The story starts here
Which tells of death and rescues
Once upon a time, a boy called Rodney McKay had thought that the problem of flight was the hardest thing imaginable. Then the boy had become a man, and he had thought that no joy was greater than the joy of seeing his first flying machine successfully take to the air, and hearing the amazed marvelling of those who watched it. He had thought that no fear was greater than the fear that his beautiful machine would fail in front of hundreds of people, and that his name would go down in history only as a footnote, as someone who failed to give men wings.
"Somebody killed them," he whispered, scanning the forbidding wood. "They didn't do… that, not by themselves. It didn't just happen. What if the people who did it come back? We shouldn't be here."
"No." Dex shook his head slowly. "Stay in cover." He waved Rodney back, but Rodney found that there already was a tree trunk at his back, but he still hadn't backed far enough away; he could still see them, dead at their posts.
The enemy, he thought. The vast and faceless mass of humanity that wasn't Doctor Rodney McKay.
Rodney crouched down. Dex had almost reached the trees when he swung round, his blade up and ready. The crossbow bolt struck him before he had taken two steps. He fell to one knee, then almost fell further, his head sagging, then coming up again.
Bark scraped against Rodney's palm. He shrank lower and lower, making himself as tiny as curled mouse. The sound of approaching hoofbeats seemed to go on for a very long time, but was probably barely seconds. "Ronon Dex," said the rider, looking down at Dex from the glory of his height, as his men rose up from the far side of the road. "So you resurface at last, to be caught in the act: a condemned traitor slaughtering guards in the Queen's service. Run if you can, but my testimony will kill you."
"I'll kill you first," Dex rasped through gritted teeth.
"It wasn't him!" Rodney found himself shouting, scrabbling to his feet. "We were just, uh, walking… yes, walking along, and we came across this. It wasn't him. Honestly, on my word as a--"
"Rather foolish man, don't you think, Doctor McKay?" the horseman said. Then his face wiped clean of expression, becoming like stone. "Guard them," he said coldly to his men, "but leave them alive for a public trial and a traitor's death."
"No!" Dex bellowed. "No! Kolya!" But the horseman was gone, guiding his horse impassively over the dead men, and onwards, into Woodstock with his lies.
John lay forgotten in the dirt, waves of fire surging from his arm and throughout his body. His leg burnt with the fresh wound, blood spreading warm across his thigh. He tried to move, but there were too many people, too many voices. A horse passed by close to his eyes. His sword was beneath him, jagged and unforgiving. He pushed himself up onto his hands, crawled a few unnoticed feet, then slumped down again, inches away from the blood-drenched face of a young guard. The boy's eyes were open and unseeing, his body limp in death.
"My princess," he heard a voice say, and something about that voice stirred memories. "We have come to rescue you."
"Rescue?" said the princess, eager with a very human hope.
John watched it through blades of grass, enormous and blurry and close to his face. The archers were walking forward, emerging from the trees. The two horsemen flanked the princess, one of them reaching for her reins.
"I am profoundly sorry for the rude manner of our approach," said the man with the banner, "but the times allow nothing else. You must come with us. You must come with us now."
"Must?" said the princess, surveying the bodies of her guards. John lay still, dressed as a guard himself. Her eyes passed over him, her face expressing weary contempt.
"There's a plot to kill you," the man said, and his voice made John think of dark places, and hot, white, liquid pain. It made him think of nightmares that even now sometimes woke him panting in the night, and made the whole day that followed feel cold and bleak and hopeless. Then he moved, and the stab of pain brought him back to the here and now, with grass and sunlight, and a dead man's weapons within reach of his fingertips.
"Teyla Emmagen sent the news," the man said, and John tried to hear just the words, to slough away the weight of memories that clung to the timbre of the voice. "There's a plot afoot. You're to be killed tomorrow. You need to come with us, your highness."
"I do not know you," the princess said stiffly. John's fingers brushed a pistol, heavy at a dead man's side.
"But we are loyal." The man pulled at his reins, impatient to be gone. "Loyal servants of the Protestant religion, and loyal servants of Princess Elizabeth. Will you come, my lady?"
John's hand closed round the gun, as memories stalked him, as if the sky above him was nothing but black.
Teyla's breath was heaving in her lungs. Even kirtled up, her long skirt lashed around her legs. No-one shouted behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder, the place was still, the early morning sunlight gleaming on the windows.
What am I doing? she thought. Dew splashed up from the grass, soaking the hem of her shift. The princess was out of sight, heading down the broad expanse of land that led to the river, but her path was clear, painted on the grass in trampled dew.
She reached the top of the rise, and they were down, they were down, bodies spread before her on the ground. She froze there, then dropped to her knees, grasping at the tiny, sensible part of herself that knew that madly rushing forward could lead to nothing but grief.
They saw her, even so. A bow was raised, and although she was still too far away to make a difference, she was still close enough to die.
But she would not die with her warning ungiven, her farewell unsaid. Standing, she pulled off her coif to show her hair, loose around her head and shorter than any woman would wear it.
Nocking his arrow, the archer drew the bow-string back to cut her down.
Dex was dying. What did Sheppard call him, again? Ronon? A strange name, doubtless from the barbarous north, where their idea of an evening's entertainment involved stealing a hundred cows from their next door neighbours and burning a few houses along the way.
"Ronon?" Rodney said, his voice cracking. The tall man's guards stood over them with halberds and spears and other things, sharp and shiny, that could do such horrible things to people; that could rip their bellies open so bits came out of them, and they were going to do that to them, but no, no, the tall man - Kolya; this was Kolya, the man behind the plot - had ordered his men to keep them alive, so they could be found guilty of something they hadn't done, and… and tortured and disembowelled…
"…and I don't want to face that alone," Rodney told Ronon. "I mean, I don't want to face it at all, but it's not fair if you die on me and leave me by myself. And Sheppard's gone, and the lady. Teyla. Is it acceptable to call a lady by her Christian name when you've seen her legs? And I'm by myself, and it's not fair."
Ronon was still breathing, but that was all. The crossbow bolt had struck him in the side, beneath his arm. "But it hasn't gone in too far," Rodney said, "unless… unless crossbow bolts are longer than I think they are. I don't know much about all the multifarious ways you manly men think up to kill each other."
The guards were impassive. There were four of them, and Ronon could take on four, couldn't he? Someone like Ronon could kill four people in his sleep.
"Just get us free before you die," Rodney begged him, wanting to shake him awake, but not daring to touch him properly in case he made things worse. "Do your last Herculean effort thing before you die." There was blood on his fingers. Why was there blood on his fingers? He wiped them clean, smearing them on his doublet. "But I'd prefer it if you didn't die. Sheppard wouldn't like it. Although he's probably dead now, of course. But… but I wouldn't like it, either. That is to say, I don't like it. I don't want you to die."
But few people in life had ever done exactly what Rodney had wanted them to, despite the evidently superior position of his wants. Ronon let out one last shuddering breath, and didn't breathe in again.
"He's dead," Rodney said. "Oh, God, he's dead."
Their faces blank, the two nearest guards leant in to check.
"Stop!" the princess commanded, still unquestionably the daughter of a king. She pulled her horse free from the rescuer who held her. "She is a friend. If you are loyal friends of mine, then you are her friends, too. You will not harm her."
The archer kept his bow drawn, obedient not to his princess but to the man with the charnel voice. Only when that man gave a nod did he lower his weapon.
And it was that, even more than the other thing, that made John certain.
"Teyla!" the princess greeted her, as Teyla ran breathlessly down the slope. "I understand you have been sending out warnings about an assassination plot? These men are our friends, and they have come to rescue me from it."
John took that as his cue. Rising to his knees, bringing up the pistol in both hands, he fired.
Ronon's eyes snapped open. He moved as fast as a… as a… "Snake," Rodney breathed, as the two guards' faces were driven into each other, "or… or hippopotamus." One of them appeared to have a knife in his throat. "No, something with claws." The second guard was reeling, gushing blood. A spear stabbed down, but Ronon dodged it, and slammed Rodney down into the ground with a firm hand on his shoulders. By the time Rodney looked up again, Ronon had managed to grab a halberd and was standing there looking like a vengeful god of death.
I should help him, Rodney thought. All similes dried up in his mind. He had a pen-knife, and a… and a… a stick, he thought, as he found one, little more than a twig, but sharp at the end. He swallowed; swallowed again. "What shall I…?"
But Ronon was already fighting two, and only one of them was wounded. Rodney saw the crossbow bolt jerk in Ronon's side. The blood was real; the wound was real; and everything, everything was moving. There was so much… There was too much… And he longed for words, for the quietude of the pen, but someone moved behind him, and he whirled round, screaming, and stabbed with his stick, and twisted it, but came away with only half a stick, so he found his pen-knife, and he fought, hurling himself at his attacker like Aristotle hurling himself at a vexatious problem.
There was blood; there was too much blood. Fire opened up from his shoulder to his elbow, and he realised that he was crying, actually crying, his vision blurring, and he was going to die, he was going to die…
A hand closed on his shoulder, firm but not ungentle. Rodney whirled round to see Ronon, blood-stained but still standing. "You killed…" Rodney's voice crumbled.
Ronon nodded. His hand was at his side, pressed around the crossbow bolt.
Rodney grasped at the solid thread that was anger. "I said you could kill four. I said. And you pretended you couldn't. You pretended to die. You could have said."
"Couldn't risk it." Ronon's chest was heaving with irregular, jagged breaths.
Rodney looked at his blood-stained knife; at the torn-off stick. The other end was inside someone; of course it was. "Did I…?" He couldn't complete the question. He didn't know what answer he wanted to hear. Yes, you killed him, you played a useful part, you saved my life? Or maybe he just wanted to hear a No, no, you did nothing, you didn't kill, you never will.
But Ronon gave no answer, just squeezed Rodney's shoulder, as if to say that it didn't matter, that everything would be unchanged regardless. "Come on," he said, and, "Where?" Rodney asked, blinking, but Ronon was already walking, and he had a crossbow bolt in his side, for crying out loud, so Rodney had to go with him, didn't he? He had to.
He held him up, a big man and a strong one.
He held him up.
Teyla did not recognise John at first, clad as he was in the garb of the princess' gaolers. All she saw was one of the fallen guards rising up with a pistol. All she saw was a gaoler firing on one of the men who had come to save the princess' life.
"No!" she screamed, "no!" but then he turned a little, and she saw that it was John. One archer had fallen, but the second was nocking an arrow, and John hurled the useless pistol at him, striking him in the shoulder, disrupting his aim. Then his sword was out, and he ran forward, striking once then twice, as the arrow slipped from the string and fell harmlessly to the ground.
"No," she gasped, but quietly now. John had betrayed them. She had brought him here, but all along he had been…
No, she told herself firmly. Not John. She had watched him for years, and known him for eight days, but he would not, he could not…
Not even to buy himself wings? she thought. Not even if bribed with the promise of the skies…?
The horseman with the banner raised it high. The other one was fighting for the princess' reins, urgently trying to lead her away. "My lady," she heard, "we must fly."
Teyla found herself shaking her head, just shaking it to and fro as if she could wipe away the things that she was seeing. John was clearly injured, but he had cast aside his sword and was pulling an arrow from a dead man's quiver. Then the man with the banner reversed it, turning it into a deadly spear. He rode at John, who dodged it, but only just. He dropped the arrow. Before he managed to retrieve it, the man came back. The spear struck John in the chest. The blow was glancing, and the armour deflected it, but it was enough to send him crashing to the ground.
And all the while, Teyla was walking, just walking forward, unable to stop. "John," she said, and it was only quiet, but John appeared to hear her, looking up from his shattered position on the ground.
It was enough.
"My lady," she said, as she reached the princess' horse, standing between the princess and the man who held her reins. She looked up at her with eyes that held the weight of secrets. "I have always served you," she said. Then, twisting as rapidly as a stoat, she raised her knife and jabbed it as hard as she could into the horseman's thigh. Pulling it out, she stabbed again, and his grip eased on the reins. The princess jerked them free. Teyla stabbed again, then grabbed the screaming man around the waist and pulled. They fell tangled together, but Teyla was up first, her knife ready and at his throat.
"Stop!" the princess commanded. Teyla saw brown eyes looking up at her. Her knife pricked the fallen man's skin, drawing a bead of blood. She could not look away. Dimly, she saw her princess still unharmed on her horse. On her other side, the rider with the spear was still moving, hooves thundering as he tried to ride John down.
"Your princess has commanded him to stop," Teyla said, spitting out each word as the knife sank deeper, "and yet he does not obey her." The man tried to grab her wrist. "I will kill you," she vowed, "if you move, and I will kill you if you do not call him off." The knife twisted deeper, the blood like a stream. "Call him off."
He made a broken sound. She moved the knife to his chest to let him speak, the bloody sinews of his throat moving as he shouted out, "Stop!" and "Stop!" again.
Stillness came behind her. She rocked back onto her heels, her knife ready for treachery, but blood was gushing from the fallen man's thigh, and she knew that he was almost dead already, although he did not yet know it.
John was on his feet, his sword covering the one man who still remained upright, who still held the spear, half as a weapon, and half as a banner of surrender.
"How did you know?" Teyla said, crouching there with blood thick on her skirts.
John was swaying, barely able to stand. "I recognised him," he said, jerking his chin minutely at the man bleeding to death at Teyla's feet. "He was with Kolya." He swallowed. "In the dungeon. When he…"
"Teyla," the princess said, in a tone that demanded answers. She was thinner and paler than when Teyla had last seen her, but still unquestionably her princess. "And this, if I am not mistaken, is Sir John Sheppard, who liked to play in the skies." Her voice turned sharper. "These others I do not know. They said they were my friends. The two of you appear to have killed them, so what does that make you?"
"Friends," Teyla began to say, but a party of horsemen crested the rise, and there was no chance to say anything else at all before they were upon them.
It wasn't enough.
"I never saw the point of physical strength," Rodney said, shambling along with Ronon's weight across his shoulder. "I'm strong, just in other areas. God! Ow! And I… And you're too tall. Quite a ridiculously… unnecessary height, if you… ask me, and it can't… it can't be comfortable to be… carried like this."
"No," Ronon said, as his knees sagged. His arm slid off Rodney's shoulders, and he fell forward onto the ground, dropping the crossbow he had grabbed from one of the dead guards.
"Please," Rodney urged him. "Try to stand up again. Good Ronon. Er.. nice Ronon." He scraped a shaking hand across his face. "I'm wounded, too," he said, and it hurt, it hurt, like fire on his arm, and the other shoulder throbbed from falling from the sky, and "please get up," he said. "I don't know where we're going. I don't know what we're doing."
The guards were dead, and the way into the Woodstock estate was open, but they would still count as intruders. Kolya would have denounced them as the murderers by now, but instead of walking away, they were going on, like mice calmly walking into the lair of the tiger.
"A party of horsemen…" Ronon rasped. "Went that way. Follow them." His head slumped forward, his fist tightening at his side.
"Oh. Oh. You're dying for real this time." Rodney's blood-stained hands fluttered over Ronon's body, not quite daring to touch. "Or is this another trick?" He looked over his shoulder, but no-one was watching. "Is this real?"
Ronon dragged his eyes open with evident difficulty, and told him.
John didn't recognise the distinguished-looking man who led them. By then, he could hardly stand, his vision pulsing with clouds of red. The wound on his thigh was stiffening, the blood turning cold all the way down to his knee. His right arm seemed to have given up on him, finally pushed beyond the point of endurance.
There were too many men, and he was too spent to put up a fight. They ignored him at first, these men in uniforms like the one he had stolen. Two of them took up positions on either side of the princess, and two more surrounded Teyla. The man with the banner was commanded at swordpoint to yield, and was killed on the spot when he hesitated.
The rest was inevitable. "That man isn't one of mine," the leader said, pointing at John. John let his sword fall, and raised his hands. "It isn't how it seems," he said, but they didn't believe him; of course they didn't believe him.
But he had seen the man who rode behind the grey-haired leader of these men. He had seen his moment of shock and anger, impossible to conceal, as he had come upon this scene.
It was Kolya.
"Senor Kolya brought me the news, my lady," the grey-haired man said, addressing the princess. "Fanatics were planning to carry you away to use as a figurehead for their rebellion against the Queen. They planned to set brother against brother, and to turn all England into a well of tears. If it wasn't for Senor Kolya's warning…"
"Where you say 'carry away', Sir Henry, some would say 'free'." The princess was imperious still. "Some would say that they wished only to rescue a daughter of King Henry from an unjust imprisonment."
There was a crack in Sir Henry's stern exterior. For a moment, he almost looked sorry. "If proof can be found that you colluded with this plot, my lady…"
"Then I will lose my head like my mother did," the princess said, "branded, like her, a traitor to her kin." She shook her head, and looked young and worn and frightened. "I didn't collude. I didn't know."
Flying was about hurling yourself from a great height, trusting that the wind would catch you. "She didn't know," John said, careful not to step forward, not to make a single movement that could be interpreted as a threat. "Kolya's lying to you. These men here - the ones you're supposed to think are Protestant fanatics… They're Kolya's men. I recognise one of them."
"It's a lie." Kolya flapped a hand, not even bothering to be angry. "You should kill--"
"There has been too much killing here, don't you think?" Sir Henry's tone was icy. Teyla raised her head just a little, but John couldn't read the message in her eyes.
"What was supposed to happen?" John hurled at Kolya. "You would ride up, twisting your hands, to find Princess Elizabeth dead. What was it to be? A fall from the horse? And you blameless, with a Protestant banner left so fortuitously at the scene, and Sir Henry's dying guards to attest that the princess had escaped, that Protestant fanatics had spirited her away? She would have died in an escape attempt, killed by the carelessness of her friends."
"It is a lie," Kolya said again, but this time there was a note of anger in his voice. He turned to Sir Henry, spreading his hands. "I know this man. He is John Sheppard, a well-known traitor, and the woman with him is a Protestant spy. Their story is as false as their hearts. Kill them."
Sir Henry brought his hand up sharply, countermanding the order. "These men are still mine, Senor Kolya." He turned to John, his expression cold. "I know your name," he said. "You have given me no cause to trust you." He gave a sharp nod, and John found himself grabbed, thrown to his knees in front of Sir Henry's horse. His head was pulled back, forcing him to look up, and Kolya was there, watching with a thin smile of triumph on his face, and John was on his knees, and it hurt, it hurt…
"John," Teyla said, and it was just a faint thread of a sound, but it was enough.
"How did you get here?" Sir Henry commanded. "How did you and your accomplices enter the estate?"
"I flew here," John said. "I used a flying machine only big enough for two. These others… They didn't come with me. I'm not a traitor. Yes, I came here in a flying machine that was supposed to have been destroyed, but I did it because I'd heard that Kolya was plotting to kill the princess. It was supposed to be tomorrow. I guess he got impatient, or put out the wrong date to put us off the scent. Too bad for him his men flushed us out of our hiding place and made us come early."
"You were supposed to die," Kolya spat, but Sir Henry's face was the cold, hard face of a hanging judge, and John knew that he had fought, but he had lost. It had been inevitable for two years, even since Ronon had snatched him from a dungeon, and he had emerged to discover that his father was dead.
He had lost.
Which tells of endings and the world to come
It was not a failure, Teyla reminded herself. Her goal had been to save her princess from this plot. She had no doubt that John was right, and that this fake rescue was in fact the assassination attempt, striking one day earlier than the report she had overheard. Between them, she and John… No, between them, she and John and Ronon and Rodney had thwarted the attempt.
Perhaps they would get blamed for it, but the princess would live. Perhaps they would die for it, but the princess would live. Perhaps…
But I do not want to die, she thought, and she felt close to tears with the force of it. She was willing to die for her cause, but not like this, not like this. And to take John with her, because in the eyes of Sir Henry and Kolya, John was more damned in this than she was. Her death would be clean, but his would be hideous.
"Please," she begged, appealing to Sir Henry. "He is telling the truth. Senor Kolya is behind this. He wants to kill Princess Elizabeth, who was entrusted to your care. He wants--"
"You are Teyla Emmagen," Sir Henry said, raising his eyebrow.
She nodded. They were probably condemned already, but if they were to have any chance at all, it lay in perfect honesty.
"I found your letter," Sir Henry said, "the one you wrote to the princess. You must have known I would find it."
It was phrased ever so slightly as a question. "I… hoped," Teyla said, "or perhaps I hoped you would not. Perhaps it is all in the hands of God, and what He decides." But she had left the door open, and had made no attempt to hide the letter. Sir Henry was stern, or so her informants told her, but fair. An attempt on the princess' life was a smear on his honour.
Sir Henry looked at her, his face giving nothing away. "I knew your father," he said, "or maybe your grandfather, in happier times before England was so divided."
"But an honourable man can produce a traitor for a daughter." Kolya looked impatient. "This new religion can corrupt even the best of sons."
Sir Henry looked at him, considering. "It can indeed."
And it was not a victory, of course. It was not a victory at all. The princess had been saved today, but the Queen would be told that Protestant fanatics had almost spirited her away, to use her as a focal point for rebellion; by writing her letters, Teyla had helped produce the proof of that. The princess had survived today, but would live only for a trial and the block.
It was better, perhaps, if Teyla had not meddled at all - better for her; better for John and his friends; better for the princess; better for England.
But how could I have done anything else? she thought.
Some people liked to run for the… for the sport of it. Rodney pressed his hand to his screaming side. He'd seen them… in the north… Soldiers and knights and gentlemen, running in harness just to… see… who won. And fighting… They liked fighting. If they didn't have… war… then they… Jousts. King Henry had liked jousts. Trying to kill each other. People died for real, sometimes. Stupid, stupid to play at death, Stupid, stupid to… run, when you didn't have to, because it was… horrible. It was…
The ground went slightly up. Ronon had pointed the way - hoofprints, hoofprints in the grass. And people talking, and heads… What were those curvy helmets called? Morions. Morions high up, with people underneath them, though he couldn't see them.
Should run away, run the other way. His arm hurt, and he'd never been hurt before, deliberately hurt by someone who wanted to kill him. Insulted, yes, but sticks and stones… Not true, not true. No, not true, but not like actually fighting for your life. Not like having your flesh torn open by someone who wanted to hurt you. Should run away. The guards were dead. Light the burner, up, up and away.
They'll probably kill me if I carry on. The thought came through suddenly clear, far clearer than anything else.
But he carried on running, heart pounding, arm bleeding. He carried on, crested the slight rise, and saw them gathered on the slope down to the river.
His foot slipped. He didn't fight it, but went down, flat on his face. If I don't look like a threat… They were slow to notice him. Call yourself a highly trained guard? he wanted to say, but lacked the breath for it. Call yourself an evil nemesis? But he snatched that thought back even as it came to him. He couldn't underestimate Kolya. Kolya had shot Ronon, and Rodney had watched him stop breathing.
Sheppard, he thought, saw him first; he was suddenly sure of this, even though Sheppard gave no sign. Sheppard was on his knees, flanked by two soldier types, and he was dressed mostly as a soldier himself, except for the breeches, which were his usual well-tailored ones, showing off his legs beneath them, where were…
Stop, he thought, Rodney berating Rodney, telling him to think, to think. Why on Earth was he here? Why on Earth had Ronon…?
Then the assorted enemies, henchmen, minions and… whoevers saw him. There were lots of stop where you ares and drop your weaponses, but Rodney pressed one hand to his heaving chest, and waved the other in vague surrender, flapping it to bring more air towards his lungs, to try to unleash his chained eloquence. "Not a threat!" he called. "Important information, etcetera etcetera. Messenger, like… Pheidippides to Athens. Don't kill, don't kill. Scholar. Look. Weapon's my pen, etcetera."
The grey-haired man on a horse gave some sort of signal to the guards. They bristled in a prickly fashion, like a self-righteous hedgehog, but they let him approach.
"I'm a scholar from Oxford," Rodney said, as breathing came steadily easier. "Doctor Rodney McKay. Yes, I served the late King Edward, but the cause of knowledge knows no princes." His eyes flickered quickly from right to left. "That is to say, it obeys princes - queens, I mean; queens - but its cause is greater. It doesn't, like, plot."
Kolya dismounted; walked towards him. "This prattling traitor has entertained Sheppard and his accomplices for weeks in his own house," he said loudly, "or so I have been reliably informed. He made the flying machine that brought them here."
"Well, yes, yes, I did." Rodney pulled at his doublet, straightening it. "No-one else could have done it. But I helped them because they were trying to stop a plot that would have plunged England into civil war. Because he's Spanish, you know. Kolya. Him. He killed the guards at the gate. I saw it happen. In the flesh. I was in the sky. Flying. Bird's eye view. I saw him." He folded his arms. Everything about him seemed to be trembling beneath that folded grip.
"The guards had indeed been slaughtered," Kolya said calmly, turning towards the grey-haired man, "which is how I was able to come in unannounced."
"It was him," Rodney said, digging his fingers into his sides. "They were killed completely - not just incapacitated but slaughtered. It's because anyone left alive would have told you who it was. Kolya's men came up as friends, then probably changed their clothes afterwards." At least, that's what Ronon had thought; that's what Ronon had told him to say. Ronon, of course, had said it all in rather fewer words.
"A lie," Kolya said calmly, but a pulse was beating rapidly at the side of his brow.
Rodney recognised such a pulse. He saw it often in people talking to him. Then he looked away from Kolya's face, looking at the rest of him. "Then why has he got blood on his cuff?" he denounced, pointing. "It's Ronon's blood, from where he shot him."
Sheppard's voice cut through any other answer anyone might have given. "Where's Ronon?" he asked, and perhaps it was just the over-exertion, but his voice made Rodney shiver.
John saw the truth in McKay's eyes. Ronon was dead.
Ronon was dead, and McKay and Teyla could talk until kingdom come, but they would never be believed. Ronon was dead, and the rest of them would follow him, but not with the quick despatch of an arrow or an arquebus ball. He couldn't face that again, he couldn't. And McKay and Ronon were only here because of him. They were…
No, no. No rationalisation, just…
He tore himself free from the soldiers who held them, ripping himself out of their slackened grasp. He had just a second, he knew, before they struck him down, but a second was enough. Snatching up a discarded blade, and hurled himself towards Kolya.
But Kolya was quicker. He always had been one step ahead, always knowing just how hard to push to make John shatter. He retaliated not by fighting John, but by grabbing McKay, pulling him in front of him like a shield, pricking his throat with a knife.
Sir Henry was shouting; John hardly heard him. The guards flanked him; John hardly saw them. McKay's mouth had frozen half open, as if he was terrified to move it in case the knife drove home. His eyes were wide, flickering from side to side.
"Sheppard," Kolya said, in a tone that still haunted John's nightmares, "you know you can never win against me."
There was so much horror attached to his voice, but John couldn't let it break him. That voice, that face, had finally emerged into the daylight, and sunlight always drove shadows away. "Funny," he said, "because I thought I already did. I escaped, didn't I? You never got me to confess to things I hadn't done. You never will."
"But you screamed." Kolya's eyes glittered as much in the daylight as in the guttering light of a torch. "Do you remember, Sheppard? You were a traitor. I gave you what you deserved." His arm jerked, as if to drive the knife home, but he arrested it, twisting his wrist at the last moment. The noise ripped from McKay's throat was quiet but hideous, like the rasping moan of something dying.
John's whole body was pounding with the rhythm of his heart, pain pulsing red across his vision. No-one else existed now, except for this man and the hostage he held. "I was never a traitor," he said, "unlike you. Now let him go." He edged forward, but just an inch. "Ronon did nothing but be a friend to me. Now let him go."
"Do you remember…?" Kolya said caressingly, as a bead of blood slid down McKay's throat.
"Let. Him. Go," John commanded.
Kolya gave a light laugh, the one that echoed in John's dreams. "But Johnny, my lad, did you think I would come here alone? Where Ronon Dex is, you are never far behind, and where you are, there is your flying machine. My men will have found it by now. When I give the signal, they will burn it. Or I can kill this foolish, prattling scholar, this Doctor McKay."
When Kolya laughed in the sunlight, the horror was gone. When Kolya offered him this choice, it became no choice at all. John had swept people up in the wake of his obsession, and he feared, sometimes he feared what he had become.
But dragged out into the sunlight, it was easy. Dragged out into the sunlight, it was no choice at all.
"You will let him go," John said coldly, calmly.
Still smiling, Kolya pushed McKay forward, and brought his hand up for a signal. Then, as McKay reeled and fell to his knees, Kolya brought the knife around and raised it high…
The world reawakened at John's back: voices, movement, shouts. He threw himself forward, sword swinging, but Kolya was faster, his knife already descending.
John barely felt it enter him. He saw McKay's red face, the mouth open, silently screaming. He heard Kolya gasp, and then shouting, all he heard was shouting.
His first shot failed to kill Kolya. Ronon wound up the crossbow for a second shot, but it was already too late. In so many situations in life, you had just one shot, and if you needed a second one, you were dead.
He had come just too late. Sheppard was down. The best lies, or so Ronon's father had taught him, had a grain of truth in them. He'd pretended to die because he'd been close to fainting from the pain. Later, he'd sunk down and told McKay to go on because he'd feared that they were watched, but his wound was real. He had barely been able to stay on his feet as he had taken the long, roundabout route to approach from the river. Now his vision was blurring, and his aim was false.
"Please," he heard Teyla beg, and then in a different voice, "Ronon! Drop your weapon now!"
In all his life, Ronon had obeyed his father in most things, and Sheppard in some. Since the day he had been breeched, he had never been without weapons, even when he had danced and sung.
He dropped the bow. Killing Kolya meant nothing. No, killing Kolya meant something. Sheppard still dreamt of him, and perhaps if Kolya was dead…
But Sheppard was down. "Can I come closer?" Ronon shouted, his hands in the air, his body bent over to favour his wound. "Is Sheppard…?"
And everyone was talking, but he and Sheppard had always stayed apart from all this. Loyalty mattered. Friendship. Kin.
He came forward; let out a breath when he saw that Sheppard was still alive. Kolya had Ronon's bolt in his shoulder, and his eyes were blazing. "You see!" he shouted. "You see the true nature of their treachery."
"I see," said a grey-haired man.
Ronon sank to his knees, perhaps closer to falling. Sheppard looked up from the ground where he lay. "You're not dead. Thought you were dead."
"Not dead." Ronon shook his head.
"'m glad." Sheppard smiled.
"And I'm not dead, either." McKay fluttered around over both of them. "Seriously, Sheppard… You… you saved my life. I've never thought much of that heroic thing, but you… leaping between me and the fatal blow, like… Oh, God, it doesn't matter what it's like. You did it."
"Wonder why." Badly wounded, defeated, Sheppard's smile was less shadowed than it had been for years.
This was probably the end. But it wasn't such a bad end, Ronon thought. In the years since his birth, he had imagined many worse.
It was strange, Teyla thought, how the things that should have mattered most suddenly seemed to matter hardly at all.
Sir Henry was an astute man and an honourable one. Having spent a year as the gaoler of a princess, he knew her measure, and she, who had let herself stay silent while she watched people reveal their true nature, finally spoke.
Teyla's fate was being decided. She barely heard it.
"Everything happened as Sir John and Mistress Emmagen describe it," the princess said. "I heard their talking, one to the other. They were opposed to these men who claimed to be my rescuers."
"And they were indeed fighting them when we arrived," Sir Henry said, "but such things can be faked. People can sacrifice their allies to give credence to a lie." But he looked at Kolya as he spoke, just as sharply as he looked at John.
John was still alive, Teyla thought. Ronon and Rodney held him up, supporting him between them as they knelt on the ground, but Ronon was badly in need of support himself. She wanted to go to them. "Please?" she asked, without intending to, and Sir Henry gave a nod. She sank to her knees beside them. John smiled weakly at her, but his eyes were already closing.
Behind him, in the trees, the first smoke was rising.
Words were exchanged behind her as she touched Ronon's shoulder, as she squeezed Rodney's hand. She turned at last to see Sir Henry standing up from one of his fallen guards, shot by the pretended rescuers before Teyla had arrived on the scene. "He confirms their story," he said thoughtfully. "Now give him some care."
Kolya started shouting. The smoke grew thicker, and the first flames were visible. Could John see it, she wondered.
"I knew her… grandfather, yes, grandfather," she heard Sir Henry say, "and of you, Senor Kolya, I have heard little that inspires liking. I let you and Sheppard confront each other unmolested. You see a man's true nature when he faces his enemy."
Kolya was clearly struggling to stay on his feet. "This is ridiculous!" he shouted. "Perhaps you are the traitor, after all."
"And how did you know of the plot, to warn me?" Sir Henry said. "And how did these so-called Protestant fanatics know that the princess would be riding out today, when for a whole year she has been kept inside? The decision to relax the terms of her captivity on this day was shared only with a few. As King Philip's agent and enforcer, I expect it would have been no difficult task for you to discover it."
"You can't believe them?" Kolya said, his voice weakened by pain.
The flames grew higher, and Teyla could smell the sharp tang of smoke. John stirred, turning his head slightly. This matters, she thought, but the rest of it mattered terribly. It mattered terribly, but somehow it seemed to matter less than the look in John's eyes when he realised that his flying machine was burning; than the way that Ronon held him up, even though he was so badly hurt himself; than the way that Rodney had run forward, breathless with anxiety, and stayed here still.
"I serve my Queen and my God and my country," Sir Henry said. "You serve a different lord and a harsher God, and your country is not my own. Would Spain benefit from a civil war in England? Would Spain benefit if the Queen's nearest heir should suddenly die?"
"I should have killed him," Ronon muttered, and suddenly the two worlds collided, Sir Henry finally noticing the closed circle that was the four of them. But he had been aware of them all along, of course.
"No," Sir Henry said, "there has been enough killing. These things require a trial. Take Senor Kolya away."
So she had won. Teyla let out a breath, but that was all. She looked at John and Ronon and Rodney, and this, this, felt more real.
John managed to walk the steps that were necessary. Wood and canvas burned quickly, and his puddlejumper was almost consumed, just smouldering ashes beneath the winter trees.
"You let him do that to save my life," McKay said, as he held John up on the left-hand side. "No-one's ever done… I mean, I wouldn't want anyone to do it, because it's senseless and brutal, and when will you manly types stop waving swords around and open your eyes to the wonder of knowledge? We'd be on the moon by now if only you people applied yourself to study the same way you--"
"McKay," Ronon warned him. He was too hurt himself to be at John's right-hand side, but he had managed to walk here unaided, on his own two feet.
"No," John said, shaking his head. "Let him carry on." Because, stupid as it was, right from the start, John had liked McKay, from the first outraged accusations about his knot garden. It was hard to dwell on shadows when McKay was in full flow.
And God alone knew how much he needed that now.
McKay cleared his throat. "Of course, I had it under control. I wouldn't have…" He stopped; pressed his lips together for a moment. "I know how much you loved that machine. I… I thought of it as mine, you know, because it was my achievement, but it was more than that to you, wasn't it? And… God, Sheppard, you gave it up for me."
"There was never any choice." His voice was hoarse, as if scoured by smoke and flames. "It wasn't…" His eyes flickered not to McKay, but to Ronon. "It wasn't hard."
He had saved a princess; he had saved a friend. He had lost his wings, but other things were more important. What were wings but… my life, he thought. He swayed and then fell, ending up on his knees beside the wreckage. For nearly two years, Kolya had stalked his dreams, and John had lived half in shadows. Flying was an escape from that, a way to live, to carry on. Now he had faced Kolya out in the daylight, and the memories had been dragged out and had lost their sting. And there were other things out in the daylight, too: friendship, loyalty… a cause.
"I can build more, of course," McKay said, lowering his voice half way through, so the final words came out as a whisper. "Make another flying machine," he hissed through a very narrow mouth. "I can do it in weeks. Better than this one."
"If they let us," John said, but fire was burning in his side, where Kolya's knife had sunk in, and…
…and nothing after that, except jagged darkness, but it never held a dungeon, just sunlight and flames. Kolya was led away to trial, again and again and again. "I will lend you my surgeon," he heard Sir Henry say, "but I cannot be seen to support you, and neither can I lie. The Queen knew nothing of this plot, hatched by evil men around her…"
Knew nothing? John thought, as sunlight blazed over him and through him and in him. It was the age-old story. Princes acted, and people burnt.
"Two of the fake rescuers still live," Sir Henry said, his voice fading in and out of hearing. "…will speak under questioning. …prove his guilt. But you… not well-received. You should…"
Perhaps a second, and perhaps an eternity passed. He heard Teyla speak. Then a hot jet of pain erupted in his side, and the next time he saw anything, it was dark.
"She was in my care," he heard. "You kept her alive, so I let you live, but go. Go."
The whole world became harsh and wild. He woke up on the far side of it, in a place of blue.
Rodney had no books. He had no Copernicus in which to scribble comments in the margin. He had no newly-discovered wine cellar, and all his notes for all his wonderful treatises had gone.
Instead, he had cold, damp breeches, and leaves in his hair. His stomach was jolted half to pieces by a ridiculously badly-designed carriage, and he appeared to have become a fugitive - admittedly a fugitive sent on his way with a packed lunch and a pat on the back by a knight of the realm, but, still…
"And I haven't got a home now," he said, as he staggered painfully from the carriage. Although he had been, hello, dying only two days before, Ronon had played carriage driver appropriately well. The balloon took up a lot of space inside. Sheppard was limp, barely less pale than the bundled silk that he rested on.
According to Teyla, this inn was safe. "They are not agents of mine," she said, "because that would be too obvious, but they are… not unfriendly."
Sheppard's weary eyes fluttered open and he looked at what was visible through the open door. "We've used this one, too."
Teyla looked at him. "I wonder how often our paths crossed without us realising it," she said quietly.
They stayed for almost a week in the end, and no-one came to drag them out and arrest them, which was a definite plus. Ronon slowly grew better again. Sheppard got worse, but then began to improve. And all the while, Rodney talked about many, many things, educating the benighted masses about the cosmos, and illustrating the ideas of Euclid with knife blades and trenchers.
It was only towards a latter evening that his words finally ran out. He sat and stared out of the window, and thought of all the months when his life had been about nothing but writing up wonderful theories…; when his life had been about a cold, empty, crumbling manor, in the company of a servant who had betrayed him.
"What are you going to do?" He dared ask it at last.
"Not got much choice," Sheppard said, propped up on a mountain of silk, with a horse-hair pillow somewhere far beneath it.
"I… believe we have," Teyla said slowly. "The burnings are getting worse. Kolya has failed, but there may be others. I will continue to fight for my cause, but…" She looked down at her clasped hands in her lap, then raised her head, looking at them one after another. "…differently," she said. "Other things matter, too. What is the point of winning your battle if you lose too much on the way?"
Sheppard looked at Ronon, the two of them sharing one of those unspoken communication things that was, in its way, as irritating as the leg thing. No, worse, Rodney realised, because it was something that he couldn't do himself, because he didn't know anyone that well.
"There's nothing else left," Sheppard said, with a smile that didn't really seem very smiley. "Might as well be useful and live up to the label." His eyes went to Teyla. Rodney found himself edging back just a little, back into the shadows away from the lantern light. "Which is to say, I guess I want to help."
"I meant it," Rodney found himself saying, although he was even further back now, almost in the dark. "I can make another flying machine. I'll need a stable, and… and… money, but how hard can that be to get?"
"Going to set up in the market and juggle figs?" Sheppard said with a smile.
It hurt. It was stupid, but it hurt. "Maybe they didn't burn my house down," he said, "now that Kolya's gone. Rents were due on Lady Day, weren't they? I've got money and space… lots of space."
"There's other places with space," Ronon said.
"And other places with money." Sheppard smiled ruefully. "Poor Dave."
Rodney said nothing. For the first time in his entire life, he felt as if he didn't entirely understand what was happening. Or maybe not the first time. Perhaps the third.
"Of course," Sheppard said, "it'll be dangerous. Despite what Sir Henry said…" He frowned, turning to Ronon. "He did say what I thought I heard him say, did he?"
Ronon shrugged, in the manner of someone absolving themselves of all responsibility. "Hey, delirious, remember?"
"More delirious than you," Sheppard retorted. His smile, though, was brittle, and then it disappeared completely. "He gave us an element of support, but it can't last. For many years, perhaps our whole life, our position will be…"
"Uncertain," Teyla said firmly, as if Sheppard had been about to say something more emphatic, but she had stopped him.
"Uncertain," Sheppard said, but the look in his eyes was at odds with the tension of his body. "So if you don't…"
"Oh." Rodney let out a breath. "Oh. You mean you're inviting me to come with you?"
Sheppard began to speak. Rodney heard only the initial sound, the start of a 'yes.'
"Of course," he said, turning his attention to his creased doublet to hide the quite ridiculous idiot grin that wanted to burst forth on his face, though why on Earth he was smiling, he didn't know, given than, hello, bandits and outlaws; people who kept getting themselves stabbed or shot; people with alarming nemeses from their dark pasts; people who would force him to make better and better flying machines, and would appreciate them and love them, and fly them, glorious against the stars.
He tugged his doublet even harder, hiding things in a cough. "As long as there are comfits," he said.
"I think we can manage that," Sheppard said. "Once a year, perhaps, if your work is satisfactory."
And for the first time in his life, Rodney understood the wealth of things that were not said. The grin came anyway, despite his best efforts to distract himself with sartorial matters. He stopped fighting it, and the others… his new friends…
They smiled back.
This is a nineteenth century drawing of a sixteenth century painting, sadly lost in a fire in 1875. The drawing was used as the frontispiece for Riders of the Wind, a rather fanciful romantic novel about John Sheppard, written by one Richard Manley. From the gushing descriptions of Sheppard's legs and the sheer number of times he gets picturesquely wounded before swooning into a passing damsel's tender arms, current thinking is that the said Mister Manley was, in fact, a woman. Chemical analysis shows a considerable amount of drool on the original version of the artwork.
In 1558, Queen Mary died, and her sister became Queen Elizabeth I. The exploits of our heroes under this most famous of queens do not need to be recounted here in full, subject as they are to academic studies, prime-time TV dramas, countless novels, Errol Flynn swashbucklers and 1930s tea-time serials.
Every school child knows about the brave Sir John Sheppard, the first and most celebrated commander of the Elizabethan Flying Corps, hero of such oft-told adventures as the Sapphire Necklace Intrigue, the Chipping Sodbury Insurrection and the affair of the King of Spain's kittens, surely one of the most bizarre episodes of European history. In his latter years, this Drake of the Skies averted the Spanish Armada with precision gliding, and was immortalised by Spencer, Shakespeare and many more. Centuries later, even Keats could express the dream of "flying like Sheppard upon the aureate air," and pilots from the English Civil War to the Battle of Britain expressed a firm belief that Sheppard was not dead but merely sleeping, and that he would return when England most needed him.
Although most people know him only as the inventor of the flying machine, Rodney McKay's name is revered by scientists the world over as the spiritual father of numerous disciplines. For over three hundred years, scientific research was driven by a scrap of paper entitled "the to-do list of Doctor Rodney McKay"; it was to be 1898 before scientists reached the final point on the list, number 94, and satisfactorily produced the solution, the germs of which must have come to the illustrious McKay so many years before. Although he became somewhat eccentric in his latter years, devoting rather more time than was wise to perfecting comfit recipes using scientific principles, his achievements in science have never been equalled. Shakespeare, it is true, wrote a character called McKay, and made him a puffed-up, over-locaquious fool, but Shakespeare had the low tastes of the masses to consider, and the masses in any age have not been renowed for their appreciation of scientific pioneers.
Until 1853, Teyla Emmagen was known, if she was known at all, only as a relatively minor lady-in-waiting at the Elizabethan court. The chance discovery of a letter in a dusty chest in Banbury changed everything, revealing that Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spy-master, was no more than the inheritor of a sophisticated network set up by Mistress Emmagen. Emmagen immediately became a darling of historical novelists and, in due course, of movie makers - the dangerous and beautiful spymistress, shown frequently, and perhaps regrettably, with few clothes on. That most famous of Bond girls, Teyla Bikini, was named in her honour. Needless to say, the truth of her life is far more interesting than any second-rate movie.
Reduced by second-rate historical novels and movies to the role of a sidekick, and unforgiveably played in one early silent movie by a sideshow giant, Ronon Dex was far more complex than that. He fast became a favourite at Queen Elizabeth's court, admired both for his warlike and his more gentle accomplishments. The queen attempted to employ him as Maker of the Royal Comfit, but, daringly, he turned down the request, preferring to adventure with Sheppard. Marlowe once dared to brand Dex a coward for his refusal to take to the air. Quite what happened the night after he published, none would say, but Marlowe, looking slightly dazed and with sugar on his clothes, recanted the following day, and became Dex's loudest champion.
All this is well-known, for even the worst of the romantic novels have a scrap of truth in them. What the world has not known until now, however, is the tale of these early years - years before they were in favour at court; years before they were the close-knit group of friends that history knows them to be. Some of the details have been invented by the present novelist, but the story behind them is entirely true.
Note: I tried to claim this as a pinch hit, but was pipped to the post. This was a very good thing indeed, since the germ of an idea that I had when I made the claim proceeded to run away, and it was a week before it reappeared in a slightly different form, ready to be written. I'd originally played with various ideas of a fully-formed team, either working for Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, but couldn't come up with an actual plot for them until I suddenly got the idea of shifting the story to the mid-Tudor period and making our heroes outlaws.
I did try to be as accurate as possible with the historical background, working on the assumption that the recent invention of gliders hadn't materially changed anything about the world and its politics. (Elizabeth, though, will invest heavily in planes, and other countries will soon learn how to make them, too, and history will diverge from the 1560s onwards.) McKay's flying machine is very roughly modelled on a glider made by George Cayley in the early nineteenth century. I had no desire to revolutionise society by introducing steam engines or internal combustion engines to the sixteenth century (would that be called Ruff Punk?) but to work within the limits of Renaissance technology, just adding in an ahead-of-his-time knowledge of the principles of aerodynamics (and, yes, a certain extension of disbelief and a good deal of hand waving.)
1555 feels a world away from 1720, the year of my pirate AU. So much science hasn't happened yet, so McKay's tangential ramblings kept hitting the stone wall of things that hadn't quite been invented yet. It is a period that I once knew pretty well - I spent a month living in 1553, and almost did a doctorate on the cultural history of the period 1547 - 1558 - but it still felt quite limited and narrow compared with the cosmopolitan world of 1720. Still, researching it was great fun, and by coincidence, a friend discovered the Lymond Chronicles (set at exactly this time, and my favourite series of novels) just a few weeks ago, which has inspired me to joyfully reread them, which has helped with my immersion in the period.
I am feeling quite proud of myself for visiting Oxford in a story and leaving it still standing. I have destroyed Oxford in two different stories now, as well as modelling the architecture of a devastated made-up city on Oxford. I even tried to destroy Oxford in Where the White Lilies Grow, just for old time's sake, but the story demanded a port, and so had to destroy Bristol instead. I mean no ill-will to the place - quite the opposite, in fact - but it just happens. By the way, I envisaged McKay's college as Christ Church, and even though the history doesn't quite work, I couldn't shift him from there in my mental image, much as I tried to push him elsewhere.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!