Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

On the Road to Come What May - part 15 of 16

On the Road to Come What May – chapter thirteen (part 15 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 thirteen
Enemy lines
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"It's made me realise…" Jasper pulled his legs towards his chest, wrapping one hand around his knees. "All of this… It's made me realise that…"

"Can we hear sweeping violins?" Rodney sneered. "Prince Stupid's having a life-changing moment and becoming a real boy at last. Excuse me while I applaud. Because – oh look! – we aren't prisoners any more, and the DHD has a working crystal, all because Jasper's had a realisation."

"Be nice, McKay," Sheppard said, without looking up.

Teyla, at least, had a smile for Jasper, understanding in her eyes. Then that smile faded. "Footsteps." It was Ronon who said it, though, springing into a crouch.

"Footsteps. Uh…" Rodney's eyes flickered from side to side. "So, which plan are we going with? Plan A?"

"Don't think we got that far in our planning," Sheppard said. His eyes, like the others', were on the door, though he seemed too weary to move any other part of himself.

The footsteps stopped outside. Somebody said something, and another person replied, but Jasper couldn't hear what was said. A key rattled, the door opened, and a man came in.

Kit! Something took hold of Jasper's heart and clenched it tightly. Ronon snarled, straining at his chains as if he wanted to tear the thief to pieces. Rodney stiffened. "Just as we thought it couldn't get worse…," he said. "No, it always gets worse."

Kit's face was as impassive as a statue carved from stone. "The Basilis has commanded your presence," he said, not looking at any of them, but at the wall above their heads. "You are to come quietly, or it's the worse for you. A stout troop of shiny soldiers is waiting in the courtyard to escort you."

"I wasn't told," the guard said behind him, shifting his feet. "I don't know… Sir… Who are you?"

"You must be new round here." Kit turned to him with a shining smile. "Name's Kit. The Basilis…" He looked almost sheepish. "The Basilis, I regret to say, is my grandfather - until his term of office runs out, that is, in which case I believe that my father's dearest cousin is the hot tip to replace him. My uncle – he raised me, don't you know? – is your boss. Actually, one of my cousins is probably your boss, but he's their boss – General Ruthven, in fact. I've been away for a few years; you might have heard of me? Do they still tell the story about the statue and the paint? No?" He sighed with disappointment. "Anyway, I'm here, and it's best not to argue with people with connections like mine. Family, you know." He tapped the side of his nose. "So jump to it, man, and get these prisoners unfastened."

"I haven't got the key, sir," the guard faltered. "Cap's got the key."

"Oh dear." Kit's shoulders slumped. He still wasn't looking at any of them, Jasper realised. Then there was a faint rattling, and Kit was dangling a key from his finger. "Fortunately," he said, "your 'cap' – second cousin, I believe, with some removeds in it; I never did understand all that – happened to lend it to me. So jump to it. Chop chop, etcetera etcetera."

You betrayed us, Jasper thought. You betrayed me.

The guard unfastened Rodney first, who rubbed his wrists, muttering a litany of ows. Sheppard shifted in some way that Jasper could not quite describe, as if the distribution of his muscles changed somehow, even though he didn't otherwise move. Teyla stood up. Ronon surged forward as soon as he was free, but Teyla was faster, grabbing him by the arm. "Ronon!" Teyla commanded, but it was Sheppard that Ronon turned towards, breathing fast. Sheppard gave a minute shake of the head.

He betrayed us, Jasper thought. But he, unchained from the start, did nothing. He imagined himself felling Kit with a single blow, crushing him with a truthful insult, but he just sat there and said nothing. His heart was beating very fast.

"Ready to go?" Kit's gaze was slithering around like the snake that he was, looking everywhere but at them. "Follow me, prisoners, to justice and doom and things like that." The guard's mouth was opening and closing as if he didn't know what to say. "It's okay," Kit told him. "I'm always like this. Ask anyone. That's why I left. I mean, you've seen my family. Can you blame me? No, no, don't say it. The general is a mighty hero and the Basilis is glorious, etcetera. Of course they are." He sighed. "Let's go."

******

All the way to the courtyard, Kit wondered what the first word would be. He waited for the reproaches. He waited for the denunciation. He waited for the distrust. Walking stiffly, aware of every step, he more than half expected to feel a sharp blow on the back of his neck, and then to wake up a long time later to find that they were long gone. Perhaps he even hoped for that; he did not know.

Silence was worse. Just get it over with, he thought. He felt as if he was back on that carpet, waiting for his uncle to deign to look at him. And still they said nothing. They followed him obediently enough, though.

It was only when they were outside in the empty yard that Sheppard spoke. "Shiny soldiers?"

Kit shrugged; even now, he could still muster his masks. "Everyone's too busy to check. If it's not the war, it's the end of the world that's supposedly approaching. If you say something with enough authority, people believe you. You can get away with anything if you say that someone else is dealing with it."

Rodney sounded as if he was about to say something, but didn't. Kit still hadn't quite been able to bring himself to look them in the eye. Apparently even he had some shame. You got accustomed to disdain when you lived as a thief, and it had never mattered before, not really.

He led them to the stables. "It's young master Kit," the stable master said, touching his forehead with one finger in a casual salute. "I'd heard you were back. Still got old Stub?"

Kit shook his head. "She died." In fact, he had had to sell her; there was no place for merrilyn in the Drowned Quarter. Her price had been spent on lodgings, lockpicks, and a payment to the local big guys to let Kit gain a toehold in the world of local crime. Better not to say that, though.

"These things happen. Which of my beauties will you be wanting today?"

"I need six," Kit told him. "I told one of the lads earlier. Grandfather's business, very hush-hush."

"So that was you, was it? The boy didn't say." The stable master jabbed his thumb towards the other end of the stables. "They're out back." As they walked through the straw, he said, "So they got you working for them in the end, lad? Can't escape family, I guess."

The merrilyn were already prepared – not the shaggy six they had left on the plain, which were doubtless getting a well-earned rest, but six new ones, gleaming with pure breeding. "We'll be fine now, Dun," Kit said with a smile. When they were alone, he ducked into an empty stall and pulled out a bundle. "Coats," he explained, "with hoods. Shame it's hot, but it looks as if it's going to rain soon, so no-one will think anything of it." He passed them out, concentrating on hands, on feet, on things that did not look back. "Cousin Norris was the unwilling donor of that one. This one's cousin Ben's – the only one big enough for you, friend Ronon." Another bundle came next. "I even lifted your weapons – I think of everything, don't I? Your weapons – there you are – and the Whisperers' globes. They'd just dumped them on one side like dirty laundry to be looked at later."

He had no idea what their expressions were, no idea what they were thinking, no idea of anything at all, just that he wanted to speak and to keep on speaking, because that way there was no room for thinking. Prattle prattle prattle. So that was another bit of Rodney – another way in which he was more like these people than he had ever thought to be.

"Why hoods?" He had never expected Jasper to be the first one to speak. "And there are no soldiers here. You've--"

"Repented my wickedness and decided to let you go, even if I die in the attempt, unloved by all, even those whose life I save at the cost of my own?" He tried to say it lightly, but it was hard. "How like the stories after all. Maybe," he said, mounting – and even now he was careful and sensible and made sure that no-one else was listening in – "the whole thing was a clever plan that I set up with the others to teach you a lesson and make you learn to think about the consequences of your actions."

"So the Basilis doesn't want to see us?" the prince persisted, and Kit couldn't decide if he was being stupid, or if he was actually rather brave.

"Oh, I expect he does," Kit told him. "You'd have been summoned at the correct time. After all, there's no point in having your enemy's only son in your dungeons unless you show him off every now and then. You'd have been dragged out to be paraded in front of papa at a suitably dramatic moment. But did he send me to get you…?" He couldn't keep the bitterness from his voice. "That would be a definite no."

And still nothing from the others; nothing at all. Kit snapped his fingers. "Mount up. Wars don't wait for people like us, you know."

Gods! but he was blind without being able to see their faces. Everything he did was based on reading people, on knowing how they would react. He read silences, he planted seeds, and he goaded and prodded just as much as he needed to do. Gods! He had brazened out so many things in the past – had stood in his uncle's carpet and listened to a catalogue of his faults – but never before had he been unable to look.

That's because you've never done something quite so unforgivable before, Kit, my lad, he thought. His eyes flickered over the top of Ronon's head. He saw how Sheppard was standing stubbornly by his merrilyn, refusing to mount. That's because you've never betrayed anyone whom you actually, deep down – admit it, Kit – well… actually liked.

And then it came at last. "Give me one reason," Sheppard said, "why we should trust you? Give me one reason why I shouldn't give Ronon the nod to do what he so obviously wants to do?"

Kit swallowed; wished his hands weren't trembling. "Hey, it was nothing personal." What's a little betrayal between friends? he almost added, but couldn't bring himself to say that word out loud.

"Nothing personal," Sheppard repeated. Kit still hadn't looked him in the eye, but he could see how pale he was, could hear his shallow breathing, could see how tightly he gripped the edge of the saddle, as if he needed it to keep himself upright. And he had spent half a day in prison because of Kit. He had pushed himself to go on through the night because he had thought he was going home, instead of… Enough of that, he told himself. Guilt was a new feeling, but he couldn't let it make him stupid. "Nothing personal," Sheppard said again. "I don't trust people who've betrayed my team, not as a rule."

Kit moved his animal prancing towards the exit. Have you ever been caught up in something, he wanted to say, that you set in motion, and can't quite work out how to stop? "Look, I made a mistake, okay? Sorry, and all that. We need to get on."

"Where?" Rodney asked. "I mean… I only ask because… Well, we're stranded, and the only way to get home is to go all the way back to Myr and to pick up something that we, uh, forgot to pick up last time, then come back here, and… Well, if you can't give us that, then--"

"I don't trust him," Ronon growled. Kit remembered all those days they had spent scouting together, and whatever it was that had taken refuge in his chest back in his uncle's study grew even heavier, almost too heavy for him to breathe.

"What made you change your mind?" Sheppard asked. "To what do we owe this last-minute change of heart?"

"Last minute?" Rodney said. "Last minute would have been a warning before his friends arrested us. This counts as too late."

Gods! He didn't want to say. He never said. Masks were things he wore to fool others, but whatever lay beneath it was something just for himself alone. "My homecoming wasn't what I'd hoped it would be," he said, "and I realised…" He looked at Sheppard, just briefly, then Ronon, then back at the ground, between his merrilyn's ears. "You broke me out of the lock-up," he said, and perhaps that said it all, and perhaps that said nothing at all, but it was a reason, and perhaps a better reason than many others.

"I believe he was having doubts these last few days." Teyla spoke up for the first time.

"Yeah," Ronon said. "He was grouchy as hell."

They would never really like him again, he realised, if indeed they ever had. They would never entirely trust him. And that was his own fault – his doing. And it didn't matter. He didn't need people – never had. He… Gods! Who was he trying to kid? As a nobleman of Daryen living in Myr, masks were mandatory, but it was lonely behind masks. That was why he had started to dream of home – of his sister, of cousin Jay, of Dun the stablemaster, of all those who had always seemed pleased to see him. In his four years away, the closest he had had to companionship was with Ronon, and he had thrown it all away.

"You don't have to trust me," he said, "but what can I be planning that's worse than being chained up in there? Just give me a chance."

"Where are you taking us?" Jasper asked.

Kit smiled – a weary smile, he felt, with too many years in it. "Why, to stop a war, of course."

******

Nobody stopped them. Any guard who tried to call them to a halt was quickly diverted by Kit's cheerful hailing. "Grandfather's business," he said, and often added the name of whoever he was talking to. "We're off to the field of war."

So now Jasper was on a merrilyn no different from a merrilyn at home, riding through the city that was the heart of everything strange and dangerous in the world. The buildings were different, with steeper roofs and fewer decorations, and there was something subtly different about the clothes, but cooked meat stalls still smelled of cooked meat, even though the spices were different, and when he overheard snatches of conversation, the accent was different from what he was used to, but not as different as Sheppard's way of speaking.

He saw a man dance exuberantly on the base of a statue, declaring his love to a giggling, embarrassed girl. He saw a mother clutch her daughter to her breast as she worried what would become of them if the enemy army tore through the walls and started burning everything in their path. "It won't come to that," an older man said. "General Ruthven's going to boot them all the way to Myr." They'd moved on by then, though, and even when he twisted in the saddle, Jasper couldn't see if the woman let herself be comforted. Other people were beyond comfort, though. He saw people loading possessions onto handcarts, ready to leave for safer places.

The rain started, the drops landing heavily on the still-damp streets. He heard a group of children hoping to see lots of blood and lots of dead enemies, and hoping for a trophy or a broken sword. As they rounded a corner, the smell of smoke struck him suddenly, and he coughed. "Factory," said Kit. "In Myr, you banish them to the seaside, but here we have them right under our feet. When the weather's just right – or maybe that should be 'wrong' – you can hardly breathe for the smoke."

"Thank you, tour guide Kit." Rodney's voice came from deep within his hood.

"Factory owner a cousin of yours?" Sheppard asked.

"Uncle by marriage," Kit said. "Got to get a finger into that pie, too. Steam is the future, after all."

They reached the river, crossing it two by two across a narrow bridge with many towers, just like Cador's Bridge, that had arched stolidly over the Saphira before the flood. Water lapped not far below them, and he saw a solid wall of sand-bags on the far bank. "It's higher than when I left," Kit said quietly.

Another guard tried to stop them at the end of the bridge, and was turned away with another hand-waving encounter. Then the houses became less and less frequent, and they were out on the open plain. Were those the hills they had travelled through the night before? Jasper tried to see the grove of trees that housed the Circle, but could not. He felt as if there was a weight on his shoulders made up of a thousand staring eyes: the city at his back, the army ahead of him, and him, caught between them, so small. Worse than anything else, though, was the knowledge that his father was not far away.

"About this stopping the war thing," Rodney said, still shrouded by his hood. "Uh… why? More to the point: how?"

"We don't have experience of such things," Sheppard said. "We're the ones who make the mess. To fix it afterwards, you need Elizabeth…" He snapped the words off. "Needed," he corrected himself, quietly.

"Why is everyone under the impression that we're in a Star Trek episode?" Rodney's hands twitched on the reins as if he wanted to gesture sharply, but didn't dare let go. "Come to your world, lecture you about truth, justice and the American way with lots of… dramatic… pauses, and you all lay down your weapons and vow never to fight again."

"We did kind of, uh, start it, McKay."

"And how do you come to that conclusion, colonel?"

"Jasper." Sheppard jerked a thumb at him. "The whole kidnapping thing, remember? Not to mention crashing to earth and sending them into a panic about spies. And this end of the world thing? Don't you think it's, uh, kind of… significant that it happened just after we came here, when they don't… seem to know about…?" He gestured a circle.

"Oh," Rodney said. "I hadn't thought… But, no, seriously, that's ridiculous. Don't they understand anything?"

"This will be our world," Teyla said, "if we cannot find--"

"Thank you for the unexpected pessimism. As if it wasn't bad enough already, contemplating how screwed we are."

"You misunderstand me." Kit's voice was unusually cold. "Why should it be your responsibility to stop this war? Not everything's about you, you know. I was talking about me and Jasper-lad here. After all, we do actually live here. And it's his daddy over there, at the head of one army, and my grandfather… my whole family, actually; we do kind of run everything. Why do you think you have any part in this except to watch? I only brought you along for the ride. Come on, Jasper." He snapped his fingers, and Jasper found himself moving forward, going to ride alongside him. You betrayed me, he thought. You betrayed me. But he rode there, even so.

******

Kit had expected at least one of them to object to being pushed so rudely to one side. Sheppard, at least, had a hero complex that caused him to take responsibility for everything, while Rodney seemed to be operating under the belief that he was a genius. None of them said anything, though, not even a slightest squawk of outraged protest.

Ahead, far ahead, he saw the thick stain that was his uncle's army, drawn up in their perfect lines. A quick tug of the reins to the right, and he could avoid it. He could kick his merrilyn into a gallop and disappear back into Myr, or somewhere else where no-one would ever find him. Perhaps the others would even come with him. After all, as things stood, they had nowhere else to do.

"Why do you want to stop the war?" Sheppard sounded no more than politely interested. "To what do we owe this sudden attack of pacifism?"

The road was thick with mud, churned up by thousands of footsteps, grooved by heavy cannon. "Because my uncle is insufferable in war-time," he said. "Far worse than ever. And all the military cousins… Quite unbearable with their decorations and their war wounds and their heroic stories."

They walked on, and the stain grew thicker, forming itself into the distant shape of many people.

"I was too young last time, but there'll be no escaping it this time. They'll dress me in an uniform and make me serve."

A drop of rain penetrated his hood, flowing cold down the side of his neck. His hands held the reins, but still did not tug them.

"Everyone's so grim in war-time. There's no fun to be had. Poor pickings for thieves. People hide their valuables away in the provinces, and if they do catch you, they come down more heavily on you. Say it's unpatriotic, or some nonsense like that."

Jasper rode at his side, saying nothing. Sheppard was not far behind him, and Kit was suddenly sure that the man was looking at him, as he had looked at him once so long ago – why do you? – right at the very start of this fucked-up game, when he had thought his cover blown for sure. They were all looking at him, he realised.

"Because I spent four years in the Drowned Quarter, and those are the poor sods who are going to suffer. It's the idiot boys who join up, seduced by lies about rich pay. It's the poor bastards who don't get given a choice. They're the ones who die, while my cousins strut around in shining metal and velvet and talk about glory."

They were close enough now that they could see the banners, but not close enough to be able to distinguish them. The rain grew heavier.

"Because I know what it's like to go to sleep with wet feet."

Rodney made a sound at that, but he still got nothing else.

"Because we've spent hundreds of years bickering like spoiled brats, and perhaps there are more important things we could be doing with our time rather than trying to tear each other down as soon as we begin to grow tall."

"So you planned it from the start?" Sheppard said. Perhaps there was sarcasm in his voice, but perhaps not. "This was all a plan to end all wars?"

He could say yes. He could say yes, and perhaps even make them believe it. But it was too late, he thought. What was the point? They would still hate him. "No," he said, no more than that.

And still he didn't pull on his reins. Still he didn't turn away, and soon – far too soon - they reached the first outlying parts of his uncle's army, and whatever end this crazy impulse was going to bring him.

******

We have to stop a war, Jasper thought. But one man couldn't stop a war. Two men couldn't stop a war. They did in the stories, though. Tamorlin had ridden through day and night to arrive on the battle-field just in time to stop two armies from tearing each other to pieces. After a life-time of victory, Cador had turned his back, and said, 'No more.'

But that was just story. That wasn't real. A pretty tale, he thought, but no more. No more. No more…

He had never been able to persuade his father to allow him an extra session in the university library, so how could he hope to persuade him not to fight? Sheppard could do it, he thought. Teyla could. Ronon could intimidate anyone. Even Rodney, perhaps, could talk Jasper's father into knots until he submitted. But Jasper… His breathing was fluttering in his throat. He wanted to run away. He wanted to go as far away as possible and…

He stopped, chewing his lip. Kit was cheerily getting them past sentries and picket lines. Soon they were weaving their way through lines upon line of waiting men. Some of the soldiers were younger than he was, he thought. Some looked proud and determined, but a lot of them looked afraid. Soldiers like war. He remembered saying that; remembered Sheppard sternly putting him right. If there was war, some of these men would die. Perhaps it would be that one there, as fair-haired as Jasper, twisting his toe in the dirt, or that one, older and too thin, who wore something around his neck that could have been a lover's token, or perhaps something made by a child.

This was real, he thought. It was one thing to have a revelation in a prison cell, but now he had to put it to the test. He had made this situation worse by running away, and it was his duty to fix it, no matter what the cost.

And the others would be beside him, at least. The others were fearless – no, of course they weren't – and the others were grown-up and strong and could do everything – would try everything – and they had the answers – they did what they could – and…

"Cousin!" Kit called. "What do you know?" he said quietly, chuckling. "Only one person turned round."

It was a stout man with Kit's eyes, but a heavier face. He was frowning as he hurried over officiously on his sleek merrilyn. "Grandfather," Kit said, snapping his fingers. "Urgent business, and so on."

"Meeting the enemy commanders," the cousin told him. "A league or so beyond the front line. They've commandeered a farmhouse."

"So on we go," Kit said, after his cousin had bustled off. "On we go." He sounded nervous, Jasper realised suddenly, beneath his constant façade of being utterly in control. Then he looked up, and saw the anxious looks that were passing between the others – quick movements of their hoods.

Perhaps everyone was afraid underneath it all, Jasper thought. Perhaps even Tamorlin had felt fear even as he had done his heroic deeds. Perhaps even his father had doubts underneath.

It didn't help, though – or perhaps it did, but just a little. Permission granted, they rode through the front line of the army, and into the quiet space between, where two enemy powers were poised to come together like hammer and anvil.

Ahead was everything he had run away from.

Ahead was his father.

******

"A farmhouse," Kit said, because he had to say something. "If they do end up making a treaty, what will they call it? The Charvil Patch Accord? Doesn't have quite the right ring to it, really. I wonder if the farmer got any say in the matter."

"Got a plan?" Sheppard asked him.

Once again, Kit considered lying, then realised that he didn't really know which answer was correct, and which was a lie. "Not really," he said. He glanced round in time to see Ronon drawing his gun. "But not that. Wiping out the high command of both states wasn't really on my to-do list."

"Then perhaps we should, uh, stop and… and talk about things?" Rodney said.

Kit shook his head. The urge to run was still there, and he had to keep going, or he might bottle out. Sometimes, in the closing stages of a job, you just had to stop thinking. If you thought too hard about all the hundred and one things that could go wrong, you ended up standing frozen on the roof-top as the watch closed in on you to drag you away.

"Uh, why are we following him?" he heard Rodney say, and he realised that the others had slowed after all, no longer quite so close behind him. "It's probably just another trap."

It shouldn't hurt, of course; he deserved it. He'd never been the sort of thief to get outraged at being accused of something he didn't do, when he'd done so many other similar jobs. Once a traitor, always a traitor. And it wouldn't matter. Soon it wouldn't matter at all.

He missed Sheppard's answer. When he turned, he saw that they were in a cluster, heads bent inwards, moving slowly. Jasper was looking from him to them, as if torn between them. On the outside, lad, he thought. The two of them had been on the outside for the whole journey. A friendship such as those four had was impossible to break in on; not that he wanted to, of course. Sheppard and his friends had called the shots throughout. Well, all that was about to change.

If all went well, of course. If any one of those hundred and one things that he wasn't thinking about happened…

He faced into the rain, and carried on in silence, his mind chattering in a thousand abortive sentences that he refused to listen to properly. After a while, patches of trees obscured the army behind them. A thin column of smoke emerged from a thicker patch of trees ahead, and beyond it, far ahead, he saw the bristling on the horizon that was the army of Myr, hastening to engage.

"The farmhouse," he said, gesturing at the smoke.

He had expected the guard post, of course. "I'm on my grandfather's business," he said, pushing back his hood to show his now-sodden head. "Let me through."

The guard captain shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but no-one's coming through without being vouched for in person by all parties. The king of Myr insisted upon it. He's scared of sneak reinforcements, see." The guard grimaced, then appeared to remember his duty. "Sorry, sir," he said again, "but I have orders to apprehend anyone who tries to come through."

Kit smiled the most sincere smile in his repertoire. "I am sure that doesn't apply to me."

"Even if I know them to be trusted men on our side," the captain finished.

Shit! Kit swore, keeping his smile. "Then send someone to call 'all parties' out."

The captain nodded at one his men, who marched off, proud and shiny, towards the house that was just visible beyond the trees. The others said nothing, heads down and obscured by their hoods. Perhaps you should just stun them all, Ronon my friend, thought Kit. It might lead to… misunderstandings later, but at least it would solve their more immediate problem.

"Can I ask you to dismount?" the captain asked.

Still the others looked to Sheppard for the nod, and not to him. Sheppard stumbled when his feet touched the ground, supporting himself heavily with a hand on his animal's neck. "Ow," Rodney said, walking gingerly. "Muscles! Muscles!" Ronon--Oh, shit! Ronon's coat caught on the saddle, and was pulled up as he landed. It was only for a moment, but it was long enough to show the weapon at his side.

"Weapons are forbidden!" the captain declared. Ronon went for his weapon, and, quick as a single heartbeat, a dozen guns were out and aiming at them. Sheppard spun around, but was still off-balance, and was easily wrestled to the ground. Rodney, still protesting, joined him. "Misunderstanding!" Sheppard hissed, face pressed into the dirt. "Don't--" Teyla let herself be captured, so perhaps that was what the order meant. Ronon stood with his gun out, fearless in the face of twelve.

"What is this disturbance?" The voice came from behind, as guards closed on Kit and Jasper.

"Grandfather." Kit pasted his smile back on his face. "And uncle. Hello."

"Boy!" someone else bellowed, the voice exploding from a huge yellow beard.

"Father." Jasper whispered it, probably too quiet for anyone else to hear.

"Let them go," the Basilis commanded, "but not too far." Covered by guns, Rodney rose protesting to his feet. Sheppard was slower. "Kit, my boy." The smile was querulous. "You have already brought me these presents. Are you trying to bring me them a second time, or are you trying to steal them away? I don't like it when people steal my presents. It isn't nice."

Kit took a breath to answer. He had expected the questions. He had expected a confusion of shouting and outrage and jabbing hands.

What he had not expected was Rodney suddenly hurling himself at the Basilis. He had not expected to hear the snap of command: "fire!" He had not expected all but one of his companions to throw themselves at Rodney, each one of them trying to drag him away from the bullets, each one willing to be shot themselves for him.

He did not expect the gunshots. He did not expect the screams.

******

end of chapter thirteen

On to final chapter
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