On a glorious, clear day at the height of summer, a great parade wound its way through the streets of Naboo's capitol city of Theed. The marchers were a splendid sight - ranks of leather-clad Gungan foot-soldiers and cavalry riders, drummers and horn-players, and trainers leading an enormous reptilian fumbaa. Never before had the Gungans walked openly through the humans' city, and the citizens had turned out in force to welcome them, honoring the army that had helped secure the planet's freedom from an invading force several days ago. Children along the parade route showered both the Gungans and the rows of Naboo security troops with flower petals and confetti.
On the raised steps of the palace, near the great Arch of Triumph, a father crouched beside his six-year-old son and pointed. "There. That's the one, on the kaadu in front."
The boy squinted at the advancing army. "Really? Will he know you?"
The father laughed. "Probably not. It was a long time ago, and I was only a teenager. But unless there's more than one Gungan with the same name, that's him."
Both humans watched as the first row of Gungan standard-bearers approached, closely followed by a pair of riders on kaadu, the two-legged reptiles used as cavalry mounts. The rider on the left side of the column was waving at the humans so enthusiastically that he nearly unseated himself several times. The Gungan rider closest to the boy and his father rode with practiced ease, one hand raised in a dignified greeting. He glanced neither right nor left. Close behind them rose a heavyset Gungan on a plodding falumpaset; to either side and behind them marched the columns of the Grand Army.
The boy looked at his father doubtfully. "He doesn't look very friendly."
The man smiled. "Well, he didn't have much of a sense of humor back then, either...."
26 years earlier
Seir Rass Hespa, the Gungan commander of the Third Mounted Patrol, peered at the Naaboo through the lenses of her farseein. "They seem to be looking for something," she remarked to her second-in-command.
"At first the scouts thought it was some kind of religious ritual," her naamana-rissah, Jalta Trin, replied, craning his neck to see through the brush. By human reckoning, "naamana-rissah" would have roughly equaled the rank of a senior lieutenant; his commander, whose title no human could have pronounced, would have been considered a captain. "But now it resembles a search party. According to the Shrine Keeper in charge of the Sacred Place, humans sometimes pass overhead in their flyers, but have never stopped here before."
The humans were spread out in the grassy fields just beyond. Occasionally one or more of them would shout two words: "Teln?!" and "Graf!", neither of which translated into High Gungan. Even the members of the patrol who spoke respectable Bassic couldn't figure out the words. Finally one of the scouts suggested that the words were probably names, which, given the Naaboo's actions, made sense.
"That's all we need - a herd of Naaboo lost in the woods," Hespa grumbled, lowering her farseein. "This is too close to the Sacred Place." She turned to the lieutenant. "Assemble the patrol. Bring them here." She turned back to watch the meadow. "The Naaboo can frolic in the grasslands all they please - but the Sacred Places are ours."
Rift scrambled to the top of a fallen log, and looked back over her shoulder. "Hurry up! If you don't move any faster, the Naaboo will be gone before we get there!" For a moment, the forest was still; then her companion Treese emerged from the brush and clambered heavily up the tree trunk.
"And if you don't stop shouting, you'll scare them away," Treese grumbled. Both Gungans were nine years old and female, with floppy ear-like haillu hanging down their backs, but there the resemblance ended. Rift was rail-thin and wiry, with a long beaky muzzle, protruding eyestalks and greyish skin, typical of the Otolla branch of the Gungan species. Her companion Treese was shorter, stockier, greener in complexion, with her eyes set into the front of her head - traits common to the Ankura line.
"Besides, all your noise will get us caught by the patrol," Treese added. She turned her head back and forth to search the forest with eyes, ears and nose. "Or maybe something else."
Rift shrugged - but then, she tended to be the more adventurous of the two. "I don't hear or smell anything dangerous," she said. "Come on. The quickest way to the grasslands is through the Sacred Place." She hopped down on the other side of the log and darted away into the forest. Treese carefully climbed down and trotted after her friend, peering into the trees and brush as she moved. Rift could laugh all she liked, but Treese knew that the forest hid a number of dangerous predators, especially this close to the Sacred Place.
Rift stopped at the bottom of the path leading up to the Sacred Place. As Treese emerged from the bushes, her friend grabbed her arm and clamped a hand over her mouth. "Shhh!" She gestured up the path. At the base of a tree just inside the shrine's entrance, an electropole was thrust tip-first into the ground. Beside it lay an atlatl and a shoulder-pouch that probably contained several small buumas, palm-sized balls of blue plasma. A pair of gauntlets lay in a neat pile nearby. Atop the pile was a horn, made mostly of carved horn and wood, with a few metal fasteners. Through the trees they caught a glimpse of a grazing kaadu.
"One of the patrol members," Treese whispered. She, too, looked up the path. "We'd better climb." She knew it was unspeakably rude to disturb anyone meditating in the Sacred Place. The two females left the path and began to work their way up the rocky hillside.
The Sacred Place was a long, winding valley surrounded by steep hills. The trail ran upward for a stone's throw, then leveled off briefly before sloping down and winding around a number of boulders, trees and hillocks. The path opened out into flat land in several places. Huge pieces of what seemed to be statuary were embedded at irregular intervals in the landscape. Some of the old stories claimed the gods had left the statues; others said that the stone faces had been carved by a human-like race that predated even the Gungans' presence on the planet. The true history had been lost long ago. Some of the less neighborly among the Gungans saw the Sacred Places as nature's reclamation of human damage.
The two females scrambled and hopped from stone to fallen tree to hillside, traveling parallel to the pathway. Midway along the valley they caught sight of the lone grey-skinned patrol rider who knelt on one knee in the midst of the shrine. Treese and Rift exchanged looks, and Rift grimaced.
The appearance of a mounted patrol was always an exciting time for youngsters in this outlying community of Tanoh Matawba; many of the riders allowed the children to help feed or wash their kaadu mounts, or related stories of their adventures, thus winning the children's affection.
Lieutenant Tarpals wasn't one of them.
Stern, work-minded, and apparently humorless, the Gungan scout had little patience with children. Rift watched as the lieutenant remained motionless, giving no sign that he knew the two females were crouched on the hillside. Rift glanced back at Treese and pointed up the valley; Treese nodded, and they moved on.
Everyone in the small Gungan settlement knew that Naaboo had landed in the fields beyond the forest. Patrol members had spotted them earlier that day - they'd been hard to miss, one rider had remarked dryly, since their hovering air vehicles had made quite the racket over the grasslands, searching for a place to land and thoroughly terrifying the local fauna.
Most of the Gungans were staying close to the swamp areas, leaving the patrol to watch the Naaboo - except, of course, for Rift, who fancied herself an adventurer, and Treese, who had appointed herself Rift's keeper.
"Captain," Lieutenant Trin murmured in Hespa's ear. "Over there."
A lone human had staggered out of the woods far to the left of the Gungans' position. People in the field were running toward him. Hespa turned the farseein upon the scene. "He's in bad shape," she remarked. "Looks like he - no, she - tangled with something." The Naaboo's jacket had opened enough to show fabric stretched over the mammalian traits unique to the female of the species. The woman's clothing was torn and she seemed to be bleeding in several places.
"Maybe she's what they've been looking for," Trin suggested as the group of Naaboo converged on the woman. "If they've found her, maybe they'll leave."
Hespa was silent, eyes trained on the events in the meadow. Several of the Naaboo were talking at once as they helped the woman toward one of the vehicles. The woman was shaking her head and gesturing back toward the woods from which she'd emerged. A few of the Naaboo stayed with her; the rest stopped and moved into a circle, apparently discussing whatever she had told them. Then a knot of them detached themselves from the group and entered one of the vehicles. A few minutes later they reappeared, a few carrying what looked like weapons, and moved intently toward the woods.
Hespa lowered the farseein and glanced over her shoulder. Most of the patrol members had assembled below her; two more were moving into sight. She took a quick count. "Who's missing?"
"Tarpals. The Shrine Keeper said he's still in the Sacred Place."
Hespa nodded. A number of patrol riders had stopped to pay their respects in the Sacred Place during their stay. One junior lieutenant more or less wasn't going to make much of a difference here. "You three," she ordered, indicating the chosen scouts, "circle that way." She gestured in the opposite direction. "Lieutenant, take those two around that way. The rest of us will go straight ahead. We'll meet the Naaboo just inside the forest and stop them. When we get there, I'll do the talking. Weapons charged and in hand." She looked around her command once and nodded. "Let's go."
Treese and Rift had left the valley of the Sacred Place behind and were now climbing up into the deciduous forest beyond the swamps. The settlement lay nestled in the lake below them; the forest stretched away from the swamp to the top edge of the plateau, where it gave way to grasslands. Both Gungans knew they had a fair amount of climbing to do before they reached the edge of the woodlands. Despite Rift's desire to see the Naaboo up close, both youngsters had stopped to rest beside a hollow tree.
"I don't understand what the big deal is with you and the Naaboo," Treese was saying. "Everyone says to stay away from them. Why do you want to see them?"
"Why not?" asked Rift. "Don't you want to see if they're really as awful as everyone says? I do."
Treese shrugged; Naaboo never came near the swamp, and most of the time she didn't give them a thought. The closest she'd ever come to meeting one was when she and the other children listened to old stories and tales. Naaboo just weren't part of her view of nature.
"The Elders say the Naaboo are per-imitive," Rift continued, stumbling a bit over the unfamiliar word. "In the old stories, the Naaboo are like big, dangerous animals. Well, I'm not afraid!"
Treese shook her head. Sometimes it seemed that Rift was trying to prove herself even when she didn't have to.
Brush crackled; something was moving along the top of the hill. "Listen!" exclaimed Treese. She cocked her head in the direction of the slope that slanted upward before them. "Something's coming."
Rift raised her haillu with one hand to enhance the sound. "It's not very big, whatever it is."
"It's bigger than we are," Treese replied. She glanced at the tree behind them. "Come on."
By stepping on the stubs of dead branches, she managed to climb far enough up the tree to reach the opening to its hollow center. She peered inside, then swung one leg over the edge into the hollow. The other leg followed, and she disappeared from sight. A few moments later Rift joined her. Two Gungans were a snug fit, but at least they were concealed. Rift even managed to find a crack that faced the direction of the sound.
A lean figure emerged at the top of the hill. It moved on two legs, waved two arms in an attempt to keep its balance as it stumbled down the slope. A thatch of dark fur capped its head, and it wore a simple tunic, trousers and boots. It slid to a halt, still on its feet, at the base of the hollow tree. Panting, it doubled over and put its hands on its knees, resting its back against the tree. Peering through the cracks in the tree trunk, the Gungans' eyes widened.
"A Naaboo!" Rift exclaimed. She turned excitedly to Treese. "Come on! We can catch it right here!" She scrambled up the inside of the trunk.
"Catch it?!" Treese yelped.
As Rift cleared the top of the broken trunk, the human caught sight of her. It gasped and sprang away from the tree. Stumbling on the uneven ground, it pitched backward, rolling down the hill until it fetched up against another tree, where it lay motionless.
The two Gungans exchanged worried glances.
"You killed it," Treese said finally, and they began working their way down the hill.
"No, I didn't. See? It's still breathing."
They approached cautiously, but the human still didn't move.
"Careful," Treese warned as Rift crouched down and sniffed at the human. Its eyes opened and it scuttled back with a cry. Rift and Treese both jumped back a step.
For a moment all three of them stared at each other. Finally Rift said, "Heddo! Yousa Naaboo p'rson, yiss?"
The human climbed to its feet, his eyes darting back and forth between the two Gungans. It said nothing. Rift looked at Treese. "Do you think the fall scrambled his brains?"
Treese snorted. "No, I think you speak Bassic like a falumpaset and he can't understand you. Here, let me try." She turned back to the human. "Yousa needsa 'scuse my frien' - shesa not spake very well. Can yousa unnerstand mesa?"
The human nodded carefully, wincing. "I - I think so. You said your friend can't speak well?" It spoke with a male voice.
Treese nodded happily. "Yousa unnerstood. Mesa Treese, an' dissen Rift." Rift presented the human with a broad grin that showed most of her teeth. The human blanched. Treese turned back to Rift and switched to High Gungan. "Don't do that - you'll scare him." Rift scowled at her.
The human sank into a sitting position with his back to the tree. "My name is Graf Zapalo."
"Graff'zap'lo," Treese echoed.
The boy shook his head. "No, just - just Graf."
Rift tried her original question again. "Yousa Naaboo, yiss?"
"I'm human, yes." The two Gungans nodded at each other and sat down facing Graf, who was eyeing them curiously. "You're Gungans, right?"
"'Course'n. What elsen wesa beein'?" scoffed Rift.
"I, um, I thought you'd be, um, taller," the human remarked.
"Wesan the right size for oursan age," Treese told him. "Wesa growin' fast'a wesa can."
Graf opened his mouth to respond, but a distant roar interrupted him. Human and Gungans both jumped.
"Dassen veermok!" Treese exclaimed, ducking her head and looking hastily around for a place to hide. Veermok, large ape-like creatures that inhabited the forested areas of Naboo, were carnivorous and would eat anything they could catch - including young Gungans. The creature roared a second time.
The human was scrambling to his feet. Fully upright, he was twice as tall as the two females. "It's still after me."
Both Gungans turned to stare at him. "After yousan? How d'yousa know dat?" Rift asked.
The boy's breathing quickened and he licked his lips. "I - I wanted to see some of the wildlife, so when our aircar set down, I went into the woods. One of our guides went with me, and she had a small handgun, just for safety. It's really only meant to drive off medium-sized animals. That thing suddenly charged at us out of the trees. The guide shot at it and hit it. It just stopped for a minute, then charged again. She shot it a second time, and it barely even slowed down, and - and I ran." He looked away briefly, then back again. "I heard her shoot at it again, and then it roared and I just kept on running. But if it's the same one, then it's hurt. Hurt animals are more dangerous, aren't they?"
Rift and Treese both nodded vigorously. "Wesa needsa get 'way from heah," Rift said. She and Treese turned and plunged into the brush, the human boy following.
"Wait!" he shouted after them. "Wait! Where are you going?"
"Wesa going to Sacred Place," Treese called over her shoulder. The teen had nearly caught up with them by now.
"Sacred Place? Will we be safe there?"
Both Gungans stopped. "Course'n. De gods will protect ussan," Treese replied.
The human boy looked skeptical. "The gods?"
"Yiss," Treese assured him. "Wesa be safe dere."
As Treese trotted forward, Graf glanced at Rift, who shrugged. "An' if not, 'leasten dey's lotsa hidey places," she added.
Still alone in the midst of the Sacred Place, Tarpals lifted his head at the sound of the veermok's scream. He had, by tradition, left his weaponry piled at the entrance to the shrine. The Sacred Places were both a place to worship and a home to nature in all its fullness; except in certain emergency situations, Gungans were expected to enter with only the weapons nature had given them. Every plant and animal on the planet was welcome there, no matter how dangerous; each had a place in the natural cycle of seasons and survival. Because of this, the Gungans could encounter many different creatures up close. Of course, this also meant that the Sacred Places could be extremely dangerous. Since the Gungans in the area tended to enter the Sacred Place in a group, amidst a great deal of sound and ceremony, the danger was usually minimal. However, a lone Gungan was often literally placing his life in the hands of the gods when he entered the Sacred Places unarmed.
Solitary veermok posed little threat to a full-grown Gungan and were rarely seen in the swamps. The Sacred Place at Tanoh Matawba, however, was above the swamplands. Most of the plant and animal life here was part of a forest habitat. Moreover, the animal's second cry revealed rage mixed with pain. It was apparently wounded - and coming closer.
Tarpals rose, still listening. Sounds revealed other creatures pushing through the woods, probably moving out of the veermok's path. That would be a very wise move - a wounded animal was doubly dangerous, and might attack anyone or anything. The Gungan began a brisk walk back toward the entrance of the shrine, then froze. Three forms were running along the ridge of the hill above him. Two of them were Gungans, but the third was...something else.
A Gungan message horn sounded a summons in the distance, the notes signaling an order to report to the Captain for duty. Tarpals hesitated - the horn message was a clear requirement, but two Gungan children being pursued by a wounded veermok was not only an emergency, but a much closer one.
Rift and Treese had grown up playing in the Sacred Place. Rift in particular had several favorite hiding spots. She quickly led the way to the nearest one, a hole that led into a shallow water-carved cave.
"C'mon. Mesa think wesan all fit inna heah." She pushed Treese into the hole and beckoned to the human. Graf managed to squeeze into the space after Treese, despite his taller frame. Rift looked around for a stout stick, then scrambled in after him.
The human crawled forward until he was almost nose to nose with the stocky Gungan; then he turned back to face the entrance and drew himself into as small a space as he could. All three, human and Gungan, stared at the opening of the hole, waiting.
"Do you think the veermok will find us?" Graf whispered to Treese. Receiving no answer, he glanced over his shoulder. Treese had both hands over her eyes and was whispering to herself.
"What's she doing?" he asked Rift, who was now focused on the opening. She peered back at Treese and shook her head.
"Shesa praying," she replied in a sardonic tone as she turned back to the wedge of light at the opening of the hole.
The human glanced back and forth between the two Gungans. "Do you think that'll help?"
"Yes," answered Treese at the same moment that Rift replied, "No."
The veermok's roar sounded outside the entrance, and a moment later the snarling, ape-like face appeared. Graf instinctively tried to edge away; Rift, however, lifted her stick and thrust it at the veermok's eyes.
"Don't -" warned Graf.
The veermok bellowed; its hand and arm filled the entrance as it reached in and wrenched the stick away from the Gungan. The creature shattered the stick between its teeth, then reached back in after Rift, who bared her teeth in defiance. The human put both arms around her, preparing to pull her away.
Something struck the veermok and bore it howling away from the entrance.
Graf and Rift stared openmouthed at the empty space outside. Treese stopped whispering and lowered her hands. From outside came the continued roar of the veermok, answered by a shout.
Rift sat up and pulled away from Graf. "Naamana Tarpals!"
"Mesa tol' yousa the gods would protect ussan," Treese said mildly as Rift scrambled for the entrance, and Graf scrambled after her.
His words of caution were swallowed at the sight of the veermok facing off, snarling, against a full-grown Gungan, who was baring its own teeth in response. The adult Gungan's haillu were slightly raised and flared, making it appear larger. Undaunted, the veermok rose on its hind legs and slashed at the Gungan with both clawed hands. Ducking the claws, the Gungan clasped both hands together and struck at the patch of blood on the animal's flank. Howling, the veermok staggered, righted itself, and sprang at the Gungan, who leaped forward around a tree trunk to vanish into the forest, the veermok in pursuit. Rift whooped and would have sprung after them if Graf hadn't caught her by the back of her leather vest.
"Are you crazy?" the human demanded. "That thing could eat you in two bites!"
The Gungan female paused momentarily. "Yousa right." She looked around for another stick, pounced on it, and turned back to her companions. "Now wesa ready!"
"Wait!" the human countered desperately. "The veermok's gone off after - after - whoever that was. Wouldn't it be better if we went and got help?"
"Dassen Naamana Tarpals," Rift repeated. "Hesa heah with dah p'trol."
Treese added, "The naamana, hesa gottens no weapons."
The human's mouth fell open. "No weapons? You people all run around in the wilderness with no weapons?"
"Dissen no 'wild'ness' - dissen Sacred Place," Treese explained. "All living t'ings 'llowed to come heah."
"Usually desa nothin' to worry 'bout," Rift added. "Most animals no danger iff'n yousa stay 'lert. But dissen veermok, hesa hurt. Hesa 'tack anyt'ing. Yousa should know dat."
For a moment Graf stared down at the ground. "All right. It's my fault." He reached to take the stick from Rift. "I'll go. You stay here -"
Rift snorted. "Desa no way mesa stayin' heah." She whirled away from the human and scurried in the direction the two combatants had taken. Then she whirled back. "An' getten yousa own stick!" She disappeared into the brush.
Treese trotted after her. "C'mon, wesa needsa go." But Graf noticed that she stooped and picked up several palm-sized stones.
The veermok slashed at Tarpals, scoring his shoulder and back with its claws. The Gungan stumbled and fell, face down, fingers scrabbling at the dirt beneath him. He rolled, flinging a handful of mud and stones into the veermok's eyes. The animal swung blindly and missed; Tarpals regained his footing and bounded out of reach.
Gaining a few moments breathing space, he leaned his back against a tree and listened for pursuit. The veermok's injury slowed it, but also made it doubly dangerous and persistent. The best the Gungan could do was keep moving, hoping to wear the animal down, and escape back to the entrance of the Sacred Place. If the veermok followed him, once outside the shrine he was free to use his weapons to defend himself. Within the Sacred Place, he was allowed to use only the tools nature provided - sticks, stones, vines, and his own strength and cunning.
As long as the animal was following him, it wasn't attacking the Gungan children. Tarpals watched as the veermok's bulk moved toward him through the trees. Hesitating until he was sure the creature had seen him, he sprinted forward in the brush and heard the veermok crashing after him. Several long strides brought him to the edge of the trees.
The Gungan skidded to a halt at the lip of an embankment. The earth below had been cut away by the elements, forming a cliff that hung over a grassy riverbank. Tarpals threw a glance over his shoulder. A rasping snarl warned of the veermok's approach. With only a body-length of open space between the woods and the cliff edge, the Gungan had little room to maneuver. Tarpals crouched, waiting for the veermok to appear. If he circled back into the woods, he could keep some of the trees between himself and the pursuing animal.
The veermok's grey form appeared at the edge of the woods, but as the Gungan tensed for another sprint, something flat and grey slammed into the back of the animal's head. Tarpals caught a whoop of excitement from somewhere behind the veermok. The ape-like creature turned, snarling, and a second stone flew out of the woods and cracked against the animal's muzzle. With a howl, the veermok charged back into the woods. The Gungan sprang forward, circling to cut the animal off.
"Dassa good shot!" Rift called to Treese. Beside her, Graf was clutching his stick and staring at the form of the veermok, which was howling with anger and charging toward them. Rift, stationed at the base of a stout tree, pulled a bottom branch back, bending it almost double. As the veermok lurched into sight, she let go. The branch snapped forward into the animal's stomach. The veermok roared and clawed at the wood furiously. The branch splintered under the attack. The veermok thrust past it and charged Rift, who turned and leaped for a low-hanging branch.
The veermok's claws scrabbled on the bark of the tree as it launched itself after her. Racing up behind it, Graf swung his stick in an arc; the stick shattered as it struck the veermok's back. Bellowing, the animal turned on the human, who dropped the stick and backpedaled furiously, trying to get beyond the reach of the claws. Treese squealed in terror. The veermok reared up - and the grey form of Naamana Tarpals flashed past Graf to slam into the animal's flank. The momentum of the Gungan's charge bore both of them toward the drop-off, and Tarpals shoved and wrestled with the animal to force it further toward the cliff. The veermok went backwards over the edge, claws flailing. Tarpals managed to catch the small branches of brush at the lip of the drop and slow himself, but both legs swung out over the edge and he too disappeared from sight. The brush bent with him - and held.
For a moment the young Gungans and human froze, unable to believe the confrontation was over. Then Treese managed to clamber down from her perch and scurried to the edge of the cliff. "Hurry - hesa still hangin' on," she called over her shoulder, reaching over the edge to grasp the lieutenant's wrists. Both Rift and Graf raced after her, and between the three of them they managed to drag the larger Gungan back onto level ground. Rift caught a glimpse of the grey form of the veermok, which lay unmoving in the grass below.
No sooner had they released Tarpals than the Gungan stumbled to his feet and staggered away from Graf. Three steps away he dropped to one knee, doubled over, gasping. He bared his teeth at the human. "Yousa should not bees here! Thisen Sacred Place!" He turned on Treese and Rift and shifted to High Gungan. "What were you thinking, bringing a Naaboo here? This is no place for one of them!"
Treese moved over to stand between the human and the lieutenant. "Hesa living t'ing," she said in Bassic, so both could understand her. "All living t'ings welcome in Sacred Places." She pointed over the edge of the cliff. "Just liken veermok."
For a few moments the lieutenant crouched, looking back and forth from Treese to the human. Finally his breathing slowed and he managed to stand mostly upright. He shook his head. "Thass question for shrine-keepers to decide. The other Naaboo, theysa come looking for yousa, yiss?"
Graf nodded. "If Teln? got back to them, then they know what happened, and they're probably searching for me right now."
"And oursa patrol hass found dem. Thass what'n the horn call'n sess," Tarpals said. He leaned against a tree for support. "Wesa needsa go. Mesa needin' my gear."
Treese and Rift immediately set out at a trot along the crest of the hill on which they stood, heading for the path. Graf followed more cautiously; Tarpals, still unsteady on his feet, brought up the rear, occasionally leaning against trees and statuary to rest. Once on the path, Rift kept a steady pace, but Graf and Treese hung back with the young lieutenant. Finally, Graf stopped and held out a hand. "Would it help if you leaned on me?"
For a moment he thought the Gungan would refuse. Finally Tarpals nodded wearily and accepted the human's shoulder. The four wound their way along the path, reaching the entrance to the Sacred Place nearly half an hour later.
Tarpals carefully bent down and picked up the horn. Raising it to his lips he blew a series of notes that echoed off the hills and eventually faded away into silence. "Now wesa wait." He detached himself from Graf's shoulder and sank into a sitting position next to his gear.
The four of them sat or stood in silence. Periodically Tarpals would repeat the notes on the horn. Drawn by the notes of the horn, the kaadu trotted out of the brush to nuzzle his rider, crooning softly and pausing briefly to cautiously examine the unfamiliar human. Finally Treese and Rift caught the sound of a heavy animal moving toward them. Tarpals raised his head and opened his eyes, then struggled to his feet. A rider, mounted on a kaadu, came trotting towards them. The young naamana managed a salute as the kaadu came to a halt.
"Captain Hespa says -" the rider began in High Gungan, then broke off as he caught sight of Graf.
Several minutes were spent in explanations. Finally the rider waved them all to silence. "Stay heah," he ordered, wheeling the kaadu in a circle. "Wesa be right back." He took off at a canter.
Captain Hespa stood, arms folded, watching the small group of humans before her. "No fu'ther," she repeated. "Dissen oursan terr'tory."
The older human male in charge of the search party drew himself up. "Look, we don't mean to trespass, but one of our people is still missing. He and his guide were attacked by a veermok. All we want to do is find him!"
"Yousa gottens no beesniss-" Hespa began, but was interrupted by the sound of a kaadu crashing through the brush. The scout who had gone to investigate the call of the horn appeared as his kaadu trotted up the hill.
"Captain! We've found their missing youngster!"
Rift stared at the human in amazement. "Yousa c'wazy? No one turnin' down a chance for ridin' a kaadu."
Graf was eying the animal and its rider warily. "Is it safe?"
Rift snorted. "'Course'n it's safe. Heah. Mesa show yous." She trotted to where the kaadu was crouched, and scampered up the animal's leg to swing herself deftly into the saddle behind the rider. "See?"
Graf finally approached the animal, which turned its head to sniff at him but let him follow the smaller Gungan up into the saddle. It was a tight fit with three, but the Gungan scout and the human were both fairly lean. Treese was lifted up behind a second rider, and a third offered Tarpals a hand, pulling the younger Gungan into the saddle behind him and taking the reins of the extra kaadu. In minutes the party was heading toward the grasslands at a trot.
Not long afterward, Captain Hespa and three other riders escorted the Naboo rescue party out of the woods and into the grasslands. Once he had been reunited with the search party, Graf had insisted on walking the rest of the way, Rift trotting beside him. The human teenager had talked almost nonstop, with Rift occasionally adding comments (solicited or not). At the edge of the grasslands, he broke from the party and ran forward to embrace a pair of humans, one male and one female.
Rift boldly tugged on the trouser leg of the human next to her. "Whosa dey?"
"Those are Graf's parents," the human replied.
Finally Graf led the human pair to the party of Gungans. "We want to thank you for helping our son," the female told Hespa.
The Gungan captain eyed the humans silently for a moment. "Yousa welcome," she replied at last. "But mesa not the one yousa should bees talkin' to." Hespa glanced over her shoulder at Tarpals. "Are you up to this, Lieutenant?" she asked in High Gungan.
The younger Gungan watched the humans warily, then took a deep breath and nodded.
"Yes, Captain." The kaadu's rider urged his mount into a crouch, and Tarpals slid off. Clamping his teeth together to keep from wincing at the pain in his back and shoulders, he stepped resolutely around the animal and faced the Naaboo.
"Dissen Naamana Tarpals," Hespa told the humans.
The human woman stopped an arms-length away from him, apparently taking his stiff posture as a warning to stay back. She might be afraid of being bitten, he thought wryly; according to his elders, the Naaboo saw the Gungans as a primitive and only marginally civilized race.
"My son tells me you're responsible for fighting off the veermok that attacked him and his guide," the woman said. The male moved up to stand protectively beside her.
"Yessah -" replied Tarpals, and stopped. He was accustomed to addressing his elders and superiors by title, but he had no idea what to call this Naaboo female.
She didn't seem to notice. "Thank you. Our son means a great deal to us. Just saying 'thank you' doesn't seem sufficient, but I can't think what we could possibly offer you to show our gratitude."
Tarpals couldn't think of anything the humans might have that he would want either. "Deysa no need for dat," he told her finally.
"May we at least offer you medical treatment? Graf said you were injured."
Tarpals tensed. The Naaboo might not be the mysterious monsters some of the Gungans considered them, but Tarpals had no desire to let them poke and prod him to satisfy their medical curiosity. "No." He paused, then added, "Thanka yous."
The woman glanced at her male companion, who shook his head. Then she held out her hand, palm up. The Gungan drew himself up cautiously, but she stopped with her hand extended part way toward him and held it there. Apparently he was expected to do the same. He copied the gesture, hand out, palm up, and the woman slowly turned her hand over and moved it to cover his. She grasped his longer fingers and squeezed gently. "I know it may not sound like much, but thank you." Tarpals bowed slightly, feeling awkward and very much aware of his commanding officer's gaze.
"Hey!" came Rift's squeaky voice. "How 'bout ussan?" She was standing next to Captain Hespa's kaadu. "Wesa hepped, too!" She pointed up at Treese, who was still sitting astride one of the mounts.
Hespa hesitated, then nodded to the other rider, who allowed Treese to slide down and join Rift in the grass.
Looking extremely pleased with herself, Rift all but pranced up to the human female, who crouched down so that her eyes were level with the Gungan's. Treese edged up behind her, carefully placing her hands on Rift's shoulders, as if ready to pull her away should the Naaboo turn out to be dangerous after all. The human female held out a hand. Rift reached forward and took hold of the human's fingers with both hands, spreading the fingers apart and peering at them. Four fingers and a thumb, one more finger than a Gungan had. I wonder if they get them tangled up, Rift mused. She lifted her face to the human's and sniffed. Then she grinned broadly and crowed, "Heddo!"
The human woman smiled. "Hello. You're one of the Gungans who rescued Graf?"
"Yiss. Dat's ussan. Mesa Rift, and dissen Treese." Treese managed a nervous smile and waved one hand from the wrist. "And da naamana." The woman smiled up at Tarpals, but he merely gazed back, expressionless.
"Don' mind himsa," Rift said in a conspiratorial tone, and the woman turned her attention back to the children. "Hesa not berry friendly sometimes." Rift studied the human's face, with its small nose and tiny mouth. A long sheet of black fur covered the top of the human's head and shoulders. The female's clothes were a little more ornate than Graf's, and one of her hands bore a ring. Her male companion had apparently lost much of his head fur; he was built more broadly than the female, but dressed just as well. The human woman was studying Rift right back, apparently more comfortable with the younger Gungans than with their older companion.
"I see. Well, I wanted to thank you for helping Graf." She smiled. "I may not know much about Gungans, but I do know a little about growing children." Turning to the male behind her, she asked, "Do we have any-" here she used a word that Rift had never heard before, "- left?"
The male nodded and disappeared into the aircraft. A few moments later he reappeared with a box in hand. The female took the box and opened it. A dozen round, crumbly shapes were nestled inside some white sheets that reminded Rift of very thin leather. The sheets crackled as the woman lifted out some of the round things and offered them to the Gungans.
"These are cookies," she explained. Rift held out a hand, palm up, and the woman laid two of the round things in her hand, then held two more out to Treese. The second Gungan hesitated. Rift sniffed at the cookies, and the tip of her tongue suddenly darted out to lick the side of her muzzle. The cookies smelled a little like the latakens the Gungans made of flat disks of nut-flour, but there was also a scent of sweetness that latakens didn't have. Treese sniffed too, then carefully reached out to accept the offered gift.
For a moment both Gungans studied the cookies; then Rift took a nibble. It was like latakens with sweet matan sap drizzled over them. Rift nodded to Treese, who followed her example and took a bite. Both Gungans grinned at each other, then at the woman.
"T'anka yous!" squeaked Treese. The woman smiled and rose, leaving the two young Gungans to exclaim over their treasure. The male behind her also smiled, and offered two more of the cookies to Tarpals, who hesitated but finally accepted them and tucked them into a small belt pouch. The two humans moved off to approach Hespa. Graf stayed behind to seat himself in the grass beside the two youngsters.
"I'm sorry for the trouble we've caused," the woman said. "My son is curious about the natural world, so when we set our aircar down to get out and stretch our legs, he wanted to explore the forest a little. We had no idea there were any of your people in the area. Is there a permanent village near here? Perhaps we could stop again and -"
Hespa shook her head emphatically. "No. The Naaboo and the Gungans needsa stay 'part. Yousa leave ussan 'lone. Wesa happy yoursa fam'ly iss safe, but wesa want nothing more from yousan. Go."
Both humans looked disappointed, but the woman nodded. "I understand. Thank you." She and the male turned away and walked back toward their ship.
Still sitting in the grass, Graf sighed. "I guess we're leaving," he told the two younger Gungans. "Listen, thanks for everything. Maybe someday your people will change their minds about humans. I'd like to come back."
"Mebbe," Rift said, but she sounded uncertain. She licked the last of the crumbs from her muzzle, then stood up. When the human was on his feet, she lunged forward and wrapped both arms around his waist. "Wesa gonna miss yousa," she told him.
"Me, too." Graf gave her a careful squeeze, then repeated the gesture with Treese.
The heavier female tugged on Graf's tunic until he bent down. "Remember," she said, "all living t'ings welcome in Sacred Place. Someday yousa commin' back, heah?"
Graf Zapalo grinned at her. "I'll try. I promise."
26 years and six month later
"Do you think we'll see any veermok?" Six-year-old Serrin Zapalo walked hand in hand with a heavyset Ankura Gungan female up the trail that led to Matawba settlement's Sacred Place. Scattered behind them were a handful of Gungans and half a dozen humans, including Queen Amidala herself. At the request of her Minister of Science, the Queen was paying a visit of state to the shrine.
Treese smiled as she led the boy and his party up the trail. A number of the settlement's Gungans, while they tolerated the Naaboos' visit, had opposed allowing the humans to enter the Sacred Place. Treese had drawn herself up to her full (and impressive) height, slapped her fist against her chest, and stated, "My am Shrine-Keeper heah. Iffen my say the Naaboo can enter the Sacred Place, the Naaboo enter the Sacred Place!" No one had dared argue after that.
Now she and Serrin paused at the top of the hill leading into the Sacred Place to let the rest of the party catch up. The boy's father walked directly behind them, deep in conversation with a lean, agile female Gungan scout who was happily reminiscing about a day many years ago when she and her friend had found a stray Naaboo in the woods. Without missing a beat, Rift grinned at Graf and stooped to pick up a stout stick. The Minister of Science grinned back at her and copied her actions as they entered the shrine. At the back of the party a Gungan Captain paused to lay weapons, gauntlets, and a leather face covering at the base of a tree, in preparation for entering the Sacred Place. For a few moments he gazed up the trail at the party now disappearing over the lip of the hill, then inhaled deeply and strode forward to catch up.
At the front of the party, Treese smiled at the boy. "See a veermok? Whosan knows?" She gestured into the narrow, wooded valley with its streams and stones and relics and statuary. "Dissen the Sacred Place. Anyt'ing can happen heah."
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