Words: c. 49,000, plus drawings, maps and photos
Genre: Historical AU
Spoilers: None for the show, but lots for the original story
Summary: Rodney McKay wasn't sure what he expected to happen when he decided to throw his lot in with the enigmatic Captain Sheppard and his alarming crew, but it definitely wasn't near-constant brushes with almost certain doom. The angry mobs are a worry, too, as is the espionage, the last-minute rescues, the alarming quantities of crime, the dastardly rogues bent on killing them, the scheming enemies, the swooning maidens and the secret tunnels. Will Rodney and his new companions survive to get their happy ending?
This is a sequel to The Pirate's Prisoner. You can read the original story here on LJ, or here in a single file on my website. Here is a brief synopsis of what went before:
The year is 1721, and Rodney McKay, son of an English merchant, has been sent to Kingston to oversee his father's acquisition of property. Rodney is a man of scientific bent, and tells everyone he meets of his staggering intelligence. Strangely, few people in Kingston are impressed, but news of his boasting travels out to sea, where it reaches the ear of notorious pirate captain, John Sheppard.
So it is that Rodney finds himself awakened at night by an unmannerly ruffian who claims that his master has a need for Rodney's brain. Flattered, Rodney follows the ruffian. It is only after he arrives on the pirate ship Atlantis that he realises that he has actually been abducted by pirates.
The pirates are a dastardly lot. The unmannerly ruffian is called Ronon, but even more alarming is the woman, Teyla, who dresses in men's clothing – shocking! – and seems most fierce. The captain, Sheppard, is the worst of the lot, and Rodney knows for a fact that he's blood-thirsty and evil. Sheppard tells Rodney that he requires him to build a diving bell, such as the one recently made by Rodney's mentor, Sir Edmond Halley. Although reluctant to help pirates, Rodney can't help but be flattered that someone at last recognises his brilliance, and gets to work.
The weeks pass. As Rodney works, the Atlantis has several encounters with the ships of one Kolya, a personal enemy of Sheppard's from war that ended some eight years before. Because Sheppard used to serve in the Royal Navy, until it was discovered that he was a traitor, selling secrets to the enemy. Captain Lorne, once Sheppard's loyal lieutenant and friend, has never recovered from the sense of personal betrayal, and has made it his life's work to track Sheppard down and bring him to justice.
At length the diving bell is done, and Sheppard, Rodney and the others go down to retrieve something from a wreck below. When they come up again, they discover that Kolya has taken the Atlantis. Sheppard fights Kolya, but yields when Kolya threatens to kill Rodney. However, just before Kolya is able to get his final revenge, Lorne's ship is sighted, so Kolya cripples the Atlantis, and flees, knowing that Sheppard will receive an agonising traitor's death when Lorne catches him.
Lorne comes on board, but Sheppard hands over the item he recovered from the wreck: proof that he was framed so many years ago, and that the true traitor was his commanding officer. Lorne promises to ensure that Sheppard receives a full pardon.
Rodney, meanwhile, has finally realised what he has known deep down for weeks: that Sheppard and his crew are far from the bloodthirsty rogues he thought them to be. He also realises that he's been happier on the Atlantis than he has ever been in his life, and the story ends with Sheppard, Rodney, Ronon and Teyla looking towards a happy future.
And now the story continues…
In which Rodney McKay is abducted by pirates for a second time.
It really was quite intolerable, Rodney McKay thought, as strong hands bundled him roughly into the hedgerow. Being abducted by one unmannerly ruffian was quite enough for any man's lifetime. Being abducted a second time was beyond outrageous.
He tried to tell the said unmannerly ruffian quite what he felt about the situation, but the prickles undermined his eloquence, turning it into a muffled scream. Bindweed and buttercup tangled his ankles, so that the untutored might have mistaken his dignified deportment for desperate kicking. Thorns tore at his clothes, and tangled leaves blocked out the sun.
"I faced down pirates." He cast his threats into the earth like seeds, where they could take root and grow into something terrible. He also got a mouthful of mud.
Hands hauled him free from the grasping branches. "I was one of the pirates," said his abductor.
It really was too much! A new word was needed in the English language, because this went far beyond any words he knew. Not even Latin helped, and the only Greek he knew was couched in the phrasings of Aristotle, who was not prone to expressions of outrage. "You've already abducted me once," he spluttered, dragging himself thornily to his feet. "You can't abduct me a second time."
Ronon was taller than Rodney remembered him, and looked like a creature out one of his nurse's stories – one of the wraggle-taggle gypsies, perhaps, who slept on the cold hard ground, or perhaps one of the wild, fair folk from under the hill, except that Ronon was neither fair nor little, and the stories were ridiculous superstition, anyway, relics of a time when foolish forefathers worshipped stones – and he seemed quite incongruous in the ordered pastures of Gloucestershire, where the hedgerows, for all their prickles, at least grew where man commanded them to grow, in nice straight lines. "I just did," he said.
Rodney scraped mud from his face and removed a forked branch from his hair. It gave him time to draw dignity around himself like a cloak. "Besides, we're on the same side now," he said. "I'm practically your captain. If you feel compelled to abduct somebody, go and abduct somebody else. Parson Watkins always sleeps with his door unlocked, or so common gossip has it. Fondness for the ladies, you know." He flapped his hand. "Go away. Shoo."
It had never worked with Charlotte Dauncey's spaniel, either. "We need your help." Ronon grabbed Rodney's arm.
"Then what about asking for it?" Rodney demanded. "What about approaching me in a normal fashion? Why--" His hand rose to a scratch on the side of his neck. "--drag me through a hedgerow like a common ruffian? (That's you that I'm casting as a common ruffian, I hasten to add, and not me.) Is that the normal piratical way of requesting a boon? It is possible to approach people in ways that don't involve violence and rude behaviour, you know."
"I tried the door. A pinched old man threatened to set the dogs on me."
Quite unconsciously, Rodney shrank a little, although the hedgerow already hid him from those big, blank windows. It had not gone entirely well, the big revelation scene. Rodney had practised it, and had read from flawlessly-crafted notes. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate,' at least not until the dust had settled after the big climax on page eleven. Running away to join a troupe of players, his father had spluttered, was considerably less preposterous, and considerably more legal. There had been much shouting, and threats had been issued against the safety of his favourite telescope.
"We thought it would be better for you," Ronon said, "if you were seen to be taken against your will."
"Better?" Ronon was striding away, so Rodney had to scurry behind him. His hair lashed in his eyes, undone by prickles and the gentle breezes of Old England. "How can it be good to drag someone through a hedge? You quite derailed my musings on natural philosophy."
Ronon's step did not falter, but his voice did, just a little, cracking on the penultimate word. "So you can return home afterwards."
Rooks cawed in the trees above. The air was rich with the scent of corn and earth and honeysuckle. Rodney had spent his entire childhood here, always looking at the stars, always longing to escape. He had never consciously noticed the flowers, or the way the rooks wheeled at dusk. He had never noticed the songs of labourers in the fields, not until Sheppard's men had sung the same songs, and something quite unexpected had twisted inside Rodney's heart.
He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. They were several hundred yards from the house now, almost to the edge of Spindle's Spinney. He remembered how he had trotted along behind this man in a town on the far side of the world, walking freely into captivity, because he had not realised what was happening. "Oh," he said. "Oh. You can't trick me that way again."
Ronon walked into the dappled shadow of the trees. As he did so, he seemed to relax minutely, as if casting off an ill-fitting coat. "I have him," he said.
Teyla emerged from shadows. "Rodney." Her mouth smiled, but her eyes did not.
"You're in the Low Countries," Rodney accused her. He jabbed his finger in Ronon's direction, realising a fact that the outrage of a second abduction had temporarily caused him to mislay. "Both of you. You're both in the Low Countries."
"Apparently we are not." Teyla smiled just a little.
Rodney's hand continued jabbing. "Sheppard left you with the ship. He wasn't taking anyone back to England until the pardons were secured, he said, because he refused to entrust his people's lives to the fickle fancies of a king. He gave orders."
Rodney and Sheppard had crossed the Channel alone, and had parted in London, Sheppard to go to the Admiralty, and Rodney to return to his father's house to break the news of his small change of plan about the entire future direction of his life. On the way, of course, he had happened to pop into the Royal Society, to casually mention his dazzlingly-ingenious diving bell, far more effective than Halley's, and worthy of an instant Fellowship for its humble creator, your servant, Rodney McKay. Explaining how he had tested it had proved challenging. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate,' at least not until the other Fellows had finished reading his plans and had realised the obvious genius therein. There had been much shouting, and threats had been issued against the liberty of his person.
"We followed him, of course." Teyla said it as if only a fool would expect otherwise. Ronon stood there strong and tall and resolute, his stance clearly saying that he refused to entrust his captain's safety to anybody but himself.
"Oh." Rodney scanned the dark trees. "Where is he, then?"
Teyla exchanged a troubled look with Ronon. "As far as we have been able to ascertain, he arrived safely in London. He took a room in an inn, and on his second morning, he set out in the direction of the Admiralty--"
"Sheppard's missing," Ronon said. "We need you to help us find him."
"You need me." McKay nodded slowly, looking perfectly satisfied. "Of course you need me." He swallowed visibly, looking from side to side. "Why do you need me?"
Ronon shouldered his way past McKay, ignoring his outraged squawk. "We must hurry." His horse was waiting for him, reins tied securely to a branch. He unfastened the knot with a few brisk tugs, and climbed into the saddle. "Got you a horse." He nodded in the direction of a smaller animal.
"Have clues been left behind?" McKay mounted it distractedly, without appearing to notice what he was doing. "Has a trail been left behind, couched in intricate puzzles that only a sizeable intellect can unravel? Are there notes cast in cipher? Do you require me to fashion a cunning machine with which to extricate him from an impossible situation, perhaps a very small hole? Precision would be required, as well as strength. Perhaps some form of winch?"
Ronon urged his horse forward. The fading sunlight struck him in the face as he emerged from the trees, and long shadows stretched across the grass. It would be night soon – another cold night, spent pacing and shivering and planning and worrying. English nights were cold, and were full of unfamiliar noises. He had only lived on the Atlantis for a few years, but it felt wrong to spend a night on a bed that did not rock with the rhythms of the sea.
"--working from the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, but improving upon them, of course. Newton himself--"
He heard shouting from the direction of the house. Without sparing a glance for the others, he urged his horse faster, heading for the dark road they had found earlier. High banks rose on either side, making it almost as dark as night.
The others rode just behind him; he heard the pounding of hooves, and stiffened at the sheer noise of it, so different from silent raids on warm nights in the Caribbees. "Masterful design," he heard McKay say, the words jerking out of him, and ending with a yelp. Ronon hunched down over the animal's neck, and felt a springy branch whip across his shoulders. "Exceedingly cunning." After that, McKay's words were drowned entirely by the thudding of hooves.
The track grew darker, as if they were wading through a sea of shadows. Could McKay find Sheppard? Ronon and Teyla had travelled through an unfamiliar country, guided only by the name of McKay, and a memory of him talking about a place called Bristol. Now they had him, but the mission was far from over. There was no ship to return to at the end of the day, for songs and drinks beneath familiar stars. Ronon had been slow to accept that the Atlantis had become his home, but now he was away from her, he felt like a ship adrift. He was wandering in the night, without a star to steer by. Sheppard was missing. Sheppard was gone.
The lane joined a larger road, and they crossed it, heading into a broad strip of woodland, full of plump, soft trees. Mindful of his horse, Ronon set a slower pace, hating the fact that he was dependent on the physical limitations of something other than himself. It was days since Sheppard had disappeared, and every hour that passed made it less likely that they would find him alive.
"I do not believe," McKay said, sounding slightly breathless, "that scientific principles have ever been applied to the problem of finding missing persons. I shall become the father of the discipline – its Aristotle."
"We don't need you for your brain this time," Ronon told him harshly.
"I shall…" McKay trailed off, frowning. "You don't…?" His horse walked a few slow steps through fading light. "Then why do you want me?" A bird cried mournfully in the trees.
"Because you are respectable," Teyla told him.
"Respectable?" McKay echoed. "I'm not…" He trailed off again. The bird cried out a second time, then flew away. All that Ronon could see of it was that it was black, and that it was no threat. "I suppose I am," McKay said. "Are you sure you don't…? No. Of course not. Respectable."
Ronon and Teyla had presented themselves at the Admiralty, trying to discover if Sheppard had arrived on that fateful day, but doors had been slammed in their face. Ronon didn't know the right words to say. In this cold, alien land, the rich and powerful were like players on a stage, and Ronon didn't know how to play that part.
"That's long enough," he said, pressing his hand to his horse's neck. He kicked it into a canter.
The light lingered, stretching like a taut cord between day and night. They passed a village where bells were ringing, and they saw a couple wandering in the flowers. They forded a stream, and Ronon concentrated on the path ahead, and wished that enemies and not miles and days lay between him and Sheppard. He wished this was something that could be won with swords, not words. He wished he was back on the Atlantis. He wished they had never come to England. What was a pardon but a piece of paper? But, no, it was more than that. To Sheppard it was his whole life.
At the cusp of twilight, when familiar stars began to appear in the unfamiliar sky, Ronon heard shouting and the angry clatter of bells. Teyla drew alongside him. "I believe this is the village where we acquired the horse for Rodney. It appears that they saw you, after all."
Ronon shook his head. "This one was the coat. The horse place had a different smell."
McKay snorted. "You don't--" Ronon kicked his horse into a gallop. They tore along together, across open fields, across the smooth shoulder of a rounded hill. Not even darkness was the same in this strange land, but running for your life was. Ronon knew how to stay alive, and he knew how to keep his friends safe. The shouting faded to nothing, but he kept on running. It was fully dark before he stopped, lit only by the light of a silver moon.
"--have to steal everything," McKay forced out through gasps. "Why not try paying for something one day? You will find that it makes life less--" He grimaced, pressing one hand to the small of his back. "--uncomfortable, and with fewer angry mobs."
Ronon tightened his grip on the reins. "We tried." He was no savage. Compared with the rich in their villas, his family had been poor, but he had attended both church and school. On the Atlantis, it hadn't mattered at all where he had come from. Sheppard had trusted him from the start, and that was what mattered. While Sheppard might have seen his life as pirate as a kind of prison, to Ronon it was freedom. On the Atlantis, he belonged. Here, people took one look at him, and slammed prison bars in his face. He had tossed his gold pieces at their feet, but even then they had called him a thief.
He reached behind him for his pack, dragging out a skin of water. Some of it trickled down the side of his neck, and he wiped his hand harshly with the back of his hand, tasting strange rivers from unknown hills.
"Oh." McKay let out a breath. He looked around him, seeming to realise for the first time that he had come quite so far from home. His shoulders slumped, and his face was silver shadow in the moonlight. "Sheppard's missing?" he said, and he chewed his lip, and, for once, said nothing more.
Respectable, Rodney thought, surveying his reflection in the windowpane. He struck a new pose with his cane, and tried to emulate the expression assumed by Mister Booth in Drury Lane when portraying a supercilious nobleman. "Respectable," he said aloud. His unfamiliar wig itched, and he poked a finger behind it, scratching himself. As he did so, he dropped the cane.
"Respectable," he said once more, as if he were one of those primitive people who believed that a thing would become true if you spoke its name often enough. He groped for his cane, and headed for the entrance, proud, defiant, respectable. I was entirely mortified. His mother's voice rang in her ears. Appearing with ink on your sleeves and dirt on your shirt front, prattling about things that are not to be mentioned in polite society. We are a respectable family, Rodney. I feel our status sliding every time I let you loose in society.
But manners maketh man, he told himself, as he noticed the puddle just in time to avoid getting mud on his brand new stockings. It was nonsense, of course, but it was what these prattling fools in society seemed to believe. And so he would veil his intellect by wrapping it in the fashions of the day, and he would curb his insightful conversation and say what was expected. But don't mention the word 'pirate', he reminded himself, as he stood clothed in garb entirely purchased with pirate gold. The shopkeeper had managed to be thoroughly obsequious and thoroughly condescending both at the same time, which was an accomplishment. You do not deserve clothes like this, his manner had exuded, even though he doubtless thought that Johannes Kepler was the man in the Spittlefields market who could balance like Simon Stylites on a pole, and would not recognise elliptical motion if it struck him on the head in a dark alley.
The second puddle leapt out at him and bested him. Grimacing, he shook the drops off the trailing tails of his coat as best he could. Workmen bustled past him with supreme indifference, clambering like agile monkeys up the scaffolding that clung to the edge of the crumbling building. Respectable, he reminded himself again. Sheppard was in trouble. He had to keep his head, or Sheppard would slip away from them forever.
The liveried servant at the door greeted him. Someone shouted out from above, and dust rained down around Rodney. Coughing, he introduced himself. The servant nodded, impassive, and showed him in.
The receiving room was dark and dingy, with old-fashioned windows and warped glass. Rodney sat down stiffly on the fading chair, then stood. He paced to the window, then back again. He began to look at the books, and ran his finger along the edge of the desk. He adjusted his coat, and combed his fingers through his wig. He had insisted on a slightly nautical look to his costume. "I faced down pirates, you see," he had told the shopkeeper. "I played a pivotal role in a naval battle against pirates of extreme ferocity." The shopkeeper had not looked impressed. The waistcoat, made for another man, was too tight, and chafed under the arms.
Pictures lined the wall, but there, neglected in a dark corner, was, "a mechanical model of the solar system," he exclaimed, "which I refuse to call an Orrery, because it is scandalous that a creation of purest reason should be saddled with the name of the rich patron of the creator, even if the patron in question is for some reason, clearly money and influence, a Fellow of the Royal Society." He was dimly aware of the door opening and closing. "And here it lies in a crumbling building, because the buffoons who possess it fail to realise how prized such things are. Of course," he added, "I could make one myself if I chose." Someone cleared their throat. Rodney cleared his own. Respectable, he reminded himself. In hindsight, it was probably best not to have used the word 'buffoon.'
He turned round slowly. A small man had entered the room, dressed mostly in black. "Are you a Sea Lord," Rodney asked, "or a Civil Lord?"
"Neither," the man said stiffly. "Benjamin Larner, at your service, under-secretary to the Board."
"Under-secretary?" Rodney echoed, then snapped his mouth shut. You always say the wrong thing, his mother shrilled in his ears, shaking her finger. Why is it so impossible for you to remember correct etiquette, when you are capable of filling your head with useless lists of star names? "Rodney McKay," he said, not opening his mouth very far at all.
"McKay." Larner nodded, inviting Rodney to sit down, then sat down himself on the far side of a large desk. "How can I help you?"
Don't mention the word 'pirate', Rodney reminded himself. "I have come for news," he said. "Humbly, that is. I humbly request, your humble petitioner, etcetera." He swallowed, adjusted his perspiration-smeared grip on his cane, and tried again. "I am seeking news," he said, his voice echoing on the dingy panels, "of--" There was a loud crash outside. Rodney strained to see out of the warped glass of the window. "Are you aware that your building is falling down?"
Larner ruffled papers. "We are," he said stiffly. "Work is to commence next year on a replacement. The plans have already been drawn up."
"That's good." Rodney swallowed again. "John Sheppard," he blurted out. "Captain John Sheppard, late of the Royal Navy. Have you seen him?"
Larner stood up, his chair scraping unnecessarily loudly on the floor, and pulled down a volume from the shelf behind his desk. Then he tutted, and swapped it for a different one. He opened it with an over-dramatic thump. "You shouldn't do that." Rodney raised one helpful finger. "It shakes the ink-well. I once lost a promising essay on the structure of light to a…" He pressed his lips together. Inky grave, he thought, but he didn't say it. He remembered Sheppard smiling at him on the deck as dolphins played in the ocean.
"Sheppard, John," Larner said. "Pirate, outlaw and traitor. I have him." His finger pressed onto the page like the finger of a hanging judge.
"It's, uh… it's not as simple as that," Rodney said. "It's a funny thing…" Larner had mentioned the word 'pirate' first, he reminded himself. "It was a false accusation. The Governor in Kingston saw the proof, and sent word of it back to England. Captain Lorne did the same. He was to be pardoned. It was all sorted out."
"It is interesting," Larner said, his finger still on the page, "that you know so much about the affairs of a pirate."
"Oh, he abducted me," Rodney said, "and forced me to labour for him. That's how he found the proof he needed, because of my ingenious machine." Larner's eyes narrowed. Rodney shrank a little further back in his chair. He remembered evenings with Sheppard and the others on the deck, talking beneath a setting sun. Ronon and Teyla had abducted him from his father's house so as not to implicate him in any wrongdoing. The way was still open for him to walk away from this whole affair, to claim that he had been coerced all along, and resume normal life with his reputation unstained.
"But he was truly innocent of the things he had been accused of," he said. "Everyone who saw the proof agreed that he would receive a full pardon. So he isn't a pirate any more, not really. And he's gone. He set off for the Admiralty on Monday last, and that was the last anybody saw of him."
Larner grunted a way that somehow managed to convey complete disbelief yet total acceptance both at the same time. "The reports you mentioned were indeed received, but Captain Sheppard did not arrive for his scheduled appointment." He slammed the book shut in a way that was clearly meant to convey that the interview was at an end.
"Really?" Rodney stood up. "Is that true? Uh, not that I'm accusing you of…" He fumbled for his cane. "Never mind." He looked at the planets in their frozen orbit, almost said something about the so-called orrery – Cicero had written about such a device, in God's name, so why should it bear the name of some modern earl without the wit to recognise what he was being given? – but decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Sheppard was missing, and nothing was more important than that.
He thought he managed quite a respectable goodbye, all things considered.
"The landlord's looking at us." It was fortunate that the inn was full of noise, or McKay's whisper would have reached the ears of the man in question. "Did you steal from him, too?"
Teyla gripped the edge of the table. "We did not."
With a roar of laughter, a man at the neighbouring table almost tumbled from his bench. The fire crackled, and Teyla looked up at the ceiling, dark with years of smoke. The fresh air of the open ocean seemed impossibly far away.
"He's still looking. Are you sure--?"
"We did not." Teyla snapped it harshly.
Not so many years ago, she had worn fine gowns, and had lived in a spacious villa, with servants waiting on her every need. She had run away from that life because it had threatened to turn into a cage, with marriage to a man who saw her as nothing more than a trophy. Now she wore men's array and lived freely, outside that cage. But when she had requested admittance to the Admiralty, doors had closed like prison bars. There were bars even in the eyes of McKay, who knew her.
McKay looked awkward and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting new clothes, but was more at home here than Teyla would ever be. "What will you do if you never find him?" he asked.
Ronon's head snapped up. McKay said 'you', Teyla noticed with little surprise, but with more sadness than she might have expected. They would return to the Atlantis, and sail around the world as John had intended. No, she thought, they would all trickle away one by one by one, until there would be nothing left but a handful of shadows on an empty ship, and then even those shadows would have to drift away and return to the emptiness of the lives they had lived before.
"We'll find him," Ronon said. "We'll never give up looking."
Music started up from the far side of the room. A young man with night-dark hair stood up and sang, his voice slightly hoarse and imperfect.
"Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain.
I've never had but one true love,
In cold grave she was lain.
I'll do as much for my true-love,
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."
Ronon slammed his first on the table. "Jenkins sings this one."
"Yes." Teyla nodded, blinking back sudden tears. Perhaps that was the truth of it. Perhaps they would never return to the ocean. Perhaps they would linger in this noisy city for ever, never able to bring themselves to give up searching for him.
The main door opened, bringing in a blast of cooler air, setting the smoke swirling. The song continued, but Teyla and Ronon and Rodney all turned sharply to the door, and all let out a breath when it was not a familiar face. A lady came in with large skirts, a handkerchief raised to face. Servants hurried her apologetically through the public area, showing her to the stairs. The song at last faltered. Even music bowed to status.
If I wore a gown, Teyla thought, could I command answers? The lady paused and gave commands, asking for this and for that, and for anything that she willed to be brought to her. Teyla had chosen to be free, but here in London she was bound by the choices she had made. Perhaps the life she had chosen for herself was just another kind of prison, after all.
"But how can you find him?" McKay said, pushing his hand up behind his wig. "London is an enormous city, with over six hundred thousand souls. If someone wants to remain hidden--"
"Wants?" Ronon's expression was deadly.
"That is to say, if somebody wants to keep him hidden, to keep Sheppard hidden. Somebody else, that is. Somebody else." McKay swallowed visibly, cowering back in his chair, then let out a breath. His hand rose tremulously. "You found no evidence of foul play."
Teyla clasped her hands tightly. They had searched prisons and gaol cells. They had questioned those who had frequented public hangings. They had scoured the bills of mortality, looking for unknown deaths and unknown burials. They had questioned loiterers and hawkers and whores between the inn and the Admiralty, and nobody had seen anyone who looked like John being set upon. In a space of less than quarter of a mile, he had disappeared without a trace.
McKay seemed to be struggling to find the courage to say something else. Several times he raised his hand, and several times he lowered it. "Occam's Razor," he croaked at last. "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. We have Sheppard, and we have somebody stealing Sheppard. That's two entities, one of which left no evidence for his existence. On the other hand, we have Sheppard choosing to leave for some reason known only to himself – possibly a good one, I hasten to add. See, I'm not saying anything against your captain." He spread his hands as if to show that he was unarmed.
"He wouldn't leave," Ronon snarled, "not without telling us."
"Yes, because we all know how forthcoming he was about his true reasons for being interested in that sunken ship." McKay cleared his throat nervously. "That is to say, no, no, you're right. Of course you're right."
Teyla chewed on her lower lip. "But if you are right, then how…"
"Horses!" McKay snapped his fingers. "And girls seem to find him handsome – did you see that wilting maiden in Lisbon? She was quite unimpressed when I explained the scientific principles behind her maidenly blush – the circulation of blood, you know, as discovered by Harvey – and only had eyes for--"
"Rodney," Teyla said, the word more like a plea than anything else.
"I'm sorry." McKay gripped his tankard, but did not raise it. "That is to say: I've had an idea. I think I know how we might be able to find him."
end of chapter one
Preliminary sketch of an unknown man (now known to be Rodney McKay) by Frederick Hollingsworth, 1721
According to Hollingsworth's day book, a "red-faced gentleman, evidently in haste" appeared in his studio one afternoon, "clearly uncomfortable in a new wig and badly-fitting clothes." He claimed that he only had a few minutes, but declared that "that is surely time enough, because how difficult can it be to indulge in mere scribbling of likenesses? It's not as if any skill is involved, after all." The gentleman proceeded to demand a portrait of himself, "using one of your stock bodies – a stout and dignified one, in a martial, nautical pose, because I faced down pirates, don't you know?" As well as a heroic pose, he stressed the need for "respectability," although this claim was somewhat undermined by his evident intention of paying in heathen gold, rather than in God's own English currency.
According to Hollingsworth, the gentleman then clapped his hands to his mouth, said, "D*** it, I've mentioned pirates again!" and ran out. However, Hollingsworth evidently had a good memory for faces, for he produced this picture after the gentleman had gone, and circulated it amongst his artist friends. "If you see this gentleman approach your doors," he urged them, "pretend you aren't in."
In which broken hearts are littered across the southern counties.
It was exceedingly vexing, Rodney McKay decided, to be surrounded by people who complained all the time. Certain people, it seemed, had no awareness of normal social niceties. It was quite intolerable to arrive uninvited in someone else's beloved native land and then criticise it all the time. He would never do a thing like that. He would never…
He let that thought trail away. It seemed wiser, all things considered.
"Doesn't look much like a forest," Ronon grumbled, jerking his chin at the wide expanse of scrubland, littered with coarse-looking ponies, damp and dripping.
"Nor does it look new." Teyla's eyes were on the tumbledown relic of an old cottage, doubtless now the haunt of highwaymen and bandits and all manner of evil things, possibly even wolves, and maybe even spiders.
Cold rain dripped down Rodney's back. "I'm sorry my country isn't big enough or new enough for you. We have a rich and complex history, and the great deeds we have performed on the theatre of the world's stage are all the more remarkable when you bear in mind that we are, in fact, quite small. It's the best country in the world, and it's my country, so it's quite unmannerly for you to--"
"Thought you wanted to leave it," Ronon interrupted, proving beyond doubt that 'unmannerly' was entirely justified as an adjective. "You said you wanted to spend your life on the Atlantis and never go back."
Rodney cleared his throat. Let that stand for a fittingly contemptuous answer! Ha! he thought. He cleared his throat again, and scraped rain from his face. Foul, stinking weather! It was allegedly August, but as miserable as January, and the dark weather made it seem like evening before its time. In the last inn, he hadn't found a single person who had even heard of Newton, and when he had tried to explain the laws of motion to the assembled multitude in the tap-room, using pepper-pots and oranges to illustrate his argument, there had been talk of throwing slops at him.
He trudged on in dignified silence for a while, then decided to spread a little knowledge to at least two of the benighted masses. "In England," he said, "the word 'forest' doesn't just denote a place of dense trees, but is a legal term, meaning land set aside for the king to hunt in. William the Conqueror himself denuded this area almost entirely of people in order to create a vast hunting ground--"
"What did he hunt?" Ronon, benighted mass that he was, perked up at that.
Rodney waved his hand airily. "Oh. Things." He looked left, then right, then back again, looking for glittering eyes in the bracken. "The present king doesn't do it much, of course, since this is the Age of Reason--" He said it pointedly, but the points fell unheeded on stony ground. "--but 'forest' continues to exist as a legal definition. Except in capital cases, forest law, not the law of land, holds sway here."
"Which means?" Ronon seemed to be eyeing something behind a beech tree.
Rodney peered suspiciously in the same direction, but saw nothing. "More to the point," he said, quite loudly, "is the question of why Sheppard would come all the way to the New Forest – if indeed he did, because it is always possible, of course, that this whole dismal journey has been an enormous red herring. Which it hasn't," he added hastily, remembering that the whole thing had been his own inspired idea.
It all came down to horses. To travel anywhere, you needed a horse, or perhaps a donkey or a mule, of some manner of boat, if you went on water, or your own sturdy feet, if you were one of those people, or a sedan chair, if you wanted to get easily through streets too narrow for a carriage, or even an ox. Horses were the most conventional choice, though, and Rodney couldn't imagine Sheppard on a mule; he was far too dashing for that. However, Rodney McKay knew one more thing: that Sheppard had come to London without a horse. If Sheppard had been desirous of leaving the capital, first he would have needed to acquire a horse. If he had been eager to travel quickly – "and this is Sheppard that we're talking about" – he would have used the posting inns to ensure that he always rode a fresh, fast mount.
"Of course," Rodney had told the others, "the whole plan falls apart if Sheppard was unmemorable, but, well… he isn't. Is he?"
Sheppard, it seemed, had left a trail of fluttering hearts across the southern counties of England. "Have you seen a dark-haired man?" he had asked, to maidens tall and short, to girls with tumbled yellow locks and girls with dark curls, to plump matrons who should have known better, and to grey-haired grandmothers who proceeded to demonstrate that age did not always bring wisdom.
"Oh, yes, sir, I saw a man with hair like the wing of a blackbird in autumn."
"Was he a tall man, quite slim?"
"Oh, yes, with black velvet coat-tails surging from his waist like flowing water, hugging the smooth yet muscular curve of his… I beg your pardon, sir, I don't know what came over me."
"With… er… ears?"
"Such lovely ears, and not at all like how you trace them in the air with your mocking hands, begging your pardon, sir."
"With such lovely skin, and eyes you could drown yourself in. Such a gorgeous, exotic accent; is he Welsh? So silent and troubled, just waiting for the love of the right woman to melt the ice around his frozen heart. But when he smiled… Oh, sir, when he smiled… And the hair! How does he get his hair to do that?"
"He's a notorious pirate, and he ties it up with the sinews of captured maidens."
In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate', although in his defence, he had only said it once, and he'd been quite provoked, and he certainly hadn't deserved an entire evening of angry glares from Ronon and Teyla, after they had finally finished running away from the angry mob. Ronon had taken over the questioning the next day. For some reason, it had involved knives. The mob had been even angrier, and the hedgerow even damper.
But here they were. The trail had led them across Sussex and Hampshire, and now they were deep in the New Forest, heading towards Lymington by the sea. It was a small port, and much of the coast around was the haunt of smugglers. It would be an excellent place from which to sail in secret. It would be an excellent place for Sheppard to shake off all pursuit and disappear for ever. "But he could have done that in London just as easily," Rodney mused out loud. "Why come here, unless he's decided to go recruiting amongst the ranks of the smugglers? Or maybe your carolling pirates have sung too many ballads of Robin Hood, and he wants to try his hand as an outlaw in the forest." Green would suit him, Rodney thought darkly. Everything suited him.
His companions said nothing. They rode through a thin expanse of sturdy trees, the rain pattering on the leaves above. A dog barked, but far away. Rooks rose cawing from the tree-tops.
Rodney cleared his throat. "At least I was right about the fact that he appears to be travelling alone."
Ronon twisted round sharply in his saddle, his look eloquent and ferocious. Rodney gripped the reins tighter, then slowly forced himself to relax his grip.
This was the end of the road. Taking advantage of the fortuitous juxtaposition of a sharp stick and a patch of mud, Rodney had sketched a map that had demonstrated to his companions that very fact. If they didn't find Sheppard here… If they didn't find Sheppard here…
Perhaps he said some of it aloud. "We are very grateful to you for helping us," Teyla said, "but--" She broke off, distracted by a sudden movement in the undergrowth.
After ascertaining that it was nothing more sinister than a rabbit, Rodney considered what she had said. She had said 'helping.' She had said 'us.' She did not consider him part of the crew. She and Ronon were the abandoned ones, looking for their captain, and Rodney was just the stranger who was helping them. When the search was over, she wanted him to go back to his father's house. That was why they had created the whole charade of an abduction in the first place, so he could leave them.
"I don't…" He found himself unable to say more. The rabbit had friends. They darted away in a flurry of flashing white tails, scampering past heedless ponies into places where twilight lurked behind bramble bushes, making it seem almost like night.
What would happen if they never found Sheppard? In the warm sunshine of the Caribbees, Rodney had wanted nothing more than to walk away from everything he had ever known, and spend his life exploring the world in the Atlantis. But that had been when the Atlantis had meant Sheppard, and Sheppard had meant the Atlantis, and the two had been impossible to separate. Sheppard was the one he had sat with on the deck, discussing everything under the sun. Sheppard was the one with the library of books. Sheppard was the one who had not only heard about Newton, but could explain his laws of motion without even using pepper-pots. Sheppard was the one who had been willing to die to save Rodney's life. Sheppard was the one who had asked him to stay, who had looked at him without a trace of mockery, who had seen beneath the veneer of words, who had liked him.
I don't know what I'll do, he thought, but he did not say it aloud. Ronon and Teyla were all very well when Sheppard was there to bear the brunt of interaction, but Ronon was… Well, it was quite reasonable for Rodney to be a tiny little bit afraid of him, given that he looked like a savage, and as for Teyla… She wore men's clothing, for crying out loud! She--
"Someone's coming!" Ronon hissed.
Oh. Rodney shrank into his saddle. You read about such horrible outlaws in forests – about highwaymen and smugglers and murderers gone to ground – and it was almost night now, darkness galloping up behind him when he wasn't looking. Or perhaps it was one of the numerous angry mobs they had attracted on their journey, or maybe a flock of love-sick girls, searching for--
"We have done nothing to arouse suspicion," Teyla said, "not since yesterday, at least." That came with a quite unjustified glare in Rodney's direction. "We should continue on our way, and act normally."
"Normal," Rodney repeated, clutching dignity around him like a cloak and refusing to rise to provocation. "Ah. Yes. Respectable. I can do that."
It had never been so hard to carry on his way. It had never been so hard to keep his hand from his sword, to keep a steady grip on the reins, to stay in the middle of the track when an unknown stranger was fast approaching from behind.
"Is it…?" McKay asked.
Ronon snatched a look behind. "No."
Not Sheppard. It never was. Sometimes Ronon wanted to bellow aloud with the frustration of it. Sheppard was gone. Sheppard was gone, and they tip-toed through the soft fields of England, following a trail that was more than a week old. Ronon had to put his blade away, and play the game McKay's way. There was no-one to fight over this. There was no-one to hate. There was just an endless expanse of road, and endless days of disappointed hope.
"Is he…?" McKay ran his hand through his sodden hair.
Ronon's horse snorted. An animal plunged into the undergrowth. A leaf drooped under the weight of rain, sending a torrent of droplets into the grass. Ronon breathed in and out sharply; in and out. His knife burned at his belt, and the air seemed to shimmer with the intensity of his readiness. Night grew closer with every breath, but his awareness only grew more sharp.
The hoofbeats grew closer and closer. A man passed, hunched over the neck of his horse, his face almost hidden by a high-collared coat. Mud splashed from his horse's hoofs. Ronon let out a breath; realised that his hand had been close to quivering with the tension. Not an enemy, he reminded himself. But England had stolen Sheppard, and everyone, from the pretty, insipid maidens in the taverns to the red-cheeked labourers in their fields, was part of that. Even McKay…
"He didn't even pause to wish us the time of day," McKay said, his hand still worrying at his hair.
Even McKay. Ronon gripped his reins, and reminded himself that McKay had helped Sheppard find what he needed. There had been times on the voyage to England when Ronon had felt almost fond of him. But now… He bit his tongue, and concentrated on where he was going, watching the traveller dwindle into the distance, looking for movement in the trees.
"You hear about such terrible things happening to innocent travellers at night," McKay said. "How did it get to be night?"
"Because the sun went down." There was a note of sharpness in Teyla's voice.
"Actually," McKay said, "the sun stayed where it was, and the Earth rotated." His voice wavered towards the end.
The darkness grew thicker. This strange so-called forest was full of sound and movement. Small shaggy ponies wandered at will, and several times Ronon had seen a fast-moving brown creature with branches growing out of its head. There were very few people, and although the sea was apparently close, Ronon could not smell it.
"But we'll be there within the hour," McKay said hopefully, just a voice now.
'There' was this place called Lymington. 'There' was the place where the road ended in water. 'There' was the place where Sheppard might slip through their fingers forever, the trail lost in the endless ocean.
Ronon refused to believe that Sheppard had done this by choice. He refused to believe it. He refused to believe…
His head snapped up. "What was that?"
Teyla frowned. "I heard…"
"What?" McKay's voice was high. "I didn't hear anything. What…?"
"Quiet!" Ronon dismounted, and time and distance fell away. He was leading an expedition to get supplies for the Atlantis. He was guarding his captain's back, creeping silently through the wilderness, alert for any enemy. Stay back! He raised a sharp hand, ordering McKay to stay where he was. Sounds came again – a brief cry; the whicker of a horse – and Ronon ran forward, his steps silent. When it was just you and an enemy, it didn't matter what country you were in, it didn't matter what trees shielded you, it didn't matter what flowers gave their scent to the air.
Teyla was with him, a shape in the gloom. Ronon nodded at her, giving his orders. They separated, Teyla melting into the dark. Ronon kept low, darting from tree to tree. The sound came again, nearer this time, and he drew his pistol from his belt.
There was just enough light to see it by. The man who had passed them had been thrown from his terrified horse, and lay groaning and pleading on the ground. Another man approached him, cloaked and masked, his pistol steady in his implacable hand.
Ronon said nothing, just shot, but rain and distance marred his aim, and the bullet struck the attacker in the arm. From surprisingly far away, another pistol sounded. Teyla, Ronon thought. The attacker stiffened. His head half turned round, then he stopped, pulled himself into the saddle of his dark horse, and rode away.
Ronon stayed very still. It could be deadly, he knew, to emerge from hiding too soon. Enemies sometimes had accomplices, and sometimes flight was a trap. Stalks dug painfully into his knee, and he tasted mud and leaf mould. He remembered coming across a stranger fighting for his life on a distant shore, and how had had resolved to walk on by, but had somehow ended up fighting alongside the stranger. That was how he had met Sheppard – a stranger under attack, about to be killed.
Time passed. He heard noises behind him, and a bird above, and rain pattering on unfamiliar trees. He did nothing as the fallen man struggled to his feet again. He did nothing as the man failed three times to catch his horse's reins. He did nothing as he caught them on the fourth attempt, as he calmed the animal, and he mounted, as he carried on his way.
"What happened?" McKay asked, as Ronon and Teyla returned to him through greyness and rain. "What was that? I heard guns. Is anybody… uh… dead?"
Ronon mounted without answering. "I believe it was a highwayman," Teyla said; Ronon remembered songs about such people, sung on the decks in a world impossibly far away. "Ronon shot him in the arm, and scared him away."
"Are you sure he's gone?" McKay asked, and continued to ask it twitchily all the way to journey's end.
Rodney McKay reached Lymington without being ignominiously slaughtered and dumped in a ditch. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerged on the other side. Not that he would have been killed, of course, not by anyone as petty as a highwayman. He had faced down pirates, don't you know? He was bloody, bold and resolute. If the highwayman had returned for bloody vengeance, Rodney McKay would have met his coward's gaze with dignity and determination, and the highwayman would have been the one to turn tail and flee.
"We would have made mince-meat of him," he told the others, as they rode down Lymington's broad High Street. Lights shone in tavern windows, and young men laughed in the street.
Teyla did not turn round; she seemed unduly tense, almost miserable. Ronon, though, treacherous savage that he was, gave a snort. "That's why you squawked like a girl when that rabbit--"
"It was a rabbit of extraordinary magnitude," Rodney said with dignity, "and twilight can create unusual optical effects. That is a well-known fact."
Ronon snorted again. Rodney let out a slow breath. Why did he say these things, he wondered. The journey home, with Sheppard, had felt like a slow laying aside of a lifelong accumulation of masks. The moment he had set foot on English soil, he had felt those masks go back on. He was the same Rodney McKay that he had always been, and that, he knew in his heart of hearts, was not always a good thing.
"I…" He started to say something; what, he did not know.
"Where would he stay," Teyla said stiffly, "in a place like this?"
If he had stayed at all, and not taken a boat to come what may. Rodney decided not to say it; they all knew it, after all. "The taverns near the dock-side will be rough," he said, "and after narrowly escaping death at the hands of a highwayman, I have no intention of stumbling into a nest of smugglers." Ahead, on the left, just before the road began to slope down towards the quay, he saw the broad arch that led into a stable-yard of what was clearly a coaching inn, under the sign of an angel. When they drew closer, a delicious smell of roast pork came wafting out from its warm-looking interior, and, ooh yes!, perhaps even steamed pudding with cinnamon and apples. "We'll start there," he decreed.
They rode through the arch of the stable, where the smells were quite definitely neither of cinnamon nor of pork. "We're looking for a man," Rodney began, before realising that nobody within earshot was sufficiently female to have noticed Sheppard. Tossing his reins towards a convenient boy, he entered the inn, and headed for the prettiest serving maid, and, oh yes, it was apples, and there were huge jugs of rich cream, and juicy currants, and… He cleared his throat. "We're looking for a man," he said. "About the same height as me." He stood on tippy-toes as he said that bit. "He has a slight colonial accent. He doesn't wear a wig, but wears his dark hair tied back, and he's lean, and he has--"
"Oh, yes." The maiden pressed her hands together, as a blush spread over her silk-soft cheeks. "That's the captain."
"…ears," Rodney said limply. He stopped breathing for a while, the started again, his hand gripping the edge of the bar. Ronon and Teyla flanked him, as tense and watchful as a pair of hunting hawks. "The captain?" It came out rather like a croak. Rodney cleared his throat. "Pira--" He stopped himself just in time. "Captain Sheppard?"
"Captain Ford," the maiden said.
Rodney was surprised at how sharply the disappointment struck him. He turned to the others, but they were positively quivering in their excitement, like Mistress Henrietta stalking a mouse, God rest her fluffy, feline soul. Ah, Rodney thought. Assumed name. Of course.
"Is he still here?" he asked, keeping his voice admirably steady.
The maiden nodded. "He has taken a room. I believe I saw him come in not many minutes ago." Her blush showed that this was not a mere belief. This maiden had watched him every step of the way, doubtless lingering on the way his velvet coat-tails clung to his…
Enough of that! He cleared his throat, said the right things, and so it was that, mere minutes later, he and Ronon and Teyla were being led by candlelight to the end of their quest. Rodney thought of maidens in the tales of King Arthur, leading knights into traps most terrible. He thought of… No, he wouldn't think of such things. Sheppard was here, perhaps, possibly, maybe. One way or the other, this was the end. This was the end, and then, and then…
"Leave us," Ronon commanded the maiden, and then again, louder, when she demurred. "Leave us!"
She scurried away, and then it was just the three of them and a blank door. It was the three of them and a room, and beyond it… what?
Ronon knocked. There was no answer.
Rodney shifted on his feet, shoes scraping on the worn rug. His stomach rumbled with a sudden pang of hunger. His heart fluttered in his throat.
Ronon knocked again. "Sheppard." It was rasping, more like a plea. He knocked again and again, then stopped, fists against the door, forehead pressed to the wood. "Sheppard." It was quiet, little more than a whisper. Teyla's lips moved. It looked like, "Please, John." Rodney said nothing. He tried to, but his voice was choked.
The door remained closed, shutting them out. Maybe he's in trouble, Rodney wanted to say. He remembered Sheppard surrendering to Kolya, injured, beaten and bound. Ronon and Teyla exchanged a long look, and there was a nakedness of feeling there that made Rodney feel suddenly like a stranger, locked out from both sides of the door.
"Sheppard!" Ronon bellowed. He hurled himself at the door, striking it hard with his shoulder.
A key turned, but nothing else. If there were footsteps, they were so muffled by carpet that Rodney could not hear them.
Rodney was very aware of the sound of his breathing. He saw Teyla touch the door handle; saw her hand falter minutely; saw it turn. He saw the widening crack of light. He saw a fresh fire in a hearth, and a dark coat slung over the back of a chair. He felt the touch of air from a slightly-open window.
This time even Rodney was included in the shared look. His hand on his knife, Ronon entered first. Teyla followed close behind, and Rodney went last. The door swung shut behind them, and he sucked in a breath at the slight click that it made.
A figure was standing with its back to the room, facing the darkness of an undraped window. One hand was on the white-painted wood of the window-frame, but the muscles were taut beneath the show of nonchalance. Rodney well knew that pose. He had seen it on the deck of the Atlantis, when Sheppard had stood at the rail, gazing out at the distant lands that had closed their doors to him.
"Sheppard," Ronon breathed. None of them seemed quite willing to close the final gap that lay between them. The three of them faltered by the door, leaving Sheppard on his stage by the window.
"Who is looking after my ship?" Sheppard did not turn round, but there was ice in his voice.
Teyla edged forward barely an inch. "We thought--"
"I told you to stay." Sheppard's hand tightened just a little on the window-frame, fingers pressing into the white.
"We thought you were in trouble." Ronon's voice was the voice of a much smaller man.
"And now you have satisfied yourself that I am not." Sheppard turned, just a little. His profile was the same as it had always been.
"Why--?" Ronon took two steps forward, but still the gulf remained.
"I told you to stay with the Atlantis." Sheppard's face was hidden from them again. "I have... business to attend to."
"By running away from us?" Ronon looked utterly stricken. Teyla was blinking hard, perhaps on the verge of tears. "Damn it, Sheppard." Another step. "We've followed you across England. We thought you needed us. McKay said you were travelling alone, but I didn't believe it. We didn't believe it. We thought--"
Sheppard said nothing. Seen from behind, he was as still and as cold as a statue of stone.
"Damn you, Sheppard!" Ronon took the final, fateful step. He grabbed Sheppard's arm, dragging him round, forcing the man to look at them.
Sheppard made no sound at all, but Ronon cried out as if he had been stabbed. He snatched his hand back, and opened his palm to the flickering, golden light of the candle.
The blood glistened, dark as a denunciation.
"It was you," Rodney gasped, his voice freed at last. "You were the highwayman. It was you."
end of chapter two
Lymington High Street, with the Angel Inn, on a gloomy market day, November 2008
Outside the Angel Inn, late eighteenth century
On to part the second