The story starts here on LJ or you can read the entire story to date here in a single file.
A Thief in the Night
It was close. But armies were slow-moving things and this one, at least, appeared to be stopping for the night. If their unhappy little band rode through the night – and Kit had known all along that they would – they would almost certainly get to the Circle of Daryen without any armies blocking their way. Almost. In any other circumstances, he might have chuckled at that - at how everything about this fucked-up game was teetering on a sword-edge, with the potential of going spectacularly balls up at any time.
Like now, of course. Sheppard with his damn stupid hero complex, wanting to save the ickle wickle boy from his own stupidity. "I can't let you go any further," Sheppard was saying. For someone who looked almost too weary to stay in the saddle, his voice was anything but. "I can't take you behind enemy lines. You have to go back."
"Back?" Jasper's voice was faint.
"Down there." Sheppard jabbed his thumb at Jasper's daddy's army.
"I don't want to." Kit had expected Jasper to start throwing around commands, but he just spoke quietly, like a disappointed boy.
"Look," Sheppard said, "I'm not the bad guy here. I'm trying to keep you safe."
"I don't want…" Jasper raised his head, and spoke simply. "I don't want to go down there. I want to go on with you."
"Uh…" Rodney raised one hand, snapping his fingers lightly. "How are we planning on getting him there?"
Kit laughed. "Can't really do the hand delivery thing, can you, on account of the whole being arrested on sight thing. You could point him in the right direction and give him a little shove, but he'll just duck into a bush the moment you aren't looking and either come wandering back to you, or get himself in worse trouble all alone."
"I know!" The fingers snapped more loudly. "We can stun him and tie him up and dump him in the path of one of their foraging parties."
Jasper chewed his lip, looking like a pup kicked by its owner. Gods! Kit raked a hand through his hair. Out of everything he had planned for, of out everything he had feared, he had never expected this: that he would actually feel sorry for a spoiled brat of a prince.
"There would be no guarantee that they would find him," Teyla said, saving Kit from his sudden urge to say the wrong thing. "The enemy might find him instead." She leant towards Sheppard. "I am not happy about--"
"Damn it!" Sheppard scraped his hand across his face. "I am not," he spat, "leading another boy into--" He stopped abruptly, hands slapping back down onto the reins. Teyla looked at him with sudden sharp concern.
"You're not leading me," Jasper said. "I'm going of my own accord."
"Look," Sheppard said, obvious tension vibrating underneath his carefully steady voice, "it's not just because of you. We talked about this before. There's going to be war. You said it wouldn't many any difference if you went back, but there's a chance… Even if there's only one chance in a hundred, it's something you have to take. It doesn't matter what people say, what people expect, you have to try. When it's the right thing to do, you have to try."
Jasper stood his ground. "I want to come with you."
Kit felt that stab of pity, sharper this time. "Just let him," he urged. "You're not responsible for someone else's decisions, not when you've laid your cards on the table and told things like they are. He wants something different in life from what his daddy has planned for him. Let him." Then, when none of the others said anything, Kit kicked his mount closer to Sheppard by half a dozen prancing steps. "It wasn't poetry with me," he quoted.
If he had hoped for a reaction, he received none. Sheppard did not round on him, furious, and neither did he sigh and say, 'Kit, you're right.' No-one ever did.
Instead, the others moved away – a quick conference to which neither Kit nor Jasper were invited. While Jasper twitched miserably, like a murderer awaiting his sentence, Kit concentrated on doing what he was best at: listening to things that he wasn't supposed to be listening to.
"…only for a few hours," he heard. "…won't make much difference."
"…fly him home. Deposit him in the middle of daddy's army… Space ship landing in the middle of a medieval battle."
"Which would stir things up, but aren't we going for…"
"Prime directive?" Rodney flapped his hand dismissively. "Despite your Kirk-like tendencies, we aren't…" Jasper's merrilyn snorted, and Kit missed the next part. "…we do that all the time."
"Which is why we should not…"
"Don't see as we have a choice."
Jasper leant forwards in the saddle. "Can you hear what they're saying?" he whispered.
Kit shrugged. "Nothing useful." Long practice with masks allowed him to produce a quick grin. "Not like your stories, Jasper-lad, where people always overhear the most important part: 'the treasure's in the forked tree trunk,' and stuff like that. I heard 'harvest' when I was in the lock-up in Paramor - spectacularly useless."
The conference broke up, but it wasn't Sheppard who came back to break the news of the sentence to Jasper, but Teyla. Of course. Bad news sounded better when coming from the lips of the beautiful woman who was making the poor boy feel confusing things that he didn't have the wit to understand. The others stayed in their huddle. "…sure you're well enough," Kit heard. "Both of you. I mean, concussion?"
"We have no way of ensuring that you reach the army safely," Teyla said, and there was precious little warmth in her smile, for all that Jasper-lad lapped it up. "Since you refuse to leave--"
Jasper smiled as if he had been given the gift of eternal life, and in that moment, all Kit's sympathy vanished. He shoved past Jasper, shoved past Teyla, shoved past all of them, and took his solitary place at the front, where he could chew the inside of his mouth and glower without anyone asking questions.
The night surrounded him. Merrilyn could tread more surely in the dark than humans could, but to Jasper it looked as if they were wading through a sea of darkness, lit only by an ever-dwindling patch of stars. Things stirred beside the path, and he had to believe that they were only trees, or he would startle at every noise. When the first drop of rain fell, he gasped with the surprise of it. The drops continued to fall, but only sparsely, each drop as heavy as ten. He thought he heard the sound of distant thunder, but perhaps it was only armies on the move, their cannon trundling over the ground.
He had won. He tried to remember that; tried to feel triumph. He had stood up for what was right. For years, he had known that he was born to a life of poetry, and finally he had dared to pursue his dream. He had stood firm when people had tried to tempt him from his path. People had tried to bully him for years, forcing him to do what they wanted him to do, but at length Jasper had stood up and said 'no.'
Yet, even so, he kept on turning, trying to see the lights of the army in the plain behind them. After a while, those lights vanished, hidden behind a shoulder of hillside, but there were other lights – small clusters in twos and threes.
Their party was mostly silent. Kit, at the front, had a small lantern of his own, because the night was too dark without it. He frequently shielded it, though, dropping fabric over it to shroud them in darkness. Jasper, at the back, was a tiny spark of consciousness surrounded by a world of black. The world outside his skin showed itself in sounds and smells, and in rain on hands and the lumbering gait of his mount beneath him, but that was all.
Right, the animal's hooves seemed to be saying. Right. Right.
The rain picked up speed, though the drops were still heavy. Their sound told Jasper that he was walking through broad-leaved trees, whose upturned leaves held water like a cup. Just days before, he thought, he would not have thought it was possible to tell such a thing by just sound alone. Perhaps he should close his eyes for a whole day, he thought, and see what poetry came in to fill the dark places in his mind. Perhaps you saw most clearly when you could not see at all.
"…rest," he heard Rodney say, that word shrill, where the words before it had been too quiet for him to hear.
"We're almost home." The wind brought him that, suddenly loud.
"And I want to get home as much as you do, colonel, but…"
He did not hear the 'but.' The night was dark and hid too many things. But then it brought him memories of other darknesses: Sheppard in that cell, clinging on alone through all the hours of night, and then the soft darkness of Stone Hall, where Jasper had lain awake one night, and had heard Teyla coming back from her vigil at Sheppard's bedside, gently waking up Ronon for his turn, exchanging a few words tight with worry. If you had been through all that, he thought, then home would be like a shining beacon. You would travel through the night for it, even if you were unwell.
"Home." He heard another of them say the word. Home. He echoed it, eyes pricking with unshed tears. His true home was drowned beneath the flood, and the people who had made it so perfect were long gone.
"…rest the merrilyn," Teyla said.
A halt was called. Jasper slid from the saddle, and for a moment felt a stab of irrational fear, sure that there was no ground beneath him. But although it was invisible, the ground was where it should be. Kit held the lantern up for him a moment too late, and Jasper made his way to where the others were already sitting. The lantern swayed in Kit's hand, and the faces of his companions flickered into view, and then out of it; in, and out.
"Are we nearly there?" Rodney asked, invisible.
There was no answer. Food was passed around, but by then the lantern had been extinguished, and Jasper had no idea whose fingers brushed so briefly against his own as they thrust a slice of slightly-stale seed cake into his hand. Someone else nearby had spiced meat; he could smell it.
"Are you…?" Teyla asked, her voice unanchored in the darkness.
"I'm fine." Sheppard was a ship with an anchor, where Teyla was drifting.
"You feel warmer than you should be."
"Like I said, it won't matter for much longer." Sheppard's voice changed. "You okay, buddy?"
Someone was breathing to Jasper's left, shallow and tight. "'m okay," Ronon mumbled, but not from there.
"What about me?" Like Sheppard, Rodney had a definite place in the darkness. It came with pictures: an imagined image of him raising his hand. "I think the cut's infected."
Then they ate in silence. The rain grew heavier, and the noise of the drops landing on the leaves drowned out the sound of eating. Jasper finished, then waited, bringing his knees to his chest. They've gone without me, he thought. They'd crept to their feet and tiptoed away, leaving him alone in the darkness. They'd brought him here to hand him over to his father, and any moment from now, his father would…
"Someone's coming," Kit hissed.
"Uh… Yeah. Yes. Yes." That had to be Ronon, but it didn't sound like him.
They were already silent, and the darkness already hid them utterly. Jasper huddled lower, and listened to the incomprehensible sounds of the others moving. When he heard the sound of trotting hoofbeats, he almost cried out – 'don't go without me!' – but the darkness locked words inside him. He felt as if he any words he spoke would fly away through the darkness and reach his father. Words could only be stopped by things that you could see.
The light came later – another person travelling with shielded lantern. Jasper thought that there might be three of them, travelling in the opposite direction to their own party, in as much haste as the night would allow. They didn't speak. He had no idea where they were going, to travel so silently in the night. He had no idea how far away they had been, either – whether they had passed so close that he could have seen the colour of their eyes in the daylight, or if they had been far away, the sound of their passing brought closer by the night.
When they were gone – and a hundred breaths later; a thousand – Sheppard suggested that they moved on again. "Yeah," Kit said. "When the last stars go, we won't be able to navigate. No choice then but to stop until dawn."
"No time to lose, then," said Rodney. "This cut of mine…" His voice trailed off.
Kit struck his tinderbox and relit the lantern, allowing the others to find their mounts. He was the last one to mount, though, and the last one to leave. Ahead of them, only a handful of stars still shone in a rift between the clouds.
Perhaps the Gods were real. Perhaps the fucking Gods were real and were killing themselves with laughter as they watched Kit trudge inexorably on. The clouds slowly parted like curtains on a fucking stage, and the stars shone clear ahead of them, beckoning like a bloody beacon. And there went another reason to stop. There went another reason not to close those last few leagues that lay between them and the Circle of Daryen.
If the stars had gone out, they would have had to wait until morning. There were things you could do in the dark that you couldn't do in the light. Like sneaking into the most secret site in the world, he thought. And like sneaking into a strange city to start your new life, of course – couldn't forget that.
They moved steadily, their path rising and falling through the gentle hills. Merrilyn could see enough in the darkness to know where to tread, but when the lantern was out, Kit could see nothing at all, except for patches cut out of the sky by the solid shapes of his companions. The jolts felt worse when you couldn't see them coming. Kit had chewed the inside of his cheek into a great raw patch, filling his mouth with the taste of blood.
"Is it…?" Something swept across the stars: Rodney, pointing. "Daryen?"
Kit looked down at the lights below them. "Some pathetic little slumbering town." Some hapless town, in the path of armies. Some little town that he could blot out of existence if he held his hand in front of his face, and could grasp if he curled his fingers, capturing it in his fist. Hundreds of people, sleeping, watching, waiting, guarding their valuables, leaving gaps uncovered for people like him to sneak in. You don't know what's about to hit you. He, up here, was master of fates…
Gods! he thought. This whole fucked-up game was turning him into Jasper, with all his poetry.
"Just a small town," he said again.
Small specks of light showed where the main road ran: stationary ones for guard posts and road blocks, and a few moving ones, some fast, some slow. Messengers. Reinforcements. Agents. Refugees. Thieves in the night, he thought, and perhaps traitors, too, slipping off to win the favour of an enemy king.
"It's just," Rodney said, behind him now, "if we don't get there soon…" He trailed away.
"Yes, yes, we'll be there soon," Kit said harshly.
They rode on. That small town vanished, and another came and went. They had to stop and crowd into a coppice as another traveller passed the same way they were going – another traveller on business that could not be done on the open road. Kit felt the rump of a merrilyn pressing against his leg, and then someone else's foot scraped over his shin. He bit back angry swearing.
The stars slowly circled, and the sword-arm of Cador – that in Daryen was called something entirely different – sank below the horizon as if drowning. There I go with the poetry again, he thought. It was just that the journey was so long, every step so slow. Their group was broken, Kit and Jasper pushed firmly to the outside, so there was no-one to talk to - not that he wanted to talk to them, anyway. He didn't really want to think, either, about what lay ahead of him at the end of this journey. He didn't want to think of the past, though it kept trying to intrude. So there you are, Jasper, he thought. Poetry: the last resort for someone who doesn't want to face up to how fucked-up his life is.
"Ronon?" he heard Sheppard say quietly. "Buddy?"
"Still here. You?"
"I'm good." The voice wavered slightly. "It's this damn cold."
But it wasn't cold, not really, not with the constant effort it took to stay steady in the saddle when your mount plodded over obstacles you couldn't see. Earlier cloud and rain had kept the heat of the day trapped on the ground, and it was almost warm. Kit was sweating, anyway, raking his hand through his hair and finding it in damp tangles at the back of his neck.
Nothing to do, though, but plod on for each inexorable step that took them towards the city of Daryen.
Sometimes they passed close enough to farmsteads to smell the smoke. Once they set a flock of merrow scattering with loud yelps, but no angry voice came out of the darkness to challenge them. Some time later, descending slantwise across a stony slope – he could hear the stones grating beneath his mount's hooves – someone shouted far away below them, and there was an answering scream.
"We should…" Sheppard's voice came from several paces nearer the sound than Kit had known him to be.
The others said things – things about blowing cover, about being so close to home, about walking away, about how it was probably nothing – and soon they were moving again. The scream was not repeated. When they had been speaking, though, those people – Sheppard and his companions – had seemed like the only real people in the world. But already his memory of their words was fading, pushed away into that part of his mind that housed those things that could not be allowed to matter.
After they reached the Circle, he wouldn't have to think of them ever again.
"Is that Daryen?" Jasper's voice felt rusty, as if he hadn't used it for half the night. Perhaps he hadn't. His eyes and his body told him that he was deeply tired, and that they had ridden so far through the river of night as to almost have reached the far bank that was dawn, but he had little clear memory of what he had actually done. A night-time ride should have been a wild adventure, but this had just felt a little like drowning.
"The city itself, in the flesh." Kit's voice had a similar hoarseness. "Capital of the glorious city-state of the same name. Den of vice and iniquity, and just missing one thief."
It was huge, perhaps even larger than the city of Myr had been before the flood. Lights glimmered before them as if someone had spread them out on a blanket. Then Jasper realised that some of the lights were reflections. Daryen, like Myr, clung to the banks of a broad river. It was still huge enough, though. Like radiating ribbons, lights showed the outlying quarters, and the houses that clung to the edges of the main roads outside the gates. Each gate would be guarded.
"Are we…?" Jasper swallowed. He thought of guards with their casual cruelty and their mocking salutes, and of the teeming noise of the common quarter. He thought of all the tales he had ever heard of the cruelty of the people of Daryen. People were different here. "Are we going in?"
"It's worse than you think." Jasper could tell where Kit was turning to look, just by the changing sound of his voice. Like a repeated verse from an earlier song, he saw the distant camp-fires, just visible above the trees that grew thickly lower down the slope. "The army of Daryen," Kit said, "gathering outside the walls to march against the foe tomorrow."
"Are we…?" He said it again, then snapped his mouth closed. Of course they were going in. Sheppard had explained the dangers, and Jasper had chosen to come. A poet had to experience life from the other side. A poet had to see true evil and depravity, so he could recognise how precious beauty was when he saw it. A poet had to… A boy. A man… A prince… He couldn't run as soon as it became real. What did it matter than his heart was pounding, that his hands were damp and slippery on the reins, that a fist was clenching at his heart, hurting? This was his test. This was his test.
"Fortunately," Kit said, "that isn't your problem. The Circle of Daryen's outside the city, you see, nice and conveniently placed for you on this side of the river. You won't even have to swim – or perhaps friend Ronon would have preferred a nice bloody battle across one of the ancient bridges. You won't even have to tangle with the army. How lucky for you."
"Lucky," Rodney echoed. "We could do with some luck after the month we've had. No, call it more like four years. "
"Yeah." Kit gave a grunt of laughter. "Lucky. I rejoice for you."
Lucky, Kit thought, as they reached the level ground. Of course.
The journey had taken longer than he had expected, and the sky was just beginning to lighten on the far horizon. They would still get there in time, though – barring unfortunate accidents, of course. There were many things you could do in the darkness that you couldn't do in the light. Like evading patrols. Like sneaking past guards. Like approaching a place nobody was allowed to approach…
Like hiding your expression so your companions couldn't see it.
"It's too dark," Rodney grumbled, perhaps as his merrilyn stumbled over something unseen in the long grass. "Haven't you people heard of a moon?"
"It's not the sort of thing people can invent, Rodney."
"I know that, colonel. It's just… Secret place. Middle of nowhere. Dark. You do the math."
"It's those lights over there." Kit pointed to one small scattering of lights – one of the many lights that floated unanchored in the dark. "I imagine so, anyway," he added hastily. "It matches what my informant said."
"Oh." Even that didn't seem to please Rodney. "I thought you said it was secret."
"Everyone knows where it is," Kit explained, and his own voice felt equally disconnected in the darkness, not really coming from him. "They just stay away. Death penalty, etcetera etcetera. And it's the--" fear of the Gods "--superstition issue. Get struck down if you wander too close, etcetera. If it's bad in a regular ruin, it's ten times worse here. No-one wants to…" Stupid, of course. Stupid. "They wouldn't dare. And we…" He managed a grin for Jasper, who wouldn't see it. "Walking straight towards it, eh, Jasper-lad?"
And, in the space of talking about it, they had already drawn closer, sufficiently so that the arrangement of lights had changed. "Best not talk," he said, "due to the whole death penalty if they catch us thing."
When they were silent, he could almost believe that they weren't there – that they had thought better of this crazy little adventure and had run away somewhere, to get home in a way that didn't involve Kit. Then, when one of the merrilyn made a slight noise, or one of the riders muttered something, he knew that they were still with him.
Go back, he wanted to cry to them, and he bit his cheek again, blood upon blood, to keep those words in. Go back.
But they didn't, of course. And then it was time to dismount – "you can't do proper sneaking unless you're on foot" – and take only what they could carry on their own bodies. The merrilyn they tethered to a tree – "can't be too careful," Sheppard said. "We might need them again," and Rodney squawked at that, saying he had no intention of coming back, and that it was a bit late for Sheppard to have a personality change and add the word 'careful' to his repertoire. All of it quiet, though, and there were a few more whispers that Kit couldn't hear, even though there was nothing around them but the darkness of the plain.
The sounds told him very little. He was fairly sure that Sheppard was getting sick again, doing too much when he was barely reprieved from death's door. Ronon seemed to be struggling with the after-effects of his head injury, though being Ronon, and with the example of Sheppard to live up to, he said nothing about it. He was the one who was walking at Kit's side, Kit realised; they had scouted together long enough for him to recognise that surprisingly quiet tread.
All the while, they were drawing closer to the place where it would all end. Offerings crumbled under their feet – withered flowers, and things even softer. The wide patrol they were able to evade, even Rodney keeping quiet long enough to pass by unnoticed. That was the advantage to belief, of course. When you had gods to police your exclusion zone, you didn't bother over-much with crack troops. Then the lights were close enough for them to see the cross-work of metal on the brazier, and the trees of Circle Grove were close enough to block out the stars.
For a moment, Kit crouched there, unable to move. He closed his eyes, and tasted blood. Then, "Take it away, friend Ronon," he breathed, and it began.
The Circle of Daryen. Jasper's heart was racing. The Circle of Daryen. Everyone had heard of it – the most sacred and feared of all the relics of the Gods of Stone. Not that anyone in Myr believed in such a thing, of course. They were stupid in Daryen. They believed in antiquated gods, and they turned away scholars and historians who wanted to study the ruins. They adhered to ridiculous superstitions that all right-thinking people had put aside over fifty years ago. They--
Red light flared, and Jasper gasped. "One down," Kit said quietly. Ronon and Kit appeared briefly in the circle of light from the brazier – the first time Jasper had properly seen one of his companions since night had fallen – and dragged the fallen guard away into the dark. When they moved forward, though, they avoided the light.
He had to move by feel, groping around him for tree trunks and branches. His steps were almost silent, though, with only the faintest rustling to show when he walked through fallen leaves. These must be maiden-trees, then, that kept the floor of their woodlands clear of thorn and other undergrowth.
"Are we…?" Rodney breathed. "…secret rituals?"
Kit didn't answer, if indeed he knew. Then they had to clamber over a wall, made of large blocks of stone without any mortar. Jasper's hands explored it all, finding it no taller than his chest. Somebody offered him a hand to help him over, but he had no idea who it was. The hand was warmer than the night, and smaller than Ronon's would have been, but larger than Teyla's, but that was all he could tell.
Another light ahead led them to a pair of guards, each one felled by Ronon. Do they have Whisperers here? Jasper wanted to ask, worrying about messages sent out without a word. No, of course they didn't; Whisperers were one of the many reasons why the two states hated each other.
The Circle itself was in a clearing, lit only by a single torch. Is that it? Jasper thought. We're here? He felt rooted to the spot – the Gods! What about the Gods? He was seeing something that no-one from Myr had ever seen before. If any moment in his life had ever needed poetry, then this was it. Why, then, was his mind empty? All he could think was We're here, and I don't want to go any closer, and Please, don't.
Rodney had no such qualms. A dark shape against that torch, he ran forward, but not towards the Circle. The others moved forward as if drawn, shedding Jasper like a cloak. Only Kit remained behind, and Jasper could see very little, but could tell that Kit was looking at him. He understands, Jasper thought. He was a common thief, but he knew what it was like to travel with people who didn't really want you there. He was from Myr, so he, too, would be feeling this same conflicted fear – the knowledge that the gods were not real, but that there were some things that you just couldn't feel comfortable doing, even so.
"No guards." Ronon was hidden in the darkness again, but Jasper had seen how he had his weapon out, scouring the edge of the clearing with his keen eyes.
"What? You're kidding me! Oh no. Oh no no no no. Please don't do this to me." Rodney's voice was shrill.
"What's up?" Sheppard rapidly took shape from the darkness, passed through the pool of night, and faded again.
"No DHD." Rodney's voice hitched, as if he was doing something while speaking. "That is, no control crystal. It's gone. It isn't there. It--"
"Can you fix it?"
"Of course I can't fix it, colonel. I can repair things, but I can't conjure them up from nowhere. Without a crystal, we're screwed. End of the road. No way home."
Jasper heard Kit breathing beside him in the darkness, tight and fast and quivering.
He was slow to notice the sound of approaching hooves. "Sheppard!" Ronon barked, and that was his first warning. His second was Kit letting out a sharp breath. He saw Ronon sweep his gun around, covering the trees, and caught a glimpse of Sheppard doing the same. Even when they were outside the pool of light, he could see them now, or the faint shapes of them.
Ronon fired his gun, the red light striking something beyond the trees. He fired it again, and Jasper's head went from side to side, desperately searching for safety, then came to rest quite unexpectedly on Rodney, who was hunched over one of the Gods' relics as if he had lost everything that had ever mattered to him in his entire life.
"Lay down your weapons," a voice said from the darkness, "or we will shoot the woman. You are severely outnumbered."
Jasper shrank backwards, a tree trunk hard against his back.
"I say again…" The voice left the threat unfinished.
"John," Teyla said, "don't…"
"You want to see her die?"
Jasper did not see Sheppard give the order, but he saw the troop of riders emerge from the trees. He heard the sound of a tinderbox striking a spark, and soon there were more torches, showing him the scene of their defeat. The bark scraped at his back. But three men had already dismounted and were coming towards him, and although he tried to run, and although he tried to fight, he was grabbed, and his hands lashed tightly behind his back.
Only Kit remained unbound, strolling slowly up to the leading rider. "Hello, Vayne," he said.
end of chapter eleven
On to chapter twelve