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The time is eight years after the battle of Endor.
Grand Admiral Thrawn and the resurrected Emperor have been defeated and their forces scattered, leaving only bickering warlords to fight over the scraps of Imperial war machinery deep in the Core Systems, far behind enemy lines. The renegade Admiral Daala is believed dead, but with her lone remaining Star Destroyer she has limped back to the shelter of the tattered Empire, where she hopes one day to return to the fight for lost Imperial territory....
On Yavin 4 Luke Skywalker has formed an academy to reestablish the Jedi Knights, former guardians of the Old Republic. He has already taught many students how to use their powers with the Force; more candidates come, while others decide to go forth and help safeguard the fragile alliance of the New Republic.
In recent months Luke has destroyed the automated Dreadnaught, the Eye of Palpatine, and rescued the spirit of the Jedi woman Callista, who was trapped in the Dreadnaught's computer for decades. Luke has fallen deeply in love with her, even as she inhabits the body of one of his lost students. Though Callista is now alive again and free to love Luke Skywalker, she has inexplicably lost all of her Jedi powers in the ordeal.
Luke is desperate to find some way for Callista to get her abilities back. No matter where the search may lead him....
The banthas plodded in single file, leaving only a narrow trail of scuffed footprints across the dunes.
Twin suns hammered down on the procession. Waves of heat rippled like cloaking shields, blurring the distance and making an oven of the Dune Sea. Indigenous creatures took shelter in whatever shadow they could find until the firestorm of afternoon trickled away into the cooler dusk.
The banthas moved with no noise other than the muffled crunching of their footsteps in the sand. Swathed in strips of cloth, the Tusken Raiders astride the shaggy beasts looked from side to side, keeping watch.
Wrapped entirely in bandages, yet still uneasy about the disguise, Han Solo looked out through narrow metal tubes designed to shield the eyes from blowing grit. His mouth was covered with a corroded metal filter for the sand; the filter contained a small internal moisturizer to make Tatooine's fiery air more breathable. The other Sand People had tiny ventilators studded around their desert coverings. Only their strongest survived to adulthood, and they prided themselves on it.
Han rode on his bantha, hoping to remain inconspicuous in the middle of the procession. The hairy beast swayed as it walked, and Ha tried not to clutch its scalloped, curving horns more often than the other Tusken Raiders did. The bantha's sharp back ridges were covered with matted fur, and the disconcertingly thin saddle made the ride excruciatingly uncomfortable.
Han swallowed, taking another sip of his precious water and biting back a complaint. This had, after all, been his own crazy suggestion. He just hadn't expected Luke Skywalker would be so eager to agree, and now Han was stuck. The mission was vital to the New Republic, and he had to follow through.
With a muttered command, the lead raider urged his bantha to greater speed. The procession trudged through fine sand, winding along the crest of a shifting dune that stood like a towering sentinel in the arid ocean. Han did not grasp the dune's great size until they had ascended for the better part of an hour without reaching t-he top.
The suns grew even hotter, if that were possible. The banthas coughed and snorted, but the Sand People were focused on a mission.
Han swallowed, trying to ease his parched throat. Finally, he could remain silent no longer and whispered into the short-range transmitter implanted in his breathmask. "Luke, what's goin' on?" he said. "I've got a bad feeling about whatever they're up to."
It took Luke Skywalker a moment to respond. Han watched the thin rider two banthas ahead of him sit up straighter; Luke seemed far more comfortable in his disguise than Han felt. Of course, Luke had grown up on Tatooine--but the young man's voice now sounded bone weary as it came over the voice pickup in Han's ear.
"Nothing to do with us, Han," he said. "A few of the Sand People have vague suspicions, but they haven't centered on us yet. I'm using the Force to distract anyone who pays too much attention. No, this is something different entirely. A great tragedy . . . you'll see." Luke heaved a long breath through his breathmask. "Can't talk now. Have to concentrate. Wait until they're preoccupied, and I'll explain more."
Up ahead, Luke slumped forward in his Tusken disguise. Han knew his friend was expending an incredible amount of energy to lull the Sand People into ignoring their two unwanted guests. Luke was able to use his abilities to muddle the minds of weak individuals, but never before had Han seen his friend manipulate so many minds at once.
The trick was to keep the Sand People from noticing them; then it was easy for Luke to divert a few stray thoughts. If someone sounded an alarm and all the Sand People focused on the intruders, though, not even a Jedi Master would be able to keep up the charade. Then there would be a fight.
Tucked under his tattered robes, Han carried his trusty blaster pistol. He didn't know if he and Luke could take on the entire band of raiders--but they would make a good accounting of themselves if circumstances ever came to that.
The lead rider reached the peak of the sand mountain. The bantha's wide feet trampled the wind-sharpened edge atop the dune. The air was still, as if stunned. The sands glittered like a billion miniature novas.
Han adjusted the corroded filters over his eyes. The other banthas plodded up, surrounding their leader, who raised his cloth-wrapped arm, brandishing a wicked-looking gaffi stick. Behind the Tusken leader, his single passenger sat slumped and sullen, though it was difficult to understand the body language of these masked and alien people.
Han sensed somehow that this withdrawn passenger was the center of the ceremony. Was some kind of honor being bestowed, Han wondered, or was this man being exiled from the tribe?
The passenger slid off the lead bantha, letting himself drop from the shaggy beast. He clung to the woolly fur as if in desperation, but no sounds came from his bandaged face, not even the guttural grunts and snorts the Tuskens used as language. Head down, his eye tubes pointed toward the churned sand where bantha footprints had trampled the pristine dune, the passenger stood dejected in front of the lead rider.
The leader waited beside his mount, holding the upraised gafm stick; the other Sand People climbed down from their banthas. They thrashed their own weapons in the air. Han and Luke copied the gestures, trying to blend in.
In his disguise Luke moved slowly and wearily. This mission was taking a heavy toll on the Jedi Knight, and Han hoped they would reach their destination soon.
The forlorn passenger hesitated at the edge of the dune, gazing across the sweeping ocean of loose sands that spread to the horizon. The Sand People stood at attention and raised their gafm sticks high.
While they concentrated on the intensity of the moment, Luke's voice buzzed in Han's ear. "All right, they're distracted," he said. "I can explain. The lone Tusken Raider lost his bantha three days ago. A krayt dragon killed it, and unfortunately our friend there got away."
"What do you mean, unfortunately?" Han mumbled, hoping his voice wouldn't carry over the restless sounds of the Sand People.
"The Tusken Raiders have a very close relationship with their banthas," Luke said. "It is a mental bonding, a symbiosis, almost like a marriage. They become part of each other, bantha and Tusken. When one member of the pair is killed, the other is incomplete--like an amputee." Unconsciously, Luke flexed his cyborg hand. "He has no place in Tusken society though he is more an objea of pity than of hatred. Many believe he should have died beside his bantha, no matter what the circumstances."
"So, are they just going to kill him?" Han asked.
"Yes and no," Luke said. "They believe the spirit of the dead bantha must decide. If the spirit wishes for him to bond with another mount, our friend will find a free wild bantha in the desert, join with it, and return in triumph to the tribe, where he will be fully accepted-- even highly revered. However, if the bantha's spirit wants his rider to join him in death, then the outcast will wander hopelessly in the desert until he dies."
Han barely shook his head. "Doesn't sound like his chances are too hot."
Luke said, "Probably not--but that is their way."
The Sand People waited for the exile to make the first move. Finally, with a single anguished cry that might have been triumph or challenge, he plunged down the steep and shifting slope of the dune. The Sand People tilted their heads toward the burning sky and let out a loud ululating cry that made Han shudder.
The Tusken Raiders thrashed their gaffi sticks to wish their com-
panion well. The banthas raised up their squarish, shaggy heads and bellowed in unison, a rumbling, growling cry that shook the Dune Sea.
The lone raider waded down the steep slope. Dusty golden sand flew up around him as his feet and legs sank in. His robes flapped behind him as he plodded on. He tripped and tumbled, flailing his arms, and finally jabbed his gaffi stick deep into the uncertain surface, one arm thrust out to gain balance, leaving a swath of disturbed sand behind him.
The exiled raider heaved himself to his feet again. Sand trickled from his flowing cloaks, but still he marched ahead, not looking back. A few of the banthas bellowed again. The sound was swallowed up in the empty vastness. The outcast's drab garments soon made him disappear into the landscape.
The lead raider turned and, with a single energetic leap, mounted his bantha. The other Sand People climbed into their saddles. The banthas snorted and stomped on the loose sand.
Han got back to his seat. Luke was the last to balance himself again, and by that time the lead raider had already turned the hairy beast to the side and began to plunge down the shallower slope at the back of the dune. The other Sand People followed, marching closely in line to mask their tracks.
Han risked a glance behind him. He could just make out the single exiled raider dwindling in the distance, moving with slow determination as ripples of heat blurred his tiny figure. Soon he was swallowed completely by the unforgiving jaws of the Dune Sea
The heat of the day seemed to last forever, and Han rode in a fugue state, barely aware of his surroundings, self-hypnotized by a litany of rocking footfalls. Ahead, Luke continued to sit upright on the bantha saddle, though he wavered from time to time. Han wondered what sort of energy the Jedi Knight was tapping into.
The group camped in a thick maze of rocky badlands punctuated by pockmarked stone needles rising out of the windblown sand. Darkness fell quickly with the double sunset, and the temperature plummeted. For a while the rocks continued to throb with stored heat, but they quickly cooled.
Grunting and chufmng to each other in their baffling language, the Sand People pitched camp. Each knew his or her own duties--Han could not tell whether the individual Tuskens were male or female. Luke had said that only assigned mates were able to see each other with faces unwrapped.
Two of the younger people encircled a flat area with smaller rocks, and piled bricks of what Han realized must be dried bantha dung, the only fuel source available out in the barrens.
Han and Luke moved about, trying to appear busy. The banthas, not corralled or tied in any way, were simply led to a side canyon where they could rest for the night. Other raiders broke out packages of stringy dried meat. Han and Luke took their share and squatted on boulders.
Carefully, Han lifted his metal breathmask and jammed a piece of the meat into his mouth. He chewed and wasted several drinks of water as he tried to make the jerky palatable enough to swallow. "What is this stuff?" he muttered into the voice pickup.
Luke answered without looking at him. "Dried and salted dewback flank, I believe."
'Tastes like leather," Han muttered.
"It's more nutritious than leather . . . I think," Luke said. He turned his metal eyetubes toward Han, who could detect no expression on the wrappedup face. Han became disoriented if he swiveled his head too fast while looking through the small holes in the eyetubes.
As the Sand People finished their meal, they gathered around the blaze as a tall raider hunched near the brighter part of the fire. From the careful way he moved, the slow placement of limbs--not to mention the silent reverence the other Tuskens granted him--Han got the impression that this was a very old person.
"The storyteller," Luke's voice said in his ear.
Other raiders brought out long poles and unfurled bright clan banners marked with jagged slashes, some sort of violent written language. These must be totems, symbols not seen by the outside world at all.
A young, wiry raider sat next to the storyteller. Others came back from their bantha saddles with trophies, visual aids for the story. They
held out scraps of rough cloth, a bloodied banner. Han saw battered and cracked stormtrooper helmets like the skulls of fallen enemies; a luminous milky gem the size of his fist, which Han recognized with a start as a krayt dragon pearl, one of the rarest treasures ever to come from Tatooine.
The old man raised up his bandage-wrapped hands and began to speak. The other raiders sat enraptured as stories spilled out in low grunts and barely recognizable sounds that might have been words.
Luke translated for Han. "They're telling of their exploits, how they took an entire stormtrooper regiment many years ago. How they slew a krayt dragon and took the pearls out of its gullet. How they defeated another Tusken clan, slaughtered all their adults and adopted their children into the clan, thereby increasing their numbers."
The storyteller finished his tale and squatted lower, gesturing to the young apprentice who glanced around. Two Tusken Raiders stood on either side of the boy, holding their gaffi sticks with the axheads pointing down at the apprentice. The storyteller raised a trembling hand and turned it sideways like a knife blade. The apprentice hesitated for a moment and began to speak slowly.
"Now what?" Han said.
Luke answered. "That boy is being trained as the dan's next storyteller. The Tuskens believe very much in inflexible tradition. Once a story is set down as an oral path, it must remain forever unaltered. This boy has learned the story he is now telling about a raid on a moisture farmer who attempted to bring peace between humans and Jawas and Sand People."
"But why the weapons?" Han said. "Looks like they're ready to snuff the poor kid."
"They will, if he makes so much as one mistake. If the boy alters a single word, the storyteller will chop down with his hand, and the Raiders will kill the apprentice immediately. They