Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 3 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter two (part 3 of 16)

The story starts here



Chapter two
"When wise men sleep and souls take flight."
__

"No." It was clearly necessary to say it again. "No. No way. Not going to happen."

Ronon gestured with his weapon in an infuriatingly eloquent fashion. "Yes, it is."

"You don't understand. You--" Kit swore sharply under his breath. "Gods! Can't you let me sit up while trying to talk you out of throwing your lives away? The impact of my message is lessened by being addressed to your feet." The woman nodded grudgingly. Ronon's eyes narrowed as he watched Kit struggle to push himself up with his shoulder and elbow, and squirm into a sitting position, legs crossed. "Thank you for the help," Kit said, with not quite as much acid as he could have mustered.

"It's going to happen," Rodney said. "We're quite determined. We're all resolved, can't be dissuaded, etcetera etcetera. Ronon wanted to do a full-frontal assault, guns blazing. It was my idea to look for… uh… local… uh… expertise. Thieves are bound to know sneaky ways in so no-one gets hurt. Or bribery – that works. There must be corrupt guards you bribe to turn a blind eye to your life of crime."

"There are some," Kit conceded, "but not at the Citadel. The last poor sod caught taking bribes at the king's gate was hung from the ramparts in a cage. For three days he begged people to save him. After that, he started begging to be killed, and then the razor-beaks took out his throat and he couldn't scream at all for the last four days. And a full-frontal assault…" He shook his head. "Too many guards; too many gates. If you were very, very good – and I can see that my friend Ronon thinks that he is – you might have lasted…" He paused, counting slowly to ten, then snapped his bound fingers. "Oh! That was you dying."

"Hence the sneaking," Rodney said. "Hence the plan. A gory and agonising death is a thing to avoid, as a matter of course."

"You're not getting it," Kit said, with exaggerated patience. "You don't try to get people out of the Citadel. Once they're there, they're as good as dead. Mourn them and say your prayers over them if you like, or grab their bunk and their treasure and their girl if you prefer, but don't look to seeing them again. The Bargate Prison, now, on the other hand… You've a chance there. The guards are as fond of money as a dockside whore. Pay enough, and they'll tell the governor your mate died of flood fever, and chuck him in the water for you to fish out, alive if you're quick. Not that I know from experience," he said, with a quick grin, "on account of being a mean-hearted bastard without anyone I'd stick my neck out for."

"Which is all very interesting and educational," Rodney said, "and all goes to confirm my belief that Sheppard's landed us on a hell-hole of a planet, but he's in the Citadel, not the Bargate Prison."

"And therefore out of reach." Kit tried to remember the patient condescension of his childhood tutors. "I refer you back to lesson one."

"I say we kill him," Ronon growled, "and get ourselves another thief who doesn't talk so much."

Kit felt the sweat starting on his bound hands, but he shrugged with as much sincerity as he could muster. "Any of us would say the same thing. The Citadel's only for people the King's got his eyes on especially, and you don't tangle with such things. Not to mention the whole disease-ridden moat, the elite guards, the Whisperers, the man-eating crebyn, the traps, the Twelve and all their agents, and the fact that they never keep prisoners for more than a few days there, anyway, on account of only taking people they know are guilty but want to rough up a bit, so your friend's probably just a rotting corpse by now."

Not all of it was true - not that his lies fell on remotely appreciative ears. "Then we need to go now," the woman said.

"Come on," Kit urged them. "You're going to throw your lives away in a rescue attempt that's bound to fail. No-one can be worth that. Who is this guy, anyway? Someone who owes you money?"

"Someone who would do the same for any one of us," the woman said, and if Kit had thought that her eyes were cold before, then now they were ice, except that ice had never blazed like this.

He tried for a light tone. "So it's obligation, then?"

"He'd do the same for us," Rodney burst out, "and that's the reason why… That's why we want to, because he's… He'd do it for us, for anyone, and it's not fair that he's hurting in there all alone, and we have to… God, we have to…" He pressed his curled up hand to his chest as if it hurt him. "And that's what's so strange, you know, because four years ago, before I came here, before I met his particular and at-times infuriating variety of heroism, misguided as it often is, I wouldn't have--" He snapped his mouth shut, and turned away, his face twisting in on itself. The woman touched his arm.

Kit felt something twist inside him, and remembered a time long ago, before his every word had been a performance and his every expression an act. He remembered living alongside people who weren't just waiting for a chance to screw you over – though of course they had been, really, just in more subtle ways. At least now he was surrounded by honest deceivers.

"So that's you," he managed to say. "Leave me out of it. If you want to throw your lives away despite my eloquent warnings, then that's your affair, but me…? I want to live to fight another day, thank you very much."

The woman had removed her hand from Rodney's arm, but now she touched it again, soft and doubtful. "Perhaps we should release him. If we are captured--"

"Which we don't mean to be," Rodney interrupted, "because, really, we're good. Or, rather, Ronon and Teyla are good. I'm good, too, but a certain person failed to salvage the things I need when he grabbed all his weapons back, so I'm not showing my strengths here. We haven't all died bloodily yet, and I don't think Sheppard can die, he's escaped from so many ridiculous near-death encounters. There's always a first, though, and if it's going to happen to anyone, it'll happen to us."

"If we are captured," the woman told Kit, clearly trying to convince herself as much as anyone else, "we will make it clear that you were with us under duress."

"And you did try to rob us," Rodney pointed out, "and releasing someone who knows all our plans…?"

"Don't want you with us, anyway," Ronon said. "Tell us what we need to know, and we'll go by ourselves."

Kit looked at them, one after the other. Ronon was still standing there with his weapon – did the man ever get tired? Rodney looked pale and hot and miserable, his hands working convulsively in front of him. The woman, Teyla, looked troubled, a crack forming in her resolution. Kit wondered about the sort of people who would do anything for a friend. He wondered, too, if perhaps they actually had a chance.

"Right," he said, with a sharp sigh. "I'll do it. I've don't see that I have a choice. I do know a way into the Citadel. It's not a good way, it's one only a fool would take, and have you done it yourself, Kit? No, of course I haven't, I'm not fucking stupid. But I'll take you there and show you."

Rodney slumped with relief, as if Kit had not just handed him death on a plate, but only for a moment. "And out again," he said, stiffening again. "That's the thing. We've asked everywhere, and no-one seems to know… And criminals have connections, don't they? They know things." His hands were working nervously. "The gate… Uh, ring of the ancestors? Round thing, as tall as this room?"

Kit looked up at the damp-smeared ceiling, soaked with the sort of dirt that got into your every pore. "I've heard of something that matches your description," he said at last. "I even know where it is, and, yes, before you ask and thank you for saying please, I can show you. It's that way, in fact." He pointed awkwardly with his bound hands.

"Oh, thank God." Rodney slumped again. "So it isn't a space gate. I thought…" He turned urgently to the others. "But that means… It means we can go back. Reinforcements. We can get reinforcements. We can--"

"How far away is it?" the woman asked.

Kit shrugged. "Quite a way. It's outside the city."

"We've already wasted too much time," Ronon said. "You heard what he said about what's happening to Sheppard. We have to go now."

"And get very messily killed because it's just us," Rodney said, but he didn't argue any further than that. He looked quite as stricken and as determined to die as the other two.

"Throw your lives away if you like," Kit said, "but I'm not going anywhere until it's fully dark. You'll have to wait until then, at least." And on this, at least, he would not be moved.

******

Jasper watched the sun sink slowly into the water, the towers and bridges casting spiky black shadows onto its fiery surface. His hand ran idly up and down the stone edge of the casement, tracing patterns, echoing the cadences of poetry. Like a… he thought. Like a… A hero's burnished breastplate. Firelight seen through faceted crystal. Blazing logs, so bright that they hurt the eyes, yet at the core of them, so dark, so dark.

A candle going out in a cell.

He shifted position with a sigh, pressing stone against his shoulder. Below him, past the circling wall, the forbidden domain of the Drowned Quarter teemed with life – small figures punting along the wreckage of gorgeous avenues, and spindly shapes crossing the bridges that had been slung from balcony to balcony. They would never have faces for him, these people who swarmed over the haunts of his childhood. The beautiful palace by the river was now a shattered den of thieves, and the lifeless eyes of his childhood toys stared up blindly in the murky water.

Yet this buried world was so alive! These simple folk lived and loved and fought and died, and shone so much more fiercely than the nobles with their empty conversation, who built new homes on the hill to house their salvaged treasures, and covered the emptiness at the heart of their life with a veneer of platitudes. Even the guards were affected, tugging their forelocks and feigning respect. Only the poor were truly free – simple souls, in touch with nature and unsullied by expectation.

Free, he thought. Free. Golden. Dark specks against a golden backdrop, as if they were lit from within. Tiny, stubborn people who refused to die – who had swept into the quarter that the nobles had vacated, and had doggedly made it into a home. Where the nobles saw ruin, they saw hope. With their bridges and their perches and their rooftop walkways, they clung on. They clung on.

A white hand on a platform, stained with blood.

Jasper pushed himself away from the window, fighting the urge to curse the sunset for his sudden melancholy. That was ever the lot of a poet. A poet could see the spark of joy at the heart of midnight, and the sorrow that lurked in a flower. Being a poet was about so much more than rhyming. (Sunset, he thought. Wet. Jet. And yet.) A poet saw truths. A poet understood.

It seemed very dark away from the window, his eyes struggling to recover from looking at the fiery light bleeding across the water. The servants were late lighting the candles, and Jasper pursed his lips angrily, heading out into the corridor. It was even darker there – dark, he thought. Dark like… - and the stone walls glowered behind the inadequate covering of salvaged tapestries. The trappings of modern living seem so flimsy and temporary in this place that had thrived on pain and war for so many hundreds of years, as if one day they would just disappear, along with all the people with them – just fade away into the dark stone and be no more.

Footsteps sounded behind him, and Jasper turned round, dwarfed by the portrait of his war-like grandfather. His father was coming. Jasper stopped; swallowed; raised his head. "Father…" He had no idea why he said it; truly had no idea that he had been going to say it until his mouth was open and the sound was coming out.

His father stopped, the gloom reducing his face to a pale canvas with a black cleft of a mouth, and two dark pits for eyes.

Dark, Jasper thought. Dark. Behind him, his fingertips found the stone, worn almost smooth by the passage of centuries.

"There's a… a prisoner," he found himself saying. "A… a spy from Daryen. You were--" You were hurting him, and now he's… "--questioning him, and…"

"They told me you'd been poncing around in the prison levels again," his father said, "and that you'd stuck your nose into that business."

They told… No, he knew that. He had always known that. "Is he?" he asked. "A spy, I mean? From Daryen?"

"Probably not." His father shrugged as if the truth mattered not at all. "My agents in Daryen--"

"You have spies in Daryen?" Jasper exclaimed. "Spies? And you were hurting him...?"

"My agents in Daryen," his father continued, "have seen nothing to indicate that Daryen has the technology to build a vessel such as the one this spy was found in." The cleft that was his mouth became a long, thin line. "He says he come from far away, far beyond Daryen, and that he's no threat to our people. Perhaps it's even true."

Jasper pressed his entire hand against the stone, feeling it cold on his palm, feeling answering coldness in his heart. "But you hurt him, and now…" His words ran out. Dark, his mind chanted. Dark and cold.

"Did you dream your way through every lesson I ever tried to pound into that stupid head of yours?" His father did not even sound angry; it was years since his father had been truly furious with him. "In statesmanship, it is the seeming of things that matters. Appearances shape reality. The truth is nothing."

His grandfather's portrait glowered disapprovingly down on him. A door opened at the far end of the corridor, and a servant came in with a shielded taper, light surrounding his feet like a lapping pool. He stood on tiptoe and lit the nearest candle, then froze, to withdraw with a clumsy bow.

"But that's wrong," Jasper said, feeling stone against his skin, and his own rapid pulse in his fingertips. Perhaps his father would lose his temper; would drag him into an anteroom to lecture him furiously about politics.

His father just shrugged. Jasper let out a breath. "Daryen sent a spy," his father said, sounding almost bored. "Daryen has developed frightening new technology that allows ruthless agents to penetrate our borders and threaten wives and children in their beds. We thwarted their plans. Now we need redress."

"It's an excuse for war," Jasper gasped.

"Leverage," said his father. The light from that one candle limned the edge of him with gold. "A reason to raise further regiments. A reason to make more demands."

Jasper thought of that distant, unknown city, byword for all things strange and terrible. He thought of the Marches, and beyond them, foreign lands. He thought of the land beyond the swollen river – land which sometimes, when the air was clear, could be seen from his chamber, although he had never walked there. And now his father was sending him away, sending him away with the regiments, making him a figurehead commander, with aides and minders to be his tutors and his voice and his gaolers. Was he now planning to send him away to an actual war?

By all the gods, he hated feeling like this. He groped for the comfort of poetry, but even rhymes had faded away, turning their backs on him like treacherous friends. His father had always done that to him.

"What… what are you going to do to the prisoner?" he managed to rasp, because speaking about the things that really mattered was unbearable.

His father turned to walk away, his face lit one-sided by the candle, so that the shadows of his nose and brow cast the other half of his face into darkness. "Kill him," he said. "If he lasts the night, it will be done at dawn." That half mouth twisted into a grim smile. "Executioners have become so expensive since the flood. Everything's so expensive. What is the world coming to, boy?" And then he left, leaving Jasper standing in a cold fortress bedecked in second-hand clothes, where darkness seeped through the very stones.

******

Night fell late on these long summer days. The bloated sun lingered, and the more petty type of thief twitched in his bunk, waiting for the cover of night. Kit, being far from petty, knew how to work in the daylight, "but not," as he had told them, "when going up against the Citadel."

The humidity peaked, and a faint breeze came with twilight. Nights were warm, hung about with the miasma of league upon league of flood water, but at least sometimes thunder came with evening. "Which is good," Kit said, when Rodney cowered on the balcony, frozen in a flash of lightning. "Covers noise." Except when a sudden flare of lightning, coming without warning from a black sky, caught you red-handed on the rooftop, your image branded into the eyes of everyone who saw you. He told Rodney that, and also told him about young Hap, struck by lightning as he reached through a window for Lady Norton's diadem. Rodney looked gratifyingly nervous, which was something, at least.

"You're going to keep me bound?" Kit asked, as Teyla jostled him to his feet, Ronon standing over with his ever-present weapon. "It's not very discreet. Not that you strike me as a very discreet kind of guy, Ronon, but you'll forgive me…" He smiled, shrugging. "Appearances, and all. Folk know me, you see. Seeing me a prisoner, they might take it into their heads to kill you all and rescue me." Or laugh, he added mentally, and race to see who can be first to tell the tale in the ale-house. A man in his position had to boast, but boasting didn't always win you friends.

"Right." Ronon nodded, and Teyla started to untie him. Rodney drew the weapon that Kit had tried to steal, holding it more or less steadily on Kit. "Got you covered," Ronon said. "See this?" He deliberately moved something on the side of his weapon. "It was set on stun. Now it kills. Remember that."

They climbed out of the small room, heading onto the roof. Rodney pulled his head down into his shoulder in exaggerated protest at the slight rain. "That way," Kit said, genuinely enjoying the feeling of being able to move his hands again. The bonds had been firm, but not tight enough to hurt; he'd had worse. "Lead on."

There were people out on the… streets, he still called them mentally, although they were anything but. He passed Carola and nodded at her, seeing her eyes widen in speculation. Now that his hands were free, he could have made any manner of a signal, but did not. Ronon walked behind him, while Teyla and Rodney flanked him. When they reached the Bridge of Broken Promises, they had to go one at a time. "I'm going to fall off," Rodney squawked. "I'm going to fall off. I'm going to fall…" There were no bodies visible in the water below, or perhaps it was just too dark to see them.

Lightning forked behind the Citadel. Caught by surprise, Kit was made temporarily blind. "I only have to shout," he said, "or push you in, or run. Sure, you've got your gun, but this is my home. There are hundreds of people within earshot of me, living in places you'd never know to find. I could summon them just like that." He snapped his fingers.

"But not before I shoot you," Ronon said.

"And lose your local expertise?" Kit used the words Rodney had used. "You need me."

"There are other thieves." Ronon's voice was level.

"Gods!" Kit spat. "You really are a mean-hearted bastard, aren't you? I asked if this friend of yours was worth it. If he's the hero and all-round good guy you say he is, I wonder if he'd want you to rescue him if this is the cost. Maybe you don't deserve him." He let them think about it for a whole ten steps, but unfortunately it was too dark to see their faces. On the eleventh step, he grinned. "Luckily, I'm a mean-hearted bastard myself, and don't hold grudges. Some of them do – think they can rob anyone they like, then act all betrayed when you rob them back. A thief knows the open window from both sides, as they say."

Soon, though, it was time to be quiet. All games, whatever their rules, had to stop when you were near the Citadel. They crossed a bridge, where lights like corpse candles flickered from the underwater windows, as families huddled on platforms beneath the painted ceilings. Over a rooftop, then through a window. Down through a building – "excuse me," smiled Kit, as he stepped over sleeping children – and onto a waiting raft, pausing only to tip a copper bead to the boy who was guarding it.

"What happened here?" Rodney breathed, when they were out on the rain-pitted water, floating through the middle of Cador's Square. From the thighs upwards, the crumbling hero showed above the water, sword in hand, but all the gold that had once bedecked his breastplate had long since been chipped away.

"Flood," Kit said. "Summers have been getting wetter and wetter these last hundred years. River silted up. The king was trying to do something at the river mouth to master the tides, and it went horribly wrong. Shoddy workmanship on the flood defences. The Gods struck us down for meddling with things we were not meant to meddle with – factories on the estuary, and all." He shrugged. "Only say those in whispers, though. The official line is that Daryen was behind it, though how anyone would think that those prissy priests could…" He stopped. "Never mind. We're almost there."

By long habit, he paddled silently, and the rain helped, covering the sound of his movements with its pattering. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the lightning was infrequent, and here in the shadow of the Citadel tower, they were protected from the worst of it.

"There's an external wall," he said, in a soft voice that carried less well than a whisper. "There used to be a moat, but now there's water outside as well. Fortunately there was a postern gate, mostly underwater now, of course. The guards think it's safely locked. It is, of course." He gave a quick smile out of habit. "Fortunately, I have a copy of the key."

"Which is very impressive and theatrical," Rodney hissed, "but that just gets us through the external wall. We're still not properly in."

"Patience." Kit spread his hands, then turned to Ronon. "Can you hold your breath?"

"Longer than you can." Ronon's face was impassive. "This fires under water."

"That's good to know." Kit was getting quite tired of smiling. "Oh, and one more friendly word of warning: don't drink the water. Flood fever is not a pleasant way to die."

With a last smile – perhaps even a genuine one – he slipped into the water. Ronon followed, a dark shape beside Kit in the water as he kicked his way towards the postern gate, fumbled to open it, and was through. Maybe this time, he thought, then snatched the thought back. Lightning flashed, turning the water above them into a ceiling of silver. Kit swam forward, his eyes stinging in the dirty water. The old moat was narrow, and the wall towered ahead, like a dark ending of the world. Kit bumped into it with both hands, and pushed his way sideways. There, he thought, gesturing expansively, wishing he could say it in words. There's your way in.

The arrow slit was narrow, barely four fingers' width across. Sometimes, if you were really quiet, you could hear prisoners calling out on the other side, or catch the faintest gleam of light. If you reached through, your fingers were truly inside the forbidden levels of the Citadel, but you could not go in yourself. You could touch the stones, and the water passed in and out unhindered, but there was no getting in.

******

Sleep proved impossible. Jasper tried to lull himself into slumber by retelling those old familiar stories of the days when poetry still flowed in the veins of heroes. And Tamorlin bowed his head and let his enemies take him, and he was bound in chains of gold and silver and star-stone, three times three around his breast, and many there were that wept, but Myra his truelove stood tall and straight as a reed, because she knew that…

He rolled over harshly, trying another position, but the familiar words seemed harsh and grating. Outside, thunder rolled sporadically, and lightning flickered outside the shutters. A crack of light showed underneath his door, and the fire glowed, almost down to embers. Despite that, it felt too dark, as if the darkness was something that clawed at his eyelids when he closed them.

"It is the deepest part of night," he whispered, "when wise men sleep and souls take flight."

And Tamorlin, he thought. Tamorlin was taken to a prison cell where he was…

He turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. Beside him, his hand closed around smooth cotton. His bed was soft. There was a jug of water on the table and a bottle of fallowmead on the dresser. A box of honey fancies lay in the drawer, and a servant stood outside to come when he called.

He closed his eyes. And there they came to Tamorlin with pointed blade and burning brand, and they treated him cruelly and… His bed seemed to tilt, so he had to clutch onto the sheets to keep from falling. There was no light at all, only impenetrable darkness. The water flooded across the floor and became stinking poison, and the servant outside had blades in his hand and a cold, hard smile.

Gods! Jasper sat up, throwing the thin blanket from his body, letting his bare feet touch the rug. It was the prisoner; of course it was. While Jasper slept in his chamber, a doomed man was clinging to a platform in the dark, three floors below him. A man alone and far from home, with no friends in the world. A man who had been hurt by Jasper's father, even though he was almost certainly innocent. A man who was going to die in the morning.

He shouldn't care. Prisoners came and went, and almost every ten-day saw the slow tolling of the execution bell. The prisoner hadn't even asked for help. In fact, he had been quite insolent. Jasper owed him nothing. He owed him nothing at all.

So why, then, did he find himself on his feet? Why did he clip his hair back, pull on a robe and head for the door? Perhaps it was like poetry, he thought. He remembered the first time he had seen the Arc of the Gods – the first time he had truly seen it, moved to tears by its many-coloured majesty. He had been useless for hours, as words and feelings and half-formed rhymes raced around his head. It was only when his thoughts had consented to be pinned down in the flowing metre of a tuneless song that he had been free again.

Perhaps this time… No, he didn't know. All he knew was that he was padding out into the corridor, that he was… Oh! Shoes! He needed shoes. He sat on the bed and pulled them on, then pulled on breeches under his tunic, then, in final afterthought, swapped his robe for an outdoor coat.

The servant outside was impassive as Jasper passed, but when Jasper turned back after a few paces, he saw the boy smirking. Jasper's father's nocturnal adventures were legendary, but so far Jasper hadn't… He hadn't had anybody who… That didn't matter, he told himself. If he cared what people thought, then…

He reached the stairs and descended them, pausing to take a candle from the store. He chose a small lantern for it, dangling it from a metal ring. Guards stood at the entrance to each level, and they snapped to attention when they heard him, and relaxed a little as he passed. One nodded. Another said a brisk "my lord."

When he reached the final door, the door that separated the state chambers from the lower levels, he had to wait for a guard to unlock it with a huge black key. No questions were asked; they never were. "Your father left not long since, my lord," the guard said, his finger and thumb indicating a tiny expanse of time on a dwindling candle. Jasper nodded, and swallowed, wondering what his father had been doing in the dungeon at the dead of night.

The door closed behind him. He passed the alcove where he sat and crafted poetry, far away from the deceit and troubles of the world above. Guards stood beneath torches and braziers, like spiritwings drawn to the light. It was different in the dark – not a place of quiet contemplation, but a place of misery and death.

"The spy…" His voice came out hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "The spy from Daryen, in the water cell?"

"Alive when your father left him, my lord." And again that gesture, no thicker than the paring of a nail.

"I wish to see him."

"Very good, my lord."

The keys rattled in time with the guard's steps. "I didn't do it. Please, please, I didn't do it," a voice wailed from a locked door, as something harsh clawed against the door, little higher than the floor. Someone else was sobbing, quiet and forlorn. But the prisoner in the water cell was silent. As the guard unlocked the door, Jasper looked down and saw wet footprints shining like spilled blood in the light.

"Leave us," he said, when the door was open, and the guard did.

Jasper stepped in, the lantern high. The prisoner was a smudge of a face with eyes that glittered. Jasper moved the lantern, watching the expanse of light jerk and shudder its way over the prisoner's body, showing how his hands still gripped; how one leg was bent at the knee, bare foot braced against the stone, but the other fell limply into the water; how his eyes were like the stars at midnight, blazing but unfathomable.

"Hey," the prisoner said. "It's Junior with his science project." His voice was a tiny thread of a thing.

"Why don't you die?" Jasper found himself saying. "You're going to be executed tomorrow morning. Why endure all this when it's all for nothing?"

"Just… stubborn, I guess," the prisoner rasped.

Jasper's hand closed tightly on the lantern handle. "You need to die. My father…" He swallowed. "You need to die."

The prisoner gave a ghastly, incomprehensible smile. "Going to kill me, then?" and Jasper stood frozen, in a world where there was just the two of them, united in a dancing circle of light.

******

Kit surfaced next to the raft, sucking in great mouthfuls of air. Clinging to the edge of the raft with one hand, he scraped the water from his eyes. "Where's Ronon?" The woman was a carved figurehead looking down at him.

"I didn't--" Kit had to breathe, cursing the need to. "--didn't kill him, if that's what you mean." He couldn't even muster the right sort of insolent grin. "He was right behind me."

"Oh God!" Rodney croaked. "He's killed--"

"Oh, look." This time Kit managed a smile, not that either of them were looking at him. "There he is." They weren't listening, either. As soon as Ronon had emerged from the water, they had turned in on each other, the three of them together, mismatched as they were. Silent messages passed between them, and Kit was on the outside, floating in cold water.

Not that it mattered. "Are you going to tell them, Ronon, or shall I have that pleasure?" He wondered if there would be fury or wails of betrayal; the smaller man, Rodney, did horror particularly well, fear and outrage and anxiety constantly playing on his face like eddies of water in a storm. Or perhaps they would find a way in. Perhaps these people, whose weapons could stun a man without injury, could do what years of effort had failed to do, and break into the Citadel.

Ronon appeared almost unaffected by his long submersion. He pulled himself onto the raft – "careful!" Rodney cried. "Careful!" – then, his face impassive in the distant flicker of lightning, in the scattered flecks of light from boarded-up windows and the world beneath the water, drew something out of his clothes.

"Oh," Rodney said, not exclaiming it, just sighing angrily. "How typical. You get a second to grab our gear, and you pick up that. What about important things like – hello? Tablet? Computer? Repository of my vast knowledge? Oh no! Ronon picks up the things that go boom."

Kit dragged himself onto the raft; he doubted they even noticed. "It's an arrow-slit, too narrow to get through, but a small amount of C-4…"

"What?" Rodney squeaked, then looked round anxiously. "What?" he repeated in a whisper. "What part of sneaking don't you understand? Oh yes: the bit that involves being quiet. "

Ronon turned to Kit. "You have explosives on this world?" With a glance at Rodney and a quick flash of teeth, he said, "Things that go boom?"

"You mean black powder." Kit was feeling things inside, his pulse racing, his fingers tingling.

"Gunpowder doesn't work underwater." Ronon's smile grew wider, flashing quickly at his friends. "They hear the explosion, they won't know it's down there. They won't think it's possible. They'll run in the wrong direction."

"Or else they won't." Rodney was crouched on the raft, looking small and miserable, dwarfed by the vast square that once had held thousands on feast days and execution days. Kit tried to still the beating of his heart; wiped his hands on his breeches, replacing warm moisture with cold.

"Worth a try," Ronon said.

"Or maybe we could think about it." Rodney bit his lip. "Talk about it. Our thieving friend must know another way in. So plan A doesn't work? We need a plan B."

"There's no other way," Kit said. He felt diminished, somehow, and he had no idea why. Perhaps it was the water. His eyes would be itching until dawn.

"Here goes, then." Ronon raised the thing in his hand, and moved his thumb towards it. Lightning flared, splitting the sky with silver, and Kit saw Ronon's face, saw his lips moving, counting one, two, three. The sound that followed was almost like thunder, but muffled by water, quieter than thunder was.

"We must go quickly," Teyla said, "before they organise their response."

Rodney grabbed her arm. "There's someone on the walls," he hissed, his face a smear of terrified white. "Up there. They're walking… They… No. They're looking down. They're going to see us. They're going to see us."

Kit looked up, and if this had ever been a game, any enjoyment dropped away like a stone. The man on the wall wore neither hat nor helmet. His outline showed the high collar of a formal coat, and the hand that was closing round the parapet was bare. "Fuck," Kit swore. "It's a Whisperer."

"Which means?" Teyla whispered.

"That we're dead," Kit had to tell her. This time, he didn't even take delight in it.

******

end of chapter two

On to chapter three

******

Note: Thank you to all who've read and reviewed so far! I know that this is not the most immediately appealing form of story, since it's not seen through our heroes' eyes, so I'm really grateful to all who are giving it a go. Part 4 ought to appear tomorrow at more or less the usual time. I got up at 5.30 this morning to ensure that I could get this part out on time… and have actually ended up getting it out early – though at the cost of not yet replying to comments on yesterday's chapter. Sorry! I'll do so within the hour.
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