Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 7 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter six (part 7 of 16)

The story starts here on LJ or you can read the entire story to date here in a single file.


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Chapter six
Just a Memory and a Name
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"Isn't this just wonderful?" Rodney was grumbling. "Burned to a crisp yesterday – do I look red? Which is just the outward manifestation of unseen damage, of course, caused by yet another exposure to… Anyway…" He wrapped his arms around his body, grimacing. "And today rain. These peasant clothes are going to chafe. I have surprisingly sensitive skin."

"Do you?" Kit drew his knife and scraped it along his thumb nail. "How interesting."

"Don't threaten McKay." Sheppard's voice sounded casual, but Kit had long-since learned how to recognise a threat, no matter how a man chose to say it. "We're the only ones allowed to do that."

"He was threatening me?" Rodney looked round anxiously. "What's with you military types and villain types with all your double entendres for hurting people, and…? He was threatening me?"

"Yes, McKay, but he didn't really mean it."

"Oh. And you know that how?"

Kit sheathed the knife. It was almost noon, he thought, and it had been raining since just before breakfast. There was not a single part of him that was not wet, and when they climbed, sweat came out to join the happy party. The only one who seemed completely unbothered by the conditions was Ronon, who kept stalking off like a hunting carril, sometimes checking the path ahead, and sometimes looking behind. Kit decided to leave him to it. It was quite obvious that Ronon knew his business; in a job like Kit's, your life often depended on assessing someone else's expertise, and misplaced pride tended to get you killed.

Rodney yawned dramatically. "Days on this pl--… Okay, okay, don't look at me like that. Days at this particular latitude, whatever that may be, so far away from our simple village home, are longer than days on… where we're used to. There can be serious complications, both physical and physiological, from messing with your circadian rhythms, you know. And we're being expected to cram eight days of physical activity into a length of time closer to ten. It's summer, so their nights are at their shortest, but the days..." He yawned again.

"You want to stop for lunch, Rodney?" Teyla asked with a smile.

"No, seriously, I'm concerned for all of us. Sleep deprivation isn't pretty – believe me, I know."

"Yeah, Rodney, it's not as if it's something new." Sheppard was walking with one hand pressed to his middle. "After all the… places we have been."

"And been stranded on."

"Spent the night on, and with you snoring…"

"I do not!"

"Not to mention the, uh, new neighbourhood."

Kit studied Sheppard during the exchange; saw how he was fighting to make each word come out so lightly. Gods! he thought. If he had been feeling as Sheppard quite obviously was feeling, he'd be screaming the place down with his agony, or else keeping his mouth tightly shut. The rain appeared to have washed all the colour from his skin, leaving only smears of pink high on his cheek bones. The bandages at his wrists were pink and sodden with rain. His heart was beating quite visibly at the base of his throat, and his breathing was off, too, as if he was having to consciously fight to control it.

"But since Rodney asks so nicely…" Sheppard said now. "A short break sounds good."

Why did they all keep up the fiction, Kit wondered, that the break was nothing to do with Sheppard's condition? The idiot prince, nice and dry under his expensive coat, might be gaping in a way that showed that he was still walking around with his eyes tightly shut, but everyone else knew the truth. Why wouldn't any of them speak about the fact that Sheppard was clearly struggling, and that his friends were worrying themselves sick about him?

He tried Teyla first, when she wandered off a little way, perhaps to scan the grey world for signs of Ronon coming back. "Sheppard's not doing well," he said.

She did not look at him. "I know."

He should have left it there. "But when you ask him, and he says he's good, you don't push it."

"No," she said, and sounded weary, far wearier than Rodney had sounded with his fake yawns.

Ronon came back, a shadow taking shape from mist. "Nothing yet," he said.

"They're biding their time." Rodney wrung his hands. "Lulling us into a false sense of security." He lifted the front of his tunic, twisting water out of it. "At least prison would be dry."

"Don't count on it," Sheppard said, the last word turning into a cough.

The rain deadened sound. The idiot prince, wandering away to stare like a dumb merrow into the mist, was just a shape in a coat. Ronon and Teyla moved away, and not even Kit's sharp ears could hear what they were saying.

Kit crouched down next to Sheppard. "They aren't fooled, you know."

Sheppard pursed his lips, then let out a breath. "I know."

"So why don't you give up on this little game and just tell them how crappy you feel? They know. You know that they know. They know that you know that they know." He gestured uselessly with the sharp edge of his hand. "This is just crazy."

"Crazy?" Sheppard's smile might even have been genuine. "Been called that before."

But it was no answer, though, and perhaps that was just as well. "I'm just concerned about the time we're making," Kit said, deliberately loudly, as he stood up, "which is too slow, given the certain death that's even now closing on our tail."

******

As their path rose even higher, the rain became a fine mist that penetrated everything. Jasper knew they were walking through the very heart of a cloud. How strange, he thought, that when you were beneath them, clouds were beautiful ethereal things, but when you were in them, they were just water. Everything was just water. Life came from water, so very long ago when even the stars were new, and it ended in water, too, with his childhood home lost beneath the flood. Engineers in their factories by the sea swore that water, in the form of steam, would allow them to bend the whole world to their will. Even breath was made of water, beading in droplets on a looking glass. Even life.

Jasper was hot beneath his coat, but at least it kept the worst of the rain off him. His feet were sodden, though, protected only by shoes designed for strolling the corridors of the Citadel. They were rubbing him horribly at the heels, and his legs were beginning to ache quite terribly. Such things were never talked about in the stories.

"I want to stop," he said,

The others walked on, each one hunched against the rain. The rain was a cape of solitude, he thought, wrapping each of them in a layer that cut them off from everybody else.

"I'm tired." Strange shapes towered on either side of their path – grey masses of twisted stone. Jasper moved closer towards one, and found that the rain ceased. "It's sheltered here."

"Not yet," the thief said, the rain dulling the usual edge to his words.

"You stop whenever Rodney asks." Jasper watched their shapes move ever further away from him, becoming spirits in the mist. "I could order you," he said quietly.

Perhaps none of them heard him. With a sigh, Jasper trudged after them. The prisoner at least, he noticed, turned as if to make sure that he was still there. Jasper resolved to make the best of it. Tamorlin and the others had faced far worse than this, and had shown their greatness by how they responded to adversity. Valorian had walked from Daryen to Myr with a hole in his belly, just to rescue a friend. Talis had walked into the furnace at the sunward tip of the world, because a boy who had once sworn to follow him was lost there. Myra had given up everything for Tamorlin, but when they had feared that she would die for her devotion, she had told him that she was happier here, dying with him, than on all the silken cushions in her father's palace. Such feats as these had not been seen for a thousand years, but they were remembered, and so Jasper could endure the pain of sore feet and the misery of the rain, and in his heart, an echo of the spirit of those long-dead heroes would live again.

Besides, he thought, a gifted poet could see beauty even in the dullest of days. The world was reduced to shades of grey, like thin layers of silk laid one upon the other. The rock formations towered like frozen giants, locked in stone. That one there raised its fist in defiance. That one there was down on its knees, beseeching.

An animal howled from the mist, and then another. Jasper imagined it was the wailing of a giant trapped forever in stone, forced to watch travellers pass below their feet forever more.

He almost crashed into Rodney's back. "You stopped," he said accusingly.

"Ronon went that way." Rodney was shielding his eyes from the rain, peering into the gloom. "Hunting dinner."

There was another howl, only one, fainter and further away. "Is that a wild crebyn?" Jasper asked. "According to Faralith the Scholar, they don't taste good. He should go after something else."

"God!" Rodney whirled on him. "Are you totally self-centred? And they say I'm bad, but at least I… at least I… God!" He pressed his hand to his face, almost slapping it there, wiping away rain.

"I…" Jasper tasted rain on his lips. "I am a poet."

"And I'm a genius. So what?"

"I… I see other things." Like frozen giants, where they only saw stone. Like the precious thing that was Teyla, where they saw someone to travel with, just like any man. "My mind… Sometimes it's chasing the right word for a thing, roaming down golden passages far removed from this petty world. Sometimes I…" He drew himself up, knowing that he should not feel any shame. "But when I turn my poet's eye on the people around me, I see more truly than--"

"God!" Rodney sounded truly furious. Jasper looked for help, but Teyla and the others were gone. "Ronon might be dead right now, savaged by a wild beast. Sheppard's walking himself into an early grave and you just babble about poems and ask what's for dinner and don't give the slightest sign of noticing that--" He scraped the water from his face again. "God! Is this what I sound like?"

The creature howled one last time. Something else sounded, short and sharp. Rodney moved towards the noise, his hand going to his belt, reaching for something that wasn't there. "Of course it isn't," he said. "I gave it to Sheppard. What a truly genius idea that was. Give the pistol to man with a hero complex, who thinks the best treatment for serious injury is running around shooting things."

Jasper chewed his lip, unsure for the first time. "What's happening?"

"Epic battle of man against wolf." Rodney's hands were opening and closing as if he wished he had something in them.

"Oh." Jasper wrapped his arms around his body, keeping the rain out. "I'm not self-centred," he said. "I'm not blind. I know that the-- that Sheppard was hurt. I was there. But he…" Clings on. Stares death in the face and refuses to give in. Found the strength to escape. "He's strong. He's the tree that bends in the wind, but will never break. And Ronon…" Ronon scared him a little, but he remembered him doing the ritual dance with Teyla. "Ronon's deep water. Nothing can stop him."

Rodney sighed loudly. "Spare me from self-centred brats with an over-inflated idea of their own--"

"Speaking about yourself here, Rodney?"

"Sheppard!" Rodney whirled round. Jasper knew that he was instantly forgotten. "And you…? And Ronon. Good Ronon. I mean, it's good to see you, big guy, looking so… alive, not even slightly mauled. And Teyla. For a moment there – not that I was panicking, of course – I thought you were…"

"And dinner," Ronon said.

"Oh. Oh. That's… big."

"Sharp teeth, too."

"It didn't bite you, did it? Rabies, you know?"

"And I'm alive, too," said the thief, strolling slowly from the mist, jabbing a knife into a sheath at his belt. "Thanks for asking."

None of them made any reaction at all. Jasper found himself watching the thief's face as the man sighed, set his shoulders to the wind, and said, "On we go, then."

******

The rain stopped shortly before sundown. At first Kit thought it was just because they were coming down out of the low clouds, but when he turned and looked behind him, the craggy hilltops were clear of mist.

"At last!" Rodney exclaimed.

"Too late to do any good," Kit was able to tell him. "You're sleeping in wet clothes tonight, Rodney."

Kit wasn't sure if he felt worse or better now that they were out of the mist. Enemies could creep up on you in the mist, but they could miss you, too, wandering aimlessly past you at a hundred paces without having the faintest idea that you were there. Gods, he hated this! He pushed sodden hair off his face. In Myr, there was always cover. Being hunted across such a vast expanse of land was something completely different, something that threatened to peel off all the careful masks he had learned to wear while going about his business. Well, perhaps you should have thought about this before getting involved in this game, Kit my lad.

Ronon also looked edgy. Sheppard was walking with the very deliberate steps of a drunkard. Kit wondered if he would still persist in saying that he was well even as he gasped out his last breath. At least if he died, they would be free to continue their journey without him slowing them down. At least if he died… Something twisted inside him, and Kit thought that it was a conscience, telling him that this thought was unworthy even of him.

"What's that?" Rodney asked, pointing down the slope, away to the left.

Kit frowned. "How in the flood am I supposed to know? I'm not your 'local expertise' out here. Ask Jasper-lad. He is at least going to be lord over this whole place when his father snuffs it. He's supposed to care for every speck of earth as if it is own blood, and for every one of its children as if they were his own. That's how the story goes, eh, Jasper-lad?"

"I… I've never been here before," the boy stammered, predictable and stupid.

"You seem to know the way quite well," Sheppard observed quietly, looking at Kit.

"But since none of you apparently have eyes," Kit said harshly, "then it falls to me to explain the obvious. Mud-slide, probably in last summer's rains." It was a scraped brown scar on the side of the hill, from the tip of the crags down to the valley below, and although grass had already begun to colonise it again, it was still sparse. "These things happen."

"Not that." Rodney sounded distracted. "That."

"Oh, because I'm a Whisperer and can read your mind?" Stop it, Kit. Just stop it. He could not let himself get rattled, not to this extent. There were some things that you did not joke about, no matter what masks you wore.

But Rodney was already walking away, picking his way through the scattered rocks, grimacing over patches of mud, sliding for a while – "Ow! Ow! Ow!" – as if drawn by the tumble of rocks that protruded from the scraped earth.

Sheppard and the others followed without a word. Kit saw Jasper gaping after them, doubtful and unsure, and for the first time he almost felt for the boy. "When you throw your lot in with crazy people, my lad…" he said, letting the rest of it hang.

"I'm not a boy," the prince said, "and you're not much older than me."

And perhaps that was true, Kit thought, as he struggled across the slope. He almost lost his footing. He was only twenty-four years old. It had only been four years. Sometimes it felt like a lifetime. Sometimes he looked at people older than him and thought of them as children. Sometimes, when he saw himself in the dark water of the flood, he seemed like an old man.

"It's just what I suspected," Rodney was saying, when Kit caught them up. "Built out of native stone, but just look at the patterning there, colonel. Unmistakeable. It must have been buried until the mud-slide scraped the top layer off, and then the rain washed away the mud."

"Fascinating." Sheppard was supporting himself on an angular spar of stone. There appeared to be blood on his fingertips, almost concealed, but not quite.

"We should have expected it, of course." Rodney's eyes were alight like the eyes of a Daryen fanatic preaching the end of the world. "The Whisperers clearly have the ATA gene, and they sure as hell didn't make those devices they were using. They must have stumbled on a repository somewhere."

"An Ancient radio store?" Sheppard wiped his hand on his dark clothes, then reached quite casually for the spar again.

"Something like that." Rodney gave a quick humourless smile. "They do seem to be something of a one-trick pony, unless they have a bunch of other devices they haven't unleashed on us yet. But that's not the point. The point is--"

"We are not digging with our bare hands, McKay. The possibility of there being a ZPM here is--"

"Yes, yes, I know that, but--"

"What are they talking about?" the idiot prince said in a low voice.

"Speaking to a common thief?" Kit raised his eyebrows. "I am honoured, my lord." He wiped damp hands on his clothes. It was late enough, and he was wet enough, for the air to feel almost cold. "They're telling us," he said, "that a certain Rodney McKay has no understanding of priorities."

"These… stones…" Jasper waved his lily-white hand. "They're… made?"

Made. Yes. The air felt colder. He did not mean to take a step back, he really didn't. "That's just superstition."

"I know." The poor fool thrust his trembling chin out, clearly trying to be brave and resolved, probably with capital letters. "No-one educated in Myr believes in the Gods of Stone." The emphasis was there. In Daryen, of course, it was oh so different.

"Gods?" Teyla asked. Kit started, and took another step back.

The idiot boy turned towards her as if she if was a clear spring in the parched wilderness. "The Gods of Stone," he said. "There are stories. Not like the true stories, of course, but older ones. They built shining cities and they rode in chariots of shining silver through the stars. Man had not long emerged from the First Flood, and lived in huts of mud and branches, and wore hides, but the Gods brought hope and knowledge, and lifted them up briefly so that they, too, could walk among the stars. Then they faded, and became just a memory and a name, and then even memory dwindled and only the name survives."

Just a memory and a name… Kit cleared his throat. "Fancy that! The boy really is a poet." He made his voice harsh.

"But some men say," the boy continued, putting on the full show for his lady love, "that their cities are still there beneath the earth, and that the Gods are not gone but sleeping. They say that they will wake in their own time, and if any man should ever happen to stumble upon even the smallest pinnacle of their citadels, he should stay away and make his children stay away, and their children's children forever more."

"What happens if they do not?" Teyla asked. Behind her, Rodney and Sheppard were talking in fierce whispers. Ronon appeared to have decided that this was where they were having dinner, and had slung the crebyn down onto a stone slab and was sharpening his knife.

"The Gods will wake before their time, and be most wroth." The boy's shoulders slumped. "I don't believe it. Of course I don't believe it, but…"

"The locals do." Kit jerked his chin to a place outside the scattered stone, where faded wreaths and white animal bones were clustered round a jagged stake. "Propitiatory offerings," he explained, when the boy's mouth gaped open. "Though why the Gods are meant to be impressed when the whole point of the story is that they're sleeping, I don't know." He pushed past the prince; forced his feet to walk steadily to Ronon's side. "So we're stopping here, then? Forgive me for forgetting the moment when we chose you as leader."

"It's sheltered. Good cover. You get good hiding when people are afraid of a place."

Kit grunted, but he could not argue. When he crouched down next to the blood-stained slab, the stone wall behind him blocked out the entire view of the hillside behind. There was even something approximating a tiny fragment of ceiling, and a tumbled arch ahead of them would shield any fire they lit from eyes in the valley.

And if the place felt bad… Well, that was only ridiculous, stupid superstition, and Kit the thief did not believe in things like that.

******

"Quiet!" Ronon hissed, as Jasper was opening his mouth to speak. His belly was full of crebyn, and he had hoped that there would be some proper storytelling, perhaps even a song.

"But…" He pressed his lips closed. Teyla and Ronon were dousing the fire, but this time the last thing he saw was not a face, but the angular edge of a wall that was clearly not crafted by nature.

No-one believes it, he told himself. No-one educated, anyway. The historians in the university wrote books about it, claiming to have proved beyond doubt that the ruins were made by some long-lost race of men, whose kingdoms have been wiped out by some cataclysm. Most of those books lay beneath Myr's own cataclysm, or were wrinkled and beaded with mould, plucked out of the way of the rapidly-rising water just in time.

"Someone's coming," Ronon whispered.

A hand grabbed his arm. A hand was pressed against his mouth, firm and brief and warning. He hoped it was Teyla, but it smelled of sweat and earth and smoke and unfeminine things.

Who's coming? he thought. They said that the Gods would rise from the ruins. Some said that the spirits of their servants went ahead of them, and drove those who lingered in the ruins out of their minds. They were good, the Gods, but they were terrible, too, their goodness not measured on the petty scale of men. And they are not true, he thought. They are not true. He was no credulous fool, to believe all stories. Even when it was cold and damp. Even when it was dark. Even when he could hear distant voices and knew that people were coming, that people were coming.

"You ready?" the prisoner said, fainter than a breath.

The shape that was Ronon nodded. Teyla was beside him, like a deadly sword drawn from a lovely scabbard.

Stone scraped beneath his knuckles. He could not see them, these men that were passing in the night. He thought they were riding on merrilyn, their many hooves out of step with each other, creating a dull rumble. They were talking, and he could almost make the sound form words, but not quite. Was that 'prince' that they said? Was that 'Whisperer'? He waited for their voices to go sharp with a 'I see them!' or to shrug a 'nothing there.' They were the babble of a stream that you knew was speaking in words, but could not understand. They were perhaps the end of his adventure, but he could not hear them.

"They were wearing the king's livery," the thief said, and it was only then, only with that, that Jasper realised that the danger was passed, and the men had passed by without seeing them.

I am not afraid, he told the stones. I am not afraid of you. And he crafted rhymes – stones, bones, moans – until, at length, he slept.

******

Kit woke with the start. The Gods of Stone! he thought, pressing his hand to his racing heart. The fucking gods of fucking stone. Lies that parents spouted to try to stop their children from going off and doing whatever they wanted. Not true. Certainly not true.

"No," he heard someone moan. "No."

Not spirits. Not the shadows of whatever long-dead people had really built a place like this. He sat up, grimacing at the pull of damp clothes.

"No…"

It was Sheppard, he realised, lost in some fever-driven nightmare. Interesting, he thought. So not even Sheppard's dogged determination was enough to keep him silent in the night. In sleep, all masks were off.

"Come back," Sheppard whispered. Then, almost in a normal voice, he said, "No, I'll do it."

He saw a shape moving towards Sheppard through the stones. "Sheppard," Ronon said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Stop that."

Sheppard moaned, his head lashing from side to side, and then he was still. Ronon stayed there, crouching beside him, for a very long time.

Kit found it hard to sleep after that. He wondered if his dreams were audible in the dark.

******

The sun was just beginning to slide free of the clouds when Jasper opened his eyes. In the sunlight the stone walls were almost white, like a spiritwing newly emerged from its chrysalis. He inhaled the scent of damp morning grass, feeling the sharp stab of memories: dawn in the palace gardens, on the terrace by the river, and his nurse holding his hand and bringing him flowers.

The others were already awake. The prisoner was leaning against a wall, and Rodney was bending over him. "Yes, I know," Jasper heard the prisoner say, "but what choice do we have?" His eyes were glittering as they had glittered in the cell, and the hand at his side was as white and clenched as it had been on the platform.

"You could…" Rodney spread his hands; closed them again. "Or not."

A patch of goldenrod grew from the tumbled stones. Jasper watched a darting bird, more courageous than its fellows, perch on the furthest tumbled wall to sing its liquid song. You couldn't believe that a place was dangerous when even the birds and the flowers gave it their blessing. Just a superstition, he thought. Perhaps, when he was home again, he would seek out the scholars in their new home in the hills, and get them to tell him everything they knew about the distant people whose buildings lay beneath the grassy mounds.

Teyla brought him some breakfast, smiling at him. Then that same smile turned towards the prisoner, where it slowly faded. Jasper knew that the prisoner was not doing well. Breakfast was the same as dinner, almost blackened this time. Crebyn tasted far better than Faralith had led him to believe.

"That is a ridiculous idea!" Rodney burst out.

"Think about it." The prisoner's hand curled into a fist, while his other hand rose to his chest. "He said he knew where we were, but he hasn't… hasn't found us, and we haven't been making good time. I say he was bluffing."

"That's a pretty big assumption."

"You heard him. You sensed him." The prisoner barely moved, but his eyes seemed to pin Rodney in place. "Did you get any impression at all of where he was?"

The birdsong faded, and he could no longer smell grass. Would you? Jasper remembered. Could you? He did not understand what they were talking about, but even he felt pinned.

"No," Rodney said at last, shaking his head. "But that doesn't change anything. It's a crazy idea, even for you. You can hardly stand, for crying out loud."

"Super-powered gene, remember?" The prisoner flashed a grin. "Better than your fake one."

Jasper wrested his attention away. The bird had gone, he realised, but he stood and watched the sunlight spread over the valley, and in that moment it was as if all the stories were real, and the Gods of Stone were waving their hands and bringing light and hope to a people who had always lived only in shadow.

"This is so not a good idea," he heard Rodney say, but the prisoner hissed, "Quiet!" and Jasper found himself catching his breath, holding it there, reluctant to let it go, and when a black-winged hobin cawed above him, he willed quiet! at it, too, although he had no idea why.

All was still when he turned back. The prisoner was touching the Whisperer's globe, which was glowing like summer sky reflected in clear water. Rodney was chewing his lip, and Teyla looked troubled. Ronon looked as if he was ready to fight somebody, and even the thief was watching with dark-flooded eyes, swallowing and swallowing again.

"Is anybody there?" the prisoner murmured, and Rodney brought his hand to his face as if in despair.

Then nothing, then nothing, and then the prisoner said, "Yes." His eyes narrowed. "No," he said. Rodney half reached towards him, then snatched his hand back. "Ask a guy called Kolya about that. "

Rodney sucked in a breath. Teyla and Ronon exchanged a glance. Then the prisoner dropped the globe, giving it a shove so that it rolled three times, then came to rest against a stone. It was no longer glowing.

"There." The prisoner rested his head against the wall, his eyes closed. He looked as if all the light that had been put into the globe had come from him. "A nice piece of… misdirection, if I do say so myself. And a threat. Threats never do any harm." He opened his eyes, looking up at the sky. "Here's hoping it worked."

******

By mid-morning, their clothes were dry. Kit walked along in the heat and tried to tell himself that walking away from those ruined walls had not felt like stepping out of a prison cell into the light. By late morning, it was clear that they were heading into more settled land. Instead of tracks, there were roads. Instead of scattered cottages, there were villages. Carved stone posts by the wayside announced the distance to proper towns. The nearest one, smoke and roof-tops rising from well-tended fields, was apparently called Paramor.

All it meant, of course, was that they had to do more hiding.

When the sun had reached it peak and already started to fall again, Teyla came to Kit. "To what do I owe this honour?" he asked, but he thought he knew. Unlike certain people he could name, he had eyes in his head, and he knew how to use them.

"Colonel Sheppard is very sick," she said gravely. "He is stubborn--" And that was said with heavy emphasis, as if daring him to say a word. "--and he will keep going, but I fear that he cannot keep going for much longer."

Kit gave a bark of laughter. "And that, of course, is your chief concern: that's he's going to keel over and slow you down. Who's the mean-hearted bastard now? After the effort you went to get him back, I thought you'd be more concerned about him keeling over and dying, or the pain he has to endure with every step."

"I am." Her voice was sharp blades. "I said it in a way that would make sense to you."

It was several more steps before he could trust himself to speak again. "You dislike me." He tried to keep it light.

"All that matters right now," she said, "is that John needs help. Do your people have drugs – potions or poultices or drinks that can take a fever down or ease pain?"

"Do we have drugs?" He laughed, shaking his head. "Believe me, you never want to see a poor sod out of his mind with janna root hunger." He almost said more, but her expression was fierce and full of worry. Ahead of them, Sheppard walked along in a line that was far too straight to be anything other than the result of an excruciating effort of will. Stupid! Kit thought. So stupid! But, "We have these things," he told her, "but I haven't got them on me right now. Sorry."

"The town would have them?" she asked. "Clean bandages, too. Maybe some blankets. We need a pack to carry supplies in, and more bottles for water."

"Quite the shopping list you're giving me there." Kit sighed theatrically. "You want me to steal them?"

"John says you have money at your belt."

Kit cursed. "Not content with playing the hero, he has to spy on me." His hand went to his precious beads. "Fine. I'll pay. Turn over a new leaf. Three days with such shining moral examples as you four, and I'm a new person. Behold my heart of gold." All the while, his mind was working on the situation, going through the familiar calculations. They were walking beside a dense line of trees that marked the edge of a field full of golden quorm, as high as their shoulders. They were close enough to town to hear the sound of the steam engine working on the home farm. On the far side of the trees there was a levelled road, and where a tree was fallen, he could see glimpses of houses. Ahead of him, the others had stopped walking, and Ronon was coming back towards them, wading through a sea of quorm. Kit grinned. "I'll be there and back before friend Ronon can hunt and roast six sorel."

"I'm coming with you," Ronon said. He and Teyla were clearly in on this together.

Kit shook his head. "Not this time, big guy. See, I'm a reasonable man – got to be to stay alive – and I can see that you are creepily good at this wilderness lark, but don't forget that I watched you blunder your way through Myr. Towns are my kingdom. I've been doing this for years." He held up his hand, forestalling any objection. "Ronon," he said, mock apologetic, "I'm afraid you're just too big. You'll stand out. Make honest shop-keepers run screaming. You're memorable. And if questions are asked… Me, I know how to blend in."

He left before they could argue, pushing his way through the trees. It felt like another world on the other side, one that was lived in full view. After a short while, he reached a fork in the road, and took the one towards town. A farmer passed him, and Kit smiled jauntily, tipping an imaginary hat. A pair of girls approached, and he adjusted his mask and blushed at them, a shy peasant lad out on an errand for his master.

It was good to be alone, he thought. It was good to be free from the boy's gaping, and Sheppard's idiotic, troubling endurance. It was good to out here doing what he was best at, plying his games in plain sight. With every step, he felt more like himself again. He had begun to lose that, he thought, over the last few days.

The town was just like any other, with a hundred houses clustered around an ale-house and a meeting hall. Small-scale merchants plied their trade in houses in the main street, with painted boards and printed banners shouting their wares: fruit and vegetables; candles and gas lamps, the latter a hasty addition; tools and implements; books. Kit lingered by each window until the merchant inside pricked up his ears and came rushing out, then shook his head and moved on. He had no intention of spending money if he could help it.

He parted with a bead in the ale-house, though. From the assorted greybeards inside, he learnt that the kingsman was away from home, and that a Whisperer was expected in town by evening, on the same business that the messenger had told them about the day before, and old Lankin the headman had no idea what to do, no idea how to entertain one of them, and they never thought they'd live to say that they wished that old Maddick was home again.

Kit left the rest of his ale untouched. A Whisperer. A Whisperer was coming. Suddenly the fact that he was in plain sight no longer felt comforting at all. Best do what I came here for, he thought. Do it quick, and get back, then get out of here as fast as we can run.

Moving away from the main street, he found a lane at the back, and wandered past the crumbling backs of houses that showed a sparkling front to the world. At the fourth one, he struck lucky, finding a window that was open a crack. He crouched beneath it long enough to confirm that no-one was moving inside, pried it open – easy! – and then crept in.

He found an empty pack slung over a chair in the kitchen, and grabbed it. The dresser held spools and bobbins and bits and pieces, and… oh, a knife! Knives were always useful. He couldn't find a firearm, but that was hardly surprising. Another drawer held bandages and a twist of paper that claimed to come from Mars the Miracle Medicine Man and to cure all ailments. Grimacing, he dropped it into the bag, then rummaged deeper, finding a small box of familiar bark and a bottle of brown liquid. Better, he thought. Fancy that! I'm actually doing what I was asked. He had never stolen for others before. Not unless they paid him, that is.

There was still space in the pack for plenty more, though. Teyla wanted blankets, and Kit felt the need to grab himself some food that wasn't wild animal roasted into to charred oblivion. He headed upstairs.

He had no idea why he failed to hear them. By the time he whirled round, sensing them, the cudgel was already raised. I am so screwed, he thought, as he struck the ground, as he saw his own outstretched hand through a red cloud of pain. Then they grabbed his hands and twisted them behind him, and dragged him away.

******

end of chapter six

On to chapter seven
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