Previous chapters start here
In which a highwayman is brought to justice
They were singing in the ale-houses of the death of highwaymen. Teyla clutched her tankard in both hand, but felt too ill to drink anything. She felt wrong and out of sorts, no more herself in these familiar clothes than in the gown she had worn for the past few days.
John was going to die in the morning.
"I never robbed any poor man yet," sang the men on the far side of the fire-flickered room, "nor ever was in tradesman's debt." She looked at McKay, who sat with shadowed eyes, twitchy and miserable. "But I robbed the lords and the ladies gay," they sang, "and carried the gold to my love straightway."
"He hasn't admitted a true love yet, has he?" a man shouted from another table, further from the fire.
The chief singer flapped his hand. "We'll change that bit tomorrow, after he gives his speech. He'll die well. The gentlemen of the road always do."
McKay was gripping the edge of the table. "What are we going to do?" He was whispering, even though there was too much noise in the tavern for anyone to hear him. Teyla herself barely heard him, merely going by the movement of his lips, and the fact that her own heart was crying the same question.
The singers called for more ale. Thus lubricated, they declaimed another verse.
"My father cried, 'Oh my darling son,'
My wife she wept and cried, 'I am undone.'
My mother tore her grey locks and cried
'Oh in his cradle he should have died.'"
Teyla's tankard tipped over, spilling ale across the surface of the table. She snatched it up before it was fully empty. As she did so, she saw Ronon pushing through the crowd. "What happened?" She leant forward eagerly, ale soaking into her sleeves.
Ronon smelled of darkness and outside. He slid in next to McKay. "It's too well guarded," he said, and she knew how much it must have cost him to say those words. "I asked the sort of people who looked as if they'd know. They said…" He took a mouthful of McKay's ale, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "They told me that it's customary for condemned prisoners to stay in prison for weeks before the sentence is carried out. They're allowed visitors. People come to gawp, but sometimes friends smuggle in knives and files. People do escape."
"But not this time." McKay said it before she could bring herself to.
"They've hurried things through because the King's so near. No-one's allowed in. The guard's increased. I couldn't…" He almost slammed his fist on the table, but changed it at the last minute to a slow, firm pressure. "We can't get him out that way."
She closed her eyes briefly. "It will have to be tomorrow, then." ("Tomorrow!" the singers echoed, raising their glasses between verses. "He'll give us a good death tomorrow.")
"Snatching him from the very scaffold." McKay's ink-stained fingers twitched, as if even now they wanted to be writing. The hard-won letters were folded in his pocket.
Someone stuck up a note on a set a pipes. "No!" cried an old man. "Finish the song first. Tell us about the funeral."
"Hush, then," said the chief singer. "Hush, then, and listen."
"You'll have to change it tomorrow," said a man with thin, dark hair.
"Captain Ford is his name," nodded a man by the fire. "What rhymes with Ford?"
"Hush!" cried the singer, climbing onto the table, spreading his hands. Silence stole outwards from him, as if he was death.
"And when I'm dead and go to my grave
A flashy funeral oh let me have.
Let hundred bold robbers follow me,
Give them good broadswords and liberty.
Let six pretty maidens bear up my pall
Give them white gloves and ribbons all.
That they may say when they speak the truth,
'There goes a wild and a wicked youth.'"
The ale-house erupted into applause, but Teyla bowed her head and wept.
Upon the morrow, it seemed, Rodney was going to oppose the age-old justice system of the country of his birth. He was going to take the plunge into full-blown criminal activity, not in far-away distant climes, where normal rules didn't apply, but on his very doorstep.
Discretion was not at all pleased with him. It was pacing up and down, red-faced with disgusted rage. "If you do this…" it said, too outraged to complete a sentence. "If you really do this…"
Go away, he told it quite firmly, slamming a decisive first on the table. Discretion had been hounding him for days, but he, Rodney McKay, had had enough. Sheppard was a good man – an infuriating man, admittedly, but a good one, more or less, give or take a little matter of piracy and highway robbery – and it wasn't right that he should die for something he had been forced into.
And Sheppard's my friend, he told Discretion, with more wonder in his thoughts this time than decisiveness. He'd never really had a friend before. If he walked away now, what would life offer him ever afterwards but the memories of what might have been? Through some amazing miracle, Sheppard understood him, and that was something too precious to throw away without a fight. We don't let our people die. Had Sheppard said that to him once? No, he thought, Sheppard lived that. Sheppard had surrendered himself to Kolya to save Rodney's life, and he was only captured now because he had tried to end the intolerable situation before anyone else got hurt.
Of course, he thought, there was the small matter of high treason and the imminent assassination of His Britannic Majesty King George, the first of that name. He probably should be doing something about that, really. Loyal subjects weren't supposed to sit around in ale-houses while dastardly plots were unfolding, aimed at their king. Not that he felt any particular personal attachment to the king, but when people went around assassinating kings, bad things usually followed, like civil wars and general bloodshed, and it was very hard to practise decent natural philosophy when ravaging armies tramped up and down the country, billeting themselves in your study; and, besides, Jacobites harked back to a more primitive age, where heretics were burnt on bonfires, and this was the Age of Reason, for crying out loud, and the Jacobites had no truck for Enlightenment, preferring to worship stones and idols.
Duty, his old nemesis, cleared its throat. Discretion sulked, knowing itself bested, but Duty told him that he should rush off right now to save the king. Let Ronon and Teyla save their captain. He would save his king. The grateful monarch would grant him not just a Fellowship but the Presidency of the Royal Society for sure. Ahem, Duty said, reminding him that the thought of reward was not supposed to come into it. This was the right thing to do. Save his king and country and everything he held dear, and things like that.
Several minutes went by, and still his body was showing no sign of moving. People were singing of the great hangings of yesteryear, and he really wished that they wouldn't. I want to save Sheppard, he thought. He felt disquiet when he thought about the killing of the king, but when he thought about Sheppard's death, a fist reached into his belly and twisted his guts quite painfully.
Still, he thought, perhaps he could do something. Grabbing his notebook, he leafed through it until he found the last clean page, on the back of a half-finished sketch of a machine that could calculate the sums of pairs of numbers. "I need somebody who will take a message," he told the others, "and that somebody will need a horse. I suspect I will need some pirate gold, too."
Ronon and Teyla looked up hopefully. Rodney remembered hangings he had almost seen, passing with his face averted at the back of the crowd. They were always an ungodly crush of people, and the guilty wretch was often more a hero to the crowd than a villain, for all that they delighted in seeing him hang. There often weren't all that many guards, and it would be easy to…
"And something else," he said. "A few more things. I think I know how we might be able to save him."
A dog barked. Ronon froze, but the sound was not repeated. McKay was hopping from foot to foot behind him. "House-breaking," the man breathed. "House-breaking in England. Though I suppose it doesn't count as a house." Ronon prized off the first of the railings. "Though I doubt it makes much difference to the severity of the sentence, the fact that it is a shop, not a house."
The second bar came off, then the third. Although it was the dead of night, there were far too many noises in this city. People were passing not too far away. A cat yowled, and there was distant singing from at least two taverns, two different songs criss-crossing in the night.
"We can't let ourselves get caught," McKay hissed earnestly, catching hold of Ronon's arm. "We're no use to Sheppard that way. If it looks bad…" He took a visible breath. "I'll go in alone. It's only sensible, really, since you wouldn't recognise the things I need. If anything goes wrong, you get away. Then you can rescue both of us in the morning."
Ronon nodded just once. "Yes," McKay mumbled. "Yes. Well." His hand opened, then closed again. The dog barked again, nearer this time, and McKay gave a silent yelp. "Sorry," McKay whispered, and then the last bar was off.
Ronon gently opened the window. He saw McKay swallowing hard, but he knew there was no false reassurance he could offer. McKay was irritating, infuriating, but perhaps not so bad underneath it all. This was his idea. After all the squawking he had done about stealing, he had volunteered himself for this task.
But, "I'll help you up," was all Ronon said. Above him, silent in the breeze, the apothecary's sign swung to and fro.
Teyla held up the small, chipped mirror. She stood clothed in the clothes she had worn for so long on the Atlantis, her hair tangled from a night and a day at sea, her hands reddened from hauling ropes. In front of her, spread out on the narrow bed, was the water-stained gown she had carried in a bundle from Lymington. Half the petticoat was gone, used to patch up a sail, but the gown could still be worn. In the press of an execution crowd, nobody would notice the flaws.
How can I best help him? she thought. Who was required tomorrow: Teyla the pirate, or Teyla the lady?
She tried to tell herself that it did not matter. What mattered was who she was beneath the clothing. What mattered was what she said and how she acted. What mattered was whether she could save him, not what garb she wore while making the attempt.
She let out a breath. It was not true. The people who mattered might see what lay within, but her clothing would affect how strangers would react to her. That was why she had assumed man's array in the first place, after all. She herself had believed that clothing mattered more than anything else. She herself…
The last fading moments of song came from down below. Teyla moved to the window and leant softly against it with her hand, looking out into the midnight street. I myself…she thought.
But that was a thought for another day. What mattered now was saving John, and she would wear whatever costume was required for that task, and would play whatever part, because that was all it was: a part.
The core beneath it was true, though. No matter what she wore, she was Teyla, and she was going to save her captain's life.
I'm robbing a shop, Rodney thought. I'm really doing it. I'm robbing a shop.
With every step, something small and gibbering inside him reminded him of the extra years that would be added to his sentence if he continued to do this thing. He sorted silently through a cabinet, and added another item to his sack. They'll send you to a particularly horrible colony for that, it told him. Put it back, and they might send you to a pleasant one, all sunny, with flowers. House-breaking without stealing? That's not too bad. Tell them you were doing it to save the king.
Was that a sound upstairs? He froze, heart pounding. He was three rooms away from the small back window; three rooms away from Ronon. If Ronon was still there, that was. Perhaps Ronon had abandoned him, and…
No, he told himself. No, he told that small, gibbering part of him. This was his idea, and there was no going back on it. He didn't want to go back on it. Ronon wouldn't abandon him, because they were all in this together, all bound in the same criminal enterprise. Fancy that, he thought. I'm part of a criminal gang. He'd never been in a gang before. He'd once been pushed into a ditch by one, though.
The sound was not repeated. He moved to another cabinet, and found a veritable cornucopia of items that he needed. Perhaps he would need a bigger sack. Things rattled alarmingly when he tried to lift the one he had.
A gang, he thought, because the gibbering part of him had given up entirely, and had joined Discretion and Duty in glowering outrage on the fringes of his mind. He faced them with Determination. "I'm doing this thing," it told them, "and you know what? It feels good."
Well, actually, it felt quite uncomfortable as he tried to shoulder the sack without it clinking too badly. It felt quite terrifying as he crossed the hall. But it felt quite lovely when Ronon was still there, big and reassuring and wonderful at the window, and when he was safely out in the street again, the relief felt amazing.
"I did it," he said, as Ronon took the sack from him, shouldering it effortlessly. "I broke into a shop. I stole things. I really stole things, all by myself. I did it."
"I'm not sure this would normally be something to boast about," said Ronon, sounding suddenly so like Sheppard that Rodney stopped walking for a moment. When he resumed again, any doubts he might ever have entertained were gone. He wanted to do this thing, and if he set his mind to a thing, then it happened, because, hello? Rodney McKay!
The cathedral bell struck six. Teyla had long since given up on sleeping, and now at last she rose, and began to pull on her tattered petticoats.
All night long, she had heard the sound of hammering. She thought it was the sound of a gallows being built, or perhaps the sound of John's coffin being put together beneath his window. Or perhaps she had slept after all, and it had just been the sound of fear and dreaming.
John was due to die at ten of the clock.
He needed a laboratory for this, Rodney thought. He needed a dedicated room set aside for his highly delicate work. He-- Something exploded with rather a loud bang. He coughed, flapping at the smoke. He needed a room set aside for his… work. Perhaps a lair, since he was now the resident genius of a criminal gang.
Or not criminals, he thought, as he poured one powder into another. He scraped the back of his hand across his brow. They were misunderstood – heroic outlaws condemned because of treachery. They were…
A bottle cracked. Rodney threw his cloak over the smoulder and flames.
It didn't matter what they were, he thought. The clock had just struck eight.
The crowds were gathering. There was almost an hour still to go, but Teyla took her place amongst them.
"I hear he's very handsome," said a girl not far away from her.
"He didn't say much at the trial, though," an older woman told her, shaking her head with disapproval. "No pleading, just stood there most of the time, dignified like, but when them in robes got too impertinent, he stopped them with a quip. Least, I think it was a quip. It might have been an epigram. It's hard to tell with these clever folk."
Teyla edged forward, slowly weaving her way towards the front. "A new song," someone was calling over the crowd, "newly printed today by Mister Brown. The last words and confession of Captain Ford, highwayman, sung to the tune of Wilkins and his Dinah." The voice sang a snatch of it.
A young man pushed past her, pulling out a penny. "One for my grandpa, please."
It was as if John was dead already, his last words committed to song, his body buried with paper and black ink. But Teyla said nothing and moved on. Two more people yielded, parting without realising it to let her through. Only four rows separated her from the gallows.
"I hope he gives us a good morning's entertainment, the poor lad," someone said behind her. Teyla kept her fists clenched tight, and fought the urge to strike him.
A pair of children were complaining that they could not see the gallows. Someone was selling pies, and Teyla was surrounded by the smell of warm spiced meat.
"And when I'm dead," someone sang. "And when I'm dead…"
Teyla turned sideways to edge through a gap, but there she stopped, one row from the front, a lady drawn to watch a man die.
They were late bringing Sheppard out.
Ronon had been in position since not long after dawn, pressed flat against the roof, half-hidden by tangled creepers. He didn't dare look over the parapet very often, but he had seen Teyla there, looking away from him near the front of the crowd. He could not see McKay.
Just after ten, the bell started tolling for a death. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd. The next time Ronon looked out, he saw a group of young men clambering onto a roof on the far side of the square. Ladies were leaning out of upper windows, handkerchiefs clasped in their hands. People were climbing on each other's shoulders, piling up boxes and barrels, doing anything they could to get a good view. Nobody stopped them. Perhaps, he thought. Perhaps…
He sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the roof. The youths on the far side of the square saw him, waved, and copied him. Ronon adjusted his grip on his pistol; adjusted it again.
The bell tolled on.
Rodney leant against the wall and tried to look casual. He flicked dust from his rather grimy sleeve. He looked at the heavens as if stars would magically appear in the middle of a summer morning. He counted paces from one side of the street to the other. "Waiting for someone," he muttered, when a woman walked past.
If only the bell would stop tolling! It wasn't right to kill a man to the sound of his own funeral bell. Though perhaps, he thought, if you were the condemned wretch, that would be the least of your problems. The dying part was probably less pleasant.
The crowd's roaring was the first sign that Sheppard had appeared. At last, Rodney thought, slumping with relief, then trying to disguise it with a pretended sneeze. That was the thing about waiting for something. By the time it finally happened, you were too overwhelmed with relief to even think about being scared.
Teyla's view of John's approach was concealed by the gallows, but all around her people were cheering, and the ladies at the high windows were blowing kisses and waving their handkerchiefs. Why does it take so long? she wanted to ask, but the man beside her had an answer for that, even though she had not asked it. "Taking his last drink," he said. "A glass of wine or a bowl of ale. Hard to drink when your hands are tied."
The cathedral bell kept on tolling. The crowd behind her pushed forward, and a constable stepped forward, urging them back. Men in black were climbing onto the gallows, ready to do their work.
Her first sight of John almost made her gasp aloud. Those around her were less retrained, gasping and cheering. He was standing in the back of an open cart, his hands bound in front of him with ropes. At some point since leaving Lymington, he had acquired new clothes, and he was dressed like a gentleman, in fine linen and black velvet. The man beside her was impressed. The last wretch to be hanged, he said, had appeared in rags, but if you couldn't wear your best clothes to your own hanging, when could you wear them?
She felt herself strain forward, feet moving despite herself, but forced herself to stop, forced herself to wait. John saw her, though; she was suddenly sure of that. He gave no sign and sent no message, but she was sure that he knew that she was there. What had it been like for him, she wondered. She had been so focused on the rescue that she had spared no thought for what he must have been feeling, imprisoned in a condemned cell miles away from the place he had left his friends. Had he expected them to come after him, or had he thought he would die alone?
We will save you, John, she willed silently. Have faith.
They led John onto the gallows, his hands still bound. A clergyman stepped forward and intoned a long prayer. Through it all, John stared straight ahead, more like a captain on the wooden deck of his ship than a condemned man on the gallows. Teyla's hands were moist, her heart beating fast in her chest. The constable at the foot of the gallows yawned, covering his mouth with his hand.
An official read from a book, droning almost inaudibly about John's crimes and the punishment that was to be meted upon him. "Speak up!" people shouted from the back of the crowd. The man beside Teyla snorted in disgust. "What's the point of it if they can't do it properly?" he wondered.
Then it was John's turn. The crowd hushed expectantly. "Let's hope it's a good one," Teyla's neighbour muttered. Teyla dug her nails into her palms, looked up at John, and wished and willed that this would have a good ending.
"For those things that I have done wrong," John said, "I am truly sorry. For those people I have failed, I am truly sorry. I have committed robbery in my time. I never meant to. It… happened. And to the young men out there: don't do what I did. That's what I'm supposed to say, isn't it? Don't turn to crime." His head moved for the first time; until then he had been looking straight ahead. As he moved, Teyla saw that his cheek was bruised, and she saw further bruising at the collar of his shirt.
"But I'm going to say something different," John continued. "Don't put your trust in princes." He smiled; even managed a wry laugh. "And it's not just princes. I've done lots of wrong things, and I probably deserve this, but I'm here today because people, my so-called betters, put me here, and what could I do about it but accept the fate they'd decreed for me? So don't be too quick to trust. Don't…" He snapped it off, and stopped, long enough for the crowd to start muttering. "No," he said quietly. "Do trust, but trust the right people. Trust your friends. Trust the people who've proved themselves. Don't trust people just because they tell you that they're better than you are, and that it's your duty to believe them. Don't--"
"That's enough," the clergyman said sternly, but, "No!" the crowd cried. "Let him speak!" The official with the book shook his head. From somewhere out of sight, drums started a slow beat.
It was time. "Not the best," Teyla's neighbour said, "as speeches go. I like it when they weep." But then he, then all the crowd, fell silent. There was no sound at all but the tolling bell and the slow, low rumble of the drums.
John was blindfolded and guided up the step. The noose was put around his neck. The drums rose to a crescendo. Then, with one last prayer, he was hanged.
Which is full of daring rescue attempts
The drums rolled louder and louder, and the crowd hushed. That was his signal. That was his signal, wasn't it? But what if… No, no, he had to do it. Better too early than too late. He had to… Now. Now. He had his spark all ready, didn't he? Yes, yes. Bring it just so, and apply it to the stone pot thus. Yes! Yes!
Smoke billowed out – smoke, God, yes, and he knew there would be lots of it – that was the whole point, after all, and he'd designed it himself and… But so much! It got into his eyes. It made him cough. Choking, he managed to light the second pot, then the third. And… oh, yes! He was supposed to fire a pistol, too, wasn't he? He dragged it out from under his coat, and managed a shot, then shrank inwards, because what went up always came down, and what if the ball…?
Smoke. Smoke. Yes. "Help!" he cried, running forward. He coughed, clawing at his streaming eyes. "Help!" he screamed. "Enemies! Rebels! An attack! Help!"
Smoke rose behind him like a wall. "Help!" he cried again, and then he was round the corner, coming up at the rear of the execution crowd. "Help! There's dozens of them! No, hundreds!" he screamed, and I'm a respectable gentleman and couldn't possibly be involved in a rescue attempt, could I, because, well, look at me, and… "Help!" he screamed. "Help!"
And first one, then two, then dozens, then hundreds of them took up the cry.
People were screaming at the back of the square. The constables raced forward, elbowing their way through the crowd, ordering people to stand aside, to let them through.
And Sheppard was dangling from a rope, dying before Ronon's eyes.
The screaming grew louder. Like a ship on fire on the sea, a wall of smoke rose up from the back of the crowd. The screaming spread. The official laid down his book. The clergyman ran down the steps and disappeared.
The rope was taut, its fibres straining. Ronon levelled his pistol, took aim, and fired.
As soon as the screaming had started, Teyla had crouched, reaching for the knife strapped beneath her skirts. The instant Ronon's pistol sounded, Teyla moved. The people in front of her had already turned away, straining to see what was happening at the back of the square. She pushed past them, raced up the steps, and was there when the last fibre gave way. John fell, but she caught him, held him up until his feet had found their balance. "John," she said, over and over. "John. I have you." She could hear him gasping, sucking in air.
"Madam," someone said tentatively. "You can't…" She turned and felled him, striking him across the jaw. Taken by surprise, he staggered and fell off the gallows. Hardly anybody seemed to notice. Smoke had filled half the square by now, and she could already begin to smell it, sharp and acrid.
"We need to get somewhere less conspicuous," she told John.
He was still blindfolded, but she saw him nod. She guided him towards the steps, but felt him stagger. When she took a firmer grip on him, he did not pull away.
Jabbing his pistol into his belt, Ronon climbed over the edge of the roof, and started to descend, grasping hold of handfuls of stout creeper. When he was still his own height from the ground, he jumped, landing heavily, but already springing up, running forward. "What's happening?" he heard people say. He elbowed them aside, pushing through until he had reached the base of the gallows.
Teyla already had Sheppard. Grabbing his knife, Ronon sliced through Sheppard's blindfold. "Got some of my hair there, buddy." Sheppard's voice was hoarse and ravaged, but it was enough to make Ronon grin. He grabbed Sheppard in a brief one-armed hug, then turned his attention to the ropes at his wrists. He sawed through them, and Sheppard helped, moving his bound wrists up and down so hungrily that the edge of Ronon's knife drew blood.
"We must hurry," Teyla urged, when Sheppard was free.
They were far from safe, of course. They had Sheppard, but they were still in a hostile city that wanted Sheppard dead. Most of the crowd were busy fleeing from the smoke, but some had noticed what had happened. "He's escaped!" he heard a woman screaming, sounding more thrilled than terrified. "Out of my way!" he heard someone thunder. "Let me pass! The highwayman's getting away!"
They made half a dozen steps before Sheppard paused. "Where's McKay?"
Rodney could barely see the gallows platform over the crowd, but the third time he tried jumping up, he could see that the gallows themselves were empty. The sixth time, he saw someone in formal clothes shouting orders with much expansive movement of his arms. That meant that it had worked. He had done his part – his most vital, pivotal part – and the others had spirited Sheppard away. He had succeeded. They had succeeded.
But people were milling about all over the place. People were screaming, trying to run away, getting in his way. There were hundreds of them between him and the others. Don't go without me! he wanted to cry. He bit his lip, and pushed forward, struggling to wade against the tide.
The smoke moved faster than he could. Soon he was coughing, and everything ahead of him was slowly fading into grey. He pressed his hand to his mouth, and continued forward. The crowds grew thinner; the square almost empty. "It was a smoke-screen!" someone was bellowing. "It was nothing! To me!"
He took another step, and suddenly felt as if he was alone in the square, like a solitary ship emerging from the mist to find the ranks of the enemy ahead of him. They would know it was him for sure. His respectable clothes weren't really that respectable, after all, and he knew that he had an intelligent look about him, such as you would expect of someone capable of making such a cunning diversion using only an apothecary's stores and their own wits. They were going to kill him. They were going to capture him and torture him for information. They were going to…
He scurried sideways. He had to make the rendezvous point. He had to make the rendezvous point without a horde of people chasing him, because that really wouldn't be good for anybody. If hordes of people were chasing him, then he'd have to lead them off on a wild goose chase – make a diversion so that the others could get away.
But what if the others weren't waiting for him? They had their captain back now. What if they had gone off and left him? No, no, they wouldn't do that, would they? Sheppard wouldn't, anyway. But Sheppard had been half-hanged, for crying out loud, and might not be in a state to call the shots. But Ronon and Teyla…
No, he thought, as he scurried too fast and scraped his palms on a wall. He remembered Ronon waiting outside the apothecaries', and how they had taken him with them as they had left Lymington. They wouldn't…
"What took you so long?" Ronon said, appearing from a shadowed doorway.
Rodney yelped, pressing a hand to his thudding chest. And Sheppard was there, too, and Sheppard smiled, and said, "Now let's get the hell away from this place."
Ronon had paced out their escape route during the darkest hours of the night, and again at dawn, but the light now was different. Places that had looked safely shadowed were now stark with light, but there were still doorways, and there were still small dark lanes to go down, and still a low wall to scramble over.
The river was not far ahead of them now. "I think we've done it," McKay said out loud, gasping with lack of breath. "I think--"
A pistol ball crashed into the wall beside him. Ronon tightened his grip on his own pistol, but did not require Sheppard's warning look to keep him from firing it. These were not ruthless enemies, but innocent bystanders and constables doing their job. Besides, as McKay had pointed out, they were trying to win a pardon for Sheppard, and it wouldn't really be politic to saddle them all with a charge of multiple murder.
Another pistol sounded. Nobody made a sound, so he could only assume that it had missed them all. Peering back, he thought he could see two pursuers. Their pistols would be useless now, unless they could reload on the run. If they stopped to reload… But if they stopped to reload, Ronon and his companions would escape.
He led them into a narrow yard, through a gate into a narrow garden. Someone shouted from an upstairs window. "If we split up…" Sheppard began, in his ravaged voice.
"No." Ronon and Teyla said it together, knowing that if the worst came to the worst, Sheppard would surrender himself to let the others get away. Not this time, Ronon swore to himself. Not this time.
A dog barked behind them. McKay's breath was coming in great, heaving gasps. And there, ahead of them, was the sparkle of the river.
As they closed the last few yards to the water, Teyla tore at her hair, pulling it out of its elegant arrangement. She ripped the muslin from around her breast, and as she scrambled into the lugger, she reached for the bundle she had stowed there at dawn, and pulled on her old, patched jacket. "Take your coat off," she hissed at John, as Ronon twisted his hair into a knot, and concealed it under a boatman's cap.
McKay, his hands fumbling, was striking a spark. As Teyla unfastened the rope, she saw Ronon take the final pot from McKay's hands and hurl it as hard as he could towards the shore. Smoke surged out of it. Dimly, as they moved away, she could see shapes blundering around. A pistol fired, but the ball landed harmlessly into the water.
After that, there was nothing but rowing.
"I guess that was the sort of thing they mean by 'last minute rescue,'" Sheppard said.
Rodney decided to take that as evidence that they were finally safe. For a very long time, the only talk had been orders and warnings. The river was broader now, and the sail was hoisted. Apparently they had the wind on their side, and were due to have the tide in their favour once they reached Southampton Water. Such things were good, of course. Such things meant that it was very probable that he had gone up against the law of the land, and won. Not that going up against the law of the land was exactly a good thing, but… Well, saving Sheppard's life was good. Winning was good, too. Would the Royal Society accept expert cobbling-together of smoke pots from rudimentary materials as being something worthy of a Fellowship?
"We could not do it earlier." Teyla's voice was but little affected by all her rowing. "They relaxed their vigilance once the deed was done."
"But you knew we'd come, right?" Ronon said.
Sheppard said nothing for a moment, his hand rising to his reddened neck. Now that Rodney had noticed it, it was hard to look away. Sheppard had been hanged. Sheppard had been hanging by his neck, only minutes from death. "I knew you would try," he said at last, "if you knew that it was happening. I thought…" He swallowed, obviously in pain. "I thought Wheeler might ensure that you didn't find out, either by keeping the news secret or by killing you." He looked at them one at a time, including all of them in his look. "It was too dangerous. You shouldn't have--"
"Bullshit," Ronon swore. Rodney found himself on the point of uttering his own similar, though less rude, objection.
"But…" he managed; cleared his throat and tried again. "But you're glad we did, aren't you?" He didn't often spend much time wondering how other people were feeling, and he suspected that whenever he did, he probably got it wrong. But to lie there in prison, knowing that you were about to die…! To feel the rope go around your neck…!
Sheppard looked away. "I can't be. You risked--"
"John," Teyla said, her voice low. She was a strange medley of a creature now, with her rich gown covered with her pirate's jacket. She looked like neither one thing nor the other. No, he thought, a moment later. She looked like herself, and just that.
"Yes," Sheppard said, his hand rising to his throat again. "It's a horrible way to die, and to die in public…"
Their boat passed under the shadow of some trees, the tips of the masts brushing the dangling fronds. Rodney shifted position, and as he did so, the papers crumpled in his pocket. Ah, he thought, remembering that. He fought the wild and completely wrong impulse to say nothing at all, and to let them all sail on, on through Southampton Water, out across the Solent, into the Channel, and away to where the Atlantis waited.
He raised one hand, waving it, then lowered it again.
"I shouldn't have let myself get caught," Sheppard said. "I was trying to intercept the courier, but it was a trap. I should have known. I can't go back to Lymington openly, not now, but I have to do something. There has to be some other way."
Ronon's head snapped up, but it was Teyla who spoke. "We have the letters," she said. "I acquired them on the afternoon of day you were taken."
Rodney saw Sheppard's moment of shock. It was quickly concealed, but not, perhaps, as quickly as normal. So it was all for nothing, his posture said, but his face smiled, and said, "That's good. Anything incriminating?"
This was where Rodney came in. This was his moment of glory. This was his chance to bask in Sheppard's praise and to hear the man say that they would all be lost without him. He opened his mouth, then closed it again; gripped the edge of the boat just a moment. "Apparently the king's on a progress through the southern counties and he's due to arrive in Chichester at sunset, and Wheeler and his friends…" He took a deep breath. "Sheppard, they're going to kill the king today."
Sheppard said nothing for the space of time it took Rodney to count to three. "Then we'd better stop them, hadn't we?" he said.
The sun shone through patchy clouds, sinking slowly into the west. According to the charts, they were passing Portsmouth harbour. "And Chichester's the next inlet," McKay announced, although he appeared to be holding the chart upside-down. "I think so, anyway. It's a confusing area."
Sheppard was sitting taut at the tiller. Ronon had tried to approach him to examine whatever injuries he had sustained in his arrest, but Sheppard had waved him away, saying just, "Afterwards." Now Ronon worked on the sails. It was easier to be doing something than to do nothing; such a thing had always been true.
"We might not need to do anything," McKay offered, for at least the sixth time. "I sent a message, after all."
Sheppard appeared to have little faith in McKay's message. He continued his course without even turning round.
"Admittedly, I didn't know any names to whom to address the message," McKay continued. "Nobody in the king's circle knows me, or knows that I am a reliable source. I copied out one of the coded messages, though, and told them to be careful. Of course…" He was twisting his hands together anxiously. "Of course, it might have come across rather more as a threat than a warning. If the boy took the message, anyway, and didn't abscond to the ale-house with his pirate gold."
The reflections grew longer on the surface of the sea. Ronon had little idea how protocol worked around this British king, but he doubted they would be able to approach him easily. Unless your name was known, it seemed, you could shout the truth at the top of your voice, but nobody would listen to you. If your name was the wrong one, they would actively disbelieve you. That was what had condemned Sheppard in the first place, years before.
"What are we going to do?" he asked, his voice low.
"We'll find a way," Sheppard said. "We always do." Then he sighed, letting out a slow breath. "Listen, you don't have to--"
"Of course we do," Ronon said, but Teyla said it better, saying, "We want to, John. We would not be anywhere else."
Sheppard half turned towards them. "He's not your king."
"But you're our captain," Ronon said, but once more Teyla said it more aptly than he could have managed. "You are our friend," she said, "and what better way to secure your pardon than to save the king's life?"
"I hope so," Sheppard said, and although there were shadows in his smile, it seemed genuine, too.
The sun sank lower, and the sky began to turn orange behind them. They were in the multiple inlets that formed Chichester harbour, but apparently that meant that the wind was no longer favourable, and that the tide had become their enemy. Rodney could see a tower on the horizon that he presumed was Chichester Cathedral, but it seemed a long way away. We're not going to make it, he thought.
Another sail was ahead of them, bigger than most of the ones they had passed in the Solent. "Wheeler?" Ronon asked.
"It could be," Sheppard said. His hand moved beside him, as if he expected his pistol to be there, but of course it was gone. He had come unarmed from the gallows, and was still unarmed.
"I should have written it up," Rodney said. "My method of breaking the cipher, that is. That way, even I die, the method can be named after me. Posthumous honour, and all."
On the distant boat, light gleamed in a golden beam, as if of a telescope catching the sun. Sheppard took them forward. From across the water, Rodney could hear the sound of church bells ringing in jubilation, perhaps for the coming of the king. We're too late, he thought.
The boat ahead of them was close to the shore, perhaps already moored. It grew bigger with every passing moment, although Rodney could have sworn that their progress was desperately slow. His belly rumbled with lack of food, and he licked his lips again and again, desperate for water. He needed to relieve himself. He needed to sleep. He needed to be far away from here. He needed all this to be over. They'd saved Sheppard, but Sheppard was now dragging them all headlong into another dangerous adventure.
No, he thought, as the sails loomed ever nearer, that would be me. He'd solved the message. He'd piped up about it. Although it was terrifying, this was the right thing to do.
There was a flare of light, a crash of sound. A cannon! Rodney thought, as he threw himself to the deck and cowered as something slammed into the water, showering him with a fountain of water. The boat rocked terrifyingly. Should have seen the light before I heard the sound, he thought, according to the scientific principles that lie behind the movement of both. But perhaps they were too close for the difference to be noticeable. Perhaps…
A second cannon fired, and this one struck true.
The ball struck them just below the water line, and passed through to hole them a second time. Was anyone hit? Teyla looked round desperately, but her companions were still moving. "Bail!" Ronon shouted, but John was already shaking his head. "She's holed too badly," he said. "Abandon ship."
They were not far from shore, but the enemy held it. As water raced in through the twin holes, the lugger listed sideways. Teyla already had water up to her ankles, soaking her skirts. She scooped them up as much as she could, but the water was rushing in too fast. There was no time to hack the heavy material off; no time to remove her gown.
"I can't swim that far!" McKay was shouting, before he lost his balance and fell in backwards. With a quick, desperate glance in her direction, John jumped in after him. As the water took her, Teyla saw him surface next to McKay.
Her skirts pulled her down, but she kicked hard and struggled to the surface. Ronon was there, treading water beside her. "Skirts," she gasped, and he nodded, and said, "I'll help you if you need me to."
The shore always seemed impossibly far away when you were in the water, able to see nothing but its shining surface. Taking a deep breath, Teyla did the only thing she was able to do: she swam.
"I can't," Rodney gasped. "I can't…" Sheppard was still there, supporting him, hauling him up by the back of his coat when his exhausted limbs shouted that they could not do this thing, that they could not move another inch. His chest felt as if it was going to explode. He coughed, choked, from the taste of sea water in his mouth.
"Where…?" Water closed around him. This time Sheppard found his wrist. Rodney heaved a mouthful of air, and managed a few more strokes. "Where… we… going?" he gasped, because the shore wasn't far away, but Sheppard wasn't taking them towards it, but at an angle. "There!" Rodney gasped, struggling to point. Sheppard caught him before he sank too far. "Go there!"
"Enemies," Sheppard said, and Rodney sucked in a sharp breath at that, because he'd totally forgotten the enemies in the terror of being about to drown. Pistol balls aiming at his head! A cold-eyed enemy taking aim, and he was helpless, helpless…
He paddled ever more desperately, but his body felt heavier by the second. The water pulled him under, and closed on him in gold-tinged darkness.
The shore was muddy and lined with tussocks of grass and reeds. Ronon crawled on hands and knees, then slumped down onto his stomach. He rolled over onto his back just in time to see Teyla collapse beside him, her whole body heaving with the effort of swimming with heavy skirts. But she was the first one to speak. "Where's… John?" she gasped.
Ronon raised his head as much as he dared. He had deliberately brought them to shore some distance away from the enemy skiff. Sheppard would have done the same; whenever he had seen the other two heads in the water, they had been on course for… "Damn it!" he cursed. "What's he doing?"
"What?" Teyla asked, rising up behind him.
Far away, too far away, Sheppard was emerging backwards from the water, dragging the limp body of McKay. The enemy skiff loomed behind them, and half a dozen figures were walking towards them.
I'm not dead, Rodney thought, because he clearly remembered drowning. He remembered other things, though, but dimly: Sheppard holding him up; Sheppard telling him that they were almost there, that he should put his feet down and start walking; panicking because he couldn't, he couldn't. He didn't remember Sheppard dragging him from the water, but he must have done so, because here he was on the shore.
He tried to push himself up with his arms, but they trembled like the legs of a newborn foal, depositing him back down again. "You saved my life," he mumbled into the mud. It was quite unpleasant, really. Getting up was worse, though.
Sheppard said nothing in reply, though Rodney felt the man touch him on the shoulder. By the changes in light and shadow, Sheppard appeared to be kneeling up beside him.
"Captain Ford," a voice said. "You're supposed to be dead."
The hand pressed a little harder on his shoulder. "I have often been a disappointment to people," Sheppard said.
Oh, Rodney thought. Oh. It was Wheeler. It was Wheeler and… He tried to roll over so he could see, but Sheppard's hand kept him down. He was fairly sure that Wheeler was not alone, though. Sheppard's body blocked most of the shore, but… One, he counted. Another. God, three. Three that I can see, and…
"Although I presume that your name isn't really Ford," Wheeler said. "Your savage friend calls you 'Sheppard'. Surely not the notorious Captain Sheppard of the Indies? But no matter. I don't know who sent you to bother me, but it doesn't really matter any more. You've failed."
"Perhaps," Sheppard said. "Maybe that's why I came here: to get revenge." His hand rose to his throat. "It is not a pleasant thing to hang."
"No," Wheeler said, coming closer. "No, no, no… You know more, or think you do."
"You're going to kill the king," Rodney blurted out, until Sheppard's hand, pressing hard, silenced him in mud.
"Really?" Wheeler gave a brittle laugh. "What a shocking idea! I often trade here. I'm here on perfectly legitimate business. Of course," he added, laughing again, "If I was embroiled in such a terrible enterprise, I wouldn't be in it alone. I would, perhaps, be guarding the shore against meddlers, trying to draw their attention while my friends did the deed elsewhere. It would mean, of course, that you would be entirely too late."
Rodney felt Sheppard's hand quiver, but, "Luckily I'm a persistent man," was all he said, his tone light.
"I know it," Wheeler said. "Unfortunately, you are also a dead man. Mister McKay there is a prattling lightweight. Miss Beckett is just a woman, and your savage is no match for my crew. Your pistols are swamped with water." He drew a pistol from his belt and pointed it at Sheppard. "Mine, however, are not."
"No!" Teyla hissed, grabbing Ronon by the arm. He strained, snarling, trying to pull away. "Wait," she urged. Their pistols would not work, and they were two hundred yards away from Wheeler and his men, likely to get cut down if they approached openly. "We have to think," she said. She nodded at the water. Perhaps they could swim underwater and approach in the shadow of the lugger. Perhaps they could crawl inland and…
She did not even see the mud-coated figure who rose up behind her, not until it had grabbed her.
"We can settle this the honourable way," Sheppard said. "Nobody else needs to get hurt."
"A duel?" Wheeler lowered the pistol. "It has a certain appeal."
Sheppard stood up slowly, and Rodney blinked up at him, watching him glance round briefly, perhaps looking for Ronon and Teyla.
"On the other hand…" Wheeler nodded, and one of his men whipped out a pistol, aimed, and shot Sheppard in the back.
end of chapter ten
On to part the sixth