Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

The Price of a Pardon - part the fourth

The Price of a Pardon – chapters 7 and 8

Previous chapters start here



Chapter seven
In which Discretion and Valour go to war with each other
___

Rodney was shoved face down in the straw. The hand scraped over his face, moving to the back of his neck, holding him down. When he tried to scream, he inhaled straw and dust, and it was foul and stinking, and he choked, he couldn't breathe.

He flailed, he struggled, but all he could grasp was handfuls of straw, and they were empty handfuls, nothing concrete to hold on to. He sank deeper, and felt enormous pain explode in his side. The hand twisted, and he struggled onto his side, gasped a mouthful of stale air, choked, spluttered, then screamed when his attacker kicked him again.

The man was a monster – a flash of dark hair, a shadowed chin, deep-set eyes, teeth and an open mouth. "Don't," Rodney gasped. "Don't." He scrabbled desperately; managed to drag himself backwards by inches. The foot found him again, and he didn't recognise the pained yelp as coming from himself, not at first. "Don't," he pleased. "Don't."

The monster stood over him, striding out of nightmare. "The London gentleman's been talking about things that he shouldn't," he sneered.

"You mean me?" Rodney squawked. He saw a rope over a beam, a slanting ray of light, a high window, a sparrow flying through the rafters. "There's the thing, you see. I'm not from London. I'm from Bristol – near Bristol, anyway. Solid merchant stock, too, and not really a gentleman – at least, not in the eyes of the squires and gentry, even if they are puffed-up fools."

The monster crouched down over Rodney, and grasped a handful of his cravat. "Go home," he spat. "We don't take well to meddling strangers round here."

"I'm not meddling," tried to assure him. "Honestly, I'm not. I… I… I…" He swallowed hard; tried to get his voice under control. "Nice Free Traders. Good Free Traders. Please don't kill me."

The man hauled him upwards by his cravat, and Rodney clawed with reaching fingers, but found only straw. "Why not?" the monster sneered, his breath foul.

"Sheppard!" Rodney screamed, but his attacker's hand turned it into little more than a gasp. "Sheppard! Ronon! Help me!"

The monster's eyes glittered. Rodney brought his arm up, clenching his fist, and struck the man in the side of his face. He struck again, then curled his fingers, striking, clawing. He writhed desperately, struck out with his feet, clawed, clawed, and had no idea how he did it, but then he was crawling away, body afire with pain, jacket still gripped in his attacker's fist. He kicked behind him, kicked wildly; slipped, fell forward. His chin struck the stable floor, and it hurt, oh God, it hurt.

Footsteps sounded outside. A woman's voice sang a snatch of song, about green fields and meadows all covered in corn.

Rodney gave one more kick, and dragged himself to his feet. He lurched out into the stable-yard, where he stood panting and in pain, choking on the remnants of the straw.

******

Ronon sank almost to the bottom, but he kicked desperately, knowing that there would be ropes and nets on the bottom, and that a man could drown in six feet of water if his legs were caught. He rose upwards, knife ready in his hand, and broke the surface, gasping. But something struck him on the head, driving him under again. He had snatched air, but not enough. He saw a long dark shape above him, broken into fragments by the waves. An oar, he thought. They were trying to drown him with an oar.

He came up again, twisting at the last minute to surface a few feet away from where his attackers had expected. The oar glanced off his shoulder. "Help!" someone was shouting. "He's drowning!" Another voice screamed, "Catch hold of the oar!" He flailed, treading water, but it was hard to dodge when your legs were slowed by water. He saw a face, malicious with false concern. The oar scraped along his arm, and his knife notched it, but then it smashed into his head, and everything wavered.

He sank; he knew that much. He saw darkness, and distant grey light. He heard people shouting, muffled and distorted. He lost his grip on his knife, but he lunged for it, the blade scraping across the palm of his hand. He felt that line of pain, at once sharp and distant.

Something brushed against his foot. His lungs were bursting. A dark shape passed above him, and something jabbed down sharply in front of him. "He's drowning." It was very faint, very far away. His lungs were bursting. His lungs were…

He pushed off desperately, but something was wrapped around his ankle. He kicked, kicked again; felt it tearing free; rose through jagged patches of darkness and light…

He surfaced next to a punt; closed his hand around it; sucked in a great gasp of air, and then another. Someone shouted, and he bellowed himself, slashing with his knife at the reaching, threatening hand. He pushed himself under; felt the punt pole catch him on the back.

He had to keep low. Even away from the quay, the deepest keels were only a few feet from the bottom. He wove under their sharp lines, rested his hands on anchor cables and ropes. When his lungs were nearly empty again, he pushed himself up on the far side of a lugger, shielded by its bulk from the shore. He tossed his hair away from his head; tasted blood on his lips. A gull wheeled above him, and there was shouting from the shore.

******

It was quite outrageous, Rodney thought, as he struggled up the stairs. It was quite outrageous for a respectable man to be assaulted in an English inn. It was quite outrageous to be kicked in the straw like a common… like a common…

His breath caught on something that could almost have been called a whimper. Oh God, he hurt, and he… and he…

Quite outrageous, he thought. They'd made him go without breakfast, too, after everything he had risked in order to get it. Something should be done about it. People shouldn't be able to get away with assaulting distinguished scholars. They shouldn't…

Some straw-dust caught in his throat. He coughed and coughed again, clutching at the balustrade for balance.

He had acquitted himself with dignity, he told himself. He hadn't pleaded, at least not much. He'd wrested himself free from the villain's grip and sent him sprawling in the straw. He had…

Oh! What if they were following him? He didn't think they'd followed him as he'd torn out of the stable-yard and crossed the road, but perhaps they had cohorts and minions and henchmen and partners in crime. His hand slipped on the balustrade, and his almost fell, his feet tripping over themselves.

Were those footsteps behind him?

******

Ronon's whole body screamed with exertion. His throat felt raw and his chest was aching. He had scraped his hands bloody on barely-seen obstructions below the water, but when he emerged for the last time, he still gripped his knife.

Two men were on duty just inside the entrance to the tunnel. Ronon rose from the water dripping, and walked confidently towards them. "Who are you?" the first man demanded, sloshing brandy from his horn cup. The second one was more dangerous, with a sharp face, and eyes fiercely sober. "Whose crew you in?" he demanded.

Ronon felled him without a word. It was only afterwards that he answered, so deep in the tunnel that no light was visible. "Sheppard's," he said. Always that.

******

"Are you awake?" Teyla asked gently, little more than a breath.

John pushed himself up on his piled pillows. "I'm kind of wishing I wasn't."

She poured him a tumbler of water from the jug. "Does it hurt very badly?"

His shrug was fragile; his skin little darker than the sheets. "I'll live." He blinked, and it was just foolish fancy, but it seemed to her that even his eyelids had a translucent look to them. "How are you?"

Water splashed over the top of the tumbler, landing in droplets on her gown. "I am fine." She said it pointedly.

He pushed himself higher. When she passed him the water, she saw – how could she not? – how it dipped almost down to the bed, as if he lacked the strength even to hold it. She saw, too, his defiant look as he dared her to say anything.

"I'll live," he said again, sipping at the water, then raising the tumbler again and draining it to half gone. "My head hurts, but that's hard liquor for you. It's never a good idea, over-indulgence. Mind you, it saved my life."

Teyla smoothed her dress, forcing out the creases from a night of desperate worry. While she had endured the polite foolishness of the society of gentlewomen, John had been in agony from poison, and Ronon had been risking his life in a dangerous enterprise. She was trapped in these clothes, forced into a role of attentiveness and worry. This gown made her nothing. This situation made her nothing.

She took a deep breath. "I wish--"

Someone knocked at the door – quick, sharp, urgent taps. Teyla stood up, but John held up his hand, commanding her to stop. Throwing aside the bedclothes, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, clothed only in shirt and breeches. The knocking continued. Teyla moved silently towards the door, raised her hand to the door handle, but did not yet open it. John reached for his sword belt and pulled it on, then twisted his hair back into a knot at the base of his neck. His hand came up again, urging her to step back. "Who's there?" he called.

"McKay," came the reply. "Please let me in. Please."

John was at the door in a few swift steps. McKay well-nigh tumbled through the moment it was open. "Thank God," he said. "Thank God." He looked round as if he could not quite believe that nobody had burst in behind him. "I thought…" Then he drew himself up with a visible effort. "I was assaulted," he announced. "A ruffian assaulted me in the stable, but I bested him. I landed a blow right here." He mimed a blow to an imaginary jaw. "I kicked him there. I wasn't…" His voice wavered, and he tottered towards the chair, and fell rather than lowered himself into it. "I got away," he said.

Out of the corner of her eye, Teyla watched John return to the bed; saw him wrap his arm around the post as if that was the only thing keeping him standing. "Are you hurt?" she asked McKay.

McKay nodded. "He kicked me." He sounded hurt and aggrieved, as if he could not quite believe that such a thing had happened. "Several times." His eyes flickered towards John. "But I'll…" He winced as Teyla tried to touch him. "It hurts."

"Let me--" Teyla began, but McKay's head snapped up. John reacted too, pushing himself away from the bed, placing his hand slowly on the hilt of his sword. Teyla was the last to hear the footsteps outside.

Wait. John held up one finger. McKay's hand was pressed to his mouth, the colour draining from his face around it, and his chest was heaving. There was only one knock this time, and a low voice calling her name. She rose, but John was before her. "It's safe," Ronon's voice said, quiet on the far side of the door.

John unlocked the door, leaning on the handle slightly more heavily than he ought to have done. "You should be in bed," Ronon told him gruffly.

"Really?" She saw John raise an eyebrow. "You should be dry."

Ronon was sodden and filthy, and there was fresh blood on his brow, just below the hairline. "They tried to drown me," he said. "I used the tunnel to get back." He nodded at John. "Just as well you made me check that out."

Teyla stood torn between them, not knowing which one needed her attention first. Ronon looked exhausted, but far too tense to sit down. His hand closed on the back of the hard wooden chair, then snatched itself away again.

John sat down slowly on the edge of the bed. "What happened?" he asked. And it was perhaps at that point, even then, that Teyla knew what was going to be the end of it.

******

Rodney told Teyla that he was quite all right, thank you very much, and that he didn't need looking after. She disobeyed him, though, and brought him water and a sip of brandy and a twist of some powder that she said would take away the worst of the pain. His knuckles were hurting worst, he told her, "because I hit him quite hard." She smiled, and told him that his ribs were not even cracked, let alone broken.

It was after that that Discretion started tapping an insistent finger on his shoulder.

"You should leave," Discretion told him, just as Sheppard said those self-same words. "You should leave," Sheppard said. "All three of you."

Ronon and Teyla protested, of course. Rodney rose and walked ever so slowly towards the window, though Discretion reminded him of the dangers of going too close. A pistol ball travelling at its expected velocity was not stopped by glass, after all.

"That's two of you set upon in one day," Sheppard said. "I can't…" He stopped for a moment, shifting audibly on the bed. "I was told to do this alone." His voice was tight. "I refuse to let anyone else die for it."

Discretion told Rodney that the man had a very good point. But he found himself opening his mouth, even so. "I don't think I was attacked because of you," he said. "The man…" He cleared his throat. "The rogue spoke as if he was a smuggler who had taken offence at something I'd said. Perhaps I forgot to call them Free Traders once, and did so in an audible fashion. Such a thing is possible."

Discretion folded its arms and shook its head despairingly at him. Ronon liked what he had to say, though. "They were a dockside gang throwing their weight around. People like that, they have to go after strong-looking newcomers. They have to show them who's boss."

"Which is precisely the sort of impression Wheeler would want to create," Sheppard said patiently, "if he was behind it."

Discretion decided that Sheppard was firmly on its side, and a thoroughly sensible sort of chap. Rodney took hold of the curtain ties, and reminded himself that Sheppard's idea of sensible involved making polite conversation when he knew he was dying of poison.

"I'm not leaving until you leave," Ronon vowed, folding his arms.

"Damn it, Ronon!" Sheppard half started up, then sat stiffly back down again. "I don't want--"

"We're not on the Atlantis now," Ronon said. "You can't command me."

"Is it mutiny now?" Sheppard's voice was like ice.

"No." Ronon's voice sounded pained, rasping in his throat. "You know it isn't."

"Loyalty, John," Teyla said, her skirts rustling. "Friendship."

Discretion told Rodney to stop listening. Discretion pointed out that he could very easily have died down in the stable, and that the only sensible thing to do was saddle a horse and get out of town as fast as possible. Life as a merchant's son was tedious, but at least it didn't get you murdered in a pile of stinking straw. When Rodney chewed his lip and pulled the curtain tie harshly through his fingers, it reminded him that he didn't even have a useful part to play. He was the liability – a pair of ankles to kicked under the table whenever he opened his mouth. They excluded him from their plans. They lied to him.

"It is reasonable to assume that there will be more attacks," Sheppard said.

"And we will be ready for them," said Teyla.

Discretion told him that this was quite ridiculous. If the flames were burning you, you ran away as fast as you could. You locked yourself in your study and wrote about the heavens. You tried to forget the fact that the rich idiots laughed at you and tried to trip you up in the street. You certainly didn't come back for more.

"Please," Teyla said quietly, and Ronon stood there with his arms folded, not pleading, just stating that he wasn't moving. Rodney looked away from them, towards the window, his vision blurring, or perhaps that was just the badly-crafted glass. Discretion crept away, leaving behind something small, something quiet, that wondered if anyone would ever feel such loyalty towards him.

******

Teyla had never seen so aware of time ticking on. The church bell struck one, then two. She bought a new bonnet, then twisted the ribbons around her finger until the end of it turned white.

She had not told John what she intended to do. Perhaps it was foolishness. Perhaps she feared that now she was in a gown, they would try to prevent her from taking risks. Perhaps she had something to prove to herself…

Or perhaps it was just the right thing to do. Other approaches had failed, and now it was her turn.

When the hands stood half way between two and three, she saw her quarry pass in a carriage. The minute the carriage had passed, she hurried along the lane that ran behind the inn, heading towards the edge of town. Several people stared as she passed them, but she had a small knife in her dangling pocket, and a larger one strapped to her thigh. Sometimes the most deadly weapon was the one that was concealed, and nobody would expect a well-dressed lady to know how to fight.

When she reached the front door of Wheeler's elegant house, she took a moment to compose her mask, then knocked. A well-dressed servant opened the door. "Miss Beckett." His disapproval was evident beneath his polite façade.

"I apologise for arriving unannounced," she said, "but I am travelling without a maid, and my cousin is nowhere to be found. I believe I may have lost a necklace here last night. I fear that the clasp broke, either during dinner or after it."

"I do not believe the maids discovered anything, Miss Beckett," the servant said, "but do come in. I will announce you to Miss Althea."

And so, invited, she crossed the threshold. The house looked different in full daylight, though still darker and more cluttered than she instinctively felt that houses ought to look. Dark pictures hung on every wall, and the sky was grey through small-paned windows.

"Miss Beckett!" Althea came running, trailing hair ribbons. "Mama and Papa are out. Come, let us talk awhile while Jeffers questions the maids about your necklace."

Teyla followed her into the parlour. "I believe I shocked your father's man rather badly," she confided. "Are unmarried ladies not allowed to wander the streets alone in England? I have much to get used to, it seems."

Althea sat down, her hands clasped tremulously in her lap. "Is it very different in the Indies?"

"Very different." Teyla glanced over her shoulder, playing the part of a guilty conspirator. "I… No, I should not say."

"Is it pirates?" Althea clapped her hands together. "Please tell me, Miss Beckett. Mama will never find out."

"Very well." Teyla smoothed a crease in her sleeve. "It is hard to live long in the Indies without encountering them. I remember seeing one fine pirate captain, stealing along the shore one Sunday afternoon, as I returned from church. He was very handsome, with a shining sword and a velvet coat. I almost wished I could run away to sea and serve on his ship."

"Oh, Miss Beckett!" Althea pressed a quivering hand to her mouth. Then she seemed to collect herself. "Of course," she said, "I know they are rogues and murderers really. It doesn't seem…" She tugged at her muslin, pulling it closer around her breast. "Someone broke into the house last night."

"Oh, Althea, that is terrible!" Teyla pressed her hand to her chest.

"It was while we were eating," Althea said. "Is it not horrible to know that some rogue was creeping around inside these walls, even as we sat here and thought no evil? I found it quite impossible to sleep last night. Jeffers has boarded up the window, and father has put a man outside, in case the rogue returns, but, still…" She shuddered. "It is quite horrible to contemplate."

Teyla took a moment to compose her voice. "Did they steal anything?" she asked.

"They broke into papa's study," Althea said. "Papa believes they were in the pay of one of his rivals, trying to steal information about his business. But here's the good part." Althea's eyes were shining. "Papa's too clever to be robbed that way. He keeps all his documents in full view, not even locked in any cabinet. The thief walked right past them."

Teyla's heart was beating very fast. Could it be possible, she thought, that Althea could not see it? "How can he do that?" she asked.

"Because they're written in an unbreakable cipher," Althea said. "No-one in all the world could read them, even if they did manage to steal them. Safer than any lock, papa says."

"Cipher?" Teyla frowned. Her hand was clenched, fingers grasping her skirt.

Althea stood up. "I'll show you," she said. "I know where papa keeps his spare key." She headed towards the door. "Tell me more about that pirate captain. Did you ever find out what his name was?"

******

His bruises were stiffening, and it was becoming harder and harder to walk. Rodney had waited in terror, barely able to breathe, when Sheppard had ventured out to bring them some food. Exhausted and bloodied, Ronon was asleep in a chair, and Teyla had returned to her room to rest. There was just the two of them left, and Sheppard was cold and sharp and brittle, but fragile under it. Rodney had no idea what to say, and so he talked about pork and apple sauce and crackling, until Sheppard laughed, which made Rodney stop mid-word, feeling unexpectedly pierced to the heart.

"What are you going to do?" he said, when that laugh had long-since faded into silence.

Sheppard put down his knife. "I have to end this somehow."

"But you said…" He looked at the grey sky beyond the window. "You said this wouldn't end, even if you…" He flapped his hand in a circle. "You know."

Sheppard closed his eyes just for a moment. His smile was sudden, and might have convinced Rodney just a few months before. "But it might," he said. "If I find this proof that they want, they might pat me on the back and send me on my way, all past sins pardoned."

And then Sheppard would be back on the Atlantis, to sail the world with Ronon and Teyla at his side. It had been so easy for Rodney decide beneath a sunny sky that this was the life that he wanted, too.

"I have to bring it to an end," Sheppard said, tightening his fist. "Even if it doesn't end it properly, I can't let…" He looked Rodney full in the face. "The others are stubborn, disobedient, mutinous rogues, but you aren't, are you? You should leave."

"You don't…" His throat was dry. He swallowed hard. "You don't…"

"There'll be no hard feelings." Sheppard smiled, opening his hand. "If I ever get the Atlantis back, I'll send word to you. You won't be closing any doors. Not unless you want to." There was a tiny pause before the last sentence.

Discretion cleared its throat, reminding him that it was still there. This was the perfect opportunity, it pointed out. He could save his own skin without it making any difference to his future. Of course, Discretion added slyly, he was a fool if he still wanted to do that thing with the ship and the pirates and the sailing around the world forever more. This was just a taster of what that life would be. It would be short, it would be uncomfortable, and he would be useless, pushed onto the sidelines, forgotten.

He told Discretion to go away. He remembered dolphins and a bookshelf; song, music and smiles. He remembered all that, but they felt far, far away, and further with every minute.

******

It was an old trick, a ridiculous trick, but Althea was no cunning enemy who was wise to such things. Teyla gasped, pointing at the window. "What was that?" she cried.

Althea ran towards the window. It was only moments before she turned back again, but moments were all that Teyla needed. She snatched a handful of papers, returned the top one to its place, and held them behind her skirt. "I though I saw someone," she explained. "I thought it might be the thief returning."

"Oh, I do hope not." Althea chewed her lip, looking stricken and scared – a young girl afraid for her life, and no longer a girl lost in the glamour of pirates. Teyla had done that to her – Teyla and Ronon and John together.

"I think it was just my eyes playing tricks on me." Teyla smiled reassuringly. "I apologise for scaring you. I have quite a headache today." She fluttered her spare hand to her brow. "In fact, I believe I will return to the inn and retire for a while. If you will so kind as to send news if you find my necklace…?"

She let Althea go to the door first. As she followed, she tucked the papers into her bodice, and covered them with her folds of muslin.

******

"I have to finish this." Sheppard pushed himself to his feet, and snatched up his coat. His movements were less fluid than normal, and although the man was in many ways an enigma, Rodney knew enough to know that he was still in pain.

He stayed in his own chair, though. "Where are you going?"

"I would have succeeded," Sheppard said, which was not entirely a sequitur, "if you hadn't come along that night. I had him, the courier. There'll be more. He has them most days." His voice was fractured, broken up by his efforts to dress. "I can't ask Ronon to break in again. We have to get it at source. We have to interrupt the supply."

Rodney twisted his cuff miserably in his other hand. "What do you mean?"

He knew, of course. Sheppard was planning to play highwayman. Sheppard was taking one more step on the path that led to the gallows. Unless he got bloodily murdered first, of course. That was entirely possible, too.

Rodney remembered confronting Sheppard on the deck, when everybody else had left him well alone. He'd talked about hair, then, or something stupid like that. "But it's daylight," he said. He couldn't find a way to bring hair into it.

"It'll get dark in time."

"But you…" He tugged the lace so hard that his fingers hurt. "Don't," he said. "Please."

"I have to, Rodney." Sheppard stopped with one hand on the door. "I have to bring this to an end before anyone dies."

"But what happens if you die?" Rodney managed, but only too late, only after Sheppard had gone.

******

end of chapter seven

******

The stable yard of the Angel Inn, Lymington, November 2008

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Lymington river, upstream from the town and looking towards the New Forest, November 2008

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******

Chapter eight
Which is entirely taken up with code-breaking.
___

After Sheppard left, Rodney locked the door with trembling fingers. Ronon stirred, snoring, and Rodney gasped, his hand flying up to his chest. He would-- Oh! A cherry, abandoned on the floor! He reached under the dresser to pull it out, wiping it clean with spit and his shirt sleeve. It was too squelchy, and it dripped onto his cravat. "Tinker," he said, depositing the stone on the top of the dresser. How many cherry stones did you have to have before you ended up with 'pirate'?

He sat down. Perhaps he dozed, because the room became thick with shadows, and bodies hung from gibbets and ravens made horrible sounds. He started up when somebody knocked at the door. "What…?" he croaked, leaping to his feet, but Ronon was there first, easing the door open.

Teyla squeezed through, and Ronon closed the door so swiftly behind her that her skirts were caught, and she had to pull the tail end of them through with both hands. "I have some of Wheeler's letters," she said, pulling a small sheaf of papers from her bodice. "Where's John?"

Suddenly they were both looking at him. Without meaning to, Rodney took a tiny step backwards, but the chair stopped him, pressing itself against the back of his legs. He sat down heavily. "He left," he said. "I tried to stop him, but you know how he gets."

Ronon brought one hand to his brow, and let out quite a scary noise indeed. "I was asleep," he said. "God damn it all to Hell!"

Rodney fluttered one hand hopefully. "He'll be back. He went to steal…" The flaw in his argument became apparent at that point, but he carried on, each syllable a little weaker than the one that came before. "…Wheeler's… lett…ers. Oh." He couldn't quite keep that small sound back.

Teyla looked over her shoulder, as if startled by some sound that Rodney could not hear. Then, with a sigh, she held the papers out towards him. "They are written in cipher," she said. "It is quite impossible to break."

Impossible? Rodney felt something that had been slumbering raise its head sharply inside him. If he hadn't been quite so terrified, he would have rubbed his hands together like a craftsman preparing for his master-piece. Once upon a time, men had deemed it impossible to breathe under water for many minutes at a time, and he'd proved the falsity of that claim, hadn't he? Take that, Sir Impossible!

"It will be a simple substitution cipher," he told his rude, piratical companions. "Nothing is more dangerous than over-confidence. These foolish dabblers write down their darkest secrets on paper, confident in the power of their ridiculous cipher. But here," he said, tapping his forehead, "resides the key to all locks."

He spread the papers out on the bed, and sat down in their midst. There were six sheets, written in at least three different hands. Teyla and Ronon seemed most uninterested in being elucidated. They were talking in fierce, low voices. "Too dangerous," he heard Ronon say.

He stiffened for a moment at that, but not even deadly danger could dampen the eagerness of a hound when… something, something… knowledge and vindication and… whatever. He prodded with his finger at carefully chosen letters. "The truly foolish rogue preserves the word breaks," he told them. "Do you know how many single letter words there are in the English language? Not many, my friends. A letter all on its own will be an I or an A, or perhaps an O, or perhaps some cunning misdirection, such as saying, 'A, we will rob Widow Bartlett, and, B, we will steal sausages from the butcher, and C, we will tell lies about someone far superior to ourselves in intellectual faculties, and have it so that everyone in the College thinks he is a--" He cleared his throat. "But that is unlikely. Rogues are seldom clever."

"It is too much to hope that he will not discover their loss," Teyla was saying. "If so, he will soon discover that I was in a position to take them. I fear that our position in this town is forever compromised."

"We're not going anywhere until Sheppard's back," Ronon growled.

"I know." Teyla looked at him, as fierce as any man, for all her petticoats. "I know that."

"Unfortunately," Rodney told them, "in this case, the word breaks have not been preserved. But all is not lost. Frequency analysis!" He hurled it at them like a triumphant fusillade.

They said nothing; did not even ask him to explain what he meant. Sheppard would have asked, he thought. Teyla had moved to the door, standing with one hand against it, her head turned as if listening. Ronon skulked at the window, pressed into the shadow of the drapes.

"You see," he told them, papers spread around him like a king's robes, "some letters occur in the English language far more often than others. All you need to do is count the occurrences of each letter in your enciphered text. The one that occurs most often is almost certainly E, and the second one is T, and nobody is very fond of Z at all. Of course," he admitted, "it is possible for the truly cunning rogue to plant false trails by deliberately using words that are packed full of uncommon letters. A puffed-up fool with pretensions at being a natural philosopher, for example, when wishing to conceal his thoughts from his far more intelligent fellow scholar – and it was completely ridiculous, of course, because his ideas were drivel – might litter his text with meaningless references to ancient kings of Persia and Babylon, but even that is not enough to fool the truly determined--"

There was a crash outside the door. Someone shouted out in the street, shrill and sharp. Footsteps hurried away.

"Frequency analysis," Rodney said, not really opening his mouth very much at all. "I just need a pen, some paper, and a few hours at most."

"Impossible to break!" he muttered some time later, his fingers black with ink. "The words of an over-confident blaggard."

Ronon and Teyla were talking in low whispers, almost fading into the gloom. Rodney rubbed his eyes. It was almost dark, he noticed. How had it come to be almost dark? He needed light, and he told them so, and they brought him one small candle. The curtains were drawn. He rubbed his eyes again, and suddenly realised quite how badly his ribs were hurting.

"Damn it!" he swore, when Ronon and Teyla had moved again, sitting taut in different chairs. His candle was an oasis of Enlightenment and intellectual effort in a den of roguishness and iniquity. "Some letters occur more than others, but never enough to… Oh! Perhaps that's the E."

People passed singing in the corridor, blundering into doors and walls. "Beware of Long Lankin," they sang, "who lives in the moss." Something thumped against the door, making it shudder. Ronon and Teyla were watchful on either side of it, their poses mirrors of each other.

"If that's the E," he said, "and that's the T and that's the A…" His voice trailed away. It would, perhaps, make a coherent message if the subject was obscure Assyrian deities, or perhaps the curse words of some benighted tribe over in the--

His head drooped forward. He propped it up, and continued to count. "I'm going to go after him," Ronon said, but Teyla grabbed his arm, and said, "No," and when Ronon almost snarled at her – really snarled at her! – she said, quite firmly, "I am as worried as you are, but we have no idea where he has gone, and it is not safe out there in the dark. We are no use to him dead."

Dead? he thought, as his finger moved, pointing, counting, marking things down.

The street grew silent. When he next looked up, Ronon was asleep, and Teyla was watching him with sharp attentiveness. Rodney looked at her; blinked. His mind was racing with letters and numbers. "Of course," he told her, "it is always possible that he has encrypted each letter using a different Caesar shift." He rubbed his aching eyes; moistened his dry lips. "It is a well-known method, described by Signor Bellaso some two hundred years ago. The French call it le chiffre indechiffrable, which means 'the unbreakable cipher.' It is impossible to break unless you know the key word."

He was not aware of sleeping. Letters marched arm in arm across the room, with the D and the F being particularly glowery. Evils Zs hammered at the door and tried to get in. Twirling the tails of its periwig, a martial G tried to pin him with a sword. Snarling vowels pinned him down in the straw and kicked him in the ribs. Sheppard was dragged off by a gloating W.

He rolled over, flailing, and paper stuck to his face and his lips. Furious consonants retreated into the shadows of wakefulness. His body screamed at him and told him that moving was an impossibility, but he sat up stiffly, hand pressed to his side. "He hasn't come back," Ronon said, and the candle was all burnt down, and the faint light from the curtains told him that it was already morning.

"The trick is," he told Ronon, "that you write the alphabet out twenty-six times. The first row, marked A, consists of the alphabet in its proper order. The second, marked B, consists of the alphabet shifted by one letter, and so on, all the way down to Z. Then you take your key word."

Teyla started awake with a cry. It was the first time, Rodney realised, that he had ever seen a lady sleep. "He wouldn't have left us," Ronon said, clenching his fist, but there was doubt there in his voice, beneath the façade of certainty.

"To protect us," Teyla said sadly.

"But doesn't he know…?"

Teyla shook his head. "I believe he does not."

"You take your key word," Rodney told them. "Let's say for the sake of argument that your key word is 'pirate.' This means that you encrypt the first letter of your message using the P row of your alphabet table. The second letter is encrypted using the I row, with every letter shifted forward--" He thought for a moment. "--nine spaces. The third letter uses the shift that starts with R. And so on. When you run out of letters, you repeat the key word. It's quite simple. Even a fool could do it." He stretched himself upright, hand pressed to his ribs. "If he knew the key word, that is."

"You and McKay have already been attacked," Teyla said fiercely to Ronon, "and Wheeler must surely have no illusions about me any more. If we walk out of this room…"

"I am not sitting here," Ronon hissed, "when Sheppard is out there, in danger."

Rodney's belly rumbled. Letters danced in front of his eyes. "I need breakfast," he said. "It is impossible to break a cipher unless you have food. I have a theory that mental activity consumes more energy than heavy labour. That is why it is necessary for those engaged in the affairs of the intellect to consume more than mere labourers, whose faculties, and therefore their need for sustenance, is quite slight." He sighed at memories of bacon past.

He wasn't entirely sure what happened next, but evidently the decision was taken to go down to the tap room together, the three of them ready to take on all comers. Discretion waved a tiny hand and pointed out that it was quite foolish – they were all supposedly living in a totally different inn, for crying out loud, for all that they had spent the night in Sheppard's room in the Angel – but the hollow in his belly thought that it was rather sensible.

"Would you believe it, sir?" said the maiden behind the bar. "They took a highwayman in the forest yestreen."

"A highwayman," Rodney echoed. "Yesterday. Yesterday evening." He reminded his mouth to slam itself shut. He reminded his hands to look quite innocent and unconcerned. "Good morning, Mister Wheeler," the maiden said, and Rodney, pinned, had no choice but to turn around, had no choice but to smile, had no choice but to utter the correct greetings. His tongue twitched rebelliously in his mouth, wanting to talk about key words and ciphers. The wood of the bar was coarse at his back.

"Indeed, Mister McKay," Wheeler said, with a cold, cold smile. "It is the so-called Captain Ford himself. It really is quite outrageous! I invited him under my own roof and let him partake of the hospitality of my table, but he was no more a captain than you or I. He tried to rob a courier of the Mail. He was a desperate rogue, I hear, and it took six men to bring him down."

"Down," Rodney echoed. Ask where he is now, something whispered insistently inside him. "Where…?" He moistened his lips. "What's become of him?" he asked.

"As luck would have it," Wheeler said, "the Winchester Assizes are sitting this very week. It would have been foolish to confine him here in Lymington, with so many rogues around, some of them doubtless his accomplices. He was clapped in irons and taken straight to Winchester. I imagine he will hang for this before very long." His eyes glittered. "I cannot bring myself to regret his passing. He passed himself off as someone he was not, and entered my house under false pretences."

"Shocking," Rodney said weakly. His hand curled behind his back, scraping against the wood of the bar. Letters danced all over the tap room, but Wheeler's face was completely unmarked by them, entirely clear. Ronon was glowering at Wheeler's back, he saw. Teyla had disappeared completely.

"Excuse me," Rodney croaked. He slipped away, pounding up the stairs, clawed at the door, pressed it closed, his breath heaving. Then the door moved beneath his fingers, straining, pushing. "No," he whimpered, "no," and pressed it closed, but Ronon pushed his way through, followed by Teyla. "He's been arrested," Rodney told them. "Taken as a highwayman. Imprisoned. Not here, but in Winchester. In Winchester. Not here."

Everything was fluttering, and it was impossible to breathe. Discretion was clamouring most terribly, telling him to run away right now. He pushed it away sharply, and returned to his papers. The letters stamped in orderly lines, and it was impossible to be entirely terrified when they were posing their questions. "Key word," he said, clawing at the sheaves. "Need to find the key word." He swallowed; looked up. "What are we going to do?"

"Rescue him, of course." It was Teyla who said it, but Ronon's face carried the same message.

"Oh." A corner of paper crumpled. Something eased inside him, because these were Sheppard's crew, who doubtless had escaped from more prisons in their time than Rodney had written acclaimed articles. But Discretion raised itself to its full height, waggling its finger. They didn't mean that he was supposed to go with them, did they? It was one thing to risk death at the hands of rogues and smugglers, but this was going up against the laws of the land! It was crossing the Rubicon. It was going beyond the pale. It was all manner of worrying metaphors, all of which added up to the fact that if he was captured while engaged in this enterprise, it wouldn't just mean death in a ditch – not that that was a pleasant fate, mind – but it would mean incarceration and shame and execution and public disgrace.

"Find the key word," he said, his voice sounding shrill in his own ears. "Perhaps I can guess it. What sort of a word would a man like that use? Smuggler? No, it needs to have every letter different. It weakens the encryption if a letter occurs more than once in the key word, since you are using one shifted alphabet twice as often as the others, which means that you can apply… that you can apply…"

The door opened and closed again. He looked up sharply, scooping his papers towards his chest. Ronon seemed to have disappeared. He had a dim memory of the Ronon and Teyla talking together while Discretion had lectured him, and while key words had clamoured in his mind. He caught a glimpse of Teyla's face, taut with anguish, but then she turned quite decisively away.

"Althea," he said. "Though would he use his daughter's name? Would he bring an innocent young girl into whatever evil plots he is fomenting? And starting with A would not be advisable, because it would mean that the first letter and every sixth letter thereafter wouldn't be encrypted at all, and… oh! Repeated letter. So that won't work on two accounts."

He turned over a page in his notebook and tried again, scrawling and crossing out; scrawling and crossing out. His belly reminded him that breakfast hadn't happened properly, and Discretion was restless, pointing out that Wheeler was probably pacing downstairs, and that rescuing highwaymen from prison was not the done thing for a respectable man, not the done thing at all.

Ten more pages were filled. He was nearly at the end of his book. "I need paper," he said, but Teyla was at the door, sneaking it open.

Rodney blinked, wondering how much time had passed. Ronon was dirty, his sleeve torn, and a fresh line of blood on his cheek. "Got your clothes," he said, passing a bundle to Teyla. "They're down there in force. Your door had been kicked in. Our horses have gone. I had to go over the roof. Damn near didn't make it." His eyes flickered towards Rodney. "We won't make it out that way, not all of us."

The two of them drew closer. "We are not…" Rodney heard Teyla said, but the rest was just a hiss of whispers. "I know," Ronon said, then said something about Sheppard, about Sheppard not wanting… "No." Teyla interrupted him. "…in as much danger as us if he stays," she said. "…didn't have to help us."

Rodney felt cold, surrounded by danger, poised at a crossroads where no road was safe. The letters mocked him with his inability to penetrate their secrets. Then Teyla said quite loudly that she was going to get changed, and that they should turn away and not look.

"What about treason," he said, "as a key word? Evil? Plot? Conspiracy? No, too many Cs." He could feel his heart beating very fast. A lady was undressing only yards away. He had never seen a lady without her clothes on – well, apart from that time when the equatorial mount on his telescope had broken, and the telescope had unfortunately become fixed on Charlotte Dauncey's dressing room. His mother had been quite furious, which was outrageously unfair, since technological malfunctions in shoddily-made devices could hardly be blamed on him. His father, though, had called him a sly dog, and said there was hope for him, after all.

"There," Teyla said, and she was a dressed as a man again, although it was looking like two pictures laid on top of each other: pirate, and lady, creating something that was both, and yet neither.

He jabbed his pen into the small bottle of ink, dripping black on the counterpane. "Or perhaps something entirely innocuous," he said, "like cabbages. No, too many repeated letters." Ink blotted on his page. "Protecting secrets is harder than it seems. There really are very few words that don't have repeated letters." He swallowed. "Pirate would work, of course. So would prison. So would death. But not gallows. Gallows is right out."

He turned his notebook sideways and started writing across the lines, filling in gaps. There was an inordinate amount of noise coming from the street. Ronon and Teyla seemed to be deciding something portentous. If you don't listen to them, Discretion told him, you can deny all knowledge when you're dragged in chains before the bench. Suddenly Teyla was grabbing his arm, and Rodney bundled up papers, sealed his ink bottle, and went with her, words and letters dancing before his eyes. "Murder wouldn't work," he whispered, "but neither would escape."

He knew by heart the first two dozen letters from each paper, and he chased them as Teyla dragged him into another room – a small room, littered with furniture, perhaps used as a store room. Coldness gripped his heart, but he spread the papers on the floor, and started to work.

The next time he looked up, ten more pages were covered with a criss-cross of false workings. An enormous pounding was coming from somewhere outside. Teyla pressed her finger to her lips. They're breaking down the door to Sheppard's room, Rodney thought. We escaped death by minutes. Then he looked at the quality of light coming in through the small window, and thought that it had perhaps been hours, after all, rather than anything less.

People were shouting – everywhere there was shouting. His companions whispered fiercely, and guarded the door. When everything was silent again, Ronon gave a sharp nod, and then they were on the move again. Unruly papers tried to leap out of Rodney's arms, and he teetered along the corridor, expecting any moment to be pierced from behind with a sword. Teyla hushed him into an alcove, where he muttered key words under his breath until they beckoned him out again. He saw a glimpse of the stable yard through a half-open door, and someone appeared to be lying on the floor, two booted feet sticking out from behind the bar.

Teyla grabbed his arm. One of his papers made a bid for freedom, but he thwarted it. Then he was in a cold, damp room, full of barrels. "Repeated R," he muttered, "in 'barrel', and I'm not happy about the presence of the A." Ronon heaved a barrel aside, his face red with the strain. "Are you…?" Teyla asked, and Ronon said "yes", and then he was raising a trap-door, ushering them down into the dark.

"Is this the smugglers' tunnel?" Rodney whispered, but even that, thistledown-soft as it was, echoed in the darkness like a hundred spirits watching him. It was dark, impossibly dark. He bumped into something, smashing his knee. Was that a rat squeaking ahead of him? "I don't like the dark," he breathed. Ronon and Teyla seemed to be able to move entirely silently, like cats in the night. Perhaps they had abandoned him. Perhaps they had led him down into this hell, and had left him here to die.

A hand closed on his arm, and he yelped. "This way," Teyla said, and Rodney jammed the papers into his pocket, and gripped her sleeve. The place was dank and stinking, hewn from the cold, forgotten places of the earth. The ground sloped downwards, and no step was quite where his feet expected it to be. He almost fell several times, but Teyla hauled him up. At other times, his feet balked and announced that they could not possibly take another step, but the prospect of being abandoned here alone was worse, far worse, than anything he might blunder into in the dark.

"If I cannot second-guess the key word," he said quietly, anchoring himself on that in the darkness, "perhaps I can second-guess the first words of each message. If one flank fails, you should attack on another. It's there in all the treatises on war. At least," he added, as his feet squelched in something repulsive, "I think it is. I haven't actually read them."

His encrypted letters stamped in serried ranks across a field of war. He rallied them like a general, until a faint grey light appeared ahead of him. He blinked, scarcely able to believe it. "Stay here," Teyla told him, but he edged forward, drawn by the light. He heard voices, and someone cried out. He drifted further forward, bathed in grey, unable to stop.

Ronon reappeared, a dark silhouette. Rodney followed him, and ducked down into the sedge and the mud of a twilight riverbank. "How does one normally start a letter?" he mused. "'Sir', or 'Dear sir.' I will assume first one and then the other, and see what falls out."

He tried one and then the other, but the only thing that emerged were heathen gods with lots of consonants in their names. Perhaps Wheeler and his friends were heathens, in league with--

Ronon dragged him forward. Water splashed even up to his thighs. Apparently they had a boat now. Apparently they had a boat with two dark sails, called the Mary Ellen. "Did you…?" He swallowed hard. "Did you steal this?"

The others seemed occupied with hauling ropes and doing other nautical things. Rodney tried a dozen more salutations, but could not rid himself of the heathen deities. He had to hold his papers up to catch the very last of the light, but even when the light faded to darkness, the letters remained, scoured on his mind.

Other boats passed in the darkness, voices carrying over the water. Ronon and Teyla were whispering urgently about mud flats and charts. They struck a spark, and looked at a sheet of paper, shielding the light with the dark bulk of their bodies. "It doesn't mark the way through the mud," Ronon said. "That'll be their secret." Teyla said they had to stick to the channel. "But that means…" Ronon said, but Ronon's head was thick with salutations.

Those salutations chased him through the night. The worshippers of heathen gods chanted 'dear sir' and 'my lord' and 'Mister Wheeler' and dates, dates, dates. Ink ran away in water, filling the world with black. 'You will never learn our secrets!' cackled a coven of evil letters, dark and vile and spiky. Something crashed, and there was quite a lot of shouting.

"I think I need to try a different approach," he mumbled, pulling himself up in the morning, a hand on the edge of the boat. When he blinked upwards, something seemed different about the sail. "What…" He cleared his throat. "What happened?"

"We took some shot," Teyla explained. She and Ronon looked drawn with tiredness, their eyes rimmed with red. "I had to repair it with my petticoat." She nodded towards her abandoned bundle of ladies' clothes.

"Shot," Rodney echoed. Ronon's hand were raw, he noticed, the palms burnt as if by ropes. "I didn't…"

His hands trembled. Crawling on his hands and knees, he grabbed a spare sheet of paper that had somehow escaped him. "A different approach," he said. "Let's say I assume a six letter code word, endlessly repeated. That means I can take the first letter, then the seventh letter, then the thirteenth, and so on…" He began to write them down. "Then I do the same with the second, the eighth, the fourteenth, etcetera. I end up with six shorter messages, each encrypted using a simple Caesar shift. Although they will not contain actual words, the usual frequency of letters will still apply."

Ronon snatched his paper away. Rodney protested, jabbing his outrage with his dripping pen. "That's our chart," Ronon said.

"You brought a chart?" Rodney said. That meant that they had thought ahead. That meant that they had intelligence. That meant… "Where are we?"

"The wind took us too close to the Isle of Wight during the night," Teyla explained, "and we are still in the Solent, but on course for Southampton Water. We need to decide whether to go up the River Itchen or this Itchen Navigational." She pointed at a straight line on the map.

"That'll be a canal," Rodney explained, dimly remembering his father talking about such things. "It has locks and towpaths and rough bargemen. I think the river would be best for a boat with sails. At least, I think so."

The sails flapped overhead. Ronon and Teyla did quaint nautical things, and the sun rose higher and higher, pale and watery in a thin white sky. Rodney asked Ronon if he could at least tear off a bit of Dorset and the far side of the Isle of Wight, since they were of no use to anyone. Ronon's answer was quite rude. Rodney was reduced to filling in the gaps in his designs for a perpetual motion machine, back on page two of his Book of Profound Musings, labelled as such, with capitals. "Of course," he said, some time later, "the key word might be seven letters long."

"Down!" Teyla hissed. Rodney sprawled flat on his face, as monstrous letters loomed in front of his eyes, their horrible limbs reaching across the page. A pistol fired close above him, then again and again. A heron rose up, flapping. Oh, Rodney thought, after Teyla told him that it had actually been safe to rise quite some time ago. We appear to be on a river.

Oh
, he thought, some time later, as the drooping branches of willow tried to entangle themselves in his hair. We appear to have stopped. "This isn't Winchester," he told them, because they were foreign and probably didn't know. Then Teyla brought him apples and a loaf of bread, and that was a Good Thing. Soon the willows withdrew, and there was wind in his hair instead. He thought he might have a 'the' in the middle of one of his papers.

He raised his head when Teyla said "becalmed." A squat cathedral was visible on the far horizon, and birds raced athletically across broad water meadows. "King Alfred did something or other here," he told them. "I think so, anyway. When he wasn't burning cakes, that is. Or was it King Arthur? The Round Table's in Winchester Great Hall, I think. That's where Sheppard will be tried." He had covered twenty more pages, quite destroying his designs for a flying machine. "The something something something," he read out loud. "Something something the something something something the something with a T in it." It was a start, at least. His heart was racing with the thrill of approaching triumph. He was about to do the impossible. He was about to solve a cipher that no-one in the world had ever solved. He was about to go Ha! very loudly indeed.

Ronon lowered the sails, and Teyla pulled out the oars. The boat edged forward through the shallow river, and the sun finally broke free from the clouds, just as it was fading into the west, about to sink into another night.

"Jack," Rodney said. "The key word… Jack. Jacob. Jacobus. Jacobus! Why? No no, that doesn't matter. If I use that key word, I get…"

The city walls loomed ever closer. "We should moor the lugger somewhere safe," Teyla said, "and go in on foot."

The message seemed to be talking about the king, about the king's itinerary, about… "Jacobus!" Rodney gasped. "Latin for James. They're Jacobites! They're adherents of the deposed Papist tyrant!" He clambered out of the boat, and stood wavering on the shore. "Jacobites," he murmured, feeling cold all over, his triumphant ha! fading into dust and ashes. Soon the grass beneath his feet turned to cobbles. Bent over his papers, he almost tripped over a barrel. "God!" he gasped. "I know what they're planning to do. They're going to--"

"Oh, yes, the highwayman," a man was saying, in response to something Teyla had asked him. "They tried him yesterday – uncommon fast, but the Assizes were sitting. They wanted him hanged as quickly as possible, before his accomplices could spirit him away. The king's at Salisbury, you see. The death warrant was asked for and signed, all within an afternoon."

"He's dead?" Teyla's voice sounded as faint as a summer breeze.

"He's to be hanged upon the morrow," came the reply.

"--kill the king," Rodney's lips said, stubbornly insisting on finishing what he had to say. "Tomorrow."

*****

The mouth of the Lymington River, November 2008

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Rodney McKay's hand-drawn map of his code-breaking voyage

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******

On to part the fifth
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