Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 5 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter four (part 5 of 16)

The story starts here on LJ or you can read the entire story to date (prologue and first four chapters) here in a single file, if you prefer. This file will grow in size daily as each latest chapter is tagged on to the end.


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Chapter four
On the Brink of Tomorrow
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None of them bowed when they found out who he was. Rodney and the woman looked almost irritated, and then they were all talking about other things, ignoring him. Jasper looked at the silver stars, specks of purest light caressing the top of the trees. He took in a great breath of air, and the scent was different from anything he had ever smelled. It smelled of life and open space and possibilities. But it smelled, too, of emptiness and the unknown and strange things out of stories that he had never seen face to face.

He saw the thief walk off, then heard him call for Ronon. "Need to sink the boat in deep water," he said. "Care to make the holes?"

"Go." The woman nodded. "I will stay…"

"So you're going to be king." Rodney was on his knees, but he looked up at Jasper, his face a pale smear. "Trust Sheppard to snag a hostage who's going to get us a charge of high treason, not just your regular kind of agonising death."

"I am my father's heir, yes." And I'm stuck with you, he heard his father, because your empty-headed mother couldn't give me another son. I plan to hedge you around with advisers so tightly that not a single royal word will be your own, if I don't disinherit you entirely, of course.

"Huh." Rodney let out a grunting breath. "I guess you want us to tug our forelocks and grovel." He paused, hands moving in the darkness. "Will that stop you killing us? I can do grovelling."

Jasper thought of a lifetime of people bowing and saluting, of calling him 'lord' even if their eyes did not always match their words. He thought of his insight, of his gift with words. "I am your better." The words seemed quite small in the enormous darkness.

Neither of them answered him, and a moment later he regretted saying anything at all. He heard splashing behind him, and a flickering red light. He remembered a chain at his throat, and a guard crumpling to the floor. There was beauty in the night, but none of the stories denied that the night also held horrors. "I demand that you take me home," he said.

Rodney was slow to answer, as if he was busy with something that he considered even more important. "Which is not going to happen on account of the certain death that's waiting for us thanks to a certain caveman's love affair with his gun and a certain colonel refusing to lie back like a good colonel and let us rescue him, rather than taking it into his head to take the crown prince hostage. He never did do well with authority figures."

"But you are free to go." The woman sounded weary and distracted, her face turned away.

"Speak for yourself." It was the thief, silent in the shadows, returned from the water. Jasper whirled round, his hand rising instinctively to his loose hair. "Let him run blabbing to his daddy? He knows where we are and knows where we're going. He can't be turned free." He chuckled harshly. "Of course, the poor little rich boy would probably fall into a puddle and drown himself before that happened, but I'm not taking that chance."

"Not up to you," said the big man.

"Oh?" Jasper could see the prince in outline, hands on his hips. "And who, pray, is it up to, friend Ronon? You, because you have the weapon? Brute force over right? Who's the mean-hearted bastard now?"

The man called Ronon stood his ground. "When Sheppard wakes up…"

"Which, seriously, should have happened by now." Rodney's voice was high.

"I say keep him," said the thief. "He'll be a useful hostage if his daddy's loyal men track us down, and I'm sure the Basilis of Daryen will look favourably on anyone who shows up with the only child of his sworn enemy. The only legitimate one, anyway. Rumour has it that the kitchen and stables are teeming with royal bastards."

Jasper pressed his hand to his mouth. "I say ditch the pair of them," he heard Ronon say.

"Hey, not so fast." The thief shook his head. "You owe me one. If I've got to walk all the way to Daryen to try to claw out a new life with nothing but the clothes on my back, then I want a strapping warrior type like you to guard my back. No-one travels through the Debateable Lands alone. Besides, since you hadn't even heard of the Circle of Daryen, I'm imagining you don't know how to find Daryen all on your lonesome without walking in circles or blundering into a nest of bandits."

"He has a point. He does have a point there."

"I do not believe that it will cause any harm if we let the boy go. He is young, and he has done nothing wrong."

"Yeah. Just in the wrong place… at the wrong time."

At that, three voices spoke at once, overlapping each other like the voices in a three-part song. "Sheppard!" and "John, how are you…?" and "Hey, buddy." No-one was paying Jasper any attention at all. He thought of cold stone and a faded tapestry, as mother and father and tutor and masters all argued over his fate. But he'd been a child then, and now he was a full seventeen years old. A man made his own fate. Sometimes things happened that came to test you, and sometimes people put bars across your way, but a truly great man always clung to what was important.

"…didn't mean it to go this far," the prisoner was saying, in that voice that had kept Jasper from sleep. "He was going to intercede." He said it with emphasis, and Ronon snorted. "My--" He coughed weakly. "My responsibility. Send him home."

"I do not believe it will cause any harm to do so," the woman said again. "They already believe you are from a spy from Daryen, so they will be expecting us to go that way."

"Yeah." Jasper's prisoner coughed again. "Junior. You said you wanted to… help. Help this way. Don't tell. Misdirect. Ronon's a blonde dwarf. Rodney's a village idiot. We went thataway."

Jasper thought of a man, an innocent man, clinging to a platform in a desperate attempt to stay alive. He remembered how the words always flowed away like a swift flood when in the presence of his father's will. The words had vanished in the last few hours, too. He had been limp in the river, tossed around by the tide. 'It is your duty,' his father roared in his head. (Duty. Beauty. Like shackles of star-stone. Like a metal cage that would not let the joy of poetry in.)

"And if I refuse?" he found himself saying.

The others parted just enough for him to see his prisoner struggling to push himself up onto his elbow. "Then we'll take our chances. I don't… kill children… as a rule."

Jasper thought of the way the prisoner's eyes had met his in the cell; perhaps even then he had been begging for help. He had seen his father on his throne receiving petitions. He thought of Cador's chosen men – the poor, the outcast and the desperate, each one pardoned when they begged a boon, each one bound to their lord by ties of gratitude stronger than death.

"Since you beg it of me," he told the prisoner, "I will not tell." Then he bit his lip, and looked up at the stars, like beckoning fingers in the night. "I won't tell," he said, "because I'm coming with you."

******

Kit left them to it. "He's like a stray dog," he heard Rodney say. "Shoo, boy. Nice doggie. Go home now."

"Rodney," Teyla berated him. "He is only a boy."

Kit walked away to the edge of the trees. His job was to predict how men and women would behave; a correct judgement made the difference between rich pickings and a spell in the Bargate Prison. He thought he had taken their measure as he had followed them through the Drowned Quarter, and for the most part they were quite ridiculously easy to manipulate. People were just a bundle of habits and reactions, like a painter's outline on a wall. But yet… But yet… There was that mixture of heart and heartlessness that made them… vexing. Without a moment's thought for what it would mean to him, they had implicated him in something that had ruined the life he had built for himself, but they had risked a lot to save a friend, and they worried about this idiot prince who had spent his whole life in luxury, while folk just a stone's throw from his chamber had scraped out their short existence on damp perches in the rich folk's leavings.

No matter, he told himself. This thing was serious enough without distractions. He had been implicated in the death of a Whisperer; that was real. He was here in the company of the king's heir; that was real. He had a long journey ahead to an uncertain ending. Whatever other games were going on here, some things could not be forgotten.

"Hey." He raised his voice, snapping his fingers. "Ronon. Come here."

Ronon obeyed him. Fancy that! Kit thought. Even in the dark, the big man's scowl was evident, which Kit had to admit undermined the whole obedience thing somewhat. Kit gestured to Ronon to come with him a little way beyond the trees. Ronon, he saw, drew his weapon at that. It was strangely comforting; at least some people remained entirely predictable. The man would probably kill the prince if the debate went on for much longer. Ronon might be under the thumb of Teyla and this Sheppard, but Kit knew a heartless killer when he saw one.

"How's Sheppard?" Kit asked, when they were far enough away. "No, no, there's no need to dazzle me with your monosyllabic wit. No, I don't particularly care. I do, however, need to know how badly he's going to slow us down."

Ronon took his time answering; perhaps his little brain was trying to decide how honest to be. "It's not good," he said at last, "but he's been worse. The Wraith bitch drugged him; messed with his head. There's cracked ribs, maybe broken. There's deep bruises. Some cuts. Raw wrists need to be cleaned out. Someone beat him good."

"Yes, yes." Kit flapped his hand. "I don't want the laundry list. Can he walk? Can he run?" He let out a sharp breath. "No, I guess not. We need to hole up somewhere until morning – give your Sheppard some time to have his beauty sleep. Fortunately," he said, with a small bow, "I know of just the place. What would you do without me, etcetera etcetera." The word was new to him, but he had heard Rodney say it, and he had always been a quick mimic.

"You set this up?" Ronon growled.

Kit did not like the way that his heart always betrayed him, beating faster than it should. "Course I did," he said. "A fellow in a job like mine always has to have a way out if things blow up in his face. I scouted this place out years ago." Buried a nice stash of beads here, too, but he didn't say that bit. "There's a hut not far away. Used as refuge by hunters, I believe, until the flood. Last time I checked, I saw no evidence of anyone using it any more, but that was in the winter. Things can change."

Ronon nodded once. "Where is it?"

Kit pointed him in the right direction and settled in to follow. Big, predictable Ronon with his gun. And if there were nasties in the hut… Kit smiled. If that happened, then he had a nice tame crebyn to deal with them. He had someone to fight his battles. He had someone…

He stopped that thought quite sternly, and concentrated on walking on unbroken level ground, without bridges and walkways. The stars were quite staggering, stretching from horizon to horizon, and then far below it, reflected in the water of the flood. It was quite enough to… Stop this sentimental crap, he berated himself. It was just that he was walking along with someone else, but didn't feel the urge to talk. He had already said what needed to be said – bent Ronon to my will, he thought, remembering something his uncle had once said – and Ronon seemed quite content to walk along silently. He didn't seem to demand more, and it was almost… It was…

Kit pressed his fingertips to his brow, between the eyes. He had a headache, he realised, slowly building over the day. Far too many things coming together. He was still teetering along the Bridge of Broken Promises, while needlefish circled in the blackness below. And tired, he was just tired. He would never see that bunk again, which, rough as it was, had been a kind of home. He would never…

"Is that it?"

Kit blinked. "Yeah." His voice was not quite what it should be. He tried for a laugh. "Well done, Ronon. You can recognise a house. Go to the top of the class."

"You take point," Ronon said, and then, just before Kit could ask what in the flood that meant, he added, "No. I'll do it myself. We don't take liabilities along with us on missions."

"Thank you," Kit said, but quietly. "Thank you very much." He stood outside and listened for the sound of Ronon being bloodily torn to pieces, but there was nothing. Then a bird hooted, brushing pale and silent above his head. Kit looked up. "It's clear," Ronon said. Kit had not heard him emerge.

"Good," Kit said. "You get the others. I'm going to get some sleep."

And then he sat in the darkness with his back against the wall, leant his head back, and closed his eyes. He brought his knees up, wrapping one arm around them to keep them there. It had been years since he had been in a place totally silent.

******

The woman had started a fire in the central hearth, and a large cauldron had been found somewhere in a crumbling cupboard in the dank hovel. "You have to boil flood water," the prisoner explained, when Jasper had stared at it for a long time, watching the play of flames on the burnished metal.

"So he's your padawan learner now, is he?" snapped Rodney, his hands still busy over nothing.

"I knew that," Jasper said. It was just that it was taking so long! At home, hot water came instantly when you shouted for it, and food was always on hand whenever you decided you wanted it. Ronon had brought down a plump bird, and he had been turning it on a charred stick for ages, but still claimed it wasn't ready yet.

Still, food and drink was imminent, and there had times when Tamorlin and the others had had to endure whole days without sustenance, tried to the very limits of their endurance. Straitened circumstances brought a special kind of fellowship. That was why he sometimes heard the simple folk of the Drowned Quarter singing in their ale-houses, when all was quiet and cold in the Citadel above.

"Shall we sing a song?" he said.

The thief had stayed gratifyingly quiet, but Rodney snorted. "Spare me!" He turned to the prisoner. "There's no way you're letting him come with us, right? We're abandoning him as soon as it's daylight?"

The prisoner was propped up against the wall. There were smears under his eyes, clearly visible in the angled firelight, and his wrists were red and torn. "Why d'you want to come?" Those glittering eyes at least were familiar.

What could he say? He was the crown prince. If he wanted something, people got it for him, and never asked him why. Except for the things he wanted most of all, of course, but then his father had never asked him why he wanted those, too, but had just said no. Eyes across firelight, eyes across water, asking questions. Would you? Could you?

He wasn't sure that he even knew. With the poetry, with the urge to craft wonders with words, he had never had to ask himself why, but had always known, certainty like fire in his veins, that this was what he lived for. It could not be contained by such common things as whys and explanations.

Because my father… He could have said that. Because his life in the Citadel was the life of a prisoner, and this way he could be free. He was taking a stand against his father. His father wanted to package him off to be a figurehead leader in the army, but he couldn't do that if he couldn't find him, now could he? And perhaps Jasper could go almost as far as Daryen and wonder amongst the common folk there, learning truths that his father's agents with all their harshness could never learn. Perhaps he could even come back glorious, with the licence to do anything that he wished.

"There's no life for me at home," he said, shifting awkwardly, looking into the flames.

"Yes, because it's so hard being royalty and living in luxury," Rodney sneered.

"Not much life for the folk in the Drowned Quarter, either," said the thief. He sounded half-asleep, but his eyes were gleaming beneath half-closed lids.

"You don't understand anything!" Jasper blazed, and the thief in that moment was every one of his father's sneering bastards, every guard with their clumsy salutes, every servant with their hastily concealed smiles, every pitying look of every noble member of the Twelve. "My father… My… They… They want to write the story of my life in advance, because of my birth."

"It's same for the folk in the Drowned Quarter," the thief said, and then he smiled. "Except for cunning bastards like me who get out." His hand was wrapped around his knee, knuckles white.

"So we have ourselves a snot-nosed teenage rich boy rebelling against his father's plans for him." Rodney rolled his eyes. "The age-old story."

Jasper looked across the fire at his prisoner, but the man's eyes were closed. His quiet moan when he moved was audible even across the crackle of the flames. "No," he said, when the woman turned to him, when Rodney sat there, the expression frozen on his face. "I'm good." Then to Jasper he said quietly, "Is that why?"

Jasper swallowed, and drew himself up. "I don't have to explain myself to you."

Something changed about the prisoner's face, and his voice hardened. "I think you do, if the safety of my team is endangered because of you."

The woman tipped the cauldron, testing the water. Jasper stood up, and as he did so, he caught a reflection of himself in the seething water, all shattered into pieces.

It was about stories, too; of course it was. He had lived with them for so long, but he had never lived in them. His life had begun and ended in the confines of Myr, and his soul flew free on the wings of words, but his body remained chained. He wanted to ride through the hills with Cador and his companions. He wanted to share tales at a campfire with Talis and Valorian. He wanted to compose songs beneath an open sky, and experience the deathless friendship of Balor and Tuin, who fought together, loved the same lady, and died side by side beneath a cliff of tumbled star-stone.

He wanted to feel fear, to see if he could face it. He wanted… He looked down at his hands. There's just me, the prisoner had said, but then his friends had come for him. They gathered around him even now, unconsciously protective, like the friends of Tamorlin… Like Tamorlin…

He thought of a man clinging onto the platform, enduring long hours of pain and darkness, refusing to let himself go. Would you? Could you?

"I want to live," he said to that man now, "and… and if you don't let me come with you, I'm going to go, anyway, all by myself. I'm going to do this thing; I really am."

And then the water was ready, and the bird was done, and it was time to move on to other things, and time to move back to who he really was.

******

Kit had long ago had to learn to fall asleep instantly whenever the chance presented itself. Unfortunately, those same circumstances had taught him to wake up at the slightest hint of something unusual. More than once that had saved him from a knife in the guts when someone's hired thugs came round to avenge some not-so-imagined slight.

He did dream. Sometimes dreams lingered.

This time he woke up to the light of early dawn, pale grey through the thick glass of cheap windows. He tried to calm his rapid breathing; tried to feign continued sleep as he rolled over, his eyes closed to tiny slits.

Teyla was asleep on her side, her hand outstretched as if she had moved in a dream to check on Sheppard, but had not quite reached him. Rodney lay on his back, softly snoring on Sheppard's other side. Ronon, of course, had insisted on taking watch, and was doubtless pacing up and down in an impressive fashion outside; perhaps it was a stick breaking beneath his feet that had woken Kit. On the far side of the dying fire, the prince lay curled up, hands pressed beneath his cheek like a baby. Sheppard, now… Sheppard's eyes were open, watching Kit.

Although it had sometimes saved his life, it went against the grain to feign sleep, to pretend helplessness. Kit opened his eyes fully. "Can't sleep?" he whispered.

Sheppard did not answer. His eyes flickered towards the door, but not in warning. Heroic type that he was, he was probably wishing that he was the one on watch, staggering up and down despite his injuries, while his over-muscled friend slept the sleep of the innocent.

Perhaps it was time to turn to business. He couldn't remember if he had spoken directly to Sheppard before. "Hurts badly, huh?"

Sheppard raked his gaze back to Kit, moving as if his neck hurt him. "I'm good."

Kit had been intended to ask if Sheppard was planning on holding them up today – lay on the guilt, the sense of obligation. Instead, he found himself saying, "Why do you lie about how you're feeling?"

Sheppard looked at him; blinked. "Why do you?"

Kit very slowly let out a breath. Very slowly, he rolled over and pretended to sleep. He wondered if Sheppard was watching him. He wondered what he saw.

******

The morning was warm and sunny. In the city, by the time Jasper woke up the air was already sweltering, although the thick walls of the Citadel kept it cool, sometimes too cold. Here, though, when he stretched, when he walked to the door, when he stood outside and raised his face to the sky, he felt the sweet breeze of a world untouched by human hand.

A bird twittered above him, gleeful in its undulating flight. Water lapped golden and yellow around slender reeds and blades of grass, frail yet enduring. "The clouds", he murmured, "gentle as a lover's breath, "and something something something death." Or perhaps not. Why bring death into it when the world around was so pure and joyous?

He felt ripe with the promise of adventure. He combed his own hair, carding his fingers through it, although he was hampered by the lack of a clip. There was no need to dress, because he already was dressed, appearing in public in way that would horrify all the highborn ladies on the hill, just wearing breeches beneath a worn sleeping tunic. But perfectly decent, he thought, not mourning his tight-laced waistcoat one little bit. Free.

The day before had been difficult – that he could not deny. He had lost his way somewhat. Things had happened, and he had allowed himself to become confused. For a while, he had quite lost the joy of poetry, but all that was changed. He was a young prince striding off on adventure. He was a fugitive, taking a stand against the fate that others had chosen for him. He was running away? Perhaps, but poetry always did run as free as the wind, and could never be tied down. (Free, his mind thought. Just be. Towards the sea. With she, and thee. We. Glee.)

He watched Ronon returning from somewhere, furry bodies slung over his shoulder. He heard the woman speaking inside, and Rodney answering. The thief stood a few paces away, watching everything. That was the one bad thing about the situation. Jasper didn't like the thief. He fought the urge to raise his hand to his unbound hair, refusing to give the thief that triumph. The clasp had been set with blood-stone, like the love token Myra had given to Tamorlin before their second parting. At least he still had his ring, and his hand moved to that instead, twisting it around and around on his finger.

Rodney came out of the hovel, struggling to carry even the empty cauldron. Putting it down, he snapped his fingers. "Chop chop! We need water." Neither of them moved. I'm not a servant! Jasper thought. "Never mind," Rodney sighed. "Ronon'll do it."

Jasper watched as Ronon went the short distance to the water, and saw how he kept low, and how his head was moving sharply, like the yellow-eyed gaer that Lord Robben liked to wear tethered to his glove.

"He's checked we're not being pursued," the thief said quietly, although Jasper hadn't asked.

Jasper stiffened. He had no desire to be found, because that meant a return to his father's plan, and a return to all those empty things and empty smiles. Now that he had tasted freedom, such things were unbearable.

"I'd have thought you'd have wanted your father's strapping lads to find us," the thief said. Jasper hated the way he smiled. "Here you are, prisoner of a notorious thief and four dangerous strangers who have all expressed an interest in travelling to Daryen, that most hateful and terrible place." His eyes narrowed. "Or have you already forgotten that Sheppard used your life to bargain for your own? Have you forgotten being tied up." He touched his right wrist with the thumb and forefinger of his left. "I haven't."

Eyes across the darkness, pinning him with questions. The woman telling him that he would not be hurt, that he was free to go, in a voice that was impossible to disbelieve. An innocent man, pushed into an impossible situation, was sometimes reduced to desperate measures just to stay alive. It didn't mean that they weren't good. "I trust them," he said.

The thief snorted. "Trust no-one, that's what I say."

"But I am not like you." Jasper said it with dignity, and headed back into the hovel, hoping to recover the glory of his earlier mood. (Glory, his mind said. Story. Gory. No, perhaps not that.)

"…bandages," the woman was saying. "The flood water was not clean."

The prisoner looked worse in daylight. Jasper wondered when Ronon would return for the water. He was thirsty, and he hadn't had nearly enough to eat the night before.

"So, colonel, out with it." Rodney snapped his fingers. "You didn't answer me last night, on account of being… well, unconscious and perhaps dying, and there being other things to talk about, like certain strays you seem to have picked up and added to our happy band."

"Don't remember you asking me anything."

Jasper watched Ronon stagger in with the cauldron and lower it heavily to the stone slabs of the square hearth. A fire was already burning. As soon as they had eaten, they could be on their way, striding out on the path that led to tomorrow.

"Like how you managed to crash like a hundred miles from the gate, rather than next to it, which would have been more customary."

The woman turned to the prisoner, blocking most of him from Jasper's view. "We need to expose it to the air," she said quietly. "When the water has boiled…"

"Yeah, yeah, I know." The prisoner moaned, though it was closer to a breath, really, breaking in the middle. "I don't remember much," he said, a little louder. "I was out of it. I remember dialling… Must have dialled wrong. I'm sorry."

"But after that?" There was a shrillness to Rodney's voice. Jasper looked at the play of light on the curved edge of the cauldron, and saw patterns of song in the intricate dance of the flames.

"Shot at. I--" The prisoner sucked in a sharp breath. "Just as I went through the gate. Busted the controls. Cut the brake cable."

"Darts don't have brake cables."

"As good as. Kept going. I raised her up; tried to… to bring her round--" ("I am sorry, John," Teyla murmured.) "--but I was losing power. Kept her going, but I blacked out for a bit."

The fire flared up, acrid smoke prickling Jasper's nostrils.

"I told you you shouldn't drive."

"No alternative. When I woke up, I knew it was too late. Bailed you out and hoped to God…"

"We're safe, John," the woman said. "I need you to…"

"Yes, yes, he can see that we're safe." Rodney's voice was higher than ever, vibrating with what could only have been fury. "But a hundred miles, Sheppard, or probably even more, with whole armies of primitives who think that steam power is the most advanced thing going… And you… We had the thief telling horror stories about the Citadel, saying you were dead already, and I thought… I really thought…"

Ronon was skinning animals with his knife. His face was like the armoured doors of the Citadel prison, slammed shut and locked. Then the woman moved, and Jasper saw the prisoner's face, warped with the rising steam. The end of a blood-stained bandage protruded from the fire.

"It really isn't good enough, Sheppard. Once again, you've--"

"Be quiet!" Jasper commanded. He stood up, rounding on Rodney. "Stop it! He's hurt and he's your friend, and you don't care at all. You just talk and talk and talk. It's not all about you."

He left the hovel to the sound of the thief slowly clapping.

******

It was too much to hope that a ship load of Myr's finest wouldn't appear on the water before the morning was over, although the navy was not what it had been before too many ships and shipyards had been swamped in the flood. Kit hoped that the search would still be concentrating on the city and the land routes into the hinterland, but they still had to be away, and soon. He tried impatient nagging, lashing at them with caustic words, but he knew that the others realised the urgency as much as he did. Except for the idiot prince, of course, who didn't seem to have a clue about anything at all.

The fire was out, and the last of the boiled water had been distributed between the leather bottles that Kit had planted in the hut so long before. He had even dug up his store, lashing the small bag of beads to his belt and hoping no-one commented. Time enough for them to marvel at his sudden wealth later, when he plucked a miracle from that bag to save them from the fate of the beadless. All honestly gained and his, of course. Honestly stolen, anyway.

Sheppard seemed to be slowly summoning his strength for the off. "Radios would be useful," he said, "in case we get split up."

"Did the crash do something to your eyes," Rodney huffed, "because – oh look! – we haven't got any."

"Which is why I said they'd be useful."

They truly were strange, these people, slipping away from him as soon as he thought he had them pegged. Where did they really come from, he wondered. Not Daryen, and not Myr, that was for sure. There were lands across the Narrow Sea, of course, but the people there hadn't even discovered steam power, let alone the strange technology that Kit's new companions possessed. Some said that day of ocean-going steamships was coming, capable of making it to the fabled Other Lands across the Great Ocean, and there were great expanses of land sunwards of Daryen, where people lived in scattered settlements and called no man lord. However, curiosity was the sort of thing that got you killed. For some reason of their own, these people wanted to go to the Circle of Daryen, so that was where Kit would take them.

"Oh!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Oh oh oh oh oh!" He rummaged in his pocket. "The Whisperer had this." He put it on the floor next to Sheppard's hand, not quite touching. "Whisperer," he said with emphasis. "Scary guys who, according to our superstitious native here, can communicate with each other across great distances?"

"Oh," said Sheppard, with a slow smile. He turned towards the prince, and Kit could tell as clear as daylight that he was only feigning nonchalance. It took a player to recognise a player, after all. (Why do you? he heard, in the cold light of dawn.) "Got anything else like this lying around?"

Jasper shook his head, looking nervous. Well, well, Kit thought. So even the prince was afraid of the Whisperers. First sensible reaction Kit had ever seen from him.

"Worth asking." Sheppard shrugged, them grimaced. "Ow." But his voice was light, carefully so, as he pushed himself to his feet.

Only Rodney remained sitting. "Oh," he said. "Oh no. Oh no no no no no no." He clapped his hand to his mouth.

"What, McKay?" From Sheppard's patient tone, Kit understood that such crises were common fare with Rodney.

"I touched it," Rodney said, "when putting it away. I touched it just there. Why don't the Ancients ever label their 'on' switches?"

"McKay…"

"I heard him. I heard him here." Rodney jabbed at his forehead. "And I don't know how much he heard, but he knows we're here, and he says… Quite a cliché, in fact, and this mind-talking thing…? I didn't believe in it until..." His hand fell back to his side. "He says he's coming for us."

******

end of chapter four

On to chapter five
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