He freed them all... from a certain point of view.
The shuttle's ramp lowered with a pneumatic hiss. Darth Vader ignored the military protocol that dictated that he allow his troops to secure the area before descending, and strode ahead down the ramp. The red and white armoured field troops of Palpatine's personal Legion fanned out behind him alert for any sign of an ambush. Vader turned on his polished boot heel, gazing around at the tranquil mountain valley his duty had brought him to.
The late afternoon sun slanted low across the lush mountain pasture. Flocks of avians, startled by the shuttle's arrival, were circling in again to continue feeding in the long grass. Winter's chill was in the air, although the Dark Lord could not feel it.
Vader studied it all for one long moment. The HUD in his helmet informed him clinically that the air here was clean and safe for humans to breathe. Not for the first time, Vader wondered if his Master had included that feature in his helm's display to remind him that he could never breathe freely again. It was entirely possible; Palpatine's sense of humour was best described as sadistic. The quality of the air aside, there was something else here, something his HUD could not detect and analyse. Vader centred himself and reached out with the Force, scenting, tracing that elusive signature like a hunting vornskyr. Yes. His information had been correct. One of the refugees had sought out this serene valley and gone to ground. She was here, and desperately trying to hide her presence in the Force, but the Force served him now.
The Dark Lord ordered his troops to remain with the shuttle, turned and strode away up the narrow valley towards a sheer cliff midway where the mountain loomed over the green pasture. He scattered bristle headed, brightly coloured avians and clouds of autumn insects in his wake, ignoring them all. The Force guided him, as it always did, and brought him to the base of the granite cliff. Mica glinted in the dying sunlight, and shadows lengthened among the boulders and cracked rock that seemed to buttress the black wall. And between the ruins of once broken column of rock and another, he saw it. A crack in the living rock, just big enough to admit him.
Vader edged carefully through the narrow gap, wary of an ambush from within. There was none, and he straightened up within the high, narrow passageway behind the cliff face. Obviously his quarry had not the wit to take advantage of such an easily defended location... He held that thought until bleak amusement and disgust overwhelmed him. Of course she hadn't, she was a nursemaid, not a warrior. He supped a brief taste of the chagrin he had suppressed upon receiving this assignment. There were Jedi warriors yet unaccounted for, and his Master sent him after the childminder. Hardly a fitting challenge for one of his abilities, as the slaughter of the Temple staff, almost all children and non-combatants, had proved.
A whisper then, from an outside source. "Patience..."
Vader's gut clenched. His Master's habit of 'coming with him' on these little adventures was disconcerting at best, dangerous at worst. The Dark Lord could no longer say that even his thoughts were his own.
A ghostly chuckle, then the faint presence seemed to fade.
The passage he now stood in went straight and true into the heart of the living rock, and its far end was bathed in the dull orange glow of a fire. She had evidently given up trying to hide from him. He started forward warily. The flickering light cast strange shadows on the rock walls, and more than once he fancied he saw something move there. It reminded him uncomfortably of another cave, not so long ago, where he had caught a glimpse of his own future.
There was a flicker then of a tiny white figure on the rock beside him, and he turned with a snarl to see... nothing. Just the shadows playing tricks, and nothing more.
Composing himself, Darth Vader ignored his active imagination and stepped into the cave at the tunnel's end. The scene within was almost homey. A wooden sleeping cot heavily draped with blankets to the floor stood against the far wall, and meagre Jedi possessions were scattered around the fire in centre of the cave, upon which a pot of stew sat bubbling. And beyond the fire, his quarry...
She was an old woman, human and frail. He remembered her from his infrequent visits to the nursery on errands. She was thinner now, her dirty Jedi robes hung awkwardly on her angular frame. Her unruly silver hair lay scattered across bony shoulders, and her green eyes were calm above the burning emerald blade she held slanted across her body in the guard position. For a few moments, the only sounds in the cave were the crackling of the fire and the mechanical, rhythmic sound of Vader's breathing.
"Jadna Dendark, under Imperial law you are hereby convicted of high treason and sentenced to death" the Dark Lord intoned formally.
"I am not the traitor here, Jedi Skywalker" Dendark replied softly.
His respirator had a moment of trouble with the harsh bark of laughter that escaped him. "Are you going to fight me, old woman? I didn't even think you knew how to hold a lightsaber..."
"Stuff and nonsense, boy" she snapped. "I was a field Jedi once, long before you were even... spawned."
It was an insult, calculated to cause him to rage and he attempted to ignore it as such, but the contempt in her voice caused the blackness to rise within him once more. He seized it and held it firm.
"You are a traitor," he avowed, drawing and igniting his own blade. "And you will be destroyed, as you deserve."
Dendark shook her head. "I never worked out how you managed to plot that course, Skywalker. What has Palpatine done to you, that you cannot see what you have become?"
They circled the fire and each other, the flames causing great, jagged shadows to leap up behind them and follow them in a stately dance.
"I see what you do not," Vader rasped. "You are but a slave to the will of the Council, and the Council betrayed those it served."
"And I see that Yoda was right to doubt you." Dendark's green eyes stared into the glassy black eyepieces of his mask, and her mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "You should never have been trained. The teachings were wasted on you."
It was another calculated strike, and this time he visibly flinched. The elderly Jedi Master sensed her advantage and pressed it home, wounding her enemy with words. "Coward. Traitor."
With an incoherent bellow of rage, Vader launched himself at the old woman, battered her blade aside with his own and smashed his metal fist into her face. Dendark crashed into the wall, spitting blood and teeth. Her lightsaber clattered to the floor and rolled away. He summoned it to his hand and ignited the blade, holding the tip to her throat.
"Murderer," she gasped. "You are unworthy to bear the title of Jedi, /Darth Vader/. You are lost, a slave to a master who will see you destroyed. He's already had at least two apprentices, hasn't he?"
The Dark Lord bared his teeth behind his mask. "I am a slave no longer, witch," he snarled. "I am /free/." He whipped the emerald blade away from her scrawny throat, spun it over his hand and plunged it down into her chest. Jadna Dendark's eyes stood out from their sockets for a long moment and her mouth gaped in a silent scream as her life fled her body to join with the Force beyond.
For a long moment, Vader stood over the body. Then he turned away towards the passageway and the valley beyond. He stepped over the corpse and was about to cross the threshold when something tickled at the back of his mind. Now the old woman was dead, her Force signature dissipating, he could sense something else, something she'd hidden from him beneath her own presence...
Vader turned at the entrance to the passage and gestured sharply at the wooden bed on the other side of the cave. It flew aside to reveal two small human boys, twins, huddled together beneath it. They looked barely older than four or five and blinked up at him with all the calm innocence of the very young. Then, as one, their gazes travelled to the corpse of their protector, and back to Vader again.
"You're the bad man," one of the boys informed the Dark Lord seriously.
"Is that what Dendark told you?" Vader rasped, aware that they were probably too young to fear him.
"She is one with the Force now, isn't she?" the other child piped.
"Yes. Do you not grieve for her?" Vader asked them, crouching down to their level. The boys stared at him, puzzled by the question.
"What Jedi you would have made," he murmured with a twinge of sadness, placing a large hand on the shoulder of each. "So young, and already you've forgotten how to feel."
The twin gazed calmly into the hideous mask, their faces reflected on the glassy black surface. "Master Jadna says the bad men want to kill us," they said together. "You're going to kill us."
"No, my boys," Darth Vader said gently. "I'm going to free you."
Moments later, he stepped from the cave into the dim passage and felt, once again, the brush of a familiar mind against his.
"Lord Vader, is it done?" The cracked rasp that was his Master's voice filled his mind.
"It is, my Master. Dendark is dead," he growled shortly, striding towards the cleft and the fresh air he could not taste.
"And?" the Emperor prompted with his customary perception.
"And the children she was protecting," Vader said, hating.
"Excellent, my young apprentice. You have done well." Palpatine's voice rang with satisfaction.
His apprentice, however, was distracted. Once again, Vader thought he saw a tiny white figure etched in the rock beside him and now he stared at the wall unseeing as in his mind's eye the little figure reached out with black claws to tear apart its own people. Then he blinked and came back to himself, and there was nothing there. Gritting his teeth, he strode for the exit.
The Emperor's mocking laughter filled his mind as he stepped out into the soft evening light.
"You hate me, don't you?" Palpatine whispered, amused. "My loyal apprentice."
"I am your servant, Master." Vader thought mechanically.
"No," the Emperor's voice was as soft and chill as the mountain breeze as he allowed the connection to fade. "/Slave/..."