Seconds stretched into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into days. Units of measurement had lost all meaning for her. Time stretched into a red ribbon of pain that spanned from before to now.
At first, she had tried to escape. She had never been able to escape from any of her former masters and she wondered now what made her think it would have been ever possible. But it had been a long time since Shmi had regarded herself as a slave. She had been lulled into false security by Cliegg and Owen and their generosity. She had forgotten what it was to be property with no real power or control over her life or her body, only her mind. And now, she would have given up even that but the madness that she prayed for never came. She wondered as well why she had thought the gods would start being kind now. Cliegg and Owen had only been their special way of tormenting her: let us pretend a little that you could have a life, let's pretend a little that we actually care?
The last time she had tried to escape she had gone as far as outside the settlement. The tribe had been in the middle of some bonfire frenzy and her absence had gone unnoticed until the next day. But her weakness had betrayed her and she had collapsed in the desert, her last cogent thoughts for death if not rescue. She had woken up to pain beyond comprehension. A Raider - male or female, she had no way of knowing - there was equal depravity amongst them - had lifted up one of the little ones on his shoulder and had given it Shmi's back as a drawing board. The little one had drawn into her with a stone knife that had made her throat hoarse with screams until the pain became too much for even her mind to comprehend; her bowels had failed her and she had fainted. When she woke up, a little one - maybe the same, maybe another - was practising on her back.
That was when she started praying for madness.
Reasoning with them had never occurred to her. She had never been able to reason with any of her former masters - not even Cliegg who once he had made up his mind to give her freedom had ignored her pleas that she was best protected as his slave - so why should she think this time would be any different? She had tried pretending to have lost her mind and laughed in the middle of the most depraved abuse but true insanity had never come and she suffered every affliction with undiminished awareness, undiminished sentience, undiminished horror.
She who had been a victim and a witness to some of the most depraved sentient beings in the world had no frame of reference to the actions to which she was subjected. When her mind had refused to fail, she had tried to use it rationalize her purpose. To them she was a heathen sacrifice (they drained blood from her before their ritual campfire frenzies), a source of sustenance to their starving tribe (they cut from her periodically and the women - she assumed - always seemed to be fighting over who would use the knife first) and a plaything and practising board to their little ones (there was a time when the sight of one of those small creatures approaching was enough to make her lose control of her bodily functions). She was as insensible to them as they were to the moisture farmers. But, her traitor mind would scream at her, Cliegg would never tie up a Tusken woman and use her as they have used me. When we kill them we kill them once and painlessly.
Nobody ever knew what happened to the small children and weak old people that the Tuskens had abducted in the past. Their very bones had vanished into the tribe. But mothers and children had convinced themselves that the deaths were always quick and painless - a sharp blow to the back of the head, a steep drop of an unconscious body over the ravine. Shmi imagined Beru sitting at her place on their small eating table, holding onto the hands of a heartbroken Owen and an embittered Cliegg and reminding them of the old stories, that the rumours of torture and mutilation had never been true.
There had been one night, very early into her capture when she had felt a stirring of hope. Then her mind was still rebellious and planning escape. In the middle of relative calm, the camp had suddenly gone into uproar. She had heard the panicked whimpers of the little ones, the wild cries of banthas, the inarticulate war cries of the Tusken Raiders and she had had the foolish impression that the camp had been raided by her rescuers. There had been the sound of shooters and what she had wanted to believe were human voices. She had even deceived herself into thinking she heard Cliegg cry her name: 'Shmi! Shmi!'' and she had answered as loudly as she could until a Tusken - not young but not old enough to fight outside - had reached over and knocked her unconscious. When she woke up it was the next day, the camp was back to its relative calm, she was still tied to her place and it must have been a dream.
Except to teach their younglings, they had not cut from her for a long time after that. They must have done some hunting. There was a lot of meat in the camp.
Her life was ebbing away like blood from an open wound. She wondered at that. Would they allow her to die slowly and painfully or would they kill her in one quick act of brutality before she lost complete usefulness to them? She had long accepted her mind would not leave her. So when the pain had become too much (one could get used to enslavement but for some obscure reason, never to pain) she had made it think of other things, happy things. Cliegg would be old now but his strong, honest body would never bend. She imagined him with his white hair heaving vaporators with sheer physical strength. A small imitation of Owen stood next to him, watching with open-mouthed awe until Cliegg told him sharply to make himself useful; the boy would at once run scampering to fetch his grandfather's tools. Beru would wander in, plumper now, her pretty face glowing with the happiness she had never found in her own home and tell Cliegg that it was past mealtime and her son was hungry even if he wasn't. Cliegg would tell her a man hadn't earned a meal until his job was finished and his grandson would agree vehemently. Beru would turn away with an exasperated huff and bump into Owen who had just returned from town with the returns of the last harvest and there'd be reluctant joy and traditional grumblings over the cost of the sale and Cliegg would make his usual 'whole world is going to rot' speech.
That was her favourite scenario but there were many others. In all of them, they were happy and complete and she was nothing more than a forgotten presence, a faded memory that never darkened those daydreams.
She never dreamt of Anakin.
She had learnt that it was only the things she hoped for that the gods contrived to cheat from her.
This would be the night she died.
She listened to the blood as it trickled unwillingly behind her ears and counted each painful breath that expanded her chest. The body never got used to pain, but like heat or cold, it could be acclimated to. Tonight was another bonfire feast. She had no illusions that she would not be the main course. She had no illusions that she would not be prepared alive. Her blood had been drained several times already this night; they were probably waiting until they had collected a certain amount before they came with the big knife. She wondered how she was so sure of this. She had never watched them kill any of their other victims although she knew they had others they kept in the other huts. When they had first been brought, they had also cried into the night to the gods of Tatooine. And eventually, they had also fallen silent. Shmi wished she could have told them that the Tatooine gods were the ones to whom they were being sacrificed to.
She felt the rope being cut harshly from her wrists and the little blood that she had left rushed painfully through her bones. She leaned against the pole, waiting patiently for the last depravity before her death and she felt herself being lowered gently down.
She seemed to be cradled by long, strong arms. Something warm was touching her face gently and a soft voice was calling to her urgently. If she had had the strength to laugh, she would have. Now that she was at the point of death, after months and years of hoping for this, her senses had finally left her. For a few seconds she rebelled against the madness the way she had never rebelled against anything in her bitter life. The gods would not make a mockery of her death as they had of her life. But the voice never dimmed and the softness never left her face. She felt her heart beat faster, a strange strength seemed to fill her as if life was being forced to return into her breaking body and for a strange, horrible moment she thought that the mysterious illusion might deceive her body into not dying. She opened her eyes.
Shmi would recognise those eyes even if they stared at her out of an old bent man in the marketplace, if they had been manic and not livid with pain. She had thought he would be older, with more lines on his brow and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. If this was the product of her madness, some malicious illusion the gods had chosen to wound her with one last time, then they had miscalculated for once because she welcomed it.
The strange, new life that was forcing her heart to keep beating gave her the strength to lift her hand and touch his face. It was so smooth, so handsome under her broken skin. She heard his words wash into her bones and traced the contours of his face, saying the words of benediction with her heart.
"Now, I am complete."
This was no illusion. The gods had played the ultimate joke on Shmi Skywalker.
But she was cheating death. The force that had prolonged her last moments by a few seconds was being beaten back with a fury and her chest clenched painfully over her words.
"I love you."
She said it once but she was not sure if he heard her over the pain that seemed to throb like a living thing in his face.
She tried to say it again, forcing her lungs to expel the air needed to shape her words. She did not want to die. 'Oh ye gods, please don't take my life now. Just a few more seconds, just a few more...' They answered with their punch line. She felt the blood still in her veins, felt her chest collapse for the last time. She could feel that strange life force reaching for her, trying to help her keep a hold on a life that had only given her joy in order to snatch it away. His face was fading before her eyes even as she struggled to utter one last plea, one last request of her son.
Don't look back.
Don't look back.
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