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In which Mister Wheeler receives some guests
Rodney McKay had always found peas trying. When young and foolish, he had once demanded to know the name of the man who had invented them, so he could take him to task for designing something so unfit for purpose. They rolled across your plate. They slithered treacherously off your knife. Sometimes they escaped completely, and bounced off the buttons of your waistcoat, to land on the floor at your feet. It was quite impossible, Rodney thought, to provoke a villain into unmasking himself when your verbal sword thrusts were blunted by the need to contend with peas.
He hazarded a glance around the table. Sheppard, of course, was in total control of his peas, rallying them as if they were members of his crew. Teyla ate hers singly and elegantly. Wheeler must have declined the offer of peas. Perhaps that was significant.
Wheeler sat at the head of the table, under the proud gaze of some recent ancestor. Sheppard appeared to be the guest of honour, which seemed quite unfair, as did the blushing glances that the daughter, Althea, bestowed on him over the centrepiece. Servants glided round silently, helping people to food from the dishes that covered the table. The pigeon was quite exquisite, as were the jellies.
"Did you see action in the late war, Captain Ford?" Wheeler asked.
"I did," Sheppard answered smoothly. "I was stationed in the Indies. My ship was successful against the Spanish on several occasions, and less successful, I'm afraid, on several more."
"The Indies?" The idiot daughter clapped her hands together. "Did you meet any pirates?"
Rodney spluttered, betrayed by a pea. Teyla's foot pressed sharply onto his own. Sheppard, however, calmly took his wine glass in his hand, and said, "I'm afraid we did not, Miss Wheeler. We heard reports of them from time to time, but never had the fortune of coming face to face with one of those gentlemen of the sea."
"Damn good thing, too." Wheeler slammed his hand onto the table. "Gentlemen of the sea! That's a good one."
"Althea is quite taken by tales of pirates, Captain Ford," said Mrs Wheeler. "I hope you will forgive her. Bloodthirsty rogues on the far side of the world can have a certain glamour in the eyes of young girls, I'm afraid."
Sheppard took a swig of his drink. "While bloodthirsty rogues on your own doorstep remain just that." He raised his glass. "To the extirpation of bloodthirsty rogues, wherever they may be."
"Bloodthirsty rogues," Rodney echoed belatedly, when everyone else had responded to the toast. It wasn't, perhaps, quite the sentiment he had intended to express. Teyla's foot pressed against his again. Wheeler and Sheppard were still looking at each other over lowering wine glasses. The daughter seemed flushed.
Rodney defeated the final pea. A terrine of something or other looked at him temptingly from the far side of the centrepiece, and a servant responded to his gaze by helping him to some. He declined more peas. A breast of partridge appeared on his plate as if by magic. Sheppard's glass, he saw, was full again.
"Mister McKay is on the verge of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, my dear." Wheeler turned his traitor's gaze on Rodney, while he was occupied trying to ascertain what the something or other was in the terrine. Rodney managed not to splutter. Teyla's foot added more bruises down below. "What is your particular area of interest, McKay?"
"Astronomy," Rodney replied, "although I am accomplished in all branches of natural philosophy, and I have designed many cunning machines, most recently a--" He cleverly disguised his almost-slip in a cough. Another bruise appeared on his ankle. "I studied at Oxford," he said, a little desperately, "where I was Sir Edmond Halley's favourite pupil."
"But not his most modest one, I see," Sheppard added treacherously. He raised his glass to his lips, and lowered it again. Was his hand trembling slightly, Rodney wondered.
"Come, now, Ford. If a man cannot trumpet aloud his own accomplishments," Wheeler said, "then who will?" He lifted his glass in another toast. "To the Royal Society, and all its Fellows."
"To the Royal Society." Rodney repeated it a little stiffly.
Sheppard was trembling, he thought, but as soon as he was almost sure of it, Sheppard laid down his glass, and his hand disappeared out of sight. There was no tremor in his shoulders or the way he held his head.
Teyla's foot pressed into his own. Perhaps he was missing something. Perhaps Wheeler and Sheppard had been duelling with words for the entire exchange, and he hadn't noticed. How difficult this game of dissembling was! In all his life, Rodney had never been anything other than honest, much to his parents' consternation. Yes, honesty was a virtue, his mother had told him through gritted teeth. Lying was indeed a sin, but it did not do to tell the Dowager Lady Burnett that her singing was vile, or to tell the squire that his intellect was a little less than that of a toad.
Life would be so much simpler if they could just tell the truth. However, he concluded a moment later, life would very probably be shorter, too. If they were truthful about their reasons for being in Lymington, they would very likely end up dead. It was, all things considered, a convincing incentive to practise deceit.
If only he were better at it! His bruised ankle told him quite how bad he was at this game, and there were hours more of this to get through before the night was over.
The sun went down at last, ushering in full darkness. In this cool climate, it was hard to remember that it was August, and that the rich sat down to their evening's entertainment before night had fallen. Ronon's hand felt almost raw from pressing it impatiently against the broad, alien tree at his back.
Now, at last, it was safe to move. There was no moon, not yet, and the house, located a little way out of town, was surrounded by sheltering trees. The whole time Ronon had been waiting, he had seen not a soul go past.
He crossed the lawn, past the strange shapes of cut bushes. Water trickled somewhere to his left, and his legs brushed against rich-smelling herbs. The next step had the crunch of gravel, and he stopped, drew his foot back, and tried another route.
As he reached the corner of the house, a door opened. Ronon pressed himself into the shadows, and watched a girl shoo a cat out into the garden, and then, with a guilty look over her shoulder, fish some food out of her pocket to throw after it. So that was the servants' entrance, then. Lights shone out of the small windows, and when Ronon breathed in, he could smell food.
He waited until the girl had gone, and retraced his steps, skirting round the herb garden, passing dark windows. The cat ran past him, streaking into the darkness. Ronon followed it round the corner, and moved cautiously forward, until he stood beneath a pair of large windows on the floor above him, each one glowing with the flickering light of many candles. He took a step back, then another, then another. He saw the back of someone's head, and another step back showed him Sheppard, looking intently at something that Ronon could not see.
He clenched his fist, suddenly furious at these demands that had taken Sheppard and Teyla from where they belonged, and put them behind glass, forced to play these games of rich, deceitful people. But if he did his job well tonight, all that would end. Sheppard had seemed edgy and anxious, reluctant to give his consent to Ronon's enterprise, but this was something that Ronon had done before. Straight in and out. Grab what you needed to grab, and get out if you heard anyone coming. Everyone in the house would be occupied with the business of dinner, and there would be plenty of noise to hide any sound that he might make. It was safer, really, than the dead of night.
He made his way back to the darkened windows at the rear of the house, treading cautiously through the gravel. None of them had been left open. The inn had windows like this - two vertical panels of glass panes that slid vertically over each other. He tried to push up the lower panel up, trying each window in turn, but all three were locked.
In the darkness, the windows revealed nothing about what was inside them. He stood a step back, surveyed them all, and settled on the middle one.
Something moved behind him, and he whirled around, whipping his knife out of its scabbard, but it was only the cat, heading back to the kitchen for more scraps. Ronon let out a breath. He had done this many times before, he reminded himself. He could do this. It was necessary. Sheppard needed him to do this.
Knife still clutched in his hand, he turned his attention back to the window. He could try to prise it open, he thought, trusting to a lever and brute force, or he could smash the small pane nearest the lock, and reach through the hole to open it from the inside. Both methods would be noisy, but the inhabited rooms were far away. If he was cautious... If he bided his time after committing the act...
Ronon drew his knife, reversed it, and struck the hilt hard against the window.
Apparently it was the custom in England for the ladies to retire when the dishes were removed. Teyla watched the men stand to acknowledge their leaving. McKay looked terrified, as if she was abandoning him to a nest of scorpions. Wheeler smiled, every inch the gracious host, lord of this house and everyone in it. John was as stiff and as distant and as polite as he been at the worst of times, before the promise of a pardon had caused the sun to burst forth within him.
We will find the proof you need, she vowed silently, although she could show none of it, limited as she was by the part she was playing. For the first few weeks of the voyage, John had been relaxed and happy, quick to laugh and quicker to smile. She wanted that John back again.
She wanted Teyla back again.
Clothed in a gown and politeness, she walked away from the battleground. The door closed behind her with a click. Wheeler spoke, but she could not hear what he said. Were masks being laid down and swords pulled out for the fight? And elsewhere in the house, Ronon was fighting his own battle, and she was unable to help there. She had to walk away. She had to walk away.
Mrs Wheeler led the way to the drawing room, where a servant stood ready to serve them tea. Teyla sat where she was invited. She drank what she was given, holding the cup delicately with powerless fingers.
"Are you newly arrived in England, Miss Beckett?" Mrs Wheeler asked.
Teyla lowered her cup; after all this time, her body knew exactly how to behave. "I am," she said. "I found it cold, at first, and I found the landscape very strange, but there is much beauty in a place like this. I can see why Captain Ford wishes to settle here."
"I hope he does," Althea said warmly. Her mother glanced sharply at her. "Oh, come, mama, society is sadly lacking in this part of the county, and papa is away so very often."
Teyla wondered if she would be committing a faux pas by asking. There was a whole new game of danger in the drawing rooms of polite society, so very different from the dangers of battle, but in both of them, one wrong move could ruin everything. "Mister Wheeler travels a lot?" she asked.
"Especially lately," Althea said. "Trade isn't what it was, now that so many have lost their fortunes in this confusing South Sea affair, but still he goes away, often for weeks at a time. And even when he is home, messengers come and go at all hours. We're lucky to keep him for one whole dinner."
"Althea!" Mrs Wheeler said sharply, striking the way Teyla had seen John strike, cold beneath a veneer of silk. "I do apologise for Althea. It is, of course," she said to her daughter, each word barbed, "entirely inappropriate to complain of such things in front of a guest."
"I took no offence," Teyla said smoothly. "Surely conversation can be more free now the gentlemen are not with us."
"See, mama?" Althea tossed her head. Flushed with success, she leant forward, hands clasped to her breast. "Did you see any pirates, Miss Beckett?"
"Althea!" Mrs Wheeler commanded, and that was the end of it. As her friends faced their own separate dangers in other rooms, Teyla smiled, and sipped tea, and talked about hats and shoes and muslin.
Ronon unwrapped the thick fabric from his hand, and flexed his fingers, although he already knew that the cloth had done its work, and the glass had left him uninjured. After deliberating for a moment, he slid the window closed behind him. Tonight was about caution, not speed.
It was entirely dark inside. He moved forward slowly, holding his hands out to feel his way. A faint golden light showed under the door, and the window was a square of dark grey, but that was all. He needed light, of course, and that was the danger. Light would show him to anyone who passed outside. Light would illuminate his face and his hands, like a beacon in the darkness. But how could he find what he was looking for without light?
Footsteps sounded on the far side of the door. Ronon darted backwards, following the remembered route back, and tucked himself behind the thick velvet curtains. They muffled the sound, but faintly, ever so faintly, he heard the footsteps pass. Someone shouted something, short and sharp.
Ronon let his hand linger on the curtains, then, with a sharp breath, took hold of them and pulled. It was newly dark, and the servants hadn't yet closed out the night. There was a risk that someone would notice that the curtains were closed before their time, but the risk of being spotted with a light was greater.
He had a tinderbox in his coat pocket. Pulling it out, he struck a spark, and used it to light his small stump of candle. The light it gave was small, but he had made do with worse. Shielding it with his hand from the window, he raised it high, and turned in a semi-circle, surveying the room he had found himself in.
His instinct had been correct, it seemed. He appeared to be in Wheeler's study.
Wheeler had unfastened the bottom button of his waistcoat after the ladies had retired. Port had appeared from somewhere, and every glass was full. "To the ladies!" Wheeler raised his ruby glass. "Can't live with them, and can't live without, eh, gentlemen?"
"The ladies," Rodney echoed. Perhaps it was just the drink, but this Wheeler seemed different from the one he had met on the quay. He was quick to toast, quick to drink and quick to laugh.
Or perhaps not so quick to drink, he thought, as he noticed how little port had gone from Wheeler's glass. Sheppard's, in contrast, was almost empty. Rodney shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Although his ankle was pleased at the respite, he missed Teyla's foot, always ready to warn him when things were becoming dangerous.
"Why choose Lymington, Ford?" Wheeler asked, his face convivial in the firelight. The dishes had all been cleared away, leaving only fruit and comfits, and plenty of wine. "It is not the most obvious place for a man like you to settle."
"I like its aspect." Sheppard reached for a carafe of water, but spilled more than a few drops as he poured it. "I received… disappointments in the capital, and want to retire to lick my wounds somewhere where I will not be troubled by society, excepting your presence, of course."
"As good a reason as any." Wheeler rose and walked to the sideboard, where several flasks of brandy stood. "It will be good to have a man of your experience resident in the town. Perhaps we can ride out together and put down this highwayman. What do you say to that, Ford?"
Sheppard half drained another glass of port. "Sounds like a plan." Red splashes stained the tablecloth.
"Of course," Wheeler said, "dragoons pass through every now and then, but it can be a lawless place. I worry for my daughter. If one were to be caught alone in the forest, there would be very little help for you." His hand closed sharply on his chosen flask. "Terrible state of affairs," he said, shaking his head.
"Terrible," Sheppard said. Rodney saw how tightly he was gripping the arm of his chair, his knuckles white.
"Brandy?" Wheeler said cheerfully. "And you needn't worry, McKay. This was not brought in by our doughty free traders. I paid the full duty."
"I wasn't…" Rodney swallowed. "I wasn't… I mean, I know. That's good. I never doubted it."
The brandy was good. Wheeler swirled his around his glass, savouring the fumes, but Sheppard downed his in one. Rodney remembered another time, when Sheppard had drunk brandy on the deck to try to forget the fact that men had died under his command. He had been wrapped in solitude then, having commanded everyone to stay away. Only Rodney had dared to approach then, but now, imprisoned by the parts they were playing, he could only watch from a distance.
"How did you like the Indies, McKay?" Wheeler struck suddenly, his offensive cloaked in smiles.
Rodney almost choked on his brandy. "How did you--?" He imagined Teyla's foot striking him very hard indeed. He should have denied it, of course – denied it smoothly and calmly. Too late, now. Too late. All he could do was gape like a rabbit frozen in the path of a hunter.
"Your colour," Wheeler explained, "as if you have spent long days out under a hotter sun than England has seen this summer. You mentioned that you had an aunt in the Indies, and so…" He tapped his nose. "You will find I am most observant, McKay."
"They… they were hot," Rodney managed to say, "and full of--" Not pirates, he told himself. "--strange animals," he said. He didn't dare look at Sheppard as he said, "I am most relieved to be back home." Then he had to take a sip of brandy to recover. Sheppard, he saw, was on his second glass.
Rodney stood up, making a show of the need to stretch his muscles. He walked to the sideboard and back again, and sat down in Mrs Wheeler's empty chair, next to where Sheppard was sitting. The next time Sheppard made as if to drink, Rodney kicked him under the table. Sheppard reacted not one whit.
"I, too, prefer England to foreign parts," Wheeler said. "What is it that they say? An Englishman's home is his castle? This is mine."
"Indeed." Sheppard took another large mouthful of brandy. Rodney's foot sent its urgent message. Drink loosened tongues. If Sheppard let himself get drunk, he might say anything at all. What was he thinking of? He could get them all killed – Rodney, and all of them.
There was a tap at the door, and a servant came in, bearing a note on a platter. As Wheeler took it, Rodney tried once again to get Sheppard's attention, but Sheppard was watching Wheeler intently, watching him read the note. Perhaps he should be studying Wheeler, too, Rodney thought, looking for signs of roguishness, but by the time he did so, Wheeler had already stowed the message somewhere. There was no sign of consternation on his face, nor of murderous intent.
"Well…" Wheeler stood up, and pulled a watch out of his waistcoat pocket. "Shall we rejoin the ladies?"
Sheppard pushed his chair back, and stood up, supporting himself with one hand on the table. He was holding himself unnaturally stiffly, with every muscle taut. He swayed a little as he stepped away from the table. "I'm afraid I must excuse myself early," he said. "Please convey my compliments to Mrs Wheeler."
Wheeler hesitated just for a moment, but Rodney only had eyes for Sheppard. By the time he thought to glance at Wheeler, his face was all smooth control. "That is indeed unfortunate," Wheeler said. "Jeffers will show you out."
And Sheppard left, walking with that careful deliberateness of the very drunk. He left, leaving Rodney alone in the lion's den with the lion himself, and not the faintest idea what to say to him.
The desk drawers were unlocked, so Ronon discounted them. Several books and ledgers were strewn across its surface, but Ronon gave them barely a glance. This country might be strange, but some things were true the world over, and he knew that people engaged in illegal enterprises did not leave incriminating evidence in plain view. Writing was a powerful tool, but it was a dangerous one, too, because secrets committed to paper had to be protected.
He searched for secret drawers and false bottoms, but found nothing. A chest rested against the far wall, and he crouched down in front of it, raising its heavy lid with one hand, but it contained only clothing. He cursed under his breath. There had to be something here; there had to. If he found nothing, they would have to endure days more of this. He had to find proof. If he didn't... He lowered the lid silently, resisting the urge to slam it shut in fury. His circle of candlelight lurched wildly, and he clenched his fist, stood up, and turned in a circle. Perhaps that cabinet...
A key rattled right the door. Ronon's heart suddenly started pounding very fast, almost drowning out thought. He hadn't heard... No, he had to act, and now. Perhaps the window...? No, there was no time. He saw everything at once, evaluating hiding places, dismissing them. The key began to turn in the lock. The door, he thought. Behind the door. He seared the route into his mind, pinched out his candle, and made for it, just half a dozen steps, avoiding obstacles.
Only inches from his face, the door opened.
Rodney trailed desperately, anxiously, in Wheeler's wake. All three ladies turned around at their entrance. Even this new Teyla, polished and unfamiliar in her gown, could not conceal the flicker that passed over her face when only two of them entered, and no third. He left, Rodney tried to convey with his eyes, but he wasn't good at such things. He remembered trying to signal silently to a fellow student during a lecture at Oxford, but an important message about the problem of calculating longitude at sea was received as a question about roast partridge.
"Captain Ford had to leave us, I'm afraid," Wheeler told the ladies.
Two of them fluttered in dismay. Teyla gripped her tea-cup tighter, splashing a tiny drop in the saucer. He just left, Rodney tried to tell her, of his own accord.
"That is a shame," Teyla said, turning back to the other ladies, and not letting Rodney catch her eye for many a minute.
Rodney had no choice but to sit where he was told. When can we leave? he thought desperately at Teyla. Comfits were passed round. They were very pleasant. Shouldn't we go after him? It was strange, he thought, that by putting on a gown, Teyla had become the person who knew her way around a social situation. On the journey from London, she had been the ragged stranger, and he had navigated her through the pitfalls of civilisation. Or tried to, anyway. The angry mobs hadn't helped.
"If you will excuse me but for a moment…?" With a quick bow, Wheeler left the room. Rodney stared after him. Was he going to finish off Sheppard?
"Will you entertain us with a few tunes, Althea?" Mrs Wheeler framed it in a way that was not a request. "Althea is most accomplished at the harpsichord, Miss Beckett, Mister McKay."
Althea took her seat at the instrument and started to play, and the torrent of fluid notes were bars that bound Rodney to his seat.
Ronon heard someone enter the room, one step, then two. They stopped there, separated only by a thickness of wood. A pool of light flowed into the room, though the far side of it was still in gloom.
Ronon did not dare breathe. He had his hand on his knife, but he didn't think he could use it, not on someone who was doubtless just an innocent servant, not when a murder would turn a difficult situation into a full-blown catastrophe.
His fingers smarted from the flame. Had he left a trace of candle smoke? He had only broken one small pane, but perhaps there was a draught. The curtains were closed. Had this person expected them to be open?
He could hear the other person breathing. Very slowly, he let out a breath of his own. The hilt of the knife felt damp in his hand.
In public, he was McKay's servant. Perhaps some story about an urgent message, and no-one answering the door. Something about seeing an open window… No. He couldn't. He'd have to strike with the hilt, to knock the person unconscious but spare their life.
The door shivered, then ever so slowly started to close. The light withdrew, and then with a click was gone. But the moment the door was shut, the person on the other side started running.
There was no help for it. Ronon had to get out, and he had to get out fast. He ran to the window, hauled it open, and clambered out into the garden. Gravel crunched under his feet, and he ran, out into the darkness, out into the trees, and away. And there in the darkness he waited breathlessly, but long minutes passed without any pursuit.
But he was empty-handed. He had failed.
'A few tunes', apparently, meant 'play for hours', and 'accomplished' meant 'quite tedious.' Rodney's neck was stiff from polite attentiveness, and he felt deeply weary; he had never tried for so long to be polite before. Well, never really tried much at all, to be honest.
At length it was time to depart. "Do you think he--?" Rodney began, but Teyla hushed him, not letting him say a thing until the last lights of the house had faded, and even then hushing him when he tried to say anything that mattered.
Ronon emerged from a doorway as they neared their inn. "Where's Sheppard?" he demanded in a fierce whisper.
They told him the truth. "Wait here," Ronon said, and disappeared into the night.
People passed in the street, some bellowing out some song about a rambling sailor. Rodney hoped he wasn't going to get bloodily killed. This English town seemed suddenly more dangerous than a nest of pirates in the Indies, and a polite dinner with a respectable man felt more dangerous still. Had all these things been happening beneath the polite veneer of English society all along? Perhaps they had. He had never had much interest in the doings of other people.
Ronon returned, his face grim. "He's not in his room," he said, "or in any of ours."
The night positively cackled with its danger, and Rodney was at the heart of it, lost, without an anchor. "Then where is he?" he asked.
Neither of the others had an answer for him.
end of chapter five
Lymington High Street, 1832
In which the world is dangerous and full of doubts
It was Ronon who found him in the end.
It was only a wild guess that brought him there. Instinct cried foul play. Instinct urged him to storm back to Wheeler's house and demand at sword's point that Sheppard be returned to them. Instinct urged him to cut a swathe of intimidation through the smugglers at the waterfront, until they admitted who had done this thing. He wanted to search the dark places of the forest, to dive beneath the surface of the river, to break into every room in every house in this forsaken town.
But he remembered that McKay had been right about why Sheppard had left London. He remembered, too, how often Sheppard had stood at the bow in the teeth of a gale, and how even his darkest moods could be lifted by swift, fresh air on the open deck.
He found him where the river met the sea, where winds raced round the smooth curve of land. His steps slowed when he saw that dark figure, illuminated by the new-rising moon. He was not often one for being tentative, but his voice died in his throat. He tried again, saying his name.
Sheppard did not move. He was on the ground, his legs stretched out in front of him, his back to the trunk of a fallen tree. As Ronon neared him, he saw that a naked sword lay across his lap.
"Sheppard." He tried it again.
Sheppard said something faintly, or perhaps it was just the wind.
All caution vanished. Ronon closed the last few steps. With much stammering, McKay had informed them that Sheppard had drunk too much at dinner, and Ronon could smell the brandy on him even now. "Are you drunk?" he asked. Perhaps that was all it was. Everyone on the Atlantis had been drunk on occasion. Beckett the surgeon had once taken a wrong turn on deck after half a bottle of brandy, and had almost tumbled into the sea, although he could still save a man's life, even when deep in the bottle.
"No," Sheppard said, his voice faint, forced through closed lips. "Yes. I had to."
Ronon sat down beside him. This was not open sea, after all, he saw, but a channel between England and some nearby island, not many miles away. Almost invisible in the faint moonlight, a lugger was heading from the island to the shore.
"Someone came," Sheppard said. "I didn't use my sword." His fists were clenched tight, but Ronon could see that the knuckles of his right hand were bloodied. "The sword's to make others – God! – to make others think twice."
But Sheppard had shown no sign of noticing Ronon approach. If Ronon had been an assassin…
"Knew it was you," Sheppard whispered.
Damn it, but there wasn't enough light to see by! But Ronon was close enough now to hear how rapid and shaky Sheppard's breathing was. "You're hurt," he realised. "No, you're sick."
"Both." Sheppard pressed his head back against the tree. The fist came up almost to his chest, then down again, to rest on the guard of his blade. "I realised I was poisoned almost from the start, of course."
"Poisoned?" It was a knife in his stomach, twisting.
"I thought..." A faint sound escaped Sheppard's throat – one Ronon had never thought to hear from him. "Thought if I drank enough… Dilute it. Soften it. Efface one poison with another. Make me purge myself. Of course… God!" He hunched forward, then arched back again, following the curved line of the tree trunk. "Hard to… to keep your wits about you at dinner when drunk and poisoned, and, damn it! it hurts like the devil."
Moonlight was silver on the naked blade. "Wheeler poisoned you?"
"Stupid of him, if he did." Sheppard cracked a faint smile. "Blow his cover. Perhaps he's desperate. Perhaps…" Sheppard sounded as if he was fighting for every word. "No, it felt it right at the start of the meal, and he… I don't think… We all drank from the same carafe; I noticed that. Perhaps in the Angel. I took some ale before dinner, to get the courage to…"
Poison was a coward's weapon. No blades could stop poison. Ronon slammed his fist into the tree. "Who would do that?"
"Wheeler's agent? A smuggler frightened by my naval background?" Sheppard managed a harsh laugh. "Think I'd fit in better if I unmasked myself as Captain Sheppard? I hadn't realised… this place was quite like this. Thought… thought the respectable route would work."
"I'll kill them," Ronon swore.
"Got to find them first." Sheppard brought one hand up to his face, pressing his fingers into his brow. "Perhaps it was to flush us out into being rash."
"By killing you?"
"I'm not dead yet." The fingers dug in deeper, bone white. "But I… Ronon, I thought about it. I looked at the sword. Rather die that way than poisoned, writhing in my own filth."
Ronon removed the sword, sliding it gently away. He wanted to hurl it into the river, never to see it again, but he did not. The moment it was gone, Sheppard brought his knees up toward his chest, wrapped his arm around them and hunching forward.
"Why come out here by yourself?" Ronon asked. The lugger had passed them silently, but he heard a faint splashing out in the mud flats and salt marshes. "You could have sent a message." Sheppard said nothing. "Damn it, Sheppard, you don't have to ride these things out alone."
"I'm not alone," Sheppard said, raising his head, smoothing his clothes, looking out to sea.
"But you would have been," Ronon said, "if I hadn't found you." The sword trembled in his hand.
"Yeah," Sheppard said; just that.
The chair was heavy, and Rodney almost lost his grip on it several times as he manoeuvred it towards the door. He was breathless by the time it was in place. Perhaps that was why his heart was pounding so.
Poisoned. Sheppard had been poisoned, but still he had kept up his polite, measured conversation. His spine had been perfectly erect when he had left the table, but when Rodney had glimpsed him returning to the inn, he had been hunched over, looking as if the slightest breeze would fell him. Rodney had let the curtain fall back over the window, but the image stayed with him still.
What sort of a man was Sheppard? What sort of people had Rodney let himself get embroiled with?
There was a light tap at the door. Rodney felt as if a pit had opened up in his stomach. "Who's there?" His voice quavered.
"Teyla." The door muffled her voice, making it impossible to judge whether it was really her. He edged forward; knelt on the chair. Are you really…? he thought. He dragged the chair sideways just enough to let the door open a slit.
Teyla squeezed through the gap. He saw her looking at his make-shift barricade, but she made no comment. "We believe he will live," was all she said.
Rodney let out a breath. Something had clamped itself around his heart, it seemed, because now it released its grip, just a little. The closed door helped, and the fact that Teyla was here, looking more like her normal self, despite the gown.
"But the situation has changed." Teyla spoke quietly, as if there were ears at neighbouring walls. "John has enemies, and we are no closer to finding the proof of Wheeler's guilt. Ronon found nothing."
"Nothing?" He watched the candlelight play on Teyla's face, making her seem both fierce and soft. "What was--?"
"Ronon broke into the house while we were eating."
"What?" Rodney squawked, then remembered the possibility of silent listeners. He lowered his voice; gripped the back of the chair. It was a while before he could make the next words measured enough. "Nobody told me. Don't you…?" The candle guttered, sending patches of darkness across the room. "Don't you trust me?"
"John trusts your loyalty," Teyla said gently, "but not your discretion. He feared your manner at the table would betray us." She reached for him; almost touched his arm. "It is because you are honest, Rodney. You find it hard to play games of deceit."
"Virtuous," Rodney said faintly. "Yes."
It was because he was better than they were, he thought, when Teyla had left. He shoved the chair back into place, and sat down upon it, stiff and cold. Lying came easily to them. Could he have endured the dinner had he known that Ronon – he had passed the man off as his own servant, for crying out loud, so the disgrace of any wrongdoing would be on his head! – was committing crime on the other side of the wall? I could have done it, he thought, but he knew he could not. His ankle bore bruises enough, just for bearing the weight of Sheppard's disguise.
He thought of Sheppard stoically enduring poison, and of an unseen enemy who hated him enough to want to kill him by stealth. What sort of a man was Sheppard really? Rodney had thought him a bloodthirsty pirate at first, but then had realised that he was not. They had watched dolphins together, and they had talked about books and natural philosophy, and about places they had been, and place that they wanted to go. For a while, it had almost lulled Rodney into thinking that Sheppard was just like him.
He was not. Sheppard lived in a world of death threats and danger, and he knew how to deal with such things. Until his adventure in the Indies, Rodney had never stared into the face of death before. Nobody had ever wanted to kill him. Well, nobody had meant it seriously, anyway, although that fat scholar from Corpus Christi had appeared quite earnest when he had scrawled his challenge and pinned it to the College gates, for all the world like Luther with his articles, and that idiot so-called gentleman with rooms in the front quad had gone as far as to wave his sword around, and… well, he had quite deserved that particularly well-crafted put-down, just as the scholar had entirely deserved to have his work torn to pieces in front of a hundred people, and…
But that was beside the point. Nobody had ever wanted to kill him, and now…
Stupid Sanderson – William, Walter, whatever his name was! No, he didn't count. He'd issued the threat in verse, for crying out loud, having recruited some affected dandy of a poet that he counted amongst his friends. Then there was that visiting scholar from Bohemia. If you were going to be inconsiderate enough as to have an unpronounceable name, the least you could do was refrain from spluttering death threats when people forced its heathen syllables into sounds more suitable for an English tongue.
Nobody had ever tried to kill him before, Rodney thought quite firmly, until he had thrown his lot in with Sheppard.
Smugglers passed in the night, screams and laughter came from distant parts of the inn, and Rodney eyed the barricade that was his chair, and did not sleep.
"You should go," Sheppard said, but Ronon had faced down his captain in worse moods than this. Sheppard's orders were usually sound, but he had an inability to see things clearly when his own safety was on the line.
"No," Ronon said, stating it as a fact.
Sheppard had barely made it to the bed before collapsing. Now both hands were clenched tight around handfuls of bedding. Ronon had extinguished everything, down to one candle, but it was enough to see the clefts of shadow on his pain-etched face.
"Go." It sounded strained, barely an order at all.
Ronon shook his head. He sat with a pistol on his lap and a blade in his hand, ready to defend his captain at all costs.
Sheppard rolled onto his side, turning his head away, seeking the place on the bed that the candlelight did not reach. "Please," he said, his voice barely audible at all.
His tone made Ronon tighten his grip on his blade, curling the hand around its hilt, but, "No," he said, then, his voice hoarsening, "I can't, Sheppard. He might come back to finish the job--"
"And I'm as weak as a kitten," Sheppard said, his face still hidden, "but I could defend myself if I had to."
"I know that," Ronon said, "but two men can defend themselves better than one."
The light flickered. Ronon snapped his head up, but it was only a current of air from the badly-sealed window. There was no sound from outside the door. Even the street was almost silent, the night already halfway to morning.
"I can't…" Sheppard shifted. "Take the light away, Ronon, damn it." His voice was so raw as to be painful.
Ronon picked up the pewter candle-holder, and moved it to the dresser near the door. The lurching shadows made it look as if the whole room was full of enemies, darting forward with swords. Then he sat down again, and Sheppard was just a featureless shape in a bed, lost in darkness.
There was no shame in being hurt, Ronon thought; it happened sometimes to even the strongest of men. There was no shame, too, in accepting help from others. But it was easier to say it than to do it. It was hard for a man like Sheppard to let anyone see him give in to pain. It was cruel to stay here, but worse to go.
"Is it worth it?" he found himself saying.
Sheppard stopped moving. All sound ceased.
"There are hundreds of boats in the harbour," Ronon said. "We have money. We could take one and return to the Atlantis. No-one would catch us." Sheppard still made no movement. "Why are you putting up with this?" Ronon demanded. "Trapped by scheming rich men – asking 'how high?' when they tell you to jump. Stuck in this forsaken town. Poisoned. They'll come back for another go, of course."
He gripped his blade hard enough for this fist to tremble. Everything had gone wrong since they had left the Atlantis. Everything was out of joint. He had spent the whole time a dozen steps behind Sheppard, chasing him through a strange, cold country. There were no friends here. There was nothing. He was nothing, just a servant and a housebreaker and an unwanted bodyguard.
"Just walk away," he urged Sheppard, his voice catching on the last word. "No-one will care that they don't get their pardon. There's a whole world out there where the British authorities can't touch us." There was still nothing from Sheppard; still nothing. The whole world felt stilled, listening, but still Ronon spoke on, each word landing like another step along a barred footpath. "We've been all right for years," he said, "without their pardon. It's just a stupid piece of paper."
He stopped at last. The darkness stared back at him, and a horse whinnied outside the window. "Not to me," Sheppard said quietly, "and so…" His voice trailed away. He was so still that Ronon felt a sharp stab of fear, until he heard the faint rasp of his captain's breathing.
Sheppard had devoted years of his life to clearing his name. It had tormented him, the knowledge that he had been falsely accused. 'You should have seen him before they called him traitor,' Beckett had once told Ronon, his tongue loosened by brandy. 'You wouldn't have recognised the laddie.' Ronon hadn't understood, not at first, wondering why the opinion of distant strangers had mattered more to Sheppard than the opinion of his crew. 'It's because it's about loyalty,' Beckett had explained. 'They accused him of betraying his own men. But also,' he had said, raising his glass in a wry toast, 'it's about us. He blames himself for the fact that we're outlaws with prices on our heads. It eats him up inside.'
And now Sheppard's plans had come to fruition, but everything was worse, far worse, than it had ever been on the Atlantis. "Is it worth it?" Ronon asked quietly.
But Sheppard did not answer, and stayed silent until the morning. Ronon guarded him, though, and that, at least, was something entirely right.
There came a point in every man's life when he had to decide whether to make a stand for what was right, or whether to give in to fear and tyranny. Rodney was English, and England was built on upstanding, courageous people standing up and resisting tyrants. King John's barons hadn't cowered in their chambers, but had confronted him and made him sign the Magna Carta. Simon de Montfort hadn't hidden behind a wooden chair, but had gone out and invented Parliament. Now England luxuriated in the shining perfection of Parliamentary democracy, because a group of courageous men had thrown out the Papist tyrant barely thirty years before, in a revolution both Glorious and bloodless.
Rodney stood tall, smoothing his coat-tails down. He strode with determination and dignity towards the door, then stopped with his hand brushing it.
Take the early Christian martyrs, he thought, and all the saints and hermits that littered the primitive years before the Enlightenment had burst forth upon the land. They hurled themselves quite cheerfully onto the swords on their enemies, and the parson in his pulpit said that this was a good thing, yes, really, it was, young Master McKay, and you are supposed to listen in sermons, not argue, and perhaps your father should beat some sense into you when you got home, because you know what the Bible had to say about sparing the rod.
He cleared his throat. Saints and martyrs were quite addicted to mortifying the flesh by going without breakfast and wearing hair shirts. This, he thought, did not really support his case.
There came a point in every man's life, he thought pointedly, when he had to decide whether to let fear rule him, or whether to go out and demand what was his right as an Englishman. This hollow feeling inside him demanded that he acted.
He pushed the chair aside, and opened the door. Nobody killed him. It was quite late in the morning, but nobody had come to tell him how Sheppard was. Perhaps they were all dead, and it would fall to him to avenge them. He didn't really know how to carry out the sort of vengeance that a dastardly smuggler would understand. Writing a scathing rebuttal of their thoughts on phlogiston did not seem entirely appropriate.
I hope they're not dead, he thought, as he hesitated at the top of the stairs. His thoughts were running noisily down alleyways, trying to distract him from the fact that the main road was quite terrifying.
A scattering of people were sitting at tables downstairs, but no Ronon and no Teyla. A smiling maiden stood behind the bar, and her bodice seemed tight enough – quite disturbingly tight, in fact – not to conceal any jagged blades. He clenched his fists for courage. He had taken this step. He had left the safety of his room for one thing, and one thing only. He would not let the tyrants keep him from his breakfast. "Bacon," he told her, "and sausage." She smiled and said that she would bring it.
He had done it, he thought, as he sat down a table, his back safely pressed to the wall. He had refused to cower. He had stood up for right and justice and…
Poison! he thought. What if the sausages were poisoned?
They smelled nice when they came, but when he took a bite, he thought that they tasted like ashes. What was that speck…? Oh, spices. A dog sidled hopefully past his table, eyeing his plate. Rodney cut off a small piece of sausage and fed it to the dog, but it ran away before he could monitor it to see if it started dying hideously.
Somebody shouted loudly out in the street. Rodney sat very still in his chair, opening and closing his hands convulsively. The door opened with a crash.
Perhaps he would chase the dog, he thought. He would have to watch it for a sufficient length of time, and keep a record of his observations. Perhaps he would… Yes, there. Slip through that door, run across the yard, duck down into the stables. Not cowering at all. Not hiding. Just a strategic withdrawal. Waiting for his canine experiment to run its course. Conducting cunning espionage from behind the hay. Fooling the villains by not being where they expected him to be.
A pair of feet drew closer; he saw them criss-crossed with blades of yellow. A hand closed on the back of his jacket, and he was hauled out, and it felt different, so very different, from being abducted by Ronon or Sheppard or any of the others. He opened his mouth to scream, but a hand stopped his voice. It smelled of oil and salt and horrid things.
Ronon inhaled a great lungful of air. His eyes felt gritty from a night without sleep, and his muscles ached from being permanently on guard. He would be in there still, but Teyla had insisted that he get some air. He trusted her with Sheppard's safety, of course. Of course he trusted her.
He started walking, stretching cramped legs. The morning was grey, and a cool wind disturbed the surface of the water. Sheppard had been sleeping when he had left him, his skin pale, and his hands restless even in sleep. He had spoken in his sleep – a rasping plea to somebody not to leave him, to please come back – but that was something Ronon was going to forget hearing; something he would never speak of to anybody.
The wind reminded him of how foolish he had been to try to persuade Sheppard to abandon this enterprise. He knew his captain well – better, perhaps, than Sheppard thought he did. The only way to end this was to find whatever proof it was that Sheppard had been charged to find. That meant breaking into Wheeler's house again and searching harder. That meant capturing a courier, stealing his packet, and interrogating…
Footsteps raced up behind him. Ronon whirled round, ready to face them, but they passed on – just a group of boys heading along the quay. An older man shouted commands from a skiff, but Ronon couldn't understand the dialect. A large grey bird flew low over the water, brushing it with slow wings. In the distance, he saw people moving about on the mudflats, standing up on terrain he would have considered impassable.
He reached the end of the quay, and paused there, knowing that the terrain ahead was more dangerous, and there were known enemies nearby.
He was just turning back when something struck him hard on the shoulder. He staggered back, but kept his balance, bringing his knife up, but there were too many of them – half a dozen of them, surging forward. They struck him all at once, and his knife flashed out, but it was not enough. He felt himself fall, grasped only at empty air, and then the water closed over his head.
end of chapter six
Lymington Quay, nineteenth century
On to part the fourth