Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 9 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter eight (part 9 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 eight
The Pass of Blood
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They rode until evening. By then, Jasper's shoulders felt as if they had been half pulled out of their sockets, even though Ronon had taken over after a while and had driven the merrilyn for the second half of the journey. That was when they had left the levelled road and headed out into the countryside, moving across the flank of hills that looked brown and purple in the distance, but were green when they were close to them, just covered with a carpet of a hardy low shrub.

It was hard to focus on that, though. It was hard to concentrate on the landscape, so different from anything he had ever seen. He tried to imagine Tamorlin alone on the moors, but all he could remember was how he had stood in the town square and done what was expected of him. And afterwards… Afterwards, as they had reached the edge of the town and seen four familiar figures ahead of them, he had turned to Sheppard and grinned with the sheer triumph of it, and Sheppard had grinned back.

That he remembered, as he nursed his aching arms. That he remembered, as Teyla tended not to him, but to the thief, telling him that it was only a mild concussion, and that he deserved far worse. Sheppard had already been dosed with bark and potion, and he slept for the last part of the journey, even though the jolting was almost more than Jasper could bear. When the halt was called, Jasper waded through the shrub, brown twigs crunching beneath his feet, and still he remembered.

Finding a stone, he sat down upon it. A blue spiritwing fluttered away from a cluster of the pale pink flowers that seemed to grow direct from the dead brown branch. He pulled out the paper and the pen that he had bought so dearly yet so cheaply in the town. Pink flowers from dead wood, he thought. Life from death. Hope from the shadows. Beauty even in a place where there should be no beauty at all. But he could not craft it into words, and when they called him to say that dinner was ready, his page was still blank.

For the first time that he remembered, it did not seem important.

After dinner, though, he covered ten full pages, but that was about other things, and not about flowers at all.

******

Their camp was in a small defile in the foothills of the moors, where a narrow stream forced its way through tumbled rocks, and a few trees clung to the edge of water. There was precious little space for a merrilyn and cart, but they managed to hide them even to Ronon's satisfaction. Being rattled half to death was worth it, Kit thought, when it allowed you to cover a long day's journey in the space of half an afternoon and a few hours of early twilight.

"It's too much to expect them not to follow us," he had to tell the others, only to see that they knew that well enough already. It was possible that the town's folk hadn't connected the mysterious escape of the thief with the idiot rich boy throwing gold around in the square, and it was possible that no-one had seen Ronon and the others at all, but with the Whisperer on his way… "They'd already heard about what happened in the city," he told them. "They knew about the Whisperer you killed. 'A thief and others,' they said. They also…" He glanced at Jasper, who was looking up, his pen forgotten over his paper. "They said we'd stolen a nobleman's son." I guess your father's disowned you, he might have added nastily, but instead contented himself with saying, "No mention of who you really are."

"Course not," Sheppard said, from his place by the stream. All eyes went to him. He hadn't said anything since dinner, and Kit had thought he was asleep. "Guy like that… You don't say things like that. It's weakness. Something your enemies can use." His eyes flickered towards Jasper, half-lidded. "Doesn't mean anything."

"Well…" Kit cleared his throat. "The Whisperer isn't far behind us, and I'm not prepared to wager anything on him not knowing who we are." He looked at them all: at Sheppard by the water; at Rodney licking crumbs from his fingers; at Ronon looking outwards, his hand on a tree; at Teyla watching him sharply, as if she expected him to steal something again at any moment; at Jasper scribbling. He knew he had not been forgiven, and he knew he would make it worse if he said anything, but the words came out, anyway. "It was a crazy plan."

"That's us," Rodney said. "We're full of crazy ideas."

"We should have left you there," Ronon said, and Kit felt something twist inside him. Ronon, he thought, would probably have punched him half way to Daryen, if he hadn't been quite so preoccupied with Sheppard's declining condition.

"Since when did we do the sensible thing?" Rodney looked regretfully at his clean fingers. "That was good cake."

"Paid for with a king's ransom." Kit barely smiled. So many things could have gone wrong! If the Whisperer had arrived early… If someone had recognised the prince… If Jasper had failed, or Sheppard had collapsed, or if the people of Paramor had proved less eager to crowd round a toff in distress… And, yes, fine, he admitted it: none of it would have happened if he hadn't… "It was a crazy plan," he said again. Not that he had much experience of rescue attempts, on account of being a mean-hearted bastard who didn't care about anyone, and who worked alone, no-one caring about him. And that was how it should be, of course. That was…

"Like I said…" Rodney shrugged. "It's us."

Afterwards, though, Kit found himself seeking out Sheppard at the waterside, settling down carefully on a rock. On impulse, earlier, he had pulled off his boots, and he could feel cool splashes of water landing on his toes. Don't say anything, Kit, he thought. Don't say anything. The merrilyn snorted softly, and a double-forked needle fell from above into the fast-flowing water. Kit watched it race away, and found himself speaking, after all. "I didn't expect you to come for me."

Sheppard made a soft sound, wordless.

"When I was in that cell…" He rubbed his brow, fingers and thumb trying to ease away the throbbing. "They all blame me for putting everyone in danger, but I didn't… I thought you'd walk on. I haven't… I haven't gone out of my way to make you like me."

"No."

He looked at the water, carrying everything that happened here away into the plains below. It wasn't true in life, of course. He wasn't a fanciful boy, to think like that.

"Why…?" He seldom struggled for words, but this time… He'd told Teyla that he wouldn't steal, but he'd done so, and all for such little gain and at such great a potential cost. They would have been totally justified in leaving him. He had been so sure that they were going to leave him. He let out a breath. "What did you come?"

Sheppard shifted, not looking at Kit. "We don't leave people behind."

Another needle fell, and another, and then a hobin flapped away on slow dark wings. "But I'm not one of your people."

Sheppard was silent, breathing in and breathing out. If the medicine had helped him, it was not visible. If anything, he looked worse than ever. "Here's how it is," he said. "I made a mistake. We came to your… - to… here – because I made a mistake. We shouldn't have. Weren't supposed to. You got dragged into it, and the boy…"

"So it's guilt, then." Kit let out a breath. "Just guilt."

"Not guilt. No."

Behind them, Teyla and Rodney were talking in low voices. The smell of smoke still lingered, and it was almost cold, here beside the stream. Sheppard said nothing more. Kit couldn't think of a single thing to ask him. Water flowed past them, and was gone. The sun had set behind the hills, and it was the start of Thieving Hour, when out came the thieves who were too lazy to wait for true darkness, and out came the guards to snatch them up.

"What about the boy?" Kit asked. "Why didn't you send him packing?"

"He's just a kid." Sheppard's eyes were just slits, staring intently at a point of nothingness on the opposite bank. His whole body was still, except that his thumb was moving, rhythmically brushing the dark rock beside him. "His father… I met his father. The poor kid wants… Just another rich kid rebelling against his father. McKay said that, or was it you?"

Just another rich kid… Kit flicked a loose pebble violently into the water. "Recognise yourself in him, do you?" His voice sounded harsh. "I can't see you as the poetic sort."

Sheppard looked upwards at the fading sky. "Wasn't poetry with me."

Gods! Kit scrabbled behind him, and his hand closed on a larger stone. He threw it into the water as hard as he could. The splashes were cold on his feet, scraping clean lines on the dirt.

"Sometimes," Sheppard said, and coughed. He hand curled into a fist. "Sometimes you see yourself in someone else, and you see… how stupid it is. How stupid you were, letting things go so far. So you have to understand. It's that or…" His eyes slid shut. The hand at his side went limp.

"Sheppard?" Kit almost touched them, then drew his hand back. He looked around, but none of the others were looking at them. "Sheppard?"

"Hating them," Sheppard murmured, without opening his eyes.

After that, there was no waking him at all.

******

Jasper woke up to the grey light of early dawn. His blanket had worked its way down his body, tangling between his legs, and the air was cool on his exposed hands and face. He half sat up, reaching for the blanket to pull it up again. That was when he saw Rodney. Jasper watched him for a while, but Rodney did not move. He was sitting on the ground next to Sheppard, totally still. Jasper had never seen him so still before; had never realised until this moment that he knew Rodney well enough to know how unlike him this was. Rodney's eyes were open, though, fixed on Sheppard as he twitched and stirred. Jasper could hear the rasp in Sheppard's breathing even over the sound of the stream.

"Is he…" Abandoning the blanket, Jasper crawled over to Rodney. "Is he better?"

Rodney started. "No. No, of course he isn't better. Does he look better?" It was all said in a harsh whisper. "He's unconscious, or maybe he's sleeping. Does he look like he's sleeping to you? Teyla said… But I don't know what to do. I'm not good with sick people."

Jasper remembered how the wind had torn through his hair as he had ridden out of town, and how he had smiled at Sheppard, and how Sheppard had smiled back. "He's supposed to be better," he said. "I got medical supplies for him. He's supposed to be better."

"Yes, because bark and primitive potions are bound to work their primitive magic and make him well again after half a day."

"Perhaps it takes a little longer," Jasper reassured him. "I don't know. I haven't seen anyone…" He looked through the trees, to where the sky was lightening. He remembered how Sheppard had clung on in the cell, refusing to give in to death, and how not even chains could hold him. "Perhaps by morning."

"He'll be worse by morning," Rodney said, his hands clasped twitchily in his lap. "He'll probably be dead by lunchtime. He needs…" One hand tore itself free. "God, he needs to be anywhere but here. He needs to be in a proper bed in the infirmary, with doctors to look after him, with nice modern drugs running through his veins. He needs to have someone who's not me looking after him. I nearly killed my cat, you know – fed him too much dried food and forgot to give him water and… well, it's easy for them to say I was irresponsible, but how many times have they almost had a breakthrough that will change everything everyone ever understood about…?" He stopped, pressed his hand briefly to his face, and spoke again in a whisper, "But he hasn't died yet, and, believe me, he's done some crazy things. He might dodge the bullet this time, too."

Sheppard moaned quietly in his sleep, but did not wake up. Rodney sat next to him, frozen, miserable. "I wish it was Teyla's watch," he said. "Or Ronon. He's good at that field medicine 'bite on this scrap of leather while I chop your leg off' sort of thing. I have a dazzling array of skills, but this…" Sheppard moaned again, then settled down. Rodney shot a quick glance at Jasper, almost as if seeking reassurance, then touched Sheppard's throat with a whisper-light fluttering touch. "Still alive," he said.

Sheppard was still clinging to that platform, Jasper realised. He had been clinging to it all along. That was why Jasper hadn't spared much thought for Sheppard's condition during the journey. It wasn't serious. It wouldn't defeat him. He'd claw himself free from the grip of illness and pain because that's what he did. But maybe… No, there was no maybe about it. Sheppard was not merely the prisoner Jasper had met in the cell, but a man, and even kings and heroes could be brought down by illness.

"What happened to him?" he asked, curious for the first time. "I know my father hurt him, but--"

Rodney's head snapped up. "Your father hurt him? Tortured him, you mean?"

Jasper swallowed, fingers twisting at the place where his ring used to be. "Yes. I don't know. I think so."

Rodney rounded on him. "And you didn't think to tell us? You--" He brought his hands up, clenched in fist, then lowered them again. When he spoke again, it was in a fierce whisper. "You didn't think this little piece of information might be relevant?"

"I didn't… I don't…" Sheppard was lying there, his face leeched of colour by the grey light of dawn. "I didn't think."

"You didn't think? You're a spoiled, self-centred brat. Go away." Rodney flicked his hand down the hillside. "Go do your coming of age movie thing somewhere else where Sheppard isn't going to die because of you."

"What's happened?" Ronon's voice came from behind.

"Apparently Sheppard was tortured in that place, and Prince Stupid didn't think to mention it."

Ronon crouched at Sheppard's side, touching his brow with the back of his hand, and this throat with two fingers. "We knew that," he said.

"We knew that?" Rodney frowned. "No-one gave me the memo." His shoulders slumped. "We knew this?"

"Yes." Ronon's eyes glittered in his shadowed face.

"Oh." Rodney's sighed. "And Sheppard wasn't exactly forthcoming with the truth, and… well, he was there. And we wouldn't have said anything. Even if we knew the full gory details, he'd just do his 'I'm good' routine and he wouldn't talk about it, and we wouldn't be allowed to talk about it, either, and we'd just have to watch him…" He sighed again. "Like we have been. Just like how we have been."

"Is he…?" Jasper bit his lip. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Can you conjure up a functional Stargate?" Rodney wasn't looking at him. "No? Then no. Go away. Run along. Write a poem, or whatever you do, just..." Then he seemed to lose the energy for it, and turned back to Sheppard and to Ronon, twisting his hands together as he watched.

******

Breakfast was soft bread and the most richly-bought seed cake in the whole of Myr. There was little talking, and after he had finished eating, Kit clambered up the stream to see if anyone was climbing the hills behind them. Dark clouds were gathering far away, back the way they had come, and the breeze was blowing them towards them, scraping the hair back from his brow.

As he neared the camp, he saw Ronon sharpening his knife on a stone by the stream. "How d'you feel?" Ronon asked, not looking up from his work.

"Like crap," Sheppard replied, and Kit stopped, caught between one step and the next. For a man who hid so much behind a façade of coping, an admission like that could never be anything other than bad news.

"You look it." Ronon turned his knife into the light, apparently disliked what he saw, and returned to the sharpening. Scrape, it went, scrape, scrape, underlying everything that came after.

"Thanks, buddy." Sheppard was propped up on blankets, leaning against a rock. "Better than last night, though." He raised his head a few fingers'-breadth from the stone, held it there for the space two or three breaths, then let it fall again. "At least I'm not doing the crazy talk."

The side of Ronon's mouth tightened slightly, perhaps in a smile. "Bark smells good. Kept me alive more than once."

"So I'll continue to get better during the day."

Kit thought the knife had been sharp enough already, but Ronon was still working on it, hands moving rhythmically.

"But if I don't…" Sheppard raised his head again. "Ronon, if I get worse…"

"Not gonna happen." Ronon jabbed the knife into its sheath and stood up. Stepping over Sheppard, he started bundling supplies into the cart. Kit let out a breath, and went to ready the merrilyn.

It didn't matter, he told himself. Today was going to be bad enough without him wasting his time thinking about what had happened or worrying about what might happen. He had to take it one moment at a time. If all went to plan – if we don't get captured by Whisperers or lose the cart or fall off a cliff – they would be in the Debateable Lands by afternoon, and if all went well there – and when do things ever go well there? – they would be in Daryen well before evening, still far from the city itself, but within the lands that called the Basilis of Daryen their lord. His task was to get them there. From the very start of this crazy journey, his thoughts should have been on nothing else.

They set off not long after, with Ronon driving the merrilyn and the rest of them sitting like sacks of charvil in the back, jostled and jolted. Kit watched the landscape pass by, taking them ever closer to Daryen. The sun rose higher, and he listened to the others sporadically talking, and wondered if they would reach the border alive.

The scrubby pink vervyn hid small rises and dips in the road, and sometimes hid small stones, too. "We really have to go this way?" Rodney whined, after a particularly large jolt.

Kit turned round. Rodney was holding onto the edge of the cart

"Yes," Kit told him shortly. "Too many people on the road."

"I've always been prone to travel sickness." Rodney pressed his hand to his belly. "I have a surprisingly sensitive constitution. There was this one time, when Jeannie and I were in the back--" Another jolt turned it into a squawk. The sound of Sheppard's head hitting the side of the cart was quiet but audible. Rodney's head snapped round, and he looked at Sheppard for a long moment, chewing his lip. "Seriously, it might be better if we walk."

Kit was willing to wager that no-one had ever been crazy enough to take a farmer's cart across the trackless moorland, but the merrilyn had long legs, and could stride through the vervyn as if it was no more than short grass. The wheels were large and well attached, and Ronon drove the cart well, avoiding the most treacherous ground. "We're making better time than if we were walking," Kit told Rodney.

"Yes, but…" Rodney's hand moved in mute appeal, as he clearly wanted to indicate Sheppard, but didn't want to be seen to.

Teyla glanced at Sheppard, then gave Rodney the sort of look that clearly carried much meaning. "I believe that walking would be more… challenging," she said, which was total transparent speak for 'Sheppard would fall flat on his face within half a dozen steps.'

Sheppard was still conscious, but offered nothing to the discussion; he seemed to be putting every scrap of energy he possessed into bracing himself against the jolts. Not that he was doing a good job. Just give it up, you stubborn bastard, Kit thought, and let us rattle you into oblivion.

The land rose, and Kit scooted to the front of the cart to give Ronon directions. They passed beneath the top of the peak, so that no-one below would see them outlined against the skyline. Black crags rose to their left, weathered into grotesque shapes. Behind the cart, the dark clouds drew closer, but the breeze was warm. Three hobins rose squawking from the black rocks, then wheeled downwards, their wings almost brushing the backs of a pair of wild merrilyn.

"Sheppard?" he heard Rodney say. "Sheppard?"

"Still here," Sheppard murmured. "Someone switch off the inertial dampeners?"

"We aren't talking about things like that, remember." Kit turned in time to see Rodney jab an unsubtle thumb in the direction of him and Jasper.

The cloud caught them up, and the sunlight vanished. A gap in the crags showed them a glimpse of the distant high peak, topped with Cador in all his fucking glory, lord of all he surveyed. A shaggy merrilyn looked up from its lunch, braying some message at their own beast, who ignored her utterly. Caged animals never understood the language of the free, or so his sister had told him once, in fanciful mood.

They paused for lunch beneath tumbled rocks, as the first fine specks of rain started to fall. Below them, lakes of sunlight still shone on the narrow valley, as Jasper would doubtless describe it. Kit saw him now, gazing out across the pass, drinking it in. At times, watching how closely Jasper studied the ordinary things around him, Kit had almost found himself seeing them differently. Gods! he thought. The sooner this journey is over, the better. Then Jasper turned his back on the view, and Kit saw how troubled his expression was, and wondered if even Jasper was slipping away from his control, turning unpredictable.

"We could be down there," Rodney said. "In the sun. On level ground."

"There?" Kit laughed sharply. "In the Pass of Blood?"

"Pass of Blood? That doesn't sound good."

Kit gave a quick laugh. "Master of the understatement you are, Rodney. I'll leave it to our prince to tell the whole story – tonight, perhaps – but the short story is: battles. Lots and lots of battles, on account of it being the only lowland route between Daryen and Myr. Armies always go that way when their lords and masters are in an invading mood. It's thick with messengers from the Marches, and agents of one ruler or another. Whisperers. Law-abiding travellers scared of setting foot in the Debateable Lands. See that line of steam there?" He pointed out across the valley. "They're digging waterways – supposed to be quicker than roads. So we've got ourselves a nice gang of loyal, muscle-ridden labourers, just to add to the mix. So, no, being down there would not be good."

"Oh. You make a compelling argument, actually."

Rodney subsided, but Ronon leant forward suddenly. Kit, who had already seen enough to know that Ronon had keen eyes, felt his heart speed up. "What do you see?" he asked, the others forgotten. Then he saw it, too, shining in the last glimmer of sunlight.

Far below them, in the pass, an army was marching.

******

Jasper had his coat pulled over his head, keeping away the rain. The black rock glistened with water beside their path, and a pair of wild merrilyn, mother and cub, stood in the lea of the crag, eyeing them twitchily as they passed. They were beginning to go downhill again, slowly lurching their way across the wilds.

"At least it wasn't marching straight at us." Rodney spoke up after a long silence. "The army, I mean, back… there. Pass of Blood thing. Really, you people need some better names, motivational ones. Hire a consultant. But where was I? Army. Not marching towards us. That's always a good thing, right? Heavily armed men with primitive weapons marching towards you never ends well."

It had been far away, like lines of tiny insects massed together in red, weapons gleaming in one last defiant blaze before they had been swallowed by the rain. "My father always has a battalion stationed in the Marches," he said. If he hadn't grasped at his freedom in the bold way that he had done, he would be marching with them, for that had been his father's cruel plan for him. He would be one of those red insects, while far above him on the crags, Sheppard and Teyla and the others were passing on the journey, too far away for him to see them.

"Well, at least that's one thing that's going well," Rodney said. "No, don't say anything, colonel. I can do positive."

The cart lurched, stopping with a jolt. Ronon jumped down from the bench, bent to drag a boulder away from the wheel, and swung himself back up, all without a word. Earlier, Jasper had watched raindrops sit glistening on his hair, but they had long since soaked through.

"Or do say something," he heard Rodney say. "Saying something would be good. Sheppard?"

"I believe he is unconscious," Teyla said.

Jasper leant forward, the coat slipping from his head. Rodney knelt over Sheppard, his hand fluttering like a nervous bird as it tried to decide whether to settle on Sheppard's shoulder. Her hair dark with rain, Teyla took hold of Sheppard and raised him up, pulling him so that he was resting entirely in her arms. There was something faintly defiant about the way that she did it. "Good," Rodney murmured, twitchily rearranging the blanket that covered Sheppard. "That's good." His voice broke as the cart lurched into motion again, but Sheppard, supported by Teyla's arms, was barely shaken by it.

It made Jasper's throat hurt, almost as if he was about to cry.

He watched the rain instead - how each raindrop kept its own erratic course, seldom going straight down, even as the general impression of the rain as a whole was of vertical movement. Some of them swirled, and he imagined them screaming, digging in their heels, doing anything possible to avoid their fate.

"There's a track ahead," he heard Ronon say.

"Yeah." The thief was on the bench beside Ronon, seemingly ignoring the rest of them. "Black-stone quarry. No steam, though, so it's not used any more – not used today, anyway. It's probably safe." Perhaps it was the rain, but his voice sounded different from normal.

Jasper watched Ronon pull on the reins, turning the cart slightly to the left, heading for the track. Then he turned back to the others, and saw Rodney watching, too. "Dare we hope for an end to the bumping?" Rodney said. "That's good." A sudden lurch made him grab for the top of the sill. "Six hours ago would have been good." His eyes flickered towards Sheppard. "Never getting into this damn thing in the first place…" His eyes were still on Sheppard, and he sighed, scraping rain away from his face with the heel of his hand.

The change of direction made the rain blow full in Jasper's face, and some of it reached him even when he tugged his coat forward, narrowing his vision to a tiny patch surrounded by blackness. "At least some people are dry," Rodney said. "Remind me again why we're getting soaked to the skin when there's a lovely pack full of nice, warm blankets? Oh yes – because we'll be grateful for dry blankets when we're trying to sleep. But that's then and this is now, and we're not going to live to bedtime if we--" He stopped for a jolt. "--soaked to the skin and wrinkled."

"Might not live until bedtime, anyway." The thief twisted on the bench, speaking to them for the first time since lunch. "That's the Debateable Lands down there, and those peaks over there, that you can't see because it's raining, are in Daryen."

"The Debateable Lands?" Rodney asked.

"Where the men are as wild as crebyn and the women as fierce as carrils, and their idea of a fun day out involves blood feuds and murder." The thief braced himself, hand tight on the bench, as the cart went over a small ridge, and then there were on the track. "Thank God!" Rodney exclaimed, but the thief continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Lines on maps in distant citadels mean nothing to the folk round here. The border is… somewhere." He waved his hand vaguely. "Changes from day to day depending on who's been out raiding. They spend their time stealing each others' livestock, burning each other's castles, and sticking knives in the guts of people they don't like, by which they include anyone from any other castle, and strangers."

"Strangers. Of course." Rodney sighed. "And we're going there why?"

"It's that or the Pass of Blood and the army," the thief said. "Given the choice between certain capture and the possibility of--"

There was a loud crack, and the cart lurched, then shuddered to a stop, tilting slightly. "Fuck!" the thief swore. Ronon jumped off the bench and peered under the cart. "Axle?" the thief asked, and Ronon nodded. "Fuck!" he swore again.

"And this happens now?" Rodney exclaimed. "Now, when we're on a proper road at last, and not when that oaf was taking us through every ditch on the planet?"

"Stopped," Sheppard breathed, stirring. His head moved weakly from side to side. "Teyla?" His hand closed round the blanket and he tried to pull it off. "Sit up."

"No, lie still."

Jasper turned away, his throat hurting. The thief was out of the cart, too, standing next to Ronon. "Can't go on without a wheel," he was saying, but Ronon, his back to Jasper, said something that he didn't quite catch, though he heard Sheppard's name. Then, "McKay can fix things."

Rodney crawled gingerly to the edge of the cart. "Touching as your faith in my skills in – no, seriously, I'm flattered, even though your good opinion of me is, of course, entirely warranted – but this is not the sort of thing I fix. This is stone axe and turnip stuff."

Ronon ignored him. "Unharness the animal." He nodded at the thief, who obeyed him, moving to the restless merrilyn. But Sheppard was still trying to talk weakly, and Teyla was still holding him, and Jasper found himself turning to watch them again, even though it made something twist inside him as memories called to him from a time when he had been loved. He missed what happened, then. By the time his head snapped around in response to the thief's shout of, "Catch it!" the merrilyn was free, running back the way they had come, trailing harness. Ronon made a grab for it, but was late, far too late. He ran after it, but no man could ever hope to outrun an unencumbered merrilyn. He hit it with the red fire from his weapon, but that did little to slow it down, and the second time he fired, he missed.

"I believe Rodney has an expression for it," the thief said, looking up at them from the roadside. "Something about being screwed?"

******

Kit had to hand it to Sheppard. Stupid it might be, but he managed to keep going for surprisingly long. Sometimes he went down on one knee, his head bowed, but always, with a visible effort, he gathered his strength again and pulled himself up. The others fluttered around him, of course, like spiritwings drawn to his light, and helped him where they could – and when he would let them – but short of carrying him bodily, there wasn't much they could do. Perhaps not stupid after all, Kit thought, just necessary.

They left the track when it turned away towards the pass, and struck across open country. The vervyn soon gave way to cropped grass, easier to walk through, and there was an increasing number of trees to give them cover. Small herds of merrow were grazing, looking bored and wet, and that was not good, because herds of merrow implied the presence of people looking after them, which in these parts meant that there were also other people trying to steal them, and that the people looking after them were doubtless armed.

No choice, he reminded himself, though of course there was a choice, which was not to leave Myr at all. Or, since that choice was long since gone with the flood, to abandon the others and head into Daryen alone, on the grounds that having a good strong Ronon at his back was a good thing if they were caught, but one person alone had a better chance of not being caught in the first place.

At least Ronon seemed to share Kit's view of Sheppard's behaviour. "This is stupid," he told Sheppard, after his latest almost-stumble. "I'll carry you."

"No," Sheppard mumbled. "No no no. Can walk."

"Can't."

"Not…" Sheppard brought up his hand as if he was swatting invisible insects. "Not carry, buddy, no. Need… If it's as dangerous as Kit says, you'll need trigger hand."

Ronon smiled. "I'll drop you if I need to shoot."

"No." Sheppard's hand went back to his body, pressed to his middle. "No. No. Please."

There was a short silence, broken by Rodney. "Well, I can't carry him. My back, you know? Doctor Keller says…" His words trailed away as Sheppard doggedly walked forward and kept on going, and then were forgotten in the chewing of his lip.

"I'll sling you over my shoulder if you fall one more time," Ronon warned Sheppard as he easily overtook him, and resumed his place with Kit at the front of their unhappy little band. Kit chose their route based on the presence of cover, and Ronon modified it to take into account Sheppard's need for smooth ground. It was quite a while before Kit realised that this was what they were doing, and that they had been doing it all along, working together with unspoken communication. Strange, he thought, and it made him want to say something harsh to ease the strangeness, but he did not.

The rain eased slightly, enough to allow Kit to find them a stream by the sound of running water. Its bed was strewn with rocks, but its edge was smooth shingle, and it was lined with trees that were full with leaf. They could follow it, perhaps, and be in good cover all the way into the heart of--

And that, of course, was when Sheppard decided to demonstrate to them all that there was a limit even to his endurance. This time, when he fell to his knees, he didn't get up, just knelt there, listing slightly.

"Ronon?" Rodney called, looking from Sheppard to Ronon and back again.

"No." Sheppard brought up his hand. "No. Go on."

"And leave you?" Rodney's voice was shrill. "Leave you here, and I don't know if you've seen it, but there's bones over there, and some sort of big black bird picking at them."

"Not going to happen," Ronon said.

"Go get help." Sheppard was still kneeling, even now resisting what must have been a very strong urge to fall over and lie down. "Help." He flapped his hand vaguely.

"In the Debateable Land?" Kit gave a harsh laugh. "You don't go knocking on doors round here asking for help. They'd kill you on sight."

"I believe it is at least four days to the… Circle of Daryen," Teyla said. "It would be a long time before we could return with help from home."

"Got medicine." Sheppard's eyes were moving strangely, not quite focusing on them, then flicking away as if he was seeing things that weren't there.

Teyla looked at Ronon. "That is true. These things can take a while to work. If one of us stayed with him…"

"Things never go well when we split up." Rodney was still staring at the bones. "Are they human?"

The prince spoke up. "Why don't we camp here? He might be better by morning, and then we can all carry on."

"Or he'll be dead by morning," Rodney said harshly.

Perhaps it would be better if he just got on with it and died, Kit thought. At least then the others would be free to carry on at a decent pace, and they'd be too busy grieving to… No. He stopped that thought, feeling a pang of remorse, even of anger at himself. When had he become the sort of person who could think a thing like that? Mean-hearted bastard he might be, but Sheppard was a good man, and… Gods! Kit even liked the fellow well enough, despite his stubborn ways. And he came for me, he thought. He came for me.

"Perhaps if we all stay," Teyla said to Ronon, "and you and Kit go on…"

"Go," Sheppard breathed, still staring at nothing. "Go. Please. I…"

And they were still debating it when the raiding party found them.

******

end of chapter eight

On to the interlude
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