," Aurelius said as he set off again.
As they continued towards the smallest mountain, Anakin shuffled his heavy cargo and moved close enough to whisper to Obi-Wan. "Master, I don't sense any Force perceptions from Master Aurelius. Is he concealing his abilities somehow?"
"The only Jedi here, my young friend, are the two of us."
"But...but, why do you address him as Master then?"
Obi-Wan stopped. "Anakin, I'm surprised at you. Under my tutelage, you've met scores of different beings from countless systems. Do you honestly believe that the ability to touch the Force is the only skill deserving of an honorific title?" When his padawan didn't answer, Kenobi added, "I should think anyone who has spent more than a century tending crops has earned the right to be called 'Master'."
Anakin stood dumbfounded for a moment then hurried to catch up. "A hundred years? Humans don't typically live that long, and Master Aurelius doesn't appear to be any older than sixty."
Kenobi nodded. "It's a curious trait of this planet, young one. The settlers who came here quickly discovered that they could expect considerable longevity, provided they didn't leave the system. Whatever the natural cause, it hasn't been identified, much less replicated."
Anakin peered at their guide, now several meters ahead of them. "I don't sense any physical frailty to him. Does he have any of the normal ailments that accompany old age?"
"Certainly not with my hearing," Aurelius called over his shoulder. "And if you two Morsh-hens are done clucking, we've arrived."
Anakin gazed up the side of the mountain, which was actually short enough to be a foothill. The rock looked like some sort of obsidian with a rougher surface. Its face was uneven with several outcropping and makeshift handholds. Despite his tired arms, the teenager licked his lips in anticipation of a good climb.
Aurelius gripped the rock surface and suspended his weight briefly before letting go. Satisfied, he dusted his hands and said, "Jedi Skywalker, this mountain is your first challenge. No, you can put the fertilizer down, I'll carry it. Your ultimate goal lies at the top - it's called a phrymit plant. I want you to retrieve one flower from it. Your master and I will accompany, but you are the leader. Begin whenever you're ready."
Anakin smiled as he set the heavy sack down. Calling on the Force to recover his spent strength, he filled his lungs twice, gave a knowing glance at his master and began to ascend.
Three meters into the climb, lightsaber bouncing off his hip from its belt fastener, Anakin's feet suddenly gave out underneath him. Caught between shifting grips, the padawan found himself suspended by only his left hand, which quickly decided it wasn't up to the task. He fell back towards the ground...
...and landed with a muffled thud. Embarrassed and slightly bruised, Obi-Wan scrambled to regain his feet and eventually turned to face Aurelius and Qui-Gon. He didn't meet their eyes.
"Is there a problem, young one?" Aurelius asked.
"No, sir. I...uh, I'm not sure why I fell. I'm actually good at climbing, I swear it. If I might request another attempt..."
"I don't doubt your physical abilities, Obi-Wan," Aurelius interrupted, "I've yet to meet a thirteen year-old boy who couldn't climb this rock wall. What I meant is, why are you looking at the ground, rather that at me?"
Obi-Wan didn't know how to answer. The question made him feel more uncomfortable than the fall. "I don't mean disrespect, Master. I suppose I'm just embarrassed."
"Do our opinions of you matter that much?"
"Well...yes, Masters, they do."
Aurelius nodded. "Herein lies your first lesson, young Jedi. Your self-opinion can give you strength and confidence, but it can also cripple you. The time you've just spent mending your ego would probably have been better served determining why you fell in the first place. If nothing else, remember this - vanity is only a roadblock to growth and it serves nothing other than itself. Now, climb."
Still feeling flushed, Obi-Wan faced the rock face again and examined it closely. The material was definitely some kind of obsidian with a gritty surface that felt ideal for climbing. He tested his weight again, wiggled around and dropped, satisfied that the problem was not with his arms. Looking down, an idea formed and he unfastened his boots. Once again gripping the rock wall, he shook both boots free and began to climb with the natural agility and exuberance of a child.
It's that turquoise-colored grass, he thought, some sort of dew or liquid from it was all over the soles of my boots and made them too slippery for climbing. I'll bet most of the Straucalli children figure that out as soon as they're old enough to walk.
Roughly three hundred meters later, Obi-Wan reached what he believed to be the top, only to find a plateau holding another rock wall. This new surface appeared to be a different material altogether, tan in color, and much more sheer. His arms ached at the thought of a second, more difficult climb.
"It's all right, padawan," Aurelius spoke as he cleared the edge himself, "you won't be climbing any higher. Instead, you'll be leading us through the rock wall."
Obi-Wan frowned. "How?"
Aurelius dusted his hands. "Straight ahead, my boy."
Kenobi peered at the rock wall for a moment and eventually noticed a slight shadow that made a curved line nearly three meters tall. Moving closer, it then became obvious that a portion of the wall had actually been cut away, but left in place to block the makeshift doorway. Given its dimensions, Obi-Wan guessed that this particular "rock" weighed as much as an XP-10 six passenger speeder.
"What am I supposed to do?!"
Aurelius raised a single eyebrow. "You're a Jedi - move it."
Sure, no problem! the padawan thought cynically. Hoping to get some sympathy from Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan looked to his master, but received only a neutral stare. Even his recent feeling of accomplishment vanished as he noted that both men had ascended to the top of the plateau while carrying the heavy sacks of fertilizer.
Peace, he thought silently, I need calm right now. The padawan held his breath for a minute and let it out slowly. The frustration melted away. For Obi-Wan Kenobi, serenity was more a skill than a disposition.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for telekinesis. Fighting to erase doubt, he kneeled before the boulder, drawing inwards the soothing flow of the Force, feeling it envelope and penetrate his very being. Its presence was familiar and focused. After another moment, he reached further, gently touching the raw power that lay behind this tranquility. Like a river, the physical nature of the Force was kinetic, always moving, and a properly trained individual could simply redirect this movement to accomplish amazing feats. Given that Obi-Wan had never attempted to move anything so large, his position was now analogous to standing chest-deep in this river, hoping his presence could manipulate enough of the current before it swept him off his feet.
And as he expected, the river did not cooperate. Jerking violently, Obi-Wan broke his connection and opened his eyes, out of breath and covered with sweat. Determined not to show embarrassment, he took a moment's rest without looking at either of his teachers, then prepared to make another attempt. In the back of his mind, he silenced Yoda's voice, which sternly reminded him There is no try.
As he composed himself once more, he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked to see Qui-Gon next to him. His master kneeled and bowed his head slightly, as he normally did when sharing an insight.
"Padawan, don't try to be something you're not. Telekinesis is not the only tool at your disposal."
"Master, I doubt Master Aurelius would want me to chop up this rock door with my lightsaber."
Qui-Gon sighed. "Since you seem forgetful, padawan, let me remind you of your other talents. There was once a Quarren named Bylko who had been my friend for many years. I allowed that friendship to blind me to Bylko's less civilized qualities, so that when he finally betrayed me, I might have been completely unprepared, had not a rather insightful padawan shared his suspicions with me." Standing, the older Jedi added warmly, "That young man, who at the age of eleven was already wiser than me, can move this rock easily."
Obi-Wan blushed slightly, but still felt frustrated. How is my intellect supposed to help me here? He rose from the ground and peered closer at the rock door. It certainly didn't appear too different up close, other than being rather porous with millions of tiny holes covering its surface.
Porous...porous...the word kept repeating in his head, like there was a significance he was missing. An idea formed and Obi-Wan placed both hands on the rock surface. Bending his elbows, he grit his teeth and applied his strength to what he assumed would be impossible. The impossible became a shocking reality when the rock door actually moved forward. Pushing again, Kenobi found he was actually able to scoot the rock-face all the way to an adjacent wall, as if the "door" was actually on hinges.
Smiling, almost giddy, Obi-Wan looked back at Aurelius. The teacher said, "Well done. Why don't you favor us with some more insight and tell me what lesson you've just demonstrated."
Obi-Wan thought a moment. "Appearances can be deceptive. The rock is missing a lot of mass thanks to its porous nature, so it was light enough to move by hand."
"Well, um...I suppose it also demonstrates that I rely on my Force abilities too much and shouldn't discount my natural human-based strengths."
There was a pause. "You're correct. The Force won't help you solve every challenge you face. Only the barest fraction of sentient beings have an acute awareness of this 'mystical field of energy,' yet they still manage to solve problems and live their lives. There must be something to that, right?" Aurelius shifted the bag of fertilizer resting on his shoulder. "Let's keep moving, young man...some things here are still heavy."
Catching a wink from Qui-Gon, the padawan moved into the now open doorway. Immediately he noticed that the tunnel wasn't very long as he could already make out the exit, spilling light onto the opposite end. As his eyes adjusted, he also noticed that he wasn't alone.
She (Obi-Wan was fairly certain of that fact) looked very old. She was seated on a makeshift chair of rock, stringy white hair half-covering her face and a thick walking staff balanced on her folded legs. Though she didn't appear to have any interest in the three individuals that had just entered her vicinity, her posture made her purpose very clear to Obi-Wan - gate-keeping.
The teenager almost rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Diplomacy was an art all Jedi studied thoroughly and he was eager to demonstrate his above-average skills. Noticing that there was indeed another stalagmite-turned-chair, Obi-Wan held his brown robe in both hands and gently sat facing the old woman. Clearing his throat, he said, "Hello there."
The old woman seemed to ignore him. Hardly deterred, the padawan continued, "My name is Obi-Wan Kenobi. My master and I are visitors to Straucal and we request your permission to pass through this tunnel."
Again, the woman didn't so much as make eye contact. Uncertain if the woman could even hear him, Obi-Wan made uncomplicated hand gestures, trying to delicately communicate that his own purpose was peaceful.
When the result was the same, Obi-Wan let his arms drop and let out a slow exhale. Hoping to learn something useful about this strange Straucalli, he reached out with the Force. He quickly found that despite being almost 160 years old, she was not suffering any real physical impairments, though her mental pattern was odd, as though she processed information differently from most other people. Frowning slightly, Obi-Wan started examining the entire tunnel, hoping something in the woman's environment might give him a clue.
The Force whisper of Danger! almost came too late. Instinctively ducking, Obi-Wan felt a rush of air as the old woman, who was now standing, nearly connected her walking staff with his temple. Rolling off the chair, Obi-Wan rose, gripping the handle of his recently fashioned lightsaber, preparing to defend himself.
But before the blade could be ignited, the lightsaber was suddenly ripped from the Obi-Wan's grip. Shocked, he looked to see Qui-Gon Jinn calling the weapon to his own reach, shaking his head with mild reproach. The moment became an unfortunate distraction, as the padawan felt a dull pain in his chest plate and fell back against the opposite rock wall...
...and raised his hands, expecting another attack. When nothing happened, Qui-Gon found that the old woman had actually retreated and was now seated in exactly the same place. Rubbing his chest where the jab had connected, the padawan fought down his anger as he addressed Dooku.
"Master, why did you take my weapon? Shouldn't I be allowed to defend myself?"
"Defense? You would raise your blade to an old woman carrying a stick?" Master Dooku balanced Qui-Gon's lightsaber on his outstretched hand. "Even if you were an expert swordsman, which you're not, padawan, can you guarantee you wouldn't seriously hurt that woman all in the name of preventing a few bruises to your person?"
The twelve year-old considered this as he reclaimed his weapon. "Then please allow me to accept another beating from this delightful woman. I fear that is the only way I'll learn exactly why she considers me a threat."
Aurelius grinned. "That is certainly one avenue open to you."
Qui-Gon grimaced as he approached the woman again, acutely aware of his sore chest and back from the morning's earlier fall. The woman had resumed her position of indifference to the padawan, but Qui-Gon's apprehension didn't lower and he moved as he would towards a sleeping savrip, waiting for anything to happen.
A gentle voice of intuition drifted through his mind and Qui-Gon recognized his growing skill with the Living Force. Another solution presented itself, one that seemed both obvious and ridiculous. The padawan bypassed the chair altogether, moved past the woman and slowly made his way towards the further end of the tunnel. When he reached the sunlight of the garden beyond, he looked back and found the woman had not moved a millimeter. Dooku and Aurelius followed suit and the latter stepped close enough to whisper.
"Mena has been sick for a long time. The longevity we enjoy on Straucal doesn't mean we can't suffer afflictions, and dementia is common for many humans so late in life. She attacked you because she's confused, nothing more. For some reason, being in proximity of my garden brings her a small measure of peace, so I allow her to stay here."
"So this lesson was just about holding back," Qui-Gon said.
Aurelius snorted. "Hardly, young one. I suspect you'll be repeating this lesson for years to come. No, the reality is that nothing about Mena suggested you needed her permission to pass. Your attempts to communicate with her were all based on that mistaken assumption, when you should have simply walked on by and ignored her." The gardener pulled a pair of clippers from his pocket. "You'll face countless challenges during your years as a Jedi. Don't make any of them more complicated than they already are."
Qui-Gon accepted the clippers and examined the small garden, which had been situated in this hollowed out portion of the mountain, allowing constant sunlight while simultaneous catching rainwater. Dooku motioned his apprentice towards him.
"That, my young padawan, is a phrymit," Dooku said.
The plant hardly appeared remarkable, Qui-Gon thought, resembling nothing more than a meter high pile of vines. Upon closer inspection, he could see that it bore several small white flowers and thorns running along the length of each tangled stalk. Catching a nod from Master Aurelius, Qui-Gon gripped the cutting tool tightly and approached the phrymit plant.
If there was one lesson the Jedi had taken from the day's experiences, it was to expect each activity to be more challenging than it appeared. Instead of tackling the phrymit head on, Qui-Gon slowly circled the plant, seeing if it reacted to his presence. It definitely seemed capable of movement, as it was visibly shifting, though not in relation to anything apparent, even the small avian creatures that were in abundance here, flitting from one area of the garden to the next.
Still, Qui-Gon was fairly certain that grabbing a thorn-covered vine with his bare hand would reflect poor judgement. Taking a few steps backwards, he closed his eyes and drew on the Force. Gently, he levitated the clippers towards the plant, focusing enough to distinguish a flower that might give easily to a quick snip.
All at once, the padawan's concentration was broken as he felt a sharp, hot pain on the back of his hand. Opening his eyes, he looked with horror to see one of the phrymit's vines easily stretched out to wrap around his wrist, sinking several of its thorns into his flesh. Before he could react, the vine quickly retracted, leaving four small puncture wounds.
Only a fierce determination kept Qui-Gon from crying out - the pain was unbelievable. Holding his hand to his chest, he tried to casually examine the damage and was relieved to see that he was not bleeding. But his relief was short lived as he felt his legs and arms quickly grow tired. He tried to walk back to his Masters, but equilibrium failed him and he fell to the ground. Getting up on his hands and knees, he began to taste bile in the back of his mouth and his breathing became shallow. A cry for help came out as a whisper. As his vision clouded, he thought he could see the boots of Master Aurelius approach. A small pressure on the back of his neck was the last thing he felt before he lost consciousness...
...until eventually, the warmth of sunlight could again be felt on his skin. Slowly, his vision and hearing returned, as well as strength to his muscles. Filling his lungs gratefully, Dooku sat up and found both Aurelius and Yoda standing next to him. Struggling to find his voice, he croaked "What happened?"
"You failed," Aurelius said.
Had he been standing, the astonishment of hearing those words would have knocked Dooku to the ground. "But...but I didn't know the phrymit was Force sensitive! I can try again!"
"You would have died if I hadn't intervened, young one." Aurelius made a pinching motion with his thumb and index finger. "By stopping the blood flow to your brain for a few seconds, I gave your body enough time to defeat the phrymit's poison before it destroyed your nervous system. But you may not be so lucky next time."
The sixteen year old wasn't convinced. "I will retrieve that flower, Master. I didn't get this far to turn back."
Aurelius raised an eyebrow. "As you wish."
Dooku massaged his hand and once again studied the strange plant. Whether his attempt to use the Force had made him a target or not, he couldn't be sure. But the plant had definitely objected to him more than the small birds perched on its vines.
Frowning, Dooku studied the avian creatures closer. Not only were the birds balancing their full weight on the phrymit, but there were also pecking away at the thorns, hoping to extract food or material for shelter, Dooku assumed. But the very fact that the plant had no problem with being assaulted made a very unusual idea occur to the Jedi.
Moving closer slowly, Dooku listened to the birds intently, hoping to memorize the melodic singing they kept up constantly. After several minutes, he felt confident enough to try his own version.
At first, he looked and felt ridiculous: a Jedi-to-be, trying to sneak up on a plant by mimicking a high-pitched bird squeal with the cracking voice of a teenager. Still, the phrymit gave no indication it was offended by his presence, so he continued. As he moved close enough to reach the plant, he braced for what he assumed would be the inevitable second attack. When it didn't come, he remained still long enough to slow his breathing while continuing to sing and carefully cut a flower from the closest stalk.
Aurelius gave a patient look to Dooku upon his return. "Any thoughts, Jedi Dooku?"
The padawan studied the flower. "No, Master Aurelius. I didn't think, I simply acted."
Yoda used his gimer stick to tap Dooku on the foot. "Just as you have been taught."
Dooku nodded to his mentor. "So the final lesson was to trust my feelings."
"No, it was not, though there is certainly value to what you say," Aurelius replied as he took the phrymit flower from the padawan and revealed a small fastener from his pocket. "Your skills will increase and your powers become more amazing as you advance in your training. But no one, not even your Master Yoda here, is above the will of nature. By disguising yourself to the phrymit, you became a part of the natural environment and you were accepted. The lesson is simple - if you are not in harmony with nature, you will be in conflict with it...and nature does not lose." He then handed the flower, with its new fastener, back to Dooku. "Now, present this to your master."
Dooku bent down and attached the boutonniere to the dull brown tunic Yoda always wore. The wizened old Jedi looked at him and smiled.
Dooku, however, was not smiling.
"Is this to remind me of my place?"
Yoda made one of his trademark hrmph sounds. "A gift only, my padawan. Accept it gladly, I do."
Aurelius moved back towards the cave's entrance. "Respect for your teacher is not a concession, young one. You may well become greater and more powerful than Yoda some day, but there is one accomplishment of his you can never duplicate - your own education. Hubris is the enemy of respect. Never forget that." Picking up one of the fertilizer bags, he added. "Now, retrieve the gardening tools from that small shed over there, and let's do some real work."
Sundown approached and Anakin Skywalker wiped sweat from his forehead. Tending to Master Aurelius' garden had taken longer than any other activity today. Dusting his hands, he was also acutely aware of the various bruises and sting-marks he had received.
As he began to spread the last of the fertilizer to the ground surrounding the phrymit plant, his eye caught something. Probing closer at the phrymit's roots, Anakin determined that a portion of the plant's support was a different color and thickness. Reaching out with a gentle force perception, careful not to disturb the plant again, he searched for the cause of the disfiguring.
The reason became clear in a split second. Fighting a small amount of panic, Anakin stood from his kneeling position and spun around...to find Master Aurelius right behind him, wearing the same passive expression from earlier.
"Ah...Master Aurelius," Anakin stammered, "I think the phrymit is..."
"Dying," Aurelius concluded. "It's all right young one. This plant cannot live forever, just like the rest of us."
Anakin fell silent. Frustration kept him for saying anymore.
"You find this troubling, Anakin?"
"No...well, maybe...it's just....you mentioned that there are no other phrymit plants on Straucal."
Aurelius nodded. "They grow where they will, of their own accord. It could be centuries before another one appears."
Anakin said, "Master Aurelius, I think I've gained much from your teachings today. But how will any other Jedi benefit from these lessons without the phrymit?"
A voice spoke from behind Anakin. "Traditions change, my padawan." The padawan turned to face Obi-Wan. "Ideals can continue without a specific practice. If there was no longer a Jedi Order a thousand years from now, I prefer to believe someone would carry on our values."
Anakin bowed in respect, but looked away without speaking. Night finally reached the garden, and the brilliant colors of their surroundings turned to shadow.
Original cover by Mistress Eden. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.