Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 12 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter ten (part 12 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 ten
Just a Shadow in the Night
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A Whisperer! A Whisperer was here. Here! It was supposed to be safe in Daryen, no Whisperers… Here! Gods! Kit was unable to move, propped uncomfortably on one elbow, fingers tangled in his blanket. A Whisperer!

"Huh," said Sheppard, unconcerned, foolish, stupid. "What part of being on watch don't you understand, McKay?"

"He crept up on--" Rodney's words ended in a rasping gulp.

"You weren't concentrating." Kit couldn't move anything, only his eyes, but he could see that Sheppard was ever so slowly edging forward. "You were playing with your latest Ancient toy. You were day-dreaming--"

"Actually, since it's night, that would be-- No, don't kill me! Don't… Being quiet."

Another tiny movement forward. "It's Ronon's fault, too – hey, buddy? What did you say --" Sheppard's hand began to move, just a shadow in the night. "-- about us hearing the splashing?"

"Some of us have knives to our throats." Rodney's voice was strained. "Talking… moves things, you know?"

"Then don't." Sheppard's voice took on a colder tone, almost chilling, as he said, "But you can."

The Whisperer… Gods! The Whisperer…! Raking through his brain, seeing all his secrets, dragging them out and exposing them, every secret that he had, every truth that lay behind his careful masks. Ruining everything, and oh Gods! his heart was pounding, hands rasping on the cold blanket, and the whisper of the wind was the Whisperer's mind uttering compulsions, impossible to resist.

"John!" Teyla gasped from the far side of the dying fire. "The other one--" Her words were choked off.

The Whisperer laughed, a sound with no mirth in it. "Which one of you threatened me?"

"That would have been me," Sheppard said without hesitation. "So what do you say that you take that knife away from McKay's throat – he's nothing, just the hired help – and--"

"Hey!" Rodney croaked.

"Be quiet!" It was a snap of command. Kit found himself pressing his lips together, hardly daring to breathe. "Like I was saying…"

Sheppard's next step crunched through the edge of the fire, and a flame burst up from the embers. Kit, frozen, saw the Whisperer's stocky face, saw Rodney's terror, saw Sheppard lit fiercely from below. Did he see me? his mind gibbered. Did he see me?

"Stop where you are," the Whisperer commanded, his knife digging deeper into Rodney's throat. The newly-awakened flame showed a small trickle of blood running down his neck. "Which of you --" His eyes moved from one to another of them – he's looking at me! He's looking at me! "--is the murderer of --"

"Your brother?" Sheppard said. "Father? One day let's do without the whole 'this time it's personal' thing. No, don't!" The last two words sounded ripped from him, and Kit knew that he had not intended them, not intended to sound that way.

The flame guttered and died. Kit could see hardly anything at all after it was gone. "Which one of you," the Whisperer asked, "murdered Lyall Ellison?"

Sheppard said nothing, and the shape of him was utterly still. Rodney was breathing in small gasping whimpers. "I'm okay." His voice was tiny, the consonants barely articulated. "I'm okay."

"Don't try to deny it," the Whisper said, but something slipped in his accent – something that Kit, expert on changing his voice and assuming a mask, was able to recognise. "I can reach into your mind and rip out the truth."

"So there's--" Sheppard's voice also faltered, but in his case it was uncertainty. Wants to keep him on his toes, Kit thought. Doesn't want to risk Rodney. Sheppard resumed, and perhaps only Kit had heard that moment of doubt. "--no need for us to say anything. You can let McKay go, then unmask the murderer with the power of your mind."

"I can," the Whisperer said, "but I prefer to hear a confession of guilt from the lips of the guilty, and then to hear them confess again, screaming in the Citadel torture chambers, and publicly on the gallows." He looked at Kit, his eyes glittering in the dying firelight.

"It wasn't me!" Kit blurted out. "I didn't do it. It wasn't anything to do with me." Those glittering eyes, seeing everything. That mind, raking through his own. It was Ronon! he wanted to say. It was Rodney! It wasn't me! Kill them, and let me go! "It wasn't any of us." The words came out as if they had been torn from him by the Whisperer's mind, but they hadn't been. "It was an accident, just an accident. His heart just stopped beating. He would have killed these people, and all they wanted to do was rescue a friend, who was innocent and was going to be killed."

"A nice lie." The Whisperer smiled coldly. Someone – the prince, perhaps – sucked in a breath as if to speak, but didn't. "There is no point in lying to me. I can extract the truth--"

"No, you can't." It was Sheppard who said it, his voice matter-of-fact, but Kit found that his own mouth was open, as if he had been about to say it, too.

Such a little thing, he thought, as the Whisperer spluttered with fury. It was those few words said in a provincial accent, a peasant accent, when everything else was spoken in the accent of court. This was a man pretending to be something he wasn't – and didn't Kit know about that? He'd been so stupid, falling for the hype. A thief should have known. Out of everyone, a thief should have known that someone who told everyone how hard they were seldom had the goods to match.

"You're just an ordinary guy," Sheppard said, "who happens to have a gene."

"A farm labourer," Kit added, and for the first time he was able to move again, sitting up, leaning back with his legs crossed nonchalantly at the ankles. "A charvil-muncher, shovelling dung."

"What happened?" Sheppard took a step forward. "Did the king's men come knocking on your door, asking you to hold something? Did it glow for you? Were you dragged away from everything you knew and sent off to the big city?" He shrugged. "Been there, done that."

"Be quiet!" The Whisperer's hand was trembling, the knife almost slipping away from Rodney's throat. Rodney squirmed a little, face alive with panicked hope.

Sheppard bent to pick up something from the edge of the fire. It was the Whisperer's globe, Kit realised, and it glowed as soon as he touched it, shining soft and blue in his left hand. An answering light started to flash somewhere on the Whisperer's body, between him and Rodney, pressed to his chest.

"Huh, look at that." Sheppard's right hand was at his belt, closing on his gun. "It's for you."

"Be quiet!" the Whisperer screamed, hurling Rodney away from him.

"John!" Teyla gasped. "He's going to--"

******

"No!" Jasper screamed. "Don't hurt her!" He threw himself forward, almost falling as his feet tangled in the blanket. "Don't," he said, recovering. "I… I command you."

The Whisperer gave a sharp stab of laughter. "You command me?

"Yes. I command you." If he said this, it would all be over. He had watched the whole thing, frozen, thinking Don't look at me! Don't recognise me! This was the outside world crashing into the everlasting now of his journey. This was his father's world reaching out its hand and destroying his freedom. This was pursuit caught up with him, trying to drag him home. "I am Jasper," he said, raising his head in the glimmering light, "crown prince of Myr and I command you not to hurt her." He saw Rodney struggling to his knees, one hand at his throat, one raised. "Not to hurt any of them," Jasper corrected himself.

"The crown prince of Myr." The Whisperer started to laugh, then changed it to a cough. "My lord." The last words sounded dragged from him. "Forgive me, but I was taken by surprise. I knew these villains had abducted a nobleman's son, of course, but--"

"They didn't trust you with the truth, huh?" the thief said. "Not so scary and important now, are we?"

"They didn't abduct me." Jasper stood up, standing as tall as he could. Was Teyla still moving, in the dark beyond the fire? "I chose them to be my escort in my… my coming-of-age quest," he said, remembering old stories and Rodney's taunts. "They have served me well, all of them."

"Then forgive me, my lord," the Whisperer said, "because I must disobey, because they have clearly tricked you and turned your mind. That one there--" He pointed at Sheppard. "-- has usurped the powers of a Whisperer. He has clearly--"

"No, he hasn't!" Jasper cried, bringing up his clenched fist to his chest. "They killed your friend by accident. All they wanted to do was save their friend. They were always kind to me. Teyla told me I wouldn't get hurt when they took me out of the Citadel. They're good people. When Kit was captured, they went back and rescued him."

"You're talking about the thief who was broken out of prison in Paramor?" The Whisperer shook his head. "With every word, my lord, you show how badly they have warped your sense of right and wrong. You are a victim here, my lord. You need to be freed from this people."

"By which he means," Kit commented, "you're making things worse here, Jasper-lad. Nice try, though. Much appreciated."

"No!" Jasper cried. He heard something moving behind him, but Sheppard was there, half a step ahead of him, one hand coming up slightly at his side, as if to say stop, or maybe carry on, or maybe don't turn round. "I don't need to be freed," he insisted. "I want to stay with them. I want--"

And then Sheppard's hand came down again, and the night exploded into motion. Something surged up from behind him. He saw Sheppard dropping down to one knee. The heard the sounds of fighting on the far side of the fire, and somebody cried out. A foot crunched on the embers, and a flame surged up, but it showed him nothing that he could understand. A firearm sounded, short and sharp, and after its brief light he couldn't see anything at all. Someone brushed against him, and he recoiled, bringing both hands in tight to his chest. The firearm sounded again, and red light flared at the same time, and he saw Ronon and Sheppard, frozen like images in an engraver's book, and he heard someone scream.

As red light flared again, a hand closed round his arm, and he gasped, trying to pull himself free, but with every breath he saw a little more, and when he turned he saw Kit, the thief, trying to pull him clear. "Dangerous round there," the thief said. "Best leave it to the experts."

But by then, everything was already falling silent. "Everyone okay?" he heard Sheppard say.

"I am unharmed." Teyla sounded breathless.

"Bleeding here!" That was Rodney.

"Are we killing them?" Ronon growled.

"Jasper?" The shape that was Sheppard turned around. "Kit? You two okay?"

"Yes." It came out like a squeak, so he didn't hear Kit's simultaneous answer. "Is he…?"

"Safely stunned," Sheppard said. "The Whisperer has a hole somewhere."

"Should we, uh, tie them up or something?" Rodney asked. "I can't do it, on account of bleeding to death."

"Got knocked on the head," said Ronon. "Teyla's half-strangled. Sheppard's convalescing."

"What's with the long words?" Rodney sounded irritated.

Jasper looked from one to another, seeing them as vague shapes around a dying fire, hearing them just a voice that belonged to nobody. Three of them were moving, clearly tying up the Whisperer and his servant, despite anything they had said to the contrary. I don't understand these people, Jasper thought suddenly, and it hurt. He had a poet's insight, and he understood people, but all that had faltered when a prisoner had done something incomprehensible, and clung on.

"And as for you, Sheppard," Rodney said accusingly, "what was with the provoking? Please keep your one-liners for when you're the one with the knife at your throat."

"I knew he wouldn't kill you," came Sheppard's voice from the darkness.

"Oh, and you're a mind-reader now?"

"There was that 'I want to hear you scream your confession in the dungeon' thing he had going," Sheppard said, "and it's not an easy thing to kill someone in cold blood, especially not with a knife, up close. These guys, they work on people being scared shitless by their reputation and not trying anything. He didn't look like the sort of guy who could get his hands dirty."

"I don't even want to know how you know that," Rodney said. "About the cold-blooded killing. But we're back to that again." His voice was shrill. "He could have killed me! He had his knife--"

"And he didn't." Sheppard's voice was calm and firm. "He didn't, Rodney."

"He's waking up," Teyla said sharply.

Beyond the curtain of leaves, Jasper thought, it was very slowly beginning to get light. He saw Sheppard bending over the Whisperer, then saw the blue light of the Whisperer's globe as Sheppard pulled it out. Kit was still beside him, close enough for Jasper to hear his breathing. The Whisperer won't make me go back, he thought. Sheppard and the others would get rid of him, and Jasper would be free again. He'd been stupid – right – to let the Whisperer see his face. It had been foolish – right – to risk everything like that. It had been…

"I demand that you release me," the Whisperer spat, squirming on the ground. "I will reach into your mind and--"

"Oh, please," Rodney sneered. "What are you: a walking cliché? You're just a pathetic little man who happened to be born with the ATA gene, and, believe me, being born with it is nothing special at all. Even brainless, stupid, reckless, provoke-the-man-with-the-knife-in-his-hand idiots can be born with it."

"Beats faking it." Sheppard tossed the globe to Rodney, who fumbled the catch. As Rodney, sighing, bent to pick it up, Sheppard scooped up the other globe, dropped during the fight.

The light on Rodney's globe started flashing. "Oh!" he gasped, as he touched it. The blue light showed the smear of blood at his throat. Then he frowned in outrage. "That is completely untrue, Sheppard. It's slander. I'll have you know, it wasn't a-- Oh. Yes. Telepathy. Not saying it out loud. Huh. You won't trick me that easily."

"Too late," Sheppard said. "Pink."

"That's not fair!" Rodney dropped the globe as if it had burned him. "Surface thought. We decided it was surface thoughts."

"Guess you're just not a deep kind of guy." Sheppard put his own globe down, placing it carefully by the fire. "Or maybe I'm just naturally better at this, being natural." His voice changed abruptly as he turned to face the Whisperer. "Not such as rare gift, is it, so give up with the threats."

I don't understand, Jasper thought. He had stepped forward and said his piece, and for a moment he had been in total control of everything around the fire, but everything had spiralled out of his control. I don't understand, he thought, and then, quiet in its wake: I want to.

"What're we going to do with them?" Ronon jabbed the Whisperer with his foot.

Kill them, Jasper wanted to say, but he couldn't form the words. He thought of a knife at the throat, and the pressure that it would take to push it through the skin, and the moment of decision that lay behind that pressure. People slew enemies in stories, but he didn't want to see the blood.

"There's the thing," Sheppard said. "Kill them? And here we are, trying to show we're good guys. Make them promise to be good and let them go? He can't communicate with his friends any more, but, see, there might be other friends nearby, people he can communicate with the old-fashioned way."

"Like a whole army of them," Rodney volunteered.

"We could leave them tied up beside the river," Teyla said. "Ronon saw fishermen there. If they call for help, they will be freed before very long."

Sheppard gave a slow nod. "Caught behind enemies lines. A nice dilemma for them."

Rodney raised his hand. "And we're only a day or two from… home. It doesn't matter who he tells after that. What?" he demanded, looking at Ronon. "You want to kill them, of course."

"I didn't say that," said Ronon, but he bent to tighten the Whisperer's bonds, and from the Whisperer's gasp, he was not gentle.

The talk went on, but Jasper heard less and less of it. The Whisperer had brought the outside world into their circle of leaves, and it felt as if Jasper had been dragged into that outside world, forgotten by those in the circle.

I almost lost everything, he thought. To save Teyla, to save all of them, he had let the Whisperer know his name. "Let them do it, Jasper-lad," Kit said quietly from beside him. "It'll all be over soon."

And all the while, the sky outside turned grey with approaching dawn. It was only when the birds started singing that Jasper realised that he had not once thought of poetry and rhyme, those things that he lived for.

******

"You'll die for this!" the Whisperer screamed. "You'll be hunted for this! There's nowhere to hide. Wherever you go, we'll find you."

His voice grew fainter and fainter as they walked away. All around them, the birds were greeting the sunrise, and the wind was picking up, stirring the reeds. Once again, Kit was splashing through muddy water with Ronon at his side, and neither of them seemed to be making any effort to keep quiet. Quite the opposite, in fact, as if by mutual unspoken consent, they had decided to rob the Whisperer of his last threats.

Ronon's face looked grim and dangerous, though. "…die," Kit heard faintly from behind, then, "You can't do this, please, no." Kit chewed his lip. Ronon, he saw, showed not even a flicker.

"I don't understand you people." Kit hadn't meant to say it, but masks were pretty much in tatters now, except the only one that really mattered. "You can be so cold and heartless – single-minded, not bothering to think about who gets hurt because of you – but then you do this." He gestured back to where they had left the Whisperer and his man, tightly bound, but carefully placed beside the main channel that the fishers used. Teyla had even bound the man's glancing wound, and given him callow-bark to chew. "Soft," he said. "You could have killed him."

Ronon nodded, as if to say 'I know.'

"But not that soft." Kit heard the echo of the man's screaming. "Cruel at the same time."

Ronon splashed on for several more steps. "I didn't get it, either, at first. Thought they were weak."

Kit snatched at a reed, snapping its tip off in his hand. "So you haven't been with them from the start?"

"They're not weak." Ronon wasn't looking at him. "Still think they're too soft sometimes, but not usually. Things change. I wouldn't have stayed with them if I'd thought they were wrong." As if you could leave them that easily, Kit thought, remembering how fiercely Ronon had watched over Sheppard when he was at his worst.

He pushed past Ronon then, and was the first to arrive back at the camp. "…taking it easy," he heard, as he pushed through the fall of leaves. Rodney seemed incapable of mastering a proper whisper. "'Recovery period' doesn't mean sleeping outside and taking on Whisperers and their minions in hand-to-hand combat. These things can come back if you do too much too quickly."

"I'm good." Sheppard had his hand on the tree trunk, and kept it there despite Rodney's words. "Look, Rodney…" He sighed. "It doesn't much matter. We'll be home soon. I'll be fine long enough to get there."

Rodney turned, seeing Kit, and stepped away from Sheppard. Sheppard removed his hand from the tree, and stood upright. "Gods!" Kit swore, and stamped away to the merrilyn. Teyla was nearby, packing bags, with bruises growing at her throat, and there was blood matted at the back of Ronon's hair. Add in the blood on Rodney's neck, and only Kit and Jasper had been excluded from the night's merriment.

"I don't suppose anyone's bothered to go through the Whisperer's pack?" Kit said harshly.

"Actually…" Jasper looked up, his lap awash with paperwork. "The others can't read it," he explained.

"Can't read?" Kit snatched a sheaf of papers away from Jasper's pathetic attempt to keep hold of them. "Gods, are they stupid? And what's this – a diary? 'Today I decided to be a posturing fool?'"

"No," Jasper began, but Kit had already read on, and spoke over him. "It's descriptions of the dastardly criminals. Hey, Sheppard," he called out. "You have a face that might be considered well-favoured, except for the wily glint in your eye." He skimmed through the rest. Rodney had somehow managed to avoid being noticed at all, but Ronon was a giant with uncombed hair, and Teyla was a woman with a low and common beauty. As for him… "Enough of that," he said, tearing the paper up and casting it into the water.

"You're in a bad mood today, Kit." Sheppard's voice sounded carefully neutral.

Rodney humphed. "Since when isn't he in a bad mood?"

"It's been getting worse, though." Sheppard spoke as if Kit wasn't there, except that his eyes never left him.

"Of course it's been getting worse." Kit shredded another paper. At least he had an answer ready for this. "You're doing your joyful homecoming thing, with all your happy remember whens, but every step is taking me further away from my home – the home I lost because of you. This is enemy territory here, and then you wonder why I'm angry?" He untied his merrilyn, clambered onto its back, and kicked it into the mud. "So let's get going, then, on to the big bad city where I haven't got anything and I don't know anyone, and which will probably kill me." Clutching the reins with quivering fist, he grinned. "What a homecoming, huh?"

******

Defiantly setting his chin, Jasper decided to snatch at poetry with both hands. They were riding along a green lane, one of the old narrow roads that had been used before the rise of the cities, with banks twice as tall as Ronon. The ground had long since grassed over, and rustling in the banks showed that the only creatures that walked these lanes today were foxes and sorrel. Broad roots protruded from the earth at shoulder height, the trees rising high on both sides, reaching together in a leafy canopy. The top part of the bank was strewn with blue flowers, so thick that it was as if they were imitating the sky.

Had Tamorlin walked here, Jasper wondered. Had Talis and Valorian journeyed along here, riding sunward on their great quests? A bird twittered overhead. He threw all his senses at it, and told himself that it was beautiful, so beautiful that he didn't need anything else, just that.

The others were talking softly ahead of him. He heard his name mentioned, and he pressed his lips together and luxuriated in the beauty of those blue blossoms.

The lane was rising steadily, and soon the trees were overhanging so much that it was like riding into evening. Before they reached the top, the sun went out entirely. Then they emerged quite abruptly onto an open hilltop. A pinnacle of stone rose from the ground to the left, sharp as a pointing finger. "More leavings of the Gods of Stone," Kit said, his smile strange.

His merrilyn pranced then, and Jasper told himself that it was just coincidence, and that of course the creature wasn't afraid of the ruins. The Gods weren't real. Jasper had spent the whole night in one of their ruins, and nothing bad had happened.

"Folks round here think they're real." Kit indicated with a nod where Jasper was to look, and he saw a crescent of offerings on the far side of the stone. There were fresh flowers, blue and yellow and white, and bowls of food. There were items carved in wood and stone, and an entire exquisite cradle; fearless, Teyla rode over to it and pronounced it empty.

The others had stopped. "…ridiculous superstition," Rodney was saying.

Kit had snapped off a twig, and was twisting it round and round in his fingers, its three green leaves blurring into one. "Going to offer it up?" Sheppard asked him, one eyebrow raised. Kit hurled it away.

"The end of the world's coming."

Everyone except for Kit turned towards Ronon. "Excuse me?" Sheppard asked.

"That's what the fishermen said. They've got some secretive religion thing happening. The priest guys said the end of the world's coming, and they're panicking." Ronon nodded towards the offerings. "I've seen things like this before."

"The end of the world." Rodney's eyes darted from side to side. "Not that I believe it, of course."

Kit kicked his merrilyn forward, taking the lead. Jasper's mount seemed to have taken a fancy to Kit's, and walked on without him telling her to. Now they were out of the trees, they could ride more than one abreast, and Teyla came up beside him. "You have our gratitude," she said, "for what you did this morning." Her voice sounded bruised, and Jasper's fingers ached with the sudden urge to touch the physical bruises on her throat, to soothe them. "You have my gratitude. Thank you, Jasper." She bowed her head slightly.

"I didn't…" He swallowed. "He wouldn't listen."

"But you tried." She smiled. "You were anxious not to be recognised by him, but you made yourself known in an attempt to save us."

Her smile brought the sun, but when Jasper looked up, he saw that dark clouds still covered it. "To save you." His voice was husky.

"Us." It was soft but firm, and final.

"Even though he made things worse," Rodney interrupted, and Jasper could have screamed at him.

"Be nice, Rodney," Sheppard threw over his shoulder. "He did good."

By then, Teyla was no longer beside him, but was moving ahead, talking to Ronon. Sheppard and Rodney were side by side, and Kit was at the front. Jasper, somehow, had gone to the back again, and all he could see was people's backs, riding away from him.

******

"No, I won't steal anything." Kit tugged at the reins, but Sheppard still held them. "I won't get myself arrested. I won't force you to come charging to the rescue again. I won't get noticed. I won't get into trouble."

They were heading into more populated territory, and Kit had come up with the idea of heading into the nearest small town to do a bit of eavesdropping and scouting. "Find out where the ravening armies are. Find out if anyone's looking for us. Find out if they're killing suspicious-looking parties on sight." It wasn't any different from anything that Ronon did, he argued. "Just that Ronon likes to skulk round in the wilds, and this involves scouting out people."

"I am aware of the concept of intelligence," Sheppard said stiffly, "but you don't have a good track record."

"I won't get caught!" Kit all but screamed it. "Last time," he said more quietly, knowing that in this, at least, he needed to keep his cool, "we needed supplies, thanks to you being about to keel over and die. This time we just need information. I won't do anything stupid. Credit me with a little intelligence."

"Perhaps one of us…" Teyla began.

"Gods!" Kit tugged at his reins again, but Sheppard's grip was merciless. "I know how to blend in with these people better than you do." Another tug. "What are you: my father?"

He wasn't sure exactly which piece of persuasion and shining reasoning caused Sheppard to finally consent, but – at last! – his reins were released and he was free, trotting down the gentle grassy slope that led to the road. "I don't know why you even care," he said, saying it out loud to people who were long since out of earshot. "What's it matter to you if I get myself arrested?"

The road passed through trees. Just before the trees ended, a stone wall started up, enclosing what was probably the squire's estate. Peering over the top, he could see an artificial lake, flooded now, as most lakes and waterways were flooded, though the hall itself was hidden. Further on, he reached the first outlying houses, steep-gabled and with painted shutters, unlike anything in Myr. The people were the same, though, with the same range of colourings, and he saw no clothes that would make the people of Myr turn and stare.

There were fewer people around than he might have expected, though. Pausing to remove a non-existent stone from the cleft in his merrilyn's hoof, he overheard two women gossiping about the end of the world and their neighbour's shameful love affair and the coming war, all the while filling their baskets with bread and cakes from a market stall. Two streets on, he tethered his animal outside the alehouse, and heard a cluster of greybeards wishing they were old enough to fight. The enemy army was barely a day's march away, they said, and although it didn't look as if it was going to pass through their town, it would pass through other towns, and no-one was safe.

After that, he wandered on foot. See! he imagined himself telling a watching Sheppard. I can be good. He passed a shop selling cooked meat, and the smell stirred memories inside him, achingly sharp and unexpected. Snatching it was not an option, though, not so close to the end of his journey. If he did, and if he was caught… His steps slowed. A boy came out of the shop, biting into a hot pie. If he was caught this time, after everything Sheppard had said, the others would go on without him for sure, and everything would come to an end.

His fingers itched. He felt saliva flowing in his mouth at the smell of it, like an arrow that came through time, a direct link from a childhood moment to here.

In the end, it was the sound of cheering that distracted him, that made him carry on. A large group of people was gathered in the town square, all listening to a man in green and gold. "Six silver beads," he was saying. "That's what you'll all receive, my lads, when you enlist. Here they are; see them on the drum – six times six; sixty times six. And a shiny new uniform, just like my own, though without the medals – you'll have to earn those. Bayonets and swords, and don't the girls just love such things? A jug of ale a day, and all the food you can eat, and not to mention, of course, the pride of knowing that you are striking a blow against the enemy and helping to defend your mothers and your sisters and your sweethearts from the false-hearted invader."

Kit listened, quite unable to move. Young men joined the crowd behind him, and soon he was jostled forward, as one lad after another made his mark upon the list and took his single bronze bead – "the rest will come later, after you get your uniform" – and said farewell to proud but weeping womenfolk, and stood in line for a messy and inglorious death.

"You look like a stout young man." Kit was slow to realise that the recruiting sergeant was speaking to him. "We could do with a lad like you--"

"No," Kit told him, quite firmly. Then he leant forward and whispered something else, then a few more words, and then he left, pushing through the crowd.

He barely noticed where he was going on the journey back, but somehow he managed to find the others. They were lounging in a coppice, talking about things that he was not meant to understand, but they stopped as he rode up. "Huh," said Rodney, maliciously surprised. "Not arrested this time?"

Kit did not dismount. "Daddy's army," he told to Jasper, "is less than a day away." He snapped his fingers. "Get a move on. Chop chop. You don't want to be caught between two armies at war. Not pleasant at all." But he wished his heart would stop pounding so.

******

Less than a day away, Kit had said, but just at the turn of evening, when night began to win its battle against the day, they saw it. They were riding just below to top of a long ridge, topped with the detritus of woodland flattened by some recent storm. The trees further down the slope still stood, rising up to form a solid wall between the six of them and the plain, but at one point there was a gap, where a line of destruction ran sweeping down the hill. Tree roots towered upwards, still thick with earth, and bare branches reached outwards, as if trying to cling on.

None of the others were looking at the trees.

"It's not a big army," Rodney said.

"Not a big country," said Sheppard.

Beyond the reaching branches, Jasper saw the plain. The army was a field of tiny lights, while a thinner scattering of lights stretched out behind it like a comet's tail, still moving. Most of them were making camp, Jasper realised, but the tail-end of the army was still moving, coming up behind. Other lights danced around them like darting spiritwings. "Foragers," said Kit. "Thieves by another name. Things like that are allowed in war. They get medals, not prison sentences."

No-one said anything for a while, just watching. The darkness seemed to grow deeper with every breath.

Sheppard turned away first. "How far to the… Circle of Daryen?"

Kit cleared his throat. "I don't know for sure, on account of never having been there, but I have a good eye for maps, and I saw one when I robbed old General Bracken. We'll be there by dawn if we ride through the night, or by tomorrow afternoon if we stop."

Sheppard looked at the others one after the other, but not at him. "Ride through the night," he said. Rodney opened his mouth as if to protest, then shut it again. Sheppard's mount took several dancing side-steps along the path, as if it, too, like the rest of them, was desperate to get to the end of the journey.

"Caught between two armies," Teyla said quietly, echoing Kit's earlier words.

"Yes." Sheppard nodded. He looked down at the army again, at that field of lights, like the scattered embers of a used-up fire, and then at Jasper. "It's over, junior," he said.

******

end of chapter ten

On to chapter eleven

******

Update note: I post first thing in the morning, the time varying depending on when I happen to wake up (which is invariably well before my alarm goes - *yawn*). Since the weekend's coming, my next two parts might be a bit later than normal. They may very well not be, since I have an annoying habit of waking up at the crack of dawn even at weekends, but I've slept awfully all week and really hope that I do manage to sleep in a bit. I'm only saying this because I know that some people on the west coast of America are reading new chapters just before bed, so for the next two parts: don't wait up.
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