Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: On the Wings of an Eagle - part 3 of 5

On the Wings of an Eagle - part 3 of 5

The story starts here



Chapter five
In which our heroes are sore beset with arquebus and silk
__

Ronon was plucking snatches of old airs on the lute. Floorboards creaked above him, and a low wordless hum of talking drifted down the stairs. Ronon wove the music around the sounds, then added in an old Border song, stripped of its words that told only of revenge and slaughter.

'We belong to a good family,' his mother had told him, 'as noble and as ancient as the soft lords and ladies in the south. I will not have it said that we are lacking in manners, for all the harshness of the land we live in.' And so Ronon had spent the morning with sword and buckler, and the afternoon learning tunes in the parlour. He had returned from the Hot Trod, bloody and exhausted, to practise dancing the pavane with his mother's ladies.

He had forgotten how much he had valued music once. His fingers, stiffened by the sword and by rough living, tripped over notes that had once been fluid, but it was enough. It was enough.

At length the sound of talking ceased. Ronon changed to a quiet tune, one with few memories attached to it. Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Sheppard came in, as Ronon had known he would. The fire was faint, just a few tongues of flame lapping the edges of the logs, but not yet consuming them. Ronon watched his fingers moving slowly on the strings, and he watched Sheppard beyond them, as he stepped over McKay's papers until he reached the stool.

"She's uncovered a plot," Sheppard said. Ronon reached a cadence, then stopped the tune, pressing his hand on the strings to silence their lingering resonance. "Some of the Spaniards at court intend to kill Princess Elizabeth the morning after Lady Day."

Dates meant little when each day was about trying to survive, and when high days and holidays were closed to you. Lady Day was the twenty-fifth of March, the first day of the new year. By the stars and by the buds on the trees, Ronon imagined that it was in a week or two.

"Eight days," Sheppard said. His hands were very still in his lap, held between his knees. "Fortunately, the princess is imprisoned at Woodstock, which is just a few hours' ride from here. Mistress Emmagen can deliver the warning, the plot will be averted, job done, happy ever after."

Ronon ran his fingers up and down the smooth belly of the lute. "So she's going tomorrow, then?" His thumb struck a note, but his other hand was still silencing the strings. "And after that we carry on as we were?"

Sheppard stood up and moved to the window, showing Ronon only his back. "You thought I'd refuse to help. Back there. I could tell. You thought I'd let them take her."

Ronon put the lute down. "I… wasn't sure."

Even from behind, you could still read a man. Sheppard's hand tightened on the edge of the window frame, and the muscles of his neck were very stiff. "You thought I'd let his men - his men - take her away because I didn't want to risk our cart-load of supplies."

Ronon didn't like to lie, and never to Sheppard. "I didn't think you would," he said, "but--"

"Because I was tempted to." Sheppard's fist clenched. For a moment, Ronon thought he was going to smash it right through the glass. "God knows, I was tempted. Not for long. Not seriously. But…"

"I know." Ronon remained sitting, his hand on the silent lute.

"You don't know what it's like to fly," Sheppard said. "It's like… Ronon, I wasn't properly alive before I flew. I can't lose that. I can't. But it isn't… I'm not…" He half turned, but not enough for Ronon to see his face. "He's the one behind the plot. Kolya. I said we'd help her get the news through - escort her to Woodstock, and help her if there's opposition on the road." His voice rose slightly, almost as if he was seeking approval; as if he wanted Ronon to give him his blessing and reassure him that he wasn't entirely damned.

"Then that's what we'll do," Ronon said, standing up at last, with one last, quick touch of the lute. "We'll need horses, though. You think McKay'll lend us the money for them?"

Sheppard's smile was grateful. "Sweeten the request with comfits, and he'll do anything."

The flames moved to the untouched log at last, flooding the room with light.

******

How was Rodney supposed to work with a lady in the house? Sometimes he got so caught up in his very important work that he didn't worry about egg stains on the front of his shirt, and what of it, eh? But ladies didn't think it was nothing. Ladies bothered about things like that. In Sir Thomas Malory's famous book - fanciful nonsense, of course, but his mother had liked it - brave knights never won fair ladies with egg stains on their armour.

He couldn't find any egg stains today, though, although he checked himself over three times. With a bowl of new comfits at his side, he arranged himself at the desk in his study in a pose that suggested unstinting application at matters of the mind.

The lady in question appeared some time after ten of the clock; Rodney didn't know exactly what time it was, on account of having left his watch on the far side of the bowl of comfits. She knocked prettily on his open door, and even gave a slight curtsey, although the effect was rendered disturbing by the fact that she was still wearing man's array.

"I apologise for retiring so soon last night without proper introduction." She spoke like a gentle-born lady. Hearing such a voice from someone wearing a boy's clothes was as incongruous as hearing a quack come out of the mouth of a cat, or… or delicate lute tunes come from a man like Dex. It threw Rodney even deeper into confusion. The tip of his pen snapped, with the usual messy results. He covered it with a sweep of his shielding arm. "My name is Teyla Emmagen," the lady said. "And you are Doctor Rodney McKay. I remember you from the late king's court."

"I don't remember you," Rodney said, but perhaps that was rude; perhaps you shouldn't say such things to a lady. He tried to make things better, like a… whoever it was who mended fences. "Mind you, I don't remember many people. I've never seen any point in remembering names. What is a name but a meaningless collection of sounds? I don't think it should matter if you forget one once in a while."

His sleeve made the small splash of spilled ink larger, and everything he did to clear it up just made it worse and worse. Perhaps there was a moral lesson in that, he thought. He pressed his mouth shut, and resolved to say nothing else.

Of course, he remembered belatedly, the woman, lady, female… er… person had called him 'doctor' without prompting. "Do you, uh, need food?" he asked. "Potage? Wine? I haven't got any, but how hard can it be to make; it's simple alchemy, after all. Do you need women's clothing? I haven't got any of that, either, but Kavanagh… He hasn't got any, either, but he can run along to somewhere or other and get some. I've got money now, you know? Rent. Lots of it. Or do you need, uh… flowers, or… or a comfy chair, or jewellery, or a yapping lap dog or a little cat…?"

"I need nothing," the lady said with a smile. Mistress Emmagen, he corrected himself. His eyes kept bouncing off her like light from a polished surface, reflecting off it at an angle equivalent to the angle at which it hit. Ladies weren't supposed to have legs.

Rodney decided that he was probably quite relieved when Sheppard and Dex came crashing in from the garden in their unambiguously masculine way. Sheppard's legs might be irritating, but they were a relief to see after the lady's. "We've got horses," Sheppard said.

"Horses," Rodney echoed. He helped himself to a handful of comfits, and decided that he would offer some to Mistress Emmagen later, perhaps in an hour or two. "How much of my money did you pay for them?"

Sheppard named a figure. Rodney decided not to hear it. When he had sold his father's horses, he had received a mere tenth of that per creature. Perhaps that travelling peddler hadn't been an entirely scrupulous man. It was a sad sign of the fallen times that they lived in.

"Got saddles, too," Dex said. He named a somewhat less alarming price.

Rodney humphed, and tilted the comfit bowl towards Dex, suggesting to him that it was almost empty, and encouraging him to think of the remedy for that.

"I will pay you back," Sheppard said earnestly, "for everything."

Rodney flapped his hand, faltered a little when he realised that such a promise could actually be a threat, then resumed the gesture. "Anything for a fair lady," he said.

The lady singularly failed to melt or simper at his words. "We need to leave immediately," she said. "Are you sure…?"

"Yes," Sheppard said flatly. Dex looked at him. Sheppard returned the look with an unblinking, defiant gaze, or maybe he just had indigestion; if the eyes were a window into a man's soul, Rodney didn't know how to open the shutters.

"You're going now?" Rodney looked from man to… er… not man. "All of you?"

Sheppard had explained it the night before: threat to the princess Elizabeth, dastardly plot, urgent need for haste, innocent virgins to save, etcetera etcetera. "Now," he said, "if Mistress Emmagen is well enough."

"I am well enough," the lady said, probably resolutely, or possibly just feeling sick.

Rodney watched them turn to go. He made an inarticulate sound in the back of his throat, as if words wanted to push their way out, but he didn't know what they were. Sheppard heard it, if no-one else did. "Even if we are caught," he said, "you won't be implicated. We'll say you imposed on our hospitality without telling you what our true business was. If we run into opposition, we won't come back." He looked at Dex, a quick glance. "At least, not until the dust has settled."

Rodney said nothing at all. The lady just nodded this time, more like a man than a woman. She left first, hurrying away, eager to be gone. Dex followed without a word. Sheppard gave a slight bow, perhaps mocking, or perhaps not, then spun on his heels to go.

"I'll be able to get on with my work when you've gone," Rodney said. Sheppard took a step to go. "Of course," Rodney added, "my Mark IV machine is no use without someone to fly it." Another step. "And there's plenty of sugar left, enough for at least three more batches." Another step. "And the canvas is still on the cart, and I'm not going to lift it down."

Sheppard stopped, half turned enough for Rodney to see his brief smile, and then he was gone.

******

It was several months since Teyla had been to Woodstock. Her princess was a close prisoner, and although there were ways to communicate with her, they were dangerous, and could not be over-used for fear of compromising them. Teyla did her best work far away from the princess that she served.

She had woken in the morning to find her body aching more than she had thought possible, but she had pushed the pain aside, put on her clothes, and now once more sat astride a horse, engaged in the business that had consumed her life for the past years.

"Why the day after Lady Day?" Sheppard asked, as they passed over open fields, with no possibility of anyone overhearing. Labourers worked far away, a dog barked from a distant farm, but no-one moved closer than that.

Teyla shook her head. "I was unable to learn the nature of the plot."

"If she is murdered in captivity," Sheppard said, "that could be the spark that lights the fires of full-blown rebellion. Even many people sympathetic to the Roman religion will be repulsed by the murder of a daughter of the late King Henry."

"They'll make it look like an accident," Dex said. "Nothing they can be blamed for. Eliminate the problem, but don't take the blame for it."

"Indeed," Teyla agreed, "which is why I am so anxious to carry the warning. A staged accident can be avoided if fore-warned."

"And someone being held down by half a company and having their throat slit can't be." Sheppard said it lightly, but seemed to lose the heart for it half way through.

Teyla gripped the reins tightly. If Kolya and his men planned to murder the princess by force, there was nothing that Teyla could do about it. A company of armed men was the only thing that could help, but raising such a company would be seen as rebellion. The princess had only narrowly escaped execution after Wyatt's rebellion. Any further hint of armed rebellion would lead her to be put on trial for sure.

And perhaps, she thought, disquiet stabbing in her chest… Perhaps she had been intended to overhear what she had overheard, to goad her and the princess' supporters into a rash act that would discredit their mistress for ever. Perhaps the only way to save her princess was to walk away.

No, she thought, because Kolya's men had given chase and had gone to great lengths to try to catch her and silence her. The danger was real. The plot was real. She had to do this. She had to.

But to do this with others at her side… A spy worked alone, and Teyla had long since stopped denying that she was a spy. If a spy worked with others, they were people she trusted more than anyone else alive. Sheppard and Dex did not fall into that category, but being a spy forced you to use any weapons available to you, and to strike low blows. Teyla had told Sheppard about Kolya's involvement; that was a low blow. Sheppard's eyes had darkened with pain, but then everything had been subsumed in a taut mask. But Sheppard had been won over, perhaps, and where Sheppard went, Dex went.

Their path took them through a coppice, darkness shadowing the road. Teyla had not needed to warn the other two about talking in places that could hide unseen watchers. They talked of inconsequential things, like two yeomen and a boy heading to market. "To market, to market, to buy a fat pig," Sheppard murmured.

"Home again, home again, jiggety-jig." Teyla remembered the rhyme from her childhood, chanted by the nurse she would never see again.

Home again, she thought. Home again… But a spy had no home, and Teyla saw no prospect of ever living in any other way than this. She would not incite rebellion or encourage fanatics who wanted to kill the queen, but without such things, what would be the end of it?

It had been clouding over throughout the morning, and a fine rain was thickening the air when they emerged from the trees. All three of them twisted in the saddle to look over their shoulders, moving in unison, each one driven by their different experiences of life as a hunted fugitive.

"I will do the final part alone," Teyla said, when she knew that the way was still clear.

The rain grew heavier. Sheppard settled his hand more squarely on his head. "They'll be looking for a boy by himself. We're your protection in more ways than one."

"I know," she said, "which is why I accepted your offer of an escort." Or manipulated him into making the offer, but it was better not to say that. "However, the final approach is through secret ways that are best trodden just by one. You should stay on the public road. You might… distract attention for a while, but that is all." She managed a smile, because she was grateful, really she was, that these near-strangers were willing to risk the lives for her cause. "I have no desire to endanger you," she said softly. "You, too, are wanted men."

"Oh, only a little," Sheppard said with a shrug, but she had picked up reports in dark, underground places, and she had a fair idea of what scars he wore under his clothes.

"No," she said firmly, because already they were approaching her princess' prison, glimpsing the nearby town beyond the fields. "I thank you for escorting me this far, but…"

Had it not been raining, perhaps she would have seen the soldiers earlier, but there was no sunlight to glint off their breastplates and their guns. As it was, Dex saw them first, raising his hand sharply in warning. Sheppard reached over and pushed his arm down. "There's no reason why they should suspect us," he said quietly. "Innocent farmers on their way to market, remember? If we turn and run now…"

They carried on walking, the horses' hooves sounding dull in the thickening mud. Teyla's mouth went very dry. She could see them now - a small company of them guarding the road. She would have to pass them to reach her secret way.

The soldiers had seen them. "Kolya's men," Dex said quietly, his eyes even keener than her own.

Sheppard's knuckles were white on the reins. "He'll have some excuse for planting them here," he said. "Some imaginary threat, perhaps even one to the princess herself. And, by doing so, he prevents anyone from carrying a warning."

The rain fell heavier and heavier. Already the town was disappearing, lost in low cloud. I cannot do this, Teyla thought. The soldiers blocked their way, and they knew her, they knew her. But the others, with as much to lose as she had from capture, were walking on, going brazenly into the very mouth of Hell rather than back down. "No." The word felt as if it was ripped out of her, but even then it sounded quiet in the rain. "We have to turn back."

"It'll look suspicious," Sheppard pointed out.

"Better than walking unarmed into the lion's den," Teyla said.

They turned their horses heads around. The soldiers fired on them before they had gone a dozen yards.

******

Rodney was overwhelmed with silk. There were cracks in the walls of the stable, and they made the silk billow like an unruly cloak on a stormy day. He tried to fold it up so it didn't get dirty, but soon came to the conclusion that although the human body was the embodiment of perfection in form and ratio, made the very image of God, and all that, it was not suited to wrangling recalcitrant silk.

"I need to be nine feet tall," Rodney gasped, "with as many arms as a hydra."

Old straw got caught up in things. A peacock feather managed to appear from somewhere. "I don't need the silk yet, anyway," Rodney told it, sniffing haughtily. "It's far too early for that. Besides, sewing the silk is menial work. Done under supervision, of course." He bundled the silk up again and thrust it into the cart, stuffing in armful after armful. It seemed to take up twice as much space as it had done before he had started to master it.

The hydra preyed on his mind as he returned to the house. He had a vague feeling that they had a lot of heads, but only the usual quantity of arms. Maybe he meant 'Cyclops'. "But they're all only stupid stories," he said. Kavanagh was glowering over dough in the kitchen, making his usual tasteless bread. "How many arms does a Cyclops have?" Rodney asked him as he passed.

Kavanagh sniffed. "One, of course. Odysseus cut it off." He said it with an air of I can't believe you don't know that. But he didn't know how to make a Mark IV Aeronautical Machine fly.

Rodney headed into the parlour. His mother's lute had been placed on the bench, doubtless just cast down there by the uncivilised rogues who had invaded his house. The room seemed quiet without music from the lute, and cold without the fire in the hearth, although he hadn't lit the fire in here for over a year, until Sheppard and Dex had come here and decided to make free with chopping logs. His papers were entirely ruined, scattered across the floor where Sheppard and Dex had left them when they had been clearing places to sit.

"At least I can put things back to rights now they're away," Rodney muttered. He pushed up his sleeves and got to work on the scattered papers…; on the neat piles of scattered papers…; on the neat piles that preserved the original order perfectly, while still allowing the room to look something like a parlour, with actual places to sit, and everything.

"Hmph," he grunted angrily. On the way to his study, he popped his head into the kitchen. "Put spices in the bread," he commanded. "It's barely edible otherwise."

There were no fresh comfits in his study. His books sat there neatly all in a row, waiting for him to ask them to convey their wisdom. He had paper and pen and a whole reservoir of wisdom waiting to spill out into words and diagrams. He had silence in the house to think. For the first time in a week, he didn't have inconvenient outlaws who were likely to draw down the wrath of the Queen on his head. He didn't have lute-playing and impertinence and the sound of wood being chopped outside the window.

"At last," he said, stretching out his toes, "I've got a chance to carry on with my very important work."

Smells drifted in from the kitchen. They were not inviting. He looked at his watch, and saw that barely two hours had passed since Sheppard, Dex and the disconcerting lady had left. He dipped his pen in the ink, then held it in the air until all the ink had dried up.

Had they been captured yet? He went to the window, but all he could see was a rain-soaked knot garden, and some soggy magpies in a tree. They might be dead in a ditch by now, or captured for hideous torture. They might be blurting out his name even now, and he had an almost-finished… well, a half-finished… He had a just-started Mark IV Aeronautical Machine in his stable, and the Queen had expressly ordered him not to make such things again.

He returned to his desk; dipped his pen again. Another hour passed. He wrote four lines. Unthinking, his pen drew nasty things in the margin, like chains and a gallows and a sad-looking frog. He scored them out, and wrote nineteen words about the problem of negotiating turbulent air.

How quiet the house was, how quiet! He returned to the window, to peer out into the rain. "I don't want to be arrested," he told the absent Sheppard, who had ruined his paperwork somehow; Rodney just hadn't yet discovered the bit that he'd ruined. "I don't…" He thought of the machine taking shape in the stable. "I want to make it," he said. "I want to see it fly." And it wouldn't fly unless Sheppard kept himself alive, and came back to fly it.

And it wouldn't be made at all, he realised, unless Sheppard and Dex were here to help him. "Because I wouldn't dare to do it by myself," he said quietly, "without them as the spur." His breath frosted the cold window. He wiped it off. There was still no-one outside. Of course there wasn't; they hadn't yet had time to get there and back, even if nothing went wrong.

The room was cold. The kitchen would be warmer, he thought, so he went there and watched Kavanagh work, and talked to him occasionally of many things.

It was only when the bread was warm in his hands, smelling spicy and unprecedentedly lovely, that he remembered.

"The Cyclops only had one eye," he said, snapping his fingers. "Ha! I was right!"

The bread was indeed delicious. It was enough to make him benevolent and munificent, so he allowed Kavanagh to help him with his flying machine, and he even cast some pearls of wisdom in his direction as he worked.

******

There was nowhere to hide. The guns cracked, but it was too far, surely it was too far for them to hit. "Back to the trees!" Teyla heard Sheppard say, his voice muffled by rain and by her desperation.

They wheeled off the road. "Separate!" Dex shouted. "Split the target."

"But not too far apart." Sheppard was bent over his horse's neck, urging it forward. They left the track and headed for the nearest coppice, in a strung-out chain with Sheppard at the front.

The threat of the soldiers behind them was blunted, Teyla knew. By the time they reloaded their arquebuses, Teyla and the others would be safely out of range. Even if they discarded their clumsy firearms and mounted in order to give pursuit, Teyla and her companions had a start on them. But they had weary horses, too, and no strategy planned in advance. Teyla had never faced gunfire before. Her horse's hooves pounded, and rain whipped at her face. Pain flooded her body with every jolt of the saddle. It was hard not to be afraid.

"Where shall we go?" she shouted over the noise, because basic human instinct cried at her to go away, to go away as fast as she could, but her princess was ahead of her and Teyla needed to carry her warning.

"Cover," Sheppard said, but not pointing, not giving things away. Ronon looked over his shoulder, but whatever he saw there, he did not say.

The coppice bore down on them, the trees whipping from side to side with the rhythms of the gallop. Then two men took shape at the edge of it, wearing black, blending into the shadows of the trees. They fired their arquebuses, two flashes of fire barely thirty yards away.

The horses were sturdy, accustomed to being ridden by farmers and their stout sons. Sheppard's horse pranced, and he had to fight to keep control of it. Dex's continued without slowing almost to the tree-line itself, then shied sideways, loathe to enter. The soldiers drew back behind the trees. Their shots are spent, Teyla told herself, as she urged her horse to slow down into a trot. Her job was quiet one, where words were exchanged in the shadows, and people died only when they needed to, from an intimate knife by someone who stayed to hear their final breath. A weapon that could cut someone down at a distance had always horrified her. But they cannot hurt me, she told herself, unless I let them get close.

Trees were cover. Trees made everyone alike, forced to live by wits and the knife. Keep calm, she told herself, as she entered the shadowed places. Her horse moved slowly, avoiding roots and branches.

Then she heard a sound behind her; turned in the saddle to see Dex bent low, grasping the right hand of a black-clad soldier who was trying to stab him in the thigh. Sheppard hurled himself from his horse, grappling the second soldier, dragging him to the ground. They fought for the arquebus, swinging it like a club. Then Sheppard twisted, avoiding a knife that Teyla had not seen drawn; the rain and the trees made a blur of things.

"See if you can get through," Sheppard gasped, meeting her eyes. "We'll handle it here." He pushed himself up, panting, a bloody knife in his hand, as a soldier slumped to the ground. Sheppard snatched up the arquebus, and left the trees, mounting with one hand. Dex, Teyla saw, was still on his horse, a soldier crumpled at his feet. Sheppard had shown no sign of noticing him, but Teyla knew suddenly that this was only because he had never stopped being aware of him. These men had fought for at each other's side many times before.

And still she sat. Were they meaning to hold off all comers, to buy her the time to take her message, even with their lives? It was the right thing to do, of course, and she should take the chance offered, but…

"The others aren't coming," Dex said sharply.

"A trap, then." Sheppard urged his horse into the trees and set off into the heart of them.

"Or they fear a trap." Dex looked at Teyla as if she was supposed to understand.

Sheppard nodded briskly. They wove through trees, going in one direction, then veering sharply to travel in another. The rain filled the wood with sound, so the noise of their passage was less than it should have been. "A trap could be arranged," he said with a grim smile. The smile turned almost mocking when he looked at Teyla. "What say you, my lady? Shall we dispose of those gentlemen on yonder road to let you go sallying through?"

Sheppard's arm was soaked in blood, she saw, from a broad rent in the top of his sleeve, and the hand on the arquebus was stiff and pale. Dex had a gash across his thigh, and two soldiers lay still on the edge of the wood, perhaps dead. "You are hurt," she said.

"Just a scratch." Sheppard shrugged. Dex looked sharply at him, but accepted his obvious lie.

This was normal for them, she realised. She felt lost, as if the pain of her aching body was driving out all thought. She had been in control. She had manipulated Sheppard and Dex to come here with her today. And this is the end result, she thought, with knives and bullets and a cold, empty death. . She pulled the strings, but somewhere, far away and out of sight, people died because of the seeds that she planted and the messages that she sent. Armed just with secrets, she had the power to end lives. She could kill at a distance more effectively than any arquebus.

And she had known this. She had always known this, but…

Teyla let out a slow breath. Rain fell down from the bare branches, cold against the skin of her neck. "If this way is guarded," she said, "the others will be. If they are refraining from pursuing us, it is because they believe they have encouraged us to seek an alternative route, where the resistance is even greater." Manipulation was something she knew about, after all.

Sheppard was still moving forward, but they were nearing the far edge of the coppice. "Of course," he said, "they might be following us, after all, just in sneaky ways that we haven't noticed."

Dex nodded. "Or they're lying in wait-- In God's name, Sheppard, give me that. You can hardly hold it." His hand lashed out towards the arquebus, but he was gentle when he came to take it, prizing it from Sheppard's resisting hand. Sheppard glowered, but took the chance that had been offered to him, pressing his forearm against his middle to keep his injured arm still.

The trees thinned with every step. Shapes moved beyond the trees, but perhaps they were only branches in the wind, and the slanting fall of heavy rain. Not far away, she heard the sound of cattle, disconsolate in the cold.

"So what say you, my lad?" Sheppard's voice was quiet, but he spoke now as if people could hear.

Teyla's trade was in whispers, and her reply was quieter still. "I have no desire to throw your lives away. We find another way, another day."

And then they emerged into the light, and rain fell in their faces, but the fields ahead of them were clear, with nothing but rooks mustering in the trees to watch them as they fled.

******

Photobucket

This portrait shows Teyla Emmagen in the garb of a noble lady in waiting. Did the painter know what secrets she hid beneath her stately exterior? Iconographers have come up with various theories about the patterns on her dress, ranging from "they're just decoration" to "they contain a coded message relating to a forthcoming attack on the Low Countries." The true answer, we fear, will never be known.

******

Chapter six
In which a prodigious amount of work is done
__

Dex was dead. Sheppard was cracking under torture, telling important scary people in the Queen's government about how wonderful the illegal Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machines, Mark IV, were, and…

Come to think of it… Rodney cocked his head, briefly considering a hiatus in his consternation. No, no, it didn't matter if everyone in the Queen's circle thought that Doctor Rodney McKay was the cleverest person since Aristotle; the whole 'forbidden to indulge in this sort of work' was the key. Even Socrates had been executed in the end, and although his name had gone down in history as the epitome of wisdom, he was still, well… dead. And things had moved on since the days of death by hemlock. Executions were more painful now, with flames and disembowelling and things that just weren't right.

Rodney paced up and down, peering up at the dying light. "I can't die yet, anyway," he said. "Socrates had a Plato to record his wisdom for posterity. I need an acolyte." Kavanagh was scrubbing pots and didn't look up. He had a smear of flour on his nose. "And posterity's all very well…"

Rodney went outside again. The rain had almost stopped, but shallow puddles stood in the stable yard and dripped from the rosemary bushes and parsley. It seemed to grow darker by the minute, "because we're approaching the equinox," Rodney told his imaginary acolytes, preaching like Saint Francis to the sparrows and the bees, "and the time of the sunset moves fastest at the equinox, for reasons obvious even to a babe, getting later (or earlier, in the autumn) by around two minutes a day!"

The vowel turned into a cry of alarm. Someone was at the outer gate, opening it, opening it…

Rodney heard gravel crunching under his feet. He felt the wall of his house suddenly hard against his… posterior, he thought firmly, pre-empting a cruder word. "I… I knew you'd come back," he said, as Sheppard rode into the stable yard. His confidence was vindicated. Ha! His hand only trembled a little bit against the wall at his back, because the evening was cold.

The disconcerting lady was there, too; three was the sort of number that you could count instantly, just with a glance, without having to enumerate: Sheppard, Dex and the lady; one, two, three. "I thought you were…" He pushed himself away from the wall, and stood a little bit straighter. "Mistress Emmagen. Mistress Teyla. Mistress. My lady." He seemed to be heading into some sort of helix of words, that went round and round, changing only a little bit each time. "I thought…"

"But we came back." Sheppard remained in the saddle. The rain bleached him and made him look unhealthily pale. "The enemy pre-empted us. No way in. We ran them a merry dance, or maybe they ran us."

"Dance?" Rodney's tongue felt heavy. His mother had tried to teach him how to talk to ladies, but Euclid and the Almagest had sung a more urgent siren call.

"There was an ambush," Sheppard said. Dex dismounted, leaving his horse untended, and went to stand at Sheppard's stirrup. "We weren't pursued at first, but later a bit." His voice sounded blurry, like smoke drifting away into the gloom. "We took them on a long route. Went to ground in a barn for a while, to make them think that was our base if they were still watching us."

"They weren't," Dex said, without turning round.

"No. Seems not." Sheppard gave an absent smile. "So we left. Came back. We wouldn't have come back here unless we were sure."

The disconcerting lady dismounted, and took half a step towards Sheppard and Dex. Then she stopped, looking almost unsure, as if it had suddenly struck her how confusing it was to be a lady dressed as a man; perhaps she hadn't really noticed before. Dex shot her a look, and she collected herself, gave a brisk nod, and took both her own horse and Dex's into the stable. Three horses! Rodney thought. Three great hulking beasts to trample his lovely machine. "They'd better not eat silk for their dinner," he muttered, then frowned. "Sure?"

"That we weren't leading people here." Sheppard's gaze was suddenly intense, and as disconcerting in its way as the lady's legs. "Our choices are our own, but you… I won't let you suffer for them."

"Well." Rodney cleared his throat, suddenly not sure what to say. "So…" He cleared his throat again. "What now, then? Is the… lady going to give up?"

Sheppard dismounted stiffly, his foot brushing clumsily against the horse's back. Dex took a slight step back, letting Sheppard land on his own two feet, but still standing close, closer than Rodney thought people ought to stand. "We need a way to get to Woodstock Manor," Sheppard said, "that doesn't involve going by road or meeting inconvenient patrols." He whistled a strange, broken tune that Rodney didn't recognise, but then Dex took it up, whistling it true. If I had the wings of an eagle…

"Oh." Rodney let out a horrified breath. "Oh. You can't mean… But you said it had to be in eight days. Eight days! It won't be ready in eight days. It can't be. You're crazy even to think it. You can't!"

"But you can." Sheppard took a careful step, placing his foot down deliberately. Then he sighed, and with a curious half-shrug, he leant towards Dex. Dex put his arm around him, supporting his weight. There was an alarming quantity of blood on Sheppard's sleeve, Rodney noticed absently, as his mind went but…! but…! but…!

Sheppard looked back as they neared the kitchen door. "Thought you were clever, McKay."

"But… but… but…" The thoughts spilled out. Thus expressed, Rodney realised suddenly, they sounded mortifyingly like the clucking of a hen. He grasped at dignity, tugging down his doublet. "I can't work miracles."

Sheppard looked at him for a moment, blinking in the gloom. "Not alone, perhaps," he said. "But you aren't alone now. Are you?"

******

John hissed in pain as Ronon removed the make-shift bandage. "Arquebus ball," he spat, gripping the edge of his chair with his good hand. "These things normally can't hit the side of a barn at twenty paces."

"Hit you, though." Ronon had filled a large bowl with water from the well. It was already turning pink.

John shrugged with one shoulder. Ronon was as gentle as he could be while cleaning the wound, but the task couldn't be done with gentleness. "Only a bit of me."

"A bit of you's enough." Ronon wrang out the cloth. The ball had gouged a deep seam across John's upper arm. It wasn't bad in itself, but any wound could sicken and turn foul. People blamed the stars or foul miasmas in the air, but John put his faith in sheer, blind luck - that, and the skill of Ronon.

"I'm sure McKay can lend you his Vesalius," John forced out. Talking was something to cling to, to focus on through the pain. "It'll tell you in exquisite detail about the structure of the muscles of the-- God! Ow! -- of the… arm, and… and there are pictures, and lots of impressive Latin words, and--"

"And not a single word of sense about how keep this from killing you." Ronon's face was impassive. He had gathered herbs, too, and snatched a small pestle from the kitchen. Leaving John's arm open to the air, he started to grind them.

"It won't kill me," John said, with the stubbornness that had allowed him to jump off hills, entrusting himself to a frame of wood and canvas.

"Probably not." Ronon didn't look up. The small room began to fill with the scent of herbs, drowning out the sharp tang of blood and black powder. "This enterprise might."

John flexed his fingers, and felt the answering stab of pain from his upper arm. "Any enterprise might," he said, deflecting the blow. "Any day might."

Ronon paused, pestle in hand. "Are you sure about this? If you use your flying machine in Princess Elizabeth's cause…"

"Then it could be the end of this," John said. "The end of all this."

It should have been a hard decision. For nearly two years, John and Ronon had survived by staying out of sight, by refusing to take sides in the dissent that was spreading across the land. Even before that, at the court of King Edward, John had kept himself apart from politics and matters of faith. Unlike the other pilots, he had not joined the Duke of Northumberland's rebellion. He had not even been asked to.

Flying was everything. John had sought out McKay because the thought of his puddlejumper failing had been unthinkable. He had gone to Oxford, risking capture, because that was where the supplies were. He had swept people up into his dangerous wake, but the thought of changing his course had been more than he could bear.

But he had helped Mistress Emmagen, and he wanted to help her still. It should have felt huge, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but once that first hesitation was over, it just felt… easy, he thought, as if part of him had been waiting for a situation like this, and was slowly but surely taking its rightful place out of the shadows.

Ronon scooped out the ground herbs and began to mix them into poultice. "I know you never wanted to take sides."

"I'm not taking sides." The newly-cleaned wound was weeping blood, dark red on his upper arm. John touched the leading drop with the forefinger of his other hand. He heard the faint sounds that told that they were no longer talking unheard. Ronon didn't look up from his work, but John knew him well enough to know that Ronon was aware of it, too. "I'm just trying to save a princess," John said. "What cause can be more noble than that? Call me Sir John, knight in shining armour."

Ronon smiled, smearing the poultice onto the cloth. "Hardly shining."

"Tarnished, then. No, call that non-existent." John's arm throbbed. Worse pain was to come, he knew. "I guess I just don't like hearing about young ladies being murdered. Sides don't come into it."

"Everyone has to take sides," Mistress Emmagen said, coming silently into the room. "The state of England compels it. The gulf between Catholic and Protestant widens by the day. You have to pin your colours to one camp or the other."

"And many people count themselves as belonging to neither," John said placidly, because he had spent time with the common people in distant parts of the land, whose theology was idiosyncratic, and nothing that churchmen on either side would recognise. They were loyal to queen and princess alike, for all that they were rivals, rallying points for very different causes.

"You served the late King Edward, a fervent adherent of Protestant doctrine." Mistress Emmagen said. "The present Queen tried to have you executed for treason. By your friends and enemies are you judged."

John gripped the edge of the chair, his mind full of dark places and dark tidings. Your father is dead. "See," he said, "I prefer to choose my own side, and not be assigned to one because of whoever's decided to hate me today. Plenty of people hate me. You should see Ronon after a night in the tavern."

He had expected the lady to go on the offensive - the fanatic trying to win converts to her cause - but instead she crossed to the window seat and sat down on it heavily. "Unless you are devoted to my mistress' cause, I… I would rather you walk away. It has to be done by free choice. If you die…"

"Then I die because I've chosen to do this," John said. Ronon was very still, the firelight shining on him from behind, making his hair into a burning halo. "People are complicated, Mistress Emmagen. Even fanatics have whole dazzling array of motives. See, maybe I'm helping you because I crave excitement. Maybe I'm trying to impress you so you will look kindly on my suit. Maybe I'm a secret rebel with plans to bring down the Queen. Maybe your clever and timely mention of Kolya's name is what brought me in." She flushed a little at that. It was surprisingly hard to bring himself to say Kolya's name. "Does it matter," he asked, "if the result is the same?"

She closed her eyes for a moment, leaning against the stone recess of the uncovered window. "It does," she said, as if she was realising it for the first time. "It makes a difference to the person doing it. It makes a difference to you."

And perhaps she was right, but perhaps that was a thought for another day, because Ronon was standing up, with knife and cloth and bandages, and it was time to grit his teeth and to submit.

******

Sheppard was an impostor. He wasn't an outlaw, a rogue and a recipient of an ill-deserved knighthood; he was a slave-driver from the fleets of the Sultan in far-away wherever. He expected miracles. It was quite unreasonable, quite ridiculous, quite unnatural, quite heartless in the extreme for him to expect Rodney to perfect a flying machine in just eight days.

Rodney woke with the dawn to find Sheppard and Dex outside already, calmly chopping wood. He started work after breakfast, with pen and ink, with commands and orders, with coins and scurrying errands to various places to buy things that Rodney had forg-- that Sheppard had made him forget to buy.

It rained for an entire day. At some point, sacking appeared at the entrance to the stable, to stop muddy loutish footprints from marring the silk. Comfits appeared as if by magic between bedtime and morning. Kavanagh glowered sulkily when Rodney, juggling spoon and bowl and pen, proclaimed the stew to be the best one yet, "flavoured with tarragon," he asked, "and a spot of basil?" Kavanagh, fool that he was, said that he didn't know. Rodney waved him away, then called him back and told him to leave the rest of the stew.

Rodney made a small-scale experimental model. "It might be wiser not to use a rabbit for the maiden voyage," Sheppard said. One arm was in a sling, but the other held an axe in the manner of an off-duty pirate. "Let's have a turnip stand in for me. It must be the same sort of relative weight to the model as my weight is to the real thing."

Ten minutes later, the experimental craft was a blazing furnace in the gooseberry bushes. The smell of burnt turnip was surprisingly enticing. "I think it needs more work," Sheppard said, surveying the wreckage gravely.

"I'd like to see you do better," Rodney retorted, as rain made the flames fizzle and fade.

"I couldn't." Sheppard touched him briefly on the shoulder, the axe no longer in his hand. "The next one will work, just you see."

"It wasn't meant to be done in this short a time," Rodney wailed.

He went to his study to draw things and cross them out; draw things and cross them out. Cold stew fuelled his evening cogitations. It was well after midnight when he finally stumbled to bed, but sounds were still coming from outside, and he peered out into the darkness to see the shapes of Sheppard and Dex fighting with wickerwork. He wondered how Sheppard managed to do what he was doing with only one hand.

In the morning, Sheppard's face was etched with exhaustion, and Dex was hovering close to him. "I know the size and shape of the balloon, at least," Rodney announced. The comfit bowl was empty. "While I fine tune the means to make it fly true, the d-- the lady… Mistress Emmagen can sew it." He turned towards her, his eyes still sliding off her like a toddling child on a hill of ice. "You can sew?"

The disconcerting lady smiled. "The clothes that I wear have not entirely erased the skills my mother taught me."

It took many hours to cut the silk, but the four of them provided seven functional arms, such as would be the envy of any hydra. Dex proved early on that a sword was less effective than shears at cutting a controlled line in fabric. "Which is probably why members of the Guild of Tailors don't fence with their bales of fustian," Sheppard said. However, their ability with shears was somewhat lacking. Rodney couldn't be expected to excel, of course, since, hello? Man of intellect? Sheppard could be excused on account of only having one arm, but Dex attacked the silk like a dog worrying a flock of sheep, and in the end, the disconcerting lady politely but firmly threw the whole lot of them out of the stable and locked the door from the inside.

"I think we're in disgrace." Sheppard sank down heavily on the bench in the kitchen. "It's like being home with mother."

"If mother wore breeches." Dex pulled out a jug of wine from somewhere. Rodney watched it with narrowing eyes. Wine? Where…? How…? Dex might have bought it, of course, but a slow feeling of doubt started creeping through Rodney at the sight of it. Hadn't the house had a wine cellar once, long, long ago? He seemed to remember that now, and cellars… didn't… just… disappear.

Rodney took only a small glass of the stuff, and then just half as much for seconds, and half as much as that for thirds, so even if he kept going on for ever, he couldn't possibly have as many as two glasses, because that was "a proven math-e-mat-i-cal fact," he told the others, waving his finger around to show them the perfection of his point, "so you don't know what you're talking about when you say I can't hold my drink."

Thus vindicated, he went off and worked for the rest of the evening as if the angel Gabriel himself was dictating his words, covering page after page with shining wisdom. Unfortunately, something was wrong with the light, and he couldn't make much sense of it in the morning. Sheppard, cruel slave-driver that he was, refused to let him have any more wine the next night. "But it is mine," Rodney protested. "It is mine, isn't it?" Sheppard nodded that it was. Rodney tracked down the cellar door just before midnight - ha! he thought. I knew I had a cellar! - and found it locked.

Sheppard's movements were stiff the next morning, and Rodney knew that he, at least, had allowed himself wine, even as he had cruelly deprived Rodney. He and Dex had probably drunk themselves stupid, then done the sort of manly, bonding things that Rodney had seen soldiers doing in the war. Perhaps they'd even frolicked with the disconcerting lady.

When he had finished glowering through the window, Rodney wended his weary and justified way past the parlour, where he saw the disconcerting lady herself sitting there in a billow of silk, sewing it together with small, fine stitches. "My paperwork!" Rodney cried, but the lady smiled and pointed to where it had been moved yet again, still sitting in a semblance or order, but doubtless rotten underneath, like an allegory of smiling sin.

The second experimental model cleared the gooseberry bushes without mishap. Sheppard had pricked a smirking face on the turnip, and Rodney ran out onto the greensward to watch the contraption fly overheard. The turnip smirked out at him impassively. The tethering rope slipped through Rodney's fingers, but Dex leapt up like Arion's dolphin and grabbed the rope, keeping the model from flying away into the heavens. "Can't have questions asked," he said. The turnip fell out, and Dex dodged it nimbly.

They had turnip stew for dinner that night. "Although as the pilot of the real thing, I'd prefer it if this wasn't taken as precedent," Sheppard said, but he was only picking at his food. He left soon afterwards.

Rodney had never been in a room with Dex without Sheppard to bridge the gap. He swallowed a mouthful of stew. "Is Sheppard…?"

"In pain," Dex said. "He was shot. It's not healing right, though it isn't as bad as it could be. I think he'll get through this. All this work doesn't help."

Rodney blinked. "But… but I'm the one doing the work."

Dreams were strange that night. He woke just after dawn, and wandered downstairs in his robe and then, uncharacteristically, outside - actually outside! - into the morning. Dew was moist on the ground, and Sheppard was there, wrapped in a cloak, looking towards the east and the sunrise. "How long?" Rodney asked, because he suddenly realised that he had no idea how many days had passed. Time had little meaning when he was working, unless his stomach told him that it was time to eat.

"Four days," Sheppard said without turning round. "Four days until the new year starts."

"Four days." Rodney's hand rose to his mouth in consternation. "I can't do it in four days. We're making progress, but there's so much to do. And it's all highly illegal, of course. Hideous--"

"--torture, I know," Sheppard joined in. He pulled his cloak tighter, one hand visible at the front. "We're… taking steps. We ride out each day, one or other of us. They're searching for Teyla, but they clearly didn't recognise you that night on the road, or they'd have come here. They're still searching much closer to Woodstock. And Teyla has won… friends in the surrounding villages, and added them to her… network. If the search starts to edge closer to us, we'll know."

Rodney thought of wine and turnips, of laughter overheard in other rooms. "When did you do all this?"

Sheppard looked at him with sudden sharpness. "Did you think these last four days were a game to us? Were they a game to you?"

"No!" Rodney protested. "No, it's been miserable. You're a slave-driver. You expect the world from me. You think you can come here with an impossible demand, and it never crosses your mind that I might not be able to do it. And then I have to work, to work, work, work. I've made more progress in the last few days than I've made in months. If it works… If I do manage to meet your ridiculously impossible deadline, I'll have performed a feat of intellect greater than anything anyone has ever done." He rounded on Sheppard for his coup de grace, jabbing him in the chest. "And I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for you."

Sheppard just looked at him for a while, then entirely punctured the mood by smirking. It reminded Rodney of the turnip. "You're welcome," he said.

"You're welcome?" Rodney shouted furiously. "You're welcome?" The mighty galleon of his fury started faltering, its wheel stuttering. "Uh…" He made an inarticulate sound. "I don't… I can't…" The galleon founded and sank. "I'm enjoying myself," he said wonderingly. "This… this is fun. Apart from the risk of being captured and tortured, of course."

"Some people would say," Sheppard said, "that danger is what makes you feel properly alive."

"Not me," Rodney said with feeling. "I prefer to enjoy the not-danger, thank you very much." But as he went inside to the quiet kitchen, as he wandered through the dusty, empty rooms, as he remembered a life in which nothing had changed for month after month, he wondered if it was true.

******

Time raced on apace. To Ronon's eyes, Sheppard's beloved flying machine looked the same as it had always done, but Sheppard touched it sadly and said that she was still broken. "But he's getting there," he said brightly. "McKay can do it."

"Why do you have such faith in someone you don't know?" Ronon finally asked him one evening, with three nights to go, and dark clouds closing fast.

Sheppard leant his head back against the wall. "I don't know," he admitted. Then he said, "It's probably because I understand him. He isn't in this to save a princess or to fight a cause. He isn't even in it for friendship. He just wants to get my jumper in the air, to prove that he can."

"But it isn't like that with you," Ronon had to say.

Sheppard shook his head. The lines of pain were still tight around his mouth, etched there by a wound that had not been given a proper chance to heal, but was reopened again and again by heavy work. "I know," he said, "but it's similar. I recognise the narrow focus. Put McKay in the middle of a rebellion, and he wouldn't notice it happening." His smile was wry. "Sound like anyone you know?"

But Sheppard had changed, and was still changing. Ronon was glad of it, he thought. The two of them had hidden away for too long, in a country that didn't need its accomplished men to hide. At times, their life had been as bleak and empty as McKay's in his crumbling manor.

Even when they were sitting down, they were working, punching holes in leather straps. "Are you sure about this?" Ronon asked, twisting his awl. There was no Teyla to listen in this time, to shape Sheppard's reply.

Sheppard nodded. "Definitely. Yes." Ronon didn't like the shadows under his eyes. "We can't abandon Teyla. If we do nothing, and the princess dies… Could you live with yourself if that happened, Ronon, because I couldn't."

There had three days to go, and the flying machine was still grounded in the stable. "We might not be able to do anything, anyway," Ronon pointed out.

"Oh, stay positive now." Sheppard still said it as if he was playing a part; his genuine infectious optimism had died two years before in a cold dungeon and with the news of his father's death. "Where's your faith in McKay? His intellectual pride is tied up with making this work."

And so they were using him, as much as Teyla had tried to use Sheppard. Ronon had never dared to ask how large a part Kolya played in Sheppard's decision to get involved in the enterprise. Sheppard feared him, yes, but Sheppard was the sort of man who ran towards the things he feared.

"Besides," Sheppard said, "we've got a back-up plan."

"Not much of a back-up for our part of it," Ronon said, because he knew that if the puddlejumper failed to launch, and if the princess died because of it, Sheppard would count it as a failure. It wouldn't matter that Teyla had sent letters to trusted contacts. It wouldn't matter that a dozen people across England knew that if Princess Elizabeth died the day after Lady Day, it was murder performed by Spaniards at the Queen's court. The letters could tear England apart, but they couldn't keep Sheppard and Ronon from the bitterness of a failed task.

"No," Sheppard agreed, "but let's leave the politics to Teyla. There." He laid down his leather. "Let's see where else we can help."

Sometimes Ronon wondered if Sheppard slept at all.

******

They tested the balloon in the darkness just before dawn, when it was dark enough to hide them, but with just enough light to prevent the burner blazing like a beacon.

The coated silk filled slowly with the heated air. "Oh," Rodney said, frowning into the limited light. "You left it plain."

"Indeed," said the disconcerting lady. "I considered embroidering it with the arms of Princess Elizabeth, and perhaps adding a slogan critical of the present regime, but I considered that would be a touch indiscreet."

"I rather fancied my initials," Rodney said, looking upwards. It really was very large. "Perhaps a representation of my face, crowned with laurel."

"Save that for the Mark Five machine," Sheppard said absently.

Birds twittered excitedly, all of nature honouring Rodney's brilliance. The sky slowly lightened, and the balloon rose up, the basket beneath it twitching and beginning to lift. "Release the tethers," Rodney commanded. They took one each, removing them from their pegs. The basket shivered upwards, carrying its sacks of grain. Like the turnip, the sacks, too, had faces, painted with grim competitiveness by Sheppard and Dex.

Rodney grinned, then laughed aloud. "I did it! I did it!" He looked at the others, hauling at their ropes. He couldn't quite bring himself to say 'We did it', but he graciously granted them their tithe, and said, "You helped."

"Good," Sheppard said, past the strain of holding the rope. "This thing really wants to take off. Can we bring her down now?"

"Yes," Rodney said. "Of course." He flapped his hand airily, to cover the sudden realisation that he'd never considered how they could bring the thing down once it was up. Hot air rose, and just kept on rising and rising. You couldn't persuade it to change its mind and start coming down again just by speaking to it sternly. "Uh… deal with it," he said vaguely. "I've, er, got plans to make. Refinements. Valves to design, etcetera etcetera. This is only a test flight, after all."

He winced when he was back in his study, safely there with the door shut. Was that someone firing an arquebus? Was that… Oh, God, no! What were the fools doing? He drew lots of emphatic lines on his page, and wrote things in Latin.

Sheppard came in an hour later, streaked with mud and reeking of smoke. He held up his good arm to show how the muscles were trembling. There was fresh blood on his other sleeve, Rodney saw, before looking away with a sudden and unfamiliar pang of guilt. "We got her down," Sheppard said. "I take it we just need to attach my puddlejumper to the basket by ropes, and release them when the balloon's high enough…"

"Ropes?" Rodney cried. "Ropes? Doctor Rodney McKay's Cunning and Ingenious Coupling Device." He returned to his papers. "Of course, it's work in progress, but progress will be reached a lot quicker if you leave me alone."

"But we'll be ready by tomorrow?" Sheppard asked.

"Of course not," Rodney told him, as he always did; the back and forth of it was almost fun. "I'm a genius, yes, but these things have to be tested. Test, analyse, revise: that's how it goes."

Sheppard was framed in the doorway, implacable in black. "It needs to be ready by tomorrow."

"Oh." The fun shrivelled. When the flying machine was ready, Rodney could slump back in satisfied exhaustion and actually enjoy sleep again. When the flying machine was ready, Sheppard and the others would go away, and they'd probably get themselves captured, and everyone would know that he, the great Rodney McKay, had been the one to give them wings. "Tomorrow," he said.

Sheppard's shaking hand gripped the doorway. "Don't worry," he said lightly. "Perhaps Kolya's men will find us before then and pre-empt the question."

And that, in the end, was precisely what happened.

They came in the night, in the darkest time before dawn.

******

end of chapter six

On to the next part
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