Author: Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Words: c. 16,000 in total
Rating: PG (violence, injury and angst, but nothing that graphic or extreme.)
Characters: Sheppard and Ronon
Spoilers: References to quite a lot of episodes. Fifth season episodes referred to are Search and Rescue, Broken Ties and The Shrine.
Summary: While visiting a place from Ronon's past, Sheppard and Ronon are attacked by snipers, but there's something there that's more dangerous and deadly than any human enemy.
Note: This is complete - c. 16,000 words - but I'm posting it in parts while I edit. Be warned: thar be cliffhangers ahead. I intend to post daily, though.
Thanks to kristen999 for giving me a couple of prompts which were the jumping-off point for this story, even though I doubt I did justice to them.
The air was heavy with memory. Perhaps that was why Ronon failed to notice that they were being watched by men with hostile intent. Perhaps that was why he missed the first subtle indications that something was very wrong with Sheppard. Perhaps that was why he only noticed the signs when it was already too late.
He had come here as a child, sometimes with friends or family, and sometimes alone. He had come here with his first squad on an exercise, holing up in the ruins for four days and fighting off all comers, until sirens had announced a surprise attack by the Wraith and all games had come to an end. He knew the scent of the herbs that wafted up from the plain. He knew that headless statue buried behind red flowers and thorns. He remembered climbing through that window, shinning up that wall, and sitting on the tallest rampart, above the wreckage of a tower once even taller.
"It's nice," Sheppard said, leaning against a honey-yellow wall that came up to his waist. Wind from the plain stirred his hair, and his body was languid in the sun. "I never knew Sateda had--" His hand moved, encompassing everything around them, then fell back again. "--this," he said.
It was only natural to judge a whole world from what you saw around the Ring. All Sheppard had seen of Sateda was the ruins of its greatest city, but Sateda also had its forests and its wildernesses, its deserts and its frozen places. Ronon had made the same mistake, judging Earth from movies set in crime-filled cities where it was always garish night.
"Of course we have," Ronon said. He looked out at the view, not so different now from how it had always been, with squat raeliac trees still growing in lines on pale soil parched by the sun. The city was invisible, its broken skyline hidden by tall walls and the haze of distance.
Sheppard smiled, boneless against the wall. "'s nice."
Ronon had expected Sheppard to ask questions. He hadn't known how he would answer them, and quite how much he would say. Sheppard had talked about normal, inconsequential things during their long hike from the Ring, but had fallen silent during the climb up to the ruined fortress. Ronon had blamed breathlessness, had even teased him a bit for being out of shape, but Sheppard had only smiled.
"It's ten thousand years of our history," Ronon said, "and perhaps more. You can see the mounds down there from the earliest fortifications. Each new dynasty added its new style." He paused for a while, hearing the voice of an old teacher in his head. "It's Satedan history written in stone."
And perhaps he wanted those questions, after all. He seldom visited Sateda now, and when he did, he was always alone. Some places had too many memories for him to ever want to visit them again, or so he had thought at first. The people who had built these walls were dead, and there would be no new walls to replace the walls that crumbled. Ronon had come here with friends and relatives now dead, with comrades he would never seen again. It was a place to be avoided, or else to visit in sad and silent pilgrimage.
And yet he had asked Sheppard to come here with him on a weekend's leave.
"We had a vacation in England when I was a kid," Sheppard said, "just Mom and Dave and me; Dad had to stay behind in the end to work. Dave and I used to play in the castles - pretend swords and falling over dead - you know." He smiled again, shadows on his face. "But then things like that stop being games."
Ronon looked at the high walkway. It had crumbled more since his childhood, shaken by a war that had raged too close. "I used to play games here. Last one along that wall's a trelka."
It probably wasn't a serious challenge, and Sheppard didn't take it as such. He didn't ask what a trelka was. His fingers were playing with a tiny yellow plant that grew straight out of the stone. Ronon didn't know its name. Melena had been good at flower names, but Ronon's knowledge had only come later, and was limited to herbs that could cure, and plants that could keep you alive when you were living in the wilds.
"There were rumours of treasure underground," Ronon said. "We poked around a bit when we were kids."
"Treasure, huh?" Sheppard's brow furrowed. It sounded as if he was struggling to listen to voices on the wind.
Ronon was listening to voices of his own, that spoke through years of memory. "No-one dug seriously, though. Let buried things stay buried." He pushed himself away from the wall. The chamber behind them had fallen walls, and a small tree had rooted itself in an arched window. Ronon couldn't remember if it had been there in the old days. Even the most vivid of memories had faded parts, and parts that he had completely forgotten.
Sheppard was still leaning against the wall when Ronon turned back. Something about his expression made him seem suddenly like a stranger.
"You okay, buddy?" Ronon asked, but only half-heartedly. Ghosts of people he had known smiled at him from shaded corners. Sheppard probably looked like a stranger merely because of the incongruity of seeing him here, in a place where Ronon had only ever seen people from his previous life.
"Yeah." Sheppard's frown deepened, then cleared away in a smile. "'m fine."
Ronon considered things for a moment. Perhaps just coming here was enough. No, he realised, he wanted more. "Wanna climb to the very top?" he asked. Sheppard seemed to like tall places, where the wind whipped around your body and tore the breath from your lungs.
Sheppard made a non-committal noise. Ronon walked back towards him, slotting in beside him at the wall. "If you like," Sheppard said. He frowned again, then smiled. "Could be good."
Something moved out on the plain below them. Ronon saw a shadow where no shadow should have been. There were animals here, of course, but… He placed a hand on Sheppard's arm. "Did you see…?"
Sheppard shook his head, still smiling. "Didn't see anything, buddy."
The movement came again. The wind prickled the back of Ronon's neck, moving over sweat-damp skin. Ronon drew his weapon. They made a clear target here, of course, standing against the walls of the outer bastion. "Down!" he said, his voice snapping commands, just as it had done on that long-ago training exercise, when similar movements had been spotted below the walls.
Sheppard shrugged, but remained standing. "There's nothing to worry about, buddy." He hadn't seemed to look, though, merely glancing casually at the plain. His attention seemed more taken by the sky above it.
It was probably nothing, of course. Memory made Ronon jumpy, and he had once held this place unconquerered for four days as other platoons had tried to take it. Sheppard was a good soldier, and if he saw no cause for concern… Ronon stood up, cautious, his hand gripping the edge of the wall. "Check the life-signs detector," he hissed. Sheppard said nothing, merely laughed lightly. "Sheppard!" Ronon snapped. Worry crept cold and sudden. "Just do it."
Sheppard turned towards him, his face bland and blank.
The gunshot snapped out a moment later, and Sheppard staggered backwards, dropped to one knee, and then sat down on the ground, his legs tangled beneath him. There was no blood, not at first. Sheppard looked up at Ronon, a faint smile flickering across his lips. Then the smile faded, and he just looked confused.
Ronon crawled towards him, his head hunched down. "Are you hit?" But he could see the truth already. The blood was already welling up from a hole in Sheppard's shoulder.
A small furrow appeared between Sheppard's eyes. "I guess so." His smile was rueful.
A gun sounded again, still distant, and a bullet struck the stonework behind them. "Snipers." Ronon spat it like a curse as he tugged at Sheppard's pack. The bullet had passed through the shoulder strap, and Ronon pulled out a knife and sawed through the strap completely, so he could remove the pack without manhandling Sheppard's arm. When the strap was severed, the pack was easy to slide over Sheppard's limp, uninjured arm. Ronon tore at the fastenings, pulling out the first aid kit from inside. There was already too much blood on his fingers.
Another bullet struck the wall. Sheppard reacted only slightly to the sound of gunfire; Ronon had expected Sheppard to push him away, to grab his gun and issue orders for them to secure the area before tending to him.
"We need to get to better cover," Ronon said, because Sheppard wasn't saying it. This patch of the outer walls would be watched, and they'd be shot the moment they stuck their head over the parapet. They needed to go elsewhere, to strike from somewhere they weren't expected. Ronon had played this game before, in this very place.
"Yeah," Sheppard said, nodding. He looked very pale, paler even than the dust of the sun-baked stone. But he didn't move, not until Ronon tugged him, and then he tried to stand up, and would have done so if Ronon hadn't grabbed him down again.
"Cover," Ronon said firmly, suddenly more tense, more afraid than an attack by snipers could ever make him.
Sheppard nodded. His good hand closed on Ronon's coat, and Ronon had to all but drag him to safety, both of them shuffling on their knees, crawling one-handed. They passed through the doorway of the ruined chamber that had been behind them as they had stood looking out over the plain. The walls were crumbling, but were high enough for Ronon to stand up without exposing himself to attack. Sheppard stayed on his knees, listing sideways until his good shoulder softly struck the wall.
"Sheppard?" Ronon said. As if their attackers knew that they were now out of range, the gunfire ceased. Ronon's voice sounded too loud in the sudden silence.
"I'm fine," Sheppard said, "I'm good," but the battle had only just begun, and he just stayed there, making no attempt to move.
Ronon had dealt with many things over the years. You had to focus on the things you could do something about, and ignore what you couldn't. He jerked his chin at Sheppard's wound. "Need to get that bleeding stopped."
Sheppard nodded vaguely. He shifted position so that he was sitting with his back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him. Ronon had been forced to drop his weapons and the first aid kit when dragging Sheppard to safety, and he crawled out now on hands and knees to retrieve them. The gunfire had stopped completely. Ronon crawled the few extra feet to the outer wall and experimentally held Sheppard's pack up over the top of the parapet. The bullet struck it hard, jerking it in his hand. The sound of it firing was closer than before, he thought.
Sheppard hadn't moved when Ronon returned. He let Ronon unbutton his shirt; let him gently peel it away from his injured shoulder. "Need to check for an exit wound," Ronon explained as he pulled Sheppard forward. Sheppard let himself be pulled, his forehead resting briefly against Ronon's shoulder. There was no exit wound. "Can you move your fingers?" Ronon asked, and Sheppard turned his head to look at him, his eyes closing slowly, then opening again. His right hand didn't move, but maybe he hadn't tried.
Ronon ran through the things he knew about field medicine. The wound was solidly in the middle of Sheppard's right shoulder. The lack of an exit wound was bad, because the bullet was still in there somewhere. A shoulder injury was no minor thing. There were too many bones there, and major nerves that controlled the movement of the arm. The location of the wound was worryingly close to Sheppard's lung, and it was bleeding freely, more freely than Ronon would have liked.
"Need to get that bleeding stopped," he said again. Everywhere outside their roofless room was still silent. Sheppard said nothing at all as Ronon cleaned and bandaged the wound. "You want something for the pain?" Ronon asked, but Sheppard shook his head minutely. His eyes were focused somewhere else, on the air behind Ronon's head, but when Ronon turned round, there was nothing there. "Buddy?" His voice sounded almost hoarse.
Ronon knew how to fight, and he knew how to defend a base. He knew how to treat an injured comrade, and had done as much with Sheppard in the ruins of Michael's compound. He knew how to take orders, and he knew how to give them, too. If he had been in this situation with McKay, he would have taken command instantly, but this was Sheppard. Ronon felt lost. It was the first time a combat situation felt as if it had spiralled completely out of his control.
"Sheppard," he snapped, and then, "Colonel?" He almost said 'John', but used Sheppard's title on a sudden impulse.
Sheppard made a faint noise. He looked at Ronon, frowned a little, and said, "We're under attack? They're still out there?"
"Still out there," Ronon said, letting out a breath. "They're sniping the walls. Don't know who they are, or why they attacked us."
Sheppard pushed himself upright. Blood was already seeping through the bandage, but when he stood up, the shirt flopped over the wound, hiding it. "We need…" He faltered for a while, the furrow deepening between his eyes. "Fight," he said. "Assume defensive positions." He brought his good hand up to his face, pressing away the furrow. "You know the terrain."
Ronon nodded; even managed a quick, grim smile. "I know the best place to defend from. Two men could take on an army." Sheppard's hand remained on his face, two fingers pressed between his eyes. "Come on," Ronon said.
They began to move, Ronon leading and Sheppard following. The enemy was still silent. It should have been a time of intense memory, Ronon thought, but all memories had retreated and almost gone. He was solidly in the here and now, fighting a very real situation that had nothing to do with the past. Old war games had taught him how to defend this place, but this was now. You could die if you let the past overtake your thoughts.
"The tower," he said. "It's got a good view of the approaches, but it's sheltered. You can watch through arrow slits, hard to hit from outside."
Sheppard said nothing, but Ronon could hear his footsteps and knew that he was still following. Sheppard was badly hurt, of course, but excluding him from this was an impossibility. It wasn't in Sheppard's nature to consent to be left behind, and he never wanted coddling. Besides, he would be safer in the tower than out on the exposed parapet of the outer walls, next to where the enemy had last sighted them.
The first explosion came as they crossed the paved stones of the upper courtyard. There was a crash of falling masonry, and Ronon turned to see the spreading pall of smoke. "Is that where we just were?" Sheppard asked, sounding mildly interested.
Ronon nodded, suddenly unable to speak. A second explosion followed, and the crash was even louder. He didn't see what had fallen, but the view was suddenly different from how it should have been. His hand gripped his weapon hard enough to tremble. He wanted to hunt them down, to tear them apart, to destroy them for this. He…
No! He scraped his hand across his face; Sheppard's blood was still there in the folds of his knuckles. "The tower," he commanded. But he saw things clearly now, now that his eyes were fully free from the ghosts of old memories. He saw the footprints in the soil that clung to the gaps between the paving stones. He saw discarded bones and fruit cores, and the remains of several fires. Inside a shallow doorway, he saw a shovel and a pick.
"They came for treasure," he said, the realisation twisting in his chest like a tight fist. Off-worlders scavenging the shattered heritage of Sateda. Carrion birds who attacked anyone they thought was trying to steal their pickings. He should have seen the signs.
"Treasure?" Sheppard echoed.
Ronon turned to him, suddenly furious, but Sheppard stumbled and almost fell. Ronon caught him, an arm around his middle. He expected Sheppard to pull away, but Sheppard accepted it.
I should have seen the signs, Ronon thought.
"What's the matter?" he asked Sheppard. "Listen, Sheppard, you need to snap out of it." They walked a few more steps. "I need you the way you should be."
"I'm fine," Sheppard said, his voice close to Ronon's ear.
"No, you're not." Ronon fought the anger. They reached the gateway of hard black stone, made from rocks dragged from thousands of miles away by some ancient lord. Beyond it was one of the last areas of the fortress that still had a roof. From the sun-drenched courtyard, it looked as black as night.
Sheppard turned slightly in Ronon's grip. "There's someone…"
Ronon whirled round, abandoning Sheppard. He fired his weapon, twice, three times. A bullet smashed into the gateway. Sheppard fell to his knees, but Ronon didn't think he was hit. By the time both their attackers lay dead, Sheppard had his pistol in his hand and was holding it out with a determined frown on his face. "I'll go left," Ronon said - a suggestion that normally would be understood without any need for further words. Sheppard's frown deepened. Ronon helped him up, leading him into the shelter of the gateway, depositing him in the darkness.
Something whistled overhead and landed with a roar of flame and smoke. "They're destroying it." Ronon smashed his fist into the gate post. The sound of falling masonry was almost deafening.
Sheppard would have a plan, of course. Sheppard always had a plan.
"We need…" Sheppard was massaging his brow again, rubbing it with two fingers, leaving streaks of blood and dirt. "There's something here," he said. "Voices. I can't…" His hand fell to his side again. "Ronon, I need to get out of here. You have to help me get out of here."
There was only one way out of the fortress - a winding path that went steeply down to the plain. It was bound to be defended. The tower offered the best chance to cut down their attackers one by one, but all the direct routes to the tower had long since fallen. They would have to go down into basement first, then move through it until they reached the winding stair.
"I can't…" Sheppard said. He slumped back against the gateway, but managed to stay standing. The pistol began to slide from his hand. He lunged for it weakly, but failed to catch it.
I don't know what to do, Ronon thought. It was an unfamiliar thought in the middle of a battle.
Sheppard blinked down at his fallen pistol, then slowly stooped to pick it up. Two more men appeared on the far side of the courtyard. Ronon tightened his grip on his weapon, then loosened it. He and Sheppard were well hidden in the shadows, and the enemy wouldn't have seen them. He nodded to Sheppard to follow him, and headed deeper into the room. After just half a dozen steps, it was impossible to see anything, but Ronon knew the way by memory. He still remembered the fear of that first time, though, when with every step he had fought the conviction that the ground wasn't going to be there when he next put his foot down.
"Go to your left," he whispered, "until you're at the wall. There's a door in about twenty steps." He heard Sheppard obey. The next explosion was shockingly loud, and dust cascaded from above him, landing on his head.
"Is this…" Sheppard coughed on the dust. His voice was firmer when he spoke again. "Is this a good idea, buddy?"
Ronon thought of the devastation of Michael's compound, when Sheppard had drifted ever further away from him as he lay trapped beneath the rubble. "Probably not," he said, but outside had an unknown number of enemies, and he couldn't rely on Sheppard. The realisation was a hard-fought one, but everything became easier now he had come to it. He couldn't rely on Sheppard.
They reached the doorway, and Ronon felt his way through. They were deep enough inside now that he dared risk a flashlight. The stairs down to the basement were on the far side of the next room. The narrow light beam showed the way, illuminating their path and little beyond it. Ronon wanted to check on Sheppard, but didn't want to dazzle him.
The basement stairs smelled different from the way Ronon remembered them. From far away, there came the sound of voices. The next explosion was almost quiet, perhaps missing the fortress completely. The air grew colder with each step down. Ronon had never liked the basement, and had always hurried through it to reach the glory that was the highest tower.
"You okay?" he asked, half way down the stairs.
"I'm good." The expected reply was empty, and meant nothing at all.
The basement was completely changed from the way he remembered it. As the beam of light travelled around the darkness, it showed a well-used makeshift fireplace, then a huge pile of rubble almost up to the ceiling. The dark stone tiles had been removed and arranged in a haphazard pile on the far side of the large space. Ronon edged forward, the beam wavering, and looked down into the pit that the treasure seekers had dug. A stair went downwards, and there at the bottom was a door.
It was a door like no native of Sateda had ever built. It was a door like the doors on Atlantis.
The next explosion was right on top of them. Ronon saw that the ceiling was falling, instinctively moved to push Sheppard out of the way, and then there was nothing but sharp pain and then darkness.
On to chapter two