On the Wings of an Eagle - part 2 of 5
The story starts here
In which our heroes go to market, where several things illustrate the Fall of Man
Rodney was drowning in paper. He seldom managed to sleep for more than an hour at a time before ingenious ideas came hammering at the doors of his dreams, dragging him awake and commanding him to write them down. Whenever he closed the curtains of his bed, he saw flying machines.
"You fool!" he shouted one evening, coming in unexpectedly early from the stable about a week after Sheppard's precipitous arrival. "You've put a pot of potage on my plans."
Kavanagh looked petulant and entirely unrepentant. "You've put plans all over the kitchen table. You left no space for me." His petulant look deepened. "Master," he added. He lifted up the heavy pot. Rodney snatched at his plans and stared in dismay and fury at the stain. It was ruined, quite ruined. It was… Oh. Was there bacon in the potage? Real, actual bacon?
"Ruined," he said, his nose wrinkling as his sniffed the air disdainfully. Yes, yes, there was. Maybe Dex had a fondness for slaughtering pigs; he looked like the sort of man who was never happier than when he was drenched in blood up to the elbows.
Rodney put the plans down. Another smell reached him - a sweet one. He followed his nose, investigating. "You made comfits," he gasped. His mouth watered, then gaped open with horror and outrage. "You used Doctor Rodney McKay's Experimental Device to Strengthen and Channel a Flame in Order to Cause a Balloon to Rise to heat a pan of sugar to make comfits?" The name required an element of work, of course, but outrage could shine just as bright regardless of nomenclature.
"Dex did that." Kavanagh's sniff made clear very what he thought of Dex.
"But you let him." Rodney picked up a small handful of comfits and put them in his mouth, crunching the caraway seeds beneath their layers of sugar. "Besides, Dex should be working. Here I am, expending quite heroic amount of effort to improve the flying machine, and he's swanning around making comfits." He took another handful and tipped them into his mouth. "It is a shocking dereliction of duty." The mouthful wasn't big enough. He took another. "How did he learn how to make comfits, anyway? It doesn't involve slaughtering things. No matter how big you are, you can't intimidate caraway seeds."
As if summoned by his entirely justified complaining, Sheppard and Dex appeared at the back door. Their legs were bare beneath their breeches, their shirts were dirty, and Dex had sawdust in his hair. In short, they both looked like the brutish peasants that they were at heart, despite whatever noble fathers and lute-playing abilities they could muster to wear like ill-fitting robes.
"That's done," Sheppard said, wiping the back of his hand across his brow. "We need more wood."
"We need many things," McKay declared half-heartedly, watching as Dex made a bee-line for the comfits and scooped up a large handful with a grin. His hand was larger than Rodney's, so it most definitely counted as two. Rodney retaliated, claiming his rightful share. "We need," Rodney declared, crunching seeds, "to purchase fresh supplies."
"I know." Sheppard picked up a sheet of plans that had escaped the ravages of Kavanagh's potage, and looked at it, clearly trying to pretend that he understood the marks on the page. "About that…" Sheppard said, lowering the plan but not releasing it. "How are we going to, uh…" He rubbed his ear, suddenly awkward.
"Supplies cost money," Dex said, grabbing another handful.
A hand accustomed to the pen, Rodney realised, had far more right to scoop up comfits than a hand brutalised by the sword. He dug in with both hands. It was his duty to eat the comfits up, in order to… to teach Dex that he couldn't reap any benefit from shirking his duties, and that vital components in flying machines couldn't be used for melting sugar.
"About that…" Sheppard said again. He waved Kavanagh away, and sat down on the only remaining stool in the kitchen; the others had bought vats of ink and a matched set of Venetian glass phials. "Are you aware that your tenants haven't paid any rent for the last seven quarters?"
"Tenants?" A caraway seed slid from Rodney's mouth and down his chin. "Rent?" He scooped up another absent handful to replace it.
"Indeed." Sheppard nodded. "Ronon and I talked to a rather pleasant man this afternoon, of doughty English yeoman stock. He says he comes to your gate every quarter day, dutifully offering rent, but you either ignore him or chase him off before he can speak, berating him for interrupting your vitally important work." His fingers were playing with the corner of Rodney's plans, bending it up and down.
"Rents." Rodney wiped stray comfits from his hands; his palms were quite unconscionably sticky. "That would be…" He dimly remembered a vexing man called a bailiff, who had been prone to strutting around in a self-important manner. Rodney had never understood what all his father's servants actually did all day, given that they weren't writing erudite treatises or inventing cunning new devices that advanced man's mastery over the natural world. He'd removed them all on the grounds of uselessness as soon as he had the chance.
"Yes." Sheppard nodded. "The doughty yeoman we talked to has been setting money aside. I think he fears your wrath should you suddenly decide to ask for the arrears. He's quite willing to pay, as are, I would imagine, his neighbours. It might, uh…" He looked awkward, his hand still playing with the paper. "…help," he finished, giving the impression that he'd meant to say something more.
For the first time in months, Rodney became aware of the bare and crumbling nature of his home, and how it might actually appear to outsiders. He swallowed, then realised that Dex had managed to finish off the comfits while Rodney had been lost in distraction. It was a most unfair tactic, and one which he would get revenge for. Dex would have to make more comfits first, though, so Rodney could properly deprive him of them.
"I can go cap in hand to my brother," Sheppard said. "I'll be the ghost turning up at the family estate. Blood is thicker than water, or so they say, so he'll probably…" He placed the plan deliberately on the table, and flattened both hands on it. "I pay my debts, McKay."
"Yes, yes." Rodney flapped his hand, then saw the stickiness of sugar on his fingertips, so sucked them instead. "Rents," he said, his mouth full of finger. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Sheppard smiled. "I think I just did."
"Why didn't you tell me two years ago?" Rodney pulled the last finger out and wiped his hand on his doublet. "Of course, you weren't here then, so I'll let you off. But Kavanagh should have… Although he's useless and probably doesn't know about such things. But why didn't the bailiff say anything?" The bailiff had been a thoroughly unpleasant man, and his parting shot had been to tell Rodney that he wouldn't be able to run the manor without him. Rodney also dimly remembered dreary lessons at his father's sickbed, each one delivered with more urgency than the last. Rodney had nodded when he had needed to nod, and while horseless carriages had sailed along the pathways of his mind. "Someone should have told me," he said tetchily. "A great intellect like mine can't be expected to trouble itself with things like that."
Sheppard made as if to say something. Rodney stamped over to him and snatched up the plan, ostentatiously straightening the bent corner and sighing angrily. "So I have money," he said, "and we need supplies. It seems like we need a trip to market."
Even after seven years away from the Marches, it still sometimes seemed strange to Ronon to live in a place where travellers could move openly without having to watch the hills for raiding parties. At the start and the end of the summer grazing season, men drove cattle along the roads without any fear that a rival family would swoop and carry them off. It was years since he had been woken in the night with the hue and cry that announced that a raiding party had struck. It was years since he had ridden across the border on the Hot Trod, sweeping up everyone in their path in pursuit of their stolen property.
And it was eight years since he had returned from courting to find his tower-house in flames and his family dead. Eight years since the Warden of the English Middle March, too steeped in southern ways and too eager to please his dying king, had refused to accept what Ronon did next as lawful revenge. He would spare Ronon, he had said, but he couldn't condone his actions. There were many displaced outlaws in the disputed lands between England and Scotland, and Ronon had become just one more of them, living alone in a place where family was everything.
And then Sheppard had come along…
"It's-- bumpy." McKay's voice lurched all over the place as the cart jolted through a rut. "Can't you--?"
"No," Ronon said without turning round. The paths over the northern hills were better than these southern roads, ridden as they were by people whose lives depended on the ability to ride as fast as possible in the dark. It wasn't far to Oxford, but they'd already been driving for several hours.
"It isn't--" McKay's voice rose into a yelp. "--very dignified for a-- ow! a scholar of my stand!-ing to travel in the… back of a cart!" His teeth snapped together with an audible crunch. Ronon exchanged a quick look with Sheppard, beside him on the bench. Sheppard replied with an expression that Ronon recognised as a smile, but which no-one else would probably recognise as such.
"You could walk," Sheppard offered. "Or buy a mule in Oxford, a lazy fat one."
"Because I do have mon-eee!" McKay said it with satisfaction, although the last word sounded as if it had been ripped out of him with a sword. By the sound of it, he was hefting moneybags again, letting the coins run through his fingers.
"Put that away, McKay," Sheppard said sharply. "You're not Dives, to count your wealth."
"And you're not Lazarus, to envy it," McKay snapped, but the sound of clanking coins ceased.
The cart hit a large hole and lurched to the side. Sheppard clung onto the seat with one hand. Behind them, they heard the sound of a body sliding, and a dull thud as it hit the other side of the cart. "Be careful, you oaf!" McKay spluttered. Then, in a different voice, clearly trying to cover his attempts at recovering his dignity, he said, "What's wrong with counting my money? It is mine."
"And we're on the open road," Sheppard said, "and we don't look like much of a target to rob, being a cart containing no goods but a talkative gentleman whom they're welcome to steal, but if certain people should see that you have money…"
"Oh," McKay said, converting it hastily from the 'hey!' he had been half way through. "Oh." Ronon turned round to see him stuffing the money bags under his cloak, looking ostentatiously around him as he did so. "There's no-one here at the moment?" he hissed in a too-loud whisper. His eyes continued to flicker from side to side. "They're aren't… uh, in the trees, or in the long grass or hiding…?"
"They're not here yet," Ronon said gruffly, "but be careful. Be quiet."
Oxford was already visible, its towers and spires rising above its flooded water meadows. A horseman approached them from the other direction, and Ronon sat very still as he approached, and very still until he had passed. Sheppard let out a faint breath when the man had gone, his hand relaxing ever so slightly on edge of the bench.
"I don't like this," Ronon said quietly, as the trees bent over the road, casting everything in shade. "You were never pardoned. You escaped, a treason still charge over your head."
"They'll have forgotten me by now," Sheppard said, with an attempt at a smile that might have convinced Ronon once. "I was never a very important traitor. They've been busy executing more important men and hunting down heretics."
"The leaders of whom are currently imprisoned in Oxford, awaiting execution," Ronon pointed out; even in the wildest of their hiding places, they had heard of the trial of Archbishop Cranmer. "The Queen is paying especial attention to Oxford at the moment, and you're going there with McKay." He glanced round again. McKay was hoarding his concealed money like a child jealous of his sugared plums. "He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'discreet.'"
"I know," Sheppard agreed. Another traveller approached. Sheppard waited until he had safely passed, but already two or three more were within sight ahead of them, and hoofbeats thundered behind them, heralding a courier in the livery of Queen Mary's Spanish King. "But I don't see that we have any choice," Sheppard said quietly, when all had passed.
"No." Ronon shook his head, accepting that, for Sheppard, there was no choice. "But I don't have to like it, just as I won't…" He stopped as a party of armed men approached them fast on horseback. Ronon had his own weapons at his side, of course.
"I know," Sheppard said, and this time his smile was genuine, telling Ronon that he didn't have to finish what he'd been saying; that Sheppard knew what it was.
I won't stop watching your back, Ronon thought.
Rodney McKay was clearly a man who liked to cast the pearls of his wisdom before the swine that were the rest of humanity. He talked his way down the broad street of St Giles, talked his way through the gate, and continued to talk as John prized a coin from his surprisingly strong grip to pay a boy to watch their cart.
"You'll get another like that if it's still here and untouched when we get back," John told the boy, breaking through McKay's torrent of words. But John had to tug McKay away, in the end. "I'm sure the lad can do the job just as well without knowing all the flaws in the Ptolemaic model of the heavens," he pointed out, when McKay protested.
"Yes." McKay let out a shaky breath. "I'm sorry. I… I talk when I'm nervous."
"Just when you're nervous?" John raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, well, I've been nervous ever since I met you, on account of the…" McKay's voice dropped down to a whisper, louder in its way than his unguarded talking had been. "…secret work and the flying and the… you know, secret, can't say a word, and the very real chance that someone will drag me away for hideous torture just for knowing you, and remember that I'm telling everyone it's all your fault when that happens, and that I was cruelly tricked."
People bustled past, lost in their own conversations, but a few pairs of eyes watched them. John glanced at Ronon, and Ronon gave a fractional nod, indicating that he had seen them, too. They weren't anyone that John recognised, and were probably just robbers and cut-purses. Just robbers? John smiled grimly at the thought that someone who wanted to rob him and leave him for dead in an alleyway was the least of all possible evils, but that's just how life was.
"Where do we start?" Ronon asked loudly, discreetly moving closer to McKay, and pushing his cloak back to show the long knife at his belt.
"Oh." McKay flapped a jerky hand, lordliness and terror wrapped up in one movement. "We need a prodigious quantity of canvas and silk and fine sewing thread. You can get those from the ordinary sort of stalls that the common folk go to. Can-vas," he sounded out slowly, looking at Ronon. "Silk. Thread." He briefly mimed sewing. "But the rest - devices and ingredients far too cunning for you to understand…" He tugged his doublet down, the gesture made awkward by the stash of money hidden beneath his jerkin. "A scholar has special sources. Contacts, you see. I know everyone."
A tall man in the robes of a scholar emerged from a side-street and shouldered past McKay. McKay raised his free hand, one finger pointing upwards hopefully, but the scholar passed by without any sign of recognising him.
"Of course," McKay said, "the university has changed greatly in recent years." He lectured on the history of the university for a while. John barely listened, scanning the crowd for threats. He was jumpier than he would have thought possible, although the chances of anyone recognising him were slight in the extreme. McKay talked as they walked, his words part of the background of the busy town. "Then in the latter part of the reign of the late King Henry, the old schools of study were swept away and were replaced with schools devoted to the new learning - enlightenment in a sea of barbarity and superstition. The present Queen is determined to undo all that and to bring the university back into the thrall of the Roman church, which would--"
John recovered himself in time to jab McKay urgently in the ribs. McKay whirled on him angrily, then blanched, his hand rising to his mouth.
"Discretion, McKay," John reminded him, not whispering it; it was easier to pass unnoticed when you acted as if you had nothing to hide.
Ronon's hand was hovering near his long knife. "He's going to get us killed, Sheppard. I say we leave him - pretend we don't know him."
"No, you're the ones going to get me killed." McKay said it quietly, his mouth very small indeed.
"Why don't we all agree that there'll be no getting of anyone killed on this fine morning." John looked sternly at McKay. When he turned to Ronon, his gaze held many things. It was because of John that McKay had come to Oxford in the first place, and he couldn't abandon him.
Ronon nodded slightly in acceptance. He didn't need to say the rest of it. McKay was John's only chance of getting wings again, and he would follow him into the very fires of hell, if that was the route that McKay chose to take.
"Yes," McKay said, his mouth still very small, his words thankfully muffled by his hands. "Not getting killed is good. I didn't mean it. Nice Queen's agents. Good Queen's agents. Down with the new learning. Boo, hiss, etcetera etcetera."
John grabbed his upper arm. "Not a word," he warned pleasantly, deliberately not looking at the armed men who stood near the tower to the left. He'd travelled to Oxford once before, and knew what the place was. This was the Bocardo Prison, where Archbishop Cranmer and the others were imprisoned, awaiting a second trial that would surely end only in the flames. He thought of enclosed, dark places, and the sun must have passed behind a cloud just then, because the whole street was suddenly swept with cold.
"Ow!" McKay hissed. "Why are you squeezing so hard? Let go!" The sun still gleamed on the steel breastplates of the soldiers, and the stones of the tower were almost white in the light of the crisp winter day.
When they were past, John tugged McKay into the shadow of an overhanging house. "I think we need to relieve you of some of that money." Were the soldiers watching from behind, he wondered, their eyes boring into the back of his neck?
"What?" McKay squawked. "You're robbing me? I knew you were a black-hearted villain. I knew it!"
"Of course I'm not robbing you," John said. Ronon stepped up behind him, and his presence there made John's next breaths come a little easier. "You know what they say about eggs and one basket. Besides, you're carrying it so obviously that you may as well be waving a placard."
McKay looked stricken at first, then mustered his reserves for righteous outrage. "But it's my money."
John tried not to look over his shoulder. No-one was watching them. No-one had recognised him. He smiled instead, chuckling briefly. "For someone who spent two years forgetting to gather in his income, you seem to have become a miser overnight. It's like an allegory of the Fall of Man in one short day."
"I'm not a miser," McKay protested. "See? Have some of the money. Have it." At least he had the wit to pass it over in pouches, shielded by his robe. Now the foot-pads and assorted rogues and vagabonds can rob you. I'm just a threadbare scholar whose only riches are his intellect." He watched John and Ronon stow the money, narrowing his eyes suspiciously when the pouches seemed to disappear; they both had practice at keeping things hidden when they walked in dangerous places. "You won't play me false, will you?" One hand reached out, perhaps unconsciously, as if it felt the lack of the coins already.
"No," John said, his voice weary, but meaning it utterly. "I won't play you false."
What have I done? he thought, as they walked away from those gleaming soldiers, from men who wore a livery that he still saw stalking in his dreams. Because now yet another person was caught in the snares of his obsession, and he should stop, he should walk away, he should give up his dreams of wings.
But God help me, he thought, because he could not.
The story of mankind was the story of the Fall, or so Rodney thought the churchmen probably said. Wheels of fortune went round, depositing mighty kings in the dust, upside-down with great big wheels on their heads. Forbidden fruit got plucked. Mighty cities fell. Civilisations crumbled into dust, and where was the glory that once was Troy? Rich young gallants became skeletons in the end, and the rose of yore was just a name, sic transit gloria mundi, and so on and so forth.
And now something else could be added to the list. Doctor Rodney McKay had returned to the university of Oxford, and found it sadly changed.
It started well, once they had left behind the seething danger of the town itself. Sheppard shadowed him like… like a… a shadow, which was good for two reasons. For one thing, it was very useful have the person he was going to blame for absolutely everything conveniently close - less far to point - but it also meant that Sheppard was there to see Rodney get treated with the respect he so soundly deserved. Sheppard, Rodney was beginning to suspect, sometimes laughed at Rodney, perhaps even teased him occasionally. Just you wait, Rodney thought. You'll see.
Naturally, the porter at the College gate remembered him well. "Oh," he said. "It's you, Master McKay."
"Doctor McKay." Rodney tugged his doublet down; it would insist on riding up. "I've come to visit my old kingdom."
The porter waved him through, and they entered the front quad. Rodney was busy elucidating Sheppard about matters architectural, when he saw a boy race out of the lodge, charge across the quad, and visit all the staircases one after the other. "A messenger," Rodney concluded. His voice didn't sound quite right in the acoustics of the quad. "He's telling everyone I'm here, so they can prepare their welcome."
A surprising number of people were inexplicably absent from their chambers. Several others shouted that they were deeply immersed in very important work and couldn't be disturbed. One, opening the door absently, cursed, then closed it again, citing an alembic in desperate need of sudden attention. Rodney sympathised. A neglected alembic had once launched a devastating attack on his slippers.
The chapel bell struck twice. "Maybe they're all at lunch," Rodney suggested, but the hall was empty, benches neatly in a row. An intriguing smell lingered. "Lunch…" Rodney said. He remembered a woman whose stall had sold extraordinarily delicious mutton pies. Was she still plying her wares, he wondered.
No, he reminded himself, this was no time to let himself get distracted. He had a higher calling than the demands of his stomach. He was here to show Sheppard how respected he was, and to get the vital components for his Mark IV Aeronautical Machines, which everyone said couldn't be done, but ha! to that, and to advance to sum total of human knowledge and to strike a blow for enlightenment in these benighted times. Against such things, mutton pies paled into insignificance.
"I saw some venison pies on sale in the market," Sheppard offered. Rodney glared daggers at him. It was a sneak attack, entirely unprovoked.
"No," he said, sniffing haughtily-- and it was venison, he thought; a lingering smell of venison from an earlier meal. "I am entirely devoted to a higher calling. We have supplies to obtain."
And obtain them he… er… failed to do, for most of the rest of the afternoon. People continued to be inexplicably absent. Those that he did manage to corner seemed to have complicated lives, troubled with urgent appointments involving dogs and the like. He did manage to talk to one fellow at around the chimes of three, but he was some visitor from Bohemia with an ungodly name starting with Z. Aware that no-one whose name started with such a barbaric letter could have anything sensible to say, Rodney barely listened to what he said. The fellow waved his hands around too much when he spoke, anyway. It indicated a weak and easily distracted mind.
"They're afraid," Rodney declared, gesturing emphatically with his half-eaten venison pie, sending crumbs flying. He and Sheppard had made a dignified withdrawal back into the bustle of the town. "They're all too aware that--" He stopped himself just in time, gulping down a lump of meat. "--the Queen is undoing the heretical reforms of recent regimes, as is only good and proper," he said loudly. Grease stained his fingers, and there was a smear of sauce on his doublet. "I was never accused of anything," he pointed out. "Some of my work earned a small degree of royal displeasure, due to the treasonable nature of the men who flew them, but that's as far as it went. But this lot always were spineless cowards. They fear the consequences of talking to me."
"That must be it," Sheppard said gravely over the remains of his own pie. His fingers had somehow managed to stay free from grease, and his clothes, simple as they were, were spotless. The eyes of a passing lady lingered on his legs.
"But it doesn't matter," Rodney said, subtly pulling his own breeches up so they showed a little more knee, and smoothing the folds that had gathered in his nether-hose across his calf. The lady gave no sign of noticing. "I've got other sources."
And these they pursued as the sun sank towards the horizon. Any student with an interest in natural philosophy sometimes needed to acquire items that were… "let's just say," Rodney told Sheppard, "things that aren't available through, uh… through… proper…" His eyes flickered from side to side. New College Lane could be very dark, and things could lurk in the shadows. "…channels," he finished. His whisper seemed to echo off the walls.
"I understand." Although Sheppard wasn't whispering, his voice seemed quieter than Rodney's. Rodney added it to his mental list of Things That Are Infuriating About John Sheppard. It went in at number five. The legs were unassailed in their prime position. "I hadn't realised there was a thriving underground network of dastardly natural philosophers, filling our cities with illegal…" His voice broke off. His smile faded.
"Of course there is," Rodney said flatly. Too much knowledge had been banned for too long. Now that Queen Mary was on the throne, the brief flowering of free expression was being snuffed out again. Soon people would be burnt just for reading books.
"I'm sorry," Sheppard said. He looked over his shoulder. Rodney edged closer to him, suddenly realising that skill with a sword wasn't quite as useless as he had always thought.
Rodney's first supplier had vanished, the door hanging open, and the interior dank with decay. The second door was opened by a plump goodwife who denied all knowledge of anything that Rodney mentioned, then threatened to beat him with a rolling pin.
The fifth one was still in business, but the man looked nervous, and there was a fresh scar on his face. He had some of the things that Rodney wanted, but Rodney felt little triumph as he handed over the money. He'd lost his heart for this, he realised. I want to go home, he thought. I want to get out of this place alive.
Even Sheppard seemed edgy as they headed back to the centre of the town, laden with packs. Dex greeted them half way, on the bench of a cart piled high with goods. "I got the wood," he declared with a grin. "I got the canvas, the silk…" The list went on and on. Dex, the illiterate savage from… wherever he came from, had managed to acquire many of the items from Rodney's special list, as well as his 'fit to be entrusted to bumbling idiots' list.
It should have made Rodney furious. Instead, he sank down into the piles of canvas, looking up at the approaching darkness, and said, "Let's go, then."
Dex took them away into the night. Rodney clutched the edge of the cart, and realised that he had seldom felt so miserable. They left the noise of Oxford behind, and no-one raised the hue and cry to drag them back, so that was good, wasn't it? That was good.
It felt darker outside the town walls, but it wasn't yet dark enough for the stars to appear. Rodney braced himself against the jolts, and listened to Sheppard and Dex talking in quiet voices on the bench, either not realising that he could overhear, or not caring if he did.
"…shouldn't have split up," Dex was saying. The rumble of wheels took his next words, leaving only, "--said I'd watch your back."
"We had to," Sheppard said. He sounded weary, Rodney thought. "…get more done."
Rodney's lungs felt as if they were rattling right out of his chest. Muttering oaths under his breath, he clung on tighter. "…protect me?" Dex said sharply. "So they could take you without getting me?"
Sheppard shook his head. Rodney didn't hear what he said, but he heard his own name.
Rodney clutched tighter. He were returning in triumph, of course, with money in his purse and prizes obtained. No-one had killed them bloodily, which was always good, and now he had everything he needed to proceed with his designs - or possibly everything; who knew what stupid blunders Dex had committed? The illiterate peasant had probably bought arquebuses instead of protractors and… Sugar! Maybe the blundering fool had bought sugar, to make more comfits, and…
Sheppard and Dex had fallen abruptly silent, he realised. "Quiet!" Sheppard hissed sharply, sparing Rodney a quick glance over his shoulder.
But I wasn't saying anything, Rodney thought, but he didn't say it. The shoulders of the men in front of him quivered with readiness. "What?" he asked, very quietly indeed.
Sheppard once more turned round to him. Perhaps it was just the dusk, but he looked like a different person from the tousled peasant who had come in from chopping wood. Like Dex, he looked dangerous.
"We're being followed," Sheppard said. "Armed men, going fast." His hand come up, its edge sharp. "Whatever happens, say nothing."
"Why not?" Rodney asked. "What're you going to do?"
"Whatever's necessary," Sheppard said.
Above them, low in the east, the first star was shining, perfect and bright.
This is rather a restrained portrait of Rodney McKay, which dates from around 1547. Seventeenth century reports from the annals of the Royal Society suggest that at least a dozen other portraits of the man were then extant, all of them showing him posing with a dazzling array of scientific devices, sometimes almost drowned by them. All his later flying machines were, of course, emblazoned with his image, twelve feet high and gilded with gold, but none of these have survived.
In which fugitives are multiplied according to a simple mathematical formula
Ronon readied himself to fight. Without taking his hands from the reins, he drew his long knife from his belt and laid it on the seat beside him. Sheppard was reaching under the bench, unlocking the case that concealed his sword. Sheppard was a gentleman both by birth and by bestowed title, but the life they lived did not allow him to openly carry a sword. Their cart held many secrets, stowed and ready for the day when they were cornered and longer capable of running.
"It might not be…" Sheppard began.
Ronon nodded. He steadied his breathing, and kept the horse trudging slowly forward. There was no reason to assume that this was pursuit closing in on them, but they had be ready in case it was. Such readiness had saved their lives several times over, though not without scars.
The road was wooded, lined with bare trees that showed only the first signs of early spring. The trees muffled sound, but the noise of drumming hoofbeats was growing louder with every breath. There were three of them, Ronon thought, looking over his shoulder. Sheppard had twisted fully around, watching openly. Of course, Ronon thought, even a farmer trudging home from market would show curiosity about soldiers riding fast. "One of them's closer," Sheppard said quietly. "I think he…" He stopped. Ronon saw his hand held beneath him, ready to grasp the sword, to throw off all masks and pretences.
And then the first horseman was upon them. The cart was at the apex of a bend, where the trees marched in close to the road, casting it in deeper darkness. The horseman drew level, and Ronon gripped his knife and prepared to leap from the bench and grapple him from the saddle, if that's what it came to. But the horseman ignored them. He rode past, swinging his leg over the saddle as he went. "He's going to…" Sheppard said, but it was already done, finished before the words were out.
As soon as he was past the bend, the rider threw himself from the galloping horse. He almost made the landing perfectly, but almost wasn't good enough; almost could still get you killed. He hit the ground hard, and rolled, shielding his head, then pushed himself to his feet and ran into the trees, hunched over and clearly hurt.
The riderless horse galloped on. "Did he just…?" McKay began. "Is he…? Was he supposed to do that?" but Sheppard turned round and snapped, "Be quiet!" like an echo of the John Sheppard who had once been a commander of men, before the lure of wings had turned him from that path.
And still their own horse trudged on, the cart lurching from side to side; Sheppard no longer needed to remind Ronon of the need to play a part, to walk on past things that once would have made him fight. The two pursuers raced past them without a word, chasing the riderless horse. There was just enough light left in the sky to show their livery.
Ronon glanced at Sheppard, but he could tell that Sheppard had noticed it, too; his face was taut and set with the knowledge of it. "Sheppard…" Ronon began, saying it anyway.
"Yes. I know. His men." Sheppard was stiff and hunched over, clutching the sword beneath the bench.
"That man…" McKay said, lurching behind them in the cart. "People can't just jump off a galloping horse like that, can they? Is that normal?"
Ronon let the horse walk slower and slower. Chasing their riderless quarry, the two horsemen had disappeared into the darkness ahead of them, the sound slowly fading away to nothing. "He'll be hurt." Ronon looked sharply at Sheppard.
"Enemy of my enemy?" Sheppard said quietly. "But it was never a battle I wanted to fight." He released the sword and sat up straight, then turned to look at the cart and the load that it carried. He wasn't looking at McKay; Ronon knew that. The cart held the things that would give him his wings again.
Their horse stopped entirely, though Ronon kept one hand on the reins. "It won't delay them long." Ronon said it loud enough to penetrate into the surrounding trees. "A horse without a rider will slow down - no point galloping if you don't have to. They'll come back."
"And they'll suspect us," Sheppard said, his sword hand gripping the edge of the bench.
A human shape moved in the trees, its shape obscured by trunks and branches. "I would not ask this of you," it said in the husky voice of a boy, "but this is an affair of the utmost importance. I have done nothing wrong. If they catch me, it will have the gravest of consequences to someone else - someone who is entirely innocent."
"Indeed?" Sheppard sounded lightly amused, giving nothing away.
"I speak of the…" The shape moved, the voice cracking and changing timbre. "Please. I have reason to believe…"
"You want to hide in our cart," Sheppard interrupted. "So when they come back, as they surely will, and search the cart, as they surely will, they will arrest not only you but us."
"I would never ask this normally," the fugitive said, edging forward, reaching out a hand, "but I am desperate. If they find me, I will tell them that you were ignorant of my presence."
"That you climbed into the cart and hid yourself under the canvas without us noticing, huh?" Sheppard said. "Think they'll believe it?"
Ronon shot him a sharp look. Sheppard, he knew, had once done just that, crossing half a county under a pile of sacks, with the carter none the wiser throughout.
"I have no desire to imperil you," the fugitive said. "This is of…"
The voice trailed off. Ahead of them, very faintly, Ronon could hear the sound of hoofbeats. The pursuers had discovered the riderless horse, and were returning. They would be angry now, too. No-one liked to be tricked.
"Utmost importance," Sheppard said. "I know." He cocked his head, listening. "And if you don't want to imperil us, you should go." He flapped his hand. "Run along into the trees like a good boy." He stressed the final word. "Why don't you climb one? Boys are good at climbing trees."
The sound of approaching horses grew louder. The shape of the fugitive melted into the trees without any further appeal. Ronon turned sharply towards Sheppard, but Sheppard held up a hand. "Our horse has a stone in its shoe," he said emphatically. "That's why we've barely moved since they passed us." He jumped down from the bench and moved to the horse's head, positioning himself on the far side, where the animal's bulk would shield him from the soldiers in the pay of the man he had more cause to fear than any man alive.
They were coming back. The soldiers were coming back, and Sheppard had just refused to help a boy who had begged him for help. Which was all entirely sensible, of course, because the boy was probably a thief and a vagabond who deserved any punishment he got, and Rodney had no desire to be clapped in irons and dragged off to hideous torture for helping him. No, the only thing Rodney wanted was to show the world the brilliance of his Mark IV machines, and you couldn't do that if you were dead in prison. Dying for a noble cause was uncomfortable enough, and not something that Rodney ever intended to do, but dying because of a snot-nosed brat…
He swallowed; pressed his lips together. The thunder of hooves grew louder and louder. "Stay quiet," Dex hissed, twisting round on the bench.
"Why does everyone keep telling me to be quiet?" Rodney said, but only quietly. The day he had just spent left him feeling uncomfortable. He wasn't used to being in situations when a wrong word could get you killed. It didn't happen like that when you were in your own study dealing with recalcitrant quicksilver and a tardy dinner.
"You!" The armed men reined up. "Have you seen a boy on a horse?" The one who spoke had an accent, probably Spanish.
"I saw a horse," Sheppard said. He was bent over their own horse, doing something to its hoof. What a strange coincidence it was, Rodney thought, that their horse should stand on a stone just as all the other terrifying things were happening all around them. Maybe horses pranced when they were nervous, and didn't look where they were going. Rodney did the same, sometimes, though without the prancing. More than once, it had earned him splinters.
Sheppard half stood up, keeping his hand on the horse's flank. "Didn't have a boy on it, though. The saddle was empty when it passed us." He waved a casual hand, hidden in shadow, indicating back the way they had come.
Rodney's breathing was fast and fluttering. He pressed a shaky hand to his chest. Act normal, he urged himself. Act in a way that won't get me bloodily slaughtered. He tried to lean casually on the side of the cart, but it was further away than he had thought it was. At least the canvas cushioned his fall, and his squawk was quite dignified and discreet. He suddenly remembered the cat his mother had owned when he was small, and the way it had licked its back leg to cover mishaps like this. Unfortunately, such a solution was beyond him.
"What's in your cart?" the soldier asked. He seemed to be looking directly at Rodney.
"Canvas," Rodney told him. His voice was higher than it normally was. He cleared his throat and tried again. The next few words sounded unnaturally low, but things sorted themselves out after a little while. "Materials for building a… a pavilion for… for entertaining guests in the summer. Because I have a lot of them. Guests, that is. We might have a…" What did people do with guests? "Joust," he said, "or sing madrigals, or… or dance, or…"
"Then you won't mind if we search it," the soldier said, stating it as a fact.
Rodney wasn't normally pleased at being interrupted, but decided that this was one of the exceptions. He was about to say something else, but he caught Sheppard looking at him sharply, or at least he thought he was; it was too dark to be sure. It was entirely possible that Sheppard was contending with a sudden gripe in the guts.
The soldiers tugged down the back of the cart, and proceeded to strew canvas and silk around with gay abandon. Rodney stared miserably at the packs that contained his specialist equipment, and wondered how on earth he could explain them away. Summer pavilions for foolish gentry didn't normally require advanced geometrical implements or pulley mechanisms or quantities of copper and brass. Perhaps he could say it was for a neighbour. Perhaps he could… No, no, it was all Sheppard's fault, wasn't it, and Rodney was going to point the finger of blame squarely at him the moment things became worrying. It's all Sheppard's fault, he rehearsed in his head, but then a soldier came stomping towards him, his boots stamping over delicate silk, and Rodney just pressed his lips together and said nothing at all.
One of the soldiers said something in Spanish. It might have been "there's no-one here," or it could have been, "behold! This is the deadly enemy of Spain - the master of flight itself." But then the soldiers jumped off the cart, leapt onto their horses again, and rode away.
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. It was quite surprising, he thought, how annoying it was when you were busy preparing yourself to fight for your life, only for your prospective torturers to swan off and leave you there, all alive and unthreatened. "Have they gone?" he whispered. "Is that it? They've gone, never coming back again, bye-bye fear of imminent death?"
"I can call them back again, if you like," Sheppard said. His hand was still on the horse's flank and he looked very stiff.
"No," Rodney said, gathering up his dignity. He'd stared into the face of scary soldiers, and he hadn't broken. Take that, fear of imminent death! He'd been quite brave, even though his silk had been trampled abominably.
"It was a very good thing," he said, deciding that it was only fair to extend some of the credit to Sheppard, "that you refused to help that boy."
"Mmm." Sheppard made a vague sound. "About that…" He took a few steps towards the trees. "They've gone," he said. "They've got miles of road to search."
The trees shivered, and the boy emerged from them. He was clearly hurt, but he kept his head high. "I thank you," he said.
"For lying?" Sheppard shrugged, as if lying was a sin that meant nothing at all. He looked at Ronon, but Rodney had no idea what, if anything, was being communicated. "I knew they'd search the cart," he said. "It was too obvious a hiding place. But a wood in the dark…" He shrugged stiffly. "Hey, it worked for Robin Hood."
The boy remained on the edge of the trees, a hand pressed to his side. "I apologise for involving you," he said. "I had no idea who you were when I leapt from the horse. It was only afterwards…" His voice caught on a gasp of pain, but he recovered himself well. "I know who you are," he said. "I know what you suffered, and at whose hands. I thought…" He almost fell; grasped at a branch to stay standing. Dex leapt from the bench and started towards the lad, but Sheppard stopped him with a hand on his arm. The boy raised his head, his stance proud. "I hoped you would help me. I hoped that our causes were the same."
Sheppard shrugged, giving a short, taut laugh. "My cause? Now that's a funny thing, because I don't have a cause. I'm just trying to stay alive."
"Oh! The boy isn't talking to you, you fool," Rodney said, gasping aloud his sudden revelation. He turned to the boy, raising his chin in a noble pose akin to the one that Holbein himself had painted him in. "You recognised me. Well, I am a man of noted fame." He tugged at his doublet, straightening it proudly. "You followed me from Oxford, didn't you? Are you an apprentice seeking a master?"
"I know you," the boy said, walking forward, still trying to put everyone off the scent by looking only at Sheppard, when obviously he meant Rodney, surely he did. "I will not speak your name in case the trees have ears, but our friends were once the same, and one of those friends is in deadly danger. Please…" His voice broke off, he tottered sideways, and then he crumpled to the ground.
Everything was very quiet for a very long time - as long as Rodney could count to three, and even a little bit more. Rodney's hand come up, pointing. "He fainted. Why do people keep on fainting? Well, I'm not carrying him. My back still hurts from the last fugitive rogue that I carried." No-one else seemed to be moving. Rodney gathered up a handful of silk and clutched it tight. Things felt a bit better when he was touching such tangible evidence of the imminence of his Mark IV machine. "Are we going to leave him here? We're going to leave him here, aren't we?"
"Sheppard," Dex said sharply, perhaps even with warning in his voice.
Sheppard let out a breath, his shoulders slumping, then stiffening. "No," he said. "No, McKay, of course we aren't." He exchanged another long look with Ronon, and then the two of them moved forward together to pick the boy up.
Rodney tried to protest, but couldn't quite manage it.
Too many questions were repeated in the darkness, sounding over and over in John's head, audible in the rumble of the wheels, in the sound of hooves on the road.
It was best not to answer them, he thought. He focused on the easy things, the immediate things. After nearly two years as a fugitive, he knew how to treat simple injuries. He knew how to check that a wounded person was still breathing. He knew how to keep his ears open for the sound of pursuit, and he knew how to blend into the shadows and encourage pursuers to ride past without stopping.
Two miles passed before he allowed them a lantern. The light showed Ronon like a statue on the bench, while McKay fidgeted next to him, all anxious movements. "So now I'm in the company of three fugitives," McKay said. "Three. It was two just an hour ago. That's a rate of increase of… quite a lot. Half as much again. I am sure some mathematical formula could be applied."
"So you should have four and a half of us by this time next week," John said. He could still feel breathing beneath his hand, and a steady heartbeat at the throat.
"This one, at least, we'll soon get rid of," McKay said, twisting in the bench, light falling only on one side of his face. "You do intend to dump him, don't you - shove him in the direction of an ale-house or a nice, plump farmer? We don't need a boy in our happy band. Unless he can make comfits?" His voice rose hopefully. "Or sew. We do have a balloon to make, after all. Can boys sew? What do boys do?"
"Weren't you a boy yourself?" John said. It was easier to talk about such things than about the things that really needed to be talked about. "Or did you spring from Jove's head like Athena, ready armed with your wits?"
"Maybe he was a girl, not a boy," Ronon said. It was the first thing he had said for over a mile. Something inside John eased just a little bit. "Mistress McKay." He flashed a quick smile, bright in the lantern light.
John had expected McKay to splutter in outrage, but he just sniffed, straightening his doublet. "Of course I wasn't like the other boys. The other boys played at ball; I wrote a treatise - in Latin, naturally - on the motion of the ball after it left their hands. Parabolic, you know?" He let out a breath. "Of course, they were usually throwing it at…" He stopped, and sat more still after that.
The heartbeat continued, strong and steady. There was a hidden compartment in the floor of the cart, and John had already dug beneath the canvas to open it, extracting the herbs and bandages. He could find little sign of serious injury, though, just bruises and the evidence of riding too far and too fast without stopping for food and drink.
"It is my house," McKay said, sounding almost petulant. "At least the two of you are quite shoddy fugitives, as fugitives go. I think you misinformed me about your importance, you know. Those soldiers went right past you without going into a tirade of excitement about 'it's him! The notorious traitor is unmasked!' I'm beginning to think that the hideous torture isn't going to happen at all."
"I do apologise," John said. The heartbeat began to change beneath his hand.
"But this boy," McKay said, "has soldiers - real, live soldiers - chasing him now. This boy puts the hideous torture right back on the menu. If we keep him, that is." Neither John nor Ronon said anything. "If you carry him into my house." The horse walked a few more steps. Faint lights showed villages in the distance. "My house," McKay said plaintively. "You just came crashing in without a by-your-leave."
"Made comfits, though," Ronon said. It silenced McKay in the way that a bullet to the chest would silence a different sort of man.
The breathing quickened. John removed his hand and sat back, surrounded by the materials needed to give him wings, cocooned in canvas. The light was faint, just enough to see the eyes that opened and looked at him.
"You are John Sheppard?" The voice was little more than a whisper.
John found that his hand was resting on his dagger. God help me, he thought, but he couldn't stop himself. He didn't answer, neither to confirm nor deny it. When people knew your name, of course, your fate was already set, and the only thing that could get you out of it was your sword or your wits or plain blessed luck.
The boy was a woman, of course; John had known that almost from the start. She struggled to sit up, and John let her. "I need to go," she said. "I have very important tidings…"
"Will a delay of a day make a difference to the tidings?" John asked.
Yes! the woman's body cried out, but at length she shook her head, resting back slowly on the canvas. "It will not," she said.
John released his grip on his knife. "You're hurt," he said. "I don't think it's bad, but I'd wager you haven't slept in a proper bed for a while. Besides, those men'll be scouring the roadside, looking for you. Come back with us, and you can change your clothes, get a new horse, and set out from a completely different direction tomorrow."
McKay cleared his throat. When no-one said anything, he cleared it again and then again, until he broke into a paroxysm of coughing. Ronon clapped him on the back, and then he coughed some more. "You oaf!" he managed, between coughs. "Are you… trying to… kill me?" He waved his hand desperately. "My house."
"It's only for a night," John said. "I expect she can sew, too. Ladies usually can."
"What lady?" McKay pressed his hand to his chest, as if that could physically suppress his coughs. "What? What?" His voice was briefly almost a squeak. "He's a woman? He's a… he's not a he but a she? A woman? But he climbed a tree. He's wearing breeches. Women don't wear breeches. I used to think that women didn't even have legs, you know, but flared out from the waist like a flat-bottomed tankard. Mind you, I was fift-- eight at the time. Four. "
"I assure you that we do have legs," the woman said. "I apologise if I have shocked you, but the disguise was necessary."
McKay frowned. "Are you sure you're a woman?"
"I believe the evidence is quite conclusive," the woman said.
"But you can't turn down a request from a lady." McKay was twisting his hands together nervously, his voice still harsh from recent coughing. "I'll have to invite you in and entertain you, and I haven't got a parlour full of nosegays or a troupe of madrigal singers or pretty handkerchiefs or a spinning wheel or delicate things, and… and there are images of the human form in the treatises on anatomy on my shelves, all entirely without their clothes on, and what if a lady should stumble on such things by accident?"
"So you're inviting her in, McKay?" John asked.
"Yes," McKay said. "Yes. Yes. I have to, don't I? Oh, this is so unexpected. I'll have to wash the bed hangings." He turned to the woman. "Are you really sure you're a woman?"
"I am very sure," she said, and for the first time since they had seen her, she smiled.
Teyla had been a maid of honour to the Princess Elizabeth when Sir John Sheppard had been the most daring and accomplished of Protector Somerset's cherished pilots. If he had shown little interest in court life, that had only added to his appeal. The other ladies blushed into their handkerchiefs and fluttered sighing in his oblivious wake. Teyla only watched, and put him neither on her list of allies nor her list of those who could not be trusted, but on a list of his own. John Sheppard had loyalties, yes, but she doubted they were to princes.
But then King Edward had died, and Sheppard, along with the other surviving pilots, had been arrested. It was only the wildest and quietest of rumours that told of his escape, and they had spread for a month or two, and then gone silent. But Teyla's business was to chase down rumours and find the truth behind them. Sir John Sheppard, she knew, had suffered in prison, before his friend, Ronon Dex from the Marches, had done the impossible and broken him out.
She had not known what had become of them after that. Although she still chased rumours, the ones she had sought for the past year were rumours that struck far closer to home than tales of a rider of the wind whose heart called no man master.
And now he had surfaced here, not far away from her goal, with Dex still at his side. The moon was bright enough to show the outline of the house he was taking her to. It was a pale house, made of the soft yellow limestone common to these parts, surrounded by an ill-tended garden. The house belonged to Doctor Rodney McKay, the man who had designed the flying machines, and who had filled the hallways and corridors of power with boasting about it.
Doctor McKay had never been on her list of allies, either. Teyla's business was secrets; McKay kept a secret no longer than a duck's back kept a drop of water. It disturbed her to be forced to trust him, but she was desperate. Sheppard was more astute than he looked, and he had chosen to reveal the truth of her sex to McKay. Whatever else Sheppard was, she knew that he was not malicious. He must have considered it worth the risk.
Or maybe he just had a strange sense of honour when it came to keeping secrets from his host. If he did, then she… she envied him, she thought. Once, long ago, she had been open and honest, too, before necessity and a harsh world had put an end to that.
"I hope it won't offend decency if we put you in the bed Ronon and I have been using," Sheppard said, as he went with her up the stairs, lighting her way with a candle. "McKay appears to have sold all the other spare beds, doubtless to an unscrupulous peddler who gave him a ducat for the lot of them."
Teyla hurt in every bone. It was exhaustion, pure and simple, that had made her faint. She had followed the trail for weeks until she had found what she had been looking for, and then had ridden for three days, hunted for her life for two of them.
"I believe I started to offend decency many years ago," she said. Living as she did, she had learnt not to be coy about accepting help when it was given. Her need for a bed tonight was greater than Sheppard's. If Teyla was rested, her mistress might live; it was as simple as that.
Sheppard paused on the lantern. Two years had changed him greatly, she realised, casting shadows on his soul even deeper than the shadows the candlelight cast on his face. "Did you recognise us…?" he began,
Teyla shook her head. "Not at first. Only when I emerged from the trees." Weariness almost felled her. She grabbed for the support of the wall, and Sheppard's hand ghosted over her back, not quite sure whether it should hold her up. She found herself strangely touched by his reticence.
Sheppard withdrew her hand. "I've seen you before."
Not enough to know her name, then. It did not surprise her; his focus always had been elsewhere. "Teyla Emmagen," she said, because she had already trusted him with her life, and she had long knives hidden in her clothes, and knew how to use them.
He nodded slowly. "You served Princess Elizabeth." They reached the bedroom. Sheppard passed Teyla the light, but remained at the door, perhaps mindful of propriety.
"I still do," Teyla said.
There were so few people she could trust, and even fewer that she could confide in. They will expect you to have loyal men to work as your agents, Teyla had said to the princess years before, but they will not expect to see a woman. At first she had done her work while clothed in the proper garb of a gentlewoman, moving through the circles within circles that formed the court. Then King Edward had died, and Princess Elizabeth had no longer been favoured. A year after that, Thomas Wyatt, rash fool that he was, had raised a rebellion to kill Queen Mary and put Princess Elizabeth on the throne. Wyatt had died a traitor's death, but Princess Elizabeth, innocent focus of his plot, had paid a price almost as great.
"She is under close arrest at Woodstock," Teyla said, sitting down wearily on the edge of the bed. The light flickered, showing her echoes of the things that she had seen. "We were not allowed to accompany her, and she is allowed no communication with the outside world. There are some in the Queen's circle who still desire the death of my princess."
"Some?" Sheppard said, just a shadow in the door.
Oh, but she was too weary to fence with words. "A man called Kolya," Teyla said. "The man who had you tortured. He is planning to kill the princess, and I am the only person who knows this, the only person who can save her life."
end of chapter four
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