In which the captain's nemeses are introduced
Lorne had charts spread all over his table. Sleeves rolled up, he leant over them, tracing courses. The last patrol had brought in nothing, and the newest bones at Gallows Point were already four months old. Although the number of pirates was decreasing by the year, there were still far too many of them for his liking. His hand tightened on the edge of the table. He was still out there, laughing at them all from his ship of murderers.
Every night he prayed that the next dawn would be the one that he captured him. Every morning and every sunset he scanned the horizon for those pale sails. Every day for nigh on seven years…
He slammed his hand down onto the chart, his palm encompassing many leagues of ocean. If only it were so easy! If only he could reach out and pluck that foul creature from the waters, and crush him in his palm. If only the world was rid of him! It would be a thorn plucked from his flesh, and a knife from his heart.
He had heard the sound of the boat returning. News from Kingston. It was always at its worst when he was awaiting news. So many false sightings! So many near misses, when his heart was pounding in his chest with expectation, but the pirate slipped away. Perhaps this was the one. Perhaps…
"Captain?" The knock on his door came ahead of time, showing that the person who had returned with the boat had walked faster than normal.
He composed himself, hands on the edge of the table. "Come in."
Lieutenant Barrington's face was flushed; after many years at sea, he had never adapted to these warmer climes. "He was spotted, sir," he said without preamble. "Just before dawn, two hours out of Kingston on a bearing west south west."
There was no need to say who 'he' was. "Then we follow. Make ready to cast off."
"With respect, sir…" Barrington moistened his lips. "We're still loading food and water. It will be at least an hour."
"Damn it!" Lorne slammed a fist into the table. And hour could make all the difference, but he had been long enough at sea to know that lack of water could make even more. Duty to King and country meant little to men who were dying of thirst.
He forced himself to stay calm. "Any other news?"
"A English gentleman went missing in the night. His man was babbling, saying he'd been assaulted by a savage giant, and that when he woke up his master had gone."
"Savage giant," Lorne echoed, feeling as he thought a hound must feel, at the first phantom glimmer of a scent.
"That's what I thought, sir, but why would Sheppard send his bodyguard into Kingston to steal an Englishman? This McKay was newly arrived, I understand, and had made no friends in Kingston. He has no particular wealth or influence."
"No rich lord to pay his ransom?" Lorne sat down, and gestured to Barrington to do the same. "It doubtless means nothing. Leave it to the Kingston authorities to unravel. Port?" He reached for the decanter, and poured two small glasses. If his hand was trembling, it could be attributed to the movement of the ship.
"Thank you, sir." Barrington took a sip, then another. "Forgive me for asking, sir…"
"No need to call me sir, Tom," Lorne said, "not over a glass of port."
Barrington looked at him. "Why do you hate Sheppard so?"
Lorne's hand tightened on the glass. "He's a pirate. The things he's done…"
"We all hate him for that." Barrington's brow was shining with beads of sweat. "We hated Calico Jack, too, and all the others, but with Sheppard, it's…" He stopped; hid himself in the glass of ruby liquid.
He could say so much, or he could say nothing. The man's a traitor; that would be enough. It could not have been the port that loosened his tongue, for he had drunk but a sip. Perhaps it was the hope of an ending that trembled just out of reach. Perhaps it was too many weary fruitless years, without anyone to share them with.
"I served with him," he said, "during the war and before."
Barrington raised his eyebrows, but perhaps he had known this already. It was not that many years ago, and the events of those terrible last hours had been no secret at the time.
He could have stopped there, but he did not. In his mind, he saw those early days at sea, so many years ago. "I was a king's letter boy," he said, "older than all the others at sixteen, and less well-born. Sheppard was fifth lieutenant. Like me, he had joined the Navy later than most men – even later than me. And he was from the colonies, of course, and had but little patronage. But he was kind to me."
But he would not tell Barrington about those hellish early days, outclassed by boys far younger than him, and taunted when the officers weren't looking. The hands could not be openly disrespectful to a gentleman's son, but there were many ways of subtle humiliation. Sheppard had protected him without flourish and fanfare. Quietly but effectively, he had eased those first few months for him.
"In time, I took my exams and made lieutenant, and Sheppard… Well, he was good, very good, but…" There was no need to explain. Barrington and Lorne were from the same class, and had both watched less able men with influence step over them to positions of glory. It had been even harder for Sheppard. Lorne had offered to share what little patronage he had, but Sheppard had refused, and had declared himself content to remain a lieutenant until the end of his days, as long as he could serve on good ships.
"When the war started, we served on different ships, but near the end of the war, I heard that he had at last been given his own ship. I pulled all the strings I possessed, and managed to get posted to his command."
He fell silent. He took another sip, seeing his own reflection in the dark red liquid. His eyes slid shut, and fell into memory. Battles, glorious battles, and Sheppard at the fore. Hours on watch beneath the stars. And then… And then…
"He betrayed us," he said hoarsely. "He was traitor to his Queen and to his country, and he was traitor to…"
To me. Barrington was no fool, and read the truth in the silence. Perhaps Barrington knew what it was like to have an officer you looked up to – someone you admired above anyone else. Not him, though; he was not fool enough to think that of himself.
He placed the port back on the table, suddenly losing the taste for it, and stood up. Barrington rose, too, putting the mask of loyal lieutenant back on his face. "We'll catch him one day, sir," he said.
"Yes," Lorne swore, thinking of the bones on Gallows Hill. "Yes, we will."
Rodney was cursing every pirate who had ever sailed the seven seas. "It's all Plutarch's fault," he said. "If Plutarch hadn't written about pirates, then nobody would have got the idea of trying to make their fortune by preying on others at sea, and we wouldn't have had Calico Jack and William Dampier and… and… and Shakespeare was no better, riddling his plays with pirates, although they were rather unpleasant ones, but if he hadn't, perhaps people would have stayed quietly at home, and then Captain Sheppard wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't be here, immured in a prison cell, forced to put my intellect to the service of evil."
There was nobody there to hear him. Fresh food and water had been placed in his cabin while he had been outside talking to the captain, so at least he wasn't going to starve, but hours had gone by since then, and they had just abandoned him.
"And most of all," he shouted, in case Sheppard was sitting outside, laughing at Rodney's invective, "I hate you, Captain Sheppard. I curse you to the deepest circle of Hell, where there are demons and… and things, and you will suffer for ever more."
There was no laughter. Nobody tore his door open and dragged him off for foul punishment, for being so courageous and resolute as to speak of the captain like that. Nobody came at all, but there were footsteps outside, and the sound of men working on a ship under sail.
Perhaps it was better if the door stayed locked. Perhaps he should barricade it, dragging the table across the door and throwing all his weight against it, so nobody would ever be able to drag him out for torment vile, and Captain Sheppard would never get his diving bell and his enormous haul of ill-gotten treasure.
Then he thought of bones hanging from Gallows Point, and thought what a horrible way it would be to die – slowly starving in a prison until you were nothing but bones.
He picked up his pen; scrawled a few more lines. By the time he surfaced again, he found that he had covered four pages, filling them with words and figures and scratched-out plans. He had no idea what the time was, but his stomach told him that it was at least evening.
He looked back at what he had written; chewed his lip, and wrote more.
"Damn you," he shouted. He placed the pen down, careful not to mar his precious workings, and stamped to the door. "Damn you, Captain Sheppard!"
Because the man had issued a challenge. The foul, unscrupulous, perfidious creature had launched an appeal to Rodney's intellect. If it's beyond your capabilities… And Rodney had to show him that it was precisely within his capabilities, thank you very much. Never let it be said that Edmond Halley could do something that Rodney McKay could not surpass. This was a challenge, and when the pen was in his hand, the world just fell away.
"I hate you!" he screamed. "I hate you!" And he pounded at the door, and shouted and demanded until they yielded and came for him, opening the door to show light.
Rodney took a step backwards, his fist falling to his side. Shouting suddenly seemed far less of a clever idea than it had seemed just minutes before. The lantern bathed his room in a warm golden glow, but outside was cold and full of pirates.
"You are to come on deck," the woman said. "Captain's orders."
"Why?" He tried to speak, but his mouth had dried up, and no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Why?"
The woman's smile was sharp. "Entertainment."
"What?" Oh God, oh God, he had read about things like this – about upstanding travellers forced to dance by spears jabbing at their toes; of people hanged until they were almost dead, then let down to howls of laughter; of people forced to strip, and then having unthinkable things done to them.
"And fresh air," the woman said.
He clenched his hand tight, then opened it again. She was not alone, of course, doubtless flanked by pirates who would take delight in stringing him up like a pig and dragging him screaming to the captain's feet.
"Oh." He raised his head, forced a look of calm defiance on his face – or, at least, the sort of look that Mr Booth assumed at Drury Lane when playing a tragic hero facing certain doom – scooped up his hat, and followed her.
Teyla sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, and watched their guest peer suspiciously at the watered ale. "It is not poisoned," she told him.
"No." He took a mouthful, and grimaced, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "It is just… unpleasant."
"It is the same as we are drinking," she said sharply. "The same as the captain drinks."
"Yes. Of course." He took another tentative swig, then caught her looking at him. "I'm not used to it, that's all. See, I'm drinking it. I'm drinking it all."
"Would you prefer water?" She knew that her smile was nasty, but could not help it.
"I have drunk cheap ale before," he said. "When I was at Oxford, I'd go out every night, carousing with the other fellows, my bosom companions. I can hold my drink. I may have a shining intellect, but I'm not lily-livered."
She reminded herself that he was their guest, and that so much depended on his work. It was just so hard to like him. She had tried, speaking gently to him to reassure him when Ronon was teasing him with talk of brains, but the man just chattered and protested and looked on them all as if they were nothing. He was clearly disgusted by the sight of a woman in man's clothing, and he thought Ronon a savage. Here he was on deck, with his coat and his hat and his buckles, sneering at their fare as if it was poison.
"Then drink," she snapped, "and keep quiet."
Of course, she had to admit, she would very likely have disliked him even if he had been the most gracious man in the world. John had risked so much to bring him on board, and was risking his health even now with this charade of his. This man who held John's happiness in his hands, and the friends who had fought at his side, watching him endure so much over the years, could only stand and watch, powerless to help.
"When does the… uh… entertainment start?" He was incapable of following a simple order, too.
"Now," she said, seeing Ronon stalk on deck with a sword in his hand.
"What?" She saw the man's throat working. "You're going to make me fight him?"
"Of course not," she snapped.
Jones the gunner was Ronon's first opponent. They took up position opposite each other, and started to circle, swords in hand. Teyla leant forward, her breath quickening. They were fighting in near darkness, lit only by two low lanterns, and when they engaged, the shadows were huge and monstrous. The faces on the far side were just smears in the darkness. I could have been married, she thought, with two fat children in a house of cold stone. Her mother had always told her that men like this were brutes, but now she lived with a hundred of them, and although not all of them were her friends, they were all her people.
She took a sip of ale, feeling it cold down her throat, and listened to the rhythmic clash of steel. Her nostrils were full of the smell of ale and the tang of sweat and the richness of spices, and Ronon was fighting, eyes shining in the candlelight, moving like liquid flame.
"Is it a punishment?" McKay's eyes were wide. "Is the savage going to hack that man to pieces? Did he get dirt on the captain's shirt cuff, or some other terrible sin like that?"
"It is a fight," she told him. "A friendly fight."
"With real swords."
"Ronon is too good to draw blood unless he wants to, and Jones is not good enough to draw Ronon's blood at all." She grinned fiercely. "Not that he will ever stop trying. It makes good sport."
McKay grunted, clearly not impressed. She blinked, and when she looked back at the fight, she saw it as if through his eyes – saw the latent brutality of Ronon's movement; saw the potential for murder in the blades; saw the crowd of spectators as the brutes her mother had warned her about, desperate for bloodshed, or worse.
Ronon felled his opponent, sweeping his legs out from under him, then stopping with the tip of his blade just short of his throat. Men called out comments, but none of them loud, their voices as muted as the light.
"And another one comes to the slaughter," McKay sneered.
She looked away; it was that or say things that would harm John's cause. She could not see the captain anywhere. She hoped he was resting in his cabin, but she knew how unlikely that was. No, he would be at the wheel, alone on the quarterdeck, the wind at his back.
The sounds of fighting swelled, and then came the sound of another ending. She raised her head to the sky, and took another sip of ale. No-one else came forward to challenge Ronon. There would be more fights later, perhaps, but for now someone started to sing a quiet ballad of the fair folk who lived beneath green mounds, and were beautiful and as terrible as the night was long.
"You're free." McKay's voice was different, almost hoarse. "You can go wherever you like. You aren't bound by all the rules of society. You can take anything you like. You can beat each other into a bloody pulp without anyone calling for the Watch. Women can dress up in men's clothes and wear knives, and absolutely none of the strictures of society mean anything to you."
"Free?" She rounded on him. "The only people free in this world are gentlemen like you, with money to buy anything you want. You buy your way into positions of influence and make laws that keep yourself there. You buy wives like cattle, and when someone dares stand against you, you ruin them."
"You think I'm free?" He slammed his tankard down, empty now. "I'm expected to inherit my father's business, and my own wishes have nothing to do with it. I want to devote my life to study. I want to live in a country house with servants at my command, and to fill every room to overflowing with books, and to write articles, and to travel the world seeking out the truth about the earth and the heavens. Instead I'm going to have to spend my life with ledgers, and marry Charlotte Dauncey – whom, I'll have you know, I don't even like, let alone love – and raise heirs who will have to endure exactly the same thing, and none of it, absolutely none of it, is what I want to do, and it's a shameful waste of my intellect, like a beautiful flower fading and dying for want of light."
He raised his tankard again, found it empty, and put it down. She was about to say something – what, she did not know; perhaps it was even gentle. Then he spoke again. "No, my good woman. None of us are free, not you, and not me. You and every man on this ship are under the thumb of this captain of yours, forced to obey him or face cruel punishments. He's the only one round here who is completely free, caring for nothing and nobody, not knowing the meaning of the word duty, able to do whatever he wishes, and to hell with the consequences."
She stood up stiffly, clenched her fists to stifle the rage. "You know nothing, Rodney McKay," she hissed, and left him alone, and took her place at the side of her chosen people.
Rodney felt quite alone and forgotten on his side of the deck. Singing continued on the far side, and he saw people coming and going, clambering over the other bodies, managing to keep their balance despite the swaying of the deck. For the third song, the woman sang, her voice surprisingly full and sweet. He saw drink passed from hand to hand, and after a while there were a few more fights, this time with sticks and with much quiet laughter. A third lantern was brought, and lit their faces with a golden glow, but his side of the deck felt very cold, despite his hat and coat.
Another song was sung, and memories stirred from early childhood: his nurse singing a tune much like this in front of the fire, singing strange words about strange places, all of which meant that you are safe, Rodney – safe and cherished with me.
"My hounds they all go masterless,
My hawks they flee from tree to tree,
My youngest brother will heir my lands
My native land I'll never see."
His mouth felt dry from the salt beef. He wanted some more drink, but how on earth could he approach a dastardly gang of pirates, his mug held out like a begging bowl? No, it was probably best to stay here nice and quiet, and hope they forgot him. Perhaps he could slip away and steal a boat, or something. Perhaps he could escape.
"I see you do not approve of the merriment," a light voice said from beside him.
Rodney started. He barely recognised the man at first. Sheppard was wrapped in a dark cloak over a white shirt, and his feet were bare. He wore a hat, though, which was at least something – one last vestige of the civilised and safe world that no longer existed out here.
"It's savage," Rodney said, "which is, of course, no more than can be expected. Sword fights…"
"Singing," Sheppard said. "Drinking. So depraved. The young men now abed in England would never do such a thing."
He had seen worse in Oxford, of course, and had once stood outside several expensive fleshpots in Covent Garden, but that… "That's not the point," he said. "You're pirates. How many people do you have chained down below?"
"Plenty." Sheppard's eyes gleamed. "Your tankard's empty. Let me get you some more."
Rodney watched the man walk across the deck; watched how the song faltered, but did not stop. He saw the way people looked at him. Sheppard, he saw, exchanged a few whispered words with Ronon, and nodded at the woman, then took his place behind a scrawny man and waited for his turn at the ale.
When he walked back, both Ronon and the woman watched him intently. Rodney wanted to look away, but the approaching pirate captain held an awful fascination, like an angel of death, black against the lantern light. There was a careful deliberateness to the way he was walking, as if he had already drunk too much already, and was trying hard to disguise it. Rodney nodded smugly to himself. It was no more than he had expected.
"Here you are," Sheppard said, passing him the tankard. "You –"
He broke off, and looked upwards. The song, too, cut off in the middle of a sound. A gull called from far above them, but Sheppard was already moving, so careful caution to his movements now. "Douse the lights." His whisper carried, but the order was already being obeyed before he had even spoken it.
"What?" Rodney whispered. His hand was wrapped around the tankard, cool drink splashing onto his skin. "What's happening?"
"A ship," Sheppard said over his shoulder, still intent on other things.
"And a sea bird told you?" Rodney snapped his mouth shut, remembering Ronon signalling as an owl. So a ship was coming. Please let it be a Navy frigate, he thought, that will drag Sheppard and his men away, and rescue me. He swallowed. As long as they didn't just sink Sheppard's ship on sight. He fought the urge to stand up and shout, "It's me! I'm a friend! Don't shoot!" He would be killed before he uttered a word. Sheppard had said that to him, once.
The men were silent, all songs ceased. There was no moon tonight, though a few stars showed silver through gaps in the thick cloud. He could hear the sound of bare feet on the wooden deck, and knew that people were moving around, doing whatever they needed to do to evade the newcomer. Nobody remembered that he was here, and it was too dark, too dark, and if he tried to move, he might fall right off.
He drank some ale. He blinked into the darkness, but that only made things worse, for he could see faint figures moving, all of them featureless. He tried to stand up. If there was a ship out there, he could not see it. Their own ship was utterly dark, moving like a ghost through the night, bringing death.
He had no idea how long passed. A shape like a black bird perched beside him, unfolding dark wings. "She didn't see us," Sheppard said, "or, if she did, she had equal interest in staying unseen."
"Oh." His voice was quite unwilling to work. He drank some more ale, and this time it was warm, warmed by his hand on the tankard; or maybe his body was just icy cold. "Who…?" He cleared his throat, but even that sound was like a cannon shot in the silence of the night. "Who was it?"
"I suspect it was one of Kolya's ships."
"Pirate. Spanish. He and I… tangled during the war."
"But the war's been over for seven years." Rodney still heard no other sound; he wondered if the whole ship could hear his words.
"Not to Kolya, it hasn't," Sheppard said, "and not where I am concerned. Of course, the Spanish government declared him outlaw, so nothing he does is strictly an act of war. He's a pirate, like me. Preys on the weak. Ruthless, of course. Not to be trusted. Totally devoid of conscience and scruples." He sounded almost bitter. Perhaps he was jealous.
"What a surprise." Rodney took some more ale. "Even the other pirates hate you."
"It's only to be expected, huh?" Sheppard sat down beside him, stretching out his legs with a faint sigh, as if of relief. "How goes the work?"
Rodney sat upright. His thoughts seemed sluggish all of a sudden, as if he was wading through thick mud. He struggled to penetrate them, to remember the fierce excitement of working in the cabin earlier – when he hadn't been terrified for his life, that is. "It will take a long time," he prevaricated. "I will need wood."
"I have a source of wood."
"We have three."
"But it's… It's…" He laid down the tankard; looked at his own unsteady hand, a faint smear in the darkness. "Hardly anybody in history has achieved this. I know Halley did, but he had a team of assistants."
"But you're more clever than any of them." It was said like a simple statement, without even triumph in it, but Rodney knew that it was really a weapon.
Even so, there was nothing he could do but answer him. "Of course I am."
"So you can do it?" It was too dark to see the expression on Sheppard's face.
"Of course I can do it. My skills are not in doubt. But I need time, and people, and… and supplies. Not just wood, but specialist supplies – not something you can find lying around on desert islands or floating on the ocean or peddled by vagabonds in shady ports."
"Name what you need," Sheppard said, "and we will get them for you."
"Steal them, you mean." The ale softened the disgust in his tone.
"Of course," Sheppard said, and that bitter edge was back. "That's what I do. The only difference this time is: you're coming with me."
end of chapter three
This portrait, dated 1741, shows Evan Lorne in captain's garb, although of course by that year he was long-since retired. Family legend, as conveyed to me by Gladys Jenkins (nee Lorne), holds that Captain Lorne strongly resisted having his portrait painted, but that his aged mother had her heart set on it, and sternly said that he would "sit there and look noble and pretty, or forget all thought of a legacy."
In which crime is committed
Ronon found Sheppard at the rail, his face turned upwards, sensing the air. "It's going to rain before the night is over," the captain said.
Ronon said what he had come to say. "I don't like this."
"The weather?" Sheppard said with half a smile. So that was to be the way of it, then. Sometimes before a dangerous endeavour, Sheppard's tension manifested itself in scathing words and ice. Ronon preferred that, he thought, to the smiles.
"You know it's not that." He leant on the rail, openly using his bulk to reinforce his point. "It's this whole affair. You're still not well…"
"It's been five days, four of them with our charming guest on board. I think that counts as at least ten."
"You're not well," Ronon persisted. "You're healing, but you're not healed. Let me go."
"You are going, Ronon."
He tightened his grip on the rail. "Let me and Teyla do it ourselves. I want you to stay behind."
"You want, Ronon?" And there, at last, was the ice, or a glimmer of it.
Warm breezes stirred his hair. He heard distant voices, but nothing near. There was little that could not be said in front of the crew, but perhaps there were some things. "You don't have to do everything, Sheppard," he said. "You don't have to lead every excursion."
"I don't." The smile was back, but so was the ice, not far behind it. "I let you and Teyla bring us our charming guest."
"Then let us do this," Ronon pleaded. "You stay here and heal." Then, when Sheppard still gave him nothing, he found himself saying, "Don't you trust us?"
"You know I do." There was no ice now, and no smiles.
And Ronon knew, of course, which was what made it worse. Few of the crew ever mentioned the name of Aiden Ford, but Beckett could always be persuaded to talk about anything, especially when stolen brandy was pressed into his hand. Ford had been Sheppard's right-hand man in the early days, until he had led an expedition to shore, and had never returned. "The captain changed after that," Beckett had said. "He'd lost men before, and he's lost men since, but this was something different. He'd planned to lead the expedition himself, you see. In his mind, it should have been him."
"But, either way, it's madness to let McKay come," Ronon said now.
"You're saying I'm crazy?" Sheppard raised one eyebrow.
"We abducted him from his bed," he said. "We're keeping him here against his will. And you're taking him into a town…"
"He's the only one who can recognise the supplies he needs."
Sheppard's tone brooked no argument, but from that very first day, Ronon had won the privilege of arguing, even when the cause was hopeless. "Get him to write descriptions or do drawings, then." When Sheppard said nothing, he hissed, "He's going to get you killed, Sheppard. He'll shout."
"I'll stop him."
"I'll stop him." He moved his hand to the hilt of his blade. "If he as much as opens his mouth…"
"Then you'll be gutting him as soon as he sets foot on shore." The smile was back, and Sheppard, seldom one to touch, clapped Ronon on the shoulder. "This is my game, and we do it my way."
"No." Sheppard shook his head, and turned his back to the rail, leaning against the ship that was his own. "I appreciate your concern, but there is nothing more to discuss."
And Ronon had known that it would end like this, of course, just as Sheppard had surely known that he would object in just this way. "Had to try," he said, more lightly than he felt.
"Yes." Sheppard looked at him, and if he had been about to say something else, it was nipped in the bud by the loud protestations that heralded the arrival of McKay.
The game was afoot.
The rain started not long after they left the Atlantis. Teyla felt the heavy drops strike the back of her hands on the oars, and turned her face upwards to receive them. There was always something refreshing about rain, even when it came in the form of storms that threatened to tear the timbers of the ship apart.
McKay predictably complained, sheltered beneath his hat and coat. "I'm going to get soaked through. I'm going to catch my death. Oh! Is it a storm? I've heard about these tropical storms."
"Just regular rain," John said. He was in the bow of the ship, but for now he had turned his back to their destination, and was looking back at his ship as it faded into the darkness. She did not need light to know what his expression would be.
"You could help hoist the sail," she said sharply to McKay. "That would stop you catching your death."
"Me?" he squawked, as if the very thought was an outrage.
"There is no such thing as gentleman or commoner when life is on the line," Ronon grunted, not looking up from his work.
"Very trite." McKay sniffed, "but I see the great Captain Sheppard isn't doing his share of work."
"He would –" she started hotly, but John stopped her, holding up a hand.
"Sound travels across water," he said, no longer gazing after his fading ship. "You don't want to draw attention. If a cannon ball smashes into the boat, it won't make much difference that you're our innocent prisoner, and we're the dastardly pirates. We'll all be dead at the bottom of the sea."
She heard McKay suck in a breath for a tirade, then snap his mouth shut with an audible sound. He said nothing for a long while, as the boat slowly edged towards shore. She remembered the first time she had hauled a sail, and felt just how heavy they could be. Rowing was worse, though. She had thought herself about to die from the agony. Those first few weeks on the brig had been a physical hell, but she had bitten her lip and not complained, and soon her body had changed shape, muscles forming where before they had been just softness.
I could have been embroidering handkerchiefs, she thought, or cowering under a parasol at the merest hint of rain.
Water trickled down her back, easing the stickiness of sweat. Her hair was pulled back in a rough knot at the nape of her neck, and the soft leather shoes on her feet felt like a second skin, and for a moment, despite everything, she grinned into the darkness and the cool rain that peppered the ocean around them, and the breeze that stirred her wild, free hair.
"I don't even know where we are," McKay whispered, as the trees on the shore became audible, even above the patter of the rain.
"Hispaniola," the captain told him. "Saint-Domingue."
"Oh," McKay said. "I haven't seen any charts." It was said with a touch of defensiveness, as if he was suddenly afraid they would think less of him because of his ignorance.
"No." She heard the smile in John's voice, and the tension that underlaid it, and she bit back the retort she wanted to make.
None of you are free, she remembered McKay saying. Of course they were not. She had traded one prison for another sort of trap. Once she had spent half a year on the Atlantis, she had known that she could never leave. This prison was voluntary, and there was much joy in it, but that did not make it any less of a prison for all that. She could sail beneath the stars with the wind in her hair, but she could not see her mother again, and she would very probably not see old age.
"Where are we going?" McKay's voice was too loud, but they were in the shallows now, and it was drowned by the swaying palm trees and the waves dragging at the sand.
"There's a certain settler," John said, as he jumped out, water to his knees, and prepared the haul to little boat in. "Quite the eccentric. Considers himself a scientist, just like you, though far less accomplished than you, of course. His home is a treasure trove of useful equipment."
McKay was holding onto both sides of the boat, as the waves rocked it from side to side. She heard his quivering breathing, and realised that he was probably entirely terrified. They had dragged him from his home and swept him up into an adventure that he had not wanted to be part of. He was a prisoner, and he spent every day in fear of his life. "You've robbed him before," he said.
"Of course." John grinned. "We're entirely without scruples."
Teyla jumped out of the boat, and offered McKay a hand. "As long as you stay quiet," she said gently, "no harm will come to you."
"But I don't know how to stay quiet," McKay said, almost sadly.
They started walking, and then they kept on walking. They walked and walked, and kept on walking, and it must have been miles, and he'd heard of labourers who walked fifteen miles to market, then fifteen miles back again, but that didn't mean that just anyone could do it, and his feet hurt, and it was raining. Raining! When it rained, you got your man to throw more wood onto the fire, and settled down in an armchair with the Almagest and chuckled over the quaint mistakes that the ancients had made, and thanked your lucky stars – not that you believed in them, of course – that you had been born in a more enlightened age, and then you moved to your table and made notes for your treatise that would usher Europe into a new scientific revolution. You didn't go outside in it. You especially didn't go outside in it in the dark.
With pirates, he added, setting out to do some crime.
He was quite ridiculously wet, soaked through to his shirt, and the air was thick with moisture, and felt too thick to properly breathe. The trees above him were most definitely not the trees of home. There were no mighty beech trees, no elegant birches, no oak and no ash. The trees had leaves that shivered, and thin bare trunks that swayed in the wind, making the leaves whisper as if they were plotting with each other to bring him down. The ground squelched under foot, and he knew that there were all manner of horrible insects, and…
"Crocodiles!" he gasped. "Are there crocodiles? I read about them in Herodotus. They can eat a man whole."
"There may be all manner of monsters," Sheppard said, "but if you keep your voice down…"
"I know. I know. Being quiet."
He wondered if he had ever been quiet so miserable. This wasn't exercising his strengths. Working in his cabin for the last few days, there had been times when he had almost been happy, as he had perfected his design and been so sure that even Halley would judge his the superior model. On the second day, he had removed his cravat, and on the third day he had gone out on deck without his hat, although the ferocity of the sun had quickly sent him scurrying back to reclaim it. Nobody had pursed their lips, looking at him as if he was transgressing some common law of decency by being seen thus in public. Nobody had seemed to care what he looked like at all.
But they cared about what he could do. Looking at his workings, Sheppard had grinned and called him a marvel. Of course, the grin was a death's head grin and murder lay beneath it… and, really, if a common murderer said good things about you, you couldn't put any store in it… But Sheppard had said he was a marvel, just because of the work that issued from his intellect.
His foot sank into mud up to the ankle. "Are we nearly there yet?"
"Nearly." Sheppard stopped, with Ronon and the woman – he now knew that she was called Teyla, but it was impolite to call a woman by her Christian name. Of course, it was impolite to think of her as 'the woman', but she left him with no choice – flanking him.
"We're nearly there." Sheppard's voice suddenly took on a tone that reminded Rodney of all the times his father had told him off when he had accidentally broken some knick-knack or frippery while rushing through the house for paper or a microscope – though, really, it was only to be expected. Tiny filigree ponies with topaz eyes were made to be sacrificed on the altar of scientific discovery, and deserved nothing less. "If you do anything to endanger us…"
"I'll kill you," Ronon said.
"The same holds true on land as it did on the boat." Sheppard glanced at Ronon, then back to Rodney. "If you shout out, anyone who comes won't distinguish between you and us. You're with me, and that implicates you, at least for tonight."
"I'll say I'm your prisoner."
"You aren't bound. You haven't been mistreated. Who would believe you?" Sheppard took a step forward; held by his voice, Rodney recoiled, but could not retreat. "I've already told you that you won't be harmed, and that promise stands. We're good at this." He gave a quick smile, faintly visible in the darkness. "You aren't in any danger tonight, unless it's danger of your own making. Keep your head down, be a good boy, and tell us what we need to steal, and you'll be safely back in your cabin in no time."
Rodney nodded; what else could he do? He nodded, and they walked on, and soon reached buildings, shrouded in dark. A dog barked far away. The trees thinned and the mud hardened and became tracks, marked with grooves from carriage wheels and wagons. The rain grew heavier, though, and he thought that the little town looked very sad.
There were no lights, but the moon, just past full, was bright enough behind the rain clouds to cast the whole world in a faint grey light. Then, a few steps later, he saw a golden light away to his left. It was a watch tower, he thought, keeping watch on the sea, looking out for pirates who would steal in during the night to rob people of life and happiness. Over here! he wanted to shout. He's here! But his throat felt clogged, incapable of uttering words.
"There is a watchman," the woman hissed, her voice barely louder than the wind.
Sheppard nodded. Ronon took off, and for a man who was so large, he seemed to shrink and become no more than a shadow. When Rodney blinked, Ronon seemed to disappear completely. I don't believe in spirits, he told himself. Ronon was just a man, and that made it worse, far worse. Men preyed on men, and there was such nastiness in the world, whereas the world of the stars and the elements was so pure and so uncruel. You were never safe. You could amass a head full of knowledge such as the world had never seen, but could still be cut down by the footpad's knife.
They waited – Rodney, and a woman in man's clothes, and the most heartless killer in Christendom. Ronon returned, appearing out of the darkness like one of the ghosts that Rodney didn't believe in, oh no, he most definitely did not. "He won't be troubling us," he said.
"You killed him." Rodney turned to Sheppard. "He killed him." He looked for blood, but the darkness hid it.
"So in we go," Sheppard whispered. "Be quiet. Once inside, use signs or touch." He touched Rodney on the arm as if to demonstrate, and it felt like the touch of death.
His mind in a daze, he barely remembered what came next. They opened a window; that much he knew. Sheppard caught him when his foot got caught and he almost fell, and it was horrible, to be so close to a pirate. But more horrible a moment later, when he thought about the fact that he was now inside somebody else's house, having entered without permission, and he would be killed if anybody caught him here – killed, even though he was innocent; his name becoming a curse and his memory spat upon, even though he hadn't ever done anything wrong. It seemed like the worst thing of all – the injustice of it.
And then they were in a laboratory of sorts, though a slapdash one, made by somebody without enough wit to deserve one. Somebody was holding up a candle, shielding it with their hand, and the faces of his companions turned into the demons that they were, all fiery light and deep shadow.
Sheppard's hand moved, like darting flame in the flickering light of the candle. Tell us what you need.
He needed tubing, and a valve – or, better still, the materials with which to make a better one. He needed glass and lead – no, Sheppard said he had another source for that – and… God, so many things. He needed a fully equipped laboratory. Halley had employed a team of labourers, but Rodney was being expected to do this all alone in the cabin of a pirate ship. It couldn't work. Even with his intellect, it couldn't work.
A touch on his arm. A look. A warning.
Oh. He swallowed, and wandered around, his flesh creeping at the thought that he was in somebody else's house. That, he indicated. That. Ronon picked up what he needed. Sheppard had come with a bag. The woman was on watch, her ear to the door.
Just days before, he had been woken from sleep to find Ronon standing over him. Ronon had… God! Had he killed Turland? You expected your house to be like a fortress. It was yours – your private sanctum where you could shut out the ridicule and cruelty of the world, and just be yourself. When people just broke right in, it was tainted. Somewhere in this house, perhaps just separated from him by the thickness of a ceiling and a floor, the owner was asleep, thinking himself safe, and…
Another touch. He clenched his hands at his side, and continued to move around. That, and that, and that.
He moved in a daze. Sometimes he almost bubbled over with the urge to shout – Sheppard's here! He's in your house! Take him! Save me! – but he felt as if someone had their hand around his throat, preventing him from producing sound. That, he pointed. That…
"There's someone outside!" Ronon hissed.
"The light!" That was Sheppard. Their candle flame was blown out, but that only served to show the torch that was approaching outside, and even over the sound of his sudden rapid breathing, Rodney could hear someone speaking, and then a shout.
"I guess it's back to the boat." Sheppard's hand closed on his arm, and he was dragged to the window, pushed out, to land in a tumble of hands and knees in the mud. Ronon landed beside him, and was up before him, to turn back two steps ahead of him, and reach for his arm.
The shout was repeated, and answered by another. A dog barked, far nearer now than it had barked before. "What now?" he gasped.
"But I can't…" But Sheppard was grabbing him, and Ronon tugged at his sleeve, and his feet were pounding on the path, then sinking into the mud, and rain sheeted against his face and poured down his front, and his breath, oh God, his breath was tearing in his lungs, and people were shouting behind him, and there was a second dog, and a third…
He's here! He's over here! Take him!
"I can't…" His chest felt as if it was being torn in two. His legs felt as if they had been turned to pulp. He was going to die. Oh God, he was going to die. He was…
Someone grabbed at him. He tried to scream – more like a dying gasp, really – but a hand closed over his mouth. He struggled, panting, heaving, and the hand was removed. "Quiet," Sheppard whispered. "Take a minute."
"Ronon's gone to draw them off," Sheppard whispered.
"He's good at it. He'll be fine."
And slowly his breathing came under control, although his legs… His legs hurt, and he needed to lie down and sleep, but Sheppard was already pulling him out from behind the tree – and he had mud all over him, and was soaked – and was dragging him on. It was miles to the boat, miles, but the noise of the dogs was fading, and…
"I thought… you said… you were good… at this… robbery thing," he gasped.
"This is good," Sheppard said. "No-one's dead yet."
And he saw nothing but darkness and the figures at his side, and sensed nothing but the mud beneath his feet and the rain on his face, and felt nothing but the tearing pain of too much exertion, but at least they were moving slower now, more like just a fast walk, and minutes passed… minutes… hours…
The trees thinned. The boat was there, and Ronon! Ronon was in the boat! "I lost them."
"Not a scratch."
Helped by Sheppard, Rodney staggered into the boat, and collapsed to lie on his back. Rain sheeted into his face, and it was cool, so cool, so delicious, so fresh. He took it in with his tongue. His chest rose and fall, and he felt the boat quake beneath him as it was pushed off, and heard the sound of oars, and he was safe, and he was resting, and no-one had torn him to pieces with their fangs or dragged him off to be hanged for a crime he had not committed.
It was a long time before he was able to sit up. They were far from land. Lights were bobbing on the shore, but if people were shouting invective, they were too far away to be heard. "I thought you said you were good at this," he said again.
Nobody answered. Ronon was sculling, keeping them steady in the ocean. The woman was bent over Sheppard, and in the faint light, Rodney saw a dark mark on his exposed shirt.
"You're hurt," he gasped. "I didn't hear them shooting."
It was the woman who answered, in a voice that started sharp and grew yet sharper as she spoke. "It was not from today. Captain Sheppard was shot the day before you came on board. The injury has reopened; that is all."
"Oh." Rodney had no idea what to say. He thought back to all the times he had seen the captain around the ship. There had been no sign of injury then, had there? "Then… Then it was rather stupid to come out tonight, wasn't it? Why didn't you say something? Is it a case of ridiculous pirate pride?
Amazingly, Sheppard chuckled. "Quite the match for your ridiculous scientist pride, don't you think?"
"At least I don't almost get myself and everybody else killed," Rodney retorted. "I don't break into people's houses and steal things."
Sheppard tried to sit up, but the woman stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, McKay," Sheppard said, "but we needed you there. Couldn't have done it without you. It'll be the last time, I promise."
Rodney huffed, and looked away. The sail was raised, and as they inched slowly back to the Atlantis, the rain stopped, and by the time they were back on deck, the stars were out.
He was still looking away hours later as he leant on the rail, watching the unfamiliar stars, with the sound of singing drifting up from below. Then he retired to his cabin, but did not sleep.
end of chapter four
This is an artist's impression of the brigantine Atlantis. One of the great mysteries of the tale of John Sheppard is why he called his ship by a name of a place famous for sinking. Sailors are superstitious creatures, and one would have thought that none would want to sail on a ship so named. Perhaps they were too uneducated to know the true meaning of the name, or perhaps the name was intended metaphorically, to show how, as pirates and outlaws, they were sunken and buried, outside the protection of the law. Maybe he also span them a tale of how sunken things could one day rise again…
On to part the third