Back to the rest of my SGA fanfic

On the Road to Come What May

by Eildon Rhymer

 

Rating: T for occasional bad language

Spoilers: A few vague references to early season four happenings. Although it is never stated clearly, this story is set between Doppelganger and Travelers.

Characters: Team, plus original characters

Words: c. 95,000

Genre: Drama. Adventure. Hurt/comfort. Outsider viewpoint. Gen.

 

Summary: It started with a strange vessel crashing down from the sky. Then three strangers appeared in a decaying city, willing to risk everything to rescue an injured, imprisoned friend. For those caught up in the adventures of these four, nothing will ever be the same again.

 

Note: This is an outsider viewpoint story, told entirely through the eyes of original characters (two main ones, plus two one-offs for the prologue and interlude.) Our heroes, though, are very much central to the plot, and appear in virtually every scene, and are talked about in those very few scenes that they don't appear in.

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Prologue

The Man from the Sky

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The curfew bell had sounded long ago, but Ferris was not the sort of man to obey such things, not when he had a stash of freshly dried leaf and a new clay pipe to smoke it in.

 

Adela saw things differently, of course, as she so often did. The little window clicked open, and she leant out, her shadow looming large across his peaceful refuge. "Please come inside," she urged him. "Didn't you hear the curfew bell ringing?"

 

"Mmm," Ferris said vaguely, letting his mind drift away on the sea of smoke, not hearing the rest of her words. After a while, he heard the window click shut. He stretched out his toes, pressing his weary back against the wall. The ground was wet from the earlier rain, but his father had placed a stone slab here many years before, "for Sitting On," he had said gravely, as if the words had capital letters, "and don't let any man or woman tell you that such a thing is worthless. A man needs time to Think." He had winked, though, tapping the side of his nose. Thinking, Ferris had noticed at the time, involved flagons of brown liquid and a lot of smoke. His mother, he soon learnt, did not approve of Thinking. Adela didn't, either.

 

The window opened again. "Ferris! You don't want to get in trouble again. It's not worth it, not for something as silly as this."

 

He exhaled smoke, pleased with the ring it formed. "My back's against the wall. It hardly counts as being out."

 

"The Whisperers won't see it that way."

 

"Whisperers won't come out this far."

 

"But I worry, Ferris, really I do. It's not worth it, and there's lots to do inside. If only you helped…"

 

The air was finally cooling after a long day spent out in the fields, struggling to harvest waterlogged crops in the stifling heat. The stars had always refreshed him. A fellow in the ale-house had once told him about a long-dead wise man who had fashioned a far-seeing device of curved glass, and turned it to the stars. "And what did he see?" Ferris had asked, for he had been younger then, and such things had seemed interesting. "They looked just the same as they always look, but bigger," the fellow had laughed, slapping his thigh as if it was a wonderful joke. "Why should they look like anything else?"

 

"Please come in." Adela leant out of the window. "At least talk to me. I get lonely with only shirts and needles to pass the day. Though Elena came round today, with those little girls of hers trailing at her skirts. She said something – probably shouldn't have – about… No, I can't say it here, out in the dark. Come inside, and--"

 

"Mmm." Pressing the back of his head against the wall, he looked up at those unfathomable stars.

 

Harvest had been backbreaking, paid with cheese and whey and ale and just enough beads to keep old Barrack from claiming the cottage that Ferris' grandfather had built with his own hands. The overseers grew louder each year, or perhaps Ferris just grew older and less able to tolerate them. He said little, though. Shouting was a young man's game. Once you reached thirty-five, you knew to keep your head down.

 

"The factor's coming tomorrow. I've got fifty shirts for him, the seams as neat as you please. That's five bronze beads – enough to hire a cart and go into the city come festival day. It's four years since we did that, and--"

 

He pulled the pipe from his mouth, and took a large gulp of the watered ale, as foul as one would expect of something brewed in Gaffer Edric's byre. As he did so, something caught his eye. A flare of silver light…

 

"… and Elena's man knows someone who can…"

 

There was a noise, too. It started as a high-pitched whine, but it grew lower and louder, reminding him of the steam engine that Barrack had once announced would replace ten labourers, which had proceeded to run lumberingly amok, crushing a dozen silver beads' worth of quorm. They still talked about that in the ale-house, though only when Gaskin had looked right and left and right again, raised his finger to his lips, bolted the doors, and said, "Right, lads, there's no eyes and ears here that we don't want to be here," and everyone relaxed as much as their weary muscles would allow them, and sang and talked in whispers until it was time for curfew and then to sleep.

 

"…if you're going to resist, at least do it for something that…"

 

Something blocked out the stars – something harder and sharper than a cloud, and moving far faster. He stood up. The sound grew louder.

 

"By all the Gods of Stone, Ferris, what's that?"

 

His pipe cracked in his hands. "Get down," he said, though he had no idea why he said those words – no idea how he knew. He reached behind him through the window, and her hand found his. "Get down!" he said, but by then the sound filled everything, and the dark shape struck the ground away to the right, bounced and scraped across the mud, tore through his charvil patch, and smashed into the low wall that bounded it on the far side, demolishing it completely.

 

When all was still, Ferris raised his head slowly. Adela's hand gripped his. "What happened?" he heard her saying. "I can't see. I don't want to look. What was it? Ferris, what was it?"

 

He was covered with splashes of earth, and stinging from falling stones. He pulled his hand from hers and reached blindly for his mug, only to find it toppled on the ground, the ale seeping into the piled earth. "I don't know." At least the pipe still worked, the smoke hot and intense through the sheered-off stem.

 

The object that had fallen from the sky was almost as long as his garden was wide, with a pointed front and an unpleasant look that reminded him of those bleached and fleshy plants that sucked life from the roots of other plants more honest and virtuous than they were. There was nothing sparkling about it. The Gods of Stone, or so the songs said, had ridden through the sky in gleaming chariots, while their demonic enemies had flown in shards of rocks wrenched from the void deep below the surface of the earth. Not that anyone truly believed such things any more, no matter what songs they sang when the ale was running free. Not in Myr, anyway. Leave that for the strange lot over in Daryen, with all their priests.

 

"It fell from the sky, Ferris." Adela was standing at the window again, one hand pressed to her face. "Is it… Is it a… thunderbolt?"

 

A man was supposed to provide answers. Even a field labourer was supposed to know more than his wife, or so the lads in the ale-house said. He was supposed to walk forward with his head high, reassuring the shrinking woman who cowered behind him. "It… It's nothing to worry about." His voice cracked a little. "I'll…"

 

The object began to crack open like a saya nut, and there was something inside it, there was something inside it, and it moved, it was alive, like the squirming mass of awfulness inside an iridescent shell washed up in the flood.

 

He heard Adela gasp, her voice right next to his ear, and the stone wall pressed itself hard against his back, and the bowl of the pipe smouldered in the mud, and he blinked, but nothing changed.

 

The living thing at the heart of the repulsive shell reared up. A pale claw-like hand gripped the edge, and the figure rose higher, then slithered entirely free from its casing, to stand wavering on the ground beside it. It looked round, its eyes like pits in its dark-streaked face. "Huh," it said.

 

Adela made an answering sound, then Ferris heard the sound of her footsteps bustling away. He was alone with this… this thing, this creature. It was how it should be, of course – husband defending wife, and so on. He was the man of the house. He was the sturdy labourer. He was… And, oh, by the Gods of Stone, he wanted his ale!

 

The creature moved towards him. It was fashioned like a man, clad in finely-woven black that was torn in places, showing pale and mottled skin. Its steps were shambling, like the creature that dragged itself from the first flood, trailing weed and worse things, death in every one of its webbed footprints. Its hand-like appendage was pressed to its side, and Ferris felt the roughness of stone against his hands and his back, and the warmth of the window at his neck, and a small, crazy part of himself imagined telling the lads about this down at the ale-house, holding court at the centre of a circle of empty tankards, but the rest of him just wanted to plead for his life.

 

The door opened and closed, and Adela was there, coming to stand by his side – oh, the foolish, stupid, dear woman – and… Oh. Oh! She was pushing past him, moving with that brisk resolve that never boded well for anyone. She softened when she reached the creature, though. "Sit down," she told it. "Sit down before you fall down."

 

"I don't… obey people… I don't know… as a rule," it said, but perhaps she gave it a shove – Ferris knew that shove well – or perhaps its legs gave way, because it sank down to its knees, and then sideways, sinking slightly into the disturbed mud and the ruined charvil roots.

 

"Adela," Ferris hissed, clenching and unclenching his fist at his side. "You can't…"

 

"Blind as well as stupid," she said, quite casually, not looking up from the fallen creature. "He's hurt."

 

Ferris managed to edge forward; managed to peer around Adela's body to see the creature that lay shivering beneath her hands. It was a man. Gods! Of course it was a man. Ferris raked his spread fingers through his hair. A man! But that meant…

 

"He must come from Daryen!" He remembered how horrified and disbelieving his father had been when he had first seen an engine powered by steam, and how it had seemed to him as miraculous and terrible as the works of the Gods of Stone themselves. Things that appeared to be marvels were just engines; Ferris knew that now. The scientists and engineers of Daryen must have fashioned a flying machine. There had been rumours that they had been working on such a thing, hadn't there; terrible tales whispered over ale and smoke. This was the first. This was war. Death would rain from the skies ere all this was over. "You have to leave him alone," he said urgently. "If the Whisperers find out…"

 

"The Whisperers don't come out this far," she threw back at him, and once again, as so often before, he cursed having a wife who was more clever than he was.

 

"But somebody…" Ferris looked around urgently from side to side. The shadow of the devastated wall was jagged and deep, as if it held watchers. Trees whispered, and light and shade could hold so many things. "Someone will find out," he hissed, "and it'll be the Citadel dungeons for us."

 

"Enemy or friend, I am not leaving an injured man to suffer," she spat, though he could see her hands, moving gently across the man's body. When she broke off her angry words, he knew that it was to smile at him, at this enemy, kindness and reassurance in her eyes.

 

"But--"

 

She whirled on him, jabbing her blood-stained hand, finger outstretched in denunciation. "You, Ferris Jenkynson, risk the wrath of the Whisperers to get a few selfish moments of smoke and ale after curfew, but run away in fear of them when a man's life is on the line." She didn't even have to say the rest. Coward. It was there in her eyes. Selfish.

 

He swallowed. "What…?" He forced his feet to move him forward. "What's wrong with him?"

 

But then they came. The carriage came silently over grass, pulled by two merrilyn. By the time Ferris saw them, it was far too late. It wasn't me! he wanted to protest. I didn't touch him! I told her not to! The words died in his throat. The wall was at his back again, rough stone scraping his palms.

 

Their gate had collapsed. Barrack strode over the wreckage, flanked by his enforcers. "That man," he said, "is clearly from Daryen. Step away from him now."

 

Adela did not. Oh, Gods, Adela!  "He's hurt," she said.

 

"It is also after curfew." Barrack's nose wrinkled as if he could smell the ale and the smoke.

 

The fourth man stepped forward then. He was thin and he had sandy hair, and he was not someone Ferris had ever seen before. "It is understandable," he said, with a thin smile, "that these simple folk would come outside when something as unprecedented as this occurs. After all, we ourselves laid down our forks and our wine glasses and stepped outside when this… contraption passed overhead. You are not in any trouble." His smile did not reach his eyes. "Run along inside, my dear, and let us take care of this."

 

"He's hurt," Adela said again. Ferris had a sudden memory of the first time he had properly seen her. She had been crouched in the grass, fiercely protecting an injured bird from a crowd of laughing boys, and suddenly the little girl he had known all his life had seemed to him like something magical and wonderful out of song. That was when life had been different, though, before he had realised that the songs were not a promise of how life would be, but merely a way to escape from it.

 

"He will be taken care of," the man said, still smiling. "After all, it is not possible to question a dead man."

 

"Question?" Adela echoed. Don't, Ferris thought. Please don't. Just leave it. Please.

 

"Because he is, of course, an enemy of your king and your country and everything you hold dear." The sandy-haired man's voice was a blade concealed by beautiful silk. "You would not want it to be said that you were in league with Daryen." His eyes widened in innocent horror. "You would not want it said that he entrusted secrets to you before he fell unconscious."

 

"He… he didn't." Adela sounded scared at last. "He didn't say anything – nothing important, anyway. He was hurt. I didn't know…"

 

"Let us take him now." There was command in his mild voice.

 

Adela's hand tightened, then she stood up and backed slowly away. Ferris watched her biting her lip as the injured man was roughly raised and dragged to the carriage. But then his attention was drawn by something else – not the injured man, not his shattered garden, not the familiar cruelty of Barrack's enforcers, but the sandy-haired stranger. The man had moved away and was standing on the far side of the carriage. His back was turned, and he was staring intently at nothing, a faint glow coming from his cupped hands.

 

"He was a Whisperer." The words escaped him quietly after they had gone; he wanted to raise his hand to his mouth and keep them in, but could not. "A Whisperer. In my charvil patch. A Whisperer. Here."

 

"You don't understand anything at all!" Adela blazed, as she struck him with the back of her hand, pushed harshly past him, and slammed the bedroom door.

 

******

 

Ferris resigned himself to a night on the settle. He refused to beg Adela to let him in, and had learnt long ago not to command her. Sometimes it was almost restful to sleep beside the hearth. He could rise in the middle of the night and lean out of the window, breathing smoke into the cold darkness, listening to night-time birds and a world that was free. Sometimes he even tiptoed out, savouring the feeling that he was the only person outside within the bounds of the curfew, and shivering a little with the fear that he might not be.

 

This night, though, he closed the drapes, and huddled on the settle, feeling cold. The Whisperer returned – this he saw through a tiny chink of the curtain – and supervised the removal of the flying machine. It took six merrilyn to haul it onto a wagon, and the teams that worked them were blank-faced and silent. Then the Whisperer seemed to look right at Ferris as he crouched at the window, and Ferris recoiled with a gasp.

 

When the wagon wheels had faded to silence, perhaps he even dozed a little.

 

He was woken by a hammering at the door.

 

He started up, his feet scattering cushions. The Whisperer! You heard stories; of course you did. People who saw things that they shouldn't; people who did things that they shouldn't. They pounced in silence, and they knew all your secrets. Sometimes people disappeared and never came back. Perhaps if he pretended he hadn't heard it. Perhaps if he pretended he wasn't in. But, no, the Whisperer knew he'd been here after curfew. If he vanished now, then that was worse.

 

The hammering came again. A door opened with a click, and he started, but it was only Adela, clutching a fold of her nightgown at her chest. Ferris looked at her. "I can't…"

 

"You have to." But she moved to his side; took his hand gently, squeezing it once. It felt too much like a farewell.

 

His blood pounding in his ears, Ferris moved to the door, feeling like a prisoner going to his execution. The door knob was smooth and familiar in his hand – how many times had he opened the door like this, heading out in the morning to work, or in the evening to the ale house?

 

The man on the doorstep was on the point of knocking a third time. When the door opened, his fist lunged forward, and he almost stumbled. "What's wrong with shouting out 'I'm coming'?" he demanded, looking irritated. "It's only polite."

 

It was not the Whisperer. The man who had spoken was a little shorter than Ferris, with the pale softness of a merchant. The tall man beside him looked like a raider from the Marches, and the woman behind them was dressed like a man.

 

"Where is he?" demanded the merchant, shouldering past Ferris. Ferris moved to object, but his arm was knocked aside by the tall man. The woman flashed a quick smile in Adela's direction, which was perhaps meant to be reassuring, but which entirely failed to reassure.

 

"I don't know what you mean," Ferris said. "There's no-one here except for me and my wife." He swallowed, and drew himself up. "Leave my house right now."

 

"Not going to happen," the big man said, folding his arms, "not until you tell us where Sheppard is."

 

Ferris looked from stranger to stranger, then at the open door, open to the curfewed, forbidden night. He thought of the Whisperer and the wounded enemy. He thought of a world which had once promised much, but whose confines had been growing smaller and smaller with each passing year, retreating into the tiny disc of light that was a tankard of ale at the end of an exhausting day. "I don't know what you mean," he said again, his voice faint.

 

"Oh, please." The merchant flapped his hand. "We've seen the damage out there. It took us hours to track it down, but this is the place, or I haven't got a genius level IQ, and, well, quite clearly I have. Shattered walls, pulped turnips – what is it with Sheppard and wanton destruction? – and a dart-shaped gouge in the mud. Hours, as I said. Walking. Hiking through… And what sort of landscape do you people have here, anyway? Haven't you heard of irrigation? Crops rotting in the water. I fell into a ditch right up to my waist! Why couldn't he have rematerialised us nearer to the place he decided to crash?"

 

"Rodney," the woman said, with soft warning in her tone.

 

"I blame the Wraith," the merchant called Rodney said. Ferris decided that he could not be a very successful merchant, not if he talked like this. "Seriously, who decides to design a space ship you can't see out of? What about a helpful message: Warning! You are about to rematerialise your passengers on the edge of a cliff or up to their necks in water or in any manner of other uncomfortable positions, not to mention fatal ones. It's a ridiculous design flaw. Give me five minutes with a dart and I'd fix that."

 

"Rodney," the woman said again. She flashed another smile at Adela, but it was strained.

 

"Of course," Rodney continued, his voice growing higher and his hand movements more jagged, "I don't suppose the Wraith think of them as passengers. They don't really care. But Sheppard… He let us out, so he must have thought…" He looked at Ferris with suddenly-intense eyes. "You're disorientated at first, especially since the last thing you remember is running for your life with bits of cocoon all over your face, but we all saw the dart come down. We know it was here, so spit it out: where is he?"

 

Ferris was about to speak, but Adela stepped forward. "They said he was a spy and they took him away in a carriage."

 

"Oh. Oh. This is marvellous." The merchant threw up his hands. "And you didn't stop them?"

 

"Who's 'they'?" asked the big man.

 

"Barrack," Adela said. "He's our kingsman." She said nothing about the Whisperer. You hesitated to talk about them to friends, and definitely said nothing about them to strangers.

 

"Why did they think he was a spy?" the woman asked Adela.

 

Ferris decided it was time to wrest back the control he had never really had in the first place. "Are you from Daryen?" If they said yes, perhaps he would try to subdue them with a belaying pin.

 

"Daryen?" The merchant frowned. "Never heard of him. We're from… Well, not from anywhere near here – and that's another thing I need to speak to Sheppard about. This was supposed to be… well, I understand why he didn't dial the alpha site, what with the pursuit, and… well, too close to home… but at least a friendly planet, and last time I checked, planets on our 'friendly planet: won't kill you, at least not much' list weren't full of flooded fields and aggressive sheep and idiot natives who gape at simple questions. He must have misdialled and brought us to this godforsaken hellhole."

 

"He was hurt," the woman said, "and we were being chased--"

 

"Yes, yes." Rodney waved his hand again, but his anxious face was quite at odds with his voice. "You'd think there'd be a failsafe for that. One wrong symbol and you're transported away to another crazy adventure – or maybe it was more than one; he really was kind of out of it, and I told him he shouldn't try to fly. It's like phone numbers. A girl gave me her number once – no, don't look like that; it happened. It happened a lot, actually – but when I dialled it I got a Spanish laundry. I assumed she'd written one digit wrong, but which one? Do you know how many permutations there are?"

 

"McKay," the big man snarled.

 

"Sorry. Sorry." The merchant clasped his hands together. "I talk when I'm nervous, and almost becoming a Wraith's breakfast tends to make me nervous, as a rule. Being quiet now."

 

The woman moved to Adela's side. "I apologise for intruding so late at night, but Colonel Sheppard is our friend. I can also assure you that he is not a spy, and that he means no harm to you or your people. Do you know where they took him?"

 

"To the city," Ferris said. "To Myr. To the Citadel dungeons, more likely than not."

 

"Oh. Dungeons," Rodney said miserably. "Why can't it even be nice spacious apartments with dancing girls and grapes?"

 

"Was he --" The woman glanced quickly at her companions "--well?"

 

Adela bit her lip, then released it. "He was hurt. He was conscious at first, but then he fainted. I tried to treat him, but they came before I could tell how badly he was--"

 

"Dying, and in a dungeon," Rodney wrung his hands together. "Locked away by idiot clueless natives…" He looked up suddenly. "He didn't make something glow, did he? He just can't stop doing that, even after that regrettable incident with the witch-finder and the Monty Python crowd and the almost certain agonising death."

 

"Doesn't matter why," the big man growled, his hand going to a thing at his belt. "If they took him…"

 

"We need to establish why," the woman said, touching his arm. "It is quite probable that he is victim of a misunderstanding. Perhaps they saw the dart and drew the obvious conclusion."

 

"So all we need to do is explain what really happened, they'll let him out, and we'll all have a drink together and there'll be singing and dancing and…Oh! No!" The merchant snapped his fingers. "What am I thinking? It's us. Of course it's not as simple as that."

 

The woman's smile was more forced than ever. "Why did they think he was a spy?"

 

Ferris caught Adela's eye. Are you all right? he asked her, and she nodded slightly, though her face was tight with trouble. "Because he fell from the sky," Ferris told the woman. "Flying machines are impossible, but granda said that about steam engines, and I've seen four of those with my own eyes."

 

"Impossible?" Rodney squawked. "My God! It really is a primitive backwater. You'll be saying next that the world is flat and you don't believe in life on other planets and that you think that this is all there is."

 

"Planets?" Ferris repeated, frowning.

 

"Spare me from such primitives!" Rodney exclaimed. Then he rolled his eyes, and spoke as if to a child: "glowy lights in the sky. Stars. Other worlds. Space ships. Things that go zoom. No, I can't dumb it down that much – I mean, hello, me? Ronon, you tell him."

 

The big man's hand closed round the thing at his belt. "Where's the ring of the ancestors?"

 

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Or you can just cut to the chase and forget about bringing enlightenment to the benighted masses."

 

"The… ring?" Ferris echoed. Nothing they said made any sense. Other worlds in the sky? They were all clearly crazy, perhaps drunk.

 

Rodney snorted. "We've found ourselves a simpleton here. We'll ask someone with brains later on." He was speaking to his companions, but he made no attempt to lower his voice. Then he turned back to Ferris, snapping his fingers. "You. Peasant. How do we get to this city of yours?"

 

"How much of a head start do they have?" the big man demanded. "We can catch them."

 

"Highway robbery." Rodney swallowed. "That sounds… But we have to get him back." He swallowed again. "What if they arrest us as spies?"

 

"We avoid them."

 

Rodney did not look convinced. "We… Oh! Cletus can hide us under his turnips when he delivers them to the city!"

 

Adela was looking at Ferris sharply, some sort of message in her eyes. Ferris clenched his fist at his side. "I don't go to the city," he said, "except sometimes on festival day."

 

Rodney looked irritated, as if Ferris had failed him. "Then lend us a cart."

 

"I don't…" Ferris tightened his fist, remembering the proud freedom of his grandfather, and the stories that were whispered over ale when nobody from outside was listening. "I don't have a cart. Besides, it's forbidden to leave the land we are bound to. The punishment is whipping, and--"

 

"Oppressed idiot peasants," Rodney sneered. The woman, Ferris saw, was looking at him and Adela with the sort of pity you showed someone you had little respect for. The big man looked contemptuous. "You just tugged your forelock and let them drag Sheppard away, didn't you?"

 

"It is not fair to ask them to risk punishment." The woman turned to Adela. "If you could show us the way to the city, we would be grateful, but we will not ask for more than that."

 

Ferris realised that he had been blinking like an idiot for several minutes, watching the impossible unfold. It was time to take a stand. These strangers had barged into his house and were trying to get him implicated in treason. It was intolerable. He stepped forward, folding his arms. "We will do nothing of the sort."

 

"I could make you," the big man said.

 

Ferris swallowed, but he remembered his youth, when he had been fearless and the world had been his for the taking. "But I won't help you," he said.

 

The woman turned to her companions. "The ground is wet. We should be able to follow the tracks of the carriage. There is no need to get these people involved in something that might bring punishment down upon them." The other two opened their mouths to protest, but she looked sternly at them. "Come on. There is no time to lose."

 

The merchant looked at Ferris with misery and contempt in his face. "If he dies, it's your fault.

 

The big man looked as if he thought exactly the same, but the woman stopped in the doorway, looked back, and said, "We are anxious about our friend. I apologise for my companions. We will tell nobody that we spoke to you, if that is your wish."

 

Somehow her kindness was worse. Ferris let out a breath when they had gone. He felt obscurely as if he had failed, even though he had done the only possible thing. He had refused to help people who were enemies of his country. They had tried to confuse him with babbling talk of life in the stars, but he had stood firm. He couldn't leave now because of the curfew, but in the morning, he would report to Barrack and tell him everything.

 

He locked the door, and leant on it, surprised to find that he was trembling. Adela had walked to the window and had raised a corner of the drapes a fraction, perhaps to watch the spies walking away. She let it fall and turned to face him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes. "You always fight the wrong battles, Ferris," she said quietly.

 

The coldness of outside lingered, and here was fresh mud on the stone floor. He thought of ale and smoke, his only solace after endless identical days of labour and no hope. He thought his tiny rebellions: sitting in the yard after curfew, or whispering songs in the darkness of a closed ale-house. Then he thought of people with the fire of purpose in their eyes, as they risked punishment and capture to recover their friend. He thought of the crazy, impossible world they had spoken of, where men flew among the stars, and where a life like his was dull and ordinary and insignificant. It couldn't be true. It couldn't be true, but…

 

"But what are the right ones?" he asked, his hands hanging limp at his side, but he knew. Of course he knew.

 

******

 

Chapter one

The Drowned Quarter

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The worst thing about life, Jasper thought, was that there were not enough rhymes for 'water.' Scowling with anguish, he crossed out yet another line, then dipped his pen into the inkwell and poised it over the page, waiting for the magic of inspiration to strike.

 

It was slow to come, his mind twitching and shying away from what it was supposed to be doing like a startled animal. Poetry normally came easily to him – a refuge when times were bad – but today… He clutched his pen tighter. Daughter, he thought. It didn't help. His father prowled on the fringes of his mind, but Jasper stared at his paper and chased rhymes and tried to keep him away.

 

Water, he thought. Water… Perhaps he should forget about the rhyming part, and just scrawl down observations about the things that surrounded him, then shape them into rhyming couplets later. Stone, he thought. Casements. Narrow apertures and a cold window-seat. Brown water glimpsed through old, thick glass. Stones pervaded with the miasma of misery… Oh, that was a good one. He turned over a few pages and wrote it down, then turned back to his current black-hatched page. The word 'water' stared back at him, the last word before an expanse of blank. "Water." He said it out loud, hoping something would come to him. "Water…"

 

Flood, he thought, the word popping into his mind in the way that so often happened to a born poet. Rhymes with blood.  His metre demanded a two syllable word, though, so 'flood' just would not do.

 

Sighing, he put his notebook down on the seat, and wriggled towards the narrow slit that only the most charitable would call a window. Water lapped sluggishly not too far below him, lapping around… No, he had already used 'lap.' Washing around… Though, actually, it was quite still, and rather unpleasant, with a foul smell that seeped in even through the warped glass. Something rather disgusting floated just far enough away for him not to have to try to identify it.

 

It was a good place to contemplate mortality and to examine the sorry state of the world. Poems written here, in these parts of the Citadel where no-one was supposed to want to go by choice, had a searing honesty that was hard to attain in a feather bed. Everyone else cried out in horror and exclaimed into silk handkerchiefs at the merest thought of coming to a place like this, but Jasper was not like the others. Jasper did not shy away from bitter truths. Jasper had insight. Jasper understood.

 

Caught a! He scrambled for his pen, and wrote it down before it ran away again. It did not really fit the mood he was trying to  create, but perhaps it would suffice. The light of poetry was being crafted here in a place of misery and death, just an arm's reach from the water that had killed so many and had changed everything. Capture was involved in it all somehow. Captured by circumstance, captured by fate.

 

His pen ran on, adding a third line and a fourth. Half way through the fifth, his father finally broke through the barriers in his mind. "Wasting your life on scribbling and songs," his echoed in Jasper's memory. "To think you are a son of mine!"

 

"But they're important," Jasper had said. "They're the most important thing of all. You've always said that in order to be a good ruler, you need to understand people. I understand people. I have the eye of a poet and the tongue of an artist." He had realised as soon as he said it that it would have worked better the other way round, but there could be no crossings-out when talking out loud. (He had filed that thought away for a future work.)  "I am fit--"

 

"You are fit for nothing," his father had said, not even bothering any more with fury, "but all that's going to change, my boy."

 

Jasper closed his eyes, clutching his pen with whitened knuckles. His father, it seemed, had a plan. The plan, it seemed, would start on the first day of the next cycle, and it involved unpleasant things – "I should have put a stop to this nonsense years ago!" – and deprivation – "I blame your mother" – and it was likely to kill him – "Never did me any harm" – and it was horrible, it was horrible, it was horrible, but at least Jasper had his poetry to console him, and poetry was a light in all the dark places of the world, and nothing could extinguish it, nothing.

 

"You can imprison my body, but my mind will forever fly free." He had said that quite defiantly, but now he found that there were tears in his eyes. Dashing them away angrily, he thrust out his chin. The worst thing in life, of course, was not the lack of rhymes for 'water', but was being cursed with a father who did not understand you – a father with a narrow view of proper behaviour; a father who would be judged wrong by history. Not that the thought of vindication in a hundred years' time helped that much, when your whole life was the verge of being ruined, and your father didn't… He didn't...

 

A door opened at the far end of the corridor. Jasper scrambled upright and pawed at his face again with the heel of his hand. Tears were nothing to be ashamed of – they showed a poetic sensitivity, after all – but he doubted that the people approaching would see it that way. They were wrong, of course, but… He clenched his fist, as if by doing so he could snatch up courage and hold it tight, then closed his notebook, jamming it into his pocket.

 

The door clanged shut. Footsteps came closer. There were four, he thought, the metallic clang showing that they were guards, and they appeared to be dragging something. Not a body, he thought, swallowing hard. Please not a body.

 

Part of him wanted to press himself back against the wall and go unseen, but smoothing his clothes, he stepped down from the window-seat. "My lord." The leading guard saw him and saluted with that crisp clumsiness that Jasper had grown used to.

 

"I was--" He swallowed again. "--surveying…"

 

No need to explain himself to such as these, he reminded himself. They were nobodies, just hired thugs who wouldn't recognise poetry if it… if it came rushing up to them in one of their whorehouses and bit them on the buttocks. (Not that poetry would ever stoop to such a thing.) He could go anywhere he liked without explanation. He was better than them, both by birth and by intellect.

 

"Permission to pass, my lord?"

 

His hand was pressed to the wall behind him, palm to the stone. He curled his fingers ever so slightly, feeling the cold. As he did so, the man the guards were dragging raised his head and looked at Jasper with eyes that were not remotely cowed. Jasper felt stone against his shoulders, against his back, and it was only then that he realised he had shrunk away from the man. "Who… who is your prisoner?" he demanded.

 

"A spy from Daryen, my lord. Came in the night before last. He's just been presented to your father for the second time, and now it's the water cell for him. That always ends their defiance nice and quick."

 

The man was clearly hurt. Did father do that? In all his years of coming to the dungeons to write insightful poetry, Jasper had never actually seen one of its prisoners before. It was a strange experience, rather unsettling – definitely something to put into a poem, perhaps starting with his eyes… Those eyes looked at him, and the mouth turned into something that could almost have been a smile. "Nice hospitality your dad has here," he said, in an accent that marked him as coming from outside Myr, at least, both the city and the hinterland. "You're wasting your time, though. I've never heard of this Daryen place."

 

"Silence!" The lead guard smashed him across the face with the back of his hand. The prisoner's head snapped round, then that smile was back. Something was different about his eyes, though, and he was pressing his lips together as if to keep any blood inside. Yes, this was a defiant smile of an unrepentant rascal; this he knew.

 

Wasting your life, he remembered his father saying. How blind his father was! When you had a poetic soul, you understood  other people. He knew beyond all doubt that a poet could get truths from a recalcitrant prisoner far more effectively than any blundering bully.

 

"He is mine," he said, on sudden impulse. "When he's fettered and in place, tell me, and I will question him."

 

And then you will see my worth, father, he thought, and as the guards marched away with their prisoner, and as Jasper quite emphatically refused to think of certain childhood memories, he realised that 'slaughter' worked quite beautifully as a rhyme.

 

He pulled out his notebook and started to scribble as one inspired.

 

******

 

Kit had watched them for half the day. He had lounged against a gable-end here, had sculled casually on raft there, and lingered on the bridges with water against his bare toes. He had changed his appearance several times, first scowling under a large hat, then thrusting it into his pocket, tugging his hair out of its tie so it half covered his face. Once he had even looked insolently directly at the shorter of the two men, holding his gaze as he spat into the water. The man had looked away, openly disgusted, and Kit had smiled to himself as he had sauntered away.

 

They were clearly strangers – and Kit knew all about that, didn't he? They wore country clothes, but ill-fitting ones, doubtless plucked from some cottage or ripped from some washing line, leaving a weeping housewife behind. Takes a thief to know a thief, he thought. Stealing from thieves was the best sport there was, because of the challenge of it. Stealing from hypocritical thieves who squawked throughout that they were honest citizens, "and so I swear by all the gods", was even more satisfying. He imagined that the short man would squawk very nicely.

 

He had to be quick, though, he thought, as he saw Nim watching the three of them. Old Nimble Fingers was missing half a hand and had the face of a harrier, and Kit had never found out if his name was some dark joke, or if it referred to skills long since lost. Now he favoured a swift cudgel to the back of the head and a knife in the guts. There was no artistry to such an approach, Kit thought. Bloody unsafe, too. He preferred to rob people in a way that meant that they only found out they had been robbed when they were back home, and Kit was far away and safely in his digs.

 

Kit caught Nim's eye, and made the recognised signal: They're mine. Nim's answering gesture was something far more crude, something that even the toffs on the hill would have recognised as an insult. Hadn't someone once said that there was honour amongst thieves, all brothers sticking together? Kit snorted. That someone clearly didn't know Nim; clearly didn't know any of the thieves and cut-throats and fake beggars who made their living from the wreckage of the Drowned Quarter. Bloody little honour there with any of them. And why would you want to be honourable, when there was profit to be made from being a mean-hearted bastard? He'd betray any one of these low-lifes if he had to; take pleasure in it, in some cases.

 

The three strangers were crossing one of the less alarming bridges that spanned what had once been a palatial square. The big man went first – Kit had learnt long ago that he was called Ronon – and the woman followed, her steps as sure as a carril. The shorter man, who was called either Rodney or McKay and had two P H Ds, whatever that were, and who liked the smell of Ellis' pie stand, but was scared in case the pies contained citrus, and who had once taken a beautiful woman boating, though not in ridiculous sweltering heat like this, followed behind, biting his lip nervously at the water beneath him. He was Kit's target. The other two were the ones who needed sharp watching, though, for even the woman looked hard and dangerous.

 

He knew they were here to find some news of a man called Sheppard, who was also called 'the colonel' and sometimes called John. Kit snorted in silent disgust as they passed him on the walkway, pressing himself into the arched recess. These people deserved to be robbed! The first rule of surviving in the Drowned Quarter was to be circumspect. You kept your valuables hidden, and didn't speak your name or business any louder than you had to, because people could cling to the underneath of bridges, and there were always rafts passing below, full of people who knew how to take your secrets and run with them to the lower levels, where no stranger would ever find them.

 

Nim made his move; Kit was faster. His trio of marks had come to the end of the walkway, where the only choices were to climb down and hope for a raft, or clamber up onto the roof. "What sort of a crazy place is this?" he heard the one called Rodney protest. "We've been going around in circles."

 

They had been, too. Since Kit had started watching them, the bloated sun had climbed to its zenith and then started to sink. They had come in through Bargate, the old main entrance to Myr, at a time when the tide was low. The woman had immediately approached the guards and had asked to be taken to someone in authority, "to explain a misunderstanding," but the guards had laughed in her face, and the next one she had asked had made for his weapons in the way that a crebyn would bare its teeth, threatening violence unless they went away now.

 

He had lost them for a while after that, stumbling upon them again as they retreated glowering from gate to the Citadel. Since then, they had wandered. The beautiful avenues were now buried underwater, and scavengers and the poor had long-since colonised places where the rich had once strolled. Beggars lived and died in their hundreds on perches in the ballrooms and concert chambers of the wealthy and great, with stagnant water washing beneath their beds. Bridges connected windows that had once been on the second floor, and walkways connected balconies and ran along rooftops. When you knew the street plan that lay beneath it, getting around was easy enough. When you did not, the place was a maze, and there was always someone ready to prey on the lost.

 

"It has clearly suffered some calamity," the woman said, and Kit almost blew his cover by snorting aloud. Some calamity! Gods! This was a city on the way out, and he for one was going to be in a position to grab what he could from it before it fell.

 

"We need an official to bribe." Rodney wrinkled his nose. "This looks like the sort of place where everyone's corrupt."

 

"Or they'll slit your throat first," said Ronon.

 

"Thank you." Rodney swallowed. "Thank you for that."

 

Nim was approaching. It was time. Kit slipped through the narrow doorway, leaping ably across the scant remains of a floor that had long since crashed down into the flood below. He knew every way through this adopted city of his, just not the one way he most needed to find. On this day, though, it was enough. He heard the sound of his prey clambering onto the roof, but he was there first, wriggling into the chimney, climbing up using the handholds he had scraped in the brick some years before. There was just time to pull off his jacket and to run his fingers through his hair, twisting it into a vaguely respectable knot at the nape of his neck.

 

"The man who's following you," he said, quite calmly, as the woman emerged onto the roof, "is a notorious footpad. He plans to rob you, and he's not fussy about whether you're alive or dead at the end of it."

 

"Which man?" he heard. "What? Oh God! Oh God! Ronon, what are you doing? Watch where you're going! Ow!"

 

He heard a gratifying snarl, too, and a yelp uttered by a voice he had dreamed of hearing yelping in such a way. The big man and Nim, he thought, would be busy for quite some time. Men like this Ronon, you only had to plant a seed. People only had themselves to blame when they were robbed. They all acted so predictably.

 

Rodney's face appeared at the top of the ladder. "What's happening? I'm going to fall! He stepped on my hand. He jumped right over me. Is he…? God, we're all going to die here, and Sheppard…" He stopped when he saw Kit at the top of the ladder. "Who are you?"

 

"No friend of Nim there." Kit smiled, and reached out his hand. "Your big friend seems to be taking care of him. Here, let me."

 

He was good, one of the best. As he helped the protesting Rodney onto the roof, his other hand was reaching into his pocket, rummaging to see what he could find, but there was nothing there, just fluff and dust. He swore silently, and tried again, making a play for the strange item at the man's belt, strangely like a firearm but far too small. His hand touched metal, his clever fingers almost closing round the grip.

 

"Stop where you are," the woman said. "Put your hands up."

 

"Right. Where. You. Are." It was the big man's voice, and Kit felt something cold pressed between his shoulders.

 

"Oh, shit," he said, and ran.

 

He barely made it two steps.

 

******

 

People had been calling for him, but lost in poetry, Jasper tucked himself into his window-seat and made himself silent and invisible. Let the servants return empty-handed, having failed in their task of finding him. Jasper had more important things to do than indulge the whims of those who wanted to control him. His pen scratched, crafting magic with words. Outside, the light faded, the water turning black.

 

When the footsteps came from the other direction, Jasper stopped, tucked his notebook into his pouch, and smoothed his hair with one ink-stained hand. Then, with only the slightest pause, he slipped off the window-seat and out into the shadows of the corridor.

 

"The prisoner is in place, my lord." The guard saluted in that long-familiar way that could not be faulted on paper, but was so very different from the way they saluted Jasper's father. He wondered sometimes if they knew that he noticed; wondered, too, if it was better to pretend ignorance or to confront them about it.

 

"Very good." He nodded, once again postponing that issue for another day. "Lead on."

 

The guard was little older than Jasper was, but while Jasper had chosen to follow the path of poetry and the heart, this man had chosen to chain people and to punish worthless wretches with pain and misery. Perhaps that was a fitting subject for a poem. Two babies, born innocent and without guile, but where one looked up and saw wonder in the stars, one never raised his head above the dirt. Was it birth that made you? No, of course it wasn't. Birth gave you the unshaped clay. After that, you became what you chose to be. No power in the land, not even a father, could keep a young man touched by poetry from following where the flame led him.

 

A door opened with a creak, and Jasper stepped through. It was noticeably colder on the other side, with a smell of rotten water and decaying things. It was darker, too, lit only by a few guttering torches. The guard's shadow stretched ahead of him, twisted and grotesque. The torchlight showed that there was blood on the side of his neck.

 

"Did he fight?" Jasper wondered out loud, thinking of the caged captive, of the imprisoned brute struggling like an animal, with four doughty men needed to hold him down.

 

"He submitted, my lord," the guard said merely. Perhaps it was the light that made his voice change so. Perhaps it was the cold and the smell and the sounds that came from the barred doors on either side, and the heavy booted footsteps, and his own steps, light on yellow leather, coming from another world.

 

They reached another door, then went down a few steps, and it was like descending into the flood itself, sinking down into a place where you could hardly breathe. Jasper could feel his heart starting to beat very fast. He consoled himself by trying to think of rhymes and by hearing in the guard's footsteps the familiar tread of a poem's metre: pain and blood and death and fear and dark and cold and…

 

Perhaps he should talk. Words came so easily on paper, and this was…

 

"He is in here, my lord."

 

Oh. They had stopped outside a door little different from any of the others. It was time. Jasper had vowed to question an enemy of his country, and he had known beyond doubt that he could use cunning words and gentleness to uncover secrets that his father would never be able to discover with all his violence and bluster. It had felt so easy. He would prove himself once and for all, force his father to admit how wrong he had been, force his father to… "I…" His voice dissolved into something little more than a breath. "I shall go in alone. Stand outside, but--" He swallowed; raised his head. "--come in if I command it."

 

"Yes, my lord," said this guard, this man with no poetry in his soul, this man who had very probably never bothered to learn to read. He unlocked the door, and stepped back, and Jasper moved forward to take the place he had vacated, and then even further forward, heading into a doomed man's last resting place.

 

It was not like he had expected. He had expected a straw-covered floor and chains on the wall, and perhaps a grating high above, where the despairing prisoner could gaze at the sky and compose a lay about the fall of the mighty and the chaining of one who once was free. Instead it was windowless, lit only by a candle that was already guttering, preparing to plunge the prisoner into total darkness. Jasper stood at the top of a flight of steps, but the next step down was covered with water, and the one below that could not be seen. The water cell, he thought, remembering words he had thought nothing of. The whole floor was flooded with foul and stinking water.

 

And as for the prisoner… Jasper swallowed, remembering the pallid, bloated corpses that had floated by in the flood. The prisoner was not in the water, though, but sitting on a tiny platform just above it. If he slept, or even if he just relaxed, he would fall into the foul, black water, and swallowing water like that would lead to flood-fever for sure. His chains were long enough to keep him from reaching the door, but not enough to catch his weight and keep him from the water.

 

"Black coffee," the prisoner said. "Two sugars." He pushed himself higher up the platform. "Oh. Sorry. I thought you were… room service."

 

"I'm here to question you." Jasper felt the cool air on his hands at his back, coming in from somewhere far away.

 

"Yeah. I remember." The prisoner let out a breath. "Just my luck to become some kid's science project."

 

"I'm not…" Not a child, he almost said, then thought that was just the sort of thing a child would say. "You're from Daryen," he said, instead, "and you've been caught spying. You must realise that you're going to die here."

 

"No matter what I say?" The prisoner raised an eyebrow. "And that's supposed to encourage me to talk why? I think… you need… interrogation lessons. The big guy was better." He let out another breath. "But as I kept telling your father, I'm not from this Daryen place. Don't think he was interested in hearing that."

 

Jasper had insight. Jasper understood human nature. Through poetry, Jasper had a window onto the workings of a man's soul. With a well-chosen word, he could rip tears from the eyes of maidens and make a strong man quail. "If you aren't from Daryen," he said, subtly reaching behind him for the edge of the door frame, "then where do you come from? If you're innocent, just tell me the truth. I'll make sure nothing happens to you."

 

"A minute ago, I was doomed." There was a faint tremor in the man's voice, and as Jasper's eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he realised that the prisoner was trembling all over. The platform was sloped, he realised. It wasn't just by falling asleep that the prisoner would fall in, he realised. Even awake, he had to fight every second just to stay on it.

 

"You must be hurting very much." Jasper tightened his grip on the door frame. He thought of anguish in his poetry, like hot coals, like a brand, like flood water sweeping away something precious.

 

"Yeah," said the prisoner, "but I didn't confess to… to something I haven't… when that big guy… so I doubt I'll…" He slid towards the water, and hauled himself up again, his bone-white hand clutching the edge of the stone platform. "For you," he finished, as if he had not lost words.

 

Jasper crouched on the step, still holding onto the door behind him. "I understand how you're feeling."

 

The prisoner gave a harsh bark of laughter. "Shrinks have been trying to tell me that for years. Didn't open up for them. I don't… I know… It won't…"

 

"I know that a man like you only gets more defiant when treated cruelly," Jasper said. Tamorlin himself had fallen into the hands of his enemies, and had suffered for weeks, enduring silently, until-- He silenced that thought. "My father does what he thinks is right, but there are other ways to get the truth."

 

"So you're going to say please to me until I confess to something that isn't true?" The prisoner's feet were trailing in the water. When the man shifted position, pressing his back against the wall, Jasper saw just how much red was already glistening on the stone slab. He almost gasped at that, before reminding himself that this was only a prisoner, an enemy of the Myr.

 

"Just tell the truth," he urged, "about…" He stopped, pressing his lips together, as he realised that he had no idea what information his father wanted out of this man. Probably something tedious like the military strength of Daryen. It was always about politics and war. Men like his father lacked the wit to comprehend anything else. "About anything I ask," he said, "and I'll ensure you're not hurt again before they kill you."

 

The prisoner seemed to consider it for a moment, but then, "Sorry," he said with a one-shouldered shrug. "No deal. You wouldn't like my answers, anyway, since I'm not… not from Daryen, and…" His voice trailed off. Jasper watched him struggle to pull himself back fully onto the platform. A night and day of this, the guards had said. Jasper had never realised that such a place even existed under the painted floors of the Citadel.

 

What would it be like to be imprisoned here, knowing that you were about to die? What sort of stubbornness would it demand to keep clinging on to your platform, and to keep refusing to answer? The man was from Daryen and was a villain, but if he hadn't been, if he had been a hero in one of the old lays, there would have been a certain nobility to his actions, stupid and infuriating as they were.

 

But when Jasper left, the man would be alone, and when the candle went out, he would be alone in the dark, still clinging to that tiny, sloping platform that was life, above the dank and rotten sea of water that was all of eternity.

 

Jasper knew all about loneliness. "Did you come by yourself?" he found himself asking. He wondered if the man had friends outside who would miss him when he was gone. "Do you have friends out there?"

 

The prisoner's chest went still, then continued to move in ragged breathing. "No," the prisoner said. "There's just me."

 

The candle went out.

 

******

 

The first thing Kit became aware of was that his hands were tied. The second was the smell of filthy stone. The third was the sound of people moving. "…help us?" he heard. He opened his eyes and saw a woman holding up her hand, silencing another man. Ah, Kit thought. Yes. Of course. He shut his eyes and ran his lips over his foul-tasting lips. When his expression was properly schooled, he opened his eyes again and rolled onto his back.

 

"What was that?" he asked. He didn't feel hurt as such, just weak, as if somebody had wrung all the strength out of him.

 

"You tried to rob us," the woman said, her expression cold.

 

"Yeah." He shrugged as well as he could with bound hands. "That's what people do round here."

 

The woman's expression turned even colder. "You told us that the man behind us--"

 

"Nim," Kit said. "It was true. A trick to get me close to you, of course, but absolutely true. I didn't want him to get to you first. He likes to stick knives into people and leave them dead. I prefer to leave people alive, as a rule – it's better for everyone. Less messy." He grinned the grin that few women could keep themselves from returning, but she remained unmoved. She reminded him of… Never mind. He turned his smile on the others, letting it crash against the unyielding stone of the big man's glare. The smaller man twitched, which was something, at least. "It also gets better results. I'm the best thief in the Drowned Quarter, which is to say I'm the best thief in Myr, since they call them other things up on the hill."

 

He tried his bonds as he spoke, finding them unyielding. They appeared to have dragged him into the upstairs room of some crumbling tower – one he had used more than once himself when he wanted to lie low for a few days. He swore silently and with feeling. How had they found it? There were no eyes to watch here, and this was not the sort of place where people answered calls for help.

 

"Not such a good thief as all that," the big man said, indicating Kit's bonds with a sharp jab of his weapon.

 

"No," Kit conceded, with half a smile. "You're right there, Ronon."

 

"He knows Ronon's name," the other man squawked. "How does he know--?"

 

"I know everything, Rodney McKay," Kit had the pleasure of telling him. The man's gasp told him that he had put those two names in the right order.

 

"He was clearly following us," the woman said sharply, "and listening to us."

 

"Yeah, well…" Kit shrugged again. He could feel the strength rapidly returning to his limbs, but he didn't try to sit up. "Here's a tip if you want to stay alive in the glorious city of Myr: keep quiet about your business. It's not always golden-hearted young heroes like me who overhear it. Them up on the hill haven't entirely washed their hands of the Drowned Quarter. There's guards, sometimes, dressed like ordinary folk, listening out for discontent." When they were silent, he smiled greasily. "Why, thank you, Kit, for that friendly and well-meaning warning."

 

Ronon surged forward, and by all the gods! Kit thought. Did he almost snarl for real? The woman looked as sharply at him as she had previously looked at Rodney. Yes, there was discontent here, Kit thought. Ronon probably wanted to throw him tied-up into the water and let him drown. Rodney, he thought, wanted to run away from him. Whatever game they were playing here came from the woman.

 

He chose Rodney to address his next question to, then. "So what're you going to do to me? You went to the effort of bringing me here. Sensible thing would have been to empty my pockets and run before my loyal accomplices came to avenge me."

 

Rodney swallowed. "You have loyal accomplices?"

 

"Oh yes," Kit said with his most charming smile. Still smiling, he turned to Ronon. It was hard not to feel ridiculous when you were lying on your back with someone's feet a few inches from your jaw, but Kit had practice with worse. "So what's the plan? You want to torture me until I tell you where I've hidden my secret stash of treasure that will make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice?"

 

"We have a friend," the woman said firmly. Sheppard, Kit thought, but for some reason he felt that saying his name would be going too far. "He has been… captured and is imprisoned somewhere within this city."

 

Kit paused just for a second to make sure that his breathing was how he wanted it to be. "Don't look at me." He spread his fingers to indicate the gesture he would be making if his hands were free. "Thieves only know about prisons from the inside, if you know what I mean." He smiled again. Gods! His jaw would go into spasm if he kept this up. "Not me, though. Best thief in Myr, and all." They gave him nothing for a moment. "So…" He let the smile fade. "What's this friend of yours done?"

 

"Nothing!" Rodney cried. "Well, of course, he's done lots of things, lots of infuriating things, in the past, but that's… No, don't tell me. Not helping, I know. He just went and crashed into a turnip field, and now this bunch of medieval peasants--"

 

"He has done nothing," the woman said, "but he was hurt and unable to defend himself, and he has been taken as a spy. He is not a spy." She said that firmly. "He is no threat to your land or your people."

 

Unless we don't get him back, in which case we will destroy you, Ronon's posture said. And – would you look at that? – Rodney expression conveyed exactly the same, and it was there, too, underneath the woman's carefully-constructed mask. Something twisted inside Kit's chest, and it was almost enough to… No. Almost enough; just almost. "Yeah, yeah, I believe you," he said, making it quite clear that he did not. "Innocent. Wrongly imprisoned. Everybody is. I know. "

 

The woman grabbed Ronon's wrist, pre-empting some expected reaction. "He is innocent," she said again. "We hoped to be able to reach someone in authority and explain matters, but that was… blocked. We have also been forced to conclude that nobody will believe us."

 

"And we're no use to him in prison ourselves," Rodney added, "as I keep pointing out."

 

"So where is he?" Kit asked. "The Bargate Prison? What's his sentence?"

 

"We were told that he was going to taken to the Citadel," said the woman.

 

Kit whistled. "The Citadel! Well, it's goodbye to him, then. I'm sorry." He even tried to look as if he meant it.

 

"How long are you going to dance around it?" Rodney said. "I'm hungry, and I'm… Well…" He moved to Kit's side, kneeling down awkwardly on the dirty stone. He looked very tired up close, like a man who had been through a lot in the last few days. "For once, a bit of polite diplomacy would have been welcome – a 'please, Mr Native, can we have our colonel back?' and an 'of course. Have some cake' – but it seems we're back to the heroic rescue thing again. We need to break him out but we need local knowledge, and if you're the best thief in the city…"

 

Kit shifted awkwardly. "A figure of speech. I'm not really the best." Frowning, he pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, then let it go. "You must be crazy!" he burst out. "No-one breaks into the Citadel. You'd be crazy to break into the Citadel."

 

"Yeah. That's us. Crazy." Rodney grunted. "Put it down to a certain colonel's bad influence. But we're going to do it, and that's that."

 

"Oh," Kit said, falsely polite. "How interesting. They'll kill you, of course, but it was nice knowing you."

 

"But you are, of course, coming with us," said the woman, smiling for the very first time. Even Ronon was smiling, his teeth showing as he stood over Kit with his weapon. "We are breaking into the Citadel and getting Colonel Sheppard out, and you are going to help us."

 

******

 

Chapter two

"When wise men sleep and souls take flight."

__

 

"No." It was clearly necessary to say it again. "No. No way. Not going to happen."

 

Ronon gestured with his weapon in an infuriatingly eloquent fashion. "Yes, it is."

 

"You don't understand. You--" Kit swore sharply under his breath. "Gods! Can't you let me sit up while trying to talk you out of  throwing your lives away? The impact of my message is lessened by being addressed to your feet." The woman nodded grudgingly. Ronon's eyes narrowed as he watched Kit struggle to push himself up with his shoulder and elbow, and squirm into a sitting position, legs crossed. "Thank you for the help," Kit said, with not quite as much acid as he could have mustered.

 

"It's going to happen," Rodney said. "We're quite determined. We're all resolved, can't be dissuaded, etcetera etcetera. Ronon wanted to do a full-frontal assault, guns blazing. It was my idea to look for… uh… local… uh… expertise.  Thieves are bound to know sneaky ways in so no-one gets hurt. Or bribery – that works. There must be corrupt guards you bribe to turn a blind eye to your life of crime."

 

"There are some," Kit conceded, "but not at the Citadel. The last poor sod caught taking bribes at the king's gate was hung from the ramparts in a cage. For three days he begged people to save him. After that, he started begging to be killed, and then the razor-beaks took out his throat and he couldn't scream at all for the last four days. And a full-frontal assault…" He shook his head. "Too many guards; too many gates. If you were very, very good – and I can see that my friend Ronon thinks that he is – you might have lasted…" He paused, counting slowly to ten, then snapped his bound fingers. "Oh! That was you dying."

 

"Hence the sneaking," Rodney said. "Hence the plan. A gory and agonising death is a thing to avoid, as a matter of course."

 

"You're not getting it," Kit said, with exaggerated patience. "You don't try to get people out of the Citadel. Once they're there, they're as good as dead. Mourn them and say your prayers over them if you like, or grab their bunk and their treasure and their girl if you prefer, but don't look to seeing them again. The Bargate Prison, now, on the other hand… You've a chance there. The guards are as fond of money as a dockside whore. Pay enough, and they'll tell the governor your mate died of flood fever, and chuck him in the water for you to fish out, alive if you're quick. Not that I know from experience," he said, with a quick grin, "on account of being a mean-hearted bastard without anyone I'd stick my neck out for."

 

"Which is all very interesting and educational," Rodney said, "and all goes to confirm my belief that Sheppard's landed us on a hell-hole of a planet, but he's in the Citadel, not the Bargate Prison."

 

"And therefore out of reach." Kit tried to remember the patient condescension of his childhood tutors. "I refer you back to lesson one."

 

"I say we kill him," Ronon growled, "and get ourselves another thief who doesn't talk so much."

 

Kit felt the sweat starting on his bound hands, but he shrugged with as much sincerity as he could muster. "Any of us would say the same thing. The Citadel's only for people the King's got his eyes on especially, and you don't tangle with such things. Not to mention the whole disease-ridden moat, the elite guards, the Whisperers, the man-eating crebyn, the traps, the Twelve and all their agents, and the fact that they never keep prisoners for more than a few days there, anyway, on account of only taking people they know are guilty but want to rough up a bit, so your friend's probably just a rotting corpse by now."

 

Not all of it was true - not that his lies fell on remotely appreciative ears. "Then we need to go now," the woman said.

 

"Come on," Kit urged them. "You're going to throw your lives away in a rescue attempt that's bound to fail. No-one can be worth that. Who is this guy, anyway? Someone who owes you money?"

 

"Someone who would do the same for any one of us," the woman said, and if Kit had thought that her eyes were cold before, then now they were ice, except that ice had never blazed like this.

 

He tried for a light tone. "So it's obligation, then?"

 

"He'd do the same for us," Rodney burst out, "and that's the reason why… That's why we want to, because he's… He'd do it for us, for anyone, and it's not fair that he's hurting in there all alone, and we have to… God, we have to…" He pressed his curled up hand to his chest as if it hurt him. "And that's what's so strange, you know, because four years ago, before I came here, before I met his particular and at-times infuriating variety of heroism, misguided as it often is, I wouldn't have--" He snapped his mouth shut, and turned away, his face twisting in on itself. The woman touched his arm.

 

Kit felt something twist inside him, and remembered a time long ago, before his every word had been a performance and his every expression an act. He remembered living alongside people who weren't just waiting for a chance to screw you over – though of course they had been, really, just in more subtle ways. At least now he was surrounded by honest deceivers.

 

"So that's you," he managed to say. "Leave me out of it. If you want to throw your lives away despite my eloquent warnings, then that's your affair, but me…? I want to live to fight another day, thank you very much."

 

The woman had removed her hand from Rodney's arm, but now she touched it again, soft and doubtful. "Perhaps we should release him. If we are captured--"

 

"Which we don't mean to be," Rodney interrupted, "because, really, we're good. Or, rather, Ronon and Teyla are good. I'm good, too, but a certain person failed to salvage the things I need when he grabbed all his weapons back, so I'm not showing my strengths here. We haven't all died bloodily yet, and I don't think Sheppard can die, he's escaped from so many ridiculous near-death encounters. There's always a first, though, and if it's going to happen to anyone, it'll happen to us."

 

"If we are captured," the woman told Kit, clearly trying to convince herself as much as anyone else, "we will make it clear that you were with us under duress."

 

"And you did try to rob us," Rodney pointed out, "and releasing someone who knows all our plans…?"

 

"Don't want you with us, anyway," Ronon said. "Tell us what we need to know, and we'll go by ourselves."

 

Kit looked at them, one after the other. Ronon was still standing there with his weapon – did the man ever get tired? Rodney looked pale and hot and miserable, his hands working convulsively in front of him. The woman, Teyla, looked troubled, a crack forming in her resolution. Kit wondered about the sort of people who would do anything for a friend. He wondered, too, if perhaps they actually had a chance.

 

"Right," he said, with a sharp sigh. "I'll do it. I've don't see that I have a choice. I do know a way into the Citadel. It's not a good way, it's one only a fool would take, and have you done it yourself, Kit? No, of course I haven't, I'm not fucking stupid. But I'll take you there and show you."

 

Rodney slumped with relief, as if Kit had not just handed him death on a plate, but only for a moment. "And out again," he said, stiffening again. "That's the thing. We've asked everywhere, and no-one seems to know… And criminals have connections, don't they? They know things." His hands were working nervously. "The gate… Uh, ring of the ancestors? Round thing, as tall as this room?"

 

Kit looked up at the damp-smeared ceiling, soaked with the sort of dirt that got into your every pore. "I've heard of something that matches your description," he said at last. "I even know where it is, and, yes, before you ask and thank you for saying please, I can show you. It's that way, in fact." He pointed awkwardly with his bound hands.

 

"Oh, thank God." Rodney slumped again. "So it isn't a space gate. I thought…" He turned urgently to the others. "But that means… It means we can go back. Reinforcements. We can get reinforcements. We can--"

 

"How far away is it?" the woman asked.

 

Kit shrugged. "Quite a way. It's outside the city."

 

"We've already wasted too much time," Ronon said. "You heard what he said about what's happening to Sheppard. We have to go now."

 

"And get very messily killed because it's just us," Rodney said, but he didn't argue any further than that. He looked quite as stricken and as determined to die as the other two.

 

"Throw your lives away if you like," Kit said, "but I'm not going anywhere until it's fully dark. You'll have to wait until then, at least." And on this, at least, he would not be moved.

 

******

 

Jasper watched the sun sink slowly into the water, the towers and bridges casting spiky black shadows onto its fiery surface. His hand ran idly up and down the stone edge of the casement, tracing patterns, echoing the cadences of poetry. Like a… he thought. Like a… A hero's burnished breastplate. Firelight seen through faceted crystal. Blazing logs, so bright that they hurt the eyes, yet at the core of them, so dark, so dark.

 

A candle going out in a cell.

 

He shifted position with a sigh, pressing stone against his shoulder. Below him, past the circling wall, the forbidden domain of the Drowned Quarter teemed with life – small figures punting along the wreckage of gorgeous avenues, and spindly shapes crossing the bridges that had been slung from balcony to balcony. They would never have faces for him, these people who swarmed over the haunts of his childhood. The beautiful palace by the river was now a shattered den of thieves, and the lifeless eyes of his childhood toys stared up blindly in the murky water.

 

Yet this buried world was so alive! These simple folk lived and loved and fought and died, and shone so much more fiercely than the nobles with their empty conversation, who built new homes on the hill to house their salvaged treasures, and covered the emptiness at the heart of their life with a veneer of platitudes. Even the guards were affected, tugging their forelocks and feigning respect. Only the poor were truly free – simple souls, in touch with nature and unsullied by expectation.

 

Free, he thought. Free. Golden. Dark specks against a golden backdrop, as if they were lit from within. Tiny, stubborn people who refused to die – who had swept into the quarter that the nobles had vacated, and had doggedly made it into a home. Where the nobles saw ruin, they saw hope. With their bridges and their perches and their rooftop walkways, they clung on. They clung on.

 

A white hand on a platform, stained with blood.

 

Jasper pushed himself away from the window, fighting the urge to curse the sunset for his sudden melancholy. That was ever the lot of a poet. A poet could see the spark of joy at the heart of midnight, and the sorrow that lurked in a flower. Being a poet was about so much more than rhyming. (Sunset, he thought. Wet. Jet. And yet.) A poet saw truths. A poet understood.

 

It seemed very dark away from the window, his eyes struggling to recover from looking at the fiery light bleeding across the water. The servants were late lighting the candles, and Jasper pursed his lips angrily, heading out into the corridor. It was even darker there – dark, he thought. Dark like… - and the stone walls glowered behind the inadequate covering of salvaged tapestries. The trappings of modern living seem so flimsy and temporary in this place that had thrived on pain and war for so many hundreds of years, as if one day they would just disappear, along with all the people with them – just fade away into the dark stone and be no more.

 

Footsteps sounded behind him, and Jasper turned round, dwarfed by the portrait of his war-like grandfather. His father was coming. Jasper stopped; swallowed; raised his head. "Father…" He had no idea why he said it; truly had no idea that he had been going to say it until his mouth was open and the sound was coming out.

 

His father stopped, the gloom reducing his face to a pale canvas with a black cleft of a mouth, and two dark pits for eyes.

 

Dark, Jasper thought. Dark. Behind him, his fingertips found the stone, worn almost smooth by the passage of centuries.

 

"There's a… a prisoner," he found himself saying. "A… a spy from Daryen. You were--" You were hurting him, and now he's… "--questioning him, and…"

 

"They told me you'd been poncing around in the prison levels again," his father said, "and that you'd stuck your nose into that business."

 

They told… No, he knew that. He had always known that. "Is he?" he asked. "A spy, I mean? From Daryen?"

 

"Probably not." His father shrugged as if the truth mattered not at all. "My agents in Daryen--"

 

"You have spies in Daryen?" Jasper exclaimed. "Spies? And you were hurting him...?"

 

"My agents in Daryen," his father continued, "have seen nothing to indicate that Daryen has the technology to build a vessel such as the one this spy was found in." The cleft that was his mouth became a long, thin line. "He says he come from far away, far beyond Daryen, and that he's no threat to our people. Perhaps it's even true."

 

Jasper pressed his entire hand against the stone, feeling it cold on his palm, feeling answering coldness in his heart. "But you hurt him, and now…" His words ran out. Dark, his mind chanted. Dark and cold.

 

"Did you dream your way through every lesson I ever tried to pound into that stupid head of yours?" His father did not even sound angry; it was years since his father had been truly furious with him. "In statesmanship, it is the seeming of things that matters. Appearances shape reality. The truth is nothing."

 

His grandfather's portrait glowered disapprovingly down on him. A door opened at the far end of the corridor, and a servant came in with a shielded taper, light surrounding his feet like a lapping pool. He stood on tiptoe and lit the nearest candle, then froze, to withdraw with a clumsy bow.

 

"But that's wrong," Jasper said, feeling stone against his skin, and his own rapid pulse in his fingertips. Perhaps his father would lose his temper; would drag him into an anteroom to lecture him furiously about politics.

 

His father just shrugged. Jasper let out a breath. "Daryen sent a spy," his father said, sounding almost bored. "Daryen has developed frightening new technology that allows ruthless agents to penetrate our borders and threaten wives and children in their beds. We thwarted their plans. Now we need redress."

 

"It's an excuse for war," Jasper gasped.

 

"Leverage," said his father. The light from that one candle limned the edge of him with gold. "A reason to raise further regiments. A reason to make more demands."

 

Jasper thought of that distant, unknown city, byword for all things strange and terrible. He thought of the Marches, and beyond them, foreign lands. He thought of the land beyond the swollen river – land which sometimes, when the air was clear, could be seen from his chamber, although he had never walked there. And now his father was sending him away, sending him away with the regiments, making him a figurehead commander, with aides and minders to be his tutors and his voice and his gaolers. Was he now planning to send him away to an actual war?

 

By all the gods, he hated feeling like this. He groped for the comfort of poetry, but even rhymes had faded away, turning their backs on him like treacherous friends. His father had always done that to him.

 

"What… what are you going to do to the prisoner?" he managed to rasp, because speaking about the things that really mattered was unbearable.

 

His father turned to walk away, his face lit one-sided by the candle, so that the shadows of his nose and brow cast the other half of his face into darkness. "Kill him," he said. "If he lasts the night, it will be done at dawn." That half mouth twisted into a grim smile. "Executioners have become so expensive since the flood. Everything's so expensive. What is the world coming to, boy?" And then he left, leaving Jasper standing in a cold fortress bedecked in second-hand clothes, where darkness seeped through the very stones.

 

******

 

Night fell late on these long summer days. The bloated sun lingered, and the more petty type of thief twitched in his bunk, waiting for the cover of night. Kit, being far from petty, knew how to work in the daylight, "but not," as he had told them, "when going up against the Citadel."

 

The humidity peaked, and a faint breeze came with twilight. Nights were warm, hung about with the miasma of league upon league of flood water, but at least sometimes thunder came with evening. "Which is good," Kit said, when Rodney cowered on the balcony, frozen in a flash of lightning. "Covers noise." Except when a sudden flare of lightning, coming without warning from a black sky, caught you red-handed on the rooftop, your image branded into the eyes of everyone who saw you. He told Rodney that, and also told him about young Hap, struck by lightning as he reached through a window for Lady Norton's diadem. Rodney looked gratifyingly nervous, which was something, at least.

 

"You're going to keep me bound?" Kit asked, as Teyla jostled him to his feet, Ronon standing over with his ever-present weapon. "It's not very discreet. Not that you strike me as a very discreet kind of guy, Ronon, but you'll forgive me…" He smiled, shrugging. "Appearances, and all. Folk know me, you see. Seeing me a prisoner, they might take it into their heads to kill you all and rescue me." Or laugh, he added mentally, and race to see who can be first to tell the tale in the ale-house. A man in his position had to boast, but boasting didn't always win you friends.

 

"Right." Ronon nodded, and Teyla started to untie him. Rodney drew the weapon that Kit had tried to steal, holding it more or less steadily on Kit. "Got you covered," Ronon said. "See this?" He deliberately moved something on the side of his weapon. "It was set on stun. Now it kills. Remember that."

 

They climbed out of the small room, heading onto the roof. Rodney pulled his head down into his shoulder in exaggerated protest at the slight rain. "That way," Kit said, genuinely enjoying the feeling of being able to move his hands again. The bonds had been firm, but not tight enough to hurt; he'd had worse. "Lead on."

 

There were people out on the… streets, he still called them mentally, although they were anything but. He passed Carola and nodded at her, seeing her eyes widen in speculation. Now that his hands were free, he could have made any manner of a signal, but did not. Ronon walked behind him, while Teyla and Rodney flanked him. When they reached the Bridge of Broken Promises, they had to go one at a time. "I'm going to fall off," Rodney squawked. "I'm going to fall off. I'm going to fall…" There were no bodies visible in the water below, or perhaps it was just too dark to see them.

 

Lightning forked behind the Citadel. Caught by surprise, Kit was made temporarily blind. "I only have to shout," he said, "or push you in, or run. Sure, you've got your gun, but this is my home. There are hundreds of people within earshot of me, living in places you'd never know to find. I could summon them just like that." He snapped his fingers.

 

"But not before I shoot you," Ronon said.

 

"And lose your local expertise?" Kit used the words Rodney had used. "You need me."

 

"There are other thieves." Ronon's voice was level.

 

"Gods!" Kit spat. "You really are a mean-hearted bastard, aren't you? I asked if this friend of yours was worth it. If he's the hero and all-round good guy you say he is, I wonder if he'd want you to rescue him if this is the cost. Maybe you don't deserve him." He let them think about it for a whole ten steps, but unfortunately it was too dark to see their faces. On the eleventh step, he grinned. "Luckily, I'm a mean-hearted bastard myself, and don't hold grudges. Some of them do – think they can rob anyone they like, then act all betrayed when you rob them back. A thief knows the open window from both sides, as they say."

 

Soon, though, it was time to be quiet. All games, whatever their rules, had to stop when you were near the Citadel. They crossed a bridge, where lights like corpse candles flickered from the underwater windows, as families huddled on platforms beneath the painted ceilings. Over a rooftop, then through a window. Down through a building – "excuse me," smiled Kit, as he stepped over sleeping children – and onto a waiting raft, pausing only to tip a copper bead to the boy who was guarding it.

 

"What happened here?" Rodney breathed, when they were out on the rain-pitted water, floating through the middle of Cador's Square. From the thighs upwards, the crumbling hero showed above the water, sword in hand, but all the gold that had once bedecked his breastplate had long since been chipped away.

 

"Flood," Kit said. "Summers have been getting wetter and wetter these last hundred years. River silted up. The king was trying to do something at the river mouth to master the tides, and it went horribly wrong. Shoddy workmanship on the flood defences. The Gods struck us down for meddling with things we were not meant to meddle with – factories on the estuary, and all." He shrugged. "Only say those in whispers, though. The official line is that Daryen was behind it, though how anyone would think that those prissy priests could…" He stopped. "Never mind. We're almost there."

 

By long habit, he paddled silently, and the rain helped, covering the sound of his movements with its pattering. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the lightning was infrequent, and here in the shadow of the Citadel tower, they were protected from the worst of it.

 

"There's an external wall," he said, in a soft voice that carried less well than a whisper. "There used to be a moat, but now there's water outside as well. Fortunately there was a postern gate, mostly underwater now, of course. The guards think it's safely locked. It is, of course." He gave a quick smile out of habit. "Fortunately, I have a copy of the key."

 

"Which is very impressive and theatrical," Rodney hissed, "but that just gets us through the external wall. We're still not properly in."

 

"Patience." Kit spread his hands, then turned to Ronon. "Can you hold your breath?"

 

"Longer than you can." Ronon's face was impassive. "This fires under water."

 

"That's good to know." Kit was getting quite tired of smiling. "Oh, and one more friendly word of warning: don't drink the water. Flood fever is not a pleasant way to die."

 

With a last smile – perhaps even a genuine one – he slipped into the water. Ronon followed, a dark shape beside Kit in the water as he kicked his way towards the postern gate, fumbled to open it, and was through. Maybe this time, he thought, then snatched the thought back. Lightning flashed, turning the water above them into a ceiling of silver. Kit swam forward, his eyes stinging in the dirty water. The old moat was narrow, and the wall towered ahead, like a dark ending of the world. Kit bumped into it with both hands, and pushed his way sideways. There, he thought, gesturing expansively, wishing he could say it in words. There's your way in.

 

The arrow slit was narrow, barely four fingers' width across. Sometimes, if you were really quiet, you could hear prisoners calling out on the other side, or catch the faintest gleam of light. If you reached through, your fingers were truly inside the forbidden levels of the Citadel, but you could not go in yourself. You could touch the stones, and the water passed in and out unhindered, but there was no getting in.

 

******

 

Sleep proved impossible. Jasper tried to lull himself into slumber by retelling those old familiar stories of the days when poetry still flowed in the veins of heroes. And Tamorlin bowed his head and let his enemies take him, and he was bound in chains of gold and silver and star-stone, three times three around his breast, and many there were that wept, but Myra his truelove stood tall and straight as a reed, because she knew that…

 

He rolled over harshly, trying another position, but the familiar words seemed harsh and grating. Outside, thunder rolled sporadically, and lightning flickered outside the shutters. A crack of light showed underneath his door, and the fire glowed, almost down to embers. Despite that, it felt too dark, as if the darkness was something that clawed at his eyelids when he closed them.

 

"It is the deepest part of night," he whispered, "when wise men sleep and souls take flight."

 

And Tamorlin, he thought. Tamorlin was taken to a prison cell where he was…

 

He turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. Beside him, his hand closed around smooth cotton. His bed was soft. There was a jug of water on the table and a bottle of fallowmead on the dresser. A box of honey fancies lay in the drawer, and a servant stood outside to come when he called.

 

He closed his eyes. And there they came to Tamorlin with pointed blade and burning brand, and they treated him cruelly and… His bed seemed to tilt, so he had to clutch onto the sheets to keep from falling. There was no light at all, only impenetrable darkness. The water flooded across the floor and became stinking poison, and the servant outside had blades in his hand and a cold, hard smile.

 

Gods! Jasper sat up, throwing the thin blanket from his body, letting his bare feet touch the rug. It was the prisoner; of course it was. While Jasper slept in his chamber, a doomed man was clinging to a platform in the dark, three floors below him. A man alone and far from home, with no friends in the world. A man who had been hurt by Jasper's father, even though he was almost certainly innocent. A man who was going to die in the morning.

 

He shouldn't care. Prisoners came and went, and almost every ten-day saw the slow tolling of the execution bell. The prisoner hadn't even asked for help. In fact, he had been quite insolent. Jasper owed him nothing. He owed him nothing at all.

 

So why, then, did he find himself on his feet? Why did he clip his hair back, pull on a robe and head for the door? Perhaps it was like poetry, he thought. He remembered the first time he had seen the Arc of the Gods – the first time he had truly seen it, moved to tears by its many-coloured majesty. He had been useless for hours, as words and feelings and half-formed rhymes raced around his head. It was only when his thoughts had consented to be pinned down in the flowing metre of a tuneless song that he had been free again.

 

Perhaps this time… No, he didn't know. All he knew was that he was padding out into the corridor, that he was… Oh! Shoes! He needed shoes. He sat on the bed and pulled them on, then pulled on breeches under his tunic, then, in final afterthought, swapped his robe for an outdoor coat.

 

The servant outside was impassive as Jasper passed, but when Jasper turned back after a few paces, he saw the boy smirking. Jasper's father's nocturnal adventures were legendary, but so far Jasper hadn't… He hadn't had anybody who… That didn't matter, he told himself. If he cared what people thought, then…

 

He reached the stairs and descended them, pausing to take a candle from the store. He chose a small lantern for it, dangling it from a metal ring. Guards stood at the entrance to each level, and they snapped to attention when they heard him, and relaxed a little as he passed. One nodded. Another said a brisk "my lord."

                                                

When he reached the final door, the door that separated the state chambers from the lower levels, he had to wait for a guard to unlock it with a huge black key. No questions were asked; they never were. "Your father left not long since, my lord," the guard said, his finger and thumb indicating a tiny expanse of time on a dwindling candle. Jasper nodded, and swallowed, wondering what his father had been doing in the dungeon at the dead of night.

 

The door closed behind him. He passed the alcove where he sat and crafted poetry, far away from the deceit and troubles of the world above. Guards stood beneath torches and braziers, like spiritwings drawn to the light. It was different in the dark – not a place of quiet contemplation, but a place of misery and death.

 

"The spy…" His voice came out hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "The spy from Daryen, in the water cell?"

 

"Alive when your father left him, my lord." And again that gesture, no thicker than the paring of a nail.

 

"I wish to see him."

 

"Very good, my lord."

 

The keys rattled in time with the guard's steps. "I didn't do it. Please, please, I didn't do it," a voice wailed from a locked door, as something harsh clawed against the door, little higher than the floor. Someone else was sobbing, quiet and forlorn. But the prisoner in the water cell was silent. As the guard unlocked the door, Jasper looked down and saw wet footprints shining like spilled blood in the light.

 

"Leave us," he said, when the door was open, and the guard did.

 

Jasper stepped in, the lantern high. The prisoner was a smudge of a face with eyes that glittered. Jasper moved the lantern, watching the expanse of light jerk and shudder its way over the prisoner's body, showing how his hands still gripped; how one leg was bent at the knee, bare foot braced against the stone, but the other fell limply into the water; how his eyes were like the stars at midnight, blazing but unfathomable.

 

"Hey," the prisoner said. "It's Junior with his science project." His voice was a tiny thread of a thing.

 

"Why don't you die?" Jasper found himself saying. "You're going to be executed tomorrow morning. Why endure all this when it's all for nothing?"

 

"Just… stubborn, I guess," the prisoner rasped.

 

Jasper's hand closed tightly on the lantern handle. "You need to die. My father…" He swallowed. "You need to die."

 

The prisoner gave a ghastly, incomprehensible smile. "Going to kill me, then?" and Jasper stood frozen, in a world where there was just the two of them, united in a dancing circle of light.

 

******

 

Kit surfaced next to the raft, sucking in great mouthfuls of air. Clinging to the edge of the raft with one hand, he scraped the water from his eyes. "Where's Ronon?" The woman was a carved figurehead looking down at him.

 

"I didn't--" Kit had to breathe, cursing the need to. "--didn't kill him, if that's what you mean." He couldn't even muster the right sort of insolent grin. "He was right behind me."

 

"Oh God!" Rodney croaked. "He's killed--"

 

"Oh, look." This time Kit managed a smile, not that either of them were looking at him. "There he is." They weren't listening, either. As soon as Ronon had emerged from the water, they had turned in on each other, the three of them together, mismatched as they were. Silent messages passed between them, and Kit was on the outside, floating in cold water.

 

Not that it mattered. "Are you going to tell them, Ronon, or shall I have that pleasure?" He wondered if there would be fury or wails of betrayal; the smaller man, Rodney, did horror particularly well, fear and outrage and anxiety constantly playing on his face like eddies of water in a storm. Or perhaps they would find a way in. Perhaps these people, whose weapons could stun a man without injury, could do what years of effort had failed to do, and break into the Citadel.

 

Ronon appeared almost unaffected by his long submersion. He pulled himself onto the raft – "careful!" Rodney cried. "Careful!" – then, his face impassive in the distant flicker of lightning, in the scattered flecks of light from boarded-up windows and the world beneath the water, drew something out of his clothes.

 

"Oh," Rodney said, not exclaiming it, just sighing angrily. "How typical. You get a second to grab our gear, and you pick up that. What about important things like – hello? Tablet? Computer? Repository of my vast knowledge? Oh no! Ronon picks up the things that go boom."

 

Kit dragged himself onto the raft; he doubted they even noticed. "It's an arrow-slit, too narrow to get through, but a small amount of C-4…"

 

"What?" Rodney squeaked, then looked round anxiously. "What?" he repeated in a whisper. "What part of sneaking don't you understand? Oh yes: the bit that involves being quiet."

 

Ronon turned to Kit. "You have explosives on this world?" With a glance at Rodney and a quick flash of teeth, he said, "Things that go boom?"

 

"You mean black powder." Kit was feeling things inside, his pulse racing, his fingers tingling.

 

"Gunpowder doesn't work underwater." Ronon's smile grew wider, flashing quickly at his friends. "They hear the explosion, they won't know it's down there. They won't think it's possible. They'll run in the wrong direction."

 

"Or else they won't." Rodney was crouched on the raft, looking small and miserable, dwarfed by the vast square that once had held thousands on feast days and execution days. Kit tried to still the beating of his heart; wiped his hands on his breeches, replacing warm moisture with cold.

 

"Worth a try," Ronon said.

 

"Or maybe we could think about it." Rodney bit his lip. "Talk about it. Our thieving friend must know another way in. So plan A doesn't work? We need a plan B."

 

"There's no other way," Kit said. He felt diminished, somehow, and he had no idea why. Perhaps it was the water. His eyes would be itching until dawn.

 

"Here goes, then." Ronon raised the thing in his hand, and moved his thumb towards it. Lightning flared, splitting the sky with silver, and Kit saw Ronon's face, saw his lips moving, counting one, two, three. The sound that followed was almost like thunder, but muffled by water, quieter than thunder was.

 

"We must go quickly," Teyla said, "before they organise their response."

 

Rodney grabbed her arm. "There's someone on the walls," he hissed, his face a smear of terrified white. "Up there. They're walking… They… No. They're looking down. They're going to see us. They're going to see us."

 

Kit looked up, and if this had ever been a game, any enjoyment dropped away like a stone. The man on the wall wore neither hat nor helmet. His outline showed the high collar of a formal coat, and the hand that was closing round the parapet was bare. "Fuck," Kit swore. "It's a Whisperer."

 

"Which means?" Teyla whispered.

 

"That we're dead," Kit had to tell her. This time, he didn't even take delight in it.

 

******

 

Chapter three

Masters of the night

__

 

"What sort of man are you?" Jasper asked, unable to stop himself.

 

"The usual sort." The prisoner gave a broken laugh. "Two legs, two arms, one… No, not in front of… children."

 

Jasper wanted to pace, but he was a prisoner himself, trapped on his step. "You cling on, even though you know there's no hope. You fight to endure a few more hours of agony, when you could just let go and end it all. And you don't…" He pressed his lips together. "You don't say things properly."

 

"What…?" The prisoner coughed weakly. "…should I be saying?"

 

"Prisoners beg," Jasper said - I didn't do it. Please, please, I didn't do it. "They're cowards. They live off the fear of others and they snivel when they get caught." But the great ones in the stories were different. Captivity was a noble thing that brought out a man's true worth. They endured with a noble, unruffled brow, and they inspired kings and lords and gaolers with words that would echo down the centuries. "Are you waiting for someone to hear what you say?" he asked, struck by a sudden idea. If the prisoner let himself slip into the dark water while alone, his tale would go forever untold. He thought of Tamorlin, sore wounded during his years in the wilderness, dragging himself for a league until he found a woodcutter. If I should die, he said, clasping the woodcutter by the wrist, then tell this tale of me. These are the last words of Tamorlin Wanderer…"Make your speech," he declared now. "I will tell it. I will even cast it in verse, if you wish."

 

"Think I'll pass." The prisoner slid a candle-width nearer the water, then caught himself with a barely perceptible moan.

 

Jasper watched the candlelight flickering on the dark water. "Then I don't understand."

 

"Forgive me… if I don't… much care," the prisoner rasped.

 

"You know you're going to die," Jasper said. "That's inevitable. And it's really hurting you to keep yourself out of the water. Even Tamorlin himself, during those days in which he suffered in prison, always knew that it was but for a little while, and that his friends would bring him out to glory, and that his enemies would fall…" He stopped. Too much raced inside him: words, thoughts, formless rhymes. If he understood this, he thought, his verse would be inspired for weeks, shot through with a vivid understanding of the human spirit at the very brink of death. This was the first doomed man he had spoken to face to face. He had to absorb every last detail of him, so those glittering eyes would shatter and become a thousand shining words. "What does it feel like," he asked at last, "to know you're going to die?"

 

The prisoner said nothing, but his look said more than words. In the dark, with its flickering candlelight, Jasper could not read it.

 

Jasper sighed, scraping his hand across his face. It smelled of wax and sweet spices from a different world, separated from this one only by a stone floor and a thick door. Talis had killed himself at the ford, standing in red blood to his knee. As his enemy approached, smiling, Talis had plunged his dagger into his belly and had died rather than be taken. Faena had thrown herself from the topmost tower, leaving behind a song and weeping servants, rather than face a world without her love. "Why don't you let go?" he asked again.

 

"Would you?" The prisoner's gaze turned on him fully. The prisoner's voice was an unblemished blade, striking to the heart. "Could you?"

 

"I…" The quick answer found its way to his lips instantly, but died there. "Tamorlin…" he croaked weakly, as his hand found the stone behind him. Would you? the prisoner had said. You. Jasper. Not Tamorlin. Not Talis. You. Stories crumbled and flew away from him, leaving him alone, teetering on the edge of a step in the darkness. Would he? If he was facing certain death in the morning, would he raise the knife to his throat? Could he? His hand trembled, and even the metal of the lantern ring felt harsh. That meant giving up, and there was always a loyal servant or a faithful hound or a breathless messenger or a sign from the gods to rescue you even as the executioner was raising his blade. There was always…

 

His thoughts came to a halt. You, he thought. Me. Here. Now.

 

"I don't know," he whispered, and his voice in his own ears sounded like the voice of a child. "I--"

 

The water cell shook with a mighty clap of thunder. The lantern slipped through his fingers, rolled into the water, and went out.

 

******

 

The Whisperer looked to his right first. Swiftly, as silently as he could, Kit paddled towards the outer wall. Perhaps if they pressed themselves against the wall… The Whisperer would have to lean right over and look down to see them. But it was useless; of course it was useless. The Whisperers see all. The Whisperers know all. Why, then, did his hands move, did his body act, even though he knew that all was lost?

 

"What's a Whisperer?" He heard it from Rodney in a faint unvoiced breath; he heard it in the sound of falling rain, and the waves of disturbed water breaking against the postern gate below.

 

"Agents of the Twelve," he whispered. "They can talk to each other across hundreds of leagues, mind to mind. They see into your mind. They--"

 

Beside him, Ronon was twisting upwards, his weapon in his hand. It flared red, and Kit shrank back from the sensation of something falling towards him. The sound was huge, and water showered him. The raft struck the wall, and Rodney cried out.

 

"--see all," his voice finished. "But of course you would just shoot him."

 

Then he missed things again. His companions were exchanging words in silence, with a touch here, and a look. "It was on stun," Ronon said, as if in answer to some question.

 

"Then he will drown." Teyla looked at him, until Ronon lowered himself into the water. More lights showed on the water; tiny specks and cracks stretched out in lines like gossamer across the disturbed surface. Every one marked someone watching.

 

"It's death to kill a Whisperer." Kit's voice sounded different in his own ears, in a way that stirred some memory of long ago. "And death to all who try to conceal the killing. Not that anyone tries. Some poor bastard did, once…" The story wanted to fragment and drift away. He watched the surface of the water. It wasn't deep, not even as tall as a man. "They see all," he said. "It's not worth it. There's always others, and you can't overthrow the king or the rule of the Twelve, so why…" His hand touched the dark water. "There's easier pickings. If you as much as overhear someone talking about it, and say nothing…"

 

Ronon's head broke the surface of the water, with his left arm wrapped around the Whisperer's body. The man's lips were slightly parted, and his hair was dark, like weeds on the surface of the water.

 

"Found this," Ronon said, tossing an object at Rodney. "He must have dropped it."

 

Rodney tried to catch it, but missed; fumbled for it, and managed to brush his fingers against it. It lit up blue. "Oh." Rodney snatched his hand back. "Oh. This is interesting. I see." But he didn't touch it again; looked almost scared to.

 

"Is he alive?" Teyla asked, as she and Ronon hauled the Whisperer's body onto the raft. Her hand sought his throat as she did so. Kit swallowed and swallowed again, and reminded himself of the part he played every day, and that he greeted even certain death with a quip and an insolent smile.

 

As soon as the Whisperer was on the raft, Ronon shot him again. "That'll keep him quiet till we're done," he said. "The thief tricked us. It was a small way in, just a crack. Big enough now, but we need to go."

 

"Uh… people." Rodney was twisting his hands together. "I can't swim. Well, of course, I can swim – got a certificate at school, actually. One lap, unaided. Two years after everyone else did. The whole class had to stay after school until I did it. But not for that long underwater. I've got this thing, you see. I have to breathe. And ever since that thing with the jumper…"

 

Ronon was in the water already, his hand on the edge of the raft. "Then guard the raft. Guard them."

 

Them. Kit swallowed. It was time to end this all. The Whisperer was unconscious, and the Citadel was apparently open to them, ready to plunder. "Not me," he said, letting out a breath. "You won't catch me staying any longer than I have to next to the body of a Whisperer, not with all the guards that are likely to come rushing to this place once they know he's gone. No, my friends: I'm going with you. Safer in than out, and all." Ronon opened his mouth to speak, but Kit stopped him; behind him, he was pleased to hear, Rodney was fidgeting in agitation. "You need me to get out of this place, remember."

 

Ronon was so close to the wall that his expression was hidden in darkness, but Kit could sense the hatred there. This, at least, was familiar territory. Smiling, he gave a little bow to Rodney, then slid into the water.

 

It was time to go in.

 

******

 

Jasper took one instinctive step back, his heel finding the back of the step. Fumbling for the wall, he climbed that step, and then the door was at his back. The thunder was gone, and everything was still, but he could hear guards shouting along the corridor, their voices sharp and questioning, but the words themselves were stolen by the darkness and the echo.

 

The prisoner made no sound at all, but Jasper found that he could still see him in his mind, as if the sudden darkness, both this time and the time before, left the last thing he had seen branded on his soul, impossible to forget.

 

"What was that?" he heard himself whisper.

 

Nothing. Still nothing.

 

Jasper felt stone – cold stone behind me - and that made him think of his father. He thought of all the days he spent at the window on the very edges of the dungeon, but how he had never once been inside a cell. He thought of the prisoner's question… No, no, that hadn't been a fair question. It wasn't one that needed an answer. It wasn't…

 

"Accident in the munitions store?" he heard someone say from outside. "Likely nothing to do with us. They'll call us if they need us."

 

"Stay at our post."

 

"The scum are all safely locked up, nice and secure. That's our job."

 

Lights flickered outside, and long shadows. "But I thought it came from down there." The footsteps barely sounded human, warped and too loud.

 

He thought of tales and stories. He thought of Cador the Great, long-ago ancestor and hero of many songs, who had pardoned a prisoner, driven by nothing more than mercy. Many years later, on a blood-red field, that prisoner, now an officer in the ranks of the enemy, had given his life for Cador. Seeing that, the enemy army, down to the last man, had thrown down their swords, knowing that Cador must be truly great and just, if even his enemies were willing to die for him.

 

"I'll intercede for you," he said into the darkness. No, it needed better words. "Upon the morrow I shall speak to my father, and…" He let out a shaky breath. "I've never asked him for something like this before. I'll do it in front of the Twelve. He's sending me away…" Cold stone against his hand; bare stone. "I'm going to the Marches. Perhaps you can come with me, as… as servant, or--" A hand gripping onto a platform. Glittering eyes staring unafraid at death. "--bodyguard, or…" 

 

"Thanks," the prisoner said, and Jasper heard more sounds in the corridor, and the very faint sound of the prisoner moving, chains rattling like his father counting beads. He heard the sound of moving water, and his foot slipped, sliding on the step.

 

Something grabbed him round the throat, hard and wet and shockingly cold. "But I think I'll pass." The prisoner's voice was a whisper in his ear, stirring his hair, and warm.

 

******

 

"We're in," Kit breathed. "Inside the Citadel. And all thanks to me." He gave them a moment. "Why thank you, Kit, for guiding us here."

 

"Be quiet!" Teyla hissed.

 

Kit wanted to keep on talking, just to prove to them that he could, but he was not entirely stupid. Not stupid at all, actually. In a job like his, you didn't get to the advanced age of twenty-four unless you knew when to play the part of the obnoxious braggart, and when to stay discreetly quiet. They were inside the Citadel, slipping in through the ragged hole that Ronon had created where the arrow slit had been. They were actually inside the Citadel! It was almost completely dark, but somewhere not too far away, a flickering torch allowed Kit to see the very faint outlines of steps rising from the water, leading to a half-open door.

 

Ronon led the way, and Kit followed, trying not to marvel. He was in the Citadel. Everything was in here. Before the Flood, the King had lived in a spacious palace by the river gardens, and the Twelve had met in a tall building across the square. Now they were all crammed into the wall of the old Citadel, guardhouse, prison and towering relic of an older age. Up on the hill, armies of poor sods laboured to build new mansions for the rich, while the spoiled bastards bickered over the gilding on their pinnacles. Apparently it took years to build a palace or a chamber for the Twelve, and until then… Until then…

 

Ronon raised his weapon. Red flared, and Kit saw a brief red-rimmed glimpse of a guard slumping to the ground. He felt a faint hitch in his breathing. He hadn't even seen the guard approaching.

 

"John?" Teyla started calling, little louder than a whisper, stopping at each locked door.

 

"Help me," a voice said. Kit could see little, but he heard the sound of Teyla's hand on the wooden door. "So I killed the bitch. Tell the king I can kill for him. No-one better at slitting throats than me."

 

"Where is he?"

 

Was Ronon talking to him? Kit shrugged. "Don't look at me. I told you I'd never been inside."

 

Never been inside. Never been inside, and now he was. If they'd managed to get in unnoticed, then the whole Citadel was theirs to claim. Mine, he corrected himself. The king and the Twelve would be sleeping. Everybody would be sleeping, except a few bored servants and a scattering of guards. These rich folks barred their windows, but seldom even locked the doors of their chambers.

 

"Please!" someone screamed. "I'll tell you everything. I'll tell you where to find him. I'll tell… Please…"

 

Ronon's weapon fired again. "Enemies!" the guard shouted before he fell. "To arms!"

 

******

 

"Why…?" Jasper found himself entirely unable to frame words. "What…?" Speaking hurt, making his throat press against the… the chains, he realised. He's grabbed me with his chains. But how? How had he pulled himself free? How?

 

He felt himself shoved against a wall, held there by the prisoner's body. He felt the chain twist around his neck, as if the prisoner was transferring it to one hand, then felt a hand rummage around near his waist. What was…? Oh. Looking for a weapon. I haven't got one, he almost said. I came straight from bed, and I don't… The prisoner found his pocket. He had a pocket-knife there, with a small sharp blade. He felt the prisoner's faint exhalation when he found it. And then there was a knife at his throat, and the chains were pulled down to be wrapped around his body, pinioning his hands to his side. 

 

"Why?" he asked.

 

"To arms!" he heard outside, the word ending in a groan.

 

"Hostage," the prisoner said. "Be good. Won't hurt you."

 

Was he going to die? It didn't feel quite real. He was here in the darkness, far away from life and hope and happiness. Tamorlin had… Even Cador… Spare them, or your son dies. A lifeless body falling beside the well, and a father's scream. They had had a connection down there in the darkness. The prisoner's eyes had burned with the intensity of a true poet.

 

"How…?" He felt himself jostled out into the corridor. He stumbled on the step, and the chain jerked, digging into his flesh, but only afterwards, after he was steady again. The blade touched his throat, but did not break the skin. "You were tied…"

 

The Gods had melted Tamorlin's chains. Talis had befriended a small animal who had melted his fetters with its bitter tears. But how had a man…? He felt something warm and wet drip onto his collarbone. Blood, he thought, from the prisoner working his hands in the manacles for endless hours of darkness. Perhaps the metal had been rusted and bad. Perhaps the chains were made for a stockier man. Perhaps…

 

"Stop right there!" said a voice from behind them. They turned, the prisoner dragging Jasper around with him. "The spy's escaped!"

 

"I'll kill him." The prisoner's voice made Jasper shiver. The knife pressed into his neck.

 

The guard had brought light. He dropped it now, and brought his bayonet up to his shoulder. The torch blazed on the floor, and it was as if they were all wading in a sea of gold, and I'm going to die, Jasper thought, but figures and shapes from story and song danced in that golden sea, and he knew that if he survived this, he would never want for words ever again.

 

"Drop your weapon," the prisoner demanded, but the guard only smiled.

 

He was still smiling when the red flare struck him. His weapon fell first, and then he crumpled sideways, to lie only a few hands' spans from the guttering torch.

 

"Hey, buddy," the prisoner said without turning round, but his voice was weaker now, and for a moment he leant against Jasper as if that was the only thing keeping him up.

 

It struck like a blade to the heart. The knife slid across his neck, cutting a thin line of pain, and the prisoner murmured, "Sorry."

 

"Sheppard," the newcomer said. "Thought you needed rescuing," and the prisoner gave a weak laugh, and said, "Got tired of waiting, so I…"

 

"We must leave now," a woman's voice said.

 

"Yeah," the prisoner said. "Good idea."

 

"You do have friends." Jasper had not meant to speak it aloud. The torch went out, killed by the dampness of the floor. "You said you didn't, but you do."

 

"Yeah," said the prisoner; just that.

 

******

 

"So you've rescued your man," Kit said. He didn't look that impressive – a drooping figure dressed in ragged black – but he seemed to have pulled a knife on a young toff, so that was something in his favour, at least. "Heroic rescue over and done with." He took a step forward, remembering where this Sheppard had been standing before the torch went out. "Good to meet you. I'm the local expertise. They couldn't have done it without me. I stand here, your humble servant, ready to accept your gratitude."

 

"Is he… related to… McKay?" Sheppard was plainly struggling to stay standing. "McKay!" he gasped suddenly "Is he--"

 

"Outside," Teyla said. "We need to get out. Are you able to swim underwater for a while?"

 

"If I have to."

 

Kit rolled his eyes in the darkness. May the gods save me from heroes! "Who's the toff?" he asked.

 

"Hostage," Sheppard said.

 

"That could be useful." He heard Teyla moving forward. "We may have to fight once we are out." Her voice grew softer. "We will not hurt you," she said, "and we will let you go once we reach the gate, but the guards will not know that."

 

Kit rolled his eyes again, and no-one could see his smile. "Why leave?" he said. "We're inside the Citadel! Why leave with one half-dead prisoner, when we can fill our pockets with treasures?"

 

"I do not believe the alarm has been raised beyond this level." Teyla spoke as if Kit was not there. "We may have several minutes before there is pursuit."

 

"But the treasures…" Kit was aware that he was wheedling like a child; it was quite deliberate. "You can drop all your fancy talk of rescue missions and heroic stuff like that. Shove your man out the gap, mark it off as a duty done, and make yourself masters of the night."

 

An arm closed on his, and Kit felt himself dragged; his feet started moving just in time to keep him from falling. "Don't mind if you get yourself killed," Ronon said, "but I do mind if you alert the guards. And we need you to guide us to the gate."

 

"Oh," Kit said. "That."

 

The hostage said nothing, but there was something about his face… Kit clenched his hand tight, and concentrated on walking in the dark. "Are you all right?" he heard Teyla ask quietly, and the prisoner let out a whistling breath, and said, "I'm good, or I will be."

 

"Well, that was easy," Kit said, with a smile, as Ronon shoved him into the water. "Straight in and out, as the whore said to the priest." He let the lightning guide him, silver on the surface of the water. He wondered how Ronon and Teyla were coping with their hostage and their injured friend, not to mention slippery fellows like me who might stab them in the back at any moment. Not his problem, though. He reached the raft first. "They're all dead," he told Rodney quite cheerfully. The lie only lasted a instant, but he told himself that it was an instant of sharp pleasure.

 

******

 

"Oh, thank God. Sheppard. You're… Just in time. We're so screwed," a man was saying, as Jasper was hauled onto a raft. Someone rolled him over, pressed his cheek down into the wet wood, and lashed his wrists behind his back. "There were people on the wall, but I don't think they saw me. And people… Everywhere, all those windows… I saw them on the roof. It's like we're on stage. We're supposed to be sneaking, but everyone's watching."

 

"Of course," said another man. Jasper could see him only as a wet tangle of dark hair covering a pointed face. "Welcome to life in the Drowned Quarter: a hundred people vying to be the one who tells the guards that you were the ones who shot the Whisperer."

 

"Ah, there's the thing…" That man was a blur of dancing hands. "He's… uh… well, kind of… dead."

 

"How did that happen?" asked the woman.

 

"And I'm supposed to know that how? Last time I checked, I wasn't a doctor of medicine. Maybe he had a weak heart. Maybe it was being stunned twice by Conan here. You know, you really should stop using that as an answer to all arguments. I was busy… uh, busy reacting to things in a controlled and rational fashion, and when I went to check on him, he was dead."

 

The prisoner, Jasper's prisoner, settled himself down stiffly on the raft beside him. Their eyes met, but there was something different about the prisoner's face now that he was free. You have friends, Jasper thought, and he had no idea why it hurt him so. He knew he should be afraid, but other things felt more vivid. Rain fell on the back of his neck, and he watched a twisting line of watery blood flow across the prisoner's hand. Then the prisoner looked away, turning his attention to somebody else.

 

"You're right there, Rodney," said the man with the tangled dark hair. From his prone position, Jasper could see just how tense and twitchy he looked, although his voice was light. "We're screwed. I guess I asked for this when I said it had been easy." He moved so that Jasper could only see his back, did something with his hands - two swift jerks - and then there was a splash.

 

"What?" cried the man who seemed to be called Rodney. "You can't just--"

 

"He's dead." The other man scraped his hand through his tangled hair. "He's not feeling anything. Besides, his forefathers used to bury their dead in marshes. I am not--" He started to paddle. "--moving through the Drowned Quarter with a dead Whisperer lying at my feet."

 

A Whisperer! Jasper sucked in a breath. He had seen them reporting to his father, and sometimes they had looked at him and smiled cold smiles that did not reach their eyes, and he had known for certain that they saw right inside him and scorned what they saw. There were no Whisperers in the stories. He thought there had only been Whisperers for less than a hundred years.

 

"People will have seen it happen, of course," the dark-haired man said.

 

"But thieves stick together…?" That was Rodney. The big man clasped his hand to the prisoner's shoulder, and the woman was doing something to him, perhaps checking him for injuries. Friends, Jasper thought, forgotten.

 

"Not over this, Rodney." The man's face was hidden by his hair. "We have to get out of the city as soon as we can, before the alarm is raised. After that…" He spared a hand from the paddle to slice a finger across his throat.

 

******

 

He knew the way, of course. Any man in a job like his had a plan for what to do when everything came crashing down in ruins, and the only safe thing to do was to bail out. Not that he had ever thought of doing it with a party of six. With two, perhaps, or even three, depending on the state of his plans, but never six.

 

Perhaps they had a chance. He grumbled, though, and cut off their questions and comments with sharp answers. If they reached the edge of the city before the gates and the quays were closed… Ronon had disposed of the prison guards before the alarm had reached the rest of the Citadel. The people who had watched the Whisperer fall would tell if asked, but would not be too eager to shop them unless questioned. ("Oh, so that's who he was!" he could hear them saying. "I didn't know he was a Whisperer, I swear. If I'd know, of course I would have gone straight to the guardhouse.")

 

"John needs medical attention," he heard Teyla say.

 

"Yes, yes," said Rodney. "I've got eyes. I can see that."

 

"Hey, I'm still here, you know." Sheppard sounded strained, but he was smiling. Kit thought he might be able to like him – he was the only one of them who hadn't tied him up and threatened him, which was a definite plus – except that heroic types were never good for anybody's health, and when they looked at you, disapproval in their oh so noble eyes, you felt as if you were…

 

Enough of that. He shook his head, and paddled. And then there was that poor bastard of a hostage. Kit had no idea what they intended to do with that one, though he had a few ideas of his own. These people alternated between tender-heartedness and a cold spirit. They would have strewn Myr with bodies to get their man back, but they balked at the disposal of a Whisperer's corpse.

 

Ronon was crouching over the hostage, gun in hand, ready to use him as a shield. The rain grew heavier, but the thunder eased. It was never truly dark in the Drowned Quarter, and Kit heard laughter up above as a pair of girls stumbled over a bridge. Perhaps a few specks of their powder fell onto the raft below, because Kit suddenly caught the sharp scent of spices and the musk of memories never forgotten.

 

He saw a guard yawning into his hand on a watch post. Kit twisted the raft to keep the hostage in shadow, and tipped an imaginary hat at the guard. Ronon tensed. "Steady," Kit whispered. Moving about after dark was no crime. The authorities had long since given up enforcing curfew in the Drowned Quarter. As long as the scum preyed only on other scum, they couldn't care less.

 

"Just point us on our way." Sheppard sounded as if he was speaking through gritted teeth. "We'll be good on our own."

 

Kit only smiled at that, and carried on with the job of slewing away the life he had built.

 

******

 

Jasper saw only in snatches. Tall towers and bridges. Laughter from balconies. The smell of rain. Blood behind his prisoner's nails.

 

They were moving through the Drowned Quarter, the forbidden quarter, where the simple poor lived so much more intensely than the nobles on the hill. The water smelled more pungent. The sounds were heady and sharp and wild. The people on the raft spoke in sharp snatches, without the considered eloquence of the court. Sometimes there were gaps in what they said, like a chain with a missing link, but none of them seemed to notice, as if they were communicating as well in those silences as they were when they were speaking.

 

Because they're friends, he thought.

 

He thought of Valorian and his travails on the slave ship. Sensation ran up and down his spine, making the hair stir on the back on his neck. His hands felt moist and slippery. He was afraid. He was afraid, yes, but…

 

We will not hurt you, the woman had said, in a voice that had stirred memories deep inside; in a voice that was made to be believed.

 

"And now it's up the stairs we go," said the man with the tangled hair. Jasper thought that he might be a real-live actual thief. "Here." He threw a pair of shoes at Jasper's prisoner. "Took them off the Whisperer. There's nothing like looting the corpses of the recently dead."

 

The woman helped the prisoner into the shoes. "They pinch," he complained. "Must have been… a man… with a small…"

 

The big man pulled Jasper to his feet. "I'll kill you if you make a sound," he growled.

 

Jasper had no choice but to led himself be led. Rodney stumbled along behind him, protesting under his breath. The thief walked ahead of them, his step loose and easy. "I'm good," he heard the prisoner say. "Don't…"

 

"No alarum bells sounding yet," the thief said. "I think we're safe."

 

Jasper's mind was full of a tangle of words. And then Valorian said…Eyes gleaming in a dark cell. I have no friends. The prison of an army camp, spread across the hills. We will not hurt you. Steps beneath him, then a swaying bridge. An arm at his side, helping him down a drop. And thus, beneath the blanket dark of night, the fugitive band… No, furtive band. The furtive band. Raft. Craft. Laughed.

 

"John!"

 

"He can't…"

 

"I can."

 

And then the thief with his hand up, telling them to stop. Then everything about him –expression, stance, way of moving – altered completely. Moving forward, he hailed somebody out of sight, then talked to this person in a low voice.

 

The other three drew together. Jasper was at the heart of them, and he swallowed and he swallowed, and felt cold.

 

"We have ourselves a boat," the thief said, returning. "Cost us an arm and a leg, but our friend here provided." He raised one eyebrow. "That pretty clasp he was wearing in his hair, so beautifully studded with jewels." He let out a breath, shaking his head. "They never do notice."

 

"What? You stole…?" And he hadn't known. He hadn't noticed… A common thief with stinking hands had pawed at his hair and had taken… From him! From him! "How dare--"

 

The big man clapped a hand across Jasper's mouth and hauled him forward. The filthy thief stood grinning at the prow. "We must all make sacrifices for the common good," he said. "Beats being killed." His smile vanished. "The quays are still open," he said quietly, "but won't be for long. We need to go now. I hope you know how to row, because me…? I've done enough exercise for one night."

 

******

 

They rowed until the clouds parted and the stars came out. At first they had to weave through the makeshift quays and around the wreckage of the old harbour wall, but soon they were out on the currents of the river proper. Kit took them downstream. The lights of the city grew smaller and fainter, and then they rounded a bend, and it was gone, gone so easily. Fours years of life, gone in the blinking of an eye.

 

It was colder on the water than it ever was in the city on a summer's night, but Kit kept to his resolve, and refused to row. Ronon and Teyla pulled harder than he could pull, anyway, because his skills had always leant more towards speed and subtlety rather than strength, which had caused him to win as many scraps as he had lost over the years.

 

"I ask again, do you actually know where we're going?"

 

"Somewhere where I won't be bloodily killed thanks to you," Kit told Rodney.

 

"It's just that… well, we've got a hostage to return to its rightful owner, and Sheppard… He's not looking too hot right now."

 

The hostage looked up at that, but the starlight was not enough for Kit to properly see his face. Sheppard had lasted longer than Kit had expected, but had finally given in to sleep, or perhaps to unconsciousness. His friends had discussed his injuries in low voices, but Kit hadn't bothered to listen. He wondered if he was supposed to feel admiration for how long Sheppard had kept going, answering questions with barely a waver in his voice, refusing to lie down. The way he saw it, it was just plain stupid. It was showing off, like the time Tris had danced on a rooftop to impress a girl, and had fallen to a watery grave. Hadn't impressed the girl, either. The next night, she had been wearing another man's ring.

 

"How far to the gate?" Rodney asked, sounding like some whiny, snot-nosed brat.

 

Perhaps it was time to stop. Kit indicated that they should move to the edge, and they obeyed him – first time that had happened with anybody. The boat moved through the line of half-submerged trees that had once marked the edge of the river, and into the flood water. Eventually they ran aground in water-logged grass, rich with the smell of nightshadow and goldenweed. "Ugh," Rodney complained. "Mud. What is it with this world and mud?"

 

Kit waded through the mud, heading for the sad little clump of trees, their shape dark against the stars. He stood with his hand on the tree trunk and his back to the river, letting the others follow any way they wished. It had been years since he had touched the flaking bark of a linden tree.

 

"So where's the gate?" Rodney said impatiently. "Come on. You've done your native guide thing. Point us on our way and hurry along home."

 

"I haven't got a home." Kit still didn't turn around. "Weren't you listening? You implicated me in the death of a Whisperer. There were witnesses. I can't go back there." He paused, pressing his fingers into the bark. "You were planning on leaving me? You stroll into my life, tie me up, force me to break into the Citadel, destroy my life…" He sucked in a breath; perhaps it sounded something like a sob. "And this poor sod here, this hostage of ours, this noble--"

 

"I am Jasper," the idiot boy piped up, "crown prince of Myr."

 

For a moment, that hand on the tree was the only thing that was holding him up, but he kept his shoulders still, and kept even the slightest waver from his voice. "And, not content with that, you implicate me in the kidnapping of the king's only son. Not bad for a night's work. Do you make a habit of this?"

 

Teyla's voice was close behind him. "I am truly sorry--"

 

"And this prince of yours." Kit snorted. "I bet he doesn't even know how to wipe his own ass, and you drag him half-dressed out of his home and want to abandon him with a mean-hearted bastard like me for company." Despite the lack of audience, he grinned coldly. "I might take it into my head to kill him. If I'm going down for what you did, I might as well have some fun."

 

"We are truly sorry," Teyla said again. Gods, she sounded almost as if she meant it!

 

"But, luckily for you," Kit said, as he turned round for the first time, "you won't be rid of me that easily. You've ruined things for me in Myr. Think I'll take my chances in Daryen now."

 

"Yes, yes, we're very sorry, and all," Rodney said tetchily, "but, hello? We aren't going to Daryen."

 

"Yes, you are." Kit kept his smile. "Round thing, taller than a man? Now, I've never been there, on account of it being secret and hush-hush and guarded by priests, who say that they alone understand its secrets and promise to kill anyone who dares intrude on them. They have pictures of it over in Daryen. I used to know a fellow from there who wore it on a pendant round his neck."

 

"What?" Rodney demanded.

 

"The Circle of Daryen," Kit said with exaggerated patience. "I expect his was smaller, though, but there is it. Is it a pilgrimage, or something? Anyway, it's just outside the city. Daryen, that is. I've heard it's quite pleasant at this time of year."

 

Ronon snarled and started forward. Rodney gaped in a most comical fashion. The hostage, Crown Prince Jasper, looked from one to the other with a look of gaping idiocy.

 

"And how far is it to Daryen?" Teyla asked.

 

Kit beamed. "Not far. Eight days, perhaps seven, if you hurry." He looked at Sheppard, limp on the ground. "I don't think he'll be doing much hurrying, though, and of course there'll be vengeful armies sent out by Jasper-lad's doting daddy."

 

"Eight days?" Rodney's hands fell limply to his sides. "We are so screwed."

 

Kit decided that he liked that phrase, and added it to his mental repertoire there and then.

 

******

 

Chapter four

On the brink of tomorrow

__

 

None of them bowed when they found out who he was. Rodney and the woman looked almost irritated, and then they were all talking about other things, ignoring him. Jasper looked at the silver stars, specks of purest light caressing the top of the trees. He took in a great breath of air, and the scent was different from anything he had ever smelled. It smelled of life and open space and possibilities. But it smelled, too, of emptiness and the unknown and strange things out of stories that he had never seen face to face.

 

He saw the thief walk off, then heard him call for Ronon. "Need to sink the boat in deep water," he said. "Care to make the holes?"

 

"Go." The woman nodded. "I will stay…"

 

"So you're going to be king." Rodney was on his knees, but he looked up at Jasper, his face a pale smear. "Trust Sheppard to snag a hostage who's going to get us a charge of high treason, not just your regular kind of agonising death."

 

"I am my father's heir, yes." And I'm stuck with you, he heard his father, because your empty-headed mother couldn't give me another son. I plan to hedge you around with advisers so tightly that not a single royal word will be your own, if I don't disinherit you entirely, of course.

 

"Huh." Rodney let out a grunting breath. "I guess you want us to tug our forelocks and grovel." He paused, hands moving in the darkness. "Will that stop you killing us? I can do grovelling."

 

Jasper thought of a lifetime of people bowing and saluting, of calling him 'lord' even if their eyes did not always match their words. He thought of his insight, of his gift with words. "I am your better." The words seemed quite small in the enormous darkness.

 

Neither of them answered him, and a moment later he regretted saying anything at all. He heard splashing behind him, and a flickering red light. He remembered a chain at his throat, and a guard crumpling to the floor. There was beauty in the night, but none of the stories denied that the night also held horrors. "I demand that you take me home," he said.

 

Rodney was slow to answer, as if he was busy with something that he considered even more important. "Which is not going to happen on account of the certain death that's waiting for us thanks to a certain caveman's love affair with his gun and a certain colonel refusing to lie back like a good colonel and let us rescue him, rather than taking it into his head to take the crown prince hostage. He never did do well with authority figures."

 

"But you are free to go." The woman sounded weary and distracted, her face turned away.

 

"Speak for yourself." It was the thief, silent in the shadows, returned from the water. Jasper whirled round, his hand rising instinctively to his loose hair. "Let him run blabbing to his daddy? He knows where we are and knows where we're going. He can't be turned free." He chuckled harshly. "Of course, the poor little rich boy would probably fall into a puddle and drown himself before that happened, but I'm not taking that chance."

 

"Not up to you," said the big man.

 

"Oh?" Jasper could see the prince in outline, hands on his hips. "And who, pray, is it up to, friend Ronon? You, because you have the weapon? Brute force over right? Who's the mean-hearted bastard now?"

 

The man called Ronon stood his ground. "When Sheppard wakes up…"

 

"Which, seriously, should have happened by now." Rodney's voice was high.

 

"I say keep him," said the thief. "He'll be a useful hostage if his daddy's loyal men track us down, and I'm sure the Basilis of Daryen will look favourably on anyone who shows up with the only child of his sworn enemy. The only legitimate one, anyway. Rumour has it that the kitchen and stables are teeming with royal bastards."

 

Jasper pressed his hand to his mouth. "I say ditch the pair of them," he heard Ronon say.

 

"Hey, not so fast." The thief shook his head. "You owe me one. If I've got to walk all the way to Daryen to try to claw out a new life with nothing but the clothes on my back, then I want a strapping warrior type like you to guard my back. No-one travels through the Debateable Lands alone. Besides, since you hadn't even heard of the Circle of Daryen, I'm imagining you don't know how to find Daryen all on your lonesome without walking in circles or blundering into a nest of bandits."

 

"He has a point. He does have a point there."

 

"I do not believe that it will cause any harm if we let the boy go. He is young, and he has done nothing wrong."

 

"Yeah. Just in the wrong place… at the wrong time."

 

At that, three voices spoke at once, overlapping each other like the voices in a three-part song. "Sheppard!" and "John, how are you…?" and "Hey, buddy." No-one was paying Jasper any attention at all. He thought of cold stone and a faded tapestry, as mother and father and tutor and masters all argued over his fate. But he'd been a child then, and now he was a full seventeen years old. A man made his own fate. Sometimes things happened that came to test you, and sometimes people put bars across your way, but a truly great man always clung to what was important.

 

"…didn't mean it to go this far," the prisoner was saying, in that voice that had kept Jasper from sleep. "He was going to intercede." He said it with emphasis, and Ronon snorted. "My--" He coughed weakly. "My responsibility. Send him home."

 

"I do not believe it will cause any harm to do so," the woman said again. "They already believe you are from a spy from Daryen, so they will be expecting us to go that way."

 

"Yeah." Jasper's prisoner coughed again. "Junior. You said you wanted to… help. Help this way. Don't tell. Misdirect. Ronon's a blonde dwarf. Rodney's a village idiot. We went thataway."

 

Jasper thought of a man, an innocent man, clinging to a platform in a desperate attempt to stay alive. He remembered how the words always flowed away like a swift flood when in the presence of his father's will. The words had vanished in the last few hours, too. He had been limp in the river, tossed around by the tide. 'It is your duty,' his father roared in his head. (Duty. Beauty. Like shackles of star-stone. Like a metal cage that would not let the joy of poetry in.)

 

"And if I refuse?" he found himself saying.

 

The others parted just enough for him to see his prisoner struggling to push himself up onto his elbow. "Then we'll take our chances. I don't… kill children… as a rule."

 

Jasper thought of the way the prisoner's eyes had met his in the cell; perhaps even then he had been begging for help. He had seen his father on his throne receiving petitions. He thought of Cador's chosen men – the poor, the outcast and the desperate, each one pardoned when they begged a boon, each one bound to their lord by ties of gratitude stronger than death.

 

"Since you beg it of me," he told the prisoner, "I will not tell." Then he bit his lip, and looked up at the stars, like beckoning fingers in the night. "I won't tell," he said, "because I'm coming with you."

 

******

 

Kit left them to it. "He's like a stray dog," he heard Rodney say. "Shoo, boy. Nice doggie. Go home now."

 

"Rodney," Teyla berated him. "He is only a boy."

 

Kit walked away to the edge of the trees. His job was to predict how men and women would behave; a correct judgement made the difference between rich pickings and a spell in the Bargate Prison. He thought he had taken their measure as he had followed them through the Drowned Quarter, and for the most part they were quite ridiculously easy to manipulate. People were just a bundle of habits and reactions, like a painter's outline on a wall. But yet… But yet… There was that mixture of heart and heartlessness that made them… vexing. Without a moment's thought for what it would mean to him, they had implicated him in something that had ruined the life he had built for himself, but they had risked a lot to save a friend, and they worried about this idiot prince who had spent his whole life in luxury, while folk just a stone's throw from his chamber had scraped out their short existence on damp perches in the rich folk's leavings.

 

No matter, he told himself. This thing was serious enough without distractions. He had been implicated in the death of a Whisperer; that was real. He was here in the company of the king's heir; that was real. He had a long journey ahead to an uncertain ending. Whatever other games were going on here, some things could not be forgotten.

 

"Hey." He raised his voice, snapping his fingers. "Ronon. Come here."

 

Ronon obeyed him. Fancy that! Kit thought. Even in the dark, the big man's scowl was evident, which Kit had to admit undermined the whole obedience thing somewhat. Kit gestured to Ronon to come with him a little way beyond the trees. Ronon, he saw, drew his weapon at that. It was strangely comforting; at least some people remained entirely predictable. The man would probably kill the prince if the debate went on for much longer. Ronon might be under the thumb of Teyla and this Sheppard, but Kit knew a heartless killer when he saw one.

 

"How's Sheppard?" Kit asked, when they were far enough away. "No, no, there's no need to dazzle me with your monosyllabic wit. No, I don't particularly care. I do, however, need to know how badly he's going to slow us down."

 

Ronon took his time answering; perhaps his little brain was trying to decide how honest to be. "It's not good," he said at last, "but he's been worse. The Wraith bitch drugged him; messed with his head. There's cracked ribs, maybe broken. There's deep bruises. Some cuts. Raw wrists need to be cleaned out. Someone beat him good."

 

"Yes, yes." Kit flapped his hand. "I don't want the laundry list. Can he walk? Can he run?" He let out a sharp breath. "No, I guess not. We need to hole up somewhere until morning – give your Sheppard some time to have his beauty sleep. Fortunately," he said, with a small bow, "I know of just the place. What would you do without me, etcetera etcetera." The word was new to him, but he had heard Rodney say it, and he had always been a quick mimic.

 

"You set this up?" Ronon growled.

 

Kit did not like the way that his heart always betrayed him, beating faster than it should. "Course I did," he said. "A fellow in a job like mine always has to have a way out if things blow up in his face. I scouted this place out years ago." Buried a nice stash of beads here, too, but he didn't say that bit. "There's a hut not far away. Used as refuge by hunters, I believe, until the flood. Last time I checked, I saw no evidence of anyone using it any more, but that was in the winter. Things can change."

 

Ronon nodded once. "Where is it?"

 

Kit pointed him in the right direction and settled in to follow. Big, predictable Ronon with his gun. And if there were nasties in the hut… Kit smiled. If that happened, then he had a nice tame crebyn to deal with them. He had someone to fight his battles. He had someone…

 

He stopped that thought quite sternly, and concentrated on walking on unbroken level ground, without bridges and walkways. The stars were quite staggering, stretching from horizon to horizon, and then far below it, reflected in the water of the flood. It was quite enough to… Stop this sentimental crap, he berated himself. It was just that he was walking along with someone else, but didn't feel the urge to talk. He had already said what needed to be said – bent Ronon to my will, he thought, remembering something his uncle had once said – and Ronon seemed quite content to walk along silently. He didn't seem to demand more, and it was almost… It was…

 

Kit pressed his fingertips to his brow, between the eyes. He had a headache, he realised, slowly building over the day. Far too many things coming together. He was still teetering along the Bridge of Broken Promises, while needlefish circled in the blackness below. And tired, he was just tired. He would never see that bunk again, which, rough as it was, had been a kind of home. He would never…

 

"Is that it?"

 

Kit blinked. "Yeah." His voice was not quite what it should be. He tried for a laugh. "Well done, Ronon. You can recognise a house. Go to the top of the class."

 

"You take point," Ronon said, and then, just before Kit could ask what in the flood that meant, he added, "No. I'll do it myself. We don't take liabilities along with us on missions."

 

"Thank you," Kit said, but quietly. "Thank you very much." He stood outside and listened for the sound of Ronon being bloodily torn to pieces, but there was nothing. Then a bird hooted, brushing pale and silent above his head. Kit looked up. "It's clear," Ronon said. Kit had not heard him emerge.

 

"Good," Kit said. "You get the others. I'm going to get some sleep."

 

And then he sat in the darkness with his back against the wall, leant his head back, and closed his eyes. He brought his knees up, wrapping one arm around them to keep them there. It had been years since he had been in a place totally silent.

 

******

 

The woman had started a fire in the central hearth, and a large cauldron had been found somewhere in a crumbling cupboard in the dank hovel. "You have to boil flood water," the prisoner explained, when Jasper had stared at it for a long time, watching the play of flames on the burnished metal.

 

"So he's your padawan learner now, is he?" snapped Rodney, his hands still busy over nothing.

 

"I knew that," Jasper said. It was just that it was taking so long! At home, hot water came instantly when you shouted for it, and food was always on hand whenever you decided you wanted it. Ronon had brought down a plump bird, and he had been turning it on a charred stick for ages, but still claimed it wasn't ready yet.

 

Still, food and drink was imminent, and there had times when Tamorlin and the others had had to endure whole days without sustenance, tried to the very limits of their endurance. Straitened circumstances brought a special kind of fellowship. That was why he sometimes heard the simple folk of the Drowned Quarter singing in their ale-houses, when all was quiet and cold in the Citadel above.

 

"Shall we sing a song?" he said.

 

The thief had stayed gratifyingly quiet, but Rodney snorted. "Spare me!" He turned to the prisoner. "There's no way you're letting him come with us, right? We're abandoning him as soon as it's daylight?"

 

The prisoner was propped up against the wall. There were smears under his eyes, clearly visible in the angled firelight, and his wrists were red and torn. "Why d'you want to come?" Those glittering eyes at least were familiar.

 

What could he say? He was the crown prince. If he wanted something, people got it for him, and never asked him why. Except for the things he wanted most of all, of course, but then his father had never asked him why he wanted those, too, but had just said no. Eyes across firelight, eyes across water, asking questions. Would you? Could you?

 

He wasn't sure that he even knew. With the poetry, with the urge to craft wonders with words, he had never had to ask himself why, but had always known, certainty like fire in his veins, that this was what he lived for. It could not be contained by such common things as whys and explanations.

 

Because my father… He could have said that. Because his life in the Citadel was the life of a prisoner, and this way he could be free. He was taking a stand against his father. His father wanted to package him off to be a figurehead leader in the army, but he couldn't do that if he couldn't find him, now could he? And perhaps Jasper could go almost as far as Daryen and wonder amongst the common folk there, learning truths that his father's agents with all their harshness could never learn. Perhaps he could even come back glorious, with the licence to do anything that he wished.

 

"There's no life for me at home," he said, shifting awkwardly, looking into the flames.

 

"Yes, because it's so hard being royalty and living in luxury," Rodney sneered.

 

"Not much life for the folk in the Drowned Quarter, either," said the thief. He sounded half-asleep, but his eyes were gleaming beneath half-closed lids.

 

"You don't understand anything!" Jasper blazed, and the thief in that moment was every one of his father's sneering bastards, every guard with their clumsy salutes, every servant with their hastily concealed smiles, every pitying look of every noble member of the Twelve. "My father… My… They… They want to write the story of my life in advance, because of my birth."

 

"It's same for the folk in the Drowned Quarter," the thief said, and then he smiled. "Except for cunning bastards like me who get out." His hand was wrapped around his knee, knuckles white.

 

"So we have ourselves a snot-nosed teenage rich boy rebelling against his father's plans for him." Rodney rolled his eyes. "The age-old story."

 

Jasper looked across the fire at his prisoner, but the man's eyes were closed. His quiet moan when he moved was audible even across the crackle of the flames. "No," he said, when the woman turned to him, when Rodney sat there, the expression frozen on his face. "I'm good." Then to Jasper he said quietly, "Is that why?"

 

Jasper swallowed, and drew himself up. "I don't have to explain myself to you."

 

Something changed about the prisoner's face, and his voice hardened. "I think you do, if the safety of my team is endangered because of you."

 

The woman tipped the cauldron, testing the water. Jasper stood up, and as he did so, he caught a reflection of himself in the seething water, all shattered into pieces.

 

It was about stories, too; of course it was. He had lived with them for so long, but he had never lived in them. His life had begun and ended in the confines of Myr, and his soul flew free on the wings of words, but his body remained chained. He wanted to ride through the hills with Cador and his companions. He wanted to share tales at a campfire with Talis and Valorian. He wanted to compose songs beneath an open sky, and experience the deathless friendship of Balor and Tuin, who fought together, loved the same lady, and died side by side beneath a cliff of tumbled star-stone.

 

He wanted to feel fear, to see if he could face it. He wanted… He looked down at his hands. There's just me, the prisoner had said, but then his friends had come for him. They gathered around him even now, unconsciously protective, like the friends of Tamorlin… Like Tamorlin…

 

He thought of a man clinging onto the platform, enduring long hours of pain and darkness, refusing to let himself go. Would you? Could you?

 

"I want to live," he said to that man now, "and… and if you don't let me come with you, I'm going to go, anyway, all by myself. I'm going to do this thing; I really am."

 

And then the water was ready, and the bird was done, and it was time to move on to other things, and time to move back to who he really was.

 

******

 

Kit had long ago had to learn to fall asleep instantly whenever the chance presented itself. Unfortunately, those same circumstances had taught him to wake up at the slightest hint of something unusual. More than once that had saved him from a knife in the guts when someone's hired thugs came round to avenge some not-so-imagined slight.

 

He did dream. Sometimes dreams lingered.

 

This time he woke up to the light of early dawn, pale grey through the thick glass of cheap windows. He tried to calm his rapid breathing; tried to feign continued sleep as he rolled over, his eyes closed to tiny slits.

 

Teyla was asleep on her side, her hand outstretched as if she had moved in a dream to check on Sheppard, but had not quite reached him. Rodney lay on his back, softly snoring on Sheppard's other side. Ronon, of course, had insisted on taking watch, and was doubtless pacing up and down in an impressive fashion outside; perhaps it was a stick breaking beneath his feet that had woken Kit. On the far side of the dying fire, the prince lay curled up, hands pressed beneath his cheek like a baby. Sheppard, now… Sheppard's eyes were open, watching Kit.

 

Although it had sometimes saved his life, it went against the grain to feign sleep, to pretend helplessness. Kit opened his eyes fully. "Can't sleep?" he whispered.

 

Sheppard did not answer. His eyes flickered towards the door, but not in warning. Heroic type that he was, he was probably wishing that he was the one on watch, staggering up and down despite his injuries, while his over-muscled friend slept the sleep of the innocent.

 

Perhaps it was time to turn to business. He couldn't remember if he had spoken directly to Sheppard before. "Hurts badly, huh?"

 

Sheppard raked his gaze back to Kit, moving as if his neck hurt him. "I'm good."

 

Kit had been intended to ask if Sheppard was planning on holding them up today – lay on the guilt, the sense of obligation. Instead, he found himself saying, "Why do you lie about how you're feeling?"

 

Sheppard looked at him; blinked. "Why do you?"

 

Kit very slowly let out a breath. Very slowly, he rolled over and pretended to sleep. He wondered if Sheppard was watching him. He wondered what he saw.

 

******

 

The morning was warm and sunny. In the city, by the time Jasper woke up the air was already sweltering, although the thick walls of the Citadel kept it cool, sometimes too cold. Here, though, when he stretched, when he walked to the door, when he stood outside and raised his face to the sky, he felt the sweet breeze of a world untouched by human hand.

 

A bird twittered above him, gleeful in its undulating flight. Water lapped golden and yellow around slender reeds and blades of grass, frail yet enduring. "The clouds", he murmured, "gentle as a lover's breath, "and something something something death." Or perhaps not. Why bring death into it when the world around was so pure and joyous?

 

He felt ripe with the promise of adventure. He combed his own hair, carding his fingers through it, although he was hampered by the lack of a clip. There was no need to dress, because he already was dressed, appearing in public in way that would horrify all the highborn ladies on the hill, just wearing breeches beneath a worn sleeping tunic. But perfectly decent, he thought, not mourning his tight-laced waistcoat one little bit. Free.

 

The day before had been difficult – that he could not deny. He had lost his way somewhat. Things had happened, and he had allowed himself to become confused. For a while, he had quite lost the joy of poetry, but all that was changed. He was a young prince striding off on adventure. He was a fugitive, taking a stand against the fate that others had chosen for him. He was running away? Perhaps, but poetry always did run as free as the wind, and could never be tied down. (Free, his mind thought. Just be. Towards the sea. With she, and thee. We. Glee.)

 

He watched Ronon returning from somewhere, furry bodies slung over his shoulder. He heard the woman speaking inside, and Rodney answering. The thief stood a few paces away, watching everything. That was the one bad thing about the situation. Jasper didn't like the thief. He fought the urge to raise his hand to his unbound hair, refusing to give the thief that triumph. The clasp had been set with blood-stone, like the love token Myra had given to Tamorlin before their second parting. At least he still had his ring, and his hand moved to that instead, twisting it around and around on his finger.

 

Rodney came out of the hovel, struggling to carry even the empty cauldron. Putting it down, he snapped his fingers. "Chop chop! We need water." Neither of them moved. I'm not a servant! Jasper thought. "Never mind," Rodney sighed. "Ronon'll do it."

 

Jasper watched as Ronon went the short distance to the water, and saw how he kept low, and how his head was moving sharply, like the yellow-eyed gaer that Lord Robben liked to wear tethered to his glove.

 

"He's checked we're not being pursued," the thief said quietly, although Jasper hadn't asked.

 

Jasper stiffened. He had no desire to be found, because that meant a return to his father's plan, and a return to all those empty things and empty smiles. Now that he had tasted freedom, such things were unbearable.

 

"I'd have thought you'd have wanted your father's strapping lads to find us," the thief said. Jasper hated the way he smiled. "Here you are, prisoner of a notorious thief and four dangerous strangers who have all expressed an interest in travelling to Daryen, that most hateful and terrible place." His eyes narrowed. "Or have you already forgotten that Sheppard used your life to bargain for your own? Have you forgotten being tied up." He touched his right wrist with the thumb and forefinger of his left. "I haven't."

 

Eyes across the darkness, pinning him with questions. The woman telling him that he would not be hurt, that he was free to go, in a voice that was impossible to disbelieve. An innocent man, pushed into an impossible situation, was sometimes reduced to desperate measures just to stay alive. It didn't mean that they weren't good. "I trust them," he said.

 

The thief snorted. "Trust no-one, that's what I say."

 

"But I am not like you." Jasper said it with dignity, and headed back into the hovel, hoping to recover the glory of his earlier mood. (Glory, his mind said. Story. Gory. No, perhaps not that.)

 

"…bandages," the woman was saying. "The flood water was not clean."

 

The prisoner looked worse in daylight. Jasper wondered when Ronon would return for the water. He was thirsty, and he hadn't had nearly enough to eat the night before.

 

"So, colonel, out with it." Rodney snapped his fingers. "You didn't answer me last night, on account of being… well, unconscious and perhaps dying, and there being other things to talk about, like certain strays you seem to have picked up and added to our happy band."

 

"Don't remember you asking me anything."

 

Jasper watched Ronon stagger in with the cauldron and lower it heavily to the stone slabs of the square hearth. A fire was already burning. As soon as they had eaten, they could be on their way, striding out on the path that led to tomorrow.

 

"Like how you managed to crash like a hundred miles from the gate, rather than next to it, which would have been more customary."

 

The woman turned to the prisoner, blocking most of him from Jasper's view. "We need to expose it to the air," she said quietly. "When the water has boiled…"

 

"Yeah, yeah, I know." The prisoner moaned, though it was closer to a breath, really, breaking in the middle. "I don't remember much," he said, a little louder. "I was out of it. I remember dialling… Must have dialled wrong. I'm sorry."

 

"But after that?" There was a shrillness to Rodney's voice. Jasper looked at the play of light on the curved edge of the cauldron, and saw patterns of song in the intricate dance of the flames.

 

"Shot at. I--" The prisoner sucked in a sharp breath. "Just as I went through the gate. Busted the controls. Cut the brake cable."

 

"Darts don't have brake cables."

 

"As good as. Kept going. I raised her up; tried to… to bring her round--" ("I am sorry, John," Teyla murmured.) "--but I was losing power. Kept her going, but I blacked out for a bit."

 

The fire flared up, acrid smoke prickling Jasper's nostrils.

 

"I told you you shouldn't drive."

 

"No alternative. When I woke up, I knew it was too late. Bailed you out and hoped to God…"

 

"We're safe, John," the woman said. "I need you to…"

 

"Yes, yes, he can see that we're safe." Rodney's voice was higher than ever, vibrating with what could only have been fury. "But a hundred miles, Sheppard, or probably even more, with whole armies of primitives who think that steam power is the most advanced thing going… And you… We had the thief telling horror stories about the Citadel, saying you were dead already, and I thought… I really thought…"

 

Ronon was skinning animals with his knife. His face was like the armoured doors of the Citadel prison, slammed shut and locked. Then the woman moved, and Jasper saw the prisoner's face, warped with the rising steam. The end of a blood-stained bandage protruded from the fire.

 

"It really isn't good enough, Sheppard. Once again, you've--"

 

"Be quiet!" Jasper commanded. He stood up, rounding on Rodney. "Stop it! He's hurt and he's your friend, and you don't care at all. You just talk and talk and talk. It's not all about you."

 

He left the hovel to the sound of the thief slowly clapping.

 

******

 

It was too much to hope that a ship load of Myr's finest wouldn't appear on the water before the morning was over, although the navy was not what it had been before too many ships and shipyards had been swamped in the flood. Kit hoped that the search would still be concentrating on the city and the land routes into the hinterland, but they still had to be away, and soon. He tried impatient nagging, lashing at them with caustic words, but he knew that the others realised the urgency as much as he did. Except for the idiot prince, of course, who didn't seem to have a clue about anything at all.

 

The fire was out, and the last of the boiled water had been distributed between the leather bottles that Kit had planted in the hut so long before. He had even dug up his store, lashing the small bag of beads to his belt and hoping no-one commented. Time enough for them to marvel at his sudden wealth later, when he plucked a miracle from that bag to save them from the fate of the beadless. All honestly gained and his, of course. Honestly stolen, anyway.

 

Sheppard seemed to be slowly summoning his strength for the off. "Radios would be useful," he said, "in case we get split up."


"Did the crash do something to your eyes," Rodney huffed, "because – oh look! – we haven't got any."

 

"Which is why I said they'd be useful."

 

They truly were strange, these people, slipping away from him as soon as he thought he had them pegged. Where did they really come from, he wondered. Not Daryen, and not Myr, that was for sure. There were lands across the Narrow Sea, of course, but the people there hadn't even discovered steam power, let alone the strange technology that Kit's new companions possessed. Some said that day of ocean-going steamships was coming, capable of making it to the fabled Other Lands across the Great Ocean, and there were great expanses of land sunwards of Daryen, where people lived in scattered settlements and called no man lord. However, curiosity was the sort of thing that got you killed. For some reason of their own, these people wanted to go to the Circle of Daryen, so that was where Kit would take them.

 

"Oh!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Oh oh oh oh oh!" He rummaged in his pocket. "The Whisperer had this." He put it on the floor next to Sheppard's hand, not quite touching. "Whisperer," he said with emphasis. "Scary guys who, according to our superstitious native here, can communicate with each other across great distances?"

 

"Oh," said Sheppard, with a slow smile. He turned towards the prince, and Kit could tell as clear as daylight that he was only feigning nonchalance. It took a player to recognise a player, after all. (Why do you? he heard, in the cold light of dawn.) "Got anything else like this lying around?"

 

Jasper shook his head, looking nervous. Well, well, Kit thought. So even the prince was afraid of the Whisperers. First sensible reaction Kit had ever seen from him.

 

"Worth asking." Sheppard shrugged, them grimaced. "Ow." But his voice was light, carefully so, as he pushed himself to his feet.

 

Only Rodney remained sitting. "Oh," he said. "Oh no. Oh no no no no no no." He clapped his hand to his mouth.

 

"What, McKay?" From Sheppard's patient tone, Kit understood that such crises were common fare with Rodney.

 

"I touched it," Rodney said, "when putting it away. I touched it just there. Why don't the Ancients ever label their 'on' switches?"

 

"McKay…"

 

"I heard him. I heard him here." Rodney jabbed at his forehead. "And I don't know how much he heard, but he knows we're here, and he says… Quite a cliché, in fact, and this mind-talking thing…? I didn't believe in it until..." His hand fell back to his side. "He says he's coming for us."

 

******

 

Chapter five

On Outstretched Wings

__

 

The sun was shining, and birds were singing their tuneful love songs from every tree. Snowblossom was strewn across the grass like pale scattered dust. Green lace-wings fluttered by on wings that caught the light like specks of living star-stone. Jasper trailed his hand beside him, letting blades of grass caress his palm, linger for a while, and then spring free. What would a blade of grass say, he wondered, about this fleeting contact with someone as tall as the sky? What stories would they tell if they had the voice to tell it?

 

They were climbing steadily, heading into the hills. The flood behind was no longer visible, and Jasper realised that there had not been a single day of his life in which he had not seen water. A vast expanse of water already separated him from the city that had always been his home, and every step took him further away, towards an unknown world of possibility.

 

His travelling companions talked quite a bit, but most of what they said seemed unimportant. The prisoner walked steadily, his eyes fixed on the path in front of him. Rodney and the woman walked on either side of him, their path undulating, moving away from him for a while, but always drawn back to his side. Rodney chattered in that self-centred way that Jasper now knew to expect from him, but the prisoner treated him with the contempt that he deserved, insulting him and calling him 'McKay.' McKay, Jasper concluded, must be an unsavoury character from their songs and stories, whose name had become proverbial for everything unpleasant.

 

The other two, Ronon and the thief, kept disappearing.

 

Who were these people, Jasper wondered. They were not from Myr, and they claimed not to be from Daryen, but beyond those two lay only travellers' tales and rumour. Was he walking with legends made flesh? Were they envoys of some distant, undiscovered land? In years to come, would people sing songs of Jasper, the young prince who was the first to offer them a hand of friendship? It was hard to think of Rodney as a creature of mystery and legend. Perhaps they were just simple folk from the sunward side of Daryen, in a place where stars were strange, who had wondered too far from home and paid the price. Perhaps they were on a pilgrimage to the Circle of Daryen, or perhaps they had friends waiting for them near there, to meet them and escort them home.

 

"Where are you from?" he asked, letting the words fly like thistledown on the wind, to land where they willed.

 

He saw the prisoner and the woman look at each other, a sharp glance. "From… far away," the woman said.

 

"Yeah," agreed the prisoner. "We crashed on your--"

 

"City," the woman interrupted firmly.

 

The prisoner frowned. "Was going to say that."

 

The woman smiled at Jasper. "We arrived in your father's kingdom by accident, and we intend to return home as soon as it is possible. It is not our intention to--"

 

"So we're respecting the natives' ignorance now, are we?" Rodney sneered. "How politically correct. How prime directive. Just because they apparently think there's nothing beyond their petty little warring kingdoms, and have no concept--"

 

"McKay," the prisoner said, clear warning in his tone. "We talked about this this morning, remember?"

 

They had talked? They had talked, and Jasper had not known. They had excluded him. "I could order you to tell me." His voice had a harsh edge to it.

 

Rodney gave a snort of laughter. "Believe me, that is so not the way to get Sheppard talking."

 

A gaer passed above them, soaring on outstretched wings, watching the grass with eager eyes. Jasper had never seem one wild and free before, only tethered on a noble's wrist. Its beak was curved and deadly, but as he watched, it opened it and cried out, a high and thrilling sound. I am free, it said. I am free and I am flying and I am free.

 

The prisoner had raised his head to look at it, too, but his face was turned away, and Jasper couldn't see his expression.

 

"I…" Anything else he might have wanted to say felt suddenly less important. "I don't know your name," he said to the woman, then felt himself flush, remembering his tutor's lessons – no, no! Don't stammer like a fool. You have to be courtly when talking to a lady.

 

He opened his mouth to rephrase the question, but she was already answering him. "I am Teyla Emmagen." She smiled at him.

 

"Lady Emmagen." He bowed. She had smiled at him.

 

"Call me Teyla."

 

She had smiled at him. In the wild flight from the Citadel, she had been a gentle voice that had talked to him, telling him that he would not be hurt. And that was why he had never been as afraid as he ought to have been. She was his mother's voice and the voice of his first nurse, and lullabies when he couldn't sleep, and arms holding him against the nightmares. She was all the things that had been torn from him when he had reached the age of eight and had been dragged from the care of women and handed over to the cold world of men.

 

Now she stood with sunlight dancing in her hair, with a peasant skirt, and boots upon her feet. Now she stood and smiled at him amongst the flowers. Now, for the first time, he saw her.

 

"Teyla." He managed to say it. The questions came as swift as a flood after that, surging into his mind. Why did she travel with three men? There had been times when Myra had travelled with Tamorlin, but those two were bonded with a love so strong that two trees grew out of their graves and wove together in a  true love's knot. "Are you…?" He had no idea how to ask it; merely moved his hand uselessly, indicating the prisoner.

 

He heard reactions from the other two, but his eyes were only on Teyla. She was no longer smiling, but her voice was gentle as she said, "They are my team, and my friends." Her tone was final. She might have added 'and nothing more', but did not. 

 

Jasper looked away, at the glory of the snow-blossom, at the pale glow of the exposed outcrops. The gaer was hovering in the clear air, but as he watched it, it plummeted, falling to the ground faster than an arrow. He did not see it rise up again.

 

"Yes," Rodney said, "she-- What? I'm not going to say anything inappropriate, so don't glare at me like that, Sheppard. I was just going to tell the boy that he should be careful. Look at him – he's positively drooling. He needs to… uh… well, respect her, and--"

 

"I am quite capable of defending my own honour, Rodney," Teyla said, and even when there was an edge to her voice, it was beautiful.

 

"Don't I just know it." The prisoner gave a grunting laugh. "She kicks my ass every day with those sticks of hers."

 

"Not to mention the fact that she's the leader of the… of her people," Rodney said, looking quite strangely and insistently at Jasper. "Almost a queen, in fact."

 

"Don't think that helped," the prisoner said. "And I hate queens."

 

Jasper was suddenly very conscious of the sleep tunic he was wearing, of the way the heat and the exertion was making his face sticky with sweat. He could feel his hair sodden at the nape of his neck. He wiped his moist palms against the coat he was carrying. "John!" he heard Teyla said, as Jasper ran his hand across his face, smoothing out the damp strands of hair at his brow. "Are you…?"

 

"Fine. Just peachy." As the prisoner spoke, Jasper tried to slow his breathing. He wiped a bead of sweat off his collarbone. "No, I'm fine."

 

Jasper's cheeks felt hot, burning against the back of his fingers. Silently, the gaer rose up from the grass. Teyla, he saw, had moved away from the prisoner, but it looked as if she had been touching his shoulder a moment earlier. As Jasper watched, she turned and shot a look at Rodney. Jasper had no idea what it meant.

 

They walked a dozen more steps. "I need a rest," Rodney said, stopping with a sigh. "All this climbing… I work out. I'm in good physical condition, if I say so myself, but it's this heat… Phew!" He puffed out air and wiped his brow. "And Ronon and--" He snapped his fingers several times. "--Kit have been gone a long time and it's only fair to give them a chance to catch up. I hope they haven't been caught by that Whisperer guy. Seriously, that was creepy. But, like I say, rest. Phew! Hot."

 

"No need to overdo it, Rodney." At first Jasper thought the prisoner sounded amused, but then he thought he might be annoyed. "At least let me sit down by myself." As Teyla stood over him, and as Rodney watched, biting his lip, from a little further away, the prisoner lowered himself onto a stone. His head was bowed, his fist clenched.

 

"Water." Rodney pulled a leather bottle out of his pocket and pulled out the stopper. He raised it towards his mouth, then lowered it again, holding it out to the prisoner. "Here."

 

Dropping his coat on the grass, Jasper sat down, leaning back with his legs stretched out in front of him. Fresh air danced over his newly-exposed arm, but his mouth felt very dry. No-one had offered him any. He bit back his irritation, remembering that this was an adventure and that the whole point of it was that normal rules did not apply. He had water of his own, anyway, jammed into his coat pockets by the thief. 'If you want to drink it,' the thief had said, 'you carry your own.'

 

The water was too warm. Jasper wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and tried to get Teyla to look at him again. "Are you really a queen?"

 

"No." She sounded preoccupied, sitting close to the prisoner. "I am leader of my people, but they are not many."

 

Jasper took another sip, then poured some water into his hands and wiped it over his face. "We're not her people, in case you're wondering," Rodney said. "I have a very important position myself with our people."

 

Talis had disguised himself as a beggar and spent a year and a day in exile, learning truths that no man would tell honestly to a prince. He had returned with his wisdom and his will honed and sharpened, like the sun in spring after the dark days of winter. "Why…" He spread his fingers in the grass, watching blossom spring between them. "Why are you away from them?"

 

It was a while before she answered, long enough for him to fear that she was not going to answer him at all. But he heard her say something very softly to the prisoner, too quietly for Jasper to hear what it was, and heard the prisoner say something in return. Rodney watched them, twisting his hands, then looked back the way they had all come, biting his lip.

 

"I made the decision to leave them," Teyla said at last, "because I knew that I could serve them best in… a different place. I still believe it was the right decision, and there have been… other advantages."

 

Jasper did not understand. "But how--?"

 

"Leave it, junior." The prisoner sounded weary. "Where's Ronon? We need to… face the possibility that…"

 

"That the Whisperer's already here," Rodney said. "He spoke right here." He jabbed at his brow with one finger. "It was… It was quite horrible, actually."

 

"Yeah," said the prisoner, in the voice Jasper remembered from the water cell. "Being hunted usually is."

 

******

 

Pressed flat against the top of the crag, Kit could see the entire width of the flood. At its centre was the double line of trees that marked the original course of the river through its fertile flood plain, but now the water stretched from the hills to those on the other side, tainted at the edges with the mud from sodden fields.

 

"Quite the sight, isn't it?" he said.

 

Ronon, his predictable friend, said nothing.

 

"Behold the folly of man." Kit spread his hand, indicating a kingdom of loss and ruin. "That's what old Karris says, anyway. He used to bed some woman from Daryen, and he's been infected with that whole end of the world crap they've got going there. Gods coming back to judge us, and all."

 

"Quiet!"

 

Kit sighed. "It's not as if anyone can hear us, with them being down there, and us being here. There's such a thing as being too careful."

 

Ronon said nothing. The steamship had passed without stopping, anyway, its deck doubtless bristling with Myr's fineness, off to bring back their idiot prince and tear apart those evil villains who'd dare steal him. Should be thanking us, Kit thought. Rumour had it that the king despised his son and considered him a worthless fool.

 

"Can you actually see anything," he asked, "or are you just perching here like a gaer with its eyes on its prey because you think it looks impressive?"

 

"There's no-one now."

 

Kit watched the line steam slowly dispersing. The city of Myr itself was hidden by a spur of hillside away to the right. "Much as I appreciate the company," he said, careful to make his voice was sarcastic as possible, "you don't have to tag along with me. I work best alone. It's nothing personal, Ronon, but… Well, I can see you're a man of brawn, used to solving things with your fists. No disrespect to you for that, but this is different work. I've spent f-- a lifetime living by my wits on the streets. There's nothing I don't know about evading pursuit."

 

Ronon appeared to be studying the water's edge. "You left a footprint in a patch of mud back there. I got rid of it."

 

Clouds were gathering on the far side of the river, tinged with growing black. It was likely going to rain before the day was out; it usually did. It mattered more now, of course, out in the wilds, with everything at stake.

 

"Not that I don't welcome a fighting man like you at my back in case they do catch us, but…" He sighed, and looked at his hands in front of him, scraped on the back and stained with mud and rock dust. He'd always worked alone. No partner, no mate, no gang for him. Alone, when you didn't have to worry that another person would be the link that broke the chain and led to death and other unpleasantness. "You do keep going away, which isn't very polite." And then reappearing like a carril on silent feet, and slotting in beside Kit, leaving his heart pounding far too fast.

 

"Someone was down there earlier," Ronon said, "'bout two miles behind us. Three of them. Armed. I laid a false trail."

 

False trail. Kit moistened dry lips. Such things were easy when your playground was a maze of bridges and walkways and staircases and passageways. "And you didn't think to tell me?"

 

"Don't trust you." Ronon said it as a simple statement.

 

"Given the circumstances," Kit said stiffly – Gods! I sound like my uncle – "I would have thought it was obvious that I have as much interest as you do in not getting captured."

 

"Don't trust your skills. It's nothing personal, but I work best alone."

 

The man sounded totally serious, echoing Kit's words without even a glimmer of a smile, without even anything to show that he was doing it deliberately. For the space of ten too-fast heartbeats, Kit had no idea what to say.

 

"Don't think they're following," Ronon said, sliding away from the edge of the crag with the air of someone who had been doing this since birth, "but there'll be more."

 

"Yes." Kit followed him, then rolled onto his back, leaning against a rock. "Lots and lots of them. Whole armies of them, with Whisperers at their head, who, thanks to your friend Rodney, know exactly where we were just this morning, and all of them determined to give us a gory death."

 

"You sound like McKay."

 

Kit shuddered. "Thank you. Thank you very much." But he felt that shudder carry on inside him, and felt the unsteadiness of his own breathing. Eight days of this! Eight days with death breathing down his neck. Had he made the right decision? Perhaps nobody had recognised him outside the Citadel. Perhaps he could have shoved Ronon and his friends in the direction of the guards, then rushed off to lie low somewhere deep within the Drowned Quarter, to wait and watch for another chance to come along. "Eight days," he said out loud, "across open country, with the Debateable Lands to cross."

 

At last Ronon smiled, granting Kit a quick flash of his teeth. "I know some tricks." The smile disappeared. "Eight days is nothing."

 

"Easy to say."

 

"Not just saying." Ronon's voice was strange.

 

"Well, it's quite long enough for me," Kit said, "and may I remind you…" Gods! Like my uncle again. He pushed a strand of damp hair behind his ear. "At least you're seem to think you're heading home, wherever you home may be. I'm going the opposite way. Thanks to you and your friends, it I've got to make a new start with nothing."

 

"It's not so bad, making a new start." Ronon appeared to be staring at the strange pattern of markings on his forearm. "You--"

 

"Come on." Kit pushed himself to his feet, his hand scraping against rock as he did so in a way that he knew had drawn blood. "Let's rejoin our happy little band."

 

******

 

Halfway through the afternoon, blackness rolled across the sky. As they picked their way down a slope, darkness moved across the landscape ahead of them like a curtain. In the dwindling strip of land that still basked in the sun, every tree stood out and every rock appeared to shine. Behind it, everything was shadow, all detail gone, melted into the gloom. It was like a hand sweeping across the fabric of the world, wiping out life. And there, at the very end of it, Jasper saw a single tree bent low against the prevailing wind, shining and luminous in the sunlight, although everything behind it was black. Then the shadow reached even it, and everything was dull.

 

"Thank God!" Rodney exclaimed. "Now I might get through the day without dying of sun stroke. I'm going to be in agony tomorrow as it is, with sunburn. Does this world have sun screen?"

 

Jasper cherished the memory of that single tree, wrapping everything that he had around it and keeping it safe. It was beauty at the heart of shadow. (Teyla with her smile and her gleaming hair.) It was tenacity – a single thing determined to shine, while all around it was dark. (The prisoner's eyes glittering as he clung to the platform.) It was the joy of poetry, that saw the beauty of ordinary things – things that lesser men walked by without even seeing.

 

"You see him?" Ronon said sharply.

 

"Yes," he heard the prisoner say. "Over there."

 

They abruptly changed their path, heading sideways across the slope. Jasper almost stumbled, pebbles sliding beneath his feet, and the thief grabbed his arm painfully. "Careful!" he hissed, steadying him. Teyla's hair was darker in the shadow. Jasper wondered what to compose a poem about first: Teyla, or the tree. Perhaps both, he thought, since she was as slender as a tree and as strong and as beautiful. What rhymed with Teyla? Sailor, he thought. Gaoler. A woman could be said to be the gaoler of a man, since her beauty held him captive. He was not sure how sailors would fit in.

 

"Quick," Rodney panted behind him. "Hurry, hurry. Ow!" Jasper heard the sound of tumbling stone.

 

Ahead of them was a patch of trees, flowing like dark green liquid across the hillside. They had slender trunks, covered with white papery flakes, and broad leaves. They rose from the grass like slim maidens poised ready to dance, and they reached out to their sisters, their leaves brushing together and shutting out the light.

 

"Far enough," he heard the others say, and "here" and "down." He wondered if any of them saw the things that he saw. He wondered if they could walk side by side for the entire length of the world, and yet live in two different stories.

 

"What's happening?" he asked, because their world, his father's world, the world devoid of poetry and song, could still reach out and shatter all his dreams.

 

"Someone's coming." Ronon was crouching near the ground in a way that commanded Jasper not to see him. Even the angle of his back seemed to echo the angle of the tree trunks.

 

"From ahead of us," the prisoner said. "Some native. Didn't move like a soldier. Best be careful, though."

 

"Native." Jasper frowned. "People live here?"

 

"Course they do." That was the thief, his voice harsh. "Hundreds of thousands of people scattered across the hinterland, struggling to grow enough food to feed the hungry city of Myr, where nobody grows anything at all. Didn't you know?"

 

"Of course I knew." He crept forward. A twig dug painfully into his knee before snapping. He knew of the villages in the hills above Myr, and of towns across the river. Some of them even had names. Carmin produced the best cheese, and Fallow had produced rich red wines, until the rains had ruined the vines. Surviving bottles of fallowmead now sold for more than a casket of solid gold.

 

"You haven't noticed the smoke?" the thief demanded. "You haven't noticed walls? You haven't noticed merrow with letters dyed onto their coats? You haven't seen the huts and cottages that we've been oh so careful to avoid? By all the gods, boy, do you walk round with your eyes closed?"

 

"I walk round with my eyes open," Jasper retorted, "more than a man like you could ever do." He saw a small insect emerging from the bark. He saw a small fungus peeping from the soil at the base of the nearest tree, as white as the kind that went well with fowl, but shaped more like a hat. He knew that 'bark' could rhyme with 'dark', and he knew by heart a hundred different ways to tell a woman in verse that she was beautiful.

 

"Stop talking now please," Rodney whispered, "because – hello? Stranger approaching – could be Whisperer in disguise, sneaking up."

 

Jasper edged forward, stopping just short of Ronon. He could see the hillside spread before him, and perhaps that really was a path, Perhaps that line of piled stones had been piled there deliberately. He saw the man, too – a small figure trudging up the hill, showing no signs of the joy he would have expected from someone who lived in a verdant landscape like this. As the man drew closer, Jasper could see that he was exceedingly thin.

 

"Not a Whisperer," the thief said quietly from behind him. "Whisperers never look half-starved."

 

Jasper looked back over his shoulder. Teyla, the prisoner and Rodney were several paces behind. The prisoner wasn't even bothering to watch the approaching man, but was sitting with his back against a tree, his eyes closed.

 

"If he really is a farmer," Jasper said, making up his mind, "then we should introduce ourselves to him. We can share in the hospitality of his table." Luncheon had been bitter fruit and uncooked taba root and nothing more, and he was hungry.

 

Ronon's hand closed around his wrist, and stayed there until the man turned off the path and passed over the top of the rise. Jasper several times decided to say something about it, but thought better of it every time.

 

"Introduce ourselves," the thief said, although many heartbeats had passed, long enough to recite three score epic stanzas. "Jasper-lad wants to stroll out and say, 'Bow before me, peasant, for I am the crown prince.' What part of 'fugitive' don't you understand? Or are you bored with your little adventure already, and want to go running home to daddy? Because – oh, yes! – the worst you have to look forward to if we're captured is a lifetime of having servants wait on you hand and foot. For us, it's an agonising death."

 

"I didn't…" Jasper glanced at Teyla, but she was busy with something else. "I wasn't going to tell him my name. Farmers and… and honest peasants…" He curled his hand, fingers digging into his palm. This man was a common thief, he told himself, and there was no reason why he should make Jasper struggle for words. Honest farmers always help people in the stories, he thought, but he knew not to say that aloud. "I thought he'd help us. Food, and… and…"

 

"When he was so obviously starving and so obviously hasn't got enough food even for himself?" the thief snapped. "He looked sixty, but I'd wager he's no older than Rodney here. Probably buried his wife last winter. His oldest son has been taken for the army, and his second son's labouring in the city, building the rich men's palaces. His daughter's coughing with the summer-damp, but half of everything he grows has to go to his kingsman, who keeps a third part of it himself, and sends the rest to the city."

 

"How…?" Jasper swallowed. "You don't know that. You're making it up."

 

"I'll wager it's true, though, or something like it. And there he is, clinging onto life, struggling to survive, and you wanted to land six hungry mouths on him? He'd have punched you in the face, boy, or fallen over dead from the shock where he stood. Gods!" The prisoner spat. "I don't know who's the worse fool: you, or that poor sod out there who doesn't see that this is a world on the way out."

 

"Huh," Rodney said. "The thief has a heart of gold, after all."

 

"Not me." The thief stood up, pressing his hand against the pale bark. "I'd rob him where he stood if he came close enough." He flashed a quick, cold smile. "Perhaps I still will. But I know how things stand. I hate people who don't, that's all."

 

Then show me, Jasper almost said, but did not.

 

******

 

Just as the light was beginning to fade, they found a broad clear stream. "Can we camp here?" Rodney's voice was hopeful.

 

They could reasonably manage at least another hour of walking before it got too dark to carry on. Kit almost said so, then looked at Sheppard swaying on his feet with a dazed expression, Ronon and Teyla standing around him like bloody bodyguards, ready to bite the hands off anyone who tried to make him go any further. Even Rodney's flapping was done with many a quick, nervous glance Sheppard's way. Only Jasper was oblivious, staring at the water with an idiot grin on his face, clearly transfixed by the beauty of his golden-haired reflection.

 

"Fine." Kit sighed, using his best long-suffering voice. Truth was, he was exhausted himself. Back in Myr, chases were short and swift and desperate, and ended with you breathless in your hiding place, hearing your pursuer stamp away. Companions were people you drank with for a few hours, then left to go on your way. He had let himself get rattled, he knew. He had said more than he should have to the idiot prince, surprising even himself.

 

"I'll get dinner," Ronon said, stalking off into the twilight. Teyla went with him. Kit briefly considered following them, on the grounds that anyone who went out of their way to have a private conversation deserved to have it overheard, then decided that he couldn't care less what they were talking about. Probably nothing good about him, but that was fine by him. He wasn't in this game to be liked. It wasn't as if they were likely to run away, not with their precious Sheppard left behind. You didn't risk your lives to get someone out of the Citadel only to abandon them beside a stream with only a thief, an idiot prince and a prattling… whatever he was for company.

 

It was not a bad place for a camp, really, with a small cluster of trees sheltering them from prying eyes, and with a ready source of fresh water. "This is safe?" Rodney asked, poised with his leather bottle over the stream. "It's not going to flood overnight and sweep us all away?"

 

Kit grinned. "It already did that." He pointed at boulders cast up against the trees. "Late summer rains did that last year, I'd guess. Round about this time of year, it was. Almost exactly, now I come to think of it."

 

Rodney snatched the bottle back, and teetered backwards over the stones, heading back beyond the trees.

 

"Why do you go out of your way to make people dislike you?"

 

The voice took him by surprise, and he cursed. Last thing he'd seen, Sheppard hadn't looked like he was going anywhere. "Why…?" He cursed again; cleared his throat. "Why do you say that?"

 

"No reason." Sheppard smile was strangely familiar. "You remind me someone I know, that's all."

 

Kit stamped towards the water. Sheppard followed him, settling himself down with evident difficulty on a flat stone, his feet stretched out above the water. He was obviously hurting, but he made no sound of pain. "Don't go looking for a heart of gold," Kit told him, "because I hate to disappoint people."

 

Sheppard looked at him. "I won't."

 

Kit filled his bottle and emptied it over his head. It was bitterly, deliciously cold. The evening air tingled on the wet skin like fingers creeping all over his flesh.

 

******

 

After dinner, Teyla and Ronon cut branches from the trees, took turns with a knife to whittle them clean, and then whirled around each other, clashing the sticks together in ritual dance.

 

It was the most beautiful thing that Jasper had ever seen.

 

Teyla was lit by the fading light of evening and the fierce hunger of the flames. She moved like a flame herself, never still, going where she willed. Ronon was water, silver and dark like the flood, surging like the tides, swirling like a river's currents.

 

"What are they doing?" he breathed when there was a lull; when the two of them faced each other breathless and smiling and wild.

 

"Sparring," the prisoner said.

 

"Showing off," said Rodney.

 

"Teaching a lesson," the thief said with a hoarse laugh.

 

Afterwards, Ronon made them put the fire out, "because it's warm enough for the cold not to kill us, and people might see it."

 

Rodney cleared his throat. "Speaking of which…?"

 

"No sign yet."

 

With the last glimmer of firelight, Jasper saw Rodney's hand flutter nervously towards his pocket, then away again.

 

"Warm enough not to kill us," Rodney said, when the fire was out. "That's not comforting. Do you know how cold the body can get without actually dying?"

 

"Cloud keeps the heat of the day in."

 

"And sunburn – don't forget that. That disturbs the body's natural thermostat."

 

No-one said anything for quite a while. The sound of the stream seemed to grow and grow until it filled Jasper's whole being with its song. "We should tell stories," he said. "Will you tell me a story of your people, Teyla?"

 

She did, but it sounded like a children's tale, all about a boy who didn't heed his father's warnings and headed off into the ruins, but ended up outwitting an aven – ("which is somewhat similar to a wolf," Teyla said. "Sounds more like a crebyn to me," said the thief.) – and returning home with enough hides and tuttleroot to feed and clothe his family for half a year.

 

The prisoner then started to tell about a young man called Luke Skywalker and a princess who called for his aid, but then he stopped half way through a sentence. Jasper heard him breathe in, hold it, the breathe out again. "Perhaps another day," he said.

 

Rodney said he would tell the tale of Doctor McKay – Jasper's head snapped up at that; he had been hoping to hear the legend of the awful McKay – and how he finally achieved the recognition he deserved, was given a Nobel Prize (clearly some sort of precious jewel), and never again had to almost die in hideous and ridiculous ways because of reckless colonels and trigger-happy cavemen. He didn't actually tell it, though, though his voice rose hopefully after his introduction, as if he was expecting some sort of reaction.

 

The thief claimed not to know any stories. "And we don't want Ronon to tell one," Rodney said, "or we'll all have nightmares."

 

There was nothing much after that. As night went on, Jasper grew accustomed to the dark, enough to see the vague outlines of his companions. One by one they lay down, though he had no idea who it was who first started snoring. Whenever he woke in the night, though, which was often, one or other of them was sitting up. The first time it was Ronon, facing away towards the hills. The second time it was Teyla, and she turned towards him when Jasper opened his eyes, and he almost said something, but did not dare to. The final time, it was Rodney, but the prisoner was also up, his back against a tree, watching them all.

 

******

 

Chapter six

Just a memory and a name

__

 

"Isn't this just wonderful?" Rodney was grumbling. "Burned to a crisp yesterday – do I look red? Which is just the outward manifestation of unseen damage, of course, caused by yet another exposure to… Anyway…" He wrapped his arms around his body, grimacing. "And today rain. These peasant clothes are going to chafe. I have surprisingly sensitive skin."

 

"Do you?" Kit drew his knife and scraped it along his thumb nail. "How interesting."

 

"Don't threaten McKay." Sheppard's voice sounded casual, but Kit had long-since learned how to recognise a threat, no matter how a man chose to say it. "We're the only ones allowed to do that."

 

"He was threatening me?" Rodney looked round anxiously. "What's with you military types and villain types with all your double entendres for hurting people, and…? He was threatening me?"

 

"Yes, McKay, but he didn't really mean it."

 

"Oh. And you know that how?"

 

Kit sheathed the knife. It was almost noon, he thought, and it had been raining since just before breakfast. There was not a single part of him that was not wet, and when they climbed, sweat came out to join the happy party. The only one who seemed completely unbothered by the conditions was Ronon, who kept stalking off like a hunting carril, sometimes checking the path ahead, and sometimes looking behind. Kit decided to leave him to it. It was quite obvious that Ronon knew his business; in a job like Kit's, your life often depended on assessing someone else's expertise, and misplaced pride tended to get you killed.

 

Rodney yawned dramatically. "Days on this pl--… Okay, okay, don't look at me like that. Days at this particular latitude, whatever that may be, so far away from our simple village home, are longer than days on… where we're used to. There can be serious complications, both physical and physiological, from messing with your circadian rhythms, you know. And we're being expected to cram eight days of physical activity into a length of time closer to ten. It's summer, so their nights are at their shortest, but the days..." He yawned again.

 

"You want to stop for lunch, Rodney?" Teyla asked with a smile.

 

"No, seriously, I'm concerned for all of us. Sleep deprivation isn't pretty – believe me, I know."

 

"Yeah, Rodney, it's not as if it's something new." Sheppard was walking with one hand pressed to his middle. "After all the… places we have been."

 

"And been stranded on."

 

"Spent the night on, and with you snoring…"

 

"I do not!"

 

"Not to mention the, uh, new neighbourhood."

 

Kit studied Sheppard during the exchange; saw how he was fighting to make each word come out so lightly. Gods! he thought. If he had been feeling as Sheppard quite obviously was feeling, he'd be screaming the place down with his agony, or else keeping his mouth tightly shut. The rain appeared to have washed all the colour from his skin, leaving only smears of pink high on his cheek bones. The bandages at his wrists were pink and sodden with rain. His heart was beating quite visibly at the base of his throat, and his breathing was off, too, as if he was having to consciously fight to control it.

 

"But since Rodney asks so nicely…" Sheppard said now. "A short break sounds good."

 

Why did they all keep up the fiction, Kit wondered, that the break was nothing to do with Sheppard's condition? The idiot prince, nice and dry under his expensive coat, might be gaping in a way that showed that he was still walking around with his eyes tightly shut, but everyone else knew the truth. Why wouldn't any of them speak about the fact that Sheppard was clearly struggling, and that his friends were worrying themselves sick about him?

 

He tried Teyla first, when she wandered off a little way, perhaps to scan the grey world for signs of Ronon coming back. "Sheppard's not doing well," he said.

 

She did not look at him. "I know."

 

He should have left it there. "But when you ask him, and he says he's good, you don't push it."

 

"No," she said, and sounded weary, far wearier than Rodney had sounded with his fake yawns.

 

Ronon came back, a shadow taking shape from mist. "Nothing yet," he said.

 

"They're biding their time." Rodney wrung his hands. "Lulling us into a false sense of security." He lifted the front of his tunic, twisting water out of it. "At least prison would be dry."

 

"Don't count on it," Sheppard said, the last word turning into a cough.

 

The rain deadened sound. The idiot prince, wandering away to stare like a dumb merrow into the mist, was just a shape in a coat. Ronon and Teyla moved away, and not even Kit's sharp ears could hear what they were saying.

 

Kit crouched down next to Sheppard. "They aren't fooled, you know."

 

Sheppard pursed his lips, then let out a breath. "I know."

 

"So why don't you give up on this little game and just tell them how crappy you feel? They know. You know that they know. They know that you know that they know." He gestured uselessly with the sharp edge of his hand. "This is just crazy."

 

"Crazy?" Sheppard's smile might even have been genuine. "Been called that before."

 

But it was no answer, though, and perhaps that was just as well. "I'm just concerned about the time we're making," Kit said, deliberately loudly, as he stood up, "which is too slow, given the certain death that's even now closing on our tail."

 

******

 

As their path rose even higher, the rain became a fine mist that penetrated everything. Jasper knew they were walking through the very heart of a cloud. How strange, he thought, that when you were beneath them, clouds were beautiful ethereal things, but when you were in them, they were just water. Everything was just water. Life came from water, so very long ago when even the stars were new, and it ended in water, too, with his childhood home lost beneath the flood. Engineers in their factories by the sea swore that water, in the form of steam, would allow them to bend the whole world to their will. Even breath was made of water, beading in droplets on a looking glass. Even life.

 

Jasper was hot beneath his coat, but at least it kept the worst of the rain off him. His feet were sodden, though, protected only by shoes designed for strolling the corridors of the Citadel. They were rubbing him horribly at the heels, and his legs were beginning to ache quite terribly. Such things were never talked about in the stories.

 

"I want to stop," he said,

 

The others walked on, each one hunched against the rain. The rain was a cape of solitude, he thought, wrapping each of them in a layer that cut them off from everybody else.

 

"I'm tired." Strange shapes towered on either side of their path – grey masses of twisted stone. Jasper moved closer towards one, and found that the rain ceased. "It's sheltered here."

 

"Not yet," the thief said, the rain dulling the usual edge to his words.

 

"You stop whenever Rodney asks." Jasper watched their shapes move ever further away from him, becoming spirits in the mist. "I could order you," he said quietly.

 

Perhaps none of them heard him. With a sigh, Jasper trudged after them. The prisoner at least, he noticed, turned as if to make sure that he was still there. Jasper resolved to make the best of it. Tamorlin and the others had faced far worse than this, and had shown their greatness by how they responded to adversity. Valorian had walked from Daryen to Myr with a hole in his belly, just to rescue a friend. Talis had walked into the furnace at the sunward tip of the world, because a boy who had once sworn to follow him was lost there. Myra had given up everything for Tamorlin, but when they had feared that she would die for her devotion, she had told him that she was happier here, dying with him, than on all the silken cushions in her father's palace. Such feats as these had not been seen for a thousand years, but they were remembered, and so Jasper could endure the pain of sore feet and the misery of the rain, and in his heart, an echo of the spirit of those long-dead heroes would live again.

 

Besides, he thought, a gifted poet could see beauty even in the dullest of days. The world was reduced to shades of grey, like thin layers of silk laid one upon the other. The rock formations towered like frozen giants, locked in stone. That one there raised its fist in defiance. That one there was down on its knees, beseeching.

 

An animal howled from the mist, and then another. Jasper imagined it was the wailing of a giant trapped forever in stone, forced to watch travellers pass below their feet forever more.

 

He almost crashed into Rodney's back. "You stopped," he said accusingly.

 

"Ronon went that way." Rodney was shielding his eyes from the rain, peering into the gloom. "Hunting dinner."

 

There was another howl, only one, fainter and further away. "Is that a wild crebyn?" Jasper asked. "According to Faralith the Scholar, they don't taste good. He should go after something else."

 

"God!" Rodney whirled on him. "Are you totally self-centred? And they say I'm bad, but at least I… at least I… God!" He pressed his hand to his face, almost slapping it there, wiping away rain.

 

"I…" Jasper tasted rain on his lips. "I am a poet."

 

"And I'm a genius. So what?"

 

"I… I see other things." Like frozen giants, where they only saw stone. Like the precious thing that was Teyla, where they saw someone to travel with, just like any man. "My mind… Sometimes it's chasing the right word for a thing, roaming down golden passages far removed from this petty world. Sometimes I…" He drew himself up, knowing that he should not feel any shame. "But when I turn my poet's eye on the people around me, I see more truly than--"

 

"God!" Rodney sounded truly furious. Jasper looked for help, but Teyla and the others were gone. "Ronon might be dead right now, savaged by a wild beast. Sheppard's walking himself into an early grave and you just babble about poems and ask what's for dinner and don't give the slightest sign of noticing that--" He scraped the water from his face again. "God! Is this what I sound like?"

 

The creature howled one last time. Something else sounded, short and sharp. Rodney moved towards the noise, his hand going to his belt, reaching for something that wasn't there. "Of course it isn't," he said. "I gave it to Sheppard. What a truly genius idea that was. Give the pistol to man with a hero complex, who thinks the best treatment for serious injury is running around shooting things."

 

Jasper chewed his lip, unsure for the first time. "What's happening?"

 

"Epic battle of man against wolf." Rodney's hands were opening and closing as if he wished he had something in them.

 

"Oh." Jasper wrapped his arms around his body, keeping the rain out. "I'm not self-centred," he said. "I'm not blind. I know that the-- that Sheppard was hurt. I was there. But he…" Clings on. Stares death in the face and refuses to give in. Found the strength to escape. "He's strong. He's the tree that bends in the wind, but will never break. And Ronon…" Ronon scared him a little, but he remembered him doing the ritual dance with Teyla. "Ronon's deep water. Nothing can stop him."

 

Rodney sighed loudly. "Spare me from self-centred brats with an over-inflated idea of their own--"

 

"Speaking about yourself here, Rodney?"

 

"Sheppard!" Rodney whirled round. Jasper knew that he was instantly forgotten. "And you…? And Ronon. Good Ronon. I mean, it's good to see you, big guy, looking so… alive, not even slightly mauled. And Teyla. For a moment there – not that I was panicking, of course – I thought you were…"

 

"And dinner," Ronon said.

 

"Oh. Oh. That's… big."

 

"Sharp teeth, too."

 

"It didn't bite you, did it? Rabies, you know?"

 

"And I'm alive, too," said the thief, strolling slowly from the mist, jabbing a knife into a sheath at his belt. "Thanks for asking."

 

None of them made any reaction at all. Jasper found himself watching the thief's face as the man sighed, set his shoulders to the wind, and said, "On we go, then."

 

******

 

The rain stopped shortly before sundown. At first Kit thought it was just because they were coming down out of the low clouds, but when he turned and looked behind him, the craggy hilltops were clear of mist.

 

"At last!" Rodney exclaimed.

 

"Too late to do any good," Kit was able to tell him. "You're sleeping in wet clothes tonight, Rodney."

 

Kit wasn't sure if he felt worse or better now that they were out of the mist. Enemies could creep up on you in the mist, but they could miss you, too, wandering aimlessly past you at a hundred paces without having the faintest idea that you were there. Gods, he hated this! He pushed sodden hair off his face. In Myr, there was always cover. Being hunted across such a vast expanse of land was something completely different, something that threatened to peel off all the careful masks he had learned to wear while going about his business. Well, perhaps you should have thought about this before getting involved in this game, Kit my lad.

 

Ronon also looked edgy. Sheppard was walking with the very deliberate steps of a drunkard. Kit wondered if he would still persist in saying that he was well even as he gasped out his last breath. At least if he died, they would be free to continue their journey without him slowing them down. At least if he died… Something twisted inside him, and Kit thought that it was a conscience, telling him that this thought was unworthy even of him.

 

"What's that?" Rodney asked, pointing down the slope, away to the left.

 

Kit frowned. "How in the flood am I supposed to know? I'm not your 'local expertise' out here. Ask Jasper-lad. He is at least going to be lord over this whole place when his father snuffs it. He's supposed to care for every speck of earth as if it is own blood, and for every one of its children as if they were his own. That's how the story goes, eh, Jasper-lad?"

 

"I… I've never been here before," the boy stammered, predictable and stupid.

 

"You seem to know the way quite well," Sheppard observed quietly, looking at Kit.

 

"But since none of you apparently have eyes," Kit said harshly, "then it falls to me to explain the obvious. Mud-slide, probably in last summer's rains." It was a scraped brown scar on the side of the hill, from the tip of the crags down to the valley below, and although grass had already begun to colonise it again, it was still sparse. "These things happen."

 

"Not that." Rodney sounded distracted. "That."

 

"Oh, because I'm a Whisperer and can read your mind?" Stop it, Kit. Just stop it. He could not let himself get rattled, not to this extent. There were some things that you did not joke about, no matter what masks you wore.

 

But Rodney was already walking away, picking his way through the scattered rocks, grimacing over patches of mud, sliding for a while – "Ow! Ow! Ow!" – as if drawn by the tumble of rocks that protruded from the scraped earth.

 

Sheppard and the others followed without a word. Kit saw Jasper gaping after them, doubtful and unsure, and for the first time he almost felt for the boy. "When you throw your lot in with crazy people, my lad…" he said, letting the rest of it hang.

 

"I'm not a boy," the prince said, "and you're not much older than me."

 

And perhaps that was true, Kit thought, as he struggled across the slope. He almost lost his footing. He was only twenty-four years old. It had only been four years. Sometimes it felt like a lifetime. Sometimes he looked at people older than him and thought of them as children. Sometimes, when he saw himself in the dark water of the flood, he seemed like an old man.

 

"It's just what I suspected," Rodney was saying, when Kit caught them up. "Built out of native stone, but just look at the patterning there, colonel. Unmistakeable. It must have been buried until the mud-slide scraped the top layer off, and then the rain washed away the mud."

 

"Fascinating." Sheppard was supporting himself on an angular spar of stone. There appeared to be blood on his fingertips, almost concealed, but not quite.

 

"We should have expected it, of course." Rodney's eyes were alight like the eyes of a Daryen fanatic preaching the end of the world. "The Whisperers clearly have the ATA gene, and they sure as hell didn't make those devices they were using. They must have stumbled on a repository somewhere."

 

"An Ancient radio store?" Sheppard wiped his hand on his dark clothes, then reached quite casually for the spar again.

 

"Something like that." Rodney gave a quick humourless smile. "They do seem to be something of a one-trick pony, unless they have a bunch of other devices they haven't unleashed on us yet. But that's not the point. The point is--"

 

"We are not digging with our bare hands, McKay. The possibility of there being a ZPM here is--"

 

"Yes, yes, I know that, but--"

 

"What are they talking about?" the idiot prince said in a low voice.

 

"Speaking to a common thief?" Kit raised his eyebrows. "I am honoured, my lord." He wiped damp hands on his clothes. It was late enough, and he was wet enough, for the air to feel almost cold. "They're telling us," he said, "that a certain Rodney McKay has no understanding of priorities."

 

"These… stones…" Jasper waved his lily-white hand. "They're… made?"

 

Made. Yes. The air felt colder. He did not mean to take a step back, he really didn't. "That's just superstition." 

 

"I know." The poor fool thrust his trembling chin out, clearly trying to be brave and resolved, probably with capital letters. "No-one educated in Myr believes in the Gods of Stone." The emphasis was there. In Daryen, of course, it was oh so different.

 

"Gods?" Teyla asked. Kit started, and took another step back.

 

The idiot boy turned towards her as if she if was a clear spring in the parched wilderness. "The Gods of Stone," he said. "There are stories. Not like the true stories, of course, but older ones. They built shining cities and they rode in chariots of shining silver through the stars. Man had not long emerged from the First Flood, and lived in huts of mud and branches, and wore hides, but the Gods brought hope and knowledge, and lifted them up briefly so that they, too, could walk among the stars. Then they faded, and became just a memory and a name, and then even memory dwindled and only the name survives."

 

Just a memory and a name… Kit cleared his throat. "Fancy that! The boy really is a poet." He made his voice harsh.

 

"But some men say," the boy continued, putting on the full show for his lady love, "that their cities are still there beneath the earth, and that the Gods are not gone but sleeping. They say that they will wake in their own time, and if any man should ever happen to stumble upon even the smallest pinnacle of their citadels, he should stay away and make his children stay away, and their children's children forever more."

 

"What happens if they do not?" Teyla asked. Behind her, Rodney and Sheppard were talking in fierce whispers. Ronon appeared to have decided that this was where they were having dinner, and had slung the crebyn down onto a stone slab and was sharpening his knife.

 

"The Gods will wake before their time, and be most wroth." The boy's shoulders slumped. "I don't believe it. Of course I don't believe it, but…"

 

"The locals do." Kit jerked his chin to a place outside the scattered stone, where faded wreaths and white animal bones were clustered round a jagged stake. "Propitiatory offerings," he explained, when the boy's mouth gaped open. "Though why the Gods are meant to be impressed when the whole point of the story is that they're sleeping, I don't know." He pushed past the prince; forced his feet to walk steadily to Ronon's side. "So we're stopping here, then? Forgive me for forgetting the moment when we chose you as leader."

 

"It's sheltered. Good cover. You get good hiding when people are afraid of a place."

 

Kit grunted, but he could not argue. When he crouched down next to the blood-stained slab, the stone wall behind him blocked out the entire view of the hillside behind. There was even something approximating a tiny fragment of ceiling, and a tumbled arch ahead of them would shield any fire they lit from eyes in the valley.

 

And if the place felt bad… Well, that was only ridiculous, stupid superstition, and Kit the thief did not believe in things like that.

 

******

 

"Quiet!" Ronon hissed, as Jasper was opening his mouth to speak. His belly was full of crebyn, and he had hoped that there would be some proper storytelling, perhaps even a song.

 

"But…" He pressed his lips closed. Teyla and Ronon were dousing the fire, but this time the last thing he saw was not a face, but the angular edge of a wall that was clearly not crafted by nature.

 

No-one believes it, he told himself. No-one educated, anyway. The historians in the university wrote books about it, claiming to have proved beyond doubt that the ruins were made by some long-lost race of men, whose kingdoms have been wiped out by some cataclysm. Most of those books lay beneath Myr's own cataclysm, or were wrinkled and beaded with mould, plucked out of the way of the rapidly-rising water just in time.

 

"Someone's coming," Ronon whispered.

 

A hand grabbed his arm. A hand was pressed against his mouth, firm and brief and warning. He hoped it was Teyla, but it smelled of sweat and earth and smoke and unfeminine things.

 

Who's coming? he thought. They said that the Gods would rise from the ruins. Some said that the spirits of their servants went ahead of them, and drove those who lingered in the ruins out of their minds. They were good, the Gods, but they were terrible, too, their goodness not measured on the petty scale of men. And they are not true, he thought. They are not true. He was no credulous fool, to believe all stories. Even when it was cold and damp. Even when it was dark. Even when he could hear distant voices and knew that people were coming, that people were coming.

 

"You ready?" the prisoner said, fainter than a breath.

 

The shape that was Ronon nodded. Teyla was beside him, like a deadly sword drawn from a lovely scabbard.

 

Stone scraped beneath his knuckles. He could not see them, these men that were passing in the night. He thought they were riding on merrilyn, their many hooves out of step with each other, creating a dull rumble. They were talking, and he could almost make the sound form words, but not quite. Was that 'prince' that they said? Was that 'Whisperer'? He waited for their voices to go sharp with a 'I see them!' or to shrug a 'nothing there.' They were the babble of a stream that you knew was speaking in words, but could not understand. They were perhaps the end of his adventure, but he could not hear them.

 

"They were wearing the king's livery," the thief said, and it was only then, only with that, that Jasper realised that the danger was passed, and the men had passed by without seeing them.

 

I am not afraid, he told the stones. I am not afraid of you. And he crafted rhymes – stones, bones, moans – until, at length, he slept.

 

******

 

Kit woke with the start. The Gods of Stone! he thought, pressing his hand to his racing heart. The fucking gods of fucking stone. Lies that parents spouted to try to stop their children from going off and doing whatever they wanted. Not true. Certainly not true.

 

"No," he heard someone moan. "No."

 

Not spirits. Not the shadows of whatever long-dead people had really built a place like this. He sat up, grimacing at the pull of damp clothes.

 

"No…"

 

It was Sheppard, he realised, lost in some fever-driven nightmare. Interesting, he thought. So not even Sheppard's dogged determination was enough to keep him silent in the night. In sleep, all masks were off.

 

"Come back," Sheppard whispered. Then, almost in a normal voice, he said, "No, I'll do it."

 

He saw a shape moving towards Sheppard through the stones. "Sheppard," Ronon said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Stop that."

 

Sheppard moaned, his head lashing from side to side, and then he was still. Ronon stayed there, crouching beside him, for a very long time.

 

Kit found it hard to sleep after that. He wondered if his dreams were audible in the dark.

 

******

 

The sun was just beginning to slide free of the clouds when Jasper opened his eyes. In the sunlight the stone walls were almost white, like a spiritwing newly emerged from its chrysalis. He inhaled the scent of damp morning grass, feeling the sharp stab of memories: dawn in the palace gardens, on the terrace by the river, and his nurse holding his hand and bringing him flowers.

 

The others were already awake. The prisoner was leaning against a wall, and Rodney was bending over him. "Yes, I know," Jasper heard the prisoner say, "but what choice do we have?" His eyes were glittering as they had glittered in the cell, and the hand at his side was as white and clenched as it had been on the platform.

 

"You could…" Rodney spread his hands; closed them again. "Or not."

 

A patch of goldenrod grew from the tumbled stones. Jasper watched a darting bird, more courageous than its fellows, perch on the furthest tumbled wall to sing its liquid song. You couldn't believe that a place was dangerous when even the birds and the flowers gave it their blessing. Just a superstition, he thought. Perhaps, when he was home again, he would seek out the scholars in their new home in the hills, and get them to tell him everything they knew about the distant people whose buildings lay beneath the grassy mounds.

 

Teyla brought him some breakfast, smiling at him. Then that same smile turned towards the prisoner, where it slowly faded. Jasper knew that the prisoner was not doing well. Breakfast was the same as dinner, almost blackened this time. Crebyn tasted far better than Faralith had led him to believe.

 

"That is a ridiculous idea!" Rodney burst out.

 

"Think about it." The prisoner's hand curled into a fist, while his other hand rose to his chest. "He said he knew where we were, but he hasn't… hasn't found us, and we haven't been making good time. I say he was bluffing."

 

"That's a pretty big assumption."

 

"You heard him. You sensed him." The prisoner barely moved, but his eyes seemed to pin Rodney in place. "Did you get any impression at all of where he was?"

 

The birdsong faded, and he could no longer smell grass. Would you? Jasper remembered. Could you? He did not understand what they were talking about, but even he felt pinned.

 

"No," Rodney said at last, shaking his head. "But that doesn't change anything. It's a crazy idea, even for you. You can hardly stand, for crying out loud."

 

"Super-powered gene, remember?" The prisoner flashed a grin. "Better than your fake one."

 

Jasper wrested his attention away. The bird had gone, he realised, but he stood and watched the sunlight spread over the valley, and in that moment it was as if all the stories were real, and the Gods of Stone were waving their hands and bringing light and hope to a people who had always lived only in shadow.

 

"This is so not a good idea," he heard Rodney say, but the prisoner hissed, "Quiet!" and Jasper found himself catching his breath, holding it there, reluctant to let it go, and when a black-winged hobin cawed above him, he willed quiet! at it, too, although he had no idea why.

 

All was still when he turned back. The prisoner was touching the Whisperer's globe, which was glowing like summer sky reflected in clear water. Rodney was chewing his lip, and Teyla looked troubled. Ronon looked as if he was ready to fight somebody, and even the thief was watching with dark-flooded eyes, swallowing and swallowing again.

 

"Is anybody there?" the prisoner murmured, and Rodney brought his hand to his face as if in despair.

 

Then nothing, then nothing, and then the prisoner said, "Yes." His eyes narrowed. "No," he said. Rodney half reached towards him, then snatched his hand back. "Ask a guy called Kolya about that."

 

Rodney sucked in a breath. Teyla and Ronon exchanged a glance. Then the prisoner dropped the globe, giving it a shove so that it rolled three times, then came to rest against a stone. It was no longer glowing.

 

"There." The prisoner rested his head against the wall, his eyes closed. He looked as if all the light that had been put into the globe had come from him. "A nice piece of… misdirection, if I do say so myself. And a threat. Threats never do any harm." He opened his eyes, looking up at the sky. "Here's hoping it worked."

 

******

 

By mid-morning, their clothes were dry. Kit walked along in the heat and tried to tell himself that walking away from those ruined walls had not felt like stepping out of a prison cell into the light. By late morning, it was clear that they were heading into more settled land. Instead of tracks, there were roads. Instead of scattered cottages, there were villages. Carved stone posts by the wayside announced the distance to proper towns. The nearest one, smoke and roof-tops rising from well-tended fields, was apparently called Paramor.

 

All it meant, of course, was that they had to do more hiding.

 

When the sun had reached it peak and already started to fall again, Teyla came to Kit. "To what do I owe this honour?" he asked, but he thought he knew. Unlike certain people he could name, he had eyes in his head, and he knew how to use them.

 

"Colonel Sheppard is very sick," she said gravely. "He is stubborn--" And that was said with heavy emphasis, as if daring him to say a word. "--and he will keep going, but I fear that he cannot keep going for much longer."

 

Kit gave a bark of laughter. "And that, of course, is your chief concern: that's he's going to keel over and slow you down. Who's the mean-hearted bastard now? After the effort you went to get him back, I thought you'd be more concerned about him keeling over and dying, or the pain he has to endure with every step."

 

"I am." Her voice was sharp blades. "I said it in a way that would make sense to you."

 

It was several more steps before he could trust himself to speak again. "You dislike me." He tried to keep it light.

 

"All that matters right now," she said, "is that John needs help. Do your people have drugs – potions or poultices or drinks that can take a fever down or ease pain?"

 

"Do we have drugs?" He laughed, shaking his head. "Believe me, you never want to see a poor sod out of his mind with janna root hunger." He almost said more, but her expression was fierce and full of worry. Ahead of them, Sheppard walked along in a line that was far too straight to be anything other than the result of an excruciating effort of will. Stupid! Kit thought. So stupid! But, "We have these things," he told her, "but I haven't got them on me right now. Sorry."

 

"The town would have them?" she asked. "Clean bandages, too. Maybe some blankets. We need a pack to carry supplies in, and more bottles for water."

 

"Quite the shopping list you're giving me there." Kit sighed theatrically. "You want me to steal them?"

 

"John says you have money at your belt."

 

Kit cursed. "Not content with playing the hero, he has to spy on me." His hand went to his precious beads. "Fine. I'll pay. Turn over a new leaf. Three days with such shining moral examples as you four, and I'm a new person. Behold my heart of gold." All the while, his mind was working on the situation, going through the familiar calculations. They were walking beside a dense line of trees that marked the edge of a field full of golden quorm, as high as their shoulders. They were close enough to town to hear the sound of the steam engine working on the home farm. On the far side of the trees there was a levelled road, and where a tree was fallen, he could see glimpses of houses. Ahead of him, the others had stopped walking, and Ronon was coming back towards them, wading through a sea of quorm. Kit grinned. "I'll be there and back before friend Ronon can hunt and roast six sorel."

 

"I'm coming with you," Ronon said. He and Teyla were clearly in on this together.

 

Kit shook his head. "Not this time, big guy. See, I'm a reasonable man – got to be to stay alive – and I can see that you are creepily good at this wilderness lark, but don't forget that I watched you blunder your way through Myr. Towns are my kingdom. I've been doing this for years." He held up his hand, forestalling any objection. "Ronon," he said, mock apologetic, "I'm afraid you're just too big. You'll stand out. Make honest shop-keepers run screaming. You're memorable. And if questions are asked… Me, I know how to blend in."

 

He left before they could argue, pushing his way through the trees. It felt like another world on the other side, one that was lived in full view. After a short while, he reached a fork in the road, and took the one towards town. A farmer passed him, and Kit smiled jauntily, tipping an imaginary hat. A pair of girls approached, and he adjusted his mask and blushed at them, a shy peasant lad out on an errand for his master.

 

It was good to be alone, he thought. It was good to be free from the boy's gaping, and Sheppard's idiotic, troubling endurance. It was good to out here doing what he was best at, plying his games in plain sight. With every step, he felt more like himself again. He had begun to lose that, he thought, over the last few days.

 

The town was just like any other, with a hundred houses clustered around an ale-house and a meeting hall. Small-scale merchants plied their trade in houses in the main street, with painted boards and printed banners shouting their wares: fruit and vegetables; candles and gas lamps, the latter a hasty addition; tools and implements; books. Kit lingered by each window until the merchant inside pricked up his ears and came rushing out, then shook his head and moved on. He had no intention of spending money if he could help it.

 

He parted with a bead in the ale-house, though. From the assorted greybeards inside, he learnt that the kingsman was away from home, and that a Whisperer was expected in town by evening, on the same business that the messenger had told them about the day before, and old Lankin the headman had no idea what to do, no idea how to entertain one of them, and they never thought they'd live to say that they wished that old Maddick was home again.

 

Kit left the rest of his ale untouched. A Whisperer. A Whisperer was coming. Suddenly the fact that he was in plain sight no longer felt comforting at all. Best do what I came here for, he thought. Do it quick, and get back, then get out of here as fast as we can run.

 

Moving away from the main street, he found a lane at the back, and wandered past the crumbling backs of houses that showed a sparkling front to the world. At the fourth one, he struck lucky, finding a window that was open a crack. He crouched beneath it long enough to confirm that no-one was moving inside, pried it open – easy! – and then crept in.

 

He found an empty pack slung over a chair in the kitchen, and grabbed it. The dresser held spools and bobbins and bits and pieces, and… oh, a knife! Knives were always useful. He couldn't find a firearm, but that was hardly surprising. Another drawer held bandages and a twist of paper that claimed to come from Mars the Miracle Medicine Man and to cure all ailments. Grimacing, he dropped it into the bag, then rummaged deeper, finding a small box of familiar bark and a bottle of brown liquid. Better, he thought. Fancy that! I'm actually doing what I was asked. He had never stolen for others before. Not unless they paid him, that is.

 

There was still space in the pack for plenty more, though. Teyla wanted blankets, and Kit felt the need to grab himself some food that wasn't wild animal roasted into to charred oblivion. He headed upstairs.

 

He had no idea why he failed to hear them. By the time he whirled round, sensing them, the cudgel was already raised. I am so screwed, he thought, as he struck the ground, as he saw his own outstretched hand through a red cloud of pain. Then they grabbed his hands and twisted them behind him, and dragged him away.

 

******

 

Chapter seven

Fields of Gold

__

 

When Jasper sat down, there was nothing in the world that was not golden. The quorm surrounded him, tufty tips dancing above his head like a shimmering ceiling. The ground was wet, but he made a carpet out of flattered stems, and sat with his hands behind his head, drifting in gold and blue. Gold and blue, he thought. Old and new. The old was his stunted life in the Citadel, where his spirit ran free but his body was chained. Now his body was as free as his mind. Life is good, he thought, as he inhaled the scents of the wild.

 

When the others started talking, he barely heard them. Gold, he thought. Soft whispers in a field of gold.

 

"…back by now," he heard them say.

 

He rolled onto his side, and saw that the stems were not round at all, but marked with a dozen ridges, each one slightly darker than what was around them. When a stem was snapped, pale sap oozed out at the tear. Tiny insects seemed to like it, and walked up the stem in an ordered line.

 

"…few more minutes."

 

He remembered lying on his side on short green grass, gazing at tangled goldenweed. He remembered his nurse's hand on his hair, and remembered how his mother smiled when he raced inside and told her what he had seen. Now those gardens had gone, and he had thought that part of his life drowned for ever, but now it was rising again, just in a different form.

 

He wished that Teyla would speak, her voice as soothing as memories, and as beautiful as childhood summer.

 

"I knew this would happen," Rodney said. "I knew it."

 

It was too loud to allow dreaming. Rodney was pacing up and down, his shadow blocking out the sun. Jasper sat up, and in doing so, realised quite how muddy and damp his back and legs were. Beauty comes through suffering, he thought. The true seeker of the beauty of poetry had to be prepared to endure much hardship.

 

"What are we going to do about it?" Rodney said. "What are we going to do now?"

 

"Wait until Teyla reports back." It was the prisoner's voice, but Jasper couldn't see him, just a dark shape on the far side of a wall of stems.

 

"Where's Teyla gone?" Jasper demanded.

 

"Were you asleep?" Rodney parted the quorm above him, looking down like an angry giant. "Teyla's gone into town," he said, in the exaggerated tone that Jasper's father sometimes used on him, "to find out why the thief hasn't come back."

 

"Why her?" Jasper scrambled to his feet. "What if she--"

 

"She wouldn't let us," said the prisoner. "Huh. I don't think she trusts us."

 

"I wonder why," Rodney said, with a pointed look at the rest of them.

******

 

They had shackled his hands, fastening bands of black star-stone around his wrists, connected by a long, heavy chain. At least they hadn't attached the chain to the wall and made any attempt to hobble him. Kit had the full run of his cell. Yes, thanks to their gracious generosity, he could walk the full three steps it took to get from one wall to another, and he could grab hold of the thrice-cursed bars that lined the front of his cell, and he could stand on tiptoe and still not be able to reach the small barred window in the wall behind.

 

"I'm innocent!" Kit shouted, rattling the bars. "I didn't do it!" The guard looked up. He was young and well-combed, proud and gleaming in a new uniform two sizes too big for him. He looked at Kit with all the contempt of a newly appointed guard who thought he was guarding the Scourge of Saris himself.

 

"Of course," Kit told him, "there was the whole caught red-handed thing, but things aren't always as they appear, you know. I know it looks like it now, when you're fresh off your mammy's teat, but…"

 

The guard snapped his feet together and stood to attention, staring impassively straight ahead. "It's all right," Kit reassured him. "You can look at me. The rot doesn't set in that easily."

 

The guard stared forward, quivering with importance. "Guess I'm stuck with my own company, then," Kit said, "since the other cells are empty. Don't get much crime round here, do you? No wonder the whole town's in a tizzy because of me."

 

He threw himself down, leaning his back against the wall. Damn it all to the flood! he swore. He shouldn't be here. There was no way in Daryen that he should be here, imprisoned in a provincial lock-up, just for stealing supplies that could have been bought with a four bronze beads, for crying out loud. He never got caught. Well, he had been caught sometimes, but never for something as stupid as this. He should have heard them coming. He should never have gone into a place where they could come. First rule of thieving – first rule of successful thieving, anyway: never break into a place without watching it closely, and never rob a person without studying them first. Two rules, then, but they were the same rule, really. By all means, try opportunistic crime on the spur of the moment, if you wanted to, but don't expect to last very long if you did.

 

His head throbbed, and when he dragged his hand up to it, it came away bloody. His stomach churned, and he slammed his fist into the wall, then cursed aloud when the metal dug into his skin. Four fucking beads, when he had twenty times that in a pouch at his belt. They'd taken that, too, of course. "Evidence," they had said, although he had begged and protested and wheedled and bellowed, telling them that it was his own honest earnings, and if they touched it, then he would… They had threatened to gag him, then.

 

"I shouldn't be here," he told the guard, and then he swore with every word he knew, and kicked the wall beside him. Why hadn't he even tried to come up with a lie? He should have gone in there with the mask already in place. Oh, I'm so sorry, my lords, but I'm desperate. Dying grandmother. Starving child. He could draw tears from a heart of stone, and have people queuing up to give him the clothes from their own backs. Gods! Even the truth would have better than nothing – some of it, anyway. An injured companion, friends wringing their hands, and a journey that could not wait.

 

Nothing. He had given then nothing. He had strolled in the sunshine, smiling as stupidly as the idiot prince, thinking how good it felt to be himself again. And now he was here, captured, and a Whisperer was coming, and it was all going to end here, in a common lock-up in a nowhere town.

 

******

 

Teyla wasn't back. Jasper stood with his hand on a tree, peering out onto the dark road that led to town. "Come back," Ronon tried to command him. "Too near the road." Jasper edged back, but just a little. Trailing branches and broad leaves blocked his view of the place where Teyla had gone. The others were back at the fringes of the golden quorm. The prisoner was surrounded by stems, and Rodney was pacing. Ronon, though, was standing quite still, slicing a stalk of quorm into a dozen thin slivers.

 

It was behind Ronon that Jasper saw her. Teyla emerged from the trees further along the field, and walked towards them, quorm lapping around her like a wave that had been stilled by her beauty. Jasper smiled, and a bird rose singing from the far side of the field, joyous in the sun.

 

"He has indeed been taken," Teyla said, when she was back with them. A head of quorm clung to her bodice with its tiny soft barbs. "I heard them talking of a thief who had been caught in the act and who had been dragged to the town lock-up. I believe I have located the place."

 

"Did they see you?" The prisoner's voice was sharp.

 

Teyla shook her head, setting sparks of flame a-dancing in her hair. "I believe I remained hidden. I passed a young man on the road out of town, but he did not look upon me with suspicion."

 

"Caught in the act!" Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "I thought you said he had money."

 

"He did promise to buy things honestly." Teyla looked resigned rather than disapproving. "I believe he is… What is the phrase, about a leopard and his spots?"

 

"I'll kill him!" Ronon hurled away the last sliver of quorm, brushing the dust from his palms with two fierce slaps.

 

"No." Teyla looked weary. "We knew what he was like, but still we sent him there. If you set a wild creature to guard your livestock, you cannot be surprised when he bites."

 

Ronon did not look convinced. "So what now?" Rodney demanded.

 

No-one said anything. Jasper edged towards them, his steps crunching through fallen gold. He watched a leaf fall from a tree, its path twisted. Six there were, he thought, and now there are five. He'd always known that the thief was rotten to the core, and now it was proved. He'd robbed one too many times, and now he was paying the price.

 

"Are we… Are we carrying on without him?" he asked. Ahead of them the land rose gently, and there were more fields of quorm, a shining path of them.

 

Rodney opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked sharply at the prisoner.

 

"No." The prisoner stood up and stepped into the shadow of the trees. "We're going to break him out, of course."

 

******

 

"What about some food?" Kit asked. "It's hungry work being a ne'er-do-well on the road. Some slops? Dry bread and water? Anything?"

 

The guard looked straight ahead. To the flood with it! Kit thought, and threw himself at the bars, rattling them with all the strength he possessed. Too bad that strength had never been his strong point. By the end of it, the bars remained as solid as they had ever been, Kit had somehow half-wrenched a nail off, and his head was hammering with fierce red hammer blows. The guard's jaw had twitched once or twice, but not enough to ruffle his straight-out-of-the-packet deportment.

 

With a wordless snarl, Kit threw himself down on the floor. What's wrong with me? he wondered. Gods, what's wrong with me? Captured. Losing his cool. Masks lay in shattered fragments on the floor.

 

The door opened, and he screwed his eyes up against the sudden light. "A visitor?" he managed to say. "For me?" He saw a flash of blue skirt as a woman passed in the street, and heard quite clearly someone saying, "harvest", and a snatch of someone whistling a tune he did not know.

 

"Changeover," the newcomer said. Kit craned his neck. Another woman passed, and the voice that had spoken of harvest began to drone on about weights and measures, and about how much he would have left over after the kingsman took his share. The shiny guard saluted and went outside, his crisp footsteps stopping just outside the door. The newcomer closed the door, and stomped heavily to the invisible spot on the floor where guards had obviously been told to stand.

 

Kit studied him unashamedly. "Are you two a comedy act?" Where the other guard was young, this one was old. While the other had quivered with the pride of a boy who had been charged with an Important Job, this guard had slumped shoulders and a face that was heavy with the supreme boredom of life. This was the sort of guard who had seen it all before, had heard it all before, and had never found it interesting in the first place. "I don't suppose you'd blink even if I turned into a spiritwing and flew out of this place." Sure enough, he got nothing.

 

Kit slammed his chains into the bars, then winced at the noise. He wasn't getting out of here. He would stay here until the Whisperer came, and then surely the Whisperer would want to see this stranger, this thief who had been caught in the act of such horrible crime. He would look, and he would see, and he would know. He would know.

 

******

 

They were ready, gathered beneath the trees.

 

"Are you sure…?" Teyla asked, ending it with an open gesture of her hand.

 

Jasper was unable to respond, but, "Yeah," the prisoner said. Jasper knew that he had been the one Teyla's question had been addressed to, anyway.

 

The three of them left, keeping to the trees, swallowed surprisingly soon by their dark trunks, although here, beneath them, it seemed almost light.

 

"Just you and me, junior," the prisoner said. His hand was closed tightly around the thin, twiggy ends of a low branch. "Just like old times, huh?"

 

Jasper ran his tongue over dry lips. Just like old times. Just like how it had begun, with a word and a rhyme and a man's defiant eyes as his body had sagged in the arms of his captors. The two of them, but no longer separated by an expanse of dark water, or brought together by a knife.

 

The prisoner had asked him questions, more even than Teyla had. Was he known in this part of the world? Was his likeness distributed across the provinces – "a full colour pin-up," Rodney had said, "for the peasants to put on their walls and grovel at" – or was anyone here likely to have seen him at court? Could he name places a few days ride from here in both directions? Could he lie?

 

"I'm ready," he said now, smoothing his hair away from his face, and readying himself to step out upon the stage.

 

But the prisoner stopped him, grabbing him by the wrist. It was a firm grip, for all that the man still looked like something that had just crawled out of the flood. "This isn't a game," the prisoner said. "This isn't a story or a poem. If you make a mistake you can't go back and cross it out. It's for keeps."

 

"I…" He was held, not even trying to pull away. "I won't."

 

"Not good enough," the prisoner said, as if it was simple fact. "I know you don't like Kit. You don't like McKay much, either – lots of people don't, before they know him – and Ronon scares you. But they're people. They're my team. If you make a mistake, if you don't take this seriously, they could die. I will not allow that."

 

"I…" He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

 

"No-one," the prisoner said, and his words were a knife at the throat, and his grip was chains, "endangers my team." He released Jasper's wrist; Jasper's hand fell heavily to his side. "So let's go," he said, with a crooked smile. But Jasper found himself unable to move, and shivered with the cold of a watery cell, and the question and the knife that held him, caught, between them.

 

******

 

The high window, Kit decided, was put there to torment him. It allowed him to hear snatches of conversation as the good folk of Paramor went about their business. Some of them remembered that he was in there, and threw curses at him. Dull splatting sounds showed that some of them were trying to throw other things, but fortunately their aim was not good. "Gods!" Kit said to his impassive friend. "You folk don't like thieves much, do you? I'd like to see you lot last half a day in the Drowned Quarter. You'd swoon in horror at the immorality of it all."

 

Then somebody got a lucky shot, and something indistinguishable and stinking landed in the muck beside him. "Thank you very much!" Kit called out. "A love token, just for me?" He almost turned to the lumpen guard and said something about how stupid it was to leave a window, in case someone used it to throw him a knife or a file or a key or something useful. Best not, he thought, in case they really were too stupid to have thought of that. Best not, in case somebody really was approaching even now, their heart afire with heroic rescue…

 

He cursed, slamming his fist against the wall. Not gonna happen, he thought, echoing the way his new, his brief, his now lost companions sometimes spoke. Then maybe the wind turned, or maybe his ears finally made sense of the noises, because he realised that a guard was on duty under the window, pacing up and down, up and down, up and down. "Best not to have the window at all," he muttered. "You'd save on wages."

 

This guard, at least, was a talker. "Who's in there?" someone said.

 

"Thief," came the reply, in a provincial accent so thick as to be almost comical. "Stranger."

 

"What's to become of him?"

 

"Keep him till the Whisperer comes." The comic charvil-muncher lowered his voice for that, the word barely audible. "The messenger lad yesterday, he did say that the Whisperers were looking for a thief from out City. He killed a Whisperer, he did, him and some others."

 

"No!" The other voice was loud with gleeful horror.

 

"Aye, and stole away some nobleman's son from his chamber, that I heard."

 

"You think it's him?"

 

"'Tis not for me to wonder, but why would a thief from City come to Paramor?" The guard sniffed. "Whisperer will sort him out, though, and if he don't take him, it's the kingsman's dungeons for him. Rather him than me."

 

Fuck! Kit thought. He tried to soberly revise any previous estimates of just how badly screwed he was, but all he could see was how badly his hands were shaking, heavy chains rattling like the stuttering of his heart.

 

******

 

Jasper's back was aching. His arm was wrapped around the prisoner's body, holding him up, and the prisoner's own arm was around Jasper's neck. Every step was off, twisted sideways by the unfamiliar weight. He wanted to study unfamiliar landscape, but every scrap of his attention went on putting on foot in front of the other, and there was no poetry in his heart at all, just the words that were to come.

 

"Almost there," the prisoner murmured, his voice close to Jasper's ear, his breath on his neck. And a knife… No, that was long ago, in a different world. "There." The prisoner nodded with his chin. "Looks like… what Teyla said…"

 

They lurched that way, steps slower this time. When the prisoner stumbled, Jasper almost fell. Vision lurched, and he saw people beginning to turn towards them. He saw a woman, her hand rising to her mouth in horror. Someone else was pointing, and there were shouts.

 

Jasper hauled the prisoner up with both arms, his muscles screaming. He heard the prisoner suck in a sharp breath, which hitched as he let it out. He managed half a dozen steps, then fell to his knees. Jasper almost fell with him, his grip slipping away. "Take it away, junior," the prisoner's lips said, before his head sagged in defeat and agony.

 

Jasper swallowed. "Help!" he cried, reaching out his hand to the people around him. It quivered with exertion and he snatched it back. Obnoxious brat, he remembered, used to getting his own way. If he spoke as if it had never occurred to me that people might disobey him, then half the battle was won, or so the prisoner had told him. "I demand that you help me," he commanded them – the woman whose hand was still at her mouth; a pair of greybeards with pipes in their hands. "I was robbed on the road, and my man here was cruelly attacked as he tried to defend me. I was left with nothing. I demand aid."

 

******

 

The door opened. "Sergeant…"

 

The guard had been picking out dirt from behind his nails. "Call me sarge like any sensible man."

 

"Sarge." The polished guard was positively glowing with the magnitude of his news. "Something's happening in the square. Someone's been attacked!"

 

"No!" Kit gasped. He crossed to the bars – all three fucking steps of it – and grasped hold of them. "Tell me more! Is it the Basilis of Daryen himself, set upon by crebyn? Is the lovely Duchess of Devonic having her virtue assailed by a pack of handsome charvil-munchers?"

 

The trouble with guards like this, he thought, was that they just would not play the game. The bored guard plodded out to investigate, and the shiny young one resumed his place outside, all without the faintest sign of being rattled by his sarcasm. And the trouble with people who would not play the game was that he was left in silence with no-one to talk to, and nothing to distract him from the fate that was closing in on him.

 

"You could have left me the key," he shouted, "if you were going to leave me all alone."

 

Nothing. No guards were watching him, but he was still trapped here. He was still fucking trapped.

 

******

 

A crowd was gathering. A tall man pushed forward, a black-stained apron tied around his waist. He was probably the smith; smiths were often leaders of rustic communities in the stories. "How can we help you, my lord?"

 

My lord. Jasper was wearing a night tunic under his sweltering coat. His shoes had been ruined by rain, and his hair was unwashed and tangled. The others didn't seem to think it mattered. "Your accent is very different from Kit's," the prisoner had explained. "I'm betting you sound like a aristocrat whenever you open your mouth." Even the coat hadn't deterred them. "Expensive clothes are still expensive clothes, even when they're muddy." Jasper had never thought about his coat as being an expensive one, and the shoes he had pulled on that night were far from his best, but it seemed that they were right.

 

"I am travelling on very important business from Yarrow to Gaviot," Jasper told the crowd. "Business that cannot wait. All went well until I reached… I don't know its name. The town back there, over the hill."

 

He saw the crowd muttering, exchanging looks. "Blame the neighbours," Rodney had told him. "They're bound to hate each other. These small towns always do. After all, they've got nothing better to do with their tedious little lives."

 

Three more people wandered up to join his audience. A solid-looking guard stood at the back, watching in case things turned ugly. Jasper raised his voice. "I can only think that the thief was skulking in the stables and that his attention was drawn when I pulled out my pouch to tip the stable lad three bronze for his good work."

 

More muttering, far from angry this time. "Appeal to their greed," Rodney had advised him. "Make them think they can expect something for helping you." The prisoner had chuckled at that. "You know, Rodney, for someone who claims to be bad with people, you sure know a lot about how to manipulate them."

 

"He must have followed me." Jasper didn't trip over his words even once. He imagined that he was on a stage reciting his poetry, or singing a song beautiful enough to make women weep. "He attacked us when we were in a dark place shielded by trees. He bound my man's wrists with cruel ropes and beat him cruelly when he tried to keep him from robbing me."

 

"Oh, the poor, brave thing!" a woman said, moving to the prisoner's side. Another joined her, and they fussed over him together. "He's burning up," one said, touching his brow, and the other gasped at the sight of his bandaged wrists. "He's badly hurt," she said to the man with the apron. Over her shoulder, the prisoner caught Jasper's eye and shook his head slightly. Too poetic, Jasper thought it meant. He had been cautioned about that, too.

 

"He took everything." Jasper showed them his empty hands, then twisted them together, copying one of Rodney's gestures. "Everything. I don't know what my father will say. He took my merrilyn, my packs, all my beads…"

 

He glanced at the prisoner again, and got a slight nod, quickly erased by a grimace of pain. The crowd was easily thirty or forty strong now – "they'll flock to see you, a rich boy with a thrilling tale of violence. It'll be the most exciting thing these peasants have seen all week" – and most of them were now talking eagerly to themselves. The prisoner was drawing more eyes than Jasper himself. "Poor sod," he heard someone say. "Half killed just for doing his duty, and the toff without a scratch on him."

 

The smith shook his head sharply at them, but when he turned back to Jasper his face was wiped clean of expression. "What did the thief look like, my lord?"

 

"Shorter than me," Jasper said, holding his hand level with his eyebrows. "Young. Dark hair down to here, very uncouth and tangled. He had a sharp face, a common face, and he talked too much."

 

"Then I believe we have him here, my lord, safely in our lock-up," the man said, with a brisk smile. "Let me take you to him."

 

******

 

There was a limit to the number of times you could kick the bars without it really hurting. Did no good, though. The guard hadn't returned, "but that's no fucking good to me, since I can't escape without a key or a nice little inside job." Outside the window, the street was silent, except for the slow plodding of the guard. "Missing out on the excitement, are you?" Kit called out to him. "I'll wager it's a good one: lots of blood and flying teeth."

 

Nothing. Apart from the pacing guard, there was no-one else outside his window. "Throwing rotten fruit at the thief is yesterday's game, is it?" he said. "I've never seen such a fickle bunch of people. A hint of violence in the town square, and you quite forget about me."

 

Nothing. He threw himself down, and leant his aching head against the wall. Outside, very faintly, there was a thud. A moment after that, the door opened.

 

******

 

The prisoner shook his head sharply, but Jasper didn't even need to see it. "No!" he gasped, then "No," a little more quietly, clenching his hand into a fist. "I am on urgent business," he told the smith. "I have already lost far too much time by having to walk for half the day, and I have no desire to lay my eyes on that filthy rogue ever again."

 

The prisoner was mouthing something, looking stiff and awkward between the attentions of two women. Jasper looked at him, frowning. Oh. If he really had been robbed, he would probably show more concern about his property. "I will, of course, require the return of my possessions," he told them.

 

The smith exchanged a look with a greybeard. "He didn't have them on him, my lord, I swear. All he had – except what he was in the act of stealing, that is – was a small pouch of beads. It's truth, my lord, I swear it."

 

Jasper almost said something, but the prisoner beat him to it. "Must have stashed it out of town. Don't think I'm… up to… digging, my lord."

 

"Never mind." Jasper flapped his hand. "There's nothing irreplaceable." He smiled graciously at his audience. "Keep the beads for your trouble in taking him and keeping him. When he tells you where he hid my things, please, count them as your own. Merrilyn, too. But…" Chewing his lip, he glanced at the prisoner, but the prisoner wasn't looking at him. "I am badly behind schedule now. I need merrilyn, and fast." He looked at the prisoner again, at the pallor of his face, at how hot he had felt as Jasper had supported him into town. Maybe he really was sick – sick enough that  he might not be able to cling on for much longer. "One merrilyn and a carriage," he said, "because my man isn't up to riding."

 

Whispers raced through the crowd. Jasper saw a young boy tear away, perhaps running home with news. What was Teyla doing, he wondered. Had enough time passed, or did he have to keep them here for more?

 

He pulled his ring out of his coat pocket – "take that off," the prisoner had commanded him. "They'll never believe a thief let that pass." – and offered it to the man in the apron. "I have but one thing of value left to me, that the thief overlooked in his haste, but I will give it freely to anyone who can provide what I need."

 

A whisper spread outwards across the crowd like a wave, but in its wake was silence. Out of that silence, one man spoke. "I have a cart, my lord." Another raised his hand to offer a merrilyn – "not the most beautiful of beasts, my lord, but she gets the job done" – and another said no, please, my lord, take mine instead.

 

Jasper clenched his fists tight, then relaxed them again. "I need medical supplies," he said, "for my man, and blankets. A change of clothes for us both, and some more for tomorrow. Food and drink. Soap. Towels. A lantern, and something to light it with. Cooking pots and a set of spoons. Perhaps… perhaps some paper and something to write with?"

 

"The kitchen sink?" the prisoner said, but his words were lost in the cacophony of people offering them things.

 

******

 

"Ronon!" Kit sounded like a child overjoyed to find his missing mother, but he couldn't help it. He scrambled to his feet. "How did you…?"

Ronon said nothing. After a quick scan of inside, he turned his back on Kit. The door almost closed on him again – No! Don't go! – and then he was back, coming in backwards, dragging an unconscious guard. Only when the guard was deposited did he turn towards Kit. "Step away from the door," he said.

 

It was one of the first orders in his life that Kit had obeyed instantly, without question. Face impassive, Ronon raised his weapon and fired several times, until the lock melted and the door swung open. Kit swallowed. It was hard to look away from the devastated lock. I walked through the city with that at my back, he thought. I baited him when he had that? "You know, he probably had a key." Chains rattled as he gestured at the fallen guard.

 

"Quicker this way," Ronon said. There was no warmth in his eyes at all.

 

"You have a point there." What would a weapon like that do to human flesh? Enough. He pushed those thoughts away, and concentrated on the immediate thing, on the important thing. They came to rescue me! No, not that. On getting out. "I'm chained," he said. "I can't walk through the streets like this. We need a key."

 

Ronon looked disturbingly grim as he raised his weapon again, pointing it at Kit himself. "Yes, well, I know…" Kit stammered. "Here's the thing…" The weapon twitched ever so slightly as Ronon indicated Kit's wrists. Oh. Kit held his hands out, and Ronon shot several times more, not removing the metal bands, but breaking the chains attached to them. Kit thought that the bands might have grown hotter, and he swallowed hard, and tried not to think of burning. Ronon, he thought suddenly, had half hoped that it would hurt him worse than that. Guess I deserve that, he thought, though he did not say it.

 

"Where are the others?" He stepped out of the cell, a single chain link dangling from each wrist.

 

"Watching." Ronon's hand came up behind him, ordering Kit to stay behind as he opened the door a slit and checked outside. Then the hand moved, telling Kit to follow. Outside, Kit could not keep from blinking, sunlight spearing through his aching head. No-one was looking towards the door of the lock-up, he realised, but a large crowd of them was gathered at the far end of the street, spilling out from the square. Rodney was opposite, pressed against the side of a wall, peeping out nervously towards the square. Further away, a firearm in her hand, Teyla nodded first towards him, and then in the opposite direction, out of town.

 

He couldn't see Sheppard and the prince.

 

"What now?" he asked, and Ronon told him. They were to get the hell out of here. Where? That direction. They were already moving by then, though, darting from wall to wall, sneaking low through shadows, running across open spaces in a way that Kit could have told them at great length was just wrong, and should have told them, because the first rule of trying to get somewhere you weren't supposed to be was to look confident and move as if you had every right to be there. All this furtive sneaking was all very well in the wilds with a known enemy on your tail, but for a thief, in a town… But he said nothing, and he ran with them, and he asked them what to do, and he obeyed them, for fuck's sake, even though they were doing it all wrong… and perhaps they were doing it right, after all, because no-one stopped them, and soon they had reached the edge of town, the houses thinning and trees appearing at the side of the path, and no-one was shouting after them, commanding them to stop.

 

Perhaps they had made it. "Where's…" he asked, breathless, "Sheppard?"

 

"Coming." Rodney had his hand pressed to his heaving chest. "We hope. Unless… gone south… usual."

 

They had made it. They had fucking made it. They came for me! He'd escaped, and there would be no Whisperer for him, no hideous prison cell… Shit! he swore. No bag of beads.

 

"Someone is coming," Teyla said sharply, and Shit! Kit swore again, because of course it had been too good to be true.

 

They made for the trees. "If I hide," Kit told Ronon, "they might not give the three of you a second glance." Unless they had been spotted together, of course, but it was a possibility. "Though if you can manage a second rescue attempt..." He slipped on the grass, head pounding, and slid down into the ditch. Ronon hauled him up again, his hand digging in more painfully than it needed to. Teyla was helping Rodney, and behind them the pounding hooves of the merrilyn grew closer…

 

"It's the prince!" Kit gasped, and the stupid, idiot boy was waving at them. The merrilyn slowed, and there was Sheppard, too, his hand on the edge of cart the beast was harnessed to. Up, he indicated to them with a jerk of his head.

 

"You stole a merrilyn." Kit clambered into the cart, and slumped down. The floor was scattered with single seeds of quorm and it reeked of stale ale. "You cunning sod. You stole a merrilyn."

 

"Bought, actually." Sheppard jabbed a thumb towards the prince, who was driving the cart as if he had once driven a nobleman's carriage many years ago, and had forgotten almost everything he had ever known. "His ring."

 

"His ring?" Kit threw back his head and laughed, and once he had started laughing, he couldn't stop. It shook through him, leaving him breathless, making him cough, and when he finished, his eyes were running and his head was pounding, and his whole body vibrating with the rattling movement of the cart. 

 

"And your money," Sheppard said, "to sweeten the deal." He looked as sick as he had ever looked, not even bothering to wave away Teyla's obvious concern, but he still managed a smile.

 

"His ring!" Kit exclaimed again. He crawled to the front of the cart, where the prince was sitting on the drover's bench. "Jasper, my lad." Kit clapped him on the back. "That ring of yours was worth twenty merrilyn, at least, and you swapped it for this ugly brute and a farmer's cart. What those people must have thought of you!"

 

"He did well." Sheppard's voice was a warning. Ronon, Kit saw, had his fists clenched as if he was desperate to smack Kit round the head and bury him in a ditch somewhere.

 

Kit slumped back again, leaning his shoulders against the sill. "Yeah," he said, because he was free when he hadn't thought to be, and they had come back for him when he had never dreamed… "Yeah," he said again. "You did well."

 

******

 

Chapter eight

The Pass of Blood

__

 

They rode until evening. By then, Jasper's shoulders felt as if they had been half pulled out of their sockets, even though Ronon had taken over after a while and had driven the merrilyn for the second half of the journey. That was when they had left the levelled road and headed out into the countryside, moving across the flank of hills that looked brown and purple in the distance, but were green when they were close to them, just covered with a carpet of a hardy low shrub.

 

It was hard to focus on that, though. It was hard to concentrate on the landscape, so different from anything he had ever seen. He tried to imagine Tamorlin alone on the moors, but all he could remember was how he had stood in the town square and done what was expected of him. And afterwards… Afterwards, as they had reached the edge of the town and seen four familiar figures ahead of them, he had turned to Sheppard and grinned with the sheer triumph of it, and Sheppard had grinned back.

 

That he remembered, as he nursed his aching arms. That he remembered, as Teyla tended not to him, but to the thief, telling him that it was only a mild concussion, and that he deserved far worse. Sheppard had already been dosed with bark and potion, and he slept for the last part of the journey, even though the jolting was almost more than Jasper could bear. When the halt was called, Jasper waded through the shrub, brown twigs crunching beneath his feet, and still he remembered.

 

Finding a stone, he sat down upon it. A blue spiritwing fluttered away from a cluster of the pale pink flowers that seemed to grow direct from the dead brown branch. He pulled out the paper and the pen that he had bought so dearly yet so cheaply in the town. Pink flowers from dead wood, he thought. Life from death. Hope from the shadows. Beauty even in a place where there should be no beauty at all. But he could not craft it into words, and when they called him to say that dinner was ready, his page was still blank.

 

For the first time that he remembered, it did not seem important.

 

After dinner, though, he covered ten full pages, but that was about other things, and not about flowers at all.

 

******

 

Their camp was in a small defile in the foothills of the moors, where a narrow stream forced its way through tumbled rocks, and a few trees clung to the edge of water. There was precious little space for a merrilyn and cart, but they managed to hide them even to Ronon's satisfaction. Being rattled half to death was worth it, Kit thought, when it allowed you to cover a long day's journey in the space of half an afternoon and a few hours of early twilight.

 

"It's too much to expect them not to follow us," he had to tell the others, only to see that they knew that well enough already. It was possible that the town's folk hadn't connected the mysterious escape of the thief with the idiot rich boy throwing gold around in the square, and it was possible that no-one had seen Ronon and the others at all, but with the Whisperer on his way… "They'd already heard about what happened in the city," he told them. "They knew about the Whisperer you killed. 'A thief and others,' they said. They also…" He glanced at Jasper, who was looking up, his pen forgotten over his paper. "They said we'd stolen a nobleman's son." I guess your father's disowned you, he might have added nastily, but instead contented himself with saying, "No mention of who you really are."

 

"Course not," Sheppard said, from his place by the stream. All eyes went to him. He hadn't said anything since dinner, and Kit had thought he was asleep. "Guy like that… You don't say things like that. It's weakness. Something your enemies can use." His eyes flickered towards Jasper, half-lidded. "Doesn't mean anything."

 

"Well…" Kit cleared his throat. "The Whisperer isn't far behind us, and I'm not prepared to wager anything on him not knowing who we are." He looked at them all: at Sheppard by the water; at Rodney licking crumbs from his fingers; at Ronon looking outwards, his hand on a tree; at Teyla watching him sharply, as if she expected him to steal something again at any moment; at Jasper scribbling. He knew he had not been forgiven, and he knew he would make it worse if he said anything, but the words came out, anyway. "It was a crazy plan."

 

"That's us," Rodney said. "We're full of crazy ideas."

 

"We should have left you there," Ronon said, and Kit felt something twist inside him. Ronon, he thought, would probably have punched him half way to Daryen, if he hadn't been quite so preoccupied with Sheppard's declining condition.

 

"Since when did we do the sensible thing?" Rodney looked regretfully at his clean fingers. "That was good cake."

 

"Paid for with a king's ransom." Kit barely smiled. So many things could have gone wrong! If the Whisperer had arrived early… If someone had recognised the prince… If Jasper had failed, or Sheppard had collapsed, or if the people of Paramor had proved less eager to crowd round a toff in distress… And, yes, fine, he admitted it: none of it would have happened if he hadn't… "It was a crazy plan," he said again. Not that he had much experience of rescue attempts, on account of being a mean-hearted bastard who didn't care about anyone, and who worked alone, no-one caring about him. And that was how it should be, of course. That was…

 

"Like I said…" Rodney shrugged. "It's us."

 

Afterwards, though, Kit found himself seeking out Sheppard at the waterside, settling down carefully on a rock. On impulse, earlier, he had pulled off his boots, and he could feel cool splashes of water landing on his toes. Don't say anything, Kit, he thought. Don't say anything. The merrilyn snorted softly, and a double-forked needle fell from above into the fast-flowing water. Kit watched it race away, and found himself speaking, after all. "I didn't expect you to come for me."

 

Sheppard made a soft sound, wordless.

 

"When I was in that cell…" He rubbed his brow, fingers and thumb trying to ease away the throbbing. "They all blame me for putting everyone in danger, but I didn't… I thought you'd walk on. I haven't… I haven't gone out of my way to make you like me."

 

"No."

 

He looked at the water, carrying everything that happened here away into the plains below. It wasn't true in life, of course. He wasn't a fanciful boy, to think like that.

 

"Why…?" He seldom struggled for words, but this time… He'd told Teyla that he wouldn't steal, but he'd done so, and all for such little gain and at such great a potential cost. They would have been totally justified in leaving him. He had been so sure that they were going to leave him. He let out a breath. "What did you come?"

 

Sheppard shifted, not looking at Kit. "We don't leave people behind."

 

Another needle fell, and another, and then a hobin flapped away on slow dark wings. "But I'm not one of your people."

 

Sheppard was silent, breathing in and breathing out. If the medicine had helped him, it was not visible. If anything, he looked worse than ever. "Here's how it is," he said. "I made a mistake. We came to your… - to… here – because I made a mistake. We shouldn't have. Weren't supposed to. You got dragged into it, and the boy…"

 

"So it's guilt, then." Kit let out a breath. "Just guilt."

 

"Not guilt. No."

 

Behind them, Teyla and Rodney were talking in low voices. The smell of smoke still lingered, and it was almost cold, here beside the stream. Sheppard said nothing more. Kit couldn't think of a single thing to ask him. Water flowed past them, and was gone. The sun had set behind the hills, and it was the start of Thieving Hour, when out came the thieves who were too lazy to wait for true darkness, and out came the guards to snatch them up.

 

"What about the boy?" Kit asked. "Why didn't you send him packing?"

 

"He's just a kid." Sheppard's eyes were just slits, staring intently at a point of nothingness on the opposite bank. His whole body was still, except that his thumb was moving, rhythmically brushing the dark rock beside him. "His father… I met his father. The poor kid wants… Just another rich kid rebelling against his father. McKay said that, or was it you?"

 

Just another rich kid… Kit flicked a loose pebble violently into the water. "Recognise yourself in him, do you?" His voice sounded harsh. "I can't see you as the poetic sort."

 

Sheppard looked upwards at the fading sky. "Wasn't poetry with me."

 

Gods! Kit scrabbled behind him, and his hand closed on a larger stone. He threw it into the water as hard as he could. The splashes were cold on his feet, scraping clean lines on the dirt.

 

"Sometimes," Sheppard said, and coughed. He hand curled into a fist. "Sometimes you see yourself in someone else, and you see… how stupid it is. How stupid you were, letting things go so far. So you have to understand. It's that or…" His eyes slid shut. The hand at his side went limp.

 

"Sheppard?" Kit almost touched them, then drew his hand back. He looked around, but none of the others were looking at them. "Sheppard?"

 

"Hating them," Sheppard murmured, without opening his eyes.

 

After that, there was no waking him at all.

 

******

 

Jasper woke up to the grey light of early dawn. His blanket had worked its way down his body, tangling between his legs, and the air was cool on his exposed hands and face. He half sat up, reaching for the blanket to pull it up again. That was when he saw Rodney. Jasper watched him for a while, but Rodney did not move. He was sitting on the ground next to Sheppard, totally still. Jasper had never seen him so still before; had never realised until this moment that he knew Rodney well enough to know how unlike him this was. Rodney's eyes were open, though, fixed on Sheppard as he twitched and stirred. Jasper could hear the rasp in Sheppard's breathing even over the sound of the stream.

 

"Is he…" Abandoning the blanket, Jasper crawled over to Rodney. "Is he better?"

 

Rodney started. "No. No, of course he isn't better. Does he look better?" It was all said in a harsh whisper. "He's unconscious, or maybe he's sleeping. Does he look like he's sleeping to you? Teyla said… But I don't know what to do. I'm not good with sick people."

 

Jasper remembered how the wind had torn through his hair as he had ridden out of town, and how he had smiled at Sheppard, and how Sheppard had smiled back. "He's supposed to be better," he said. "I got medical supplies for him. He's supposed to be better."

 

"Yes, because bark and primitive potions are bound to work their primitive magic and make him well again after half a day."

 

"Perhaps it takes a little longer," Jasper reassured him. "I don't know. I haven't seen anyone…" He looked through the trees, to where the sky was lightening. He remembered how Sheppard had clung on in the cell, refusing to give in to death, and how not even chains could hold him. "Perhaps by morning."

 

"He'll be worse by morning," Rodney said, his hands clasped twitchily in his lap. "He'll probably be dead by lunchtime. He needs…" One hand tore itself free. "God, he needs to be anywhere but here. He needs to be in a proper bed in the infirmary, with doctors to look after him, with nice modern drugs running through his veins. He needs to have someone who's not me looking after him. I nearly killed my cat, you know – fed him too much dried food and forgot to give him water and… well, it's easy for them to say I was irresponsible, but how many times have they almost had a breakthrough that will change everything everyone ever understood about…?" He stopped, pressed his hand briefly to his face, and spoke again in a whisper, "But he hasn't died yet, and, believe me, he's done some crazy things. He might dodge the bullet this time, too."

 

Sheppard moaned quietly in his sleep, but did not wake up. Rodney sat next to him, frozen, miserable. "I wish it was Teyla's watch," he said. "Or Ronon. He's good at that field medicine 'bite on this scrap of leather while I chop your leg off' sort of thing. I have a dazzling array of skills, but this…" Sheppard moaned again, then settled down. Rodney shot a quick glance at Jasper, almost as if seeking reassurance, then touched Sheppard's throat with a whisper-light fluttering touch. "Still alive," he said.

 

Sheppard was still clinging to that platform, Jasper realised. He had been clinging to it all along. That was why Jasper hadn't spared much thought for Sheppard's condition during the journey. It wasn't serious. It wouldn't defeat him. He'd claw himself free from the grip of illness and pain because that's what he did. But maybe… No, there was no maybe about it. Sheppard was not merely the prisoner Jasper had met in the cell, but a man, and even kings and heroes could be brought down by illness.

 

"What happened to him?" he asked, curious for the first time. "I know my father hurt him, but--"

 

Rodney's head snapped up. "Your father hurt him? Tortured him, you mean?"

 

Jasper swallowed, fingers twisting at the place where his ring used to be. "Yes. I don't know. I think so."

 

Rodney rounded on him. "And you didn't think to tell us? You--" He brought his hands up, clenched in fist, then lowered them again. When he spoke again, it was in a fierce whisper. "You didn't think this little piece of information might be relevant?"

 

"I didn't… I don't…" Sheppard was lying there, his face leeched of colour by the grey light of dawn. "I didn't think."

 

"You didn't think? You're a spoiled, self-centred brat. Go away." Rodney flicked his hand down the hillside. "Go do your coming of age movie thing somewhere else where Sheppard isn't going to die because of you."

 

"What's happened?" Ronon's voice came from behind.

 

"Apparently Sheppard was tortured in that place, and Prince Stupid didn't think to mention it."

 

Ronon crouched at Sheppard's side, touching his brow with the back of his hand, and this throat with two fingers. "We knew that," he said.

 

"We knew that?" Rodney frowned. "No-one gave me the memo." His shoulders slumped. "We knew this?"

 

"Yes." Ronon's eyes glittered in his shadowed face.

 

"Oh." Rodney's sighed. "And Sheppard wasn't exactly forthcoming with the truth, and… well, he was there. And we wouldn't have said anything. Even if we knew the full gory details, he'd just do his 'I'm good' routine and he wouldn't talk about it, and we wouldn't be allowed to talk about it, either, and we'd just have to watch him…" He sighed again. "Like we have been. Just like how we have been."

 

"Is he…?" Jasper bit his lip. "Is there anything I can do?"

 

"Can you conjure up a functional Stargate?" Rodney wasn't looking at him. "No? Then no. Go away. Run along. Write a poem, or whatever you do, just..." Then he seemed to lose the energy for it, and turned back to Sheppard and to Ronon, twisting his hands together as he watched.

 

******

 

Breakfast was soft bread and the most richly-bought seed cake in the whole of Myr. There was little talking, and after he had finished eating, Kit clambered up the stream to see if anyone was climbing the hills behind them. Dark clouds were gathering far away, back the way they had come, and the breeze was blowing them towards them, scraping the hair back from his brow.

 

As he neared the camp, he saw Ronon sharpening his knife on a stone by the stream. "How d'you feel?" Ronon asked, not looking up from his work.

 

"Like crap," Sheppard replied, and Kit stopped, caught between one step and the next. For a man who hid so much behind a façade of coping, an admission like that could never be anything other than bad news.

 

"You look it." Ronon turned his knife into the light, apparently disliked what he saw, and returned to the sharpening. Scrape, it went, scrape, scrape, underlying everything that came after.

 

"Thanks, buddy." Sheppard was propped up on blankets, leaning against a rock. "Better than last night, though." He raised his head a few fingers'-breadth from the stone, held it there for the space two or three breaths, then let it fall again. "At least I'm not doing the crazy talk."

 

The side of Ronon's mouth tightened slightly, perhaps in a smile. "Bark smells good. Kept me alive more than once."

 

"So I'll continue to get better during the day."

 

Kit thought the knife had been sharp enough already, but Ronon was still working on it, hands moving rhythmically.

 

"But if I don't…" Sheppard raised his head again. "Ronon, if I get worse…"

 

"Not gonna happen." Ronon jabbed the knife into its sheath and stood up. Stepping over Sheppard, he started bundling supplies into the cart. Kit let out a breath, and went to ready the merrilyn.

 

It didn't matter, he told himself. Today was going to be bad enough without him wasting his time thinking about what had happened or worrying about what might happen. He had to take it one moment at a time. If all went to plan – if we don't get captured by Whisperers or lose the cart or fall off a cliff – they would be in the Debateable Lands by afternoon, and if all went well there – and when do things ever go well there? – they would be in Daryen well before evening, still far from the city itself, but within the lands that called the Basilis of Daryen their lord. His task was to get them there. From the very start of this crazy journey, his thoughts should have been on nothing else.

 

They set off not long after, with Ronon driving the merrilyn and the rest of them sitting like sacks of charvil in the back, jostled and jolted. Kit watched the landscape pass by, taking them ever closer to Daryen. The sun rose higher, and he listened to the others sporadically talking, and wondered if they would reach the border alive.

 

The scrubby pink vervyn hid small rises and dips in the road, and sometimes hid small stones, too. "We really have to go this way?" Rodney whined, after a particularly large jolt. 

 

Kit turned round. Rodney was holding onto the edge of the cart

 

"Yes," Kit told him shortly. "Too many people on the road."

 

"I've always been prone to travel sickness." Rodney pressed his hand to his belly. "I have a surprisingly sensitive constitution. There was this one time, when Jeannie and I were in the back--" Another jolt turned it into a squawk. The sound of Sheppard's head hitting the side of the cart was quiet but audible. Rodney's head snapped round, and he looked at Sheppard for a long moment, chewing his lip. "Seriously, it might be better if we walk."

 

Kit was willing to wager that no-one had ever been crazy enough to take a farmer's cart across the trackless moorland, but the merrilyn had long legs, and could stride through the vervyn as if it was no more than short grass. The wheels were large and well attached, and Ronon drove the cart well, avoiding the most treacherous ground. "We're making better time than if we were walking," Kit told Rodney.

 

"Yes, but…" Rodney's hand moved in mute appeal, as he clearly wanted to indicate Sheppard, but didn't want to be seen to.

 

Teyla glanced at Sheppard, then gave Rodney the sort of look that clearly carried much meaning. "I believe that walking would be more… challenging," she said, which was total transparent speak for 'Sheppard would fall flat on his face within half a dozen steps.' 

 

Sheppard was still conscious, but offered nothing to the discussion; he seemed to be putting every scrap of energy he possessed into bracing himself against the jolts. Not that he was doing a good job. Just give it up, you stubborn bastard, Kit thought, and let us rattle you into oblivion.

 

The land rose, and Kit scooted to the front of the cart to give Ronon directions. They passed beneath the top of the peak, so that no-one below would see them outlined against the skyline. Black crags rose to their left, weathered into grotesque shapes. Behind the cart, the dark clouds drew closer, but the breeze was warm. Three hobins rose squawking from the black rocks, then wheeled downwards, their wings almost brushing the backs of a pair of wild merrilyn.

 

"Sheppard?" he heard Rodney say. "Sheppard?"

 

"Still here," Sheppard murmured. "Someone switch off the inertial dampeners?"

 

"We aren't talking about things like that, remember." Kit turned in time to see Rodney jab an unsubtle thumb in the direction of him and Jasper.

 

The cloud caught them up, and the sunlight vanished. A gap in the crags showed them a glimpse of the distant high peak, topped with Cador in all his fucking glory, lord of all he surveyed. A shaggy merrilyn looked up from its lunch, braying some message at their own beast, who ignored her utterly. Caged animals never understood the language of the free, or so his sister had told him once, in fanciful mood.   

 

They paused for lunch beneath tumbled rocks, as the first fine specks of rain started to fall. Below them, lakes of sunlight still shone on the narrow valley, as Jasper would doubtless describe it. Kit saw him now, gazing out across the pass, drinking it in. At times, watching how closely Jasper studied the ordinary things around him, Kit had almost found himself seeing them differently. Gods! he thought. The sooner this journey is over, the better. Then Jasper turned his back on the view, and Kit saw how troubled his expression was, and wondered if even Jasper was slipping away from his control, turning unpredictable.

 

"We could be down there," Rodney said. "In the sun. On level ground."

 

"There?" Kit laughed sharply. "In the Pass of Blood?"

 

"Pass of Blood? That doesn't sound good."

 

Kit gave a quick laugh. "Master of the understatement you are, Rodney. I'll leave it to our prince to tell the whole story – tonight, perhaps – but the short story is: battles. Lots and lots of battles, on account of it being the only lowland route between Daryen and Myr. Armies always go that way when their lords and masters are in an invading mood. It's thick with messengers from the Marches, and agents of one ruler or another. Whisperers. Law-abiding travellers scared of setting foot in the Debateable Lands. See that line of steam there?" He pointed out across the valley. "They're digging waterways – supposed to be quicker than roads. So we've got ourselves a nice gang of loyal, muscle-ridden labourers, just to add to the mix. So, no, being down there would not be good."

 

"Oh. You make a compelling argument, actually."

 

Rodney subsided, but Ronon leant forward suddenly. Kit, who had already seen enough to know that Ronon had keen eyes, felt his heart speed up. "What do you see?" he asked, the others forgotten. Then he saw it, too, shining in the last glimmer of sunlight.

 

Far below them, in the pass, an army was marching.

 

******

 

Jasper had his coat pulled over his head, keeping away the rain. The black rock glistened with water beside their path, and a pair of wild merrilyn, mother and cub, stood in the lea of the crag, eyeing them twitchily as they passed. They were beginning to go downhill again, slowly lurching their way across the wilds.

 

"At least it wasn't marching straight at us." Rodney spoke up after a long silence. "The army, I mean, back… there. Pass of Blood thing. Really, you people need some better names, motivational ones. Hire a consultant. But where was I? Army. Not marching towards us. That's always a good thing, right? Heavily armed men with primitive weapons marching towards you never ends well."

 

It had been far away, like lines of tiny insects massed together in red, weapons gleaming in one last defiant blaze before they had been swallowed by the rain. "My father always has a battalion stationed in the Marches," he said. If he hadn't grasped at his freedom in the bold way that he had done, he would be marching with them, for that had been his father's cruel plan for him. He would be one of those red insects, while far above him on the crags, Sheppard and Teyla and the others were passing on the journey, too far away for him to see them.

 

"Well, at least that's one thing that's going well," Rodney said. "No, don't say anything, colonel. I can do positive."

 

The cart lurched, stopping with a jolt. Ronon jumped down from the bench, bent to drag a boulder away from the wheel, and swung himself back up, all without a word. Earlier, Jasper had watched raindrops sit glistening on his hair, but they had long since soaked through.

 

"Or do say something," he heard Rodney say. "Saying something would be good. Sheppard?"

 

"I believe he is unconscious," Teyla said.

 

Jasper leant forward, the coat slipping from his head. Rodney knelt over Sheppard, his hand fluttering like a nervous bird as it tried to decide whether to settle on Sheppard's shoulder. Her hair dark with rain, Teyla took hold of Sheppard and raised him up, pulling him so that he was resting entirely in her arms. There was something faintly defiant about the way that she did it. "Good," Rodney murmured, twitchily rearranging the blanket that covered Sheppard. "That's good." His voice broke as the cart lurched into motion again, but Sheppard, supported by Teyla's arms, was barely shaken by it.

 

It made Jasper's throat hurt, almost as if he was about to cry.

 

He watched the rain instead - how each raindrop kept its own erratic course, seldom going straight down, even as the general impression of the rain as a whole was of vertical movement. Some of them swirled, and he imagined them screaming, digging in their heels, doing anything possible to avoid their fate.

 

"There's a track ahead," he heard Ronon say.

 

"Yeah." The thief was on the bench beside Ronon, seemingly ignoring the rest of them. "Black-stone quarry. No steam, though, so it's not used any more – not used today, anyway. It's probably safe." Perhaps it was the rain, but his voice sounded different from normal.

 

Jasper watched Ronon pull on the reins, turning the cart slightly to the left, heading for the track. Then he turned back to the others, and saw Rodney watching, too. "Dare we hope for an end to the bumping?" Rodney said. "That's good." A sudden lurch made him grab for the top of the sill. "Six hours ago would have been good." His eyes flickered towards Sheppard. "Never getting into this damn thing in the first place…" His eyes were still on Sheppard, and he sighed, scraping rain away from his face with the heel of his hand.

 

The change of direction made the rain blow full in Jasper's face, and some of it reached him even when he tugged his coat forward, narrowing his vision to a tiny patch surrounded by blackness. "At least some people are dry," Rodney said. "Remind me again why we're getting soaked to the skin when there's a lovely pack full of nice, warm blankets? Oh yes – because we'll be grateful for dry blankets when we're trying to sleep. But that's then and this is now, and we're not going to live to bedtime if we--" 

He stopped for a jolt. "--soaked to the skin and wrinkled."

 

"Might not live until bedtime, anyway." The thief twisted on the bench, speaking to them for the first time since lunch. "That's the Debateable Lands down there, and those peaks over there, that you can't see because it's raining, are in Daryen."

 

"The Debateable Lands?" Rodney asked.

 

"Where the men are as wild as crebyn and the women as fierce as carrils, and their idea of a fun day out involves blood feuds and murder." The thief braced himself, hand tight on the bench, as the cart went over a small ridge, and then there were on the track. "Thank God!" Rodney exclaimed, but the thief continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Lines on maps in distant citadels mean nothing to the folk round here. The border is… somewhere." He waved his hand vaguely. "Changes from day to day depending on who's been out raiding. They spend their time stealing each others' livestock, burning each other's castles, and sticking knives in the guts of people they don't like, by which they include anyone from any other castle, and strangers."

 

"Strangers. Of course." Rodney sighed. "And we're going there why?"

 

"It's that or the Pass of Blood and the army," the thief said. "Given the choice between certain capture and the possibility of--"

 

There was a loud crack, and the cart lurched, then shuddered to a stop, tilting slightly. "Fuck!" the thief swore. Ronon jumped off the bench and peered under the cart. "Axle?" the thief asked, and Ronon nodded. "Fuck!" he swore again.

 

"And this happens now?" Rodney exclaimed. "Now, when we're on a proper road at last, and not when that oaf was taking us through every ditch on the planet?"

 

"Stopped," Sheppard breathed, stirring. His head moved weakly from side to side. "Teyla?" His hand closed round the blanket and he tried to pull it off. "Sit up."

 

"No, lie still."

 

Jasper turned away, his throat hurting. The thief was out of the cart, too, standing next to Ronon. "Can't go on without a wheel," he was saying, but Ronon, his back to Jasper, said something that he didn't quite catch, though he heard Sheppard's name. Then, "McKay can fix things."

 

Rodney crawled gingerly to the edge of the cart. "Touching as your faith in my skills in – no, seriously, I'm flattered, even though your good opinion of me is, of course, entirely warranted – but this is not the sort of thing I fix. This is stone axe and turnip stuff."

 

Ronon ignored him. "Unharness the animal." He nodded at the thief, who obeyed him, moving to the restless merrilyn. But Sheppard was still trying to talk weakly, and Teyla was still holding him, and Jasper found himself turning to watch them again, even though it made something twist inside him as memories called to him from a time when he had been loved. He missed what happened, then. By the time his head snapped around in response to the thief's shout of, "Catch it!" the merrilyn was free, running back the way they had come, trailing harness. Ronon made a grab for it, but was late, far too late. He ran after it, but no man could ever hope to outrun an unencumbered merrilyn. He hit it with the red fire from his weapon, but that did little to slow it down, and the second time he fired, he missed.

 

"I believe Rodney has an expression for it," the thief said, looking up at them from the roadside. "Something about being screwed?"

 

******

 

Kit had to hand it to Sheppard. Stupid it might be, but he managed to keep going for surprisingly long. Sometimes he went down on one knee, his head bowed, but always, with a visible effort, he gathered his strength again and pulled himself up. The others fluttered around him, of course, like spiritwings drawn to his light, and helped him where they could – and when he would let them – but short of carrying him bodily, there wasn't much they could do. Perhaps not stupid after all, Kit thought, just necessary.

 

They left the track when it turned away towards the pass, and struck across open country. The vervyn soon gave way to cropped grass, easier to walk through, and there was an increasing number of trees to give them cover. Small herds of merrow were grazing, looking bored and wet, and that was not good, because herds of merrow implied the presence of people looking after them, which in these parts meant that there were also other people trying to steal them, and that the people looking after them were doubtless armed. 

 

No choice, he reminded himself, though of course there was a choice, which was not to leave Myr at all. Or, since that choice was long since gone with the flood, to abandon the others and head into Daryen alone, on the grounds that having a good strong Ronon at his back was a good thing if they were caught, but one person alone had a better chance of not being caught in the first place.

 

At least Ronon seemed to share Kit's view of Sheppard's behaviour. "This is stupid," he told Sheppard, after his latest almost-stumble. "I'll carry you."

 

"No," Sheppard mumbled. "No no no. Can walk."

 

"Can't."

 

"Not…" Sheppard brought up his hand as if he was swatting invisible insects. "Not carry, buddy, no. Need… If it's as dangerous as Kit says, you'll need trigger hand."

 

Ronon smiled. "I'll drop you if I need to shoot."

 

"No." Sheppard's hand went back to his body, pressed to his middle. "No. No. Please."

 

There was a short silence, broken by Rodney. "Well, I can't carry him. My back, you know? Doctor Keller says…" His words trailed away as Sheppard doggedly walked forward and kept on going, and then were forgotten in the chewing of his lip.

 

"I'll sling you over my shoulder if you fall one more time," Ronon warned Sheppard as he easily overtook him, and resumed his place with Kit at the front of their unhappy little band. Kit chose their route based on the presence of cover, and Ronon modified it to take into account Sheppard's need for smooth ground. It was quite a while before Kit realised that this was what they were doing, and that they had been doing it all along, working together with unspoken communication. Strange, he thought, and it made him want to say something harsh to ease the strangeness, but he did not.

 

The rain eased slightly, enough to allow Kit to find them a stream by the sound of running water. Its bed was strewn with rocks, but its edge was smooth shingle, and it was lined with trees that were full with leaf. They could follow it, perhaps, and be in good cover all the way into the heart of--

 

And that, of course, was when Sheppard decided to demonstrate to them all that there was a limit even to his endurance. This time, when he fell to his knees, he didn't get up, just knelt there, listing slightly.

 

"Ronon?" Rodney called, looking from Sheppard to Ronon and back again.

 

"No." Sheppard brought up his hand. "No. Go on."

 

"And leave you?" Rodney's voice was shrill. "Leave you here, and I don't know if you've seen it, but there's bones over there, and some sort of big black bird picking at them."

 

"Not going to happen," Ronon said.

 

"Go get help." Sheppard was still kneeling, even now resisting what must have been a very strong urge to fall over and lie down. "Help." He flapped his hand vaguely.

 

"In the Debateable Land?" Kit gave a harsh laugh. "You don't go knocking on doors round here asking for help. They'd kill you on sight."

 

"I believe it is at least four days to the… Circle of Daryen," Teyla said. "It would be a long time before we could return with help from home."

 

"Got medicine." Sheppard's eyes were moving strangely, not quite focusing on them, then flicking away as if he was seeing things that weren't there.

 

Teyla looked at Ronon. "That is true. These things can take a while to work. If one of us stayed with him…"

 

"Things never go well when we split up." Rodney was still staring at the bones. "Are they human?"

 

The prince spoke up. "Why don't we camp here? He might be better by morning, and then we can all carry on."

 

"Or he'll be dead by morning," Rodney said harshly.

 

Perhaps it would be better if he just got on with it and died, Kit thought. At least then the others would be free to carry on at a decent pace, and they'd be too busy grieving to… No. He stopped that thought, feeling a pang of remorse, even of anger at himself. When had he become the sort of person who could think a thing like that? Mean-hearted bastard he might be, but Sheppard was a good man, and… Gods! Kit even liked the fellow well enough, despite his stubborn ways. And he came for me, he thought. He came for me.

 

"Perhaps if we all stay," Teyla said to Ronon, "and you and Kit go on…"

 

"Go," Sheppard breathed, still staring at nothing. "Go. Please. I…"

 

And they were still debating it when the raiding party found them.

 

******

 

Interlude

The Widow of Stone Hall

__

 

Young Dalla brought her the news, dropping a clumsy curtsey. "The riding's returning, my lady."

 

Annis laid down the jerkin, flexing her stiff fingers; it was hard work driving a needle even through the thinnest of leather. "Any empty saddles?"

 

The question carried more, of course, and Dalla might be an empty-headed fool who insisted on calling Annis 'my lady', as if she was a queen in the distant city, but she understand that much, at least. "They're all alive, my lady, as far as I can see. They're coming in slowly, no-one chasing them, not driving anything before them."

 

"That's good," Annis said, remembering the time not so many seasons ago, when Hewkin had come in at a gallop, hotly chased by a furious party from Low Crag. There had been two widows by the end of that day, and the yard still bore its scars.

 

"But they have prisoners, my lady."

 

Prisoners? Annis pushed the jerkin from her lap, and stood up. She strode across the room and flung the door open, then hurried down both flights of stairs, Dalla trailing breathlessly in her wake. "The riding's returning, ma'am," said Rab, on guard at the main door, and she nodded a quick I know and took up her place in the yard to await them.

 

She knew how long it usually took from first sighting to arrival, but she had to wait a good long time, long enough to get wet and restless. Dalla had said that they were coming in slowly, but Hewkin was not one for slowness. He had been quick out of the womb, and had been quick ever since, racing his way into trouble from the moment he learnt how to walk. Dalla fidgeted beside her, so Annis snapped at her, telling her to go inside and do something more fitting for a house servant. Dalla was sweet on Hewkin, of course; all the girls were.

 

At length she heard Hewkin commanding that the outer gate be opened. The horn-bearer blew the traditional three notes ascending that indicated a returning riding, then two more to indicate that there had been good raiding. So prisoners counted as a fine haul of livestock now, did they? Annis smiled slightly to herself, then stepped forward to the worn stone flag where ladies of Stone Hall had stood for hundreds of years to greet their fathers and husbands and sons home from the riding.

 

It was the son now, of course, not the husband, and as usual he rode in laughing, waving a greeting to some unseen face at a high window. Graye rode beside him in the position of second, and there was a dark-haired man slung over the front of his saddle, seemingly unconscious. The rest of the riding followed them in, and with the stable-lads and their masters, the yard soon became crowded with people and merrilyn. Some of the riders sported scrapes and bruises, as if they had been in a fist fight, and Hob was white-faced, his left arm apparently useless, while Hugh's Ellis swayed in the saddle and blinked like a dazed sorel, although he had no visible injury.

 

The prisoners stumbled in last, each one with their wrists lashed to a rider's saddle. "Do you have any idea what would have happened to me if I'd fallen over?" one of them was saying, his voice audible even over all the other people in the yard. "I would have been flayed to death, because that ground was not smooth, I'll have you know. I think you should consider this next time you capture people and drag them to your lair for the hideous death thing."

 

Annis stood on her stone and waited for the gate to be drawn shut. Hewkin looked down at her, his face bright with smiles. "Was the riding good?" She asked the formal question, but didn't wait for the formal reply. "Livestock, Hewkin?" She nodded towards the horn-bearer, and Hewkin shrugged, just as he had shrugged aged seven, when he had come home with a branded dapple twice as big as himself, and had almost started a blood feud. Annis sighed, and prepared herself, once again, for the consequences. "What have you brought me this time, Hewkin?"

 

"Strangers," Hewkin began.

 

"I'm not blind yet," she told him sharply.

 

"Sorry, ma." She saw Graye smile to himself; saw, too, that Hewkin was aware of that smile, and didn't care one little bit that one of his men had seen him accept rebuke like a child. Gods! she thought, not for the first time. How could a boy like this spring from the same tree as his father? "We found them up at Sweetwater, just below the falls. They resisted." He looked almost hurt by that. For a man so good at accidentally provoking fights, he was always faintly horrified when people acted in the way that any provoked man would act, and fought back. "Fortunately," he said, smiling again, "we had the benefit of numbers and surprise. They were busy fussing over that one." He jabbed his thumb at the man on Graye's saddle. "He's sick with wound-fever. It's bad."

 

Annis looked at the prisoners. There was a boy there, fair-haired and terrified, and a young man of around Hewkin's age. There was a woman with the kind of beauty that, long ago, would have made Annis feel inadequate; a man with short hair; and a large warrior who was straining furiously against his bonds, as blood seeped from his hairline and flowed down his cheek, mingled with rain.

 

Annis took a breath. "I think you had better come in," she said, addressing them all, but her eyes on the injured man across the saddle.

 

******

 

Rain pounded against the window. Annis pushed back a strand of grey-streaked hair, then reached behind her head to tuck it into the twisted knot. I'm getting old, she thought. It looked like the hair of a stranger, and not the sort of thing that should be anything to do with her.

 

"Light more candles, Dalla, please," she said, because the light outside was failing. She heard Dalla move around behind her, and she watched how each new candle seemed to change the appearance of the man in the bed, casting new shadows on his face. He had not yet regained consciousness, but he was far from still, wrestling with unseen horrors in his dreams.

 

The last man who had fought wound-fever in this bed had died, of course.

 

"I wonder who he is, my lady." Dalla stood over the bed with the last candle, gazing down at the man's handsome face. She doubtless had fantasies of nursing him back to health. Well, chances were, Dalla would get her chance to mop his fevered brow, and perhaps some of the more unpleasant tasks of the sickbed. Unless the man died first, of course.

 

"Let's get some answers, then, shall we?" Annis straightened her aching back. "Bring me the other prisoners, will you, my dear? No, not the big one. I don't think I could cope with him. Not the dark-haired one, either." She hadn't liked the way his eyes had been all over the place as Hewkin had led them to their chambers. The woman and the big man had clearly been studying the place for signs of weakness and a chance of escape, which was understandable, but the dark-haired one had been looking at her valuables, such as they were, assessing them as a thief would do. "Take one of the men with you," she said, "in case there are… misunderstandings."

 

Dalla left, and once again Annis was alone with a desperately sick man in the heavily-draped bed. It had been winter then, her breath turning into clouds of steam as she sat at the bedside and waited for her husband to die. Only at the very end had he slipped into unconsciousness. Before that, he had raged, wanting to go out with the riding, cursing the hand that had given him this wound, screaming at her for killing him with botched medicine. When the light was right, you could still see the stain on the wall from the bowl of broth that he had hurled away, wasting precious herbs from her cherished store.

 

"What are you doing to him? Step away from him now, you… you… witch."

 

Wrenched suddenly into the present, Annis turned around to greet her guests. Ellis, he saw, was bringing his fist up, as if to strike the short-haired man silent, but she shook her head slightly at him. "Trying to save his life," she said.

 

"Oh. Well." With a nervous, resentful glance at Ellis, the man approached the bed. The woman followed, the boy hanging back uncertainly. "Is he… uh… you know…" The man shut his mouth, then tried again. "Is it going to work, whatever you're doing?"

 

Ellis was glowering in the doorway. "It's all right, Ellis," she told him. "You can go. I'm sure our guests will do me no harm." She emphasised the word 'guest' a little. "And Dalla?" The girl reluctantly tore her gaze away from the unconscious man. "Run along, would you, and help Bren with the broth."

 

So here she was, alone with three strangers. "A year ago," she told them, "you would have been thrown into the dungeon – which is a cellar, really, actually, but my husband always called it his dungeon, and these things are hard to forget – and you'd have been beaten if you objected to his kind of hospitality. My husband took a dim view of strangers."

 

"Oh," said the short-haired man. "We're not… I mean, yes, yes, we are strangers – visitors from a distant land, and all that – but we don't mean any harm. We come in peace, etcetera etcetera."

 

"We are travellers," the woman said, with a polite smile. Her eyes, though, were seldom off the man on the bed, and barely on Annis at all. "We owe no allegiance to any enemies you might have. We became… stranded, and are merely trying to return home."

 

"All six of you?" Annis asked, because she had always been good at judging people and their relationships – you had to be, when you lived always on the knife-edge of warfare, and a household depended on you – and already had opinions of her own.

 

"Four of us," the woman said. "I am Teyla Emmagen, and this is Rodney McKay. Ronon Dex is the large man you can hear throwing himself against a door--"

 

"And he's Sheppard," said the man called Rodney, pointing to the man in the bed. "Is he going to be okay?"

 

Whatever else she might be, she was head of the household, until she chose to hand it over to Hewkin or Hewkin chose to take it from her, and there were certain things that she had to do. "And the other two?" she said sharply, ignoring him.

 

"Nothing to do with us," Rodney said, even as Teyla replied more cautiously, saying, "Kit, the young man you left with Ronon, is our guide. This young man--"

 

"Jasper," said the boy, and Annis stiffened, very slowly letting out the breath she had sucked in.

 

"Jasper," Rodney said impatiently, "wants to see the world and has adopted us as his guides and mentors."

 

"Jasper," Annis said, when she could speak again. "Like the crown prince of Myr."

 

The boy blanched, like Hewkin as a child, caught out doing something that he thought he would be punished for. Annis decided to take pity on him. "I expect you've heard stories about the unscrupulous murderers of the Debateable Land," she said. The injured man, Sheppard, moaned, weakly pawing at the blankets, but she knew that the only thing he was responding to was deep within his own head. "You were probably told that we would kill you on sight."

 

"You won't?" Rodney said. "Well, yes, I can see that you didn't, but you might have been saving us up for something horrible. You're not? You're innocent and good-hearted, and it's all slander and rumour? Believe me, I know what it's like. When I was at school, Gary Kitson started a rumour that… Anyway, where was I? Of course, ruthless murderers always say they're misunderstood, and--"

 

"Many of the stories are true," she told him. "We have a harsh life here, and a violent one, and the laws of distant cities don't hold any weight. However," she said, with a smile, "we are not as hard-hearted as all that, and my husband is dead. I would never refuse to help an injured man, and neither would I treat travellers with anything other than courtesy, if I truly believed that they meant no harm to me and mine."

 

"Oh, that's us," said Rodney. "Mean no harm. Innocent as the driven snow."

 

Annis dripped a rag in water and wrung it out. "But if I discover that you are lying," she said, as she pressed the rag to Sheppard's brow, "then you will discover that not all stories are exaggerated." Raising her head, her eyes met Teyla's. "You understand, of course."

 

"We understand," Teyla said.

 

"Uh, just so you know?" Rodney raised his hand. "You should search Kit for valuables before he leaves, and if you find anything… He's not with us. I'm just saying."

 

Teyla touched Sheppard's throat, her expression grave. "It is only fair to tell you," she said, "that the king of Myr falsely believes that we are spies from Daryen, and we believe that we are still being pursued. At least one Whisperer is involved. We would not wish to bring the wrath of the king upon you."

 

Annis smiled. "My dear," she said – Gods! I even sound old – "the king of Myr is always wroth with us. Kings mean little here, for all that we live on the border, and the last Whisperer who came into these parts is just dust and bones beneath the Bitter Hill."

 

"Well, that's good, then. That's good." Rodney looked upwards, listening to the thuds from above. "Maybe someone should go tell Ronon that we aren't being messily killed before he breaks the door down?"

 

******

 

The rain continued throughout the night. At noon the next day, Annis stood at the window, her hands at the small of her aching back, and watched Hewkin ride out with three others. "I wonder what he'll bring me this time," she said. She had cautioned him to be careful, not to blunder anywhere near Low Crag. With fugitives in the house, it would not be a good time to be landed with the results of one of Hewkin's wilder adventures. "Merrilyn, I hope."

 

Rodney said nothing, and Sheppard, of course, was silent. Her guests clearly did not entirely trust her not to kill him with her care, and at least one of Sheppard's three companions was always with him. Or perhaps they trusted her well enough, just needed to be there themselves, to see him with their own eyes, to share his final moment, if it came to that. She understood that, of course. It was just strange not to be alone in the sickroom. Her husband's final days she had endured entirely by herself.

 

"As soon as he was big enough to ride one," she said, as Hewkin raised one hand in farewell, then rode laughing into the dark, "he's always loved merrilyn. His favourite game is to catch wild merrilyn and bring them home to tame them to the saddle. The stable's bulging with them, far more than I need. Because, of course, he loses interest in them once they bow their heads to him."

 

Hewkin rode out of sight. Although it was still raining, the visibility was improving, and Annis looked the other way, over to the lands that were theoretically in Daryen. The dark shape of Three Towers was invisible, hidden by trees, but sometimes she wondered if Gavin and his daughters were looking back at her. They were her nearest neighbours, holding lands that made them swear allegiance to a different lord.

 

"He says the tame ones are slower," she said, "and he's never happier than when riding as fast as the wind on a wild brute that's doing its utmost to throw him off."

 

"Sounds like Sheppard," Rodney said. "The faster the better, with him. I keep telling him he's going to crash one day, and, well, of course, actually, uh, he did, hence this whole sorry mess."

 

Annis turned her back on the window and moved back to the bedside, to the high-backed chair that had become her domain for so many days in the winter gone. Tell me something else about him, she wanted to say, but did not, in case Rodney thought her a foolish old woman taking an interest in a man at least a dozen years her junior. There was a strange intimacy about a sickbed. She had bathed him and changed his clothes, and she had heard his fevered moans and pleadings in the night, but she still didn't know what colour his eyes were, and what his voice sounded like when it was strong.

 

"Were you satisfied with your breakfast?" she asked instead. Foolish woman, she chided herself, hearing how stilted it sounded, how inadequate, when this man's friend was fighting for his life in the bed beside him.

 

"It was very… meaty," Rodney said. "It's Ronon's fantasy dream breakfast: half a cow to rip apart with his teeth. Teyla says the sauce was very good, but I didn't have any, on account of it looking suspiciously yellow, and I couldn't find anyone who'd even heard of citrus, let alone someone who could tell me if I'd die--" Sheppard clawed at the blankets, trying to push them off. Rodney froze, watching him miserably. "Can't you, uh, stop that?"

 

Annis covered Sheppard again, holding the blanket down firmly as she spoke meaningless soothing words. It wasn't good for Sheppard to struggle. His ribs were injured, and his breathing was shallow and fast at the best of times, rattling in his chest. His wrists were the source of the wound-fever, though, and she recognised the marks of shackles - rusty ones, no doubt.

 

Then Sheppard stilled abruptly, and Rodney sucked in a breath. "He isn't…"

 

Annis touched Sheppard's neck. "Still alive," she was able to tell Rodney. "Bad as it looks, I think he's actually better than he was in the night." She had poured callow-bark tea between his lips and had slathered his wounds with medicinal salves, and she thought that the heat from him was less intense than it had been.

 

The door burst open and Ronon strode in. "My husband used to open doors like that," she told him, "as if they were enemies that needed subduing." Her hands trembled minutely – hands that knew how to hold a sword, and hands that could end a life as well as save one.

 

"They won't let me go outside." At least Ronon didn't shout, so the resemblance ended there. "You say we're guests, but they won't let me have my weapons."

 

"You must surely understand," Annis said. "I have the safety of my people to think of. I cannot take trust too far. You will get them back when you leave, you have my word on that." She gave a mirthless smile. "If you leave as friends, that is."

 

Remembering how Ronon had raged the day before, and knowing how her husband would have reacted if anyone had taken his weapons from him, she expected an argument, but Ronon seemed to accept it.  Perhaps it was just that his anger was deflected by the sight of Sheppard's condition, bleak and awful in the muted daylight.

 

It was that acceptance that made her say more. "You can have the run of the yard and the outbuildings, but Teyla tells me that you are fugitives. My people won't talk, but there are people outside these walls that might, not to mention enemies who might jump at a chance to spread the news that the widow of Stone Hall is sheltering strangers on the run."

 

Perhaps Ronon hadn't even heard her. "How's Sheppard?"

 

"Still here," she said, knowing that Ronon would not accept platitudes. "I have reason to believe that the worst is over, but…" She ended it with a sigh. Sometimes people woke bright-eyed and lucid after the wound-fever, but were dead by morning.

 

"I'll sit with him." Ronon nodded at Rodney. "There's seed cake in the kitchen, and something with a soft root in it, good and hot."

 

Annis stood up and headed to the window, and touched the glass, watching the rain. She had always felt restless when confined inside, and she wanted to be young again, romping across the moor, chasing merrilyn, going wherever she willed. She remembered the shy, smiling boy she had met at Sweetwater Falls, and how they had nursed an injured sorrel together. It had died, though, and then her father had found out, and then his, and she had learnt that history and family names counted for everything. They still did, it seemed.

 

The door opened and closed again, and she knew that she was alone with Ronon, a man who reminded her of her husband. But also a man, she reminded herself, who was very clearly worried sick about his friend. She wondered what to say to him, then realised that he didn't expect her to say anything at all.

 

Sheppard moaned in his sleep. "Hey, Sheppard," Ronon said quietly. "Buddy?" When Annis turned her head, she saw how gentle his large hand was as he touched Sheppard's shoulder.

 

For some unaccountable reason, it almost made her want to weep. She turned back to the window, watching as a rider emerged from the trees. "Another messenger," she said. There had been three in as many days – couriers and pedlars coming from Daryen with strange news. "The end of the world's coming, apparently." The rider drew nearer, his head bowed against the rain, and she saw the device he wore on his breast, and saw, too, the nervous way he rode, as if he was expecting at any moment to be torn to pieces.

 

Annis cursed under her breath. Not a courier from Daryen, but a messenger from the king of Myr, doubtless with news of certain fugitives, and blustering threats about the consequences of concealing them. She would have to lie, and she hated lying. Or tell the truth, of course, she thought.

 

******

 

The rain finally stopped shortly before dawn on the following day. Annis and Teyla sat together at Sheppard's bedside for several hours, until Annis found herself dozing in her chair. "I believe he is past the worst of it now," Teyla said, after Annis jerked awake with a start. "You have been more than kind, but you need sleep."

 

Of course she did. His friends were attentive, and Teyla and Ronon clearly had more than a passing knowledge of caring for the sick and injured, despite their unfamiliarity with the specific herbs. There was no need for her to spend her time so ceaselessly at the bedside. No need? she thought, as she headed for the door. Her husband had died in this very room, despite her care. Perhaps she just wanted to show the world that a man in her care could also live.

 

She slept, although she had not expected to. She dreamt, though, not of the strangers, and not of the news the messenger had brought, but of her husband in one of his rages. She woke up trembling, tears dry on her face. By then, night was fast approaching. Someone had entered her room and left a covered plate of food on the dresser. Downstairs, though, dinner was in full swing, Hewkin leading the men in loud singing. Before the year was out, she thought, she would be lord of Stone Hall in every way that mattered, and what would be her role, then, but to wait and watch and fade away?

 

She smoothed her hair – not fully grey, not yet – and dressed herself, pulling on a simple front-lacing day-gown, skirts kirtled up for easy walking. Dalla met her in the corridor. "Oh. I would have dressed you, my lady."

 

"I've been dressing myself since before you were born, girl," Annis said, a little tetchily. "You pay altogether too much attention to the courtly nonsense in the packmen's papers. How are our guests?"

 

Sheppard, she heard, was peacefully sleeping, his fever much decreased. The others were eating in their room, "on account of what the messenger said about them being wanted men. Master Hewkin thought it best not to allow them in the hall. Too many people."

 

All of whom had already seen them, of course, but wouldn't say a word to anyone outside family and hall. It was a sound enough decision, though – unusually so for Hewkin. Every riding man on the estate crammed into the hall for dinner one night out of three, and drink flowed freely, and many things could happen, and often did.

 

Instead of heading for the sickroom, Annis made for the room where her other guests were quartered. "…light must mean that someone's trying to make contact," Rodney was exclaiming excitedly. "That's how you know to touch it just there, to receive the message. They must be calibrated, connected to each other somehow. Is it one to one, I wonder, or one to many, and if it's one to many, how do you do you indicate which one you want to communicate with?"

 

The thief was sitting in the windowseat, his pose one of studied boredom. Teyla was listening to Rodney with the patient air of someone who had been listening for a very long time. The boy was writing something, his page covered with black scored lines, and Ronon was absent, presumably sitting with Sheppard.

 

Annis had intended to say many things – to politely enquire about their dinner, perhaps, or to share the good news about Sheppard – but instead she found herself saying, "You are heading for Daryen?"

 

The boy started in a way that might have been comical. Rodney pulled up a side of the tablecloth and dropped it over the thing he was studying, and even the thief stiffened. Only Teyla kept her calm. "It is unavoidable," she said. "Our way home lies through Daryen."

 

"Yes." Annis walked to the window, standing too close to the thief. "A messenger came yesterday with interesting news. He asked us to look out for an escaped prisoner, a dark-haired thief, and some others. They killed a Whisperer, I hear, and they also abducted a nobleman's son from his chamber. The way he told it, I got the impression that the boy was a child yet – a gold-haired lad, quite innocent of harm." She looked at Jasper as she said it; saw how tightly he was clutching his pen.

 

"We were honest with you from the start." Teyla held her ground. I like you, my dear, Annis thought, but let none of that show on her face. "You said it did not matter."

 

"Ah, but the messenger brought other news," Annis told them. "Yesterday morning, the King of Myr sent his army across the border. The Basilis of Daryen is bound to respond. As of today, we are at war."

 

"War?" the boy gasped. "Why?"

 

Annis sat down on the bed beside him. "Since when have those two needed a reason for war? The immediate cause, I would imagine, is this stolen boy. Noblemen do not, as a rule, react well when people steal their heirs away."

 

"Perhaps…" Jasper's voice came out as a squeak. "Perhaps he wasn't stolen, but left of his own accord."

 

"I am sure that he did," Annis told him, "or things would be very different."

 

"Are you…" Rodney stood up, chair scraping on the stone floor. "Are you going to hand us over? Not that it's us, of course. We didn't do anything. Mistaken identity, and all that."

 

"We need to get to Daryen," Teyla said. "If our presence here puts you in danger, we will leave tonight."

 

Rodney looked stricken. "But Sheppard--"

 

"I told you how things stood two nights ago." Despite her sleep, Annis felt deeply weary. "This is a border castle, and, yes, we spend much of our time trying to tweak the beards of the families that live across the border. The fact that they live in Daryen lands and we owe allegiance to Myr makes a good excuse. War will doubtless make that worse. However, here at Stone Hall, our worst enemies are those from Low Crag, firmly on the Myr side of the border." And my closest friend is in Daryen, she thought, thinking of Gavin, the gentle-eyed boy from Sweetwater Falls, he of a dozen snatched meetings over a lifetime of years. Now he was a frontier lord for an enemy state, and would be expected to send ridings against her own walls.

 

"The thing is," she said, heading for the vacant window, that looked not towards Daryen but back to the high peaks of Myr, "we understand each other, here on the border. We live the same life. Our so-called enemies across the border feel like brothers – brothers that we fight with," she added, with a smile. "Brothers that we sometimes hate and sometimes try to kill, but brothers all the same. People in the city, people in the towns and villages, don't understand us, and we don't understand them. If the King of Myr arrived with a battalion and started burning down halls on the Daryen side of the border, he would find that nothing unites the people of the borders as much as a common enemy."

 

Teyla touched on her on the shoulder, and there was comfort in the touch, as much as understanding. "We understand," she said.

 

"We understand?" Rodney echoed. "Do we?"

 

But as she left, she wondered if they really did – if anyone could.

 

******

 

"You want to be out there." Annis smiled. "I recognise that look."

 

Sheppard was in the high-backed chair, which someone – Ronon, perhaps – had moved to the window for him. Annis had missed the moment he had woken up, had missed his first lucid words. It was right, of course, that the people who knew him best should get to share his recovery. Her own care was needed less and less, now that Sheppard could drink the tea by himself, holding the cup in tremulous hands. She had missed him walking from the bed to the chair, too, though she understood him well enough to know that he had indeed walked, and not got Ronon to carry him.

 

"Yeah." Sheppard shrugged. "I hate being sick."

 

Annis was sewing one of her husband's old tunics, adapting it for Sheppard's slimmer frame. She wondered whether to say the thing that popped into her mind. "Graye tells me," she began – not Hewkin, of course; Hewkin would never think of such a thing – "that when they found you, you were busy telling your friends to leave you."

 

He shifted slightly in the chair. "I don't remember much. I was out of it."

 

She made another stitch, sewing carefully over older seams. "You are their riding captain? Forgive me. You are their leader?"

 

"They're my team," he said, "and the boy… well, he's my responsibility." He added nothing more, as if that said everything that was needed. Perhaps it did.

 

Annis said nothing, but her next stitch missed, the needle jabbing into her finger. You could tell a lot about a man by the way their followers behaved around them, of course. Her husband had been lord of Stone Hall for thirty years, but she had sat in his sickroom alone. Even Hewkin had stayed away, spending his father's last hours in a wild search for merrilyn. 

 

"They wouldn't have left you," she said. "Not them."

 

"They should have." His faint smile was a cover for other things. "I think we need to have the talk again, the one about them following orders."

 

"I thought you didn't remember anything," she dared to say.

 

His hand was on the wooden arm of the chair, and she looked at the mottled sky beyond his profile. "We're on the run," he said, changing the subject as she had known he would. "Doesn't matter why. Doesn't matter that we didn't do it. There's a Whisperer, and…" He turned his head towards her. "We'll leave as soon as we can."

 

"By which you mean sooner than is good for you," she told him calmly, rubbing blood between her thumb and forefinger, "and undoing all my work."

 

The hand tightened. "I just need to get my team home." He said 'need', not 'want', she noticed. Just as you could tell a lot about a man by the way their followers behaved, you could learn a lot by how he behaved when sick, and what slipped past his defences.

 

"I know," she said. "Don't worry about us. We have our own loyalties here, that have little to do with distant kings. Family. Friends. Right. I am sure you understand."

 

His eyes met hers, still shadowed with illness, but bright. "I do."

 

How much of this would be said, she thought, if he was fully well? How much of this would be said at all if she was not a stranger?

 

She picked up the jacket again; tried to return to the seam. The needle jabbed in sharply, still stained a little with blood. "I didn't kill my husband."

 

"Oh." His eyebrows rose. "That's, uh, good to know."

 

"He took six days to die." In went the needle, in and out. "Six days in that bed, raving with the wound-fever. I hated him." She pulled the thread tight. "He was violent and he was a brute and he didn't care for anyone but himself. But I didn't kill him. I did everything I could to save him. I fed him what I fed you, and I salved his wounds as I salved yours, but he still died. He was lucid at the end, and blamed me, but I did everything. His constitution was weak from past wounds and too much drinking. It wasn't me."

 

Sheppard said nothing. What was there to say? She had never said this to anybody; would never say it again.

 

"But although I gave him medicine," she said, "I couldn't give him love. I sat there, in the chair you're in now, and watched him. I didn't…" And it was amazing that even now she could shed tears for it. "No-one sat with him, worried sick, like your friends did with you."

 

He said nothing. What could you say to a crazy woman who suddenly told you that? But if he hadn't come, would she ever have said it? If she hadn't nursed him these last few days, would she even have said it to herself? She had hated her husband, and now he was dead, and she had nothing to blame herself for – nothing. She had no need to stay loyal to his memory, and no need, either, to stay loyal to that distant king. She had said as much to Teyla and the others, but she had not truly believed it.

 

She was free, she thought. She was absolved, and she was free.

 

******

 

It was two more days before Sheppard judged himself ready to leave, but his friends dug in their heels and made him take another day. Annis would have had him take at least three more, but she knew that she had no more chance of persuading him than she had of turning back time. Every day brought in more tales of approaching war, and the roads were growing dangerous, and he felt the call of his distant, unknown home.

 

She knew so little about them, really, though she felt that she knew them in every way that mattered.

 

"Here," she said, leading them to the stables. Six merrilyn to help them on their way. "Have you ridden--?"

 

"Horses," Rodney said. "Once. Long ago. Not things like this, so big." He mimed hugeness with his hands. "Seriously, their ears are freaky."

 

"Freaky?" Sheppard was still pale, and he moved with the steadiness of the recently sick. He patted the nearest animal, his fingers raking through the long brown fur.

 

Annis thought he was going to say more – that he was going to say that they could not possibly take them. She patted the animal herself, her hand a long way from his. "As I told your friends, I have far more merrilyn than I need. They're bought with nothing more than my son's time. Besides," she said, smiling, "I won't have you undoing all my good work by walking all the way to Daryen. Take them." She lowered her voice. "You'll get your people home quicker this way."

 

His eyes met hers, and he nodded, a quick nod.

 

She watched them mount. Rodney protested loudly, and looked amazed when he found himself safely in the saddle, not falling off the other side. Ronon mounted quickly, and sat there watching the others, as if to say, 'Why aren't you ready yet?' The stable lads loaded up their packs, such as they were, and the few extras she had chosen to give them. She had also given them a pennant to fly. "Border code," she had explained, "for travellers that mean no harm and are not to be inconvenienced. Most will observe it, I hope, unless they are in argumentative mode."

 

Then there was nothing left but the goodbyes. The thief, she saw, was the most eager of all of them to be gone, and he rode his merrilyn in a way that told her he had ridden many before, and had had a good teacher. "That one," she said quietly to Sheppard, in the guise of straightening his saddle cloth, "is playing a game of his own."

 

He looked sharply at her, but merely said, "I know."

 

"And you need to make a decision about the boy."

 

He nodded at that, too, but said nothing.

 

What could you say to a man whose life you had saved? What could you say to a stranger who had seen you at your weakest and your worst? Nothing, it seemed, just a farewell and a thank you and a well-wishing, and no promises to meet again.

 

And so they rode away. But, afterwards, she lingered in the yard, and when Dalla called to her, she waved her hand and walked away. No loyalty, she thought. No loyalty to her dead husband, and no loyalty to distant kings. She had helped Sheppard and his friends, and she had harboured the crown prince of Myr, and had sent him on his way. No loyalty, except to those who deserved it. No loyalty, except to what was right.

 

Behind her, Hewkin came clattering out of the door, shouting orders to the boys. He was taking on more and more of the duties around the estate, and before very long, she would find herself with nothing.

 

"Saddle me Brown Rosie," she said to the nearest lad. When it was done, she mounted and went to the gate. "What are you doing, ma?" she heard Hewkin ask, and she turned, smiling, and said, "Something I should have done a long time ago."

 

Many years before, only eight years old, she had met a boy by the falls, but her father had deemed him unsuitable because his father owed allegiance to the wrong king. In time, she had married a brute and a bully who served the right one, and the boy, Gavin, had married a spineless lass. They had met so seldom over the years, but each moment had been golden. Now her husband was dead, and now his wife was gone… And now they were at war, two frontier chieftains facing each other over the border.

 

No loyalty, she thought, as she rode out into the green hills, beneath the sleeping peaks. Sheppard and his friends were still visible - distant specks on the far rising. Nothing to stop her from knowing him, except those barriers that had existed in her own heart. Nothing to stop her from loving him.

 

And soon, so soon – so close, he had been, for all these years – she arrived at the gate of Three Towers, and Gavin was there to meet her, and he was smiling.

 

******

 

Chapter nine

"And every road was new"

__

 

Daryen was no different from Myr. The air smelled the same – earthy and damp. The sunlight dappled through leaves in just the same way. When Jasper twisted in the saddle to look over his shoulder, the peaks behind him looked the same as the peaks ahead of him.

 

Even the border itself was nothing, just a tiny thread of a stream, unmarked by any monument. He would have ridden over it without a thought, had the thief not announced to them all that this was what the border currently was. "Daryen," the thief said. "Half way there."

 

So now Jasper was a fugitive, at large in enemy territory. Instead of his father's men trying to catch him, there were agents of the Basilis of Daryen. It ought to feel more dangerous, but it actually felt more safe. The Basilis of Daryen did not want to chain him to a life without poetry. The Basilis of Daryen had not tortured Sheppard, and did not hold his companions guilty of the murder of one of his agents.

 

People watched them at times from black-stone towers or from the shelters of trees. Weapons glittered, but Ronon held the pennant high, and no-one approached them. Sheppard and Ronon seemed edgy, though, as if they were expecting at any moment to fight. Rodney was just busy complaining about his mount.

 

"I'm being split apart," he said. "It's too wide. It's got a mean look. It hates me." He rode it badly, lolloping from side to side on the saddle. The others rode better, especially Sheppard and the thief. "Walking would be better than this," Rodney said. "My hands are bleeding from the reins – look, colonel! – and--" He grabbed at the animal's long fur, narrowly avoiding falling off. "I'm going to be bow-legged after this. I'm going to need some serious medical attention."

 

"It's at least twice as fast as walking," Sheppard threw back over his shoulder. "Perhaps only two days until we get home." His voice smiled, although Jasper couldn't see his face. "We could always gallop and get it over with."

 

Rodney huffed. "You and your speed addiction. I hate to break it to you, colonel, but these are not fast planes. They're quite fall-off-able."

 

Sheppard seemed almost completely well, and less and less like the prisoner Jasper had first met in the water cell. At times, he seemed almost light-hearted, too. Jasper imagined that it would feel good to have stared into the face of death, but to have emerged alive on the other side. The grass would seem greener and the sunlight more intense. Sheppard had been in pain for the entire time that Jasper had known him, he realised.

 

A party of riders passed in the distance, pausing to look in their direction. Ronon's hand went to the weapon at his side, but Sheppard shook his head slightly, even though he, too, was riding one-handed, his right hand ready to go to his belt. Then the party rode on, leaving nothing behind them but churned-up mud.

 

"Huh." Rodney frowned, distracted from his mount for the first time. "It seems we have to thank that woman for more than just your life."

 

"Annis." It sounded like a rebuke.

 

"Whatever." Rodney flapped his hand, then grabbed desperately at the reins again.

 

"She was very generous," Teyla said. Another rebuke.

 

And she had saved Sheppard's life, or so Teyla said. Rodney had loudly claimed that she had just gotten lucky with her primitive herbs and witch lore, and that anyone could have done it, and why did she have to be there all the time, watching over Sheppard, when they were his team and-- Teyla had stopped him at that – a firm stating of his name. Ronon had defended the lady, too, even though he had spent the whole time prowling, desperate to get out. And Sheppard was alive – not that Jasper had been allowed in to watch his recovery. He had thought of Sheppard as his – his prisoner – but it seemed that he had no place with him.

 

Perhaps that was why the words had not flowed. He had spent seven days of leisure in Stone Hall, without anyone breathing down his neck with talk of duty and obligation. He had wandered around the yard, seeking inspiration in the stables and in the sturdy men who strode around, bright with mail and laughter. He had watched the play of clouds and darkness over the hills, and he had touched the dark stone walls of their chamber, and thought of the depth of history that had gone to make up their thickness.

 

Tamorlin had stayed in a castle in the Marches. There were songs and ballads of tragic love, of young lovers separated by the hatred of their fathers. There were tales of feuds, and whole families wiped out, their bones left as food for the hobins. Some he had known before, and some he had learnt from listening to the men at their feasting, or taught the words by Dalla or Ellis or one of the few others who talked to him.

 

Yet even so, despite that, the words had not come. He had filled four pages with scratchings-out and hopeless rhymes. Perhaps it was the talk of war that unsettled him so. Perhaps it was the fact that for the first few days, they had been afraid that Sheppard would die. Perhaps it was just the confinement. He was not the sort of man who thrived indoors, it seemed, but needed to be out of the road, wandering free.

 

As he was now, he thought, looking up at the speckled sky. He had escaped his father, and now he was in Daryen, and every road was new. There was no need ever to go back.

 

******

 

"Ow!" Rodney protested, sliding from the saddle. "Ow! Ow! Ow!" He walked stiffly to a boulder, one hand pressed to his back, one rubbing his thigh. "I'm crippled for life. What if I want children one day?"

 

"Mini McKays?" Sheppard gave a mock shudder. He was showing no sign of discomfort, of course; a man who could claim to be fine even when he was about to die would not say a word about saddle-pain. He was still pale, though, but not in a way that would slow them down, so Kit told himself that he couldn't care less.

 

His own legs hurt, of course. It had been over four years since he had last sat on a merrilyn, and the muscles forgot, even though the rest of you never did. It was harder to hide on a merrilyn, of course, but the speed more than made up for that. Two days, perhaps. Two days before they arrived at the Circle of Daryen, and then… And then…

 

Enough of that, he told himself. He had to focus only on the moment, on getting them through each day. He had come close to slitting his throat with boredom and frustration in that bloody hall, with the widow and her servants watching him all the time in case his hands strayed towards her valuables, old-fashioned and threadbare as they were. She clearly disliked him. Well, he disliked her right back. Perhaps she expected their undying gratitude for her gift of merrilyn, but she wouldn't get it from him. If people were foolish enough to give things away for free, then you took them and ran as fast as you could, before they changed their minds.

 

Gods! he thought, as Teyla opened their packs. The old fool had given them the best fruits of her table. "She was sweet on you, Sheppard," Kit said. "What were you two getting up to, all that time she was alone with you?"

 

Sheppard was cutting off a slice of cheese. "Oh, the usual," he said lightly, gesturing with the knife. Ronon scowled though, so Kit counted it as half a success.

 

The food was good, though; he had to grant her that. The Debateable Lands had proved quite different from how the rumours painted it, and perhaps that was why he was out of sorts – because he always liked to be the man who knew everything. Instead of death, they had received hospitality – cold hospitality for him, from that keen-eyed old woman, but warmth for everyone else. She'd saved Sheppard's life, but she had handed Kit a platter that contained seven days of inactivity. Seven days to think. Seven days to doubt. Seven days to worry. Seven days in the company of someone who saw him as nothing more than a filthy thief.

 

But that's over, he thought, taking a swig of sweet wine. They were on the road again, safely over the border into Daryen. Yes, there were armies prowling around, but armies were big, lumbering things, easy to avoid. More to the point, Whisperers were hated in Daryen. If the worst came to the worst, they could just run screaming, shouting that a Whisperer was after them, and a horde of peasants with pitchforks would join in on their side.

 

Yes, he thought, taking another swig. The journey was almost over, and a new life beckoned, safe in Daryen. He was on the road, going where he willed, and that was good. Of course that was good.

 

******

 

Jasper's mount lowered her head to tug at a patch of yellow sunblade. "Stop that," he urged her, tugging at the reins. She grabbed three mouthfuls before she consented to obey him, then moved on reluctantly, chomping audibly. "Lazy," he told her, "and greedy." If she had a name already, he had not been told it. "I'll have to give you a name myself."

 

The path was leafy, dappled with shade, but hot and damp and airless. The others had moved surprisingly far ahead while he had stopped, he realised. Only Sheppard was waiting for him, holding his mount steady in a patch of deep shadow. "We need to talk," he said, when Jasper drew level with him.

 

"Oh." Jasper wiped his damp hand on the animal's hide. Being alone with Sheppard took him back to the cell, back to the feel of a knife at his throat. It took him back to the time in the town, and the flight in the cart. Things changed when Sheppard spoke to him. "What about?" he managed to ask.

 

"About how long you're planning on staying with us."

 

Jasper ducked to avoid a trailing branch, its feathery leaves brushing along his shoulder. "Until…" No, he didn't know. That was the future. This was a journey made of a thousand moments of now. It was a journey that would never end.

 

"I let you come with us," Sheppard said, "because I got you into this, and I thought it would be safer for you to do your coming-of-age road trip with us, rather than by yourself." The merrilyn tossed its head, snorting, and Sheppard calmed it absently, a hand on its neck. "The people chasing us worked for your father. You weren't in any danger yourself, and you might have put in a good word for us if they caught up with us. Other reasons too, perhaps." He bent his head as a twig made a play for his hair. "I wasn't always thinking straight back then."

 

"I…" Jasper swallowed. He thought of Sheppard grinning at him in a speeding cart, and of Teyla and Ronon dancing with sticks in the firelight. He had been allowed to share in such things, he realised; they had never been given by right. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you for…" A prince did not say 'letting', except to a king. A prince did not… "Thank you for letting me come," he said.

 

Sheppard did not smile. "See, I was wondering," he said, grabbing hold of a branch above him, "if this war thing would make any difference."

 

Jasper looked at the slanting sunlight – something he would never have seen if he had stayed at home. "Why should it?" he asked.

 

"Because--!" Sheppard let the branch go, so that it snapped backwards. His voice was quieter when he spoke again, less of a shout. "Because people get killed in wars."

 

Wars were glorious in the stories, but heroes died, their bodies pierced with blades, and their widows and their sweethearts mourned. Jasper had never dreamt of being a soldier. War was harsh and scary, and he had never been good at wielding a sword. His father seemed to like wars, though, and old General Bracken, who had fought in the Winter War so many years ago, never stopped talking about how wonderful it had all been.

 

"Soldiers like war," he said. "They find guard duty boring. They pick fights all the time, off duty. War keeps the thieves and beggars off the streets, offering them gainful employment. People die, yes, but since the flood, it's been harder to feed them, so perhaps it's a good thing, really." They were all things he had heard other say.

 

"People die in wars." Sheppard spat each word out separately. "Real people – people who have no choice but to follow stupid orders. People whose lives are dismissed by the brass as acceptable losses. People--" He reached for another branch, the end of it snapping off in his fingers. "This war is being fought because of you – because of me, too, because I dragged you into this."

 

"No it isn't." Jasper could say that with utter confidence. "You don't know my father like I do. This isn't about me at all, or about you." Fierce against the shadow, the patches of sunlight prickled his eyes. "He knew all along you weren't from Daryen, even as he was torturing you to get you to admit that you were." He paused for Sheppard to react, but Sheppard said nothing, staring stiffly straight ahead. "He pretended to think that you were because he wanted an excuse for war. Now he just has a different excuse. If you hadn't been there, and if I hadn't… gone, he'd just have found another one."

 

They emerged from the trees into sunlight. The others were nearing a shallow stream, the water gleaming with beads of silver, like tears.

 

"My father…" he said. His father was a closed door, refusing to let him to do he wanted. He was a cold face of stone. He was a turned back. But perhaps, sometimes, you had to step away from something before you could see it clearly. "My father wants this war, and if I go back now, it won't make the slightest difference. I expect he already knows that I left of my accord, because he'd told me I was to go away with the army, the morning before… before I met you. He won't want anyone to know, though. Even if I went back today, it wouldn't change anything."

 

"You know that?" Sheppard said sharply. "Perhaps you're seeing what you want to see."

 

"I know this." There was no triumph in this flash of understanding. He felt almost sad, as if something had died.

 

Ahead of them, Ronon twisted in the saddle, his face featureless, with the sun behind him. Sheppard seemed to understand whatever message he was giving, though. He nodded, flicked his hand, and Ronon turned back.

 

"It's the danger to you, too." Sheppard looked at him for the first time since the conversation had started. "You weren't in any real danger in Myr, but we're in Daryen now. You're the crown prince of an enemy power, and I'm taking you to the enemy's capital city. That's not a risk I'm prepared to take."

 

"It isn't your decision to make," Jasper retorted.

 

"Yes, it is." Sheppard's expression was as cold as Jasper had ever seen it.

 

"I'm a man now," Jasper said, wishing that his voice was not wavering. "I'm a prince. I can do what I like." Please, he wanted to beg. Please. Anyone could wander through the flowers of his own kingdom. That was a boy's adventure. Tamorlin had never stopped at borders and boundaries. To wander unseen and fearless beneath the very noses of his enemies… To see those snatched moments of beauty that no-one from his country had ever seen before…

 

He bit his lip, biting back words that he knew would mean nothing to Sheppard. "They won't recognise me," he said. "Noble-born hostages are always treated well. We won't get caught. The people of Daryen are just ordinary people, and you evaded a Whisperer…" His voice ran out. He tightened his grip on the reins as his mount attempted to drink the sunlit water. "Don't send me away. Please don't."

 

Sheppard said nothing, neither yes nor no, but kicked his mount into a trot, and went to rejoin his friends.

 

You're just like my father, Jasper wanted to shout after him, trying to stop me from doing what I need to do. But the words, that had served him so well just moments before, refused to come.

 

******

 

Ronon held up his hand sharply, indicating that Kit was supposed to be quiet. I thought I was, he thought, looking down at the mud oozing between his toes. The signal probably meant that he was supposed to stay still, too, sinking a little deeper into the sodden mud with every breath.

 

Ronon's hand turned into a pointing finger. People, it meant. Then he flattened his hand, bringing it downwards. With a sigh, Kit obeyed, crouching down where he stood. The change of position shifted his weight forward onto the balls of his feet, and cold water closed round his ankles like clamps. Whose idea was it to go without boots? he wondered. Yes, that would have been mine.

 

Just to add insult to injury, he couldn't see any sign of anyone approaching. He trusted Ronon to be right, though; they'd done enough scouting trips together now for Kit to know that. "Where?" he had to ask, just framing the shape of the word with his lips, not giving it any voice.

 

Ronon gestured to his ear, as if to say listen. Kit did. He heard the faint squelching of mud beneath his feet as he failed to stay entirely still. He heard the reeds rustling in the breeze, and the lower sound of the wind in the trees. He heard wading birds calling to each other, and the rhythmic splashing of a kraese racing across the water to launch itself into the air.

 

It was long time before he heard the voices. Ronon just crouched there the whole time, watchful and patient.

 

"Just fishers," Kit said, though he had to add a "probably."

 

Ronon smiled, though his eyes were still watchful. Kit had to grab at a handful of reed to keep himself from over-balancing. Face first in the mud, he thought. That's a fine way to impress-- Not that he was trying to impress anyone, of course. He didn't care what they thought of him, and he'd be rid of them soon enough. Wave bye-bye, go their separate ways, and…

 

"They won't see us," he felt the need to add. They were away from the main navigable channel, separated from it by a thick row of trees. Add in the mud and the reeds, and the fact that fishers at sunset didn't have a thought in their stupid heads that wasn't about home, and they were probably entirely safe. Not that Ronon seemed to possess such a concept, of course. Even in Stone Hall, with that bloody bitch fawning over Sheppard and his friends, Ronon had prowled and paced, as if he had expected enemies to lurk around every corner.

 

The voices drew nearer, accompanied with the sound of oars wielded by someone who saw no particular need to keep quiet. A kraese grumbled noisily in the reeds, and Kit saw it a moment later, waddling long-sufferingly through the line of trees, followed by a line of downy young. He pointed at the happy feathered family, then at his hungry belly, but Ronon shook his head slightly. "Sentimental?" Kit mouthed, but Ronon jerked his chin at his weapon, then at the unseen boat. Too noisy to shoot them now.

 

Kit was an expert at patient waiting, but all he wanted to do was fidget. He wanted to grumble, to shout, to run out through the trees waving his hands...; just to be done with this thing. He just wanted…

 

"…with all their possessions," he heard, brought with a sudden gust of wind. He couldn't make out the next few sentences, but the sound of oars grew closer. "Just upped and left. They were right panicked, they were."

 

"Stupid thing to do, though," said a second voice, lower than the first. "The end of the world's the end of the world. It don't stop at city boundaries. No point panicking about it. If it comes, it comes. Carry on with catching fish and making love to the wife and repairing the nets and cleaning out the chimney – that's waiting for me at home tonight, it is – and if the world should happen to end…"

 

"No 'happen' about it, Clay," said the first man. "It's what they say – the priests in Daryen. They know."

 

"But how do we know that they know?" said Clay. Kit decided there and then that he liked him. "The Basilis and his crew are big on secrets. They talk of portents, but they don't tell us what they are so we can make up our own minds. The way I see it…" A kraese took off noisily, drowning out his next few words. The boat was passing, too, glimpsed only as a few patches of movement beyond the trees. Although Kit could hear that Clay was still speaking, his words were not quite loud enough to piece together in ways that made sense. He heard 'Gods' and 'Myr' but that was all.

 

The other man was louder, full of all the outrage of a true believer. "It's not just the priests who saw it," he said, but then even he went too far away to be heard.

 

Kit found that he had been leaning forward, his knees deep in the mud. He snatched his hand away from the bunch of reeds, and their harsh edges sliced into his palm. "Fuck!" he cursed, lurching upright. He pulled one foot squelching out of the mud, and struggled for balance. "Fuck!" he cursed again. "Fuck!"

 

Ronon just watched him, quiet and infuriating. Kit fought the urge to plant two hands on his chest and shove him into the mud. Instead – behold my self-control! ­– he began to head back to where they had left the others. He didn't even stamp and splash. His palm tasted of mud and blood and water, and cold, sharp things lurked in the mud beneath his feet to scratch him.

 

"Aren't you going to say something, then?" he hurled at Ronon, when the silence became unbearable.

 

"Not got anything to say."

 

Gods! Kit thought, because he wanted to throw something at him, and… Gods! It was the seven days' delay. It was being so close. It was… "Gods!" he said out loud, and Ronon just looked at him, nodded as if he understood, and carried on.

 

They had left the others on a mound that rose from the marshes, based around the roots of a giant callow tree. Its long trailing branches hung down like a cascade of ribbons, creating a hidden space around the trunk, as large as a chamber.

 

"There's people nearby," said Ronon, rising from the mud like something from the first flood, leaving black footprints on the grass. "We'll hear them coming, though. Splashing."

 

"I didn't hear you coming," the prince said, hanging onto a trailing branch like a dancer to a ribbon.

 

Kit flashed him a grin. "That's because we're good, friend Ronon and I."

 

Ronon pulled his pack round to his front, holding it one-handed and opening the straps with the other. "Got dinner," he said, pulling the opening wide to show his friends the mass of speckled fish.

 

"How did you catch…? Oh. You stunned them." Rodney looked unimpressed. When one fish flopped onto the ground too near his feet, he stepped back, screwing up his face. "Then you… ugh. Never mind." Ronon picked it up, holding it up with both hands, one at the head and one at the tail. "You're not going to eat it raw?" Rodney protested. "What, are you Gollum? Cook it, at least. Teyla's making a fire. Hurry up, I'm hungry."

 

Kit found that he had plucked a reed from somewhere, and that he was tearing it to pieces, shredding it. "Bickering over cooking," he said. "Isn't conversation boring when Sheppard's well?"

 

******

 

If they tried to send him away, Jasper decided, he would refuse to go. No, he would pretend to go, and then he would follow them. Myra had followed Tamorlin in secret for the length of one whole winter, after he had parted from her in an attempt to save her from sharing his fate, and then, at the first turning of spring, had saved his life from a dreadful trap. Perhaps, when all hope was lost and they thought themselves forsaken, he could reveal himself and save all their lives…

 

No, he thought, as the last golden rays of sunlight danced over the reed-tipped water, he would forget about such worries, and lose himself in the beauty of the moment. He would sink into the virgin beauty of this unknown land, and shape it in words and rhymes and memories. No-one could take that away from him, not his father, and not Sheppard.

 

Yellow flowers, he thought defiantly. Yellow… Sun. Sunlight dancing, prancing, chancing. And every breath a new breath and a new moment. Sundown. Sunfall. Sunset. Sunset… Fishing net… His foot slipped, sliding down the bank, splashing into the cold water. "Wet," he said, wriggling bare toes in the watery mud. He clenched his fist, letting out a sharp sigh. "Wet." It didn't fit the mood of his poem.

 

For a while, after that, his mind was blank, with all those things that he didn't want to think about clamouring to be heard, and all those things that he wanted to think about quite stubbornly refusing to cooperate. He stood up and climbed the bank, skirting the trailing curtain of leaves.

 

"…it's either that," he heard Sheppard say in a fierce whisper, "or we fly him back home."

 

"Pick up a ride from Atlantis, you mean?" Rodney's whisper was louder, easier to hear. "I thought we were going with the prime directive thing of letting the natives--" The wind stirred the branches, parting them, and Jasper took a quick step backwards. "Ignorance," he heard Rodney say.

 

He saw Ronon watching him from the water's edge. "…Wraith won't respect--" Sheppard broke off. Jasper took another step backwards, then another, almost falling. A bird cried over the marshland. Clustered on the flatter side of the mound, the merrilyn snorted quietly to each other.

 

Jasper wandered over to the creatures and talked to them for a while, stroking their coarse fur, watching their stubby tails swat at flies. He could hear the others talking behind their curtain of leaves, snug in their chamber. Even Ronon was there now, he thought. The thief was the only other one out, sitting on a foot with his feet in the water, throwing fragments of reed into the wind.

 

"No," Rodney was saying, as Jasper wandered up to that trailing barrier of leaves. "No, colonel, don't even think it. Yes, I know it's flashing, but that means that a Whisperer – mean, scary men, remember? Oh, you didn't meet the last one because you were busy ruining our nice clean rescue attempt – is trying to contact us. Please can this be the one flashing button in the Pegasus Galaxy that you don't press."

 

"Two words, McKay: Pot. Kettle."

 

"Oh, ha ha."

 

The last sparkles of the sunset gleamed on water, and it was as if Jasper's whole vision had fractured, breaking into shards. Even the reeds at the water's edge swam.

 

Then Teyla came towards him, emerging from the branches like a bride parting the silken drapes of the wedding hall. "Jasper," she said, quite loudly, with a smile. "You are most welcome to come in."

 

Blinking several times, wiping his hand across his face, Jasper followed her into their chamber.

 

******

 

Apparently Jasper-lad was finally going to get his wish, because after dark, there were stories. Sheppard started the ball rolling with a second attempt to tell the story of Luke Skywalker, but either he told it badly, or it was a stupid story. Rodney kept on interrupting, which didn't help.

 

"Just because you identify with Han Solo."

 

"Whatever you say, 3PO."

 

"For the last time, I am not-- No. Dignity. See how I respond with dignity to your childish assertions."


"Anyway…," Sheppard said pointedly.

 

"Anyway," Rodney echoed, "you missed out the bit with the-- Sorry. Being quiet."

 

"Too late," Sheppard said. "Your turn."

 

Rodney started to tell a story about someone called Batman, by the end of which he and Sheppard had somehow come to the conclusion that Wonder Woman was the hottest. Sheppard, pale in the firelight, and clearly not moving any more than he had to, then told a confusing story about some foolish woodcutter who thought he was the cleverest man in the kingdom, but ended up destroying five sixths of a castle. Rodney retorted – and it felt like a retort, although Kit had no idea why it should be so – by telling them all about a little boy called Johnnie who managed to wake up a nasty, sleeping monster, because he didn't know the meaning of 'leave well alone.'

 

Teyla prodded the fire, the light playing over her smile. Ronon was leaning with his back to the tree trunk, slightly out of the circle of firelight, and looked more relaxed than Kit had ever seen him. Sheppard was clearly too tired even to lift his arm, and Rodney claimed to be in agony from saddle-pain, but the four of them looked happy.

 

"Your stories are stupid," Kit told them harshly. He was the nearest to the edge of their natural little chamber, cool winds brushing the back of his neck.

 

"Yes," Teyla said, with smiling rebuke at both Sheppard and Rodney. "It is not fair to exclude Jasper and Kit so."

 

Jasper, encouraged by Teyla, told one of his ridiculous hero tales of the great imaginary heroes of a Myr that never was. Teyla listened politely. Ronon was perhaps asleep. Sheppard also had his eyes closed, and several times brought his hand to his brow, as if to nurse a headache. Rodney watched him nervously, clearly not quite used to the idea of Sheppard no longer being at death's door.

 

"We'll be home in two days," Rodney said, too soon after the end of Jasper's story for it to be polite. Not that Kit cared about the boy's feelings, not in the slightest. "Home. Dry feet. Never having to sit on one of those creatures again. I'm in agony, by the way. I think I'm--"

 

"Crippled for life," Sheppard finished for him, without opening his eyes. "It must be Tuesday."

 

Rodney almost squawked with outrage, then appeared to remember the whole dignity thing he had going now. Sheppard opened his eyes and looked at the others – Kit and Jasper totally forgotten now – and started with a "Remember when…?"

 

There were far too many remember whens. After Kit had shredded half a dozen branches, he gave a pointed yawn. His eyes met Jasper's, who was tracing stiff patterns in the dirt with his finger. Then Kit looked away, and stood up, heading out into the darkness. The branches slithered back into place behind him, and he stood staring out across the lowlands of Daryen, branches like fingers at his back.

 

"Tell me about your home, Teyla." Jasper's request faltered its way into the silence between one happy remember when and another.

 

"It is beautiful," Teyla said, a smile in her voice. "There are towers, and there is water all around it…"

 

"Like the flood?"

 

"No." Her voice was gentle with memory, and Kit thought of his own home, and clenched both fists as tight as he could make them, and then tighter still. "Beautiful water, like a mirror in the sun, and there are balconies where you can feel the wind in your hair. It sparkles with the light of so many hopes, but there are still places where you can sit in the darkness and look up at the stars. And the people…" She trailed away into a sigh.

 

"Is that where your people are?" Jasper asked.

 

Teyla was silent for a very long time. Kit stamped away without waiting for her answer.

 

******

 

Jasper was slow to realise what had woken him. He rolled over, moaning quietly, and tried to sink back into sleep again, although the cold was insistent, and the smell of damp earthiness called to him, reminding him that he was not at home.

 

Then it came again – a low sound, like someone beginning to speak, but unable to get as far as words. Rolling towards the sound, Jasper opened his eyes. The fire was down to embers now, but was bright enough to show him the Whisperer's globe rolling slowly past it, turning one more time, and then lying still. It glowed orange in the firelight, but that was all.

 

The person on Jasper's left sat up; Jasper could hear the sound of it, but could not see enough to tell who it was. Sheppard, he thought, had been there when they had settled down to sleep. He could hear the wind whispering in the leaves, building to a sudden crescendo as a gust passed them, but nothing else. Then Sheppard spoke, no louder than that whisper. "Ronon?"

 

The wind stilled, and all was silent again. With every breath, Jasper saw a little more. Sheppard was standing up completely, he realised, but the large shape on his far side was completely still. Teyla was darts of controlled movement on the opposite side of the fire, her hair gleaming like copper in the light of the embers. But there were more people than there should have been. The thief stirred with a gasp, then froze. Someone was crouching over Ronon, and where Rodney should have been, there were two people, and he saw the blade, and he saw the hand, and he saw the throat.

 

That strangled sound came again, this time forming itself into words. "Uh, guys? No, don't! I guess the Whisperer--"

 

"…has found you," said a new voice, quite cold.

 

******

 

Chapter ten

Just a Shadow in the Night

__

 

A Whisperer! A Whisperer was here. Here! It was supposed to be safe in Daryen, no Whisperers… Here! Gods! Kit was unable to move, propped uncomfortably on one elbow, fingers tangled in his blanket. A Whisperer!

 

"Huh," said Sheppard, unconcerned, foolish, stupid. "What part of being on watch don't you understand, McKay?"

 

"He crept up on--" Rodney's words ended in a rasping gulp.

 

"You weren't concentrating." Kit couldn't move anything, only his eyes, but he could see that Sheppard was ever so slowly edging forward. "You were playing with your latest Ancient toy. You were day-dreaming--"

 

"Actually, since it's night, that would be-- No, don't kill me! Don't… Being quiet."

 

Another tiny movement forward. "It's Ronon's fault, too – hey, buddy? What did you say --" Sheppard's hand began to move, just a shadow in the night. "-- about us hearing the splashing?"

 

"Some of us have knives to our throats." Rodney's voice was strained. "Talking… moves things, you know?"

 

"Then don't." Sheppard's voice took on a colder tone, almost chilling, as he said, "But you can."

 

The Whisperer… Gods! The Whisperer…! Raking through his brain, seeing all his secrets, dragging them out and exposing them, every secret that he had, every truth that lay behind his careful masks. Ruining everything, and oh Gods! his heart was pounding, hands rasping on the cold blanket, and the whisper of the wind was the Whisperer's mind uttering compulsions, impossible to resist.

 

"John!" Teyla gasped from the far side of the dying fire. "The other one--" Her words were choked off.

 

The Whisperer laughed, a sound with no mirth in it. "Which one of you threatened me?"

 

"That would have been me," Sheppard said without hesitation. "So what do you say that you take that knife away from McKay's throat – he's nothing, just the hired help – and--"

 

"Hey!" Rodney croaked.

 

"Be quiet!" It was a snap of command. Kit found himself pressing his lips together, hardly daring to breathe. "Like I was saying…"

 

Sheppard's next step crunched through the edge of the fire, and a flame burst up from the embers. Kit, frozen, saw the Whisperer's stocky face, saw Rodney's terror, saw Sheppard lit fiercely from below. Did he see me? his mind gibbered. Did he see me?

 

"Stop where you are," the Whisperer commanded, his knife digging deeper into Rodney's throat. The newly-awakened flame showed a small trickle of blood running down his neck. "Which of you --" His eyes moved from one to another of them – he's looking at me! He's looking at me! "--is the murderer of --"

 

"Your brother?" Sheppard said. "Father? One day let's do without the whole 'this time it's personal' thing. No, don't!" The last two words sounded ripped from him, and Kit knew that he had not intended them, not intended to sound that way.

 

The flame guttered and died. Kit could see hardly anything at all after it was gone. "Which one of you," the Whisperer asked, "murdered Lyall Ellison?"

 

Sheppard said nothing, and the shape of him was utterly still. Rodney was breathing in small gasping whimpers. "I'm okay." His voice was tiny, the consonants barely articulated. "I'm okay."

 

"Don't try to deny it," the Whisper said, but something slipped in his accent – something that Kit, expert on changing his voice and assuming a mask, was able to recognise. "I can reach into your mind and rip out the truth."

 

"So there's--" Sheppard's voice also faltered, but in his case it was uncertainty. Wants to keep him on his toes, Kit thought. Doesn't want to risk Rodney. Sheppard resumed, and perhaps only Kit had heard that moment of doubt. "--no need for us to say anything. You can let McKay go, then unmask the murderer with the power of your mind."

 

"I can," the Whisperer said, "but I prefer to hear a confession of guilt from the lips of the guilty, and then to hear them confess again, screaming in the Citadel torture chambers, and publicly on the gallows." He looked at Kit, his eyes glittering in the dying firelight.

 

"It wasn't me!" Kit blurted out. "I didn't do it. It wasn't anything to do with me." Those glittering eyes, seeing everything. That mind, raking through his own. It was Ronon! he wanted to say. It was Rodney! It wasn't me! Kill them, and let me go! "It wasn't any of us." The words came out as if they had been torn from him by the Whisperer's mind, but they hadn't been. "It was an accident, just an accident. His heart just stopped beating. He would have killed these people, and all they wanted to do was rescue a friend, who was innocent and was going to be killed."

 

"A nice lie." The Whisperer smiled coldly. Someone – the prince, perhaps – sucked in a breath as if to speak, but didn't. "There is no point in lying to me. I can extract the truth--"

 

"No, you can't." It was Sheppard who said it, his voice matter-of-fact, but Kit found that his own mouth was open, as if he had been about to say it, too.

 

Such a little thing, he thought, as the Whisperer spluttered with fury. It was those few words said in a provincial accent, a peasant accent, when everything else was spoken in the accent of court. This was a man pretending to be something he wasn't – and didn't Kit know about that? He'd been so stupid, falling for the hype. A thief should have known. Out of everyone, a thief should have known that someone who told everyone how hard they were seldom had the goods to match.

 

"You're just an ordinary guy," Sheppard said, "who happens to have a gene."

 

"A farm labourer," Kit added, and for the first time he was able to move again, sitting up, leaning back with his legs crossed nonchalantly at the ankles. "A charvil-muncher, shovelling dung."

 

"What happened?" Sheppard took a step forward. "Did the king's men come knocking on your door, asking you to hold something? Did it glow for you? Were you dragged away from everything you knew and sent off to the big city?" He shrugged. "Been there, done that."

 

"Be quiet!" The Whisperer's hand was trembling, the knife almost slipping away from Rodney's throat. Rodney squirmed a little, face alive with panicked hope.

 

Sheppard bent to pick up something from the edge of the fire. It was the Whisperer's globe, Kit realised, and it glowed as soon as he touched it, shining soft and blue in his left hand. An answering light started to flash somewhere on the Whisperer's body, between him and Rodney, pressed to his chest.

 

"Huh, look at that." Sheppard's right hand was at his belt, closing on his gun. "It's for you."

 

"Be quiet!" the Whisperer screamed, hurling Rodney away from him.

 

"John!" Teyla gasped. "He's going to--"

 

******

 

"No!" Jasper screamed. "Don't hurt her!" He threw himself forward, almost falling as his feet tangled in the blanket. "Don't," he said, recovering. "I… I command you."

 

The Whisperer gave a sharp stab of laughter. "You command me?

 

"Yes. I command you." If he said this, it would all be over. He had watched the whole thing, frozen, thinking Don't look at me! Don't recognise me! This was the outside world crashing into the everlasting now of his journey. This was his father's world reaching out its hand and destroying his freedom. This was pursuit caught up with him, trying to drag him home. "I am Jasper," he said, raising his head in the glimmering light, "crown prince of Myr and I command you not to hurt her." He saw Rodney struggling to his knees, one hand at his throat, one raised. "Not to hurt any of them," Jasper corrected himself.

 

"The crown prince of Myr." The Whisperer started to laugh, then changed it to a cough. "My lord." The last words sounded dragged from him. "Forgive me, but I was taken by surprise. I knew these villains had abducted a nobleman's son, of course, but--"

 

"They didn't trust you with the truth, huh?" the thief said. "Not so scary and important now, are we?"

 

"They didn't abduct me." Jasper stood up, standing as tall as he could. Was Teyla still moving, in the dark beyond the fire? "I chose them to be my escort in my… my coming-of-age quest," he said, remembering old stories and Rodney's taunts. "They have served me well, all of them."

 

"Then forgive me, my lord," the Whisperer said, "because I must disobey, because they have clearly tricked you and turned your mind. That one there--" He pointed at Sheppard. "-- has usurped the powers of a Whisperer. He has clearly--"

 

"No, he hasn't!" Jasper cried, bringing up his clenched fist to his chest. "They killed your friend by accident. All they wanted to do was save their friend. They were always kind to me. Teyla told me I wouldn't get hurt when they took me out of the Citadel. They're good people. When Kit was captured, they went back and rescued him."

 

"You're talking about the thief who was broken out of prison in Paramor?" The Whisperer shook his head. "With every word, my lord, you show how badly they have warped your sense of right and wrong. You are a victim here, my lord. You need to be freed from this people."

 

"By which he means," Kit commented, "you're making things worse here, Jasper-lad. Nice try, though. Much appreciated."

 

"No!" Jasper cried. He heard something moving behind him, but Sheppard was there, half a step ahead of him, one hand coming up slightly at his side, as if to say stop, or maybe carry on, or maybe don't turn round. "I don't need to be freed," he insisted. "I want to stay with them. I want--"

 

And then Sheppard's hand came down again, and the night exploded into motion. Something surged up from behind him. He saw Sheppard dropping down to one knee. The heard the sounds of fighting on the far side of the fire, and somebody cried out. A foot crunched on the embers, and a flame surged up, but it showed him nothing that he could understand. A firearm sounded, short and sharp, and after its brief light he couldn't see anything at all. Someone brushed against him, and he recoiled, bringing both hands in tight to his chest. The firearm sounded again, and red light flared at the same time, and he saw Ronon and Sheppard, frozen like images in an engraver's book, and he heard someone scream.

 

As red light flared again, a hand closed round his arm, and he gasped, trying to pull himself free, but with every breath he saw a little more, and when he turned he saw Kit, the thief, trying to pull him clear. "Dangerous round there," the thief said. "Best leave it to the experts."

 

But by then, everything was already falling silent. "Everyone okay?" he heard Sheppard say.

 

"I am unharmed." Teyla sounded breathless.

 

"Bleeding here!" That was Rodney.


"Are we killing them?" Ronon growled.

 

"Jasper?" The shape that was Sheppard turned around. "Kit? You two okay?"

 

"Yes." It came out like a squeak, so he didn't hear Kit's simultaneous answer. "Is he…?"

 

"Safely stunned," Sheppard said. "The Whisperer has a hole somewhere."

 

"Should we, uh, tie them up or something?" Rodney asked. "I can't do it, on account of bleeding to death."

 

"Got knocked on the head," said Ronon. "Teyla's half-strangled. Sheppard's convalescing."

 

"What's with the long words?" Rodney sounded irritated.

 

Jasper looked from one to another, seeing them as vague shapes around a dying fire, hearing them just a voice that belonged to nobody. Three of them were moving, clearly tying up the Whisperer and his servant, despite anything they had said to the contrary. I don't understand these people, Jasper thought suddenly, and it hurt. He had a poet's insight, and he understood people, but all that had faltered when a prisoner had done something incomprehensible, and clung on.

 

"And as for you, Sheppard," Rodney said accusingly, "what was with the provoking? Please keep your one-liners for when you're the one with the knife at your throat."

 

"I knew he wouldn't kill you," came Sheppard's voice from the darkness.

 

"Oh, and you're a mind-reader now?"

 

"There was that 'I want to hear you scream your confession in the dungeon' thing he had going," Sheppard said, "and it's not an easy thing to kill someone in cold blood, especially not with a knife, up close. These guys, they work on people being scared shitless by their reputation and not trying anything. He didn't look like the sort of guy who could get his hands dirty."

 

"I don't even want to know how you know that," Rodney said. "About the cold-blooded killing. But we're back to that again." His voice was shrill. "He could have killed me! He had his knife--"

 

"And he didn't." Sheppard's voice was calm and firm. "He didn't, Rodney."

 

"He's waking up," Teyla said sharply.

 

Beyond the curtain of leaves, Jasper thought, it was very slowly beginning to get light. He saw Sheppard bending over the Whisperer, then saw the blue light of the Whisperer's globe as Sheppard pulled it out. Kit was still beside him, close enough for Jasper to hear his breathing. The Whisperer won't make me go back, he thought. Sheppard and the others would get rid of him, and Jasper would be free again. He'd been stupid – right ­– to let the Whisperer see his face. It had been foolish – right – to risk everything like that. It had been…

 

"I demand that you release me," the Whisperer spat, squirming on the ground. "I will reach into your mind and--"

 

"Oh, please," Rodney sneered. "What are you: a walking cliché? You're just a pathetic little man who happened to be born with the ATA gene, and, believe me, being born with it is nothing special at all. Even brainless, stupid, reckless, provoke-the-man-with-the-knife-in-his-hand idiots can be born with it."

 

"Beats faking it." Sheppard tossed the globe to Rodney, who fumbled the catch. As Rodney, sighing, bent to pick it up, Sheppard scooped up the other globe, dropped during the fight.

 

The light on Rodney's globe started flashing. "Oh!" he gasped, as he touched it. The blue light showed the smear of blood at his throat. Then he frowned in outrage. "That is completely untrue, Sheppard. It's slander. I'll have you know, it wasn't a-- Oh. Yes. Telepathy. Not saying it out loud. Huh. You won't trick me that easily."

 

"Too late," Sheppard said. "Pink."

 

"That's not fair!" Rodney dropped the globe as if it had burned him. "Surface thought. We decided it was surface thoughts."

 

"Guess you're just not a deep kind of guy." Sheppard put his own globe down, placing it carefully by the fire. "Or maybe I'm just naturally better at this, being natural." His voice changed abruptly as he turned to face the Whisperer. "Not such as rare gift, is it, so give up with the threats."

 

I don't understand, Jasper thought. He had stepped forward and said his piece, and for a moment he had been in total control of everything around the fire, but everything had spiralled out of his control. I don't understand, he thought, and then, quiet in its wake: I want to.

 

"What're we going to do with them?" Ronon jabbed the Whisperer with his foot.

 

Kill them, Jasper wanted to say, but he couldn't form the words. He thought of a knife at the throat, and the pressure that it would take to push it through the skin, and the moment of decision that lay behind that pressure. People slew enemies in stories, but he didn't want to see the blood.

 

"There's the thing," Sheppard said. "Kill them? And here we are, trying to show we're good guys. Make them promise to be good and let them go? He can't communicate with his friends any more, but, see, there might be other friends nearby, people he can communicate with the old-fashioned way."

 

"Like a whole army of them," Rodney volunteered.

 

"We could leave them tied up beside the river," Teyla said. "Ronon saw fishermen there. If they call for help, they will be freed before very long."

 

Sheppard gave a slow nod. "Caught behind enemies lines. A nice dilemma for them."

 

Rodney raised his hand. "And we're only a day or two from… home. It doesn't matter who he tells after that. What?" he demanded, looking at Ronon. "You want to kill them, of course."

 

"I didn't say that," said Ronon, but he bent to tighten the Whisperer's bonds, and from the Whisperer's gasp, he was not gentle.

 

The talk went on, but Jasper heard less and less of it. The Whisperer had brought the outside world into their circle of leaves, and it felt as if Jasper had been dragged into that outside world, forgotten by those in the circle.

 

I almost lost everything, he thought. To save Teyla, to save all of them, he had let the Whisperer know his name. "Let them do it, Jasper-lad," Kit said quietly from beside him. "It'll all be over soon."

 

And all the while, the sky outside turned grey with approaching dawn. It was only when the birds started singing that Jasper realised that he had not once thought of poetry and rhyme, those things that he lived for.

 

******

 

"You'll die for this!" the Whisperer screamed. "You'll be hunted for this! There's nowhere to hide. Wherever you go, we'll find you."

 

His voice grew fainter and fainter as they walked away. All around them, the birds were greeting the sunrise, and the wind was picking up, stirring the reeds. Once again, Kit was splashing through muddy water with Ronon at his side, and neither of them seemed to be making any effort to keep quiet. Quite the opposite, in fact, as if by mutual unspoken consent, they had decided to rob the Whisperer of his last threats.

 

Ronon's face looked grim and dangerous, though. "…die," Kit heard faintly from behind, then, "You can't do this, please, no." Kit chewed his lip. Ronon, he saw, showed not even a flicker.

 

"I don't understand you people." Kit hadn't meant to say it, but masks were pretty much in tatters now, except the only one that really mattered. "You can be so cold and heartless – single-minded, not bothering to think about who gets hurt because of you – but then you do this." He gestured back to where they had left the Whisperer and his man, tightly bound, but carefully placed beside the main channel that the fishers used. Teyla had even bound the man's glancing wound, and given him callow-bark to chew. "Soft," he said. "You could have killed him."

 

Ronon nodded, as if to say 'I know.'

 

"But not that soft." Kit heard the echo of the man's screaming. "Cruel at the same time."

 

Ronon splashed on for several more steps. "I didn't get it, either, at first. Thought they were weak."

 

Kit snatched at a reed, snapping its tip off in his hand. "So you haven't been with them from the start?"

 

"They're not weak." Ronon wasn't looking at him. "Still think they're too soft sometimes, but not usually. Things change. I wouldn't have stayed with them if I'd thought they were wrong." As if you could leave them that easily, Kit thought, remembering how fiercely Ronon had watched over Sheppard when he was at his worst.

 

He pushed past Ronon then, and was the first to arrive back at the camp. "…taking it easy," he heard, as he pushed through the fall of leaves. Rodney seemed incapable of mastering a proper whisper. "'Recovery period' doesn't mean sleeping outside and taking on Whisperers and their minions in hand-to-hand combat. These things can come back if you do too much too quickly."

 

"I'm good." Sheppard had his hand on the tree trunk, and kept it there despite Rodney's words. "Look, Rodney…" He sighed. "It doesn't much matter. We'll be home soon. I'll be fine long enough to get there."

 

Rodney turned, seeing Kit, and stepped away from Sheppard. Sheppard removed his hand from the tree, and stood upright. "Gods!" Kit swore, and stamped away to the merrilyn. Teyla was nearby, packing bags, with bruises growing at her throat, and there was blood matted at the back of Ronon's hair. Add in the blood on Rodney's neck, and only Kit and Jasper had been excluded from the night's merriment.

 

"I don't suppose anyone's bothered to go through the Whisperer's pack?" Kit said harshly.

 

"Actually…" Jasper looked up, his lap awash with paperwork. "The others can't read it," he explained.

 

"Can't read?" Kit snatched a sheaf of papers away from Jasper's pathetic attempt to keep hold of them. "Gods, are they stupid? And what's this – a diary? 'Today I decided to be a posturing fool?'"

 

"No," Jasper began, but Kit had already read on, and spoke over him. "It's descriptions of the dastardly criminals. Hey, Sheppard," he called out. "You have a face that might be considered well-favoured, except for the wily glint in your eye." He skimmed through the rest. Rodney had somehow managed to avoid being noticed at all, but Ronon was a giant with uncombed hair, and Teyla was a woman with a low and common beauty. As for him… "Enough of that," he said, tearing the paper up and casting it into the water. 

 

"You're in a bad mood today, Kit." Sheppard's voice sounded carefully neutral.

 

Rodney humphed. "Since when isn't he in a bad mood?"

 

"It's been getting worse, though." Sheppard spoke as if Kit wasn't there, except that his eyes never left him.

 

"Of course it's been getting worse." Kit shredded another paper. At least he had an answer ready for this. "You're doing your joyful homecoming thing, with all your happy remember whens, but every step is taking me further away from my home – the home I lost because of you. This is enemy territory here, and then you wonder why I'm angry?" He untied his merrilyn, clambered onto its back, and kicked it into the mud. "So let's get going, then, on to the big bad city where I haven't got anything and I don't know anyone, and which will probably kill me." Clutching the reins with quivering fist, he grinned. "What a homecoming, huh?"

 

******

 

Defiantly setting his chin, Jasper decided to snatch at poetry with both hands. They were riding along a green lane, one of the old narrow roads that had been used before the rise of the cities, with banks twice as tall as Ronon. The ground had long since grassed over, and rustling in the banks showed that the only creatures that walked these lanes today were foxes and sorrel. Broad roots protruded from the earth at shoulder height, the trees rising high on both sides, reaching together in a leafy canopy. The top part of the bank was strewn with blue flowers, so thick that it was as if they were imitating the sky.

 

Had Tamorlin walked here, Jasper wondered. Had Talis and Valorian journeyed along here, riding sunward on their great quests? A bird twittered overhead. He threw all his senses at it, and told himself that it was beautiful, so beautiful that he didn't need anything else, just that.

 

The others were talking softly ahead of him. He heard his name mentioned, and he pressed his lips together and luxuriated in the beauty of those blue blossoms.

 

The lane was rising steadily, and soon the trees were overhanging so much that it was like riding into evening. Before they reached the top, the sun went out entirely. Then they emerged quite abruptly onto an open hilltop. A pinnacle of stone rose from the ground to the left, sharp as a pointing finger. "More leavings of the Gods of Stone," Kit said, his smile strange.

 

His merrilyn pranced then, and Jasper told himself that it was just coincidence, and that of course the creature wasn't afraid of the ruins. The Gods weren't real. Jasper had spent the whole night in one of their ruins, and nothing bad had happened.

 

"Folks round here think they're real." Kit indicated with a nod where Jasper was to look, and he saw a crescent of offerings on the far side of the stone. There were fresh flowers, blue and yellow and white, and bowls of food. There were items carved in wood and stone, and an entire exquisite cradle; fearless, Teyla rode over to it and pronounced it empty.

 

The others had stopped. "…ridiculous superstition," Rodney was saying.

 

Kit had snapped off a twig, and was twisting it round and round in his fingers, its three green leaves blurring into one. "Going to offer it up?" Sheppard asked him, one eyebrow raised. Kit hurled it away.

 

"The end of the world's coming."

 

Everyone except for Kit turned towards Ronon. "Excuse me?" Sheppard asked.

 

"That's what the fishermen said. They've got some secretive religion thing happening. The priest guys said the end of the world's coming, and they're panicking." Ronon nodded towards the offerings. "I've seen things like this before."

 

"The end of the world." Rodney's eyes darted from side to side. "Not that I believe it, of course."

 

Kit kicked his merrilyn forward, taking the lead. Jasper's mount seemed to have taken a fancy to Kit's, and walked on without him telling her to. Now they were out of the trees, they could ride more than one abreast, and Teyla came up beside him. "You have our gratitude," she said, "for what you did this morning." Her voice sounded bruised, and Jasper's fingers ached with the sudden urge to touch the physical bruises on her throat, to soothe them. "You have my gratitude. Thank you, Jasper." She bowed her head slightly.

 

"I didn't…" He swallowed. "He wouldn't listen."

 

"But you tried." She smiled. "You were anxious not to be recognised by him, but you made yourself known in an attempt to save us."

 

Her smile brought the sun, but when Jasper looked up, he saw that dark clouds still covered it. "To save you." His voice was husky.

 

"Us." It was soft but firm, and final.

 

"Even though he made things worse," Rodney interrupted, and Jasper could have screamed at him.

 

"Be nice, Rodney," Sheppard threw over his shoulder. "He did good."

 

By then, Teyla was no longer beside him, but was moving ahead, talking to Ronon. Sheppard and Rodney were side by side, and Kit was at the front. Jasper, somehow, had gone to the back again, and all he could see was people's backs, riding away from him.

 

******

 

"No, I won't steal anything." Kit tugged at the reins, but Sheppard still held them. "I won't get myself arrested. I won't force you to come charging to the rescue again. I won't get noticed. I won't get into trouble."

 

They were heading into more populated territory, and Kit had come up with the idea of heading into the nearest small town to do a bit of eavesdropping and scouting. "Find out where the ravening armies are. Find out if anyone's looking for us. Find out if they're killing suspicious-looking parties on sight." It wasn't any different from anything that Ronon did, he argued. "Just that Ronon likes to skulk round in the wilds, and this involves scouting out people."

 

"I am aware of the concept of intelligence," Sheppard said stiffly, "but you don't have a good track record."

 

"I won't get caught!" Kit all but screamed it. "Last time," he said more quietly, knowing that in this, at least, he needed to keep his cool, "we needed supplies, thanks to you being about to keel over and die. This time we just need information. I won't do anything stupid. Credit me with a little intelligence."

 

"Perhaps one of us…" Teyla began.

 

"Gods!" Kit tugged at his reins again, but Sheppard's grip was merciless. "I know how to blend in with these people better than you do." Another tug. "What are you: my father?"

 

He wasn't sure exactly which piece of persuasion and shining reasoning caused Sheppard to finally consent, but – at last! – his reins were released and he was free, trotting down the gentle grassy slope that led to the road. "I don't know why you even care," he said, saying it out loud to people who were long since out of earshot. "What's it matter to you if I get myself arrested?"

 

The road passed through trees. Just before the trees ended, a stone wall started up, enclosing what was probably the squire's estate. Peering over the top, he could see an artificial lake, flooded now, as most lakes and waterways were flooded, though the hall itself was hidden. Further on, he reached the first outlying houses, steep-gabled and with painted shutters, unlike anything in Myr. The people were the same, though, with the same range of colourings, and he saw no clothes that would make the people of Myr turn and stare.

 

There were fewer people around than he might have expected, though. Pausing to remove a non-existent stone from the cleft in his merrilyn's hoof, he overheard two women gossiping about the end of the world and their neighbour's shameful love affair and the coming war, all the while filling their baskets with bread and cakes from a market stall. Two streets on, he tethered his animal outside the alehouse, and heard a cluster of greybeards wishing they were old enough to fight. The enemy army was barely a day's march away, they said, and although it didn't look as if it was going to pass through their town, it would pass through other towns, and no-one was safe.

 

After that, he wandered on foot. See! he imagined himself telling a watching Sheppard. I can be good. He passed a shop selling cooked meat, and the smell stirred memories inside him, achingly sharp and unexpected. Snatching it was not an option, though, not so close to the end of his journey. If he did, and if he was caught… His steps slowed. A boy came out of the shop, biting into a hot pie. If he was caught this time, after everything Sheppard had said, the others would go on without him for sure, and everything would come to an end.

 

His fingers itched. He felt saliva flowing in his mouth at the smell of it, like an arrow that came through time, a direct link from a childhood moment to here.

 

In the end, it was the sound of cheering that distracted him, that made him carry on. A large group of people was gathered in the town square, all listening to a man in green and gold. "Six silver beads," he was saying. "That's what you'll all receive, my lads, when you enlist. Here they are; see them on the drum – six times six; sixty times six. And a shiny new uniform, just like my own, though without the medals – you'll have to earn those. Bayonets and swords, and don't the girls just love such things? A jug of ale a day, and all the food you can eat, and not to mention, of course, the pride of knowing that you are striking a blow against the enemy and helping to defend your mothers and your sisters and your sweethearts from the false-hearted invader."

 

Kit listened, quite unable to move. Young men joined the crowd behind him, and soon he was jostled forward, as one lad after another made his mark upon the list and took his single bronze bead – "the rest will come later, after you get your uniform" – and said farewell to proud but weeping womenfolk, and stood in line for a messy and inglorious death.

 

"You look like a stout young man." Kit was slow to realise that the recruiting sergeant was speaking to him. "We could do with a lad like you--"

 

"No," Kit told him, quite firmly. Then he leant forward and whispered something else, then a few more words, and then he left, pushing through the crowd.

 

He barely noticed where he was going on the journey back, but somehow he managed to find the others. They were lounging in a coppice, talking about things that he was not meant to understand, but they stopped as he rode up. "Huh," said Rodney, maliciously surprised. "Not arrested this time?"

 

Kit did not dismount. "Daddy's army," he told to Jasper, "is less than a day away." He snapped his fingers. "Get a move on. Chop chop. You don't want to be caught between two armies at war. Not pleasant at all." But he wished his heart would stop pounding so.

 

******

 

Less than a day away, Kit had said, but just at the turn of evening, when night began to win its battle against the day, they saw it. They were riding just below to top of a long ridge, topped with the detritus of woodland flattened by some recent storm. The trees further down the slope still stood, rising up to form a solid wall between the six of them and the plain, but at one point there was a gap, where a line of destruction ran sweeping down the hill. Tree roots towered upwards, still thick with earth, and bare branches reached outwards, as if trying to cling on.

 

None of the others were looking at the trees.

 

"It's not a big army," Rodney said.

 

"Not a big country," said Sheppard.

 

Beyond the reaching branches, Jasper saw the plain. The army was a field of tiny lights, while a thinner scattering of lights stretched out behind it like a comet's tail, still moving. Most of them were making camp, Jasper realised, but the tail-end of the army was still moving, coming up behind. Other lights danced around them like darting spiritwings. "Foragers," said Kit. "Thieves by another name. Things like that are allowed in war. They get medals, not prison sentences."

 

No-one said anything for a while, just watching. The darkness seemed to grow deeper with every breath.

 

Sheppard turned away first. "How far to the… Circle of Daryen?"

 

Kit cleared his throat. "I don't know for sure, on account of never having been there, but I have a good eye for maps, and I saw one when I robbed old General Bracken. We'll be there by dawn if we ride through the night, or by tomorrow afternoon if we stop."

 

Sheppard looked at the others one after the other, but not at him. "Ride through the night," he said. Rodney opened his mouth as if to protest, then shut it again. Sheppard's mount took several dancing side-steps along the path, as if it, too, like the rest of them, was desperate to get to the end of the journey.

 

"Caught between two armies," Teyla said quietly, echoing Kit's earlier words.

 

"Yes." Sheppard nodded. He looked down at the army again, at that field of lights, like the scattered embers of a used-up fire, and then at Jasper. "It's over, junior," he said.

 

******

 

Chapter eleven

A Thief in the Night

__

 

It was close. But armies were slow-moving things and this one, at least, appeared to be stopping for the night. If their unhappy little band rode through the night – and Kit had known all along that they would – they would almost certainly get to the Circle of Daryen without any armies blocking their way. Almost. In any other circumstances, he might have chuckled at that - at how everything about this fucked-up game was teetering on a sword-edge, with the potential of going spectacularly balls up at any time. 

 

Like now, of course. Sheppard with his damn stupid hero complex, wanting to save the ickle wickle boy from his own stupidity. "I can't let you go any further," Sheppard was saying. For someone who looked almost too weary to stay in the saddle, his voice was anything but. "I can't take you behind enemy lines. You have to go back."

 

"Back?" Jasper's voice was faint.

 

"Down there." Sheppard jabbed his thumb at Jasper's daddy's army.

 

"I don't want to." Kit had expected Jasper to start throwing around commands, but he just spoke quietly, like a disappointed boy.

 

"Look," Sheppard said, "I'm not the bad guy here. I'm trying to keep you safe."

 

"I don't want…" Jasper raised his head, and spoke simply. "I don't want to go down there. I want to go on with you."

 

"Uh…" Rodney raised one hand, snapping his fingers lightly. "How are we planning on getting him there?"

 

Kit laughed. "Can't really do the hand delivery thing, can you, on account of the whole being arrested on sight thing. You could point him in the right direction and give him a little shove, but he'll just duck into a bush the moment you aren't looking and either come wandering back to you, or get himself in worse trouble all alone."

 

"I know!" The fingers snapped more loudly. "We can stun him and tie him up and dump him in the path of one of their foraging parties."

 

Jasper chewed his lip, looking like a pup kicked by its owner. Gods! Kit raked a hand through his hair. Out of everything he had planned for, of out everything he had feared, he had never expected this: that he would actually feel sorry for a spoiled brat of a prince.

 

"There would be no guarantee that they would find him," Teyla said, saving Kit from his sudden urge to say the wrong thing. "The enemy might find him instead." She leant towards Sheppard. "I am not happy about--"

 

"Damn it!" Sheppard scraped his hand across his face. "I am not," he spat, "leading another boy into--" He stopped abruptly, hands slapping back down onto the reins. Teyla looked at him with sudden sharp concern.

 

"You're not leading me," Jasper said. "I'm going of my own accord."

 

"Look," Sheppard said, obvious tension vibrating underneath his carefully steady voice, "it's not just because of you. We talked about this before. There's going to be war. You said it wouldn't many any difference if you went back, but there's a chance… Even if there's only one chance in a hundred, it's something you have to take. It doesn't matter what people say, what people expect, you have to try. When it's the right thing to do, you have to try."

 

Jasper stood his ground. "I want to come with you."

 

Kit felt that stab of pity, sharper this time. "Just let him," he urged. "You're not responsible for someone else's decisions, not when you've laid your cards on the table and told things like they are. He wants something different in life from what his daddy has planned for him. Let him." Then, when none of the others said anything, Kit kicked his mount closer to Sheppard by half a dozen prancing steps. "It wasn't poetry with me," he quoted.

 

If he had hoped for a reaction, he received none. Sheppard did not round on him, furious, and neither did he sigh and say, 'Kit, you're right.' No-one ever did.

 

Instead, the others moved away – a quick conference to which neither Kit nor Jasper were invited. While Jasper twitched miserably, like a murderer awaiting his sentence, Kit concentrated on doing what he was best at: listening to things that he wasn't supposed to be listening to.

 

"…only for a few hours," he heard. "…won't make much difference."

 

"…fly him home. Deposit him in the middle of daddy's army… Space ship landing in the middle of a medieval battle."

 

"Which would stir things up, but aren't we going for…"

 

"Prime directive?" Rodney flapped his hand dismissively. "Despite your Kirk-like tendencies, we aren't…" Jasper's merrilyn snorted, and Kit missed the next part. "…we do that all the time."

 

"Which is why we should not…"

 

"Don't see as we have a choice."

 

Jasper leant forwards in the saddle. "Can you hear what they're saying?" he whispered.

 

Kit shrugged. "Nothing useful." Long practice with masks allowed him to produce a quick grin. "Not like your stories, Jasper-lad, where people always overhear the most important part: 'the treasure's in the forked tree trunk,' and stuff like that. I heard 'harvest' when I was in the lock-up in Paramor - spectacularly useless."

 

The conference broke up, but it wasn't Sheppard who came back to break the news of the sentence to Jasper, but Teyla. Of course. Bad news sounded better when coming from the lips of the beautiful woman who was making the poor boy feel confusing things that he didn't have the wit to understand. The others stayed in their huddle. "…sure you're well enough," Kit heard. "Both of you. I mean, concussion?"

 

"We have no way of ensuring that you reach the army safely," Teyla said, and there was precious little warmth in her smile, for all that Jasper-lad lapped it up. "Since you refuse to leave--"

 

Jasper smiled as if he had been given the gift of eternal life, and in that moment, all Kit's sympathy vanished. He shoved past Jasper, shoved past Teyla, shoved past all of them, and took his solitary place at the front, where he could chew the inside of his mouth and glower without anyone asking questions.

 

******

 

The night surrounded him. Merrilyn could tread more surely in the dark than humans could, but to Jasper it looked as if they were wading through a sea of darkness, lit only by an ever-dwindling patch of stars. Things stirred beside the path, and he had to believe that they were only trees, or he would startle at every noise. When the first drop of rain fell, he gasped with the surprise of it. The drops continued to fall, but only sparsely, each drop as heavy as ten. He thought he heard the sound of distant thunder, but perhaps it was only armies on the move, their cannon trundling over the ground.

 

He had won. He tried to remember that; tried to feel triumph. He had stood up for what was right. For years, he had known that he was born to a life of poetry, and finally he had dared to pursue his dream. He had stood firm when people had tried to tempt him from his path. People had tried to bully him for years, forcing him to do what they wanted him to do, but at length Jasper had stood up and said 'no.'

 

Yet, even so, he kept on turning, trying to see the lights of the army in the plain behind them. After a while, those lights vanished, hidden behind a shoulder of hillside, but there were other lights – small clusters in twos and threes.

 

Their party was mostly silent. Kit, at the front, had a small lantern of his own, because the night was too dark without it. He frequently shielded it, though, dropping fabric over it to shroud them in darkness. Jasper, at the back, was a tiny spark of consciousness surrounded by a world of black. The world outside his skin showed itself in sounds and smells, and in rain on hands and the lumbering gait of his mount beneath him, but that was all.

 

Right, the animal's hooves seemed to be saying. Right. Right.

 

The rain picked up speed, though the drops were still heavy. Their sound told Jasper that he was walking through broad-leaved trees, whose upturned leaves held water like a cup. Just days before, he thought, he would not have thought it was possible to tell such a thing by just sound alone. Perhaps he should close his eyes for a whole day, he thought, and see what poetry came in to fill the dark places in his mind. Perhaps you saw most clearly when you could not see at all.

 

"…rest," he heard Rodney say, that word shrill, where the words before it had been too quiet for him to hear.

 

"We're almost home." The wind brought him that, suddenly loud.

 

"And I want to get home as much as you do, colonel, but…"

 

He did not hear the 'but.' The night was dark and hid too many things. But then it brought him memories of other darknesses: Sheppard in that cell, clinging on alone through all the hours of night, and then the soft darkness of Stone Hall, where Jasper had lain awake one night, and had heard Teyla coming back from her vigil at Sheppard's bedside, gently waking up Ronon for his turn, exchanging a few words tight with worry. If you had been through all that, he thought, then home would be like a shining beacon. You would travel through the night for it, even if you were unwell.

 

"Home." He heard another of them say the word. Home. He echoed it, eyes pricking with unshed tears. His true home was drowned beneath the flood, and the people who had made it so perfect were long gone.

 

"…rest the merrilyn," Teyla said.

 

A halt was called. Jasper slid from the saddle, and for a moment felt a stab of irrational fear, sure that there was no ground beneath him. But although it was invisible, the ground was where it should be. Kit held the lantern up for him a moment too late, and Jasper made his way to where the others were already sitting. The lantern swayed in Kit's hand, and the faces of his companions flickered into view, and then out of it; in, and out.

 

"Are we nearly there?" Rodney asked, invisible.

 

There was no answer. Food was passed around, but by then the lantern had been extinguished, and Jasper had no idea whose fingers brushed so briefly against his own as they thrust a slice of slightly-stale seed cake into his hand. Someone else nearby had spiced meat; he could smell it.

 

"Are you…?" Teyla asked, her voice unanchored in the darkness.

 

"I'm fine." Sheppard was a ship with an anchor, where Teyla was drifting.

 

"You feel warmer than you should be."

 

"Like I said, it won't matter for much longer." Sheppard's voice changed. "You okay, buddy?"

 

Someone was breathing to Jasper's left, shallow and tight. "'m okay," Ronon mumbled, but not from there.

 

"What about me?" Like Sheppard, Rodney had a definite place in the darkness. It came with pictures: an imagined image of him raising his hand. "I think the cut's infected."

 

Then they ate in silence. The rain grew heavier, and the noise of the drops landing on the leaves drowned out the sound of eating. Jasper finished, then waited, bringing his knees to his chest. They've gone without me, he thought. They'd crept to their feet and tiptoed away, leaving him alone in the darkness. They'd brought him here to hand him over to his father, and any moment from now, his father would…

 

"Someone's coming," Kit hissed.

 

"Uh… Yeah. Yes. Yes." That had to be Ronon, but it didn't sound like him.

 

They were already silent, and the darkness already hid them utterly. Jasper huddled lower, and listened to the incomprehensible sounds of the others moving. When he heard the sound of trotting hoofbeats, he almost cried out – 'don't go without me!' – but the darkness locked words inside him. He felt as if he any words he spoke would fly away through the darkness and reach his father. Words could only be stopped by things that you could see.

 

The light came later – another person travelling with shielded lantern. Jasper thought that there might be three of them, travelling in the opposite direction to their own party, in as much haste as the night would allow. They didn't speak. He had no idea where they were going, to travel so silently in the night. He had no idea how far away they had been, either – whether they had passed so close that he could have seen the colour of their eyes in the daylight, or if they had been far away, the sound of their passing brought closer by the night.

 

When they were gone – and a hundred breaths later; a thousand – Sheppard suggested that they moved on again. "Yeah," Kit said. "When the last stars go, we won't be able to navigate. No choice then but to stop until dawn."

 

"No time to lose, then," said Rodney. "This cut of mine…" His voice trailed off.

 

Kit struck his tinderbox and relit the lantern, allowing the others to find their mounts. He was the last one to mount, though, and the last one to leave. Ahead of them, only a handful of stars still shone in a rift between the clouds.

 

******

 

Perhaps the Gods were real. Perhaps the fucking Gods were real and were killing themselves with laughter as they watched Kit trudge inexorably on. The clouds slowly parted like curtains on a fucking stage, and the stars shone clear ahead of them, beckoning like a bloody beacon. And there went another reason to stop. There went another reason not to close those last few leagues that lay between them and the Circle of Daryen.

 

If the stars had gone out, they would have had to wait until morning. There were things you could do in the dark that you couldn't do in the light. Like sneaking into the most secret site in the world, he thought. And like sneaking into a strange city to start your new life, of course – couldn't forget that.

 

They moved steadily, their path rising and falling through the gentle hills. Merrilyn could see enough in the darkness to know where to tread, but when the lantern was out, Kit could see nothing at all, except for patches cut out of the sky by the solid shapes of his companions. The jolts felt worse when you couldn't see them coming. Kit had chewed the inside of his cheek into a great raw patch, filling his mouth with the taste of blood.

 

"Is it…?" Something swept across the stars: Rodney, pointing. "Daryen?"

 

Kit looked down at the lights below them. "Some pathetic little slumbering town." Some hapless town, in the path of armies. Some little town that he could blot out of existence if he held his hand in front of his face, and could grasp if he curled his fingers, capturing it in his fist. Hundreds of people, sleeping, watching, waiting, guarding their valuables, leaving gaps uncovered for people like him to sneak in. You don't know what's about to hit you. He, up here, was master of fates…

 

Gods! he thought. This whole fucked-up game was turning him into Jasper, with all his poetry.

 

"Just a small town," he said again.

 

Small specks of light showed where the main road ran: stationary ones for guard posts and road blocks, and a few moving ones, some fast, some slow. Messengers. Reinforcements. Agents. Refugees. Thieves in the night, he thought, and perhaps traitors, too, slipping off to win the favour of an enemy king.

 

"It's just," Rodney said, behind him now, "if we don't get there soon…" He trailed away.

 

"Yes, yes, we'll be there soon," Kit said harshly.

 

They rode on. That small town vanished, and another came and went. They had to stop and crowd into a coppice as another traveller passed the same way they were going – another traveller on business that could not be done on the open road. Kit felt the rump of a merrilyn pressing against his leg, and then someone else's foot scraped over his shin. He bit back angry swearing.

 

The stars slowly circled, and the sword-arm of Cador – that in Daryen was called something entirely different – sank below the horizon as if drowning. There I go with the poetry again, he thought. It was just that the journey was so long, every step so slow. Their group was broken, Kit and Jasper pushed firmly to the outside, so there was no-one to talk to - not that he wanted to talk to them, anyway. He didn't really want to think, either, about what lay ahead of him at the end of this journey. He didn't want to think of the past, though it kept trying to intrude. So there you are, Jasper, he thought. Poetry: the last resort for someone who doesn't want to face up to how fucked-up his life is.

 

"Ronon?" he heard Sheppard say quietly. "Buddy?"

 

"Still here. You?"

 

"I'm good." The voice wavered slightly. "It's this damn cold."

 

But it wasn't cold, not really, not with the constant effort it took to stay steady in the saddle when your mount plodded over obstacles you couldn't see. Earlier cloud and rain had kept the heat of the day trapped on the ground, and it was almost warm. Kit was sweating, anyway, raking his hand through his hair and finding it in damp tangles at the back of his neck.

 

Nothing to do, though, but plod on for each inexorable step that took them towards the city of Daryen.

 

Sometimes they passed close enough to farmsteads to smell the smoke. Once they set a flock of merrow scattering with loud yelps, but no angry voice came out of the darkness to challenge them. Some time later, descending slantwise across a stony slope – he could hear the stones grating beneath his mount's hooves – someone shouted far away below them, and there was an answering scream.

 

"We should…" Sheppard's voice came from several paces nearer the sound than Kit had known him to be.

 

The others said things – things about blowing cover, about being so close to home, about walking away, about how it was probably nothing – and soon they were moving again. The scream was not repeated. When they had been speaking, though, those people – Sheppard and his companions – had seemed like the only real people in the world. But already his memory of their words was fading, pushed away into that part of his mind that housed those things that could not be allowed to matter.

 

After they reached the Circle, he wouldn't have to think of them ever again.

 

******

 

"Is that Daryen?" Jasper's voice felt rusty, as if he hadn't used it for half the night. Perhaps he hadn't. His eyes and his body told him that he was deeply tired, and that they had ridden so far through the river of night as to almost have reached the far bank that was dawn, but he had little clear memory of what he had actually done. A night-time ride should have been a wild adventure, but this had just felt a little like drowning.

 

"The city itself, in the flesh." Kit's voice had a similar hoarseness. "Capital of the glorious city-state of the same name. Den of vice and iniquity, and just missing one thief."

 

It was huge, perhaps even larger than the city of Myr had been before the flood. Lights glimmered before them as if someone had spread them out on a blanket. Then Jasper realised that some of the lights were reflections. Daryen, like Myr, clung to the banks of a broad river. It was still huge enough, though. Like radiating ribbons, lights showed the outlying quarters, and the houses that clung to the edges of the main roads outside the gates. Each gate would be guarded.

 

"Are we…?" Jasper swallowed. He thought of guards with their casual cruelty and their mocking salutes, and of the teeming noise of the common quarter. He thought of all the tales he had ever heard of the cruelty of the people of Daryen. People were different here. "Are we going in?"

 

"It's worse than you think." Jasper could tell where Kit was turning to look, just by the changing sound of his voice. Like a repeated verse from an earlier song, he saw the distant camp-fires, just visible above the trees that grew thickly lower down the slope. "The army of Daryen," Kit said, "gathering outside the walls to march against the foe tomorrow."


"Are we…?" He said it again, then snapped his mouth closed. Of course they were going in. Sheppard had explained the dangers, and Jasper had chosen to come. A poet had to experience life from the other side. A poet had to see true evil and depravity, so he could recognise how precious beauty was when he saw it. A poet had to… A boy. A man… A prince… He couldn't run as soon as it became real. What did it matter than his heart was pounding, that his hands were damp and slippery on the reins, that a fist was clenching at his heart, hurting? This was his test. This was his test.

 

"Fortunately," Kit said, "that isn't your problem. The Circle of Daryen's outside the city, you see, nice and conveniently placed for you on this side of the river. You won't even have to swim – or perhaps friend Ronon would have preferred a nice bloody battle across one of the ancient bridges. You won't even have to tangle with the army. How lucky for you."

 

"Lucky," Rodney echoed. "We could do with some luck after the month we've had. No, call it more like four years."

 

"Yeah." Kit gave a grunt of laughter. "Lucky. I rejoice for you."

 

******

 

Lucky, Kit thought, as they reached the level ground. Of course.

 

The journey had taken longer than he had expected, and the sky was just beginning to lighten on the far horizon. They would still get there in time, though – barring unfortunate accidents, of course. There were many things you could do in the darkness that you couldn't do in the light. Like evading patrols. Like sneaking past guards. Like approaching a place nobody was allowed to approach…

 

Like hiding your expression so your companions couldn't see it.

 

"It's too dark," Rodney grumbled, perhaps as his merrilyn stumbled over something unseen in the long grass. "Haven't you people heard of a moon?"

 

"It's not the sort of thing people can invent, Rodney."

 

"I know that, colonel. It's just… Secret place. Middle of nowhere. Dark. You do the math."

 

"It's those lights over there." Kit pointed to one small scattering of lights – one of the many lights that floated unanchored in the dark. "I imagine so, anyway," he added hastily. "It matches what my informant said."

 

"Oh." Even that didn't seem to please Rodney. "I thought you said it was secret."

 

"Everyone knows where it is," Kit explained, and his own voice felt equally disconnected in the darkness, not really coming from him. "They just stay away. Death penalty, etcetera etcetera. And it's the--" fear of the Gods "--superstition issue. Get struck down if you wander too close, etcetera. If it's bad in a regular ruin, it's ten times worse here. No-one wants to…" Stupid, of course. Stupid. "They wouldn't dare. And we…" He managed a grin for Jasper, who wouldn't see it. "Walking straight towards it, eh, Jasper-lad?"

 

And, in the space of talking about it, they had already drawn closer, sufficiently so that the arrangement of lights had changed. "Best not talk," he said, "due to the whole death penalty if they catch us thing."

 

When they were silent, he could almost believe that they weren't there – that they had thought better of this crazy little adventure and had run away somewhere, to get home in a way that didn't involve Kit. Then, when one of the merrilyn made a slight noise, or one of the riders muttered something, he knew that they were still with him.

 

Go back, he wanted to cry to them, and he bit his cheek again, blood upon blood, to keep those words in. Go back.

 

But they didn't, of course. And then it was time to dismount – "you can't do proper sneaking unless you're on foot" – and take only what they could carry on their own bodies. The merrilyn they tethered to a tree – "can't be too careful," Sheppard said. "We might need them again," and Rodney squawked at that, saying he had no intention of coming back, and that it was a bit late for Sheppard to have a personality change and add the word 'careful' to his repertoire. All of it quiet, though, and there were a few more whispers that Kit couldn't hear, even though there was nothing around them but the darkness of the plain.

 

The sounds told him very little. He was fairly sure that Sheppard was getting sick again, doing too much when he was barely reprieved from death's door. Ronon seemed to be struggling with the after-effects of his head injury, though being Ronon, and with the example of Sheppard to live up to, he said nothing about it. He was the one who was walking at Kit's side, Kit realised; they had scouted together long enough for him to recognise that surprisingly quiet tread.

 

All the while, they were drawing closer to the place where it would all end. Offerings crumbled under their feet – withered flowers, and things even softer. The wide patrol they were able to evade, even Rodney keeping quiet long enough to pass by unnoticed. That was the advantage to belief, of course. When you had gods to police your exclusion zone, you didn't bother over-much with crack troops. Then the lights were close enough for them to see the cross-work of metal on the brazier, and the trees of Circle Grove were close enough to block out the stars.

 

For a moment, Kit crouched there, unable to move. He closed his eyes, and tasted blood. Then, "Take it away, friend Ronon," he breathed, and it began.

 

******

 

The Circle of Daryen. Jasper's heart was racing. The Circle of Daryen. Everyone had heard of it – the most sacred and feared of all the relics of the Gods of Stone. Not that anyone in Myr believed in such a thing, of course. They were stupid in Daryen. They believed in antiquated gods, and they turned away scholars and historians who wanted to study the ruins. They adhered to ridiculous superstitions that all right-thinking people had put aside over fifty years ago. They--

 

Red light flared, and Jasper gasped. "One down," Kit said quietly. Ronon and Kit appeared briefly in the circle of light from the brazier – the first time Jasper had properly seen one of his companions since night had fallen – and dragged the fallen guard away into the dark. When they moved forward, though, they avoided the light.

 

He had to move by feel, groping around him for tree trunks and branches. His steps were almost silent, though, with only the faintest rustling to show when he walked through fallen leaves. These must be maiden-trees, then, that kept the floor of their woodlands clear of thorn and other undergrowth.

 

"Are we…?" Rodney breathed. "…secret rituals?"

 

Kit didn't answer, if indeed he knew. Then they had to clamber over a wall, made of large blocks of stone without any mortar. Jasper's hands explored it all, finding it no taller than his chest. Somebody offered him a hand to help him over, but he had no idea who it was. The hand was warmer than the night, and smaller than Ronon's would have been, but larger than Teyla's, but that was all he could tell.

 

Another light ahead led them to a pair of guards, each one felled by Ronon. Do they have Whisperers here? Jasper wanted to ask, worrying about messages sent out without a word. No, of course they didn't; Whisperers were one of the many reasons why the two states hated each other.

 

The Circle itself was in a clearing, lit only by a single torch. Is that it? Jasper thought. We're here? He felt rooted to the spot – the Gods! What about the Gods? He was seeing something that no-one from Myr had ever seen before. If any moment in his life had ever needed poetry, then this was it. Why, then, was his mind empty? All he could think was We're here, and I don't want to go any closer, and Please, don't.

 

Rodney had no such qualms. A dark shape against that torch, he ran forward, but not towards the Circle. The others moved forward as if drawn, shedding Jasper like a cloak. Only Kit remained behind, and Jasper could see very little, but could tell that Kit was looking at him. He understands, Jasper thought. He was a common thief, but he knew what it was like to travel with people who didn't really want you there. He was from Myr, so he, too, would be feeling this same conflicted fear – the knowledge that the gods were not real, but that there were some things that you just couldn't feel comfortable doing, even so.

 

"No guards." Ronon was hidden in the darkness again, but Jasper had seen how he had his weapon out, scouring the edge of the clearing with his keen eyes.

 

"What? You're kidding me! Oh no. Oh no no no no. Please don't do this to me." Rodney's voice was shrill.

 

"What's up?" Sheppard rapidly took shape from the darkness, passed through the pool of night, and faded again.

 

"No DHD."  Rodney's voice hitched, as if he was doing something while speaking. "That is, no control crystal. It's gone. It isn't there. It--"

 

"Can you fix it?"

 

"Of course I can't fix it, colonel. I can repair things, but I can't conjure them up from nowhere. Without a crystal, we're screwed. End of the road. No way home."

 

Jasper heard Kit breathing beside him in the darkness, tight and fast and quivering.

 

He was slow to notice the sound of approaching hooves. "Sheppard!" Ronon barked, and that was his first warning. His second was Kit letting out a sharp breath. He saw Ronon sweep his gun around, covering the trees, and caught a glimpse of Sheppard doing the same. Even when they were outside the pool of light, he could see them now, or the faint shapes of them.

 

Ronon fired his gun, the red light striking something beyond the trees. He fired it again, and Jasper's head went from side to side, desperately searching for safety, then came to rest quite unexpectedly on Rodney, who was hunched over one of the Gods' relics as if he had lost everything that had ever mattered to him in his entire life.

 

"Lay down your weapons," a voice said from the darkness, "or we will shoot the woman. You are severely outnumbered."

 

Jasper shrank backwards, a tree trunk hard against his back.

 

"I say again…" The voice left the threat unfinished.

 

"John," Teyla said, "don't…"

 

"You want to see her die?"

 

Jasper did not see Sheppard give the order, but he saw the troop of riders emerge from the trees. He heard the sound of a tinderbox striking a spark, and soon there were more torches, showing him the scene of their defeat. The bark scraped at his back. But three men had already dismounted and were coming towards him, and although he tried to run, and although he tried to fight, he was grabbed, and his hands lashed tightly behind his back.

 

Only Kit remained unbound, strolling slowly up to the leading rider. "Hello, Vayne," he said.

 

******

 

Chapter twelve

A Pretty Gift

__

 

"I should have realised." Jasper watched Sheppard's hand curl into a fist as he spoke. "I knew Kit was up to something. Annis as good as told me, and I said I had it under control. I thought he was planning on doing something with the boy after we left. That's why I--"

 

"Huh." Rodney sounded disgusted. "It's worse than that. Here we have a planet that quite clearly has no conception of inter-planetary travel. They think the Ancients are gods, for crying out loud. Of course it doesn't have a functional DHD. Why did it ever occur to us to assume that it did?"

 

"Rodney…" Teyla said warningly, looking up from her place in the corner.

 

"It's not like it's going to make much difference now, is it?" Rodney jerked miserably at the chains that were keeping him on his pallet. "Once again, I'm the only one who comprehends quite how screwed we are. Nobody knew where were are. Even before Colonel Dialling Under The Influence brought us on this one-way trip to nowhere, we'd fallen right off the radar. Hyperspace, remember? Nobody's coming to get us."

 

Ronon strained at his chains, aiming a furious kick at the door. In honour of his rank, Jasper was the only one with a proper bed, its sheets made of soft fabric from across the Narrow Sea, but they felt like cold chains to him.

 

"Because – oh, yes! – the DHD's broken." Rodney sounded almost gleeful in his despair. "The only way to dial out would be to go all the way to Myr, to trace every painful step of that nightmare-ridden little journey, and find a way to get the dart back from people with stone axes and hacksaws who are busy dissecting it as we speak. Oh, and then to fix it – and once again the task of saving your sorry asses falls to me. But none of which we can do, because – hello? – in prison here, chained up?"

 

"We know, Rodney." Sheppard was sitting with legs bent, forearms resting on his thighs.

 

"What, no pep talk? No relentless optimism? No 'don't worry, Rodney, we'll get out of here?'" Rodney's voice started harsh, but he seemed to lose the heart for it as he went along. He slumped back against the wall, closed his eyes, and said nothing for a while.

 

Ronon tried for another kick, pulling at his chains. Jasper remembered how badly Sheppard's wrists had bled when he had done the same. Now Sheppard was chained again, not yet fully healed since the last time.

 

"John?" Teyla said quietly.

 

"Fine. I'm fine." But he didn't look fine. His time at Stone Hall had saved his life, Jasper realised, but he had needed more days of uninterrupted rest to be completely recovered. He'd been keeping going long enough to get to his goal, but now that goal was snatched away, he had nothing to keep going for.

 

Ronon growled furiously, and threw himself back onto the pallet, but it looked more like falling, really. When he lay down, he put a forearm over his eyes, as if he was suffering from a bad headache. Teyla was also hurt, bruises dark around her neck, and Rodney had a dark red line at his throat.

 

"What…?" Jasper cleared his throat. "What are they going to do with us?"

 

No-one answered. Outside, glimpsed through a tiny window, it was almost full daylight, and it had been the first glimmerings of dawn when they had been dragged over the river and locked in this place. The voices of strangers had surrounded them, but Kit had been absent, keeping himself out of sight, although Jasper had overheard enough to know that he was well known to the whole troop, a native of Daryen.

 

No-one talked about that. No-one talked about how Kit's betrayal made them feel. Jasper knew how it made him feel. And he hadn't liked Kit, not really, no, not at all. He was just a common thief, who had spent the first half of the journey mocking Jasper, and the second half in a foul mood. It wasn't a personal betrayal, not at all – although Jasper remembered the times Kit had said 'Jasper-lad', and how he had smiled, and how they had exchanged glances in the ruin in the hills. He remembered crouching at the edge of the clearing around the Circle, so sure that Kit was feeling the same as he was. He remembered how Kit had joined in on his side when he had been trying to persuade Sheppard to let him stay. But of course he did, he realised now. He wanted me to come here, so he could do this.

 

He thought he had barely exchanged a dozen words with Kit, but when he looked back at the journey with eyes that knew that Kit had been false all along, it felt like a hollow, broken thing.

 

Perhaps he made a sound out loud, because the next thing he knew, Sheppard was looking at him. "Not so romantic when you're on the receiving end, huh?"

 

Betrayal? Jasper thought, then realised that Sheppard meant prison. He meant Valorian captured by the slavers, or Tamorlin's sojourn in the hands of his enemies. He meant a prisoner who had clung on rather than let himself die, and how for days that had seemed to Jasper to be the only thing that defined the man.

 

He meant eyes that pricked with tears, and a throat that wanted to cry. He meant the fluttering fear you felt whenever footsteps sounded in the hall. He meant the knowledge that you were entirely in someone else's power. For years, Jasper had known himself to be a prisoner of his father's expectations, but it was nothing like this. It felt nothing like this.

 

When the tears finally came, he did not try to stop them, but when they had flowed for but a little while, he wiped his face harshly, and refused to cry any more.

 

******

 

"I wasn't sure you'd send anyone," Kit said, when he had been ignored for far too long.

 

"That one," his uncle said, indicating to his page which sash he had decided to wear for today's martial merriment. As the boy scurried to drape him with the trappings of a dauntless commander, Kit's uncle deigned to notice Kit at last. "I almost didn't. It was quite an irregular mode of communication – a few garbled sentences sent through a recruiting sergeant, no less - and entirely without proper explanations." But what else could we expect from you? his tone said. "And to leave us with no means of contacting you if we preferred a different mode of approach. Have you any idea how hard it was to persuade the priests to let a troop into the grove?"

 

"I would have thought grandfather could have ordered them." Kit looked at the portraits on the wall, each one intensely familiar. Even with his eyes closed, he could have said how many swords hung above the fireplace.

 

"And to get men who were willing to take the job." His uncle continued if he hadn't spoken.

 

"I would have thought you could have ordered them."

 

His uncle was looking critically at his scabbard. "It is always good to have willing men. Orders only go so far. A man who's scared shitless to be so close to the Circle is a man who will run when you need him." With a flap of his hand, he commanded his page to hang the scabbard, despite its invisible blemish. "Knowing your men is the key to command, Kit."

 

Kit shifted on the carpet. "Spare the lectures. I'm not a child any more."

 

"I means you can allocate a task to those who are best able to carry it out," his uncle said. "Know how people will react, and act accordingly. Push them in ways that they don't realise is being pushed."

 

Be a mean-hearted bastard, in other words, Kit thought. A thief, a general, a priest… and a man who had manipulated his new companions from the start. Not so different after all, perhaps. However much you tried to avoid them, lessons taught early in childhood stuck.

 

"But you came," was all Kit said. "Cousin Vayne and all his shiny men, bravely resisting the wrath of the Gods just for little old me."

 

His uncle dismissed the page-boy, but his behaviour was no different after he had gone than it had been when every word had been overheard. He still barely looked at Kit, but, then, he never had. Metal leaves gleamed on his chest.

 

"You aren't going to ask what gifts I brought back from my travels?" Kit asked. "Spices? Fabrics? A shiny new gun? No?" He sighed, wishing he could control his breathing; it was faltering high in his chest, as if something heavy had taken root at the base of his lungs. "I brought prisoners. And are you going to ask who they are?"

 

"That is for your grandfather and the priests." His uncle flapped his hand dismissively. "My field is war."

 

Even the smells were intensely familiar: black powder and oil and resin, and the faint smell of the dried petals that his uncle used to keep his uniform fresh. Sometimes, asleep in the Drowned Quarter, he had caught an echo of any of these scents, and had immediately been transported back to here.

 

"I brought the crown prince of Myr," Kit said stubbornly, refusing to be robbed of his triumph, "who followed me here as trusting as a baby merrow. The other four aren't from around here, but I believe they have a most interesting story to tell. Their technology is like nothing I've seen before, and their secrets…" No, it didn't do to tell one of the least imaginative members of his family that Kit's travelling companions had apparently expected to step through the Circle of Daryen and be taken directly to some distant home.

 

It certainly didn't do to say that part of him had fervently hoped that they would do just that.

 

"Like I said," his uncle said absently, opening a dispatch case, "it's nothing to do with me. I have an enemy army to deal with, and half my men are in a panic about the return of the Gods."

 

"Yeah." Kit cleared his throat. "About that…" He ran his finger along the edge of the mantelpiece, and even the dust smelled familiar.

 

"The priests say that something came through the Circle." His uncle was busy reading. "Some strange vessel. The people don't know the details of course." He threw the paper down; picked up a new one. "Perhaps the world is ending, and perhaps it isn't, but I've got a war to fight. You don't win wars by rolling over at the slightest rumour."

 

"No." If anything, the weight in his chest had grown, and he felt as if all the air was slowly being drained out of the room. "So…?" He moved stiffly to a chair, sat down, and crossed his legs, ankle resting on the opposite knee. "What's the plan?"

 

Absorbed in his reading, his uncle did not answer.

 

Kit swallowed. "What…?" He had not meant to ask it. "What's going to happen to the others? To… to the prisoners, I mean."

 

"How should I know?" His uncle looked up from his papers, deigning to give Kit a moment of his proper attention. "And why do you care, anyway? You betrayed them."

 

******

 

When footsteps stopped outside the door, Jasper was the only one unchained, and the only one who could do anything about it. All he did, though, was sit a little more upright on the bed, and tried to look as serene as Teyla and as determined as Sheppard and as resolved as Tamorlin in the hands of his enemies.

 

The man who entered was old, dressed in tarnished velvet, and with ink-stains on his fingers and in his uncombed, thinning hair. "Hmph," he said, stopping two paces into the room, ignoring Ronon's desperate attempts to break free. "It really is you. I thought young Kit was telling tales again. A boy can change in four years, but that one was never going to change."

 

"Let us go!" Rodney demanded. "We… we've got lots of important friends. They'll burn your buildings to rubble. We didn't do anything. Whatever Kit said, he's lying."

 

The old man waved his hand, like someone idly swatting away an irritating insect. "But you have something of your father in your face, even though he tries to hide behind that beard – quite an alarming beard, don't you think? The crown prince of Myr…" He chuckled. "What a pretty gift. Now to decide how best to use you…" He snapped his fingers again, and the armed men who flanked him turned sharply on their heels and escorted him away again.

 

Rodney and Ronon shouted for quite some time after the door had closed.

 

"Was that the king?" Sheppard asked eventually. "The basilisk guy?"

 

"Basilis," Jasper heard himself saying, the voice far too level to be his own. "They don't have kings. The priests elect him for eleven years. It's a shameful practice." That's what his father always said, anyway.

 

"Which helps us how?" Rodney said sharply. "Oh, yes, because knowing the political structure of the people who built the chains is going to tell us how to break the lock."

 

Jasper shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position. The sun slanted in from above, but didn't strike his bed. Very faintly, he could hear the sound of life going on outside. The hum of activity sounded just like the sounds he sometimes heard drifting in from the Drowned Quarter in Myr, as if he was back at home again, and these were not a cruel and barbarous people. Then a horn sounded, not too far away, and he heard the sound of a troop of men passing over cobbles.

 

"What's going to happen?" he found himself asking. "With my father? With the army?"


"And now he starts to wonder," Rodney exclaimed. 

 

What a pretty gift. Now to decide how best to use you…The Basilis of Daryen was facing Jasper's father in war. He remembered stories – stories he hadn't thought about before; stories that his nurse had sometimes told, singing them softly to music, then saying 'hush', because they were common people's tales. There was violence in those stories – sons held captive for the good behaviour of their fathers; hostages returned bit by bit, or butchered in full view of their family.

 

Sheppard had tried to stop this from happening, he realised. But he couldn't quite bring himself to say so, knowing that he might cry again if Rodney said 'We told you so.'

 

Instead he thought of people imprisoned far away from their home. "Why did you leave your people?" he asked Teyla. "You told me before, but I didn't understand."

 

Rodney grunted. "And this is going to help how?"

 

"Talking passes the time," Teyla said softly.

 

"Time should fly for you, then, huh, McKay." Sheppard's head was pressed to the wall, and his eyes were half closed.

 

"I left them," Teyla said, her lovely face grave as she looked at Jasper, "because I felt I could serve their interests better if I went elsewhere."

 

He thought of his home that had never seemed like a home. "Do you miss them?"

 

"It was difficult at first, because everything in the city was new to me, and very strange. There were times when I was quite unhappy." Sheppard's eyes snapped open, and Teyla turned to him with a smile. "When Sergeant Bates distrusted me," she said, "and never after that."

 

"But you stayed away." He had no idea why he was persisting on this, but only knew that he had to.

 

"As their leader, I had to do what was best for my people," Teyla said. "My own happiness is less important than theirs."

 

Jasper wanted to say something, but he couldn't speak. Too many thoughts crowded his mind – a whole jumble of things he had seen and heard beginning to slot into place. Most of all, though, he remembered what Sheppard had said to him before they had gone into the town to rescue Kit, and how fiercely he had spoken then. No, no, stronger even than that was the memory of Sheppard on his knees by the stream, urging the others to go on without him.

 

It wasn't just words. Teyla said it, but he had proof that these people lived it, too.

 

"I don't think…" He raised his head slowly, speaking it like the marvel that it was. "I don't think my father's a very good leader."

 

"Huh," Rodney grunted. "Well, of course. We knew that."

 

He said it as if it was nothing, but of course it was everything. Jasper was supposed to be king one day, but whenever he looked at his father, he thought I don't want to be like that. He couldn't be like that, and so his father despised him; and so Jasper turned away from the very thought of doing what his father wished, and turned to the sweet comfort of the only constant and reliable thing that he knew: poetry. Poetry that he lived for.

 

Poetry that he hadn't thought of even once since Kit had betrayed them at the Circle.

 

But, "I didn't," was all he said. "I really didn't."

 

******

 

Kit really shouldn't have said it. "So, how are you, Kit?" he asked. "What have you been doing these last four years? Welcome home." He crossed his legs the other way, gripping his ankle tightly. "No? It's too much to expect, is it?"

 

His uncle now had two piles of papers on the desk. "What did you expect?"

 

At least it was an acknowledgment of sorts. "I don't know," Kit said. "Perhaps a 'hello'? Perhaps a 'thank you'? After all, I did work an exceedingly cunning plan and brought back a prize that will help bring about the glory of my native land, etcetera etcetera."

 

He realised only after he said it that he was copying Rodney again. Sometimes he would deliberately mimic someone to mock them, but often it was an unconscious thing. He amassed vocabulary from other people, and even when he wasn't deliberately wearing a mask, his speech was a raggle-taggle collection of pieces of everyone he had ever known. It was perhaps not wise to speak like this to his uncle, though.

 

"So it was all for the glory of Daryen, then?" His uncle laid down his newest piece of paper. "All of this? When you stormed out so dramatically four years ago, it was all because you – so much wiser than the rest of us – had a plan to benefit our state?"

 

"Sarcasm doesn't suit you." Kit's voice sounded strangled. He concentrated on better things. "I see you've acquired a new tapestry. The stain didn't wash out of the old one?" Hurling the tea had been quite satisfying. He hadn't meant to knock his grandfather over onto his ass, though. 'Dramatic' was an under-statement, really.

 

His uncle was quite right, of course, which only made things worse. His exit had been prompted by all those usual things: a family that expected you to do your duty and who never allowed you to have any fun. His uncle had summoned him to this carpet for one too many stern lectures. After Kit had burnt his bridges there, he had set off for the one place where nobody was even the most distant of relatives, to live precisely how he pleased, grabbing what he wanted, and living on the knife-edge of danger because he wanted it.

 

"I know you, Kit." His uncle was reading, still reading. "I took your measure when you came into my care. I did my best to mould you, but you never listened to a word I said. You were always too busy planning your next trick."

 

"I was seven." Kit's fingers dug into his ankle. "People change."

 

His uncle snorted, then Kit realised that he was reacting to something he had read, and not to Kit at all. Sitting down, Kit saw the room from the height he had been back then, clutching his sister's hand, trying so hard not to cry for his parents. The shining seal on his uncle's desk had looked like something that would make his sister smile. He hadn't thought of it as stealing, not really, and his uncle hadn't noticed him take it. It was only two days later, after all the pages had been beaten, that the truth had been discovered. It had been downhill all the way after that, really.

 

But the smells were still there, and the sights, and the colours, and all those little things that you didn't even notice at the time, but all went together to cry 'home!' when you were far away. "I did listen," he found himself saying. "You would have been quite proud of me. Grandfather, too. I looked for an opportunity, and I took it. No, I set it up. I manipulated those people. They didn't suspect a thing. They thought it was all their idea. They even felt sorry for me, because I had to abandon my life in Myr and start all over again in Daryen."

 

Nothing, of course, and it grew harder and harder to say the words. He'd been in the Drowned Quarter for over two years before he had started to dream of returning home with a wonderful prize – a prize none of his priggish, obedient cousins could ever achieve with their protocol and their posturing and their politics. Then it just became a case of looking for the right moment and the right prize. So when three people had come along, speaking too loudly and too indiscreetly about such intriguing things, it had just been a case of reeling them in, all the while making them think that they were the ones doing the reeling.

 

"It was as masterful a piece of manipulation as you could ever wish to see," he said, as a portrait of his uncle stared down at him, shiny in his uniform, and lord of ten thousand hapless men.

 

"Are you expecting congratulations?" The flesh and blood version of that portrait looked up briefly.

 

And he had, of course, and that was the pathetic thing. He'd dreamed of apologies, and 'you were right all along, Kit', and open arms that greeted him and said, 'oh, Kit, we were so worried about you.' He shifted uncomfortably. "I think I deserve at least a pat on the back."

 

He wasn't going to get it, of course. Those smells that cried 'home!' blinded you to the other side of things. You forgot the bad stuff. You forgot the reasons why you'd left in the first place. You forgot that while you'd been away living in an entirely new way, learning entirely new things, everyone else had been carrying on doing exactly the same. You forgot that nothing ever changed.

 

"Which is why you did it, of course," his uncle said. "Not for Daryen. Not because it was your duty. Not because you thought it would help. You did it because you wanted to have the last word in the argument. I said then that you were nothing more than a self-centred trouble-maker without a responsible bone in your body. It seems you've been four years planning your come-back. You always were like that: coming back half a year later with a triumphant fact that would prove someone else wrong in an argument they'd long since forgotten. I know you, Kit. You just want us all to say that you were right."

 

"That…" His voice rasped to a halt. He tried again. "That's not true."

 

But it was. Of course it was. Almost. At first. Perhaps.

 

******

 

"They're not fastened tight," Ronon said, hauling at the chains.

 

"Oh. Oh." Rodney looked hopeful, then despairing. "We all saw what was left of Sheppard's wrists after he did that."

 

Teyla said nothing, but was looking at Sheppard.

 

"Think," Rodney said. "We need to think. Use the brain. Talk. We need to… to tell them that we've got something very important to say to the basilisk guy. Tell him everything. Offer him--"

 

"We aren't supplying C-4 and space-ships to primitive civilisations." Sheppard opened his eyes. "Been there, done that, lived with the fall-out."

 

"No secret bunkers round here," Rodney said.

 

"Yeah. That's because they're secret." Sheppard sighed. "No, no, I know there aren't. Just don't see how as it'll help."

 

"No. No." Rodney subsided. "'Please let us go, because if we you let us go all the way to your enemy's capital city, we might, if we're lucky, get something that will allow us to bring you something you might find useful, but we haven't got any of it here to show you to prove that we're telling the truth.'"

 

Sheppard cracked a smile. "Hey, I was convinced. Worth a try. We've got nothing else."

 

"I was wrong," Jasper said.

 

There was a brief silence. "Well, obviously." Rodney frowned in irritation, then opened his mouth to continue with something else.

 

"I didn't think." Jasper looked at Sheppard. "You told me to go back. I didn't want to. I was… I was stubborn." His father was stubborn, refusing to deviate from any course of action that he had chosen, no matter what happened. "I didn't want to go back to that. I don't. I still don't."

 

Rodney still looked irritated, as if nothing he said was of any importance to the gravity of his situation. Ronon ignored him – had he ever exchanged any words with Ronon? – but Teyla and Sheppard were looking at him.

 

"I didn't think," Jasper said. "I don't think that this could happen. I didn't think through the consequences if it did. There are people out there – real people." He listened to the distant sound of a city going about its business, while troops of soldiers marched out to die. "I've made things worse." He curled his hand into a useless fist. "I never chose to be crown prince." His eyes prickled again, but this time he was determined not to cry. If it hadn't been for an accident of birth, he could have wandered as freely as he liked, and it wouldn't have mattered. "It's not fair."

 

"Life isn't," Rodney said. "Take me, for example--"

 

"McKay." Sheppard said it very firmly. Then, to Jasper, he said, "What he said. Sometimes people have responsibilities. They didn't always ask for them, because they have to live with the consequences, because you know what sucks even more? Being one of the little people whose commander doesn't give a shit about you."

 

Jasper had been trying so hard not to think about Kit, but suddenly his voice came into his mind, lecturing Jasper about what it was like to be a peasant. He thought of what he had seen: the poverty of that farmer; the misery of sleeping out in the rain; the fear of a people held under the thumb of distant laws. The life of the poor in the Drowned Quarter had always seemed to simple, so free, so vibrant, but of course it was not. Then he thought of Teyla, who had left her people because she thought that was best for them, and Sheppard, who had been willing to die alone rather than bring his people down with him.

 

"But I don't…" He dashed at his eyes, although the tears had still not come. "I don't want to give up poetry. I need it. It's… it's everything."

 

"No reason why kings can't write poetry," Sheppard said.

 

Jasper pressed his head against the wall, covering his face with his hands. Images danced on the inside of his palms. His father had dragged him from the care of women, and had been determined to shape him into something that Jasper could not be. Jasper didn't match his father's idea of a proper king. But there were other models for kingship, and – Gods!­ – Jasper had known this all along; had read about and sung about such images in countless stories. His father's disappointment in him had loomed too large, making him forget.

 

"I don't want to be that sort of king," he said, lowering his hands. "Not like my father. But I…" He grasped hold of a handful of blanket. "My father was going to send me to the army. If I didn't… If that didn't beat me into shape, he said, he was going to cut me out of the succession and make my cousin his heir instead. He's older than me – a bully, really cruel, loves fighting. I said I didn't care, but…"

 

"No country should have a king like that," Teyla said into the silence that followed.

 

"A bad general brings the whole army down." Ronon had stopped fighting and was lying on his pallet again, muscles tense around his eyes.

 

"Leadership is a responsibility," Teyla said. "It is necessary to make sacrifices, but the rewards are great."

 

It's not fair! he wanted to cry one more time. Poetry had already left him. Perhaps it was gone forever, never to come back. Perhaps it was the last relic of a self-centred childhood, that went away just like his nurse had done, and his mother, and the lovely gardens of his youth.

 

"So we're trying to talk the boy into perpetuating hereditary monarchy, are we?" Rodney said harshly. "We're doing the Obi-Wan Kenobi thing with our young apprentice?"

 

None of them answered him.

 

"I'm sorry," Jasper said, and he felt his cheeks flush, and looking at them all, one after the other, was hard. "I came with you when you didn't want me to. I made things difficult for you. I refused to go away when you told me to." And now, for a second time, the tears came. Kit had also been on the outside of their circle, unwanted, but now Jasper had lost even that glimmer of companionship.

 

"No hard feelings," Sheppard said, as if the whole thing had been nothing at all.

 

"No hard--?" Rodney started, but was silenced either by a look from one of the others, or by something within himself. "No, if this sorry mess if anyone's fault, it's Kit's."

 

Jasper swiped at his tears, and sat very still, staring at a door that did not open. What's going to happen now? he thought, and the question encompassed everything – the whole world of future beyond that door.

 

******

 

His uncle had gone, striding off to posture gloriously at the head of his army. Kit wandered through the mansion to try to find somebody else to talk to. With such a teeming mass of distant cousins, it shouldn't have been hard, but none of them seemed to be around.

 

In the end, he was reduced to cornering a servant. His sister was married, he was told, and living in the provinces with two squalling brats at her feet. Jay, the cousin he had always been closest to, companion in many boyhood pranks, had finally given in to pressure and become the newest family representative in the inner circles of the priesthood. Vayne, of course, was in the army, along with far too many second cousins. Kit had never really liked him, though. Cousin Herris was at home, he was told, but Kit pursed his lips at that. Cousin Herris, he told the servant in no uncertain terms, was a bore.

 

After she had flushed and scurried nervously away, it occurred to Kit that you didn't say things like that to servants. In the Drowned Quarter, a girl like that would have been a giggling lass on his lap – or an imperious lass, more likely than not, spurning his charms. An equal, anyway – someone you could speak to freely, as much as you ever spoke freely to anyone.

 

He trailed along corridors that had once been so familiar, and the smells told him that this was home. Doors were no barrier to him, not any more, and he broke into various cousins' bedchambers, seeing them laid out in a way that  made him think I don't want to know this person. You could tell a lot about a person by what they had in their house, or perhaps that was only a thief's way of looking at things.

 

He paused at a window and looked out, gazing across the rooftops of a city that was not Myr. He wanted to clamber to the top of the pinnacles, and crawl through windows and go wherever he pleased.

 

He wanted someone to say they were pleased to see him home, but they did not.

 

Below, in the courtyard, his uncle clattered away, and his grandfather, too, his natural eccentricity stifled by the weight of ceremonial robes. The full retinue, Kit thought, resting his elbows on the window ledge. Doubtless to meet the King of Myr and exchange threats and insults – couched always as the most polite form of politics, of course – before retiring to see whose army could beat the shit out of the other one today.

 

He moved on again, his steps taking him to the chamber that had once been his own, now full of somebody else's possessions. He paused at the door, hand on the knob, gaping like a fool. My room, he thought. He fought the urge to take those possessions, to scatter them, to stamp on them like a kid having a tantrum.

 

And all the while, of course, like a persistent itch between his shoulder blades, came other thoughts. Those days scouting with Ronon, communicating without a thought. The pleasure of baiting Rodney. Looks exchanged with the idiot prince. The closeness that those four obviously shared, each one putting the others first, and how cold it felt, sometimes, to be on the outside, looking in. But they had come back for him in Paramor. Even though Sheppard could barely stand, they had come back for him. I don't leave my people behind, Sheppard had said. My people, Kit thought, still frozen in the door. My people. Mine.

 

Of course Kit had never truly been one of them, but there had been moments… And then Kit had betrayed them. He had betrayed them, and for what? He had betrayed them, and what had been the point? What had been the fucking point of it all?

 

He let his hand slide from the knob. Not a genius plan. Not a vindication. Not an expression of love for his country. Just betrayal. Just that.

 

******

 

Chapter thirteen

Enemy lines

__

 

"It's made me realise…" Jasper pulled his legs towards his chest, wrapping one hand around his knees. "All of this… It's made me realise that…"

 

"Can we hear sweeping violins?" Rodney sneered. "Prince Stupid's having a life-changing moment and becoming a real boy at last. Excuse me while I applaud. Because – oh look! – we aren't prisoners any more, and the DHD has a working crystal, all because Jasper's had a realisation."

 

"Be nice, McKay," Sheppard said, without looking up.

 

Teyla, at least, had a smile for Jasper, understanding in her eyes. Then that smile faded. "Footsteps." It was Ronon who said it, though, springing into a crouch.

 

"Footsteps. Uh…" Rodney's eyes flickered from side to side. "So, which plan are we going with? Plan A?"

 

"Don't think we got that far in our planning," Sheppard said. His eyes, like the others', were on the door, though he seemed too weary to move any other part of himself.

 

The footsteps stopped outside. Somebody said something, and another person replied, but Jasper couldn't hear what was said. A key rattled, the door opened, and a man came in.

 

Kit! Something took hold of Jasper's heart and clenched it tightly. Ronon snarled, straining at his chains as if he wanted to tear the thief to pieces. Rodney stiffened. "Just as we thought it couldn't get worse…," he said. "No, it always gets worse."

 

Kit's face was as impassive as a statue carved from stone. "The Basilis has commanded your presence," he said, not looking at any of them, but at the wall above their heads. "You are to come quietly, or it's the worse for you. A stout troop of shiny soldiers is waiting in the courtyard to escort you."

 

"I wasn't told," the guard said behind him, shifting his feet. "I don't know… Sir… Who are you?"

 

"You must be new round here." Kit turned to him with a shining smile. "Name's Kit. The Basilis…" He looked almost sheepish. "The Basilis, I regret to say, is my grandfather - until his term of office runs out, that is, in which case I believe that my father's dearest cousin is the hot tip to replace him. My uncle – he raised me, don't you know? – is your boss. Actually, one of my cousins is probably your boss, but he's their boss – General Ruthven, in fact. I've been away for a few years; you might have heard of me? Do they still tell the story about the statue and the paint? No?" He sighed with disappointment. "Anyway, I'm here, and it's best not to argue with people with connections like mine. Family, you know." He tapped the side of his nose. "So jump to it, man, and get these prisoners unfastened."

 

"I haven't got the key, sir," the guard faltered. "Cap's got the key."

 

"Oh dear." Kit's shoulders slumped. He still wasn't looking at any of them, Jasper realised. Then there was a faint rattling, and Kit was dangling a key from his finger. "Fortunately," he said, "your 'cap' – second cousin, I believe, with some removeds in it; I never did understand all that – happened to lend it to me. So jump to it. Chop chop, etcetera etcetera."

 

You betrayed us, Jasper thought. You betrayed me.

 

The guard unfastened Rodney first, who rubbed his wrists, muttering a litany of ows. Sheppard shifted in some way that Jasper could not quite describe, as if the distribution of his muscles changed somehow, even though he didn't otherwise move. Teyla stood up. Ronon surged forward as soon as he was free, but Teyla was faster, grabbing him by the arm. "Ronon!" Teyla commanded, but it was Sheppard that Ronon turned towards, breathing fast. Sheppard gave a minute shake of the head.

 

He betrayed us, Jasper thought. But he, unchained from the start, did nothing. He imagined himself felling Kit with a single blow, crushing him with a truthful insult, but he just sat there and said nothing. His heart was beating very fast.

 

"Ready to go?" Kit's gaze was slithering around like the snake that he was, looking everywhere but at them. "Follow me, prisoners, to justice and doom and things like that." The guard's mouth was opening and closing as if he didn't know what to say. "It's okay," Kit told him. "I'm always like this. Ask anyone. That's why I left. I mean, you've seen my family. Can you blame me? No, no, don't say it. The general is a mighty hero and the Basilis is glorious, etcetera. Of course they are." He sighed. "Let's go."

 

******

 

All the way to the courtyard, Kit wondered what the first word would be. He waited for the reproaches. He waited for the denunciation. He waited for the distrust. Walking stiffly, aware of every step, he more than half expected to feel a sharp blow on the back of his neck, and then to wake up a long time later to find that they were long gone. Perhaps he even hoped for that; he did not know.

 

Silence was worse. Just get it over with, he thought. He felt as if he was back on that carpet, waiting for his uncle to deign to look at him. And still they said nothing. They followed him obediently enough, though.

 

It was only when they were outside in the empty yard that Sheppard spoke. "Shiny soldiers?"

 

Kit shrugged; even now, he could still muster his masks. "Everyone's too busy to check. If it's not the war, it's the end of the world that's supposedly approaching. If you say something with enough authority, people believe you. You can get away with anything if you say that someone else is dealing with it."

 

Rodney sounded as if he was about to say something, but didn't. Kit still hadn't quite been able to bring himself to look them in the eye. Apparently even he had some shame. You got accustomed to disdain when you lived as a thief, and it had never mattered before, not really.

 

He led them to the stables. "It's young master Kit," the stable master said, touching his forehead with one finger in a casual salute. "I'd heard you were back. Still got old Stub?"

 

Kit shook his head. "She died." In fact, he had had to sell her; there was no place for merrilyn in the Drowned Quarter. Her price had been spent on lodgings, lockpicks, and a payment to the local big guys to let Kit gain a toehold in the world of local crime. Better not to say that, though.

 

"These things happen. Which of my beauties will you be wanting today?"

 

"I need six," Kit told him. "I told one of the lads earlier. Grandfather's business, very hush-hush."

 

"So that was you, was it? The boy didn't say." The stable master jabbed his thumb towards the other end of the stables. "They're out back." As they walked through the straw, he said, "So they got you working for them in the end, lad? Can't escape family, I guess."

 

The merrilyn were already prepared – not the shaggy six they had left on the plain, which were doubtless getting a well-earned rest, but six new ones, gleaming with pure breeding. "We'll be fine now, Dun," Kit said with a smile. When they were alone, he ducked into an empty stall and pulled out a bundle. "Coats," he explained, "with hoods. Shame it's hot, but it looks as if it's going to rain soon, so no-one will think anything of it." He passed them out, concentrating on hands, on feet, on things that did not look back. "Cousin Norris was the unwilling donor of that one. This one's cousin Ben's – the only one big enough for you, friend Ronon." Another bundle came next. "I even lifted your weapons – I think of everything, don't I? Your weapons – there you are – and the Whisperers' globes. They'd just dumped them on one side like dirty laundry to be looked at later."

 

He had no idea what their expressions were, no idea what they were thinking, no idea of anything at all, just that he wanted to speak and to keep on speaking, because that way there was no room for thinking. Prattle prattle prattle. So that was another bit of Rodney – another way in which he was more like these people than he had ever thought to be.

 

"Why hoods?" He had never expected Jasper to be the first one to speak. "And there are no soldiers here. You've--"

 

"Repented my wickedness and decided to let you go, even if I die in the attempt, unloved by all, even those whose life I save at the cost of my own?" He tried to say it lightly, but it was hard. "How like the stories after all. Maybe," he said, mounting – and even now he was careful and sensible and made sure that no-one else was listening in – "the whole thing was a clever plan that I set up with the others to teach you a lesson and make you learn to think about the consequences of your actions."

 

"So the Basilis doesn't want to see us?" the prince persisted, and Kit couldn't decide if he was being stupid, or if he was actually rather brave.

 

"Oh, I expect he does," Kit told him. "You'd have been summoned at the correct time. After all, there's no point in having your enemy's only son in your dungeons unless you show him off every now and then. You'd have been dragged out to be paraded in front of papa at a suitably dramatic moment. But did he send me to get you…?" He couldn't keep the bitterness from his voice. "That would be a definite no."

 

And still nothing from the others; nothing at all. Kit snapped his fingers. "Mount up. Wars don't wait for people like us, you know."

 

Gods! but he was blind without being able to see their faces. Everything he did was based on reading people, on knowing how they would react. He read silences, he planted seeds, and he goaded and prodded just as much as he needed to do. Gods! He had brazened out so many things in the past – had stood in his uncle's carpet and listened to a catalogue of his faults – but never before had he been unable to look.

 

That's because you've never done something quite so unforgivable before, Kit, my lad, he thought. His eyes flickered over the top of Ronon's head. He saw how Sheppard was standing stubbornly by his merrilyn, refusing to mount. That's because you've never betrayed anyone whom you actually, deep down – admit it, Kit – well… actually liked.

 

And then it came at last. "Give me one reason," Sheppard said, "why we should trust you? Give me one reason why I shouldn't give Ronon the nod to do what he so obviously wants to do?"

 

Kit swallowed; wished his hands weren't trembling. "Hey, it was nothing personal." What's a little betrayal between friends? he almost added, but couldn't bring himself to say that word out loud.

 

"Nothing personal," Sheppard repeated. Kit still hadn't looked him in the eye, but he could see how pale he was, could hear his shallow breathing, could see how tightly he gripped the edge of the saddle, as if he needed it to keep himself upright. And he had spent half a day in prison because of Kit. He had pushed himself to go on through the night because he had thought he was going home, instead of… Enough of that, he told himself. Guilt was a new feeling, but he couldn't let it make him stupid. "Nothing personal," Sheppard said again. "I don't trust people who've betrayed my team, not as a rule."

 

Kit moved his animal prancing towards the exit. Have you ever been caught up in something, he wanted to say, that you set in motion, and can't quite work out how to stop? "Look, I made a mistake, okay? Sorry, and all that. We need to get on."

 

"Where?" Rodney asked. "I mean… I only ask because… Well, we're stranded, and the only way to get home is to go all the way back to Myr and to pick up something that we, uh, forgot to pick up last time, then come back here, and… Well, if you can't give us that, then--"

 

"I don't trust him," Ronon growled. Kit remembered all those days they had spent scouting together, and whatever it was that had taken refuge in his chest back in his uncle's study grew even heavier, almost too heavy for him to breathe.

 

"What made you change your mind?" Sheppard asked. "To what do we owe this last-minute change of heart?"

 

"Last minute?" Rodney said. "Last minute would have been a warning before his friends arrested us. This counts as too late."

 

Gods! He didn't want to say. He never said. Masks were things he wore to fool others, but whatever lay beneath it was something just for himself alone. "My homecoming wasn't what I'd hoped it would be," he said, "and I realised…" He looked at Sheppard, just briefly, then Ronon, then back at the ground, between his merrilyn's ears. "You broke me out of the lock-up," he said, and perhaps that said it all, and perhaps that said nothing at all, but it was a reason, and perhaps a better reason than many others.

 

"I believe he was having doubts these last few days." Teyla spoke up for the first time.

 

"Yeah," Ronon said. "He was grouchy as hell."

 

They would never really like him again, he realised, if indeed they ever had. They would never entirely trust him. And that was his own fault – his doing. And it didn't matter. He didn't need people – never had. He… Gods! Who was he trying to kid? As a nobleman of Daryen living in Myr, masks were mandatory, but it was lonely behind masks. That was why he had started to dream of home – of his sister, of cousin Jay, of Dun the stablemaster, of all those who had always seemed pleased to see him. In his four years away, the closest he had had to companionship was with Ronon, and he had thrown it all away.

 

"You don't have to trust me," he said, "but what can I be planning that's worse than being chained up in there? Just give me a chance."

 

"Where are you taking us?" Jasper asked.

 

Kit smiled – a weary smile, he felt, with too many years in it. "Why, to stop a war, of course."

 

******

 

Nobody stopped them. Any guard who tried to call them to a halt was quickly diverted by Kit's cheerful hailing. "Grandfather's business," he said, and often added the name of whoever he was talking to. "We're off to the field of war."

 

So now Jasper was on a merrilyn no different from a merrilyn at home, riding through the city that was the heart of everything strange and dangerous in the world. The buildings were different, with steeper roofs and fewer decorations, and there was something subtly different about the clothes, but cooked meat stalls still smelled of cooked meat, even though the spices were different, and when he overheard snatches of conversation, the accent was different from what he was used to, but not as different as Sheppard's way of speaking.

 

He saw a man dance exuberantly on the base of a statue, declaring his love to a giggling, embarrassed girl. He saw a mother clutch her daughter to her breast as she worried what would become of them if the enemy army tore through the walls and started burning everything in their path. "It won't come to that," an older man said. "General Ruthven's going to boot them all the way to Myr." They'd moved on by then, though, and even when he twisted in the saddle, Jasper couldn't see if the woman let herself be comforted. Other people were beyond comfort, though. He saw people loading possessions onto handcarts, ready to leave for safer places.

 

The rain started, the drops landing heavily on the still-damp streets. He heard a group of children hoping to see lots of blood and lots of dead enemies, and hoping for a trophy or a broken sword. As they rounded a corner, the smell of smoke struck him suddenly, and he coughed. "Factory," said Kit. "In Myr, you banish them to the seaside, but here we have them right under our feet. When the weather's just right – or maybe that should be 'wrong' – you can hardly breathe for the smoke."

 

"Thank you, tour guide Kit." Rodney's voice came from deep within his hood.

 

"Factory owner a cousin of yours?" Sheppard asked.

 

"Uncle by marriage," Kit said. "Got to get a finger into that pie, too. Steam is the future, after all."

 

They reached the river, crossing it two by two across a narrow bridge with many towers, just like Cador's Bridge, that had arched stolidly over the Saphira before the flood. Water lapped not far below them, and he saw a solid wall of sand-bags on the far bank. "It's higher than when I left," Kit said quietly.

 

Another guard tried to stop them at the end of the bridge, and was turned away with another hand-waving encounter. Then the houses became less and less frequent, and they were out on the open plain. Were those the hills they had travelled through the night before? Jasper tried to see the grove of trees that housed the Circle, but could not. He felt as if there was a weight on his shoulders made up of a thousand staring eyes: the city at his back, the army ahead of him, and him, caught between them, so small. Worse than anything else, though, was the knowledge that his father was not far away.

 

"About this stopping the war thing," Rodney said, still shrouded by his hood. "Uh… why? More to the point: how?"

 

"We don't have experience of such things," Sheppard said. "We're the ones who make the mess. To fix it afterwards, you need Elizabeth…" He snapped the words off. "Needed," he corrected himself, quietly.

 

"Why is everyone under the impression that we're in a Star Trek episode?" Rodney's hands twitched on the reins as if he wanted to gesture sharply, but didn't dare let go. "Come to your world, lecture you about truth, justice and the American way with lots of… dramatic… pauses, and you all lay down your weapons and vow never to fight again."

 

"We did kind of, uh, start it, McKay."

 

"And how do you come to that conclusion, colonel?"

 

"Jasper." Sheppard jerked a thumb at him. "The whole kidnapping thing, remember? Not to mention crashing to earth and sending them into a panic about spies. And this end of the world thing? Don't you think it's, uh, kind of… significant that it happened just after we came here, when they don't… seem to know about…?" He gestured a circle.

 

"Oh," Rodney said. "I hadn't thought… But, no, seriously, that's ridiculous. Don't they understand anything?"

 

"This will be our world," Teyla said, "if we cannot find--"

 

"Thank you for the unexpected pessimism. As if it wasn't bad enough already, contemplating how screwed we are."

 

"You misunderstand me." Kit's voice was unusually cold. "Why should it be your responsibility to stop this war? Not everything's about you, you know. I was talking about me and Jasper-lad here. After all, we do actually live here. And it's his daddy over there, at the head of one army, and my grandfather… my whole family, actually; we do kind of run everything. Why do you think you have any part in this except to watch? I only brought you along for the ride. Come on, Jasper." He snapped his fingers, and Jasper found himself moving forward, going to ride alongside him. You betrayed me, he thought. You betrayed me. But he rode there, even so.

 

******

 

Kit had expected at least one of them to object to being pushed so rudely to one side. Sheppard, at least, had a hero complex that caused him to take responsibility for everything, while Rodney seemed to be operating under the belief that he was a genius. None of them said anything, though, not even a slightest squawk of outraged protest.

 

Ahead, far ahead, he saw the thick stain that was his uncle's army, drawn up in their perfect lines. A quick tug of the reins to the right, and he could avoid it. He could kick his merrilyn into a gallop and disappear back into Myr, or somewhere else where no-one would ever find him. Perhaps the others would even come with him. After all, as things stood, they had nowhere else to do.

 

"Why do you want to stop the war?" Sheppard sounded no more than politely interested. "To what do we owe this sudden attack of pacifism?"

 

The road was thick with mud, churned up by thousands of footsteps, grooved by heavy cannon. "Because my uncle is insufferable in war-time," he said. "Far worse than ever. And all the military cousins… Quite unbearable with their decorations and their war wounds and their heroic stories."

 

They walked on, and the stain grew thicker, forming itself into the distant shape of many people.

 

"I was too young last time, but there'll be no escaping it this time. They'll dress me in an uniform and make me serve."

 

A drop of rain penetrated his hood, flowing cold down the side of his neck. His hands held the reins, but still did not tug them.

 

"Everyone's so grim in war-time. There's no fun to be had. Poor pickings for thieves. People hide their valuables away in the provinces, and if they do catch you, they come down more heavily on you. Say it's unpatriotic, or some nonsense like that."

 

Jasper rode at his side, saying nothing. Sheppard was not far behind him, and Kit was suddenly sure that the man was looking at him, as he had looked at him once so long ago – why do you? – right at the very start of this fucked-up game, when he had thought his cover blown for sure. They were all looking at him, he realised.

 

"Because I spent four years in the Drowned Quarter, and those are the poor sods who are going to suffer. It's the idiot boys who join up, seduced by lies about rich pay. It's the poor bastards who don't get given a choice. They're the ones who die, while my cousins strut around in shining metal and velvet and talk about glory."

 

They were close enough now that they could see the banners, but not close enough to be able to distinguish them. The rain grew heavier.

 

"Because I know what it's like to go to sleep with wet feet."

 

Rodney made a sound at that, but he still got nothing else.

 

"Because we've spent hundreds of years bickering like spoiled brats, and perhaps there are more important things we could be doing with our time rather than trying to tear each other down as soon as we begin to grow tall."

 

"So you planned it from the start?" Sheppard said. Perhaps there was sarcasm in his voice, but perhaps not. "This was all a plan to end all wars?"

 

He could say yes. He could say yes, and perhaps even make them believe it. But it was too late, he thought. What was the point? They would still hate him. "No," he said, no more than that.

 

And still he didn't pull on his reins. Still he didn't turn away, and soon – far too soon - they reached the first outlying parts of his uncle's army, and whatever end this crazy impulse was going to bring him.

 

******

 

We have to stop a war, Jasper thought. But one man couldn't stop a war. Two men couldn't stop a war. They did in the stories, though. Tamorlin had ridden through day and night to arrive on the battle-field just in time to stop two armies from tearing each other to pieces. After a life-time of victory, Cador had turned his back, and said, 'No more.'

 

But that was just story. That wasn't real. A pretty tale, he thought, but no more. No more. No more…

 

He had never been able to persuade his father to allow him an extra session in the university library, so how could he hope to persuade him not to fight? Sheppard could do it, he thought. Teyla could. Ronon could intimidate anyone. Even Rodney, perhaps, could talk Jasper's father into knots until he submitted. But Jasper… His breathing was fluttering in his throat. He wanted to run away. He wanted to go as far away as possible and…

 

He stopped, chewing his lip. Kit was cheerily getting them past sentries and picket lines. Soon they were weaving their way through lines upon line of waiting men. Some of the soldiers were younger than he was, he thought. Some looked proud and determined, but a lot of them looked afraid. Soldiers like war. He remembered saying that; remembered Sheppard sternly putting him right. If there was war, some of these men would die. Perhaps it would be that one there, as fair-haired as Jasper, twisting his toe in the dirt, or that one, older and too thin, who wore something around his neck that could have been a lover's token, or perhaps something made by a child.

 

This was real, he thought. It was one thing to have a revelation in a prison cell, but now he had to put it to the test. He had made this situation worse by running away, and it was his duty to fix it, no matter what the cost.

 

And the others would be beside him, at least. The others were fearless – no, of course they weren't – and the others were grown-up and strong and could do everything – would try everything ­– and they had the answers – they did what they could – and…

 

"Cousin!" Kit called. "What do you know?" he said quietly, chuckling. "Only one person turned round."

 

It was a stout man with Kit's eyes, but a heavier face. He was frowning as he hurried over officiously on his sleek merrilyn. "Grandfather," Kit said, snapping his fingers. "Urgent business, and so on."

 

"Meeting the enemy commanders," the cousin told him. "A league or so beyond the front line. They've commandeered a farmhouse."

 

"So on we go," Kit said, after his cousin had bustled off. "On we go." He sounded nervous, Jasper realised suddenly, beneath his constant façade of being utterly in control. Then he looked up, and saw the anxious looks that were passing between the others – quick movements of their hoods.

 

Perhaps everyone was afraid underneath it all, Jasper thought. Perhaps even Tamorlin had felt fear even as he had done his heroic deeds. Perhaps even his father had doubts underneath.

 

It didn't help, though – or perhaps it did, but just a little. Permission granted, they rode through the front line of the army, and into the quiet space between, where two enemy powers were poised to come together like hammer and anvil.

 

Ahead was everything he had run away from.

 

Ahead was his father.

 

******

 

"A farmhouse," Kit said, because he had to say something. "If they do end up making a treaty, what will they call it? The Charvil Patch Accord? Doesn't have quite the right ring to it, really. I wonder if the farmer got any say in the matter."

 

"Got a plan?" Sheppard asked him.

 

Once again, Kit considered lying, then realised that he didn't really know which answer was correct, and which was a lie. "Not really," he said. He glanced round in time to see Ronon drawing his gun. "But not that. Wiping out the high command of both states wasn't really on my to-do list."

 

"Then perhaps we should, uh, stop and… and talk about things?" Rodney said.

 

Kit shook his head. The urge to run was still there, and he had to keep going, or he might bottle out. Sometimes, in the closing stages of a job, you just had to stop thinking. If you thought too hard about all the hundred and one things that could go wrong, you ended up standing frozen on the roof-top as the watch closed in on you to drag you away.

 

"Uh, why are we following him?" he heard Rodney say, and he realised that the others had slowed after all, no longer quite so close behind him. "It's probably just another trap."

 

It shouldn't hurt, of course; he deserved it. He'd never been the sort of thief to get outraged at being accused of something he didn't do, when he'd done so many other similar jobs. Once a traitor, always a traitor. And it wouldn't matter. Soon it wouldn't matter at all.

 

He missed Sheppard's answer. When he turned, he saw that they were in a cluster, heads bent inwards, moving slowly. Jasper was looking from him to them, as if torn between them. On the outside, lad, he thought. The two of them had been on the outside for the whole journey. A friendship such as those four had was impossible to break in on; not that he wanted to, of course. Sheppard and his friends had called the shots throughout. Well, all that was about to change.

 

If all went well, of course. If any one of those hundred and one things that he wasn't thinking about happened…

 

He faced into the rain, and carried on in silence, his mind chattering in a thousand abortive sentences that he refused to listen to properly. After a while, patches of trees obscured the army behind them. A thin column of smoke emerged from a thicker patch of trees ahead, and beyond it, far ahead, he saw the bristling on the horizon that was the army of Myr, hastening to engage.

 

"The farmhouse," he said, gesturing at the smoke. 

 

He had expected the guard post, of course. "I'm on my grandfather's business," he said, pushing back his hood to show his now-sodden head. "Let me through."

 

The guard captain shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but no-one's coming through without being vouched for in person by all parties. The king of Myr insisted upon it. He's scared of sneak reinforcements, see." The guard grimaced, then appeared to remember his duty. "Sorry, sir," he said again, "but I have orders to apprehend anyone who tries to come through."

 

Kit smiled the most sincere smile in his repertoire. "I am sure that doesn't apply to me."

 

"Even if I know them to be trusted men on our side," the captain finished.

 

Shit! Kit swore, keeping his smile. "Then send someone to call 'all parties' out."

 

The captain nodded at one his men, who marched off, proud and shiny, towards the house that was just visible beyond the trees. The others said nothing, heads down and obscured by their hoods. Perhaps you should just stun them all, Ronon my friend, thought Kit. It might lead to… misunderstandings later, but at least it would solve their more immediate problem.

 

"Can I ask you to dismount?" the captain asked.

 

Still the others looked to Sheppard for the nod, and not to him. Sheppard stumbled when his feet touched the ground, supporting himself heavily with a hand on his animal's neck. "Ow," Rodney said, walking gingerly. "Muscles! Muscles!" Ronon--Oh, shit!  Ronon's coat caught on the saddle, and was pulled up as he landed. It was only for a moment, but it was long enough to show the weapon at his side.

 

"Weapons are forbidden!" the captain declared. Ronon went for his weapon, and, quick as a single heartbeat, a dozen guns were out and aiming at them. Sheppard spun around, but was still off-balance, and was easily wrestled to the ground. Rodney, still protesting, joined him. "Misunderstanding!" Sheppard hissed, face pressed into the dirt. "Don't--" Teyla let herself be captured, so perhaps that was what the order meant. Ronon stood with his gun out, fearless in the face of twelve.

 

"What is this disturbance?" The voice came from behind, as guards closed on Kit and Jasper.

 

"Grandfather." Kit pasted his smile back on his face. "And uncle. Hello."

 

"Boy!" someone else bellowed, the voice exploding from a huge yellow beard.

 

"Father." Jasper whispered it, probably too quiet for anyone else to hear.

 

"Let them go," the Basilis commanded, "but not too far." Covered by guns, Rodney rose protesting to his feet. Sheppard was slower. "Kit, my boy." The smile was querulous. "You have already brought me these presents. Are you trying to bring me them a second time, or are you trying to steal them away? I don't like it when people steal my presents. It isn't nice."

 

Kit took a breath to answer. He had expected the questions. He had expected a confusion of shouting and outrage and jabbing hands.

 

What he had not expected was Rodney suddenly hurling himself at the Basilis. He had not expected to hear the snap of command: "fire!" He had not expected all but one of his companions to throw themselves at Rodney, each one of them trying to drag him away from the bullets, each one willing to be shot themselves for him.

 

He did not expect the gunshots. He did not expect the screams.

 

******

 

Chapter fourteen

Last verse

__

 

"Jasper!" his father was bellowing. A soldier had grabbed him by the arm, Jasper realised; realised also that he was desperately straining against it. "Get your hands off my son!"

 

He cares! It was a stupid thing to think; it was a wrong thing to think. Not when his friends were… "Let me go," he begged. "Please." He couldn't see. He couldn't tell…

 

"They shot me!" Rodney was screeching. "They shot me!" And the Basilis was shouting, too, commanding his men to stop shooting. "Right at me!" he was screaming. "You could have hit me!" and Rodney screamed, "They did hit me!", and Sheppard was still on the ground, with Ronon crouching over him, and Rodney had his hand clasped to his upper arm, and Teyla seemed caught between fierce protectiveness and care, his expression fierce when he looked outwards, but soft as she tried to pry Rodney's fingers away, saying, "I believe it is not too bad."

 

"Jasper!" his father bellowed again. "Look at me, boy. Look at me!"

 

Guns still surrounded his friends in a ring. Rodney was on his feet now, hunched over, with rivulets of blood running between the gaps in his fingers. "Sheppard," he said, pale and stricken. "Is he…? Oh God, is he…?"

 

"'m good." It was a mumble at first. Sheppard rolled onto his back – "easy," he said, to the guards who closed in on him – and sat up. Jasper couldn't see any blood, but sometimes these things were hidden. "You guys?"

 

"I'm--" Rodney visibly swallowed, once, then twice. "I think it's a flesh wound. Hurts like hell."

 

"It would," Sheppard said, but still he didn't stand. "That was spectacularly stupid, McKay."

 

"I know. I know." Rodney looked at the Basilis. "Impulsive reaction, you know? I stopped myself after a second, but they overreacted."

 

Kit was talking urgently to the Basilis, Jasper saw, saying things that were too quiet to hear. The guard released him, and Jasper edged forward, but still couldn't hear.

 

"Jasper!" his father commanded one more time. "If anyone lays a finger on my son, I swear I will burn your city to the ground." Something twisted inside Jasper at that. It wasn't care, of course it wasn't, but… "Jasper!" it came again. "Stand with me, boy." And, when Jasper turned mutely to look at him, he thought he understood the rest of it: People are watching.  

 

Jasper didn't want to. Biting his lip, he looked back at his friends. Sheppard swayed as Ronon helped him to his feet, but Jasper was fairly sure he wasn't shot, just sick again. Teyla's hands were bloody as she tended to Rodney. Kit was gesturing sharply. "I'm allowed to change my mind," he told to Basilis.

 

"Jasper…" his father said again, his voice quiet now. 

 

I want to stay with you, Jasper thought, but none of the others were looking at him. If he went over to stand by his father now, his father would think that he had won. His friends would think that he had betrayed them, just like Kit had done. It would be a defeat. He would be surrendering himself to a lifetime of servitude, robbed always of the light.

 

"You okay, junior?" Sheppard said. Teyla turned, hand still on Rodney's arm, and looked at Jasper, perhaps with pity in her eyes.

 

But it was what he had resolved, wasn't it? In that prison cell, when he alone had been unchained, he had resolved to face up to his duty. He would play his father's game enough to be kept on as heir. He would try to change things from within, and then, one day far in the future, perhaps get the chance to change things more.

 

His throat hurt, and he almost thought he was about to cry, but his eyes stayed dry as he went to stand at his father's side.

 

The others were no longer looking at him by then.

 

******

 

"Now that the screaming is over," his grandfather said, "can I have an explanation, please?"

 

So it was the turn of the bewildered mask, was it? "I've been trying to explain," Kit managed.

 

"Crazy explanations that would have made my head hurt--" His grandfather raised affronted fingers to his brow. "--had I been able to hear them over your noisy friends. So you're in league with assassins now, boy?"

 

"No." Kit shook his head. His palms were slick with sweat, but at least all four of them appeared to be alive and more or less well; too late now, far too late, to bother telling himself that he didn't care. "It was a misunderstanding."

 

"Misunderstandings don't  usually involve impolite men lunging at me, or me almost getting shot by my own men."

 

"My uncle's men, actually." Stop it, Kit. Stop it. He scraped his hand on his coat, smearing sweat away with rain water.

 

"They were trying to protect me, of course, from your crazy assassin friends." The Basilis of Daryen frowned, almost pouted. "I don't think I like your present, after all."

 

It had always been so hard to remember that a masterful political mind lay beneath all this. Kit tried to compose himself, tried to focus; tried not to remember that so much rested on the next few moments… no, tried not to forget. "I believe," he said, rubbing his ear, "that Rodney was merely… I may be wrong, but you see that rather attractive diadem you're wearing – ancient badge of office, and all, with its rather impressive crystal? I believe that Rodney let himself get a little carried away when he saw it, on the grounds that it's the one thing these people need… well, in order to get home."

 

His grandfather frowned. "What nonsense is this?"

 

******

 

"What nonsense is this?" his father echoed, grasping Jasper's wrist. "First sensible thing that old fool's said all day." At least he had the sense to say it in a whisper.

 

Perhaps this was the time. The two of them were linked, alone in a small island of space at the edge of the main group. "I didn't…" He cleared away the constriction in his throat. "They didn't abduct me. I went of my own accord. I shouldn't have. No, I'm glad. I'm glad I went. It's made me realise things I wouldn't have realised if I hadn't left, but… I was wrong." No, not that. He couldn't believe that. "I won't do it again."

 

His father didn't look angry, didn't shout at him, didn't say anything at all. The indifference was back. Of course he didn't care. Jasper was a possession, and his father had been furious to think of a possession in the hands of his enemy.

 

It didn't matter, he told himself. It shouldn't matter. It couldn't matter. "I've spent time in Daryen," he said. "The people aren't evil; they're just like us. There's no reason to fight them. I… I don't think they even caused the flood. Their river's rising just like ours did."

 

His father just looked at him. It was the sort of look you might give an idiot who had just realised the obvious. He might not have recognised it if he hadn't seen it so often on Rodney's face.

 

I can't do this, he thought. I can't. He looked at the ground, then at Sheppard and Teyla and the others, so near to him, yet so far away.

 

"You know, of course." He let out a breath. "You know they aren't evil, but you still want to fight them. Of course. I knew that." He raised his head, and this time refused to look away. "I will stand beside you, father," he said. "I will learn what you want me to learn. I will do what you want me to do. But I have my own opinions. I have my own interests--" Please, he thought, oh please… "--and you can't change that. I'm nearly a man now, and I'm my own man, but I will do my duty, and I don't…" He dug his nails into his palms. "I don't want you to fight."

 

His father still said nothing.

 

******

 

"Perhaps," Kit suggested quietly, "you might want to send these shiny guards away. Sensitive issues, you know. Flapping ears."

 

"So your assassin friends can stab me?" his grandfather said, but he waved his hand, and Kit's uncle translated that into an order: to move exactly six paces further away, but keep their weapons ready in a bristling circle.

 

On your own head be it, then, Kit thought. Don't say I didn't warn you. He surveyed the gathered crowd: Basilis, general, assorted commanders, a priest or two – Ah, this is going to be fun! ­­­– and, for the other team, Jasper's daddy, a Whisperer or two – even better! ­­– and a scattering of generals and the like.

 

"Here's the thing," he began, "and believe me, it grieves me to interrupt your highly important bickering in the sandpit of our two little city states, but--" He rubbed his ear again, smiling apologetically. "--something's emerged, you see. Interesting truths."

 

Jasper's daddy and some of his commanders bristled gratifyingly at the sandpit reference. Kit looked away from them, at the farmhouse behind them all. Where had the farmer been banished to, he wondered.

 

"Interesting," he repeated, "like the fact that my new friends here apparently come from somewhere very far away, and were clearly expecting to be able to get back to wherever it was by stepping through the Circle."

 

What, no cries of heresy? he thought. He couldn't look at the priests, though; couldn't keep his eyes from drifting to Sheppard and Ronon and the others. Was this a second betrayal, he wondered? Perhaps it was.

 

"I believe they came here through the Circle, too," he told everyone. "This end of the world thing? The Gods coming back? Not gods. Them." He jerked his thumb at Sheppard. "He flew them in some flying machine, and crashed somewhere over in Myr. True?" He rounded on the king of Myr who, caught by surprise, gave it all away in his face, as transparent in his own way as Jasper was. "True," he said.

 

"This is ridiculous!" protested the priest. "It's blasphemy!"

 

"A flying machine came through the Circle, right?" Kit repeated it slowly, as if to an idiot. "It was them."

 

"Gods," someone breathed; Kit didn't know who. Rodney, he saw, was about to protest, but he shook his head slightly at him, and – fancy that! ­– Rodney actually obeyed him.

 

"Not gods," he said. "People. Not bad sorts, really. Moreover…" He could enjoy this, really, perhaps. "Moreover," he said again, "they call the gods Ancients, and talk as if they were little more than people themselves. Oh!" He snapped his fingers, and looked solicitously at Jasper's father. "I don't know if you're in on it, or if you're the victim of deception, but the Whisperers aren't half so scary as they make out. Two of my new friends here have their skills. That call it an ATA gene, whatever that is."

 

"It is a lie!" thundered the Whisperer, and Kit made no effort to hide his laughter at such predictability. "I will reach into your mind and--"

 

"And so on and so on." Kit waved his hand in a circle. "I can prove it," he said, turning to his grandfather. "I just need to borrow your diadem and, well, for us all to go to the Circle – with your permission, of course, because of course the priests all bow to your will – and, well…" He spread his hands, like a player on the stage. "And then we can watch these people step through the Circle and vanish back where they came from, which is somewhere beyond the stars, by the way, unless I'm very much mistaken."

 

"They lie!" thundered the priest. "They've corrupted your mind--"

 

"Actually," Kit said cheerfully, "they didn't tell me any of this. I overheard it all and put two and two together. They are quite ridiculously indiscreet, you know. After all, I never tried to hide how good I am at hearing things I'm not supposed to. Knew their names," he said confidingly to his grandfather, "before they'd told me."

 

"Kit," Sheppard said, in the way that he sometimes said 'McKay.' Kit dared to look at them – stupid, really, that it was their reaction that he worried about most, not the reaction of all those people whose world he was overturning – and saw that Rodney was the only one wearing his horror on his face.

 

His grandfather flapped his hand. "This is quite ridiculous."

 

"Please, grandfather." Kit took a step towards him. "I've never asked you for anything before."

 

"Yes, you have," his grandfather said tetchily. "You used to ask me for things all the time. But at least you made life interesting, unlike these bores." He ran his ink-stained fingers through his hair, clearly forgetting that he had his diadem on, and nearly pushed it off. "Very well." There was a chorus of protest from all the predictable parties. The Basilis turned to them. "Come now," he said. "The best way to silence a lie is to disprove it. Come along. The talks have been quite tedious. Mount up, then. Get a move on."

 

The predictable chorus went on – Jasper's father the loudest of all – but Kit, in a moment of quiet, found himself drifting towards Sheppard and his team. "You can go home," he said, and Sheppard nodded, and Teyla smiled, and Ronon's shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and Rodney's eyes were alight with hope.

 

"Yes." It didn't really matter which of them said it. In every way that mattered, they all did.

 

******

 

"This is ridiculous!" Jasper's father protested. "Quite ridiculous! I've never heard such a pack of ridiculous nonsense in my life."

 

Jasper had just stood there frozen, unable to do anything but gape. It can't be true! It can't be! It can't… And then, as scraps of things he had overheard came together and reassembled themselves into a new form, he thought, It is. It is. And, How could I have been so stupid as to not work it out for myself? and Why is it always Kit? and Why didn't they tell me?

 

"Let them waste their time chasing after shadows and lies." His father waved his hand in angry dismissal. "I'm not following this crazy boy on whatever ridiculous game he's playing. That man--" He swung the hand round at Sheppard, finger pointing in denunciation. "--escaped from my custody. These others doubtless rescued him. Knocked out my men. Killed one of my trusted agents. They plant poison everywhere they touch. Refusing to work!" He snorted. "The labourers are refusing to work, demanding better pay, and it all started where he came to ground."

 

"No." Jasper shook his head. "No. No." He clenched his fist at his side. The Basilis and his commanders were mounting up, ready to ride to the Circle. There was much angry muttering, but the Basilis stilled it with a few words, sharper than anything he had said before. "The best way to silence a lie," Jasper quoted, "is to disprove it. And if it's true…" He lowered his voice. "If it's true, you don't want Daryen to get a monopoly of it. They will, if you don't go with them now. They'll keep it secret and use it to their advantage."

 

His father made a sound of possible grudging agreement. He was smaller than Jasper had ever realised, he noticed - perhaps a finger's-width shorter than Jasper was himself.

 

"Please." Jasper brought his hands up, entwining fingers at his chest. "Please, father, because I ask it."

 

"Hmph," he father grunted grudgingly. His hand fell briefly on Jasper's shoulder. "Just this once, boy. Just this once." He didn't add 'for you,' but Jasper felt the warmth of that touch, even so.

 

******

 

The party set off, the two halves of it glowering suspiciously at each other, and virtually everyone glowering at Kit. "Best send a message back to your respective armies," he said, smiling cheerfully at his uncle and Jasper's daddy. "'Be good and don't touch anything until daddy gets home.' It wouldn't do to have them start a war in your absence."

 

Perhaps not the best thing to say. He could feel his mask slipping, and jammed it back on his face. He was scared shitless, he realised, but also, in some strange and crazy way, he had never been happier.

 

Then he found that Sheppard and his friends seemed determined to ride alongside him. His mood faltered; looking at them was still hard.

 

"A heads-up would have been nice," Sheppard said neutrally.

 

"Sorry 'bout that." Kit shrugged. "You have to admit that it was fun, though. Did you see their faces?"

 

None of them smiled.

 

"Look..." Kit let out a breath. "I meant it, what I said back there. It's our world. This… It's pretty fucking vast, and you were planning on keeping it secret from us? We wouldn't have discovered it at all if I wasn't so good at hearing what I'm not supposed to hear, and if you weren't so fucking pathetic at keeping secrets. You were just going to up and vanish, leaving us all running around like headless chicks, panicking about the end of the world, and never knowing…" His voice was rising, he realised, and he made an effort to calm himself. "Never knowing that there's a whole world out there full of things we've never dreamed of. I call that pretty fucking arrogant, Sheppard."

 

"Arrogant?" Rodney echoed, struggling to ride one-handed. "Last week, apparently, we were arrogant if we told you. Teyla said – it was all Teyla's idea, not mine! – that it was wrong of us to judge what was right for another civilisation and that we… Although she's wrong, of course. There are lots of planets out there that have been overjoyed to have been on the receiving end of our--"

 

"Rodney," Teyla said stiffly, "I merely said that--"

 

"Arrogant," Kit repeated, and he meant it, he realised. "Like I said, it's our world. If you saw a child about to put his hand in a fire, you'd tell him not to, right? You wouldn't hoard your secret knowledge that fire could hurt you? Not that we're children…" He raked his hand through his hair. He had been in perfect control throughout the whole confrontation with the most important people in his world, and here he was getting rattled by the only four who were not. "Luckily," he said, managing a grin, "I don't bear grudges. I told you that right from the start."

 

"We did not mean to--" Teyla began.

 

Kit stopped her with a wave of his hand "Like I said, no hard feelings. You meant well."

 

"Unlike some people," Rodney said pointedly.

 

"Harsh," Kit managed, but he couldn't quite bring himself to move away from them.

 

******

 

Jasper rode beside his father, not his friends. He clung to everything he had learnt, and tried not to feel afraid as they approached the Circle. Priests glowered from the grove, and there was a lot of shouting. The Basilis, he noticed, was just as effective as getting silence as his father was, although their methods were very different.

 

A branch reached out and tore at his head. He was busy untangling twigs and leaves from his hair when they arrived in the clearing. As his merrilyn faltered to a halt, Jasper's stomach rumbled, and he realised that he had eaten nothing since that brief stop in the darkness. It felt like a whole lifetime ago.

 

There were too many people, and he missed most of what happened next. A priest was thundering from in front of the Circle, but the Basilis flapped a dismissive hand at him, and said, "I do happen to be your master, you know. I believe you wrote the oaths? Though what was wrong with the old ones, I never knew." Jasper watched the priest's face for a moment, until someone walked past and blocked his view. When his father dismounted, so did he, edging forward, then continuing on after his father had stopped: one step, two, then three.

 

"Here you are," the Basilis said, handing over his diadem. "Remember when you stole your uncle's signet ring, lad? You're still after jewels, I see. But the lot of the ruler is ever one of sacrifice. I never did like it, anyway. Too heavy."

 

Rodney took it hungrily, holding it in both hands despite his injury. "Stand back." He jerked his chin, as if the Basilis of Daryen was a servant for him to give orders to. "Genius at work. I can't work when the masses are crowding me. Or talking," he added crossly, glaring at the priest.

 

His friends were allowed to crowd round him, though. They stood so close, a solid united wall, that Jasper couldn't see what Rodney was doing.

 

"It's a lie," someone said from behind Jasper. "A trick." "We should shoot them." "This is ridiculous. I'm stopping it right now…"

 

"No," Jasper breathed. "No." He whirled round, thundering at them to be quiet. "It's not a trick. Watch!"

 

"You," he heard Rodney call. "Whoever you are. Angry man in robes. You really don't want to stand there."

 

"How dare you--?" the priest began, but the Basilis waved him hand, and said, "Oh, just do what the man says. I want my dinner."

 

The priest stormed away, and Jasper strove to see Sheppard's face, to see if Teyla would turn around and notice him. So he missed that moment, too. He heard the gasps behind him – someone even screamed – but he missed the moment that the Circle came alive.

 

When he turned to it, his head moving slowly, stiffly, as if it knew that this was the end of things, it had become a beautiful blue pool, like the very essence of sky and water, like poetry, like everything that was beautiful and everything that was unknowable, all wrapped up into one perfect ring.

 

And his friends were moving towards it.

 

******

 

For a moment, Kit thought that they were actually going to do it – just walk away without a word, without even looking back. Then they paused – Sheppard and Teyla first, who were walking together, and then Ronon. Only Rodney carried on. "What?" he said, turning to look over his shoulder. "You're not coming now?"

 

"Of course they are," Kit found himself saying. Leaving behind the consternation at his back, he moved towards them, meeting them in front of that amazing, life-changing, soul-wrenching Circle. Jasper came too, so two faced four, with the blue pool behind them.

 

Sheppard seemed about to speak, but Kit stopped him. "You think you should stay," he said. "You don't want to leave us with all this on our plate: war, shouting… having suddenly had our entire view of the world changed in a single day. You want to fix it." He almost sneered the word, unable to stop himself. "But, like I said, it's not yours to fix."

 

"If we hadn't--"

 

Once again, Kit interrupted Sheppard. "It's not your responsibility," he said, remembering a talk on the bank of mountain stream. "I'm not one of 'your people'. None of us are. You know, I used to wonder about those hero types in those stories, about how they could be so noble and self-sacrificing, but I bet there was arrogance there, too, you know. 'Only I can do it,' and all that shit."

 

Ronon was looking at him fiercely, Kit saw, and that still hurt, just a little. He looked away from him, kept his hands steady at his sides. "You want to see the next move in the game," he told them. "You want to write the next verse in our story, or at least get to see it, but it's none of your business. So go. Chop chop. Home's waiting for you." He rolled his eyes. "You've been thinking of nothing else ever since Myr. It's what kept you going, riding through the night, staggering along when you should have been sleeping, rising from sickbeds before you were properly better. So go." He flapped his hand. "Go."

 

Rodney took several steps closer, but the others didn't move. "Uh, bleeding here?" Rodney said. "And Sheppard's just about dead on his feet. Uh, nice warm infirmary beds? Good drugs? Clean clothes? A shower? Because, not to be personal, or anything, but none of us are going to be winning any prizes for freshness right now."

 

Everyone else was stamping around, shouting, having a veritable revolution behind them. Kit had barely noticed it. He heard it for a moment, then pushed it aside again, focusing on these four in front of him.

 

"You'll be okay, junior?" Sheppard said, and of course the boy would get the concerned words, not him.

 

"I don't know." Jasper sounded like a child, but then he drew himself up with a visible effort of will. "I've got to do this; I know that now. And my father…" He swallowed. "It's like you said. There's no reason why kings can't write poetry."

 

"What about you?" It was Teyla who turned to Kit first, not Sheppard, not Ronon.

 

"Oh, I always survive." Kit flapped his hand. "Things are going to be interesting round here, that's for sure. The priests are going to do everything they can to keep this secret – quite overthrows their religion, you know – but I see Cousin Jay there in the outraged audience. Biggest gossip in Daryen, that man is." Jay appeared to be trying to catch his eye, too, his expression as mischievous and gleeful as it had been in the most outrageous of their childhood japes. Kit gave him a quick smile back, and the coldness at the heart of him faded even more. "And there's all those guards that my uncle helpfully didn't send far enough away. There's no keeping this secret. It'll be hard to manage at first – people clinging to their old gods, not wanting to give them up. You can see that in Myr. They don't really believe in them, but they can't give up the superstitious fear."

 

Prattle prattle, he thought. He shifted position, scraping his hand through his hair.

 

"What about the war?" It was Jasper who asked it.

 

Kit shrugged. "Now they know that there's so much more out there than their own petty squabbles…"

 

"Don't count on it," Sheppard said. "Believe me, it doesn't work like that."

 

"No." Kit sighed. "The worst fights I ever had with my cousins was when we were at war – supposed to be patriotic and all as one, etcetera. Still," he said, shrugging, "it was worth a try. We won't stop trying, will we, Jasper-lad? And it was fun to stir things up. That lot are like a deck of cards: they need shuffling up every now and then."

 

"So that's why you did it?" Rodney asked. "For a game?"

 

"Hey, I never pretended to be anything other than a mean-hearted bastard." Kit found it hard to keep the hoarseness from his throat.

 

"And a liar," Ronon said, with a quick smile, and the hoarseness grew worse, not better.

 

"What will you do?" Teyla asked again, and this time there was no hiding from it.

 

Kit let himself hear the shouting again. It was a miracle, really, that no-one had dragged him off by the scruff of his neck by now. Probably too busy furiously pretending they weren't scared shitless by this whole affair.

 

"I don't know," he admitted. "But I've learnt one thing. It's fun being a mean-hearted bastard when you're manipulating the big picture. When it's people who deserve it, that is. Manipulating people who don't…" He'd learnt his lesson on that, but wasn't quite ready to say it. "And there's more potential up here than down in the Drowned Quarter, where it's all just done for handfuls of beads and a flagon of ale. I seem to be quite good at it. The stories they tell about my grandfather's youth…! Anyway…" Prattle prattle, he thought. He still found it hard to look at any of them. "The family's got the next Basilis lined up, and probably the one after that, but I doubt they've thought any further ahead than that. A vacancy, do you think? A chance for me to finally do my duty like a good boy?"

 

"Daryen won't know what's hit it." He even got a smile from Sheppard.

 

"Which is a bad thing, right," said Rodney, "but none of our business. Can we go now?"

 

"Look," Sheppard said. "Listen. This is important. Your people are going to have to decide what to do about this. You can go out to other worlds, travel amongst the stars… But there's some bad guys out there – seriously bad. You've stayed under the radar because you haven't been travelling off-world, and, well, because it's a big galaxy out there, and not even the Wraith can get everywhere. But if you use this thing, you might draw attention – the wrong sort of attention."

 

Jasper nodded eagerly. "We mean it," Teyla said fervently. "Whole worlds have been wiped out by the Wraith. My people are only a shadow of what they once were."

 

"The end of the world for real." Sheppard sighed. Ronon, Kit saw, was looking grimly away. "But there's good stuff, too," Sheppard went on. "You have to decide. It's like… Help me out, guys; I suck at metaphors. It's like… deciding whether to stay on the ground, where it's safe, or--"

 

"As if they'll understand that," Rodney said, his hand clasped to his arm. "It's like deciding whether to publish--"

 

"I get it," Kit interrupted. "We have to decide whether to stay safe at home, or go out into the outside where we might be torn to pieces by crebyn before we've taken four steps. But where we might find wonders." He had meant to say it lightly, but it didn't turn out the way he had planned.

 

"But if you do decide to use the Gate…" Sheppard held out his hand. "Something to write on?" Jasper took a moment to react, then pulled out his book and a pencil. Sheppard leafed to the back and wrote something down. "Don't press things randomly. Use the DHD over there to enter these symbols, and you'll get somewhere safe, somewhere where the people can get a message to us. We can bring you a list of safe places to go. We might even be able to tell you where the hell you are."

 

"Just him?" Kit tried to say it with an unconcerned smile. "I don't get a copy?"

 

"Then you'll have to play nice. Your guys get the Gate."

 

"I'm always nice." Kit's voice was thick.

 

"Well…" Sheppard shrugged. "Good luck, and, uh, goodbye."

 

Ronon stepped forward suddenly, clapping Kit on the shoulder, giving him a quick nod and a quicker smile.

 

He had never set out to be liked, Kit reminded himself. From the start, he had gone out of his way to be objectionable. When you were planning to betray someone, it was far easier to live with yourself if the people weren't friends. It really didn't matter if they distrusted him now. It really didn't matter if they forgave him, if they smiled at him, if they said their goodbyes as warmly to him as to Jasper. It didn't matter at all.

 

"Yes, yes." Rodney was almost hopping up and down. "Goodbye. Now can we go before someone changes their mind and tries to stop us?"

 

Kit really had no idea why he said it; he definitely hadn't meant to. "It's not true," he blurted out, "what I said about it being nothing to do with you. You did make a difference. None of this would have happened if it wasn't for you."

 

"Yes," Rodney said bitterly. "Because we were 'indiscreet' and you spied on us."

 

"No." Kit could feel himself blushing – he who never felt shame. "Not that." He couldn't say any more; Rodney would be quite insufferable if he told them. His uncle and his tutors had been trying to teach him things for years, droning away with their lessons, but these people, perhaps without even realising it, had demonstrated… To the flood with it, he thought. He couldn't even think it. Jasper had learnt far more, anyway, being transformed from an idiot brat into… well, still into an idiot brat, really, but at least one with potential for being something more.

 

As for him, he told himself quite firmly, he hadn't learnt a thing.

 

Mean-hearted bastard, he thought, and a bare-faced bloody liar.

 

******

 

It was time for them to go. "They're fighting about it," Rodney said urgently, "but I think they're about to conclude that we're enemies of both states and that we need to be detained."

 

So no long farewells after all, then. Teyla took him by the shoulders, and briefly touched her brow to his, then did the same with Kit. Sheppard clapped him on the shoulder just once, nodding, and calling him 'junior.' And then that was it. "You know where to find us," Sheppard said, and then they turned and walked towards the Circle.

 

They had lived for this, he realised. All the time, all the way, while Jasper was dreaming of finding himself and Kit was plotting betrayal, they had longed only for this moment. As soon as they turned away, Jasper thought, he and Kit were forgotten. It had only ever been them: four friends trying to find a way home. Jasper had experienced things more intense than he had ever experienced before, but to them he was just a brief companion, already half-forgotten.

 

Don't go! he wanted to cry. Come back! Please don't leave me!

 

He was following them, he realised; his feet tottering after them, as if drawn to them by a string. The blue called to him. It was everything he had ever longed for when he had sat at his window in a dark-walled citadel and gazed at the stars. Don't, he thought. Don't…

 

A hand closed on his arm. "Don't, Jasper-lad," Kit said softly.

 

Another step, straining at that arm. "Jasper!" It was his father's voice. Jasper turned round. His father had broken away from the others and stood at the edge of the clearing, reaching towards him. "Jasper," he said. "My boy. Don't go." It sounded closer to a plea than to command.

 

And so he missed the moment of their going, though Kit told him afterwards that all four had turned at the last moment, some to wave, some to nod, and some just to look. By the time he turned back, his father's plea held cherished in the cupped hands of his heart, they were gone.

 

******

 

"They won't remember us," Kit said. He remembered other things he had overheard – all the things he had pieced together on the journey. "They have desperately exciting lives. This was just a tiny adventure for them. Changed our world, but they're already thinking of other things. Before the year's over, they'll have forgotten our names."

 

"No!" Jasper rounded on him, eyes bright with unshed tears.

 

"No." Kit brought the heel of his hand to his own eyes. "I'm being too harsh. Mean-hearted bastard, etcetera etcetera. They'll remember us, but it meant something different to them than it did to us."

 

"It doesn't matter!" Jasper blazed. "It doesn't matter!"

 

"No," Kit had to agree. Whether deliberately or accidentally, they'd made their mark on both of them. It was not just Kit's vocabulary that was forever marked by them. He knew that he could talk like Rodney, when he wanted to avoid talking about what really mattered. Ronon had shown him that working alone was good, but working with someone else… well, that sometimes, perhaps, occasionally, it might be… well, actually, uh, better. Sheppard had shown him-- Enough of that! Whatever else they had shown him, he was still Kit, and he was not sentimental.

 

"No," he said again. "It doesn't really matter. It's what they left behind that counts. And that's you and me, Jasper-lad. And that screaming mob over there, course." He clapped his hand on Jasper's shoulder, and looked at the trees on the far side of the glade, visible through the empty Circle. And that's me, he thought.

 

******

 

"You're quiet," Kit said. "What's on your mind, lad?"

 

Jasper had been staring so fiercely through the Circle that his vision was wavering. His mind, though, was full of other things. He pulled himself back enough to answer, "About stories."

 

"Stories, huh?" Kit sounded painfully like Sheppard. "Yeah, you came on this adventure because you wanted to live a story, didn't you? Not like you expected, huh?"

 

Jasper remembered how he had been pulling leaves out of his hair when the Circle had turned into a pool of blue. He remembered being terrified in places where he should have been nobly defiant. He remembered damp and pain and misery in places that the stories made glorious.

 

"No," he said, but then he smiled. "But you're wrong."

 

The days of heroes were over. Sheppard and the others were not like the heroes of stories, because the stories were flat and shallow things, not real. But Sheppard had walked wounded from Myr and Daryen, and had begged his friends to go on without him. Teyla and the others had risked their freedom and their lives in order to rescue him from the Citadel. Kit had betrayed them all, but then had risked everything to undo his mistake. They were not gods, but they lived in a world where the stars lay open to them. They were not heroes, but humans. Not heroes, but better than that.

 

"So what's on your mind?" Kit asked again, this time with a strange smile.

 

Jasper saw his father watching him, an empty merrilyn at his side, his expression nothing that Jasper had ever seen before on him. He thought of the future that lay ahead of him, and knew that he could face it. His companions might one day forget him, but he would never forget them, and that was what mattered. And perhaps there would be other companions, too. Here was Kit at his side, and there were others, too – people his own age back in Myr. He thought they had scorned him, but, really, he had been scorning them, wrapped up in his poetry and his unique gift. Perhaps if he laid that aside… No, he had already laid that aside. He had entirely deserved scorn back then, but he was changed now; changed utterly, because of them.

 

He smiled, feeling it suffuse his whole face, though there were tears in there, too. "I'm trying to think of rhymes for all their names," he said.

 

Kit gave a genuine laugh, perhaps the first Jasper had ever heard from him. "Come on, lad," he said, "we've got a world to change, you and I. Let's go write the next verse."

 

But Jasper remained standing for a moment, gazing at the Circle. "No," he said. "Let's write a whole new song."

 

******

 

END

 

******

But there is a short epilogue-of-sorts set back on Atlantis: A Part of All That I Have Met

******

 

Very long author's note:

 

I have included my idea of what happens next to Kit and Jasper. I've put it at near the end of these ridiculously long notes, though, because I don't want to limit people's own imagination by forcing an "official" version on you.

 

Plot/thematic inspirations

 

This story came from several different ideas coming together:

 

1. Outsider viewpoint: I love outsider viewpoints. It all started with a poem by Auden – Musee des Beaux Arts – which was inspired by Breughel's picture of the fall of Icarus, in which Icarus is a tiny pair of feet disappearing into the ocean in the background, while peasants get on with peasanty things in the foreground, totally ignoring him. This led me to write an X-Files fanfic from the viewpoint of several clueless bystanders, who each saw fragments of a larger tale – one that they didn't understand or care about, but which the readers understood. I did similar things in several other fandoms, but I wanted to write something longer, in which the outsider viewpoint character actually got to know the canon characters and interacted with them in a more direct way.

 

2. Flawed narrators. Most of my favourite books make use of flawed narrators in one way or another – usually narrators who tell the truth to the best of their ability, but whose judgement is flawed by bias or lack of perceptiveness etc. I love playing with these techniques myself, but I've learnt the hard way that it's easy to mislead readers this way. I felt that an outsider viewpoint fanfic would be an ideal way to explore this. In an original story, for example, if Jasper had looked at a new prisoner and judged him an obviously unrepentant rogue, readers may well have believed him, but in an outsider viewpoint fanfic, when the readers know Sheppard, readers will see this for what it is: a sign that Jasper isn't a good judge of people.

 

Then, of course, we come to Kit and his big secret. I've been wanting to write a narrator with a big secret for ages, but it is, of course, a very hard thing to do. Narrators should never lie to readers, so it's a case of subtle misdirection, broken-off thoughts, and clues that won't be noticed on a first reading, even as they look obvious on a second. And there were lots and lots of clues. (Annis realising that Kit had had a good riding teacher. Kit almost letting slip to Ronon that he'd only been four years in Myr, then biting it back. Sheppard noticing that Kit knew the way to Daryen very well. Kit being catapulted back to his childhood by the smell of Daryen cooking. All the many, many occasions when Kit's out-loud reaction was carefully faked. Kit thinking of the whole journey as a "game" that he'd got into by choice – when, of course, if his cover story was true, he'd never had a choice. And many more.) However, the biggest fear I had about this story was that readers would feel cheated and lied to.

 

3. Fantasy quests: I've been tempted for a while to stick Team Sheppard in a fantasy novel, either in a proper AU, in which they belong in Fantasyland, or by having them go to a planet that's a Stargate-compatible version of Fantasyland. The idea was very much watered down in the finished story, but you can see elements of it, both in the "walking from A to B" structure, and the main original characters, who owe quite a lot to some fairly standard fantasy character types.

 

4. World building: Most of my longer fics so far have been inwards-looking, either taking place in Atlantis or in closed rooms off-world, or being character pieces in pretty scenery, but no more. I fancied creating a world in a little more detail.

 

5. The morality of Atlantis' involvement in "primitive" cultures: In the show, we sometimes get the "primitive planet of the week", which gets totally overturned by the SGA characters… and then never mentioned again. I wanted to see things from their viewpoint for a change. From the very start, I was adamant that the SGA characters wouldn't play a very active role in the final denouement. As Kit says, it's not their world. I really hope no-one feels cheated by this.

 

Fictional inspirations and credits:

 

Firstly, I have to credit The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. Certain elements of Kit's storyline heavily inspired by this book, but I won't say more for spoiler reasons.

 

Honesty also compels me to admit that the water cell owes a lot of George RR Martin's sky cell.

 

The title comes from the folk song "Over the hills and far away," which viewers of the TV series "Sharpe" might remember. In fact, the quote is "along the road to come what may", but I preferred "on."

 

I also want to thank my husband, who read much of the story, and helped me trash out certain plot issues.

 

Location inspirations:

 

The whole flood/Drowned Quarter thing has been over 15 years in the making. Back then, I remember watching the annual flood waters rising over the meadows in Oxford, and imagining what Oxford would be like if they rose a few feet higher… and stayed there. I had an image of makeshift bridges slung from the top floors of quads, and students scurrying across rooftops. I don't see the city of Myr as being particularly Oxford-like in its architecture, but the inspiration was there. Besides, it's traditional for me to destroy Oxford in my fanfics.

 

The other locations include bits and pieces of places I've been to lately, although I was a bit fed up with the mist rolled in and obscured the guest appearance by the Quiraing, on the Isle of Skye.

 

The Debateable Land is not made up. Well, actually the Debateable Land itself was only a very small and specific part of the England/Scotland border, but my fictional version of the border between Myr and Daryen owes an awful lot to the real sixteenth century world of Border reivers, ballads and family feuds. I spent a week last year in an old fortified manor house in the Debateable Land itself – model for Stone Hall.

 

Additional note:

 

I can talk about my own stories until the cows come home – I so could do a DVD commentary for this one! – so I'll try to shut up soon. Suffice it to say that I did enjoy this one a lot, but it was also a huge challenge. It was a real challenge trying to convey what I needed to convey about the team, all the while seeing them through the eyes of people who didn't understand what they were seeing. Additionally, I had to whole fact of Kit's big secret, which was a further restriction on writing the Kit scenes. Writing it was slow work, and I ended up planning this story out on paper more than anything I've ever written in the past.

 

For a long time, I toyed with the idea of adding extras – songs, poems, pictures, historical documents etc. - as I did with The Pirate's Prisoner. I considered doing portraits of the characters as they appear in King Jasper's art gallery; the hero poems that are being sung about them in a hundred years; pages from Jasper's poetry book etc. I never entirely laid aside this idea, but somehow it never seemed quite to crystallise. It felt a bit like jumping on the Pirate's Prisoner bandwagon.

 

I was also very tempted at times to write little missing scenes from the viewpoint of the SGA characters, which would not be part of the main story – they would have totally undermined the concept – but would appear as "DVD extras", but I decided that even that way, it undermined the concept. Still, I offer the whole story up should anyone else feel like writing Sheppard's viewpoint of the water cell, Rodney's view of Stone Hall, or whatever.

 

What happens next:

 

Some of the "extras" that I didn't write would have contained hints about what happened after the end of the story. If you have your own ideas on what happens to Kit and Jasper and the others after the story ends, please don't read on.

 

Ferris successfully led his fellow labourers in a campaign for better conditions. It got off to a very shaky start, but once the staggering news of life on other planets hit, everything was pretty much turned upside-down, anyway. After the Whisperers' power was weakened, and also as a result of Jasper's intervention, conditions were greatly improved. Many years later, Ferris can usually be found in the ale-house, regaling the young folk with the stories of his glory days, chief amongst which is his account of the night a man fell from the sky and landed in his charvil patch.

 

Annis and Gavin got married and lived for many happy years at Three Towers, while Hewkin took over the running of Stone Hall. A year after the events of this story, Annis was surprised and overjoyed to find Sheppard on her doorstep, this time in perfect health. Their conversation was brief, but few words were needed to say what really mattered.

 

Jasper went home to Myr, where – slowly and falteringly at first – he made friends with other people of his own age. He studied attentively under his father and his tutors, although he kept to his resolve of challenging things that he didn't agree with. He continued to write poetry. Long after his death, he will be remembered as the great reforming king of the Time of Change. Four There Were, the epic song he wrote about the four strangers who came to the world and changed everything, is sung wherever people have voices to sing, but, with that, he was always content to be anonymous.

 

Kit managed to settle into life in Daryen without throwing too many bowls of broth at passing dignitaries, although for the rest of his life, he continued to occasionally sneak out on late-night adventures, sometimes with his cousin Jay, sometimes with one or other of his new friends, and sometimes alone. He soon learnt that many of his other cousins weren't too bad, after all, when he stopped trying to provoke them all the time, and his nephews instantly adored him. The revelation about the Stargate eroded the power of the priests, and soon the right to elect the Basilis was extended to all property-owning adult men over twenty. Even though he refused to capitalise on his family connections, Kit won the first new-style election, becoming the youngest ever Basilis of Daryen. Daryen would never be the same again.

 

As for the four strangers… Both Kit and Jasper met them again several times, because the decision was indeed taken to take the chance and step out amongst the stars. Fortunately, the Wraith were weakened by then, and although there were a few unwelcome incursions through the Gate from other unsavoury parties, there was nothing too bad. As for what adventures, if any, Kit and Jasper had with Sheppard and his team on these encounters, I leave it up to the reader to imagine.

 

But every year, without fail, Kit and Jasper meet up to talk about old times, to look to the future... and to reminisce about the four people whose lives they shared during the tail-end of one summer.

 

Thanks etc.

 

The whole business of posting it was rendered quite emotional by happenings in the fandom, but the routine of editing and posting one part a day helped me through it. I always knew this would be a story with limited appeal, because of the OCs, so I'm hugely grateful to everyone who's stuck with it, and especially to those who've left comments. Thanks so much!

 

You can leave a comment on this story here on LJ, if you like. (You don't need to have an LJ account to do this.) As ever, feedback is always cherished.

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