Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: On the Wings of the Eagle - part 4 of 5

On the Wings of an Eagle - part 4 of 5

The story starts here



Photobucket

This precious document, showing Rodney McKay's first plans for his Mark IV flying machine, was discovered in 2005, and is now displayed in the McKay Museum in London. Numerous contemporary depictions exist of the Elizabethan flying machine, but this is the only one in the hand of their creator. It is, we have to point out, rather different from the paintings. McKay, for all his undoubted genius, was not blessed with artistic talent.

******

Chapter seven
In which our heroes fly
__

In his dreams, Rodney had created a flying machine so wondrous that it could ply its trade across the oceans, ferrying adventurers, explorers and exotic fruits to and from the New World. Young girls threw joyful flowers at his feet, and the animals who marched two by two into his shining new invention were similarly grateful, as was the voice of God, whose angels crowned him with bays and rosemary, and--

Something made him jerk awake. He raised his head to find himself surrounded by papers and lurching shadows. "They've found us," Sheppard said quietly, as he strapped a sword belt around his waist.

"What?" The ink crashed off the table. The candle guttered, sending up a plume of flickering smoke.

"Outside," Sheppard said, "at the gate. They're being stealthy - trying to find a way in so they can slaughter us in our sleep. Your locks will keep them out for a while--"

"Yes, they will." Rodney clutched at the straw that was gratified pride. "They're very cunning locks indeed. I call them Doct--"

"--but not for long," Sheppard said calmly, like a man puncturing a balloon with an impassive pin. "Add to that the fact that Kavanagh seems to have disappeared…"

"Disappeared?" Rodney echoed. Dex appeared in the door behind Sheppard, armed as Sheppard was armed, and looking impossibly scary in the lurching light. "Why…? How…? Where…?" There were too many questions. Nothing seemed quite real. Perhaps he was still asleep. The previous dream was better, and he wanted it back. There'd been glory in that, and flowers.

"To betray you to the enemy, I would imagine." Sheppard turned and began to walk away. "Perhaps he saw little promise of future happiness in a life spent making potage within sight of the books that he longed to learn from."

"His potage was singularly poor." Rodney was still sitting down. "He never made comfits." Enemies, real enemies who wanted to kill him, were prowling around outside in the darkness, but nothing felt real. Sheppard and Dex were too calm. It was positively inhuman. It was quite unfair. Perhaps Rodney really was still dreaming. Perhaps…

"So are you coming?" Sheppard said from the door, his voice showing an edge of urgency at last. "Vengeful enemies coming to kill us?"

"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh." His sleeve swept paper fluttering into the sea of ink. His footprints were black. "Where are we going? Shall I hide in the serendipitous cellar while you two go and do your manly thing and kill them all? Preserve my intellect for future generations, I mean," he added, realising that he didn't like the word 'hide.'

Dex turned sharply to Sheppard, a question in his eyes. Sheppard nodded, and Dex melted away into the darkness of the unlit hallway. Only the faintest of sounds showed that he had opened and closed a door. I wish you wouldn't do that, Rodney almost said, but didn't. It was stupid to feel left out when these two savage strangers communicated without a word. Rodney didn't want to be able to understand their savage, illiterate messages. They had swords, for crying out loud.

"I was thinking," Sheppard said, a strange note in his voice, "that we could fly away."

"What?" Rodney's squawk was too loud. He clapped his hand to his mouth and spoke through his fingers. "You can't! You're crazy! It's a death trap! It hasn't been fully tested yet!"

"We were going to try tomorrow, anyway," Sheppard said.

"But that was you!" Rodney's hand moved from his mouth with the force of his horror. "I wasn't going to fly in it. That was never the plan. Never. It's… it's… it's… it's…"

"Crazy?" Sheppard's smile was crazy, too. It still reminded Rodney of the turnip. Then he gestured for Rodney to be quiet, and opened the back door in a stealthy, showy, manly sort of way, his sword slithering silently into his hand. An owl hooted from the enormous Outside. Sheppard gestured at Rodney to follow him out into it. It felt horribly cold, the moon just a faint silver glow behind the clouds. Sheppard gestured for quiet with a finger on his lips. Rodney didn't think he could have spoken at that moment for all the perfumes of Araby.

Dex and the lady had been busy. Both parts of the Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machine, Mark IV, had been moved into the stableyard. The improved and repaired Mark III machine had been attached to the balloon component by… my ingenious coupling devices, Rodney thought defiantly; only the most untutored of eyes would think they were just common or garden ropes. When the balloon went up, the flying machine would go up with it. When it had reached a suitable altitude and the coupling devices were released, the flying machine would glide on the wind, flying like a bird…

…or crash into a gooseberry bush, and that would be the end of Sir John Sheppard, shattered by hubris and haste.

Rodney tiptoed his way to Sheppard's side. "I can't be sure that it'll work," he whispered.

Sheppard's eyes sparkled, but the arm beneath Rodney's hand was tense. "Even though you designed it?"

Rodney still couldn't hear any enemies prowling around the walls, but Sheppard and Dex said they were there, and that… that was enough, he realised. Besides, this ending had been inevitable from the moment he had allowed these three fugitives to stay. He was less terrified than he should have been, as if he had become reconciled to this during the long days of hectic work. "Don't be stupid," he said now. "Even I make mistakes sometimes, and it was never meant to be built this fast."

Protector Somerset had tested Rodney's first flying machines, he remembered, on prisoners and vagabonds. Some of them had died. It felt different when it might be yourself. No, he thought, it felt different when it was someone you knew; when it was… a friend? his mind supplied, but that was ridiculous; that was…

"We have to take the chance," Sheppard said, and suddenly Rodney heard it - the whinny of a horse, quickly suppressed. They were there. Death was closing in on him. Death in the sky or death by the sword or death in the Tower, with torture before it.

"Can't you…?" His voice cracked. "Can't we fight them? Kill them?"

Dex started the burner. The enemy had to have seen its light, surely they had to. Something metallic sounded, the night air carrying it deceivingly, so Rodney had no idea if it was close or far away. "Bolts," Sheppard explained, hefting his slender sword. "They're almost through."

"But…" Rodney's mouth was dry.

Sheppard turned to him; clasped him briefly on the shoulder. "McKay, listen. You've done more than we could have asked. We're the ones they want, not you. Once we're gone… They'll have no evidence. We've removed all trace of our presence. Burn your paperwork, and there'll be no proof you've been helping us."

"I don't want to burn my paperwork," Rodney said faintly. The balloon was filling up. The cold air across the greensward brought the sound of another bolt failing. "It's… posterity, you know?" His own voice sounded strange to him. "It's awful when knowledge burns. Look at the library of Alexandria."

"Ronon can tie you up," Sheppard said earnestly. "Maybe thump you a bit. Make it clear that you did this all under duress. You will, of course, denounce us loudly. Kavanagh will tell another story, but they'll see what they expect to see: a discontented servant making mischief for his master. They'll have their suspicions, but you might just get out of this unscathed."

Was that death moving there in the shadows? The balloon was an enormous shape, and the sky was vast, offering so many ways to fall and so many ways to be broken on the hillside.

Sheppard, crazy fool that he was, smiled. "You always said you were going to blame me. That was the deal, after all."

"Sheppard," Dex hissed, and Sheppard's hand tightened on Rodney's shoulder, almost as if he wanted Rodney to take this chance of a way out; as if he wanted Rodney to denounce him.

The balloon was almost ready, straining against the tethers that had been driven in to the ground with metal pegs. "We can't…" Sheppard said, as the gate gave way. He and Dex had their swords ready, while the lady had a knife and a stick.

"I can't…" Rodney echoed it. Words stuck in his throat. He swallowed; swallowed again. Kavanagh had betrayed him, and although he had nothing but contempt for Kavanagh, it didn't feel nice. He had lived alone in decaying solitude, and even his servant hated him. And then Sheppard and Dex had come, and… and there had been moments, whole hours, that had actually felt good.

"It was your fault," he said to Sheppard's uncomprehending back. "That is, you were the goad. I'm glad you did it, glad… well, apart from the imminent death, and…" He swallowed again. His heart was racing when he pressed his hand to it. "What I mean to say is: I'm not walking away. I... I'm throwing my lot in with you."

"Then jump into the basket," Sheppard said tightly, without turning round, "and get ready to cut the tethers."

"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh." He clambered in; caught his foot on the edge of the basket; almost tumbled onto his face; came up smoothing his clothes. It was dark in the yard, but people were moving. Swords clashed, and Rodney breathed an "Oh" again, letting it out as a cracked moan. People were moving, more people than just three. Someone screamed, but quietly, as if they were too badly hurt to manage a proper scream.

"Ropes!" Sheppard commanded from the seething darkness.

"Oh. Ropes. Yes." Rodney had an eating knife at his belt. He began to saw at one of the tethers, parting its fibres. "Are you…?"

A sack of grain struck the ground - No, oh God, no! Rodney thought, it wasn't a sack, it was a body, an actual body. "I am in," the lady said, although she wasn't, because Rodney was still alone in the balloon's basket, sawing at ropes.

"Good," Sheppard said. "Ronon." Then, more sharply, "Ronon!"

Rodney was sawing, up and down, up and down. The rope parted, and the basket shivered. "Sheppard!" he gasped, voice cracking. He couldn't tell what was happening. People were fighting, but he was too far away to see them as anything but shapes.

Then the shape of Sheppard emerged from the darkness, and Rodney had no idea how he could recognise Sheppard just from the way he moved, but he did. Sheppard severed the second rope with a swing of his sword. "Ronon!" he hissed again.

With a grunting roar, the large and unmistakeable shape that was Dex pushed his assailant away from him. He covered the distance to the balloon, and made to climb in, severing the third rope as he did so.

The balloon strained upwards. The enemy lunged forward, grabbing Dex from behind, and Dex twisted, still gripping the basket with one hand, and hacked at him with his sword. The fourth rope, the last one remaining, gave way, pulling the peg out of the ground. "Ronon!" Sheppard shouted, as the balloon rose from the ground, and Dex, gasping with effort and perhaps with the pain of it - Oh, God, was he wounded? - kicked his assailant away, and scrambled over the edge of the basket.

And then they were airborne, and the enemy was shouting, more and more of them surging into the yard, but the shouts faded away from them, far far below.

"We did it," Rodney said, letting out a shuddering breath, and Dex gave a quick smile, and Sheppard, his beautiful flying machine suspended below them by ropes, said quietly, his voice rising up through the soft night's air, "We did it."

******

In the dark, flying was like standing on a tall hill, with the wind in your hair, and the world a sea of black beneath you. But Teyla had never wished to fly before. She had looked at Protector Somerset's pilots, had dimly recognised that they were brave, but had never considered that she, too, could be given wings. Her focus had always been too closely on people and their secrets to want to look above them.

"Wonderful, isn't it?" John said, close enough that she could feel him breathing, his back against her hunched-up knees. His was the voice of a man in love, who expected the whole world to agree that his true love was the most beautiful.

Teyla smiled, her heart fluttering. Perhaps it was wonderful. She was floating above the world, and it was too dark to see anything below them, but when dawn came, what would they see? She thought of silver rivers, and towns reduced to nothing more than a tumbled array of playing pieces, cubes carved out of wood.

Below there, far below, people slept. People crept through the night-time with evil in their hearts. Lovers climbed from windows. Frightened people tossed in their beds and prayed that today, today, they would not be captured. Men and women practised lies, and when the morning came, would put on their smiling masks and set out to ensnare people with their words.

Silent, she drifted above it all, above the lies and the deceits that were the daily life of a spy. All human creatures were alike in the dark, bound to the earth and invisible far below. Here, there was no bustle, no treachery, no lies. There were no sides here, too, and no demands.

"Yes," she said at last, but her smile was rueful, because even the eagle on its mighty wings had to come down from the skies. Her mission was unchanged, and the urgency was great.

The balloon drifted slowly, the flying machine suspended beneath it. The flying machine, John had told her, could go faster than the balloon, because of its flaps and tail fins that helped it cut through the wind like a racing boat. It had never been able to carry more than one person, but McKay had repaired it and improved it, "and you're lighter than Ronon, so it's better if it's you," John had said with a smile, but Teyla had corrected him, shaking her said, saying merely, "It has to be me." The news was hers, the cause was hers, and when it came to the final reckoning, the danger had to be hers.

"Is it time to cut her loose?" John asked, calling quietly up to the basket above.

McKay's face appeared over the edge of the basket, his hand gripping the edge as if he was in imminent danger of falling out. "Not yet. That is… I don't think so. Leave it a bit longer."

"We have to do it sooner or later," John said. "If we're going to plunge to our doom, it'll happen the same if we're cut loose in an hour as if we do it now."

"But…" McKay protested, and Teyla knew that impulse, that made you want to put off something horrible, hoping that a miracle would happen and make it go away.

"Sheppard," Ronon said. Then his words seemed to dry up. He was staying in the balloon, unable to follow Sheppard in this adventure; Teyla had enough practice in watching men to know how unbearable Ronon must be finding this. This could be their final farewell, without being close enough to embrace or clasp hands, and with witnesses to keep the important words at bay.

"Stay positive, my friend," John said, darkness hiding too much of his face. "You know what to do. We'll meet up in a few hours at most." Ronon still said nothing. There was a slight crack in John's voice. "Everything will carry on as normal, Ronon. I don't plan on dying."

"But if you do…" Ronon stopped; gathered himself roughly. "There's too much talking. We know what to do."

"Then do it," John said, looking up.

Teyla looked away, suddenly unable to bear it. Three men were risking their lives because of her. If they failed, all three would die, and this beautiful machine, McKay's pride and John's joy, would be destroyed. No-one would ever have wings again, until the world had moved on, and new cities and new kingdoms stamped across the Earth.

No, it is not for me, she thought, but for my cause. For the princess. For England. But even her cause felt faded and petty from the air, with queens and princesses alike reduced to specks in the darkness. Why do we do it? she thought. Why do we hate?

And then the ropes were unfastened, one, two and three, and the flying machine soared as sleek and joyful as falcon on the wind, and Teyla found herself crying, perhaps with the joy of it, and perhaps with something else.

******

For nearly two years, Ronon had watched while Sheppard had thrown himself from hilltops and cliffs, entrusting his life to the hands of the wind. For nearly two years, Ronon had stood on the edge, his heart in his mouth, watching as Sheppard's faith was proved right.

Sheppard flew, and Ronon watched. Sheppard soared, and Ronon kept his feet on the ground. And then, at the end of each night's work, Sheppard came down to earth, and once again the two of them walked side by side.

"I can't watch," McKay whispered. "Is it…?"

"It's flying." Ronon's throat felt thick. This could be the last time. It wasn't just the air that could kill Sheppard, but the uncertain destination.

"Flying?" McKay was peering through the fingers of one hand. Ronon felt a sudden unexpected sadness that he couldn't do the same. Instead, he watched. The pale wings of Sheppard's machine faded beneath them. Sheppard could ride the air currents just like any bird, 'although my jumper's more beautiful than any bird,' he liked to say.

Ronon just saw it as wood and canvas, held together with nails and twine.

"It worked," McKay breathed. "Thank God. It… well, of course, it was my work, so…" He let out a shaky breath. "I thought I might have killed them."

"It still might." The edge of the wicker basket was harsh in his hand.

"Why…?" McKay began, turning towards him. "You're…"

Afraid, he might have said. And he was, of course. Sheppard had saved his life years before, and a strange bond had been born. Even after the debt had been paid, they had stayed together. At the heart of it, Ronon thought, it was probably because he didn't trust Sheppard's life to anyone but himself. He certainly didn't trust Sheppard to look after his own life. Side by side, on the ground, they watched each other's backs, but when Sheppard flew…

When Sheppard flew, there was nothing Ronon could do to protect him. Even if Sheppard landed safely, the place he was going offered nothing but death. If Kolya was there, this time Sheppard would face him alone.

The last time had almost broken him.

"We need to follow them," he said now. He always did, driving his cart across strange hills, following the path that Sheppard had gone.

"The balloon's just a launching device," McKay said. "We can drift, and we can choose when to come down, thanks to my last-minute amendment. I've put in a rudder of sorts, for rudimentary steering…"

Sheppard had told Ronon to land as close to Woodstock as he could safely manage. 'Keep McKay out of danger,' he had said, 'because we brought him into this, after all. But if you can, and if it's safe…' He had clasped Ronon's shoulder briefly. 'We'll meet up soon, my friend.'

"We follow them," Ronon said, careful not to look below.

True dawn was a long way off, but the thickness of the night was easing. Soon he would see land beneath him, and know how far up he was. Darkness made it worse, he thought, because you could imagine it being further away and more dreadful than any of the nightmares of flight that had plagued him in the last few years.

When Ronon was a child, his father had ruffled his hair and proudly told the other Border lords that his younger son wasn't afraid of anything. To this day, Ronon wasn't afraid of a fight, and he wasn't afraid of dying. He could stand impassive in the face of things that made a Rodney McKay flutter in a panic.

But he was afraid of people he loved dying because he was far away from them; and he was afraid of the sky. He was afraid of its silence, as it held him up with invisible, weightless hands. He was afraid of its capricious nature. He was afraid of the hold it had on Sheppard. He was afraid of entrusting his life to the whim of a force of nature. He wanted solid earth beneath his feet, a sword in his hand, and an enemy who could be fought face to face.

'You don't know what it's like to fly,' Sheppard had said once, sunlight sparkling in his eyes. But Ronon did, and he feared it. Ronon did, and he hated it.

He hated it, but he would carry on, because he had to.

******

John could have laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it. They were heading into danger to try to save a captured princess, but the wind was in his hair, around him and beneath him and through him, thrumming through the hands that held the controls. Dawn was breaking on an uncertain future, but his canvas wings supported him as he soared with the morning birds. His arm throbbed, the wound torn open yet again by the fight and the incessant demands of his darling, but the pain felt like a natural part of the fierceness of his emotions.

His jumper was mended, made strong and more responsive by McKay's work. Flying was about learning to read the air, to interpret the subtle hints that told you where to find the currents that rose up from the ground. Right from the start, John had possessed a natural gift for it, that had allowed him to fly high when the other original pilots had foundered. But a gift was nothing unless you had a machine that allowed you to coax the most you could out of the air.

The machine he had brought to McKay had been tired and sluggish, like a shallow-water barge laden down with quarried stone. Now she was as fast and nimble as a bird, and as responsive to his commands as a pure-bred stallion.

It was so tempting just to fly, to fly. He could go with the wind currents and stay up for hours, as morning flooded across the landscape below him. It had never been like this. Even in the best of times, it had never been like this.

Teyla shifted behind him, her knees against his back. John adjusted the tail-fin, turned the crank that would open a wing-flap, and edged forward as far as he could. "Please do not inconvenience yourself on my account," Teyla said, sounding amused more than anything else; earlier, John thought, she might have been crying. "In this tight space, I have no fears for my virtue."

"But…" John said, as slowly, slowly the world lightened beneath him, still half-hidden beneath a veil of pre-dawn mist.

"I fear I have no more reputation to lose," Teyla said, the laughter gone from her voice. "I have slept unchaperoned in a house of men, and worse, before that."

It was impossible to forget that she was there. It was impossible to forget that they were engaged in a dangerous enterprise. John had chosen this path a week before and he couldn't turn away from it, just because the wind called to him and wanted him to play.

The world below them turned paler, although the sun was not yet up. John knew where they are aiming, but the currents didn't always allow him to fly straight. Smoke rose up from a blazing chimney, rising high enough to catch in John's throat.

"How far?" Teyla asked.

John changed the angle of the left-hand flap. His arm was ablaze with pain, hot blood trickling down hot flesh. "Not far," he said.

Teyla was the first person he had ever flown with; all previous flying machines were only big enough for one. He wanted to question her incessantly, to ask her if she liked this and if she liked that, to coax her into saying that she loved flying as much as he did, and that he was right to prize it more than almost anything else. At the same time, though, he was almost afraid to do so, in case her answer was not what he hoped. He was used to silence, too - just himself and the wind, although he talked to himself sometimes, and talked to his jumper, too, coaxing her into the arms of the wind.

The mist slowly faded, but the sun was still an orange smear in the east. He brought her lower and lower again, seeing the thread of the river, and the coppice where they had so nearly been killed. The road was still blocked. Some soldiers slept, while others stood on guard duty, warmed by a failing fire. The jumper was silent, pale in the pre-dawn sky, and none of them looked up.

"Are we…?" Teyla whispered, but John gave a soft hiss, commanding silence. Sound could travel strangely in the featureless air, without tree or grass to deaden it. Once, years ago, when the stakes had been less high and life had still seemed like a game, John had enjoyed flying over the enemy and talking sharply, to watch them search left, right and centre for the person who had spoken.

More soldiers guarded the entrance to the manor grounds. Despite its silence, there was nothing restful about flying the puddlejumper, and John's heart was racing with the exertion of working the controls, and a stupid, irrational fear made John worry that the soldiers could hear it.

"My usual way in is guarded," Teyla whispered, his mouth close to his ear. "Can you get to the roof?"

John shook his head reflexively. The manor was ahead of them, but the princess was held in the gatehouse. Its ancient fabric was crumbling, and its roof was irregular, offering no place to land.

"I have to," she whispered, her breath warm on the side of his face. The jumper lurched as Teyla moved behind him. He moved the jumper in an arc, the roof just six feet below. "I have to," she said again, and then, "I am sorry." She jumped, and he saw her landing in a crouch on a tiny parapet on the roof. A hand on the tiles, she looked up; waved and nodded a farewell.

But already the jumper was stalling, too close to the ground, too close to the building. When Teyla had jumped out, the jumper had lurched too badly in the opposite direction. John grappled for the controls, but he knew that he was going down, he was going down fast.

He had almost reached the edge of the trees when he stopped fighting the inevitable. A moment later, he heard a man's shout.

******

Photobucket

This portrait is generally considered to be of Ronon Dex. Although the costume is typical of a slightly earlier date, the portrait is dated 1545. Although it is in the style of Holbein, it is not by Holbein. Several similar portraits exist, all depicting young men from prominent Border families. Apparently a roving portrait painted plied the Marches, persuading Border lords to commission portraits of their sons. How this portrait survived the destruction of the Dex stronghold, no-one knows, but chemical analysis suggests that badger setts were involved.

******

Chapter eight
In which the new year dawns
___

She had to turn away; she had to. Teyla had done what she had done to save her princess' life, and that had to come first. She had made a vow on her knees, her princess' hand in her own, and vows could not be lightly broken. If the princess died in custody, England would be riven with civil war. Teyla had to carry on. She could not watch as John struggled to control his flying machine. She could not wonder about Ronon and McKay, carried by the wind to an unknown destination.

She could not wonder…? Yes, she thought fiercely, as she crossed the leaded slopes of the roof, clutching for purchase, her breath heaving. She would wonder. She would hope. And if news came that her new, brave companions had died in this enterprise …

Then I will have to stop, she thought. People died in the cause of princes. Serving her princess, Teyla had walked through England like a child wading through still water, but innocents had been disturbed by the ripples that she left.

Someone shouted, their voice far away across the grounds. Her hand lost its grip, and for a moment she dangled there by one hand, her feet scrabbling. Niches in the roof were full of dirt and moss and feathers. A tattered flag flapped on the flagpole. She recovered her grip, but sweat pricked the back of her neck as she imagined soldiers aiming their weapons at her back. She imagined John, grounded and alone on the wrong side of a cordon of Kolya's men.

He got away, she thought fiercely. He flew like a bird, like an angel. Again and again, the flying machine had started to fall, but every time he had brought it to another invisible current of air that swept it up again, supporting it like a parent supporting a baby. After she had jumped, he would have recovered the lost height and flown out of the grounds. He was safe, now; safe.

She reached the edge, the stonework crumbling, and an old dead creeper covering the side of the gatehouse. If they were watching her, they were watching her. If they wanted her dead, then she was dead, and perhaps when her body was displayed to the princess, that would be warning enough.

Taking a breath, she lowered herself over the edge, trusting to the branches, to the crumbling cracks between the stones of the old wall. The window was locked, but the whole building was decaying, and she knew how to break through simple locks and find the secrets that lay within.

It was tight to wriggle through, and someone just an inch broader than her would have been unable to do it. The metal frame gouged at her, scraping against her breast, her belly, her hips. She fell onto a bare wooden floor in a room that was grey with dawn and disuse.

And somebody was opening the door.

******

John clambered out of the jumper, his foot sliding in the dew. Mist still clung to the grass. The manor was an etching in shades of grey, and the gatehouse was a cut-out, like scenery in a guildsman's play. He couldn't see anything moving, except for the slow stirring of birds rising up from their roosts.

The shout was not repeated, but he had to move fast. He was inside the grounds of the manor of Woodstock, with guards and Kolya's soldiers between him and the freedom of the wild. His jumper had come to rest in the open, only yards away from the shelter of a cluster of trees. He could hide it for now, but what would happen later? What would happen in a minute, in an hour, in half a day? "Cross that bridge when you come to it, John," he muttered.

The jumper had wheels to help him launch her off hills, or to allow her to be moved when dead and grounded. The wings hinged upwards - necessary for stowing the machine in a cart, and moving it across country, covered with a cloth. He had done this a hundred times before, turning his living pair of wings into a lifeless hulk. He did it now, then dragged the downed jumper into the shelter of the trees.

Branches tore at her wings. The wheels caught on roots. John's whole arm was on fire with pain, and he hadn't really noticed it when flying…; no, he'd noticed it, but it hadn't seemed to matter. Now every movement made him set his jaw to keep from moaning with the pain of it. Sweat prickled on his face, then evaporated cold in the morning air.

Perhaps I'm sick, he thought, as the woodland shimmered as if speckled with silver dust. Every sensation always felt heightened when flying, but landing was always dull. It never sparkled like this. It never shivered.

He touched his sleeve and stared stupidly at the thick blood on his fingertips.

The swordsman rose up from the shivering undergrowth while he was still blinking at it.

******

The Mark IV Aeronautical Machine was officially a success. "Well, not officially," Rodney told Dex, "on account of there being no annals to record it in, due to the whole secret, hush-hush, can't-tell-anyone-because-they'll-kill-us thing…"

Dex hissed a warning to him to be quiet. His dark face looked almost grey in the morning light, without the sun to give it depth.

Rodney peered over the edge. Really, he thought, it ought to be terrifying up here. It probably was terrifying, because, hello, enormous height? and one day he intended to determine just what it was that made things that fell down fall down, and things that went up soon change their minds and come down again. It was an ambition he had held since an apple had fallen on his head many years ago in an orchard, and it hadn't even been a good one, but maggoty at the core, and the investigation was marching steadily up his list of things to investigate or invent, "and it's in fourteenth place now," he said, as he realised that at least some of his thoughts he had been uttering aloud.

Dex made no response. "And I suppose it is terrifying," Rodney told him, careful to whisper, "because I… I'm not a brave man, you know; bravery's the mark of a man without the wit to understand what the danger is. But as well as terrifying, it's… good, you know? Because I made this. I'm the only person in the history of the world who's made a machine like this. And it worked. It worked. I didn't kill anyone. Sheppard's merrily flying off into the… the sunrise, and he didn't get frazzled like the turnip, not at all."

"No." Dex was looking straight out at the sky, clutching the basket with a pale-knuckled hand.

Rodney swallowed. He knew that Dex didn't like him, but that didn't matter, because he didn't like him back, of course he didn't. It was ridiculous to like a man like Dex, so big and silent and… and loyal to his friend, and good at making comfits, and able to play again the tunes that Rodney's mother had once played on the lute.

Of course, they still had to get down again, and there was the far-from-small matter of what awaited them on the ground. Soldiers had been running rampage over his house. Sheppard and the lady had disappeared into the blue. The sun was about the rise, and peasants and farmers liked to rise with the dawn, didn't they, and at least some of the fools might look up once in a while.

"I know you think I'm a silly prattling idiot," he said, goaded into it by Dex's stone-faced silence. "Yes, we're in deadly danger, etcetera, etcetera, but it matters to me that I'm the one who got this to work. It's something to think about, to… to stop the terror getting too overwhelming, you know? It's why I talk."

"I know." Dex's hand relaxed its grip ever so slightly, but he still didn't look round.

"The fuel won't last for much longer," Rodney said, because already the balloon was losing height, as the air in it cooled. "We'll have to…" He gestured at the string. If he pulled it, a valve would open and slowly let out the air. They would land soon or sooner - whichever they chose.

Dex's hand tightened again. He peered over the edge, frowning down at a world that looked so different from how it had looked every other day of his life. "We're not far from Woodstock," he said. "Can't see Sheppard."

Rodney grasped the string, but didn't pull it. "Shall I…?"

"Land," Dex rasped.

Rodney opened the valve. Were those shouts of warning below them on the ground? What would happen if an arquebus ball pierced the balloon? What was the range of an arquebus, anyway? He knew all about trajectories and parabolas; coming up with a mathematical equation to accurately predict the path of any thrown object was very high on his to-do list. What would happen if…? God, this might be it; the last day he would spend alive on Earth.

"Thank you," he found himself saying. "For… for the comfits, I mean. They were very nice."

Dex turned to look at him at last, and his mouth, at least, was smiling. "You're braver than I thought you were," he said. "Braver than you think."

And then the bottom of the basket struck the top of the trees - Trees! Rodney thought. I quite forgot about the trees! - and lurched sideways. They clung on, but only just, as it tumbled through the branches, crashing with the noise of a dozen elephants.

Rodney fell out first, and struck the ground hard enough to make him scream. Then silk settled down upon him like a shroud, and the whole world turned white.

******

She had made too much noise. The door stopped moving, only half open. As Teyla scrabbled to her feet and threw herself across the room, she heard the sound of someone gasping in alarm.

Teyla was quicker. She grabbed an arm and pulled. She twisted the person round, bundling them in her grip, pushing them down to the floor, holding them there with one hand on their mouth. "Be quiet!" she hissed, breathless. She shut the door with her foot, but the sound of it closing was far too loud, sending a thrill of desperate terror through her. But if I am discovered, she thought, I can still scream my warning. As they drag me away, I can scream.

"Quiet!" she hissed again, because she would not surrender herself, not yet. The person she had captured was little more than a girl, and her terrified eyes of suffused blue stared up at Teyla, her warm breath shuddering against Teyla's palm. She was clearly a servant. But the princess had not been allowed the company of any of her ladies in waiting, or even the most trusted of her personal servants. Even a girl like this could be an enemy, an agent Kolya or the Queen. Teyla knew all about suborning servants, after all. She had one contact she was reasonably sure of in this place, and this girl was not her.

I should kill her, she thought, because her cause demanded it. I should kill her, she thought, because…

Teyla let out a breath, and slackened the pressure of her hand. "I will not hurt you if you stay quiet," she said. "I mean no harm. A traitor is planning to kill the princess. I only wish to warn her. There was no other way in than this."

The girl tried to shake her head, perhaps denying Teyla's story, perhaps desperately trying to deny her fate. Is any cause worth murder? Teyla thought. Is any cause worth this? She withdrew her hand completely, leaving only a soft finger on the girl's mouth, and then removed even that. "Quiet," she whispered. "Please. I am a woman just like you. I just want to save a life."

The girl's hands were clawing ineffectually at the floor, as if even unconsciously she was trying to drag herself away. "I can't…" she breathed. "What do you want of me?"

"Your clothes," Teyla said, "and your coif." The girl was the same height and build as she was. Her colouring was different, but the crumbling building was gloomy, so perhaps the difference would be lost in the shadows. Few people looked too closely at a servant, after all. "I will leave you with my clothes," she said, as she removed her jerkin. "I have no desire for you to be blamed for this. I will have to tie you up and gag you." The girl gasped, her pulse racing at her throat. "It is for the best," Teyla said, "in case things go wrong. It will protect you."

She unlaced her shirt, and the girl pushed herself up against the opposite wall, her knees pulled up towards her chest, hidden by her dusty skirt. "The princess is never harsh to me," she said quietly. "She feels her captivity something awful. It was that cold this winter. She used to look out at the snow, but they wouldn't let her ride."

"And all I want to do is save her life," Teyla said. "Not to kill, not to commit treason against the Queen, just to save my mistress' life." The girl just stared at her. "Please," Teyla begged her, but she had her knife, and she knew that she would use threats if pleas did not work. There was a time for gentleness, but she had come this far, and she could not turn back now.

Biting her lip, quivering with fear, the girl started to undress. But Teyla never lost sight of the knife, even as she clad herself once more in skirts and covered her head in demure white linen.

******

John's sword was ready. He brought it round in a swift movement, blocking the blade that would have hacked into his shoulder. With his other, blood-stained hand, he drew the knife from his belt.

Ronon had taught him well, merging methods from the manuals with the desperate scrapping of an outlaw determined to survive the harsh law of the Marches. 'When your life is on the line,' he had said, 'don't be coy about tricking your opponent.' The pain was real, the fever was real, but the distraction…

"Feigned," he said, as he parried another blow, the force of the jarring metal feeling like liquid fire in his injured arm. "And you were trying to stab me in the back." Another blow. He searched for an opening for his left hand to sneak through, the knife blade shining and sharp. "Where's the… honour in… that?"

He was fighting a soldier, perhaps one of Kolya's, or perhaps a guard who knew nothing of the plot. "Would you believe me," he asked, "if I said that I wasn't here to make mischief?"

The soldier clearly did not. Only doing his job, John reminded himself, just as he had only been doing his job when he had flown for Protector Somerset against the Scots, and when he had unwittingly caused himself and his family to be labelled traitors to the Queen.

The sword slipped through his guard, and John jumped back, so the blade snagged in his doublet, only its very tip scratching his flesh. It took a fraction of a second for his opponent to bring the sword back. John struck with his knife, driving his enemy's sword away, and lunged with his sword. But his arm betrayed him, weak and throbbing with pain. The sword scraped weakly across his enemy's side and down across his hip, and already the enemy was coming back, stronger, younger, fitter than he was.

John sensed rather than saw the tree trunk behind him, and stepped sideways to avoid the trap. "Is it killing, now, without a trial?" he said. "I'm not here to make mischief. Believe it or not…" And, amazingly, he laughed, as the woods shimmered with his incipient fever. "Believe it or not," he said, "all I wanted to do was fly."

His jumper was behind him, her wings couched. The two swords locked, and then John pushed the enemy away. He ducked behind the jumper, then leant against her with the hand that gripped the knife. The wheels crunched on the irregular ground, but the machine moved. It was not enough to knock John's opponent over, but it was enough to halt the rhythm of his attack.

"I never had any desire to kill anyone," John said sadly, as he rose up with sword and knife. "It's true, you know. I only ever wanted to fly."

His first blow was not enough to kill, but the second was fatal. Would I kill to keep my wings? he had sometimes asked himself in the darkest times of the night. The answer was no, he hoped, but for Teyla and her cause, for Ronon and McKay, for a princess and for a riven country…

"Too late to wonder, John," he said, as blood ran down his arm like tears.

On the edge of the wood, where his attacker had left it, a horse pranced, offering another kind of wings.

******

If there was anyone nearby, they would have heard them falling. Ronon extricated himself from the puddled silk, his body throbbing with bruises.

Behind him, McKay was a squirming shape of white silk. "Quiet!" Ronon hissed, and part of him wanted to leave him there, to fight alone as he had fought on the Borders, between the loss of his family and the coming of Sheppard. But it was only a faint urge, already fading. Burrowing through silk like a plough through a field, he excavated McKay. "Quiet!" he commanded again.

McKay looked up at him, like a virgin bride in pooled silk from his shoulders to his toes. He opened his mouth as if for a tirade, then closed it again. "Ow," he said faintly.

Ronon crouched beside him, hand on sword. "You hurt?"

"Yes." McKay looked aggrieved. He rolled over onto his back, pawing away the silk. "Ow," he said again, uttering it as if everything was Ronon's fault.

"We made too much noise," Ronon told him. "We need to get out of here or get ready to fight. We're close to Woodstock, close to its guards."

McKay sat up. His hand rose to his shoulder, fingers clutching it. "I don't know how to fight." His voice was quiet, with only the faintest note of accusation to it, as if Ronon was supposed to know.

Sheppard had told him to keep McKay safe. Ronon and Sheppard were used to a life like this, but McKay was a sheltered scholar, so unaware of the world that he had forgotten to collect rents for two years. He was only here because Sheppard had embroiled him in this. Sheppard's obsession with flying swept many people up in its wake, but Ronon knew that Sheppard wouldn't be able to forgive himself if anyone actually died because of it. There had been other factors in his father's death, but even so, it had almost destroyed Sheppard, far more than anything he had suffered himself.

"Then come with me," Ronon said, "to a safer place." And abandoning McKay was unthinkable on his own account, too, he realised. He had been brought up to value only his own kin, but he was now many years away from the Marches and their harsh code. His world had seen too much killing, and he wanted McKay to survive this.

"Where?" McKay staggered to his feet.

Despite everything else, it felt good to feel the solid ground beneath his feet. It felt good to know that death, if it came, would come with swords and guns and things he could fight, not in a fall from the very edges of the clouds. I was afraid, he thought, but he had reached the ground alive, and his blood sang and told him that he could do anything.

A dangerous belief, he told himself grimly, even as he smiled to himself.

"Where are we going?" McKay whispered again.

Ronon raised his hand, holding it flat behind him in a gesture to be quiet. The undergrowth was still, and the only sound was the stirring of birds above them on the leafless trees. Perhaps… he thought, but it was too soon to presume.

The trees thinned, showing lighter colour ahead of them - a road in the early light of morning. Something sparkled on the ground, like sunlight on armour.

Ronon turned to McKay and stopped him with a gesture, silencing him with a finger to the lips. McKay opened his mouth, then subsided.

Ronon crawled forward. At the outer wall of the manor estate, the gate was unguarded, and the guards who had been stationed there lay dead on the ground, slaughtered where they stood.

******

There were too many people, the passageways full of bustle and activity. Teyla knew which room was Princess Elizabeth's prison, but she felt as if she was swimming against the tide trying to get to it. Although she was dressed as a servant, she could not risk a face-to-face confrontation. Footsteps sent her dashing through doors to hide tremulously in chambers, pressed against the door and listening while people passed. If people saw the swish of a servant's blue gown, they said nothing about it, but their innocent regard kept on driving her back.

So near, she thought, as she clawed a door shut. Light slanted through the windows from a dawn well advanced into morning. Perhaps she should just scream her warning, trusting that it would reach the right ears, but that would be throwing her life away. She would do it if she had to, but… I want to live, she thought. I will if I have to, but…

The footsteps passed. The window showed the green grass of the grounds. Was John trapped in there? Was he dead? The stone walls were thick, but cold air blew in through cracks around the windows. Her breath steamed in the chilly room, and everything that she touched was damp.

And this was the residence that the Queen had chosen for her sister, a daughter of King Henry himself.

It felt like a prison, with bars in the form of voices stopping her every move. She pressed her face briefly into her hand, still smelling there the dirt from the roof. With her other hand, she touched the door; almost opened it, but then heard fresh footsteps, booted and harsh. "I have been confined for so many months," she heard her princess say, "and now you come to me with this news of freedom."

Teyla's hand rose to her mouth. Her breath trembled through her fingers.

"It is hardly freedom, my lady," said a male voice. "I regret that I cannot…"

"You do your job, Sir Henry," the princess said. "You have been less harsh a gaoler than you could have been, but you are my gaoler still. And now the Queen my sister has been moved to grant me this sisterly gift." It was said with honeyed politeness, but with steel beneath it. "As a symbol of the new year with all its hopes of conciliation and friendship, she has granted me the right to breathe the air of the world again."

"You must--" said Sir Henry Bedingfield, gaoler of a king's daughter.

"--be guarded at all times," the princess said. "I know. But after so many months within these four walls of yours, Sir Henry, the cage doors are open. Even though the freedom is illusory and short-lived, can you blame me for taking it as soon as the sun rises on this conciliatory new year of ours?"

There is a plot to kill you! Teyla almost shouted. She pressed her lips together; pressed her hand against the door, finger curling in to the wood. Her princess' footsteps passed by, along with those of Sir Henry and at least half a dozen guards. It would be suicide to shout a warning now.

And perhaps I should have done it, even so, she thought, pressing her forehead against the door, when the passageway was once more silent.

Outside, below the window, the horses were gathering.

******

It felt repulsive to strip a man whom you had killed. Some men were coldly pragmatic about such things in war time. Others were avaricious, raiding the bodies for loot. John took just what he needed to fool a distant observer: breastplate, backplate and morion, and the doublet beneath it in its clear blue livery.

His fingers fumbled as he fastened the straps. The right sleeve of his own doublet was sodden with blood, and he found fresh nicks in the fabric that he had barely noticed receiving. But stained as it was, he laid the doublet over the dead man, covering up the jagged wound at his throat. "I'm sorry," he murmured, but he'd been trained as a soldier, before he had learnt to fly. Sometimes you had to kill to protect the things that were dear to you, or just because you were ordered to.

He reeled as he stood up, catching himself heavily on a tree. His wound had been opened and reopened for over a week, but he had kept himself on his feet because of the promise of wings. They said that swans sang once before they died, and he had flown the best and most perfect flight of his life, and now he could…

"Don't be a fool, John," he berated himself. There were miles to go, and things to do. Ronon and McKay were out there somewhere, and Teyla was facing danger inside. The warning had to be delivered, and the aftermath dealt with.

There was Kolya, perhaps not far away.

Pushing himself away from the tree, he walked carefully to the horse's side. "Can I ride you, girl?" he asked, and the horse leant its neck into his touch, as responsive in its way as a jumper on the wind.

******

"Dead," Rodney gasped, breathing it into the flat of his hand. "They're dead. Are they dead?"

Dex stood up from the last of them. His hands were drenched with blood, but his expression was wiped clean, as if he had seen things like this many times, as if he knew how to look at it, and then walk away to a place without nightmares.

"I've never seen anyone dead before," Rodney said, but of course he had. He had spent his time with Protector Somerset buried in his books, but he had not been able to entirely hide from the things that happened around him. He had talked to himself about heavenly bodies and geometry as he had walked beneath the bodies of traitors on the wall. He had hidden himself in his crumbling house, and had written treatises while England burnt around him.

You couldn't hide from it now, when it was so close. No talking, no knowledge, no pride could conceal it. The threat of death wasn't just a stick to bait Sheppard with. It was here. It was here.

"Was it Sheppard?" he asked, because Sheppard and Dex came from that other world - the world beyond the pages of cold, sweet learning.

Dex shook his head. "There's little sign of a struggle. It was done by people they trusted, at least at first."

Rodney couldn't look at them, he couldn't. He remembered how his gaze had seemed to slide off the lady in her boy's clothes. This was worse. "So the way to the princess is unguarded," he said. "We can--"

"No!" Dex snarled. His fist tightened at his side. "I don't know what to do." He looked human, suddenly - not a forbidding giant who came with the glamour of many years at Sheppard's side. "Whoever did this, they've gone, and I don't know if it's part of the plot or a trap, or something else entirely." His bloody hand raked its way across his face. "I wish we knew where the others were."

******

The princess' room was unguarded now that it was empty. When everything was silent, Teyla slipped in. The princess had access to pen and paper, although few of her letters were allowed to leave the walls of Woodstock, only those that passed the stern test of Sir Henry Bedingfield.

Alert always for footsteps, Teyla took up the pen and wrote her message, ink spattering in her haste. She described what she knew of the plot, and the name of the man behind it. "Tomorrow," she wrote, because if the princess feigned illness and admitted no visitors… If she spurned food and drink…

Teyla added her secret sign, then took up another sheet and wrote the message again - one for the table, and one for the beneath the pillow; two chances to be found. When she had done, she stood up, her back unaccountably aching. Her princess was riding out. The warning was given and the task was done, but what then? She had no wings to fly her out the way she had flown in. And she wanted to see her mistress, to watch her and be certain that she was well.

And perhaps the plot had been changed. Perhaps all along the date had been a misdirection. Perhaps it was today. Perhaps it was now. She had thought they were one day early, but perhaps they had been just a few minutes too late.

I have to follow her, she thought.

She left the chamber, but did not close the door behind her. Taking a chance, went down the dark and crumbling stairs that emerged near the kitchen. The kitchen, at least, was warm, and a servant looked up guiltily from warming himself by the fire. "Martha?" he said, but Teyla kept her face averted, fumbled with the locks on the small back door, and headed out into the yard.

The princess and her guard were already leaving, her once-bright hair dull even in the sunlight. "Stop." The word slipped out from Teyla's lips without her meaning it to, but quiet, too quiet, and stolen by the breeze.

Even with a knife and the skills of the last two years, a woman dressed as a servant would not be able to steal a horse, not in the unforgiving light of a sunny morning. But servants had errands - herbs and leaves to collect for the table.

Kirtling her skirt above her knees, Teyla ran.

******

John skirted the edge of the trees, keeping just out of sight in the shadows. It was growing harder and harder to concentrate on the task in hand. "And what is the task in hand, John?" he asked himself. To wait for Teyla to find him? To get himself and his jumper out through the cordon of guards? He didn't like to ride too far away from the poorly-concealed jumper, but Teyla was inside the house, alone in a nest of enemies. But she is better equipped than you are to deal with the situation, he reminded himself. Teyla was a spy, who knew about stealth. John was…

His thoughts just hung there, without an answer. In the Marches, he had been to the Debateable Land, neither English not Scotch. This was neither captured nor free. Getting out was a challenge, but he hadn't been captured yet. Until a sign came from Teyla that she had succeeded, he should wait. But perhaps Teyla had been captured, and now that he was in a soldier's garb, he could ride up to the gatehouse and…

He was slow to see the movement across the sward. Sunlight glittered on evaporating dew, and he clutched at the saddlebow to keep himself from swaying. A party of riders was coming from the gatehouse, and… No, he noticed, the ground had curved down towards the river, and the gatehouse was no longer in sight.

The four riders approached him obliquely down the hill. Three wore blue doublets and armour like his own, and the fourth was a lady in a dark, plain dress, riding side-saddle on a beautiful horse. John backed further into the trees, and viewed it through a criss-cross of branches. As he watched, the lady turned her face up to the sky, revelling in the sunshine like a prisoner who had been too long immured inside.

This was the princess, he realised. Had Teyla given her warning? If not, should he…?

A sudden shout caused his head to snap up. The guard at the rear jerked back in his saddle, struggled to hold on, then fell. The second guard's horse went down, but when the guard struggled to his feet again, something struck him in the head; John was not too far away to see the gush of blood. The third guard shouted something, and the princess wheeled round, but John was already surging forward.

Two men broke out of the trees to his right, one of them raising a crude standard lashed to a spear. Behind them, in the shadows, their archers were already nocking arrows for a second shot. The remaining guard fell, an arrow in the thigh, an arrow in the arm.

"Stop!" John screamed, but it was stupid, stupid, of course it was stupid, just to charge unthinkingly forward. He should have dismounted and crept through the trees to take out the archers from behind, but…

He dodged the first arrow, pulling his horse to the side by sheer blind luck at the right time. The second struck him full in the chest, and the armour deflected it, but the force of it hitting him was enough to make him reel in the saddle. When the third came, striking his thigh, he slumped forward, then fell. For a moment, he saw the pounding death that was his horse's hooves, but after that there was nothing but grass and the darkening sky.

******

end of chapter eight

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