The story starts here on LJ or you can read the entire story to date here in a single file.
Fields of Gold
When Jasper sat down, there was nothing in the world that was not golden. The quorm surrounded him, tufty tips dancing above his head like a shimmering ceiling. The ground was wet, but he made a carpet out of flattered stems, and sat with his hands behind his head, drifting in gold and blue. Gold and blue, he thought. Old and new. The old was his stunted life in the Citadel, where his spirit ran free but his body was chained. Now his body was as free as his mind. Life is good, he thought, as he inhaled the scents of the wild.
When the others started talking, he barely heard them. Gold, he thought. Soft whispers in a field of gold.
"…back by now," he heard them say.
He rolled onto his side, and saw that the stems were not round at all, but marked with a dozen ridges, each one slightly darker than what was around them. When a stem was snapped, pale sap oozed out at the tear. Tiny insects seemed to like it, and walked up the stem in an ordered line.
"…few more minutes."
He remembered lying on his side on short green grass, gazing at tangled goldenweed. He remembered his nurse's hand on his hair, and remembered how his mother smiled when he raced inside and told her what he had seen. Now those gardens had gone, and he had thought that part of his life drowned for ever, but now it was rising again, just in a different form.
He wished that Teyla would speak, her voice as soothing as memories, and as beautiful as childhood summer.
"I knew this would happen," Rodney said. "I knew it."
It was too loud to allow dreaming. Rodney was pacing up and down, his shadow blocking out the sun. Jasper sat up, and in doing so, realised quite how muddy and damp his back and legs were. Beauty comes through suffering, he thought. The true seeker of the beauty of poetry had to be prepared to endure much hardship.
"What are we going to do about it?" Rodney said. "What are we going to do now?"
"Wait until Teyla reports back." It was the prisoner's voice, but Jasper couldn't see him, just a dark shape on the far side of a wall of stems.
"Where's Teyla gone?" Jasper demanded.
"Were you asleep?" Rodney parted the quorm above him, looking down like an angry giant. "Teyla's gone into town," he said, in the exaggerated tone that Jasper's father sometimes used on him, "to find out why the thief hasn't come back."
"Why her?" Jasper scrambled to his feet. "What if she--"
"She wouldn't let us," said the prisoner. "Huh. I don't think she trusts us."
"I wonder why," Rodney said, with a pointed look at the rest of them.
They had shackled his hands, fastening bands of black star-stone around his wrists, connected by a long, heavy chain. At least they hadn't attached the chain to the wall and made any attempt to hobble him. Kit had the full run of his cell. Yes, thanks to their gracious generosity, he could walk the full three steps it took to get from one wall to another, and he could grab hold of the thrice-cursed bars that lined the front of his cell, and he could stand on tiptoe and still not be able to reach the small barred window in the wall behind.
"I'm innocent!" Kit shouted, rattling the bars. "I didn't do it!" The guard looked up. He was young and well-combed, proud and gleaming in a new uniform two sizes too big for him. He looked at Kit with all the contempt of a newly appointed guard who thought he was guarding the Scourge of Saris himself.
"Of course," Kit told him, "there was the whole caught red-handed thing, but things aren't always as they appear, you know. I know it looks like it now, when you're fresh off your mammy's teat, but…"
The guard snapped his feet together and stood to attention, staring impassively straight ahead. "It's all right," Kit reassured him. "You can look at me. The rot doesn't set in that easily."
The guard stared forward, quivering with importance. "Guess I'm stuck with my own company, then," Kit said, "since the other cells are empty. Don't get much crime round here, do you? No wonder the whole town's in a tizzy because of me."
He threw himself down, leaning his back against the wall. Damn it all to the flood! he swore. He shouldn't be here. There was no way in Daryen that he should be here, imprisoned in a provincial lock-up, just for stealing supplies that could have been bought with a four bronze beads, for crying out loud. He never got caught. Well, he had been caught sometimes, but never for something as stupid as this. He should have heard them coming. He should never have gone into a place where they could come. First rule of thieving – first rule of successful thieving, anyway: never break into a place without watching it closely, and never rob a person without studying them first. Two rules, then, but they were the same rule, really. By all means, try opportunistic crime on the spur of the moment, if you wanted to, but don't expect to last very long if you did.
His head throbbed, and when he dragged his hand up to it, it came away bloody. His stomach churned, and he slammed his fist into the wall, then cursed aloud when the metal dug into his skin. Four fucking beads, when he had twenty times that in a pouch at his belt. They'd taken that, too, of course. "Evidence," they had said, although he had begged and protested and wheedled and bellowed, telling them that it was his own honest earnings, and if they touched it, then he would… They had threatened to gag him, then.
"I shouldn't be here," he told the guard, and then he swore with every word he knew, and kicked the wall beside him. Why hadn't he even tried to come up with a lie? He should have gone in there with the mask already in place. Oh, I'm so sorry, my lords, but I'm desperate. Dying grandmother. Starving child. He could draw tears from a heart of stone, and have people queuing up to give him the clothes from their own backs. Gods! Even the truth would have better than nothing – some of it, anyway. An injured companion, friends wringing their hands, and a journey that could not wait.
Nothing. He had given then nothing. He had strolled in the sunshine, smiling as stupidly as the idiot prince, thinking how good it felt to be himself again. And now he was here, captured, and a Whisperer was coming, and it was all going to end here, in a common lock-up in a nowhere town.
Teyla wasn't back. Jasper stood with his hand on a tree, peering out onto the dark road that led to town. "Come back," Ronon tried to command him. "Too near the road." Jasper edged back, but just a little. Trailing branches and broad leaves blocked his view of the place where Teyla had gone. The others were back at the fringes of the golden quorm. The prisoner was surrounded by stems, and Rodney was pacing. Ronon, though, was standing quite still, slicing a stalk of quorm into a dozen thin slivers.
It was behind Ronon that Jasper saw her. Teyla emerged from the trees further along the field, and walked towards them, quorm lapping around her like a wave that had been stilled by her beauty. Jasper smiled, and a bird rose singing from the far side of the field, joyous in the sun.
"He has indeed been taken," Teyla said, when she was back with them. A head of quorm clung to her bodice with its tiny soft barbs. "I heard them talking of a thief who had been caught in the act and who had been dragged to the town lock-up. I believe I have located the place."
"Did they see you?" The prisoner's voice was sharp.
Teyla shook her head, setting sparks of flame a-dancing in her hair. "I believe I remained hidden. I passed a young man on the road out of town, but he did not look upon me with suspicion."
"Caught in the act!" Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "I thought you said he had money."
"He did promise to buy things honestly." Teyla looked resigned rather than disapproving. "I believe he is… What is the phrase, about a leopard and his spots?"
"I'll kill him!" Ronon hurled away the last sliver of quorm, brushing the dust from his palms with two fierce slaps.
"No." Teyla looked weary. "We knew what he was like, but still we sent him there. If you set a wild creature to guard your livestock, you cannot be surprised when he bites."
Ronon did not look convinced. "So what now?" Rodney demanded.
No-one said anything. Jasper edged towards them, his steps crunching through fallen gold. He watched a leaf fall from a tree, its path twisted. Six there were, he thought, and now there are five. He'd always known that the thief was rotten to the core, and now it was proved. He'd robbed one too many times, and now he was paying the price.
"Are we… Are we carrying on without him?" he asked. Ahead of them the land rose gently, and there were more fields of quorm, a shining path of them.
Rodney opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked sharply at the prisoner.
"No." The prisoner stood up and stepped into the shadow of the trees. "We're going to break him out, of course."
"What about some food?" Kit asked. "It's hungry work being a ne'er-do-well on the road. Some slops? Dry bread and water? Anything?"
The guard looked straight ahead. To the flood with it! Kit thought, and threw himself at the bars, rattling them with all the strength he possessed. Too bad that strength had never been his strong point. By the end of it, the bars remained as solid as they had ever been, Kit had somehow half-wrenched a nail off, and his head was hammering with fierce red hammer blows. The guard's jaw had twitched once or twice, but not enough to ruffle his straight-out-of-the-packet deportment.
With a wordless snarl, Kit threw himself down on the floor. What's wrong with me? he wondered. Gods, what's wrong with me? Captured. Losing his cool. Masks lay in shattered fragments on the floor.
The door opened, and he screwed his eyes up against the sudden light. "A visitor?" he managed to say. "For me?" He saw a flash of blue skirt as a woman passed in the street, and heard quite clearly someone saying, "harvest", and a snatch of someone whistling a tune he did not know.
"Changeover," the newcomer said. Kit craned his neck. Another woman passed, and the voice that had spoken of harvest began to drone on about weights and measures, and about how much he would have left over after the kingsman took his share. The shiny guard saluted and went outside, his crisp footsteps stopping just outside the door. The newcomer closed the door, and stomped heavily to the invisible spot on the floor where guards had obviously been told to stand.
Kit studied him unashamedly. "Are you two a comedy act?" Where the other guard was young, this one was old. While the other had quivered with the pride of a boy who had been charged with an Important Job, this guard had slumped shoulders and a face that was heavy with the supreme boredom of life. This was the sort of guard who had seen it all before, had heard it all before, and had never found it interesting in the first place. "I don't suppose you'd blink even if I turned into a spiritwing and flew out of this place." Sure enough, he got nothing.
Kit slammed his chains into the bars, then winced at the noise. He wasn't getting out of here. He would stay here until the Whisperer came, and then surely the Whisperer would want to see this stranger, this thief who had been caught in the act of such horrible crime. He would look, and he would see, and he would know. He would know.
They were ready, gathered beneath the trees.
"Are you sure…?" Teyla asked, ending it with an open gesture of her hand.
Jasper was unable to respond, but, "Yeah," the prisoner said. Jasper knew that he had been the one Teyla's question had been addressed to, anyway.
The three of them left, keeping to the trees, swallowed surprisingly soon by their dark trunks, although here, beneath them, it seemed almost light.
"Just you and me, junior," the prisoner said. His hand was closed tightly around the thin, twiggy ends of a low branch. "Just like old times, huh?"
Jasper ran his tongue over dry lips. Just like old times. Just like how it had begun, with a word and a rhyme and a man's defiant eyes as his body had sagged in the arms of his captors. The two of them, but no longer separated by an expanse of dark water, or brought together by a knife.
The prisoner had asked him questions, more even than Teyla had. Was he known in this part of the world? Was his likeness distributed across the provinces – "a full colour pin-up," Rodney had said, "for the peasants to put on their walls and grovel at" – or was anyone here likely to have seen him at court? Could he name places a few days ride from here in both directions? Could he lie?
"I'm ready," he said now, smoothing his hair away from his face, and readying himself to step out upon the stage.
But the prisoner stopped him, grabbing him by the wrist. It was a firm grip, for all that the man still looked like something that had just crawled out of the flood. "This isn't a game," the prisoner said. "This isn't a story or a poem. If you make a mistake you can't go back and cross it out. It's for keeps."
"I…" He was held, not even trying to pull away. "I won't."
"Not good enough," the prisoner said, as if it was simple fact. "I know you don't like Kit. You don't like McKay much, either – lots of people don't, before they know him – and Ronon scares you. But they're people. They're my team. If you make a mistake, if you don't take this seriously, they could die. I will not allow that."
"I…" He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"No-one," the prisoner said, and his words were a knife at the throat, and his grip was chains, "endangers my team." He released Jasper's wrist; Jasper's hand fell heavily to his side. "So let's go," he said, with a crooked smile. But Jasper found himself unable to move, and shivered with the cold of a watery cell, and the question and the knife that held him, caught, between them.
The high window, Kit decided, was put there to torment him. It allowed him to hear snatches of conversation as the good folk of Paramor went about their business. Some of them remembered that he was in there, and threw curses at him. Dull splatting sounds showed that some of them were trying to throw other things, but fortunately their aim was not good. "Gods!" Kit said to his impassive friend. "You folk don't like thieves much, do you? I'd like to see you lot last half a day in the Drowned Quarter. You'd swoon in horror at the immorality of it all."
Then somebody got a lucky shot, and something indistinguishable and stinking landed in the muck beside him. "Thank you very much!" Kit called out. "A love token, just for me?" He almost turned to the lumpen guard and said something about how stupid it was to leave a window, in case someone used it to throw him a knife or a file or a key or something useful. Best not, he thought, in case they really were too stupid to have thought of that. Best not, in case somebody really was approaching even now, their heart afire with heroic rescue…
He cursed, slamming his fist against the wall. Not gonna happen, he thought, echoing the way his new, his brief, his now lost companions sometimes spoke. Then maybe the wind turned, or maybe his ears finally made sense of the noises, because he realised that a guard was on duty under the window, pacing up and down, up and down, up and down. "Best not to have the window at all," he muttered. "You'd save on wages."
This guard, at least, was a talker. "Who's in there?" someone said.
"Thief," came the reply, in a provincial accent so thick as to be almost comical. "Stranger."
"What's to become of him?"
"Keep him till the Whisperer comes." The comic charvil-muncher lowered his voice for that, the word barely audible. "The messenger lad yesterday, he did say that the Whisperers were looking for a thief from out City. He killed a Whisperer, he did, him and some others."
"No!" The other voice was loud with gleeful horror.
"Aye, and stole away some nobleman's son from his chamber, that I heard."
"You think it's him?"
"'Tis not for me to wonder, but why would a thief from City come to Paramor?" The guard sniffed. "Whisperer will sort him out, though, and if he don't take him, it's the kingsman's dungeons for him. Rather him than me."
Fuck! Kit thought. He tried to soberly revise any previous estimates of just how badly screwed he was, but all he could see was how badly his hands were shaking, heavy chains rattling like the stuttering of his heart.
Jasper's back was aching. His arm was wrapped around the prisoner's body, holding him up, and the prisoner's own arm was around Jasper's neck. Every step was off, twisted sideways by the unfamiliar weight. He wanted to study unfamiliar landscape, but every scrap of his attention went on putting on foot in front of the other, and there was no poetry in his heart at all, just the words that were to come.
"Almost there," the prisoner murmured, his voice close to Jasper's ear, his breath on his neck. And a knife… No, that was long ago, in a different world. "There." The prisoner nodded with his chin. "Looks like… what Teyla said…"
They lurched that way, steps slower this time. When the prisoner stumbled, Jasper almost fell. Vision lurched, and he saw people beginning to turn towards them. He saw a woman, her hand rising to her mouth in horror. Someone else was pointing, and there were shouts.
Jasper hauled the prisoner up with both arms, his muscles screaming. He heard the prisoner suck in a sharp breath, which hitched as he let it out. He managed half a dozen steps, then fell to his knees. Jasper almost fell with him, his grip slipping away. "Take it away, junior," the prisoner's lips said, before his head sagged in defeat and agony.
Jasper swallowed. "Help!" he cried, reaching out his hand to the people around him. It quivered with exertion and he snatched it back. Obnoxious brat, he remembered, used to getting his own way. If he spoke as if it had never occurred to me that people might disobey him, then half the battle was won, or so the prisoner had told him. "I demand that you help me," he commanded them – the woman whose hand was still at her mouth; a pair of greybeards with pipes in their hands. "I was robbed on the road, and my man here was cruelly attacked as he tried to defend me. I was left with nothing. I demand aid."
The door opened. "Sergeant…"
The guard had been picking out dirt from behind his nails. "Call me sarge like any sensible man."
"Sarge." The polished guard was positively glowing with the magnitude of his news. "Something's happening in the square. Someone's been attacked!"
"No!" Kit gasped. He crossed to the bars – all three fucking steps of it – and grasped hold of them. "Tell me more! Is it the Basilis of Daryen himself, set upon by crebyn? Is the lovely Duchess of Devonic having her virtue assailed by a pack of handsome chervil-munchers?"
The trouble with guards like this, he thought, was that they just would not play the game. The bored guard plodded out to investigate, and the shiny young one resumed his place outside, all without the faintest sign of being rattled by his sarcasm. And the trouble with people who would not play the game was that he was left in silence with no-one to talk to, and nothing to distract him from the fate that was closing in on him.
"You could have left me the key," he shouted, "if you were going to leave me all alone."
Nothing. No guards were watching him, but he was still trapped here. He was still fucking trapped.
A crowd was gathering. A tall man pushed forward, a black-stained apron tied around his waist. He was probably the smith; smiths were often leaders of rustic communities in the stories. "How can we help you, my lord?"
My lord. Jasper was wearing a night tunic under his sweltering coat. His shoes had been ruined by rain, and his hair was unwashed and tangled. The others didn't seem to think it mattered. "Your accent is very different from Kit's," the prisoner had explained. "I'm betting you sound like a aristocrat whenever you open your mouth." Even the coat hadn't deterred them. "Expensive clothes are still expensive clothes, even when they're muddy." Jasper had never thought about his coat as being an expensive one, and the shoes he had pulled on that night were far from his best, but it seemed that they were right.
"I am travelling on very important business from Yarrow to Gaviot," Jasper told the crowd. "Business that cannot wait. All went well until I reached… I don't know its name. The town back there, over the hill."
He saw the crowd muttering, exchanging looks. "Blame the neighbours," Rodney had told him. "They're bound to hate each other. These small towns always do. After all, they've got nothing better to do with their tedious little lives."
Three more people wandered up to join his audience. A solid-looking guard stood at the back, watching in case things turned ugly. Jasper raised his voice. "I can only think that the thief was skulking in the stables and that his attention was drawn when I pulled out my pouch to tip the stable lad three bronze for his good work."
More muttering, far from angry this time. "Appeal to their greed," Rodney had advised him. "Make them think they can expect something for helping you." The prisoner had chuckled at that. "You know, Rodney, for someone who claims to be bad with people, you sure know a lot about how to manipulate them."
"He must have followed me." Jasper didn't trip over his words even once. He imagined that he was on a stage reciting his poetry, or singing a song beautiful enough to make women weep. "He attacked us when we were in a dark place shielded by trees. He bound my man's wrists with cruel ropes and beat him cruelly when he tried to keep him from robbing me."
"Oh, the poor, brave thing!" a woman said, moving to the prisoner's side. Another joined her, and they fussed over him together. "He's burning up," one said, touching his brow, and the other gasped at the sight of his bandaged wrists. "He's badly hurt," she said to the man with the apron. Over her shoulder, the prisoner caught Jasper's eye and shook his head slightly. Too poetic, Jasper thought it meant. He had been cautioned about that, too.
"He took everything." Jasper showed them his empty hands, then twisted them together, copying one of Rodney's gestures. "Everything. I don't know what my father will say. He took my merrilyn, my packs, all my beads…"
He glanced at the prisoner again, and got a slight nod, quickly erased by a grimace of pain. The crowd was easily thirty or forty strong now – "they'll flock to see you, a rich boy with a thrilling tale of violence. It'll be the most exciting thing these peasants have seen all week" – and most of them were now talking eagerly to themselves. The prisoner was drawing more eyes than Jasper himself. "Poor sod," he heard someone say. "Half killed just for doing his duty, and the toff without a scratch on him."
The smith shook his head sharply at them, but when he turned back to Jasper his face was wiped clean of expression. "What did the thief look like, my lord?"
"Shorter than me," Jasper said, holding his hand level with his eyebrows. "Young. Dark hair down to here, very uncouth and tangled. He had a sharp face, a common face, and he talked too much."
"Then I believe we have him here, my lord, safely in our lock-up," the man said, with a brisk smile. "Let me take you to him."
There was a limit to the number of times you could kick the bars without it really hurting. Did no good, though. The guard hadn't returned, "but that's no fucking good to me, since I can't escape without a key or a nice little inside job." Outside the window, the street was silent, except for the slow plodding of the guard. "Missing out on the excitement, are you?" Kit called out to him. "I'll wager it's a good one: lots of blood and flying teeth."
Nothing. Apart from the pacing guard, there was no-one else outside his window. "Throwing rotten fruit at the thief is yesterday's game, is it?" he said. "I've never seen such a fickle bunch of people. A hint of violence in the town square, and you quite forget about me."
Nothing. He threw himself down, and leant his aching head against the wall. Outside, very faintly, there was a thud. A moment after that, the door opened.
The prisoner shook his head sharply, but Jasper didn't even need to see it. "No!" he gasped, then "No," a little more quietly, clenching his hand into a fist. "I am on urgent business," he told the smith. "I have already lost far too much time by having to walk for half the day, and I have no desire to lay my eyes on that filthy rogue ever again."
The prisoner was mouthing something, looking stiff and awkward between the attentions of two women. Jasper looked at him, frowning. Oh. If he really had been robbed, he would probably show more concern about his property. "I will, of course, require the return of my possessions," he told them.
The smith exchanged a look with a greybeard. "He didn't have them on him, my lord, I swear. All he had – except what he was in the act of stealing, that is – was a small pouch of beads. It's truth, my lord, I swear it."
Jasper almost said something, but the prisoner beat him to it. "Must have stashed it out of town. Don't think I'm… up to… digging, my lord."
"Never mind." Jasper flapped his hand. "There's nothing irreplaceable." He smiled graciously at his audience. "Keep the beads for your trouble in taking him and keeping him. When he tells you where he hid my things, please, count them as your own. Merrilyn, too. But…" Chewing his lip, he glanced at the prisoner, but the prisoner wasn't looking at him. "I am badly behind schedule now. I need merrilyn, and fast." He looked at the prisoner again, at the pallor of his face, at how hot he had felt as Jasper had supported him into town. Maybe he really was sick – sick enough that he might not be able to cling on for much longer. "One merrilyn and a carriage," he said, "because my man isn't up to riding."
Whispers raced through the crowd. Jasper saw a young boy tear away, perhaps running home with news. What was Teyla doing, he wondered. Had enough time passed, or did he have to keep them here for more?
He pulled his ring out of his coat pocket – "take that off," the prisoner had commanded him. "They'll never believe a thief let that pass." – and offered it to the man in the apron. "I have but one thing of value left to me, that the thief overlooked in his haste, but I will give it freely to anyone who can provide what I need."
A whisper spread outwards across the crowd like a wave, but in its wake was silence. Out of that silence, one man spoke. "I have a cart, my lord." Another raised his hand to offer a merrilyn – "not the most beautiful of beasts, my lord, but she gets the job done" – and another said no, please, my lord, take mine instead.
Jasper clenched his fists tight, then relaxed them again. "I need medical supplies," he said, "for my man, and blankets. A change of clothes for us both, and some more for tomorrow. Food and drink. Soap. Towels. A lantern, and something to light it with. Cooking pots and a set of spoons. Perhaps… perhaps some paper and something to write with?"
"The kitchen sink?" the prisoner said, but his words were lost in the cacophony of people offering them things.
"Ronon!" Kit sounded like a child overjoyed to find his missing mother, but he couldn't help it. He scrambled to his feet. "How did you…?"
Ronon said nothing. After a quick scan of inside, he turned his back on Kit. The door almost closed on him again – No! Don't go! – and then he was back, coming in backwards, dragging an unconscious guard. Only when the guard was deposited did he turn towards Kit. "Step away from the door," he said.
It was one of the first orders in his life that Kit had obeyed instantly, without question. Face impassive, Ronon raised his weapon and fired several times, until the lock melted and the door swung open. Kit swallowed. It was hard to look away from the devastated lock. I walked through the city with that at my back, he thought. I baited him when he had that? "You know, he probably had a key." Chains rattled as he gestured at the fallen guard.
"Quicker this way," Ronon said. There was no warmth in his eyes at all.
"You have a point there." What would a weapon like that do to human flesh? Enough. He pushed those thoughts away, and concentrated on the immediate thing, on the important thing. They came to rescue me! No, not that. On getting out. "I'm chained," he said. "I can't walk through the streets like this. We need a key."
Ronon looked disturbingly grim as he raised his weapon again, pointing it at Kit himself. "Yes, well, I know…" Kit stammered. "Here's the thing…" The weapon twitched ever so slightly as Ronon indicated Kit's wrists. Oh. Kit held his hands out, and Ronon shot several times more, not removing the metal bands, but breaking the chains attached to them. Kit thought that the bands might have grown hotter, and he swallowed hard, and tried not to think of burning. Ronon, he thought suddenly, had half hoped that it would hurt him worse than that. Guess I deserve that, he thought, though he did not say it.
"Where are the others?" He stepped out of the cell, a single chain link dangling from each wrist.
"Watching." Ronon's hand came up behind him, ordering Kit to stay behind as he opened the door a slit and checked outside. Then the hand moved, telling Kit to follow. Outside, Kit could not keep from blinking, sunlight spearing through his aching head. No-one was looking towards the door of the lock-up, he realised, but a large crowd of them was gathered at the far end of the street, spilling out from the square. Rodney was opposite, pressed against the side of a wall, peeping out nervously towards the square. Further away, a firearm in her hand, Teyla nodded first towards him, and then in the opposite direction, out of town.
He couldn't see Sheppard and the prince.
"What now?" he asked, and Ronon told him. They were to get the hell out of here. Where? That direction. They were already moving by then, though, darting from wall to wall, sneaking low through shadows, running across open spaces in a way that Kit could have told them at great length was just wrong, and should have told them, because the first rule of trying to get somewhere you weren't supposed to be was to look confident and move as if you had every right to be there. All this furtive sneaking was all very well in the wilds with a known enemy on your tail, but for a thief, in a town… But he said nothing, and he ran with them, and he asked them what to do, and he obeyed them, for fuck's sake, even though they were doing it all wrong… and perhaps they were doing it right, after all, because no-one stopped them, and soon they had reached the edge of town, the houses thinning and trees appearing at the side of the path, and no-one was shouting after them, commanding them to stop.
Perhaps they had made it. "Where's…" he asked, breathless, "Sheppard?"
"Coming." Rodney had his hand pressed to his heaving chest. "We hope. Unless… gone south… usual."
They had made it. They had fucking made it. They came for me! He'd escaped, and there would be no Whisperer for him, no hideous prison cell… Shit! he swore. No bag of beads.
"Someone is coming," Teyla said sharply, and Shit! Kit swore again, because of course it had been too good to be true.
They made for the trees. "If I hide," Kit told Ronon, "they might not give the three of you a second glance." Unless they had been spotted together, of course, but it was a possibility. "Though if you can manage a second rescue attempt..." He slipped on the grass, head pounding, and slid down into the ditch. Ronon hauled him up again, his hand digging in more painfully than it needed to. Teyla was helping Rodney, and behind them the pounding hooves of the merrilyn grew closer…
"It's the prince!" Kit gasped, and the stupid, idiot boy was waving at them. The merrilyn slowed, and there was Sheppard, too, his hand on the edge of cart the beast was harnessed to. Up, he indicated to them with a jerk of his head.
"You stole a merrilyn." Kit clambered into the cart, and slumped down. The floor was scattered with single seeds of quorm and it reeked of stale ale. "You cunning sod. You stole a merrilyn."
"Bought, actually." Sheppard jabbed a thumb towards the prince, who was driving the cart as if he had once driven a nobleman's carriage many years ago, and had forgotten almost everything he had ever known. "His ring."
"His ring?" Kit threw back his head and laughed, and once he had started laughing, he couldn't stop. It shook through him, leaving him breathless, making him cough, and when he finished, his eyes were running and his head was pounding, and his whole body vibrating with the rattling movement of the cart.
"And your money," Sheppard said, "to sweeten the deal." He looked as sick as he had ever looked, not even bothering to wave away Teyla's obvious concern, but he still managed a smile.
"His ring!" Kit exclaimed again. He crawled to the front of the cart, where the prince was sitting on the drover's bench. "Jasper, my lad." Kit clapped him on the back. "That ring of yours was worth twenty merrilyn, at least, and you swapped it for this ugly brute and a farmer's cart. What those people must have thought of you!"
"He did well." Sheppard's voice was a warning. Ronon, Kit saw, had his fists clenched as if he was desperate to smack Kit round the head and bury him in a ditch somewhere.
Kit slumped back again, leaning his shoulders against the sill. "Yeah," he said, because he was free when he hadn't thought to be, and they had come back for him when he had never dreamed… "Yeah," he said again. "You did well."
end of chapter seven
On to chapter eight