by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Words: c. 50,000
Summary: It started with a man crashing into a herb garden. Soon a misfit band of four exiles are caught up in a wild ride of sword fights, sewing, rescue missions, shopping trips, high treason, lute-playing, changing the face of scientific knowledge forever, the imminent risk of hideous death, and comfits.
Note: Written for the bonus round of the sga_genficathon, in the genre of AU, and the prompt "Those magnificent men in their flying machines". Something about gen ficathon bonus rounds seems to bring out the illustrated historical AU in me. Something about gen ficathon bonus rounds seems to bring out the illustrated historical AU in me. Last year I did The Pirate's Prisoner, and this year I've gone back nearly 200 years to the year 1555. For a prompt about flying machines. Er, yes, well. I suspect that normal people wouldn't see a prompt about flying machines and immediately think "We'll have Tudors! With planes!" but I blame Leonardo Da Vinci. He famously designed flying machines on paper, but didn't get them to work, but he was merely Leonardo; he wasn't Doctor Rodney McKay.
I've tried to explain the historical background as and when it becomes relevant, but a very quick outline can be seen here.
In which Rodney has an encounter with a mysterious stranger, served with a side dish of herbs
Rodney McKay had almost designed the first genuine perpetual motion machine known in Christendom, when an impertinent rogue crashed out of the sky and landed in his knot garden.
Such occurrences did not happen very often in the Year of Our Lord, fifteen fifty-five, the however-manyth year of the reign of Queen Mary, God preserve her, etcetera etcetera. It caused Rodney's pen to snap, flooding ink across the page. Cursing, he reached for his sand-shaker to soak up the ink, but his trembling hand struck the ink bottle and toppled it over. His beautiful designs were eaten by the encroaching blackness. Sand was no use, not against a catastrophe of such magnitude. The dark cloud of brutality and ignorance always triumphed over enlightenment in the end.
Rodney stood up furiously, his chair scraping on the floor. At that point, of course, he didn't know that an impertinent rogue had crashed out of the etcetera etcetera, just that an ungodly noise had come from the direction of his knot garden. He thought it was probably foxes, or maybe badgers, his old nemeses. Whatever it was, it had interrupted his work, and that meant that it needed to be dealt with.
"Uh, deal with that, Kavanagh," he shouted, but there was no answer, and no sound of scurrying manservant rushing to defend his master's life with his own. Of course not, Rodney thought crossly. Kavanagh was a deep sleeper, and it was… Rodney reached for the heavy watch he wore round his neck, and peered at it in the light of a guttering candle. The hand was somewhere between the XI and the XII. So how dare something make a noise in my garden, Rodney fumed, at a time when all decent people are asleep? Part of his mind recognised the flaw in his outrage. He ignored that part determinedly.
Swept along by a carefully-nurtured wave of fury, Rodney reached down a lantern from the kitchen shelf, and lit it from a candle sconce. There were a lot of bolts on the back door, for reasons that had made sense at the time. Outside was chilly, with a sense of huge and endless vistas, full of unpleasant, nameless things. The flame inside the lantern looked very tiny in the vastness that was the world.
"Uh…" Rodney made an inarticulate sound, his mouth suddenly very dry. Maybe it wasn't quite such an unforgivable thing after all, he thought, to ruin his designs for a perpetual motion machine and to cause enlightenment to be extinguished with a dark cloud of brutality, ignorance and ink. Perhaps it could be forgiven and forgotten, if he went back inside and locked the doors and closed the curtains around his bed and lay there very still with his pillows over his ears. Discretion was the better part of valour, after all, so that would be the valorous thing to do, the brave thing, the…
Something stirred in his knot garden. In the light of the crescent moon, Rodney saw an enormous brutish shape rearing up from his rosemary bushes.
The lantern slipped from his fingers and crashed onto the gravel, the glass shattering. It was… uh, a… a tactical decision - yes, of course it was - because the light would have helped his attacker pinpoint his location.
"Who's there?" Rodney bravely demanded. The scent of rosemary was strong and cloying. "You…" Rodney swallowed. The best remedy for abject terror was always fury; it had enabled Rodney to survive things that had felled lesser man. "You're ruining my knot garden."
"It's not a very good knot garden," a voice replied from the darkness. It definitely wasn't a badger.
"But it's my knot garden," Rodney said, suddenly realising that the reputation of his knot garden was more important even than designs for perpetual motion machines that would make him the toast of Christendom, and perhaps even the more enlightened of the heathens. "And you're not supposed to be in it."
The dark shape lurched forward, and the smell of crushed thyme joined the rosemary. As well as abject terror and fury, Rodney was suddenly ravenous for roast fowl, pleasingly stuffed. He swallowed hard, and forced himself to concentrate on the fact that he was probably going to get bloodily murdered so close to his own back door. When had he last eaten, anyway?
"I apologise," said Rodney's murderer. "It… happened. I'd intended a more conventional approach."
Rodney began to back defiantly away. "How did you get in, anyway? I mean, hello? Outer walls with spiky things on them? Impenetrable locks, designed by yours truly? Security impossible to breach? Though the badgers and foxes get in by digging, but I'm working on that. Rabbits, too."
His murderer moved on to crushing sage. "There's another way, of course. I'm thinking that if I've come to the right place, and you're really Rodney McKay--"
"Doctor Rodney McKay," Rodney corrected him stiffly.
"Then you'd know this," his murderer finished, his deadly path hung around with an aura of chives.
Rodney took a few more steps backwards, but his sense of direction was confused in the dark, and parsley joined the fragrant mix. "So, uh, if you were specifically trying to find me, you…" He tripped over a low hedge, and only just managed to avoid falling backwards onto the gravel. "Have you come to assassinate me?" he managed to ask with furious dignity.
The dark shape was still mired down in chives. "Why would I want to do a thing like that?"
"Oh, many reasons." Rodney straightened his doublet, smoothing it down. "I served the late King Edward, and Protector Somerset was my patron, whose name is, of course, anathema to the present regime. I created wonders for his armies, and all those secrets are now forgotten by everyone but me. Why, just this evening, I was on the verge of creating a perpetual motion machine, and I would have done so if it wasn't for you. Unfortunately, the present Queen has no interest in enlightenment, and banished me, would you believe, to this godforsaken backwater in the country, and commanded me to stop my ungodly work. Ungodly, I ask you! People always fear that which they do not understand."
The dark shape was wrapped in a miasma of chives. "You make a tempting case," it said, "but I think I'll pass for now."
A barn owl flew low overhead; Rodney's sharp squawk was one of defiance, of course, and not terror. "Then if you haven't come to kill me," Rodney snapped, "why are you here? You're… you're a dark cloud of brutality and ignorance. You interrupted my work! Work's all I've got left, and you…" He scraped his hand across his face, exhaling sharply. "You interrupted me," he said, "and I don't know what you want, and I don't know how you got here, and things aren't meant to be like this."
"I'm sorry," said the dark shape quietly. "I came for your help, but I lost control. I left it too late. I'm afraid I broke her up a bit."
He stepped forward and became a tall man dressed in black. A moment later, he fainted, crumpling to his side in the parsley and chives.
John drifted awake to find someone shaking him. His heart lurched, and he lashed out, memories of dungeons pressing down on him. His hand struck something solid. "No!" someone squawked, and, "Don't!" but John's other hand found his dagger, and he wrenched it out of its sheath.
"Are you crazy?" squeaked the voice. "You said you weren't going to kill me. Oh. Oh. I see. You think…" The voice tried to turn soothing. The feel of the dagger in John's palm was more soothing still. "I'm not going to hurt you. Nice mysterious stranger. Good mysterious stranger. Just, uh, lie still, and, er, do whatever people are supposed to do when they… I think you've hurt your head. It's all blood-stained. You fainted."
"Yeah." John moistened dry lips. "That explains the regiment of drums pounding in my skull." There was more, too, but he had long-since learnt not to show weakness when it wasn't necessary. He tightened his grip on his dagger. He knew where he was, of course, but the memories circled like carrion crows, still too close for comfort. The dagger helped.
McKay was standing over him, a lantern trailing from one hand. "Ow," McKay said pointedly, when he saw John looking at him. His other hand rubbed his shoulder, thumb massaging the collarbone. "It's quite impolite," he said, "to break into someone's knot garden, faint in their parsley and then attack the person who's trying to prod you back to life again."
John managed to stand up; he had never liked being on the ground when other people were standing. Everything swayed, but it was nothing he couldn't deal with. The memories that had resurfaced upon awakening had quite driven away the temptation to bait this man. "I need your help," he said wearily. "My puddlejumper's broken." Then he glanced over his shoulder, covering the twist of pain with a wry smile. "More than broken now, of course. I need you to fix her. Please." His voice cracked; he hadn't meant it to.
"Puddlejumper?" McKay echoed, frowning.
John gestured weakly in the appropriate direction. He tried not to shift uncomfortably as McKay slowly walked away, taking the light with him. In the protection of the darkness, his hand rose to his brow, feeling blood on the side of his face. Even when he touched it gently, pain flared throughout his skull. His silenced gasp of pain caused an answering stab of pain deep in his ribs. Pressing his forearm across his middle, he watched the lantern bob through the herb garden. Of course he had to let McKay see her. Of course he had to let McKay touch her. It is kind of the point, John.
"It's probably a trap," McKay was muttering. "You've got an accomplice out here in the potager. I'm armed, varlet! I'm a skilled fighter, h-hiding my light under a bushel. I've killed dozens of rogues. I'm--" His voice broke off. The lantern went very still. John counted slowly to twenty, and still McKay didn't move.
"But they destroyed them all," McKay said at last, his voice very different from anything that had gone before. It sounded as if all masks had been stripped away from him, and this, this, was the real McKay. "The Queen had them destroyed. All of them. There were none left."
"I guess she didn't get all of them." John tried to keep his voice light, but it caught on the last word.
"How?" The lantern swung round, and came back, swinging from side to side.
"I escaped." His words were quiet in the vastness of the darkness. He pressed his arm tighter against his body, fingers digging into the flesh of his side. "I grabbed the jumper and got the hell away from there. The Queen's men couldn't stop me." The darkness was thick with memories. He spoke over them with a level voice, and refused to let them come out to play.
"But that was almost two years ago," McKay said. He was close enough now for John to see his face. John turned his own face slightly to the side. "How have you kept this a secret for so long? What have you been doing?"
John shrugged. "I keep my head down."
"But how…?" McKay began. John heard his feet crunching on the gravel, and he clenched his fist tightly at his side, fingers digging into his palm. "Why didn't I know about it? I invented the things. I have a right, you know. They're mine. The first functional flying machine in the whole history of the world outside the realms of silly legends. People talk about the great Signor Da Vinci, but his were just paper plans, deeply flawed. I, I, Rodney McKay, Doctor Rodney McKay, was the first person to make flight possible, and the Queen burned my machines and banished me and said that my creation would be expunged from the annals of history forever more, when it should be sung to the heavens and glorified."
"I remembered," John said quietly. McKay's ranting made the horrors retreat even further. He focused on the pool of lantern light and the sweetness of the crushed herbs. "She's not been working so well lately. I found out where you lived and came--"
"And why do you call it by that ridiculous name?" McKay demanded. "The correct name is Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machine, Mark III. And you've broken it. The only surviving proof of my dazzling accomplishment, and you've broken it."
John turned towards the wreckage hidden in the darkness. "I'm sorry," he murmured, and then the darkness took him again.
There was nothing for it, of course, but to drag Kavanagh out of bed. "There's a man in my parsley," Rodney told him. "He's fainted. I believe that the usual course of action would be to bring him inside and put him by a nice warm fire." Kavanagh just blinked at him. "So jump to it," Rodney commanded.
They had to do it together in the end. Quite a lot of herbs were irredeemably crushed. "Which reminds me," Rodney gasped, hefting the mysterious stranger's limp legs, "I would like roast fowl tomorrow, with parsley and sage stuffing, and no lemon balm this time, or my wrath will… indeed be… terrible." He dropped a leg. Kavanagh grunted, but managed to keep the man's top half off the ground. Rodney managed to grasp the mysterious stranger's leg again. He had the irritating leg of a courtier who liked to pose for portraits in too-short breeches. He was slim beneath his doublet, too. Ladies would doubtless swoon at his feet. Rodney decided that he disliked him intensely.
"Who is he?" Kavanagh asked, staggering on the gravel. "How did he get here?"
Sometimes if you ignored a question, it obligingly went away. "Concentrate on… getting him… inside," Rodney gasped. Carrying an unconscious man was harder than it looked. The dashing soldier types with their shapely legs had made it look much easier than this, when Rodney had cowered… that is, when Rodney had maintained a tactical vantage point behind the baggage train during Protector Somerset's campaigns against the Scots. Of course, military types were all about show, and doubtless thought that Euclid's Elements was a salve for boils, newly introduced from Italy.
"What's wrong with him?" Kavanagh asked, as they crossed the threshold.
Rodney contemplated stairs, and the effort needed to lift an unconscious man onto a bed. "We'll put him in my study," he said, "on the floor… next to… the… fire." It was probably better for him, anyway. Elevation would… something something… detrimental to his injuries… things like that.
When the mysterious stranger was safely dumped… that is, safely placed on the rug, Rodney straightened a weary back and flapped a weary hand. "Get… what we need."
Kavanagh still looked half asleep, clad in a crumpled robe. "What do we need?"
"Don't you know?" Rodney expressed the appropriate outrage. "I thought you wanted to be called a student of natural philosophy. That's what you told me, anyway."
Kavanagh had come to Rodney as his apprentice, his acolyte, his disciple, his minion; Rodney changed his mind from week to week about which title was the most gratifying. When an unsupervised and unauthorised investigation into the principles of combustion had resulted in the loss of twenty-seven priceless volumes from Rodney's library, Kavanagh had been demoted to manservant until the debt had been paid off. Since the books had been priceless, Rodney calculated that Kavanagh would be serving for the whole of eternity. Fortunately arithmetic had never been Kavanagh's strength, and he accepted his term of durance. Debtors' prisoners were worse.
As Kavanagh rummaged noisily in the kitchen, Rodney went to his shelves and took down a slightly charred volume. Kneeling beside the man, he leafed through the book with a weary hand.
"What you reading?" the mysterious stranger mumbled.
"Oh, now he wakes up!" Rodney cried. "You could have woken up when we carried you in from the garden. I think my back's ruined forever."
The mysterious stranger gave a faint smile. "I thank you for sacrificing your future health for my sake."
"Well…" Rodney cleared his throat. "It wasn't really for your sake. I can't have you dying on me, not if you're the only person anywhere near here who can actually fly one of Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machines, Mark III. They used to tell me it took extraordinary skill. Not as much skill as inventing the things, of course. I mean, all you have to do is sit there and pull a few levers."
Firelight flickered on the mysterious stranger's face, filling its hollows with deep shadows. "Fly them yourself, do you?"
"God's blood, no! What do you take me for?" Rodney stopped, smoothed down the open page, straightened his doublet. "I could, of course, but…" He swallowed; tried to think of the correct words to express his tactical decision to contribute to Protector Somerset's flying project at a discreet distance.
"Yeah," the mysterious stranger murmured, smiling again. "I get it. Only a crazy person would jump off a hill, entrusting his life to wood and canvas. You have to find the air currents, like birds do. You get a sense for them. You learn how to manipulate the propellers and flaps to use them best. Crazy." His eyelids began to flutter shut.
"Oh. Oh. You're not getting delirious, are you?" Rodney leafed faster through the book.
The stranger's eyes opened again. "What's the book?" he asked again.
"Vesalius," McKay told him proudly. "De humani corporis fabrica. Not the abridged version, either, but the full seven volume set. Of course," honesty compelled him to add; he was admirably fair-minded when it came to admitting other people's errors, "my idiot manservant caused most of the volumes to be destroyed by fire, and all I've got left is volume six." He turned to the title page. Volume six was apparently about the organs of digestion and reproduction. He closed it casually, with the air of someone who had learnt all he could from it. "Books contain wisdom," he said, because you had to explain things to illiterate people of lesser intellect. "It'll allow me to repair you."
The mysterious stranger managed to turn his head so that almost no light fell on his face at all, despite his closeness to the fire. "Repair my jumper instead," he said. "I'm good."
Rodney pushed the book away, sliding it across the floor. There was little that the master of anatomy could teach him, after all. It was out of date, anyway; Kavanagh had come back from Oxford with reports of a second edition. Kavanagh, bumbling fool that he was, still had contacts. Rodney had lived barely a dozen miles from the university for almost two years, and not one single person had sought him out. This stranger, Rodney realised, was the first guest that the house had seen since his father had died. His father had survived only one month of Rodney's banishment. His last words had not been kind.
"For the last time," Rodney said crossly, "don't call it by that ridiculous name." He stood up and went to shelve the book. His hands were shaking, fumbling with the volumes. Kavanagh was silent now in the kitchen. A faint scent of herbs still clung to Rodney's clothes, and Rodney suddenly remembered his childhood, and his mother's smiling delight in her new-style garden. He tended it whenever memory struck him. Most of the time, though, he considered it stupid.
The stranger was watching Rodney when he turned back, and unlike many people that Rodney had known over the years, he made no attempt to hide it when he realised that he had been discovered. That made Rodney feel… Well, he wasn't quite sure what it made him feel. "What's your name, anyway?" he demanded harshly.
The stranger nodded, giving an imitation of a bow that was surprisingly effective for someone lying on their back with blood on their face. "John Sheppard, at your service."
"That would be Sir John Sheppard, then," Rodney said bitterly. The late king had thrown knighthoods at all his pilots, despite the fact that they were expendable fools. Rodney, by contrast, had received only grudging acceptance, and many of the courtiers had been quite unforgivably rude. Then he frowned, struggling to remember. He'd never bothered to make the acquaintance of the thrill-seeking idiots who'd flown his precious creations. The moment the six machines had been put into active service, Rodney had already been closeted in a series of chambers, working on Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machine Mark IV. It involved balloons. "Are you any relation of--?"
"He was my father," Sheppard said, in a tone that even Rodney could recognise brooked no argument.
"Oh." Rodney swallowed; moistened his lips. "Weren't you, uh, arrested?" All the pilots had been arrested; he remembered that now. The Duke of Northumberland had used several of Rodney's flying machines in his attempt to put his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne of England instead of the present Queen. Whether guilty or not, the whole lot of them had been accused of treason. It was the loss of his beautiful machines that had filled the first few months of Rodney's exile with rage and despair, and the withdrawal of patronage that had made the next two years cold and bleak and empty, but people had died - less important than any of that, of course, but, still…
"I got away." Sheppard's face was a closed door. The room felt suddenly colder.
And hadn't his father…? Rodney pressed his lips together. Kavanagh would know; he relished tales of execution and the fall of great lords.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Kavanagh entered the room, a bowl of warm water steaming in his hands and a towel draped over his arm. "There's someone at the gate," he said, his eyes flickering between Sheppard and Rodney.
"Oh." Rodney sank down into the nearest chair, then stood up again, clasping his hands together with consternation. Sheppard was a wanted man; of course he was. He was an escaped prisoner. He was an outlaw. He'd flown an illegal flying machine through the night sky of north Oxfordshire, and had crashed it into Rodney's knot garden, like a giant arrow saying, 'I am here!' Rodney would be dragged away to a prison vile and clapped into chains, and… and tortured, tortured hideously, when it wasn't his fault, "and it's not fair," he said. "You just landed here without a by-your-leave. It's not fair to get me killed because of it."
Sheppard had managed to stand during Rodney's entirely justified bout of mild panic. With the firelight behind him, he looked quite heroic in a way that suddenly seemed more gratifying than irritating. Even his legs no longer seemed vexing. "Let's see who it is, then," Sheppard said. His dagger was in his hand.
Rodney watched him walk to the kitchen door; drifted into the kitchen himself and heard Sheppard begin to walk across the gravel. Sheppard stopped a few paces away. "Shut the door," he said, "and bolt it, just in case."
Rodney was grasping the edge of the door frame, fingers digging into the wood. "And allow you to go off all unobserved and let your accomplices in?" His voice was quiet. He cleared his throat, his hand clammy against his mouth. "You're probably too stupid to recognise a threat, anyway." He went to the back door. The scent of herbs was gone, swallowed up by the cold smell of an unfriendly night.
Sheppard had already disappeared, only an occasional crunch showing where he was. Is he inhuman? Rodney thought, as a branch of rosemary reached out and tried to trip him up. People aren't meant to see in the dark. He paused for a moment, mentally adding 'device to allow people to see in the dark' to his 'things to invent' list. It was in position number twenty-seven.
A bell sounded at the gate, then sounded again a second time. In the silence that followed, Rodney imagined the clash of weapons and the clinking of hideous implement of torture. The only weapon he had was the knife he used to sharpen his pen. Should have sent Kavanagh, he thought. Saving your master's life at the cost of your own should count for at least three destroyed volumes, he thought.
But Rodney walked on. He wasn't quite sure why. Sheppard had moved easily past the knot garden and onto the front sward. At least that was free from obstruction, and quieter still. Rodney had removed his mother's cherished peacocks only two days after his father's death. He felt less guilty about that than about many other things. It was impossible to create marvels with the infernal creatures screaming away.
The bell sounded a third time. The gate seemed paler than the surrounding darkness. Sheppard had disappeared completely, and whoever was outside knew how to keep to shadows, because Rodney couldn't see them, either.
"Hoped it would be you," Sheppard said suddenly, his voice sounding different, as if everything was sunnier than it had been until now.
"Course it is, Sheppard," said an answering voice from outside. "You going to let me in?"
Sheppard had somehow managed to snatch the key to the gate; Kavanagh always did leave it out on full view on the kitchen table, for any passing rogue to take. He turned the key in the lock and slid back the cunning bolts. Rodney tried to protest, but couldn't muster sound. He thought of the flying machine; of visitors in the house that for two years had seen nobody but himself and Kavanagh, and the slow passage of a wasted life and unjustly disappointed dreams. Sheppard had found a way to thwart the decree of the Queen, and that meant… That meant…
That meant that the man was crazy, with a death-wish. That meant that if Rodney harboured him here… if he touched the flying machine again… if he worked on it, when working on such things had been expressly banned… If Rodney…
The gate swung open, and a cart came through, with a large man driving it. Rodney peered anxiously behind him, but he came in alone. As soon as the gate was locked again, the man swung himself down from his seat. He was enormous, and Rodney found himself edging back a step, deeper into the darkness. "Got yourself hurt again, I see," the man said, even though it was dark enough that surely the blood had to be hidden.
Sheppard gave the quiet laugh of a man at ease, whose confidante and comfort had come. Rodney edged back another step. He should have brought his cloak, he thought, because the night was so very cold.
"It's not too bad," Sheppard said, shrugging. Then he turned to the place where Rodney was standing, thinking himself hidden entirely by the darkness. "This is Ronon Dex," he said. "It seemed wiser to let him in - less chance of unwanted attention that way."
His tone seemed to imply that Rodney was being invited to say something. Rodney frowned; pressed his hands together. "Oh," he said. "Oh, yes. Er… Come in. Uh… since you seem to have presented me with a fait accompli…" and it would be useful to have a big, strong man to fetch supplies and to heft around the large wooden frame of the flying machine and to carry Sheppard around if he went and fainted again and to fight off anyone who came to kill them and to turn the spit so that Rodney could actually have roast hog once in a while, with apples and crackling, "but if I get killed for harbouring fugitives," he said, "count that invitation as rescinded."
"We will," Sheppard said, his voice still light with the happiness engendered by Dex's arrival.
What have I done? Rodney thought, as he walked with them back to the place of his exile. I am so going to regret this.
But the crescent moon shone down on the house, and it looked almost pretty in the faint silver light.
This is a sketch of Rodney Manor, as it was in 2004. Rodney Manor was not, of course, its original name, but was the name given to it by its most famous owner, Doctor Rodney McKay, who inherited it from his father in 1553. It was sold to the National Trust in 1943, and can be viewed by the public at any reasonable time. Strange scorch marks are visible in unexpected places, and the more sensitive (or, perhaps, gullible) claim to be able to hear the ghostly voice of a former inhabitant, chiding them for interrupting his very important work, and wheedlingly asking for "some of that new-fangled chocolate."
In which it is decreed that everything is Sheppard's fault
Ronon closed the casement as quietly as he could. The room was unpleasantly cold, his breath frosting in the air of the early morning. The hearth showed no trace of recent fires, and a thick layer of dust clung to all the surfaces.
"I prefer it open," he heard Sheppard say.
Ronon smiled to himself at the confirmation that Sheppard was awake. "It's better for you like this. Your breathing's going to be bad enough with those ribs, without catching a chill."
Sheppard hadn't completely closed the curtains around the bed, either. He never did, on those rare occasions he had a proper bed to sleep in. Ronon knew better than to question him about it; if he'd endured what Sheppard had endured, he thought that he would fear enclosed spaces, too. But if Ronon never questioned Sheppard's need for open spaces, Sheppard never questioned Ronon's desire to grasp any chance of warmth that presented itself, and to treat a night in a snug room as a gem beyond price.
"It's easy for you to say." Sheppard's voice was quiet, the sounds only slightly dulled around the edges. "You're not the one forced to stay awake in it."
"You know it's necessary." Ronon pulled up a stool, as thick with dust as everything else in the room. Sheppard knew as well as Ronon did that a man could fall asleep after hitting his head, and never awaken in the morning. They had both watched over each other in similar vigils in the past, shaking each other awake through all the watches of the night. "Besides," Ronon said, stretching out his legs, "we should make the most of it while it lasts - a proper house like this, a good one."
"Not such a good one." Sheppard shifted on the pillows. Even the bed-curtains were thick with the musty smell of dust and neglect. "I'm thinking McKay doesn't get many visitors."
"He took us in, though," Ronon said.
Ronon had privately considered it a fool's errand, but Sheppard never saw reason when his beloved flying machine was concerned. He'd proposed the desperate journey in the sluggish, lurching machine, but there was no room in it for two. Just as he always did, Ronon had helped Sheppard drag the machine to the top of a hill and had helped launch him off it, his breathing taut and lurching as the machine sank, then stuttering back to its regular rhythm when Sheppard caught the air currents and started to fly.
One day, he thought… One day… No, he wouldn't think about that. Tomorrow would come when it came, and there was no point worrying about things you couldn't change. Not even God and all his angels could keep Sheppard from trying to fly, and if you were a true friend of his, you just had to accept that.
"I knew he would," Sheppard said. All Ronon could see of him through the crack in the curtains was his hand on the coverlet. "They destroyed his work, Ronon. They took it away from him. That had to hurt."
Ronon was always one step behind, always following. He tried to follow Sheppard's route on the ground, but Sheppard's route was one that ignored hedges and ditches, rivers and cliffs. Sheppard could only fly at night, but even so, some people heard the sound of Ronon passing in the darkness, and came out to investigate. He'd had some near misses. He sometimes wondered if Sheppard knew, or even if he wondered.
"So what now?" Ronon asked. "If this McKay fixes your machine, what happens then?"
Sheppard's hand was still, then it slowly curled into the coverlet; after seven years together, Ronon could read Sheppard from such signs as this, without needing to see his face. "Nothing," Sheppard said. "We carry on like we've carried on for the last two years."
Ronon said nothing, tracing patterns in the dust with his finger. Birds were singing in the garden, greeting the dawn.
"Or that's what I intend to do," Sheppard said, his hand uncurling, deceptively relaxed.
Ronon smiled sadly. "You should know not to say things like that."
In the first few terrible months of Queen Mary's reign, Sheppard had tried to send Ronon away almost daily. 'I refuse to let you go down for what is, after all, my obsession,' he had said one night, when dreams and darkness and cheap ale had made him uncharacteristically honest. Ronon had told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going anywhere; that it wasn't anything to do with indebtedness, not any more. Sheppard had saved Ronon's life seven years before in the English Middle March, but Ronon had since repaid that debt in full. But some things went far deeper than honour. Sheppard had come to understand that, or so Ronon had thought. It had been nearly a year since he had last stressed to Ronon that he could leave at any time.
The patterns in the dust were in the shape of a hangman's noose. Ronon wiped them away with a swift sweep of his hand. "I was just wondering…"
"Nothing's going to change," Sheppard said sharply. "McKay fixes my jumper, and we fly off into the sunset." He gave a quick breath of laughter. "Into the wilderness, if you prefer, to sleep on the cold, hard ground, and shun strange company."
Ronon let out a slow breath. If that was what Sheppard wanted, then Ronon would follow him. It wasn't such a bad life, after all, and better than the life Ronon had lived before he had met Sheppard. But, although he might not realise it, Sheppard was a man who needed a cause, and for years he had been without one, his life about nothing more than staying alive and snatching moments in the air. Too many more years like that, Ronon feared, would be a slow death for him.
A whole day passed, and nobody turned up to bloodily slaughter Rodney for housing dangerous fugitives, or even to drag him away for hideous torture. He counted these as promising developments. Also, Kavanagh remembered to cook stuffed fowl, and even refrained from adding lemon balm to the mix. Lemon balm was probably preferable to hideous torture, but sage and parsley stuffing was better than both.
The flying machine had been moved to the stable, with Rodney supervising, and Dex, Sheppard, the horse and the cart doing the unimportant part of the job - to whit, the actual transporting. The machine had looked quite horribly broken in the unforgiving light of morning, and Rodney had stood staring at it for a full few minutes, before he had realised all over again quite how infuriating everyone around him was, and had shouted at them for a full few minutes more.
It looked even worse in the stables, amidst the dust and decay. It was nearly two years since Rodney had sold his father's horses to buy lenses, mercury, and a replacement edition of Master Copernicus's entirely obvious theory, that Rodney himself could have come up with when he was six, had it occurred to him that anyone was so stupid as to need such an obvious idea explained to them, and… He frowned, suddenly wondering where his thoughts had been going before Copernicus had come along. Oh yes, dust and decay, and a still-lingering scent of horse, although 'scent' implied a pleasant smell, and this was far from pleasant. Besides, Kavanagh hadn't known which end of a horse was which, and Rodney had dismissed the groom and the stable lad in order to fund the purchase of the materials needed to make a heliocentric armillary sphere, so it had been entirely right to get rid of his father's horses, and…
Something large and animal-sounding stirred in a stall at the far end. Rodney's heart started to pound before he remembered the alarmingly-large Dex and his alarmingly-large beast. "If it crushes my flying machine…" he shouted over his shoulder, throwing the words like spears at the heads of his enemies.
"It won't," Dex called back. His voice seemed to come from high up. Of course, Rodney reminded himself, he was tall. Then a casement slammed shut, and he knew that the giant had been upstairs.
There are people here, he thought. People in my house. It had often been full of people in his childhood, of course, with feasts and dance and music. Rodney had hidden himself away for the most part, barricading himself in his chamber to work on insightful treatises that set his tutor a-stammering and a-stumbling, left behind like a fish beached by the retreating tide. How many years, he wondered, since…? No, no, that didn't matter, just as it didn't matter that there were no tapestries left, all sold to buy books, or that the fashionable furnishings of the parlour had been traded for astrolabes and alembics. It was better that way. Life was better that way.
A door opened, and he heard the sound of two people crunching over gravel. "You well enough for fencing practice?" he heard Dex say. "I'll go easy on you."
"It shouldn't be called fencing," Sheppard said, "not the sort of thing you do. Fencing's elegant, according to the Italian masters. It follows strict rules." The gravel crunched in a way that suggested that he was acting out some ridiculous fencing move, like court gallants and foolish little boys the world over.
"My way's effective, though," Ronon said.
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, with a quick laugh, "and I've never been one for following rules." Then, after a pause, he said, "I'd better not. It's still…" He didn't say what it was still, though, and Dex didn't ask, so he probably knew.
The horse… whinnied, neighed, snorted, huffed, or whatever it was that horses did; Rodney knew little about horses beyond how to fail to mount them. Outside, twin footsteps sounded, heading away. "Be quiet out there!" Rodney shouted, fury twisting sharply in his chest. "Trying to work, here."
Dust trickled from the eaves above him. Rodney remembered his father striding through here, flushed from his ride and swelling with pride in his horses. Then he looked at the broken wreckage of the flying machine, the last surviving relic of his best, his most accomplished work.
"Can you repair her?" Sheppard asked quietly from behind Rodney's right shoulder.
Rodney started. I thought you…Anger followed, of course. "You shouldn't creep up on me," he snapped. "It's most ill-mannered. I could have been engaged in intricate work in which the slightest lapse of concentration could make the difference between success and disaster."
Sheppard shrugged an apology that didn't really look all that sincere. His attention was all on the wreckage, strewn and broken on its bed of old straw. "Can you repair her?" he asked again.
Rodney's mouth tasted of stable dust. "Of course I can," he said. "I'm Doctor Rodney McKay. I can do anything." The words sounded disappointingly hollow in the bleak stable. Rodney walked forward; Sheppard followed him with his eyes. "The crash merely damaged the wooden structure," Rodney said, "so that's repairable, although a master carpenter would do the job better than I could." He broke off; cleared his throat. "That is to say, it's a job that requires no more skill than a mere artisan possesses. The true genius lies in the design, not the physical construction."
"Ronon and I have some passing knowledge of carpentry," Sheppard said. Rodney looked at him in surprise, for the few things he remembered about the Sheppard family made it exceptionally unlikely that a son of theirs would learn such common crafts. "Necessity," Sheppard said flatly.
Rodney returned to the wreckage. "The problems you were having before the crash…" He straightened his doublet, and stood a little taller. "As you probably don't know, being a scion of nobility, educated only in hitting people over the head and waggling your elegant legs in a gay galliard, all flying machines before mine have failed to launch at all, or else have come crashing precipitously to the ground like Icarus. My secret - my spark of genius, if you like - was to study how the things that do fly fly."
He faltered fractionally over the sentence construction, mentally resolving to rephrase that part of it when he wrote his memoirs. Sheppard, he noticed, was failing to look suitably attentive. His eyes were fixed on the wreckage, but his expression was blank and still, as if a wooden mask had been clapped over his face.
"Air currents," Rodney declared, with a snap of his fingers. He snapped his fingers again, and carried on doing so Sheppard finally turned towards him. "And the reason why Doctor Rodney's McKay's Aeronautical Machine, Mark III, stays up and keeps staying up is because I have provided a host of things that can be adjusted to allow the wings to better use those currents," Rodney told him. "Tail fins. A rudder. Flaps in the wings that can opened and shut by the pilot, as conditions demand."
"Really?" Sheppard said dryly. "I hadn't noticed."
"Yes. Well…" Rodney cleared his throat. It was the dust, he told himself, just the dust. "These things are controlled by levers and cranks, and some of them have…" He searched for a more triumphant ending to his sentence, in keeping with the dictates of rhetoric. When the pause threatened to become long enough for Cicero to frown on, he carried on. "Worn out," he finished defiantly.
"But can you repair her?" Sheppard ran his hand over the outside of the boat section, his touch lingering, gentle.
"Of course I can repair it," Rodney snapped. "Improve it, too."
Sheppard's hand stilled. "Improve her?"
"Balloons," Rodney declared. "Doctor Rodney's McKay's Aeronautical Machine, Mark IV. The problem with the Mark III machines… Well, not a problem as such, just an… an area for further development, an… an opportunity, if you like… and not even God and Aristotle got things entirely perfect first time, with all that smiting - God, that is, not Aristotle - and…" He struggled to regain his train of thought. Sheppard's hand was still on Rodney's flying machine, and that was uncommonly distracting. Rodney wanted to slap it away in fury, saying, 'Mine! It's mine!' but at the same time he wanted to swell with pride and delight at finding someone else who obviously appreciated Rodney's genius the same way he did.
"Balloons?" Sheppard promoted.
"Yes. Yes. Balloons." Rodney mimed a round thing with both hands. "The problem with the Mark III machines is that you have to drag them up to the top of a hill to launch them, but I've done experiments--" He broke off. His eyes flickered from side to side, and he hunched his head down into his shoulders. "Of course I haven't done experiments. I wouldn't dream of going against the Queen's prohibition and launching very small balloons off the Cotswolds, with rabbits in little baskets dangling below, and once a kitten, who ended up, or so Kavanagh tells me, alive and well in North Nibley; Tibbs, she was called. I just made notes in a hypothetical sort of manner. Small notes. Little notes. Marginal notes. Just daydreams, written on the wind."
Sheppard looked at him. There were stories in his eyes that Rodney was suddenly sure he really didn't want to know. "Do you honestly think I'd tell?" Then the expression was washed away in a smile. "Balloons?"
"You do repeat yourself a lot," Rodney said, his voice sharp. The world felt suddenly too large outside the stable, and the stable too small. "As I said, and it's purely hypothetical, it should be possible to build a balloon powered with hot air, and to use it to lift the Mark III machine up into the air and then release it, so you can launch it even from the middle of a plain."
"That sounds perfect." Sheppard grinned. "So you're going to do it?"
"Of course not!" Rodney protested. "The Queen expressly forbade… And then there's the materials, the labour…" He tilted his head to one side, making the calculations. Sheppard and Dex could provide the labour, and the proceeds from the second-best bed might cover the materials, although the peddler he sold most of his things to might balk at carrying it away on his back. "Of course I won't," he said. "They'd torture me for sure, and probably even kill me."
"I knew you'd say yes," Sheppard said, still smiling, and Rodney opened his mouth to protest loudly that he hadn't meant anything of the kind, but he couldn't produce the words. They weren't true, anyway, and somehow… somehow Sheppard had known that.
"But I'm blaming you," Rodney said, "when they come for us. You forced me. You held a knife at my throat and you got your tame giant to roar at me, and you forced me to… to cast the fruits of intellect at your illiterate and uncomprehending feet. It wasn't anything to do with me!" he said loudly, in case the Queen's agents were even now hiding under the thin covering of straw. He didn't think they were, but it was always good to be careful, and Rodney was nothing if not discreet.
"He plays the lute." McKay paused in the doorway. Although Ronon was the one with the instrument in his hand, McKay addressed his statement at John.
John said nothing. There were times when he would answer for Ronon, but this wasn't one of them.
The candlelight barely reached the door. The pool of yellow showed the bare plaster wall and the stone slabs of the floor. Ronon had grabbed the best light, and was sitting hunched over the lute, plucking a few bars of a song, tightening the pegs, then playing it again with gentle fingers. It had never ceased to amaze John how unashamed Ronon was about showing glimpses of this other side of him, so at odds with the side that he usually showed. Ronon had once openly wept over the death of a horse; John's eyes had remained dry when they had taken his jumper away from him, even though it had hurt as if they had ripped out his very heart.
"You… you play the lute." McKay's voice was hoarse. "I forgot I had it. No-one's played that since…" He broke off. "You shouldn't be sitting there, you know. You've probably done irreparable damage to my research."
John gestured towards the piles of paper he had removed from the chair and arranged on the floor. "I kept everything in its proper pile."
McKay snorted, as if to say that he doubted it. Then Ronon started to play in earnest. McKay listened for a while, his expression strange, then turned and hurried away.
"I didn't know you could play, either, my friend," John said quietly, as Ronon started to sing in French. His accent wasn't perfect, and he stumbled over occasional notes, but there was a huskiness to Ronon's singing voice that set John's throat unexpectedly aching.
"Belle qui tient ma vie," Ronon sang, to the slow air of a pavane. It was a song to a beautiful lady who held his soul captive, without whom he would die. Just a song, of course. Just a song…
John stood up. "I need some air."
Ronon looked up from his instrument and gave a quick smile, his expression entirely at odds with the sentiments he was singing about. John stepped carefully over the piles of diagrams and the scattered plans. He wove around a half-constructed compass, its parts strewn across the hearth. 'A Device to Allow Man to Breathe Underwater, thus Facilitating the Retrieval of Sundry Items from Dangerous Wrecks,' he saw, but although the heading was underlined three times, there was no writing below it.
The music followed him into the kitchen and out of the back door; he had never seen the front door open, although he had, of course, examined its locks, in case they should end up having to defend it. It followed him as he walked to the courtyard, but finally faded away to nothing as he entered the stable. He could see little of his broken darling by lantern light. Stupid, he berated himself, that a lump of wood and canvas should mean so much to you. But it did, of course, and the damage from that had already been done. Too late now to change.
Back in the courtyard, the tune had changed into a wordless one. John could see Ronon through the parlour window, hunched over the lute, his hair covering his face. John had always known that Ronon had originally come from a good Border family, but he hadn't known that he could play the lute or sing in French. Not that Ronon would talk about it afterwards, of course, or treat this as any sort of revelation. Every few months, John added one more page to the book of his knowledge of Ronon Dex. After seven years, it was still a slim volume.
No, he thought. Before even a year had had passed, he had known everything that was important to know about Ronon. He could trust him, and that was what mattered. The rest was… irrelevant, and as unimportant as Ronon evidently considered it.
Extinguishing his lantern, John headed to the greensward at the dark front of the house. His ribs still hurt with every breath, but they seemed to be bruised rather than broken. His head throbbed faintly, but he had suffered far worse in the past. Knowing that his jumper was broken was like having a limb missing. He'd tried to explain that once to Ronon. 'When a horse dies,' he had said, 'you can get another, and while it's not the same horse, it's a horse, and you can still ride as fast as the wind. But this… this is the only one. She's my only chance at having wings.' But he wasn't sure if even Ronon fully understood. Ronon had no desire to leave the ground.
John saw McKay before the other man saw him. He considered creeping away again, but something made him stay. He made his next steps noisier than they needed to be. The moon was several days past its narrow crescent, and it was enough to show McKay stiffen, freeze, then let out an angry breath.
"Can't a man get any peace in his own house?" he snapped. "This is my house, and you've invaded it, you and Dex, and there's music, music distracting me from my work, and now you're following me out here and ruining the only peace I can get."
"I wasn't following you," John said truthfully. "I came out to look at the stars." It was only half a lie; the stars had always fascinated him.
"Hmph." McKay snorted grudgingly. "That's what I'm here for, too, of course. I expect you think they're painted on the heavens every night by God's frilly angels. They aren't, of course. They're fixed to the edge of the universe, to the inside of the sphere that has the sun at its centre. We revolve around the sun, and the stars are the fixed surface around us." He made complicated gestures of a half-clenched fist oscillating in a loosely-cupped hand. People in taverns would make ribald jokes about a gesture like that. John just watched, and his next breath came a little easier than all the ones that had come before.
"One day," McKay said, "I intend to create a device that will allow me to study the stars in more detail. I intend to call it Doctor Rodney McKay's Ingenious Televisual Device. It's twenty-second on my list." He looked up at the stars, and let out a long slow breath. "Perhaps I'll move it up the list," he said quietly. Then, harshness coming hot on the heels of reflection, he rounded on John almost accusingly. "What does someone like you see in the stars?"
"Navigation, for one," John said. He looked at Orion, that bold herald of winter nights. "When I was young," he found himself saying, "the stars made me want to fly."
McKay said nothing, but John heard him breathing, close in the dark. John had dreamed of flying, and McKay had dreamed of making a machine that could fly. That was a bond, in a way, as close as the bond he had with Ronon, although infinitely different. One was the bond of shared dreams, and one the bond of shared lives.
McKay tugged his cloak around his body, looking down from the sky. "Why did you save my fl-- my Aeronautical Machine from being destroyed? What have you been doing with it?"
Or perhaps the bond itself was just a dream - or maybe an 'it' was just a word, just as an irascible exterior could hide many things. "Surviving," John said, answering the easier part, the part that didn't involve opening a window into his soul.
"I wondered…" McKay said awkwardly, "if you were… uh… engaged in plotting and machinations against the Queen."
John looked straight ahead, to a place where there were no stars. "Nothing as noble as that." He gave a wry smile. McKay didn't squawk in protest at his choice of adjective. "I wasn't involved in my lord of Northumberland's plot, you know. And don't start jumping to conclusions. I was too busy flying. It didn't… Nothing else… Nothing else felt as important, you know? But they blamed us all, of course, tarred our names with association." And he'd escaped and stolen the jumper just to keep flying her, just to stay alive. "It was never treason," he said.
"But the Queen's agents won't see it that way." McKay was fidgeting nervously.
"No." John shook his head. Love, it seemed, could make traitors of them all.
"But your father…" McKay began.
John clenched his fists at his side. "Like I said, it's guilt by association." And he hadn't thought that they'd take it so far. No, be honest here, John; you didn't stop to think. Perhaps they hadn't meant to take it so far, either, but his father had always had a weak heart, and the cells in the Tower of London were so very cold.
"How long before you get her repaired?" John's voice sounded brittle in the echoing silence of the night.
"A few weeks," McKay said, "as long as you and Dex stay to handle the unskilled labour. Of course," he said, "the Queen's agents will probably have dragged me to the Tower for hideous torment by then, but don't forget that I'm telling them that it's all your fault. They'll probably believe me, too, with your history."
John thought of his father, the last time he had seen him, the older man's face darkened with anger. Doors had slammed that would never be opened again, that never could be opened again. "Yes," he agreed quietly, "they probably will."
Perhaps the wind changed then, because a faint burst of music came across the sward. It was a song about soldiers broken by war.
"And of course we're staying," John said, because he went wherever his puddlejumper went, and Ronon, it seemed, went wherever he went. They would stay until the jumper was repaired, and then he would fly away, to go with the wind, to live in the shadows…
In which our heroes go to market, where several things illustrate the Fall of Man
Rodney was drowning in paper. He seldom managed to sleep for more than an hour at a time before ingenious ideas came hammering at the doors of his dreams, dragging him awake and commanding him to write them down. Whenever he closed the curtains of his bed, he saw flying machines.
"You fool!" he shouted one evening, coming in unexpectedly early from the stable about a week after Sheppard's precipitous arrival. "You've put a pot of potage on my plans."
Kavanagh looked petulant and entirely unrepentant. "You've put plans all over the kitchen table. You left no space for me." His petulant look deepened. "Master," he added. He lifted up the heavy pot. Rodney snatched at his plans and stared in dismay and fury at the stain. It was ruined, quite ruined. It was… Oh. Was there bacon in the potage? Real, actual bacon?
"Ruined," he said, his nose wrinkling as his sniffed the air disdainfully. Yes, yes, there was. Maybe Dex had a fondness for slaughtering pigs; he looked like the sort of man who was never happier than when he was drenched in blood up to the elbows.
Rodney put the plans down. Another smell reached him - a sweet one. He followed his nose, investigating. "You made comfits," he gasped. His mouth watered, then gaped open with horror and outrage. "You used Doctor Rodney McKay's Experimental Device to Strengthen and Channel a Flame in Order to Cause a Balloon to Rise to heat a pan of sugar to make comfits?" The name required an element of work, of course, but outrage could shine just as bright regardless of nomenclature.
"Dex did that." Kavanagh's sniff made clear very what he thought of Dex.
"But you let him." Rodney picked up a small handful of comfits and put them in his mouth, crunching the caraway seeds beneath their layers of sugar. "Besides, Dex should be working. Here I am, expending quite heroic amount of effort to improve the flying machine, and he's swanning around making comfits." He took another handful and tipped them into his mouth. "It is a shocking dereliction of duty." The mouthful wasn't big enough. He took another. "How did he learn how to make comfits, anyway? It doesn't involve slaughtering things. No matter how big you are, you can't intimidate caraway seeds."
As if summoned by his entirely justified complaining, Sheppard and Dex appeared at the back door. Their legs were bare beneath their breeches, their shirts were dirty, and Dex had sawdust in his hair. In short, they both looked like the brutish peasants that they were at heart, despite whatever noble fathers and lute-playing abilities they could muster to wear like ill-fitting robes.
"That's done," Sheppard said, wiping the back of his hand across his brow. "We need more wood."
"We need many things," McKay declared half-heartedly, watching as Dex made a bee-line for the comfits and scooped up a large handful with a grin. His hand was larger than Rodney's, so it most definitely counted as two. Rodney retaliated, claiming his rightful share. "We need," Rodney declared, crunching seeds, "to purchase fresh supplies."
"I know." Sheppard picked up a sheet of plans that had escaped the ravages of Kavanagh's potage, and looked at it, clearly trying to pretend that he understood the marks on the page. "About that…" Sheppard said, lowering the plan but not releasing it. "How are we going to, uh…" He rubbed his ear, suddenly awkward.
"Supplies cost money," Dex said, grabbing another handful.
A hand accustomed to the pen, Rodney realised, had far more right to scoop up comfits than a hand brutalised by the sword. He dug in with both hands. It was his duty to eat the comfits up, in order to… to teach Dex that he couldn't reap any benefit from shirking his duties, and that vital components in flying machines couldn't be used for melting sugar.
"About that…" Sheppard said again. He waved Kavanagh away, and sat down on the only remaining stool in the kitchen; the others had bought vats of ink and a matched set of Venetian glass phials. "Are you aware that your tenants haven't paid any rent for the last seven quarters?"
"Tenants?" A caraway seed slid from Rodney's mouth and down his chin. "Rent?" He scooped up another absent handful to replace it.
"Indeed." Sheppard nodded. "Ronon and I talked to a rather pleasant man this afternoon, of doughty English yeoman stock. He says he comes to your gate every quarter day, dutifully offering rent, but you either ignore him or chase him off before he can speak, berating him for interrupting your vitally important work." His fingers were playing with the corner of Rodney's plans, bending it up and down.
"Rents." Rodney wiped stray comfits from his hands; his palms were quite unconscionably sticky. "That would be…" He dimly remembered a vexing man called a bailiff, who had been prone to strutting around in a self-important manner. Rodney had never understood what all his father's servants actually did all day, given that they weren't writing erudite treatises or inventing cunning new devices that advanced man's mastery over the natural world. He'd removed them all on the grounds of uselessness as soon as he had the chance.
"Yes." Sheppard nodded. "The doughty yeoman we talked to has been setting money aside. I think he fears your wrath should you suddenly decide to ask for the arrears. He's quite willing to pay, as are, I would imagine, his neighbours. It might, uh…" He looked awkward, his hand still playing with the paper. "…help," he finished, giving the impression that he'd meant to say something more.
For the first time in months, Rodney became aware of the bare and crumbling nature of his home, and how it might actually appear to outsiders. He swallowed, then realised that Dex had managed to finish off the comfits while Rodney had been lost in distraction. It was a most unfair tactic, and one which he would get revenge for. Dex would have to make more comfits first, though, so Rodney could properly deprive him of them.
"I can go cap in hand to my brother," Sheppard said. "I'll be the ghost turning up at the family estate. Blood is thicker than water, or so they say, so he'll probably…" He placed the plan deliberately on the table, and flattened both hands on it. "I pay my debts, McKay."
"Yes, yes." Rodney flapped his hand, then saw the stickiness of sugar on his fingertips, so sucked them instead. "Rents," he said, his mouth full of finger. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Sheppard smiled. "I think I just did."
"Why didn't you tell me two years ago?" Rodney pulled the last finger out and wiped his hand on his doublet. "Of course, you weren't here then, so I'll let you off. But Kavanagh should have… Although he's useless and probably doesn't know about such things. But why didn't the bailiff say anything?" The bailiff had been a thoroughly unpleasant man, and his parting shot had been to tell Rodney that he wouldn't be able to run the manor without him. Rodney also dimly remembered dreary lessons at his father's sickbed, each one delivered with more urgency than the last. Rodney had nodded when he had needed to nod, and while horseless carriages had sailed along the pathways of his mind. "Someone should have told me," he said tetchily. "A great intellect like mine can't be expected to trouble itself with things like that."
Sheppard made as if to say something. Rodney stamped over to him and snatched up the plan, ostentatiously straightening the bent corner and sighing angrily. "So I have money," he said, "and we need supplies. It seems like we need a trip to market."
Even after seven years away from the Marches, it still sometimes seemed strange to Ronon to live in a place where travellers could move openly without having to watch the hills for raiding parties. At the start and the end of the summer grazing season, men drove cattle along the roads without any fear that a rival family would swoop and carry them off. It was years since he had been woken in the night with the hue and cry that announced that a raiding party had struck. It was years since he had ridden across the border on the Hot Trod, sweeping up everyone in their path in pursuit of their stolen property.
And it was eight years since he had returned from courting to find his tower-house in flames and his family dead. Eight years since the Warden of the English Middle March, too steeped in southern ways and too eager to please his dying king, had refused to accept what Ronon did next as lawful revenge. He would spare Ronon, he had said, but he couldn't condone his actions. There were many displaced outlaws in the disputed lands between England and Scotland, and Ronon had become just one more of them, living alone in a place where family was everything.
And then Sheppard had come along…
"It's-- bumpy." McKay's voice lurched all over the place as the cart jolted through a rut. "Can't you--?"
"No," Ronon said without turning round. The paths over the northern hills were better than these southern roads, ridden as they were by people whose lives depended on the ability to ride as fast as possible in the dark. It wasn't far to Oxford, but they'd already been driving for several hours.
"It isn't--" McKay's voice rose into a yelp. "--very dignified for a-- ow! a scholar of my stand!-ing to travel in the… back of a cart!" His teeth snapped together with an audible crunch. Ronon exchanged a quick look with Sheppard, beside him on the bench. Sheppard replied with an expression that Ronon recognised as a smile, but which no-one else would probably recognise as such.
"You could walk," Sheppard offered. "Or buy a mule in Oxford, a lazy fat one."
"Because I do have mon-eee!" McKay said it with satisfaction, although the last word sounded as if it had been ripped out of him with a sword. By the sound of it, he was hefting moneybags again, letting the coins run through his fingers.
"Put that away, McKay," Sheppard said sharply. "You're not Dives, to count your wealth."
"And you're not Lazarus, to envy it," McKay snapped, but the sound of clanking coins ceased.
The cart hit a large hole and lurched to the side. Sheppard clung onto the seat with one hand. Behind them, they heard the sound of a body sliding, and a dull thud as it hit the other side of the cart. "Be careful, you oaf!" McKay spluttered. Then, in a different voice, clearly trying to cover his attempts at recovering his dignity, he said, "What's wrong with counting my money? It is mine."
"And we're on the open road," Sheppard said, "and we don't look like much of a target to rob, being a cart containing no goods but a talkative gentleman whom they're welcome to steal, but if certain people should see that you have money…"
"Oh," McKay said, converting it hastily from the 'hey!' he had been half way through. "Oh." Ronon turned round to see him stuffing the money bags under his cloak, looking ostentatiously around him as he did so. "There's no-one here at the moment?" he hissed in a too-loud whisper. His eyes continued to flicker from side to side. "They're aren't… uh, in the trees, or in the long grass or hiding…?"
"They're not here yet," Ronon said gruffly, "but be careful. Be quiet."
Oxford was already visible, its towers and spires rising above its flooded water meadows. A horseman approached them from the other direction, and Ronon sat very still as he approached, and very still until he had passed. Sheppard let out a faint breath when the man had gone, his hand relaxing ever so slightly on edge of the bench.
"I don't like this," Ronon said quietly, as the trees bent over the road, casting everything in shade. "You were never pardoned. You escaped, a treason still charge over your head."
"They'll have forgotten me by now," Sheppard said, with an attempt at a smile that might have convinced Ronon once. "I was never a very important traitor. They've been busy executing more important men and hunting down heretics."
"The leaders of whom are currently imprisoned in Oxford, awaiting execution," Ronon pointed out; even in the wildest of their hiding places, they had heard of the trial of Archbishop Cranmer. "The Queen is paying especial attention to Oxford at the moment, and you're going there with McKay." He glanced round again. McKay was hoarding his concealed money like a child jealous of his sugared plums. "He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'discreet.'"
"I know," Sheppard agreed. Another traveller approached. Sheppard waited until he had safely passed, but already two or three more were within sight ahead of them, and hoofbeats thundered behind them, heralding a courier in the livery of Queen Mary's Spanish King. "But I don't see that we have any choice," Sheppard said quietly, when all had passed.
"No." Ronon shook his head, accepting that, for Sheppard, there was no choice. "But I don't have to like it, just as I won't…" He stopped as a party of armed men approached them fast on horseback. Ronon had his own weapons at his side, of course.
"I know," Sheppard said, and this time his smile was genuine, telling Ronon that he didn't have to finish what he'd been saying; that Sheppard knew what it was.
I won't stop watching your back, Ronon thought.
Rodney McKay was clearly a man who liked to cast the pearls of his wisdom before the swine that were the rest of humanity. He talked his way down the broad street of St Giles, talked his way through the gate, and continued to talk as John prized a coin from his surprisingly strong grip to pay a boy to watch their cart.
"You'll get another like that if it's still here and untouched when we get back," John told the boy, breaking through McKay's torrent of words. But John had to tug McKay away, in the end. "I'm sure the lad can do the job just as well without knowing all the flaws in the Ptolemaic model of the heavens," he pointed out, when McKay protested.
"Yes." McKay let out a shaky breath. "I'm sorry. I… I talk when I'm nervous."
"Just when you're nervous?" John raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, well, I've been nervous ever since I met you, on account of the…" McKay's voice dropped down to a whisper, louder in its way than his unguarded talking had been. "…secret work and the flying and the you know, secret, can't say a word, and the very real chance that someone will drag me away for hideous torture just for knowing you, and remember that I'm telling everyone it's all your fault when that happens, and that I was cruelly tricked."
People bustled past, lost in their own conversations, but a few pairs of eyes watched them. John glanced at Ronon, and Ronon gave a fractional nod, indicating that he had seen them, too. They weren't anyone that John recognised, and were probably just robbers and cut-purses. Just robbers? John smiled grimly at the thought that someone who wanted to rob him and leave him for dead in an alleyway was the least of all possible evils, but that's just how life was.
"Where do we start?" Ronon asked loudly, discreetly moving closer to McKay, and pushing his cloak back to show the long knife at his belt.
"Oh." McKay flapped a jerky hand, lordliness and terror wrapped up in one movement. "We need a prodigious quantity of canvas and silk and fine sewing thread. You can get those from the ordinary sort of stalls that the common folk go to. Can-vas," he sounded out slowly, looking at Ronon. "Silk. Thread." He briefly mimed sewing. "But the rest - devices and ingredients far too cunning for you to understand…" He tugged his doublet down, the gesture made awkward by the stash of money hidden beneath his jerkin. "A scholar has special sources. Contacts, you see. I know everyone."
A tall man in the robes of a scholar emerged from a side-street and shouldered past McKay. McKay raised his free hand, one finger pointing upwards hopefully, but the scholar passed by without any sign of recognising him.
"Of course," McKay said, "the university has changed greatly in recent years." He lectured on the history of the university for a while. John barely listened, scanning the crowd for threats. He was jumpier than he would have thought possible, although the chances of anyone recognising him were slight in the extreme. McKay talked as they walked, his words part of the background of the busy town. "Then in the latter part of the reign of the late King Henry, the old schools of study were swept away and were replaced with schools devoted to the new learning - enlightenment in a sea of barbarity and superstition. The present Queen is determined to undo all that and to bring the university back into the thrall of the Roman church, which would--"
John recovered himself in time to jab McKay urgently in the ribs. McKay whirled on him angrily, then blanched, his hand rising to his mouth.
"Discretion, McKay," John reminded him, not whispering it; it was easier to pass unnoticed when you acted as if you had nothing to hide.
Ronon's hand was hovering near his long knife. "He's going to get us killed, Sheppard. I say we leave him - pretend we don't know him."
"No, you're the ones going to get me killed." McKay said it quietly, his mouth very small indeed.
"Why don't we all agree that there'll be no getting of anyone killed on this fine morning." John looked sternly at McKay. When he turned to Ronon, his gaze held many things. It was because of John that McKay had come to Oxford in the first place, and he couldn't abandon him.
Ronon nodded slightly in acceptance. He didn't need to say the rest of it. McKay was John's only chance of getting wings again, and he would follow him into the very fires of hell, if that was the route that McKay chose to take.
"Yes," McKay said, his mouth still very small, his words thankfully muffled by his hands. "Not getting killed is good. I didn't mean it. Nice Queen's agents. Good Queen's agents. Down with the new learning. Boo, hiss, etcetera etcetera."
John grabbed his upper arm. "Not a word," he warned pleasantly, deliberately not looking at the armed men who stood near the tower to the left. He'd travelled to Oxford once before, and knew what the place was. This was the Bocardo Prison, where Archbishop Cranmer and the others were imprisoned, awaiting a second trial that would surely end only in the flames. He thought of enclosed, dark places, and the sun must have passed behind a cloud just then, because the whole street was suddenly swept with cold.
"Ow!" McKay hissed. "Why are you squeezing so hard? Let go!" The sun still gleamed on the steel breastplates of the soldiers, and the stones of the tower were almost white in the light of the crisp winter day.
When they were past, John tugged McKay into the shadow of an overhanging house. "I think we need to relieve you of some of that money." Were the soldiers watching from behind, he wondered, their eyes boring into the back of his neck?
"What?" McKay squawked. "You're robbing me? I knew you were a black-hearted villain. I knew it!"
"Of course I'm not robbing you," John said. Ronon stepped up behind him, and his presence there made John's next breaths come a little easier. "You know what they say about eggs and one basket. Besides, you're carrying it so obviously that you may as well be waving a placard."
McKay looked stricken at first, then mustered his reserves for righteous outrage. "But it's my money."
John tried not to look over his shoulder. No-one was watching them. No-one had recognised him. He smiled instead, chuckling briefly. "For someone who spent two years forgetting to gather in his income, you seem to have become a miser overnight. It's like an allegory of the Fall of Man in one short day."
"I'm not a miser," McKay protested. "See? Have some of the money. Have it." At least he had the wit to pass it over in pouches, shielded by his robe. Now the foot-pads and assorted rogues and vagabonds can rob you. I'm just a threadbare scholar whose only riches are his intellect." He watched John and Ronon stow the money, narrowing his eyes suspiciously when the pouches seemed to disappear; they both had practice at keeping things hidden when they walked in dangerous places. "You won't play me false, will you?" One hand reached out, perhaps unconsciously, as if it felt the lack of the coins already.
"No," John said, his voice weary, but meaning it utterly. "I won't play you false."
What have I done? he thought, as they walked away from those gleaming soldiers, from men who wore a livery that he still saw stalking in his dreams. Because now yet another person was caught in the snares of his obsession, and he should stop, he should walk away, he should give up his dreams of wings.
But God help me, he thought, because he could not.
The story of mankind was the story of the Fall, or so Rodney thought the churchmen probably said. Wheels of fortune went round, depositing mighty kings in the dust, upside-down with great big wheels on their heads. Forbidden fruit got plucked. Mighty cities fell. Civilisations crumbled into dust, and where was the glory that once was Troy? Rich young gallants became skeletons in the end, and the rose of yore was just a name, sic transit gloria mundi, and so on and so forth.
And now something else could be added to the list. Doctor Rodney McKay had returned to the university of Oxford, and found it sadly changed.
It started well, once they had left behind the seething danger of the town itself. Sheppard shadowed him like… like a… a shadow, which was good for two reasons. For one thing, it was very useful have the person he was going to blame for absolutely everything conveniently close - less far to point - but it also meant that Sheppard was there to see Rodney get treated with the respect he so soundly deserved. Sheppard, Rodney was beginning to suspect, sometimes laughed at Rodney, perhaps even teased him occasionally. Just you wait, Rodney thought. You'll see.
Naturally, the porter at the College gate remembered him well. "Oh," he said. "It's you, Master McKay."
"Doctor McKay." Rodney tugged his doublet down; it would insist on riding up. "I've come to visit my old kingdom."
The porter waved him through, and they entered the front quad. Rodney was busy elucidating Sheppard about matters architectural, when he saw a boy race out of the lodge, charge across the quad, and visit all the staircases one after the other. "A messenger," Rodney concluded. His voice didn't sound quite right in the acoustics of the quad. "He's telling everyone I'm here, so they can prepare their welcome."
A surprising number of people were inexplicably absent from their chambers. Several others shouted that they were deeply immersed in very important work and couldn't be disturbed. One, opening the door absently, cursed, then closed it again, citing an alembic in desperate need of sudden attention. Rodney sympathised. A neglected alembic had once launched a devastating attack on his slippers.
The chapel bell struck twice. "Maybe they're all at lunch," Rodney suggested, but the hall was empty, benches neatly in a row. An intriguing smell lingered. "Lunch…" Rodney said. He remembered a woman whose stall had sold extraordinarily delicious mutton pies. Was she still plying her wares, he wondered.
No, he reminded himself, this was no time to let himself get distracted. He had a higher calling than the demands of his stomach. He was here to show Sheppard how respected he was, and to get the vital components for his Mark IV Aeronautical Machines, which everyone said couldn't be done, but ha! to that, and to advance to sum total of human knowledge and to strike a blow for enlightenment in these benighted times. Against such things, mutton pies paled into insignificance.
"I saw some venison pies on sale in the market," Sheppard offered. Rodney glared daggers at him. It was a sneak attack, entirely unprovoked.
"No," he said, sniffing haughtily-- and it was venison, he thought; a lingering smell of venison from an earlier meal. "I am entirely devoted to a higher calling. We have supplies to obtain."
And obtain them he… er… failed to do, for most of the rest of the afternoon. People continued to be inexplicably absent. Those that he did manage to corner seemed to have complicated lives, troubled with urgent appointments involving dogs and the like. He did manage to talk to one fellow at around the chimes of three, but he was some visitor from Bohemia with an ungodly name starting with Z. Aware that no-one whose name started with such a barbaric letter could have anything sensible to say, Rodney barely listened to what he said. The fellow waved his hands around too much when he spoke, anyway. It indicated a weak and easily distracted mind.
"They're afraid," Rodney declared, gesturing emphatically with his half-eaten venison pie, sending crumbs flying. He and Sheppard had made a dignified withdrawal back into the bustle of the town. "They're all too aware that--" He stopped himself just in time, gulping down a lump of meat. "--the Queen is undoing the heretical reforms of recent regimes, as is only good and proper," he said loudly. Grease stained his fingers, and there was a smear of sauce on his doublet. "I was never accused of anything," he pointed out. "Some of my work earned a small degree of royal displeasure, due to the treasonable nature of the men who flew them, but that's as far as it went. But this lot always were spineless cowards. They fear the consequences of talking to me."
"That must be it," Sheppard said gravely over the remains of his own pie. His fingers had somehow managed to stay free from grease, and his clothes, simple as they were, were spotless. The eyes of a passing lady lingered on his legs.
"But it doesn't matter," Rodney said, subtly pulling his own breeches up so they showed a little more knee, and smoothing the folds that had gathered in his nether-hose across his calf. The lady gave no sign of noticing. "I've got other sources."
And these they pursued as the sun sank towards the horizon. Any student with an interest in natural philosophy sometimes needed to acquire items that were… "let's just say," Rodney told Sheppard, "things that aren't available through, uh… through… proper…" His eyes flickered from side to side. New College Lane could be very dark, and things could lurk in the shadows. "…channels," he finished. His whisper seemed to echo off the walls.
"I understand." Although Sheppard wasn't whispering, his voice seemed quieter than Rodney's. Rodney added it to his mental list of Things That Are Infuriating About John Sheppard. It went in at number five. The legs were unassailed in their prime position. "I hadn't realised there was a thriving underground network of dastardly natural philosophers, filling our cities with illegal…" His voice broke off. His smile faded.
"Of course there is," Rodney said flatly. Too much knowledge had been banned for too long. Now that Queen Mary was on the throne, the brief flowering of free expression was being snuffed out again. Soon people would be burnt just for reading books.
"I'm sorry," Sheppard said. He looked over his shoulder. Rodney edged closer to him, suddenly realising that skill with a sword wasn't quite as useless as he had always thought.
Rodney's first supplier had vanished, the door hanging open, and the interior dank with decay. The second door was opened by a plump goodwife who denied all knowledge of anything that Rodney mentioned, then threatened to beat him with a rolling pin.
The fifth one was still in business, but the man looked nervous, and there was a fresh scar on his face. He had some of the things that Rodney wanted, but Rodney felt little triumph as he handed over the money. He'd lost his heart for this, he realised. I want to go home, he thought. I want to get out of this place alive.
Even Sheppard seemed edgy as they headed back to the centre of the town, laden with packs. Dex greeted them half way, on the bench of a cart piled high with goods. "I got the wood," he declared with a grin. "I got the canvas, the silk…" The list went on and on. Dex, the illiterate savage from… wherever he came from, had managed to acquire many of the items from Rodney's special list, as well as his 'fit to be entrusted to bumbling idiots' list.
It should have made Rodney furious. Instead, he sank down into the piles of canvas, looking up at the approaching darkness, and said, "Let's go, then."
Dex took them away into the night. Rodney clutched the edge of the cart, and realised that he had seldom felt so miserable. They left the noise of Oxford behind, and no-one raised the hue and cry to drag them back, so that was good, wasn't it? That was good.
It felt darker outside the town walls, but it wasn't yet dark enough for the stars to appear. Rodney braced himself against the jolts, and listened to Sheppard and Dex talking in quiet voices on the bench, either not realising that he could overhear, or not caring if he did.
"…shouldn't have split up," Dex was saying. The rumble of wheels took his next words, leaving only, "--said I'd watch your back."
"We had to," Sheppard said. He sounded weary, Rodney thought. "…get more done."
Rodney's lungs felt as if they were rattling right out of his chest. Muttering oaths under his breath, he clung on tighter. "…protect me?" Dex said sharply. "So they could take you without getting me?"
Sheppard shook his head. Rodney didn't hear what he said, but he heard his own name.
Rodney clutched tighter. He were returning in triumph, of course, with money in his purse and prizes obtained. No-one had killed them bloodily, which was always good, and now he had everything he needed to proceed with his designs - or possibly everything; who knew what stupid blunders Dex had committed? The illiterate peasant had probably bought arquebuses instead of protractors and… Sugar! Maybe the blundering fool had bought sugar, to make more comfits, and…
Sheppard and Dex had fallen abruptly silent, he realised. "Quiet!" Sheppard hissed sharply, sparing Rodney a quick glance over his shoulder.
But I wasn't saying anything, Rodney thought, but he didn't say it. The shoulders of the men in front of him quivered with readiness. "What?" he asked, very quietly indeed.
Sheppard once more turned round to him. Perhaps it was just the dusk, but he looked like a different person from the tousled peasant who had come in from chopping wood. Like Dex, he looked dangerous.
"We're being followed," Sheppard said. "Armed men, going fast." His hand come up, its edge sharp. "Whatever happens, say nothing."
"Why not?" Rodney asked. "What're you going to do?"
"Whatever's necessary," Sheppard said.
Above them, low in the east, the first star was shining, perfect and bright.
This is rather a restrained portrait of Rodney McKay, which dates from around 1547. Seventeenth century reports from the annals of the Royal Society suggest that at least a dozen other portraits of the man were then extant, all of them showing him posing with a dazzling array of scientific devices, sometimes almost drowned by them. All his later flying machines were, of course, emblazoned with his image, twelve feet high and gilded with gold, but none of these have survived.
Ronon readied himself to fight. Without taking his hands from the reins, he drew his long knife from his belt and laid it on the seat beside him. Sheppard was reaching under the bench, unlocking the case that concealed his sword. Sheppard was a gentleman both by birth and by bestowed title, but the life they lived did not allow him to openly carry a sword. Their cart held many secrets, stowed and ready for the day when they were cornered and longer capable of running.
"It might not be…" Sheppard began.
Ronon nodded. He steadied his breathing, and kept the horse trudging slowly forward. There was no reason to assume that this was pursuit closing in on them, but they had be ready in case it was. Such readiness had saved their lives several times over, though not without scars.
The road was wooded, lined with bare trees that showed only the first signs of early spring. The trees muffled sound, but the noise of drumming hoofbeats was growing louder with every breath. There were three of them, Ronon thought, looking over his shoulder. Sheppard had twisted fully around, watching openly. Of course, Ronon thought, even a farmer trudging home from market would show curiosity about soldiers riding fast. "One of them's closer," Sheppard said quietly. "I think he…" He stopped. Ronon saw his hand held beneath him, ready to grasp the sword, to throw off all masks and pretences.
And then the first horseman was upon them. The cart was at the apex of a bend, where the trees marched in close to the road, casting it in deeper darkness. The horseman drew level, and Ronon gripped his knife and prepared to leap from the bench and grapple him from the saddle, if that's what it came to. But the horseman ignored them. He rode past, swinging his leg over the saddle as he went. "He's going to…" Sheppard said, but it was already done, finished before the words were out.
As soon as he was past the bend, the rider threw himself from the galloping horse. He almost made the landing perfectly, but almost wasn't good enough; almost could still get you killed. He hit the ground hard, and rolled, shielding his head, then pushed himself to his feet and ran into the trees, hunched over and clearly hurt.
The riderless horse galloped on. "Did he just…?" McKay began. "Is he…? Was he supposed to do that?" but Sheppard turned round and snapped, "Be quiet!" like an echo of the John Sheppard who had once been a commander of men, before the lure of wings had turned him from that path.
And still their own horse trudged on, the cart lurching from side to side; Sheppard no longer needed to remind Ronon of the need to play a part, to walk on past things that once would have made him fight. The two pursuers raced past them without a word, chasing the riderless horse. There was just enough light left in the sky to show their livery.
Ronon glanced at Sheppard, but he could tell that Sheppard had noticed it, too; his face was taut and set with the knowledge of it. "Sheppard…" Ronon began, saying it anyway.
"Yes. I know. His men." Sheppard was stiff and hunched over, clutching the sword beneath the bench.
"That man…" McKay said, lurching behind them in the cart. "People can't just jump off a galloping horse like that, can they? Is that normal?"
Ronon let the horse walk slower and slower. Chasing their riderless quarry, the two horsemen had disappeared into the darkness ahead of them, the sound slowly fading away to nothing. "He'll be hurt." Ronon looked sharply at Sheppard.
"Enemy of my enemy?" Sheppard said quietly. "But it was never a battle I wanted to fight." He released the sword and sat up straight, then turned to look at the cart and the load that it carried. He wasn't looking at McKay; Ronon knew that. The cart held the things that would give him his wings again.
Their horse stopped entirely, though Ronon kept one hand on the reins. "It won't delay them long." Ronon said it loud enough to penetrate into the surrounding trees. "A horse without a rider will slow down - no point galloping if you don't have to. They'll come back."
"And they'll suspect us," Sheppard said, his sword hand gripping the edge of the bench.
A human shape moved in the trees, its shape obscured by trunks and branches. "I would not ask this of you," it said in the husky voice of a boy, "but this is an affair of the utmost importance. I have done nothing wrong. If they catch me, it will have the gravest of consequences to someone else - someone who is entirely innocent."
"Indeed?" Sheppard sounded lightly amused, giving nothing away.
"I speak of the…" The shape moved, the voice cracking and changing timbre. "Please. I have reason to believe…"
"You want to hide in our cart," Sheppard interrupted. "So when they come back, as they surely will, and search the cart, as they surely will, they will arrest not only you but us."
"I would never ask this normally," the fugitive said, edging forward, reaching out a hand, "but I am desperate. If they find me, I will tell them that you were ignorant of my presence."
"That you climbed into the cart and hid yourself under the canvas without us noticing, huh?" Sheppard said. "Think they'll believe it?"
Ronon shot him a sharp look. Sheppard, he knew, had once done just that, crossing half a county under a pile of sacks, with the carter none the wiser throughout.
"I have no desire to imperil you," the fugitive said. "This is of…"
The voice trailed off. Ahead of them, very faintly, Ronon could hear the sound of hoofbeats. The pursuers had discovered the riderless horse, and were returning. They would be angry now, too. No-one liked to be tricked.
"Utmost importance," Sheppard said. "I know." He cocked his head, listening. "And if you don't want to imperil us, you should go." He flapped his hand. "Run along into the trees like a good boy." He stressed the final word. "Why don't you climb one? Boys are good at climbing trees."
The sound of approaching horses grew louder. The shape of the fugitive melted into the trees without any further appeal. Ronon turned sharply towards Sheppard, but Sheppard held up a hand. "Our horse has a stone in its shoe," he said emphatically. "That's why we've barely moved since they passed us." He jumped down from the bench and moved to the horse's head, positioning himself on the far side, where the animal's bulk would shield him from the soldiers in the pay of the man he had more cause to fear than any man alive.
They were coming back. The soldiers were coming back, and Sheppard had just refused to help a boy who had begged him for help. Which was all entirely sensible, of course, because the boy was probably a thief and a vagabond who deserved any punishment he got, and Rodney had no desire to be clapped in irons and dragged off to hideous torture for helping him. No, the only thing Rodney wanted was to show the world the brilliance of his Mark IV machines, and you couldn't do that if you were dead in prison. Dying for a noble cause was uncomfortable enough, and not something that Rodney ever intended to do, but dying because of a snot-nosed brat…
He swallowed; pressed his lips together. The thunder of hooves grew louder and louder. "Stay quiet," Dex hissed, twisting round on the bench.
"Why does everyone keep telling me to be quiet?" Rodney said, but only quietly. The day he had just spent left him feeling uncomfortable. He wasn't used to being in situations when a wrong word could get you killed. It didn't happen like that when you were in your own study dealing with recalcitrant quicksilver and a tardy dinner.
"You!" The armed men reined up. "Have you seen a boy on a horse?" The one who spoke had an accent, probably Spanish.
"I saw a horse," Sheppard said. He was bent over their own horse, doing something to its hoof. What a strange coincidence it was, Rodney thought, that their horse should stand on a stone just as all the other terrifying things were happening all around them. Maybe horses pranced when they were nervous, and didn't look where they were going. Rodney did the same, sometimes, though without the prancing. More than once, it had earned him splinters.
Sheppard half stood up, keeping his hand on the horse's flank. "Didn't have a boy on it, though. The saddle was empty when it passed us." He waved a casual hand, hidden in shadow, indicating back the way they had come.
Rodney's breathing was fast and fluttering. He pressed a shaky hand to his chest. Act normal, he urged himself. Act in a way that won't get me bloodily slaughtered. He tried to lean casually on the side of the cart, but it was further away than he had thought it was. At least the canvas cushioned his fall, and his squawk was quite dignified and discreet. He suddenly remembered the cat his mother had owned when he was small, and the way it had licked its back leg to cover mishaps like this. Unfortunately, such a solution was beyond him.
"What's in your cart?" the soldier asked. He seemed to be looking directly at Rodney.
"Canvas," Rodney told him. His voice was higher than it normally was. He cleared his throat and tried again. The next few words sounded unnaturally low, but things sorted themselves out after a little while. "Materials for building a… a pavilion for… for entertaining guests in the summer. Because I have a lot of them. Guests, that is. We might have a…" What did people do with guests? "Joust," he said, "or sing madrigals, or… or dance, or…"
"Then you won't mind if we search it," the soldier said, stating it as a fact.
Rodney wasn't normally pleased at being interrupted, but decided that this was one of the exceptions. He was about to say something else, but he caught Sheppard looking at him sharply, or at least he thought he was; it was too dark to be sure. It was entirely possible that Sheppard was contending with a sudden gripe in the guts.
The soldiers tugged down the back of the cart, and proceeded to strew canvas and silk around with gay abandon. Rodney stared miserably at the packs that contained his specialist equipment, and wondered how on earth he could explain them away. Summer pavilions for foolish gentry didn't normally require advanced geometrical implements or pulley mechanisms or quantities of copper and brass. Perhaps he could say it was for a neighbour. Perhaps he could… No, no, it was all Sheppard's fault, wasn't it, and Rodney was going to point the finger of blame squarely at him the moment things became worrying. It's all Sheppard's fault, he rehearsed in his head, but then a soldier came stomping towards him, his boots stamping over delicate silk, and Rodney just pressed his lips together and said nothing at all.
One of the soldiers said something in Spanish. It might have been "there's no-one here," or it could have been, "behold! This is the deadly enemy of Spain - the master of flight itself." But then the soldiers jumped off the cart, leapt onto their horses again, and rode away.
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. It was quite surprising, he thought, how annoying it was when you were busy preparing yourself to fight for your life, only for your prospective torturers to swan off and leave you there, all alive and unthreatened. "Have they gone?" he whispered. "Is that it? They've gone, never coming back again, bye-bye fear of imminent death?"
"I can call them back again, if you like," Sheppard said. His hand was still on the horse's flank and he looked very stiff.
"No," Rodney said, gathering up his dignity. He'd stared into the face of scary soldiers, and he hadn't broken. Take that, fear of imminent death! He'd been quite brave, even though his silk had been trampled abominably.
"It was a very good thing," he said, deciding that it was only fair to extend some of the credit to Sheppard, "that you refused to help that boy."
"Mmm." Sheppard made a vague sound. "About that…" He took a few steps towards the trees. "They've gone," he said. "They've got miles of road to search."
The trees shivered, and the boy emerged from them. He was clearly hurt, but he kept his head high. "I thank you," he said.
"For lying?" Sheppard shrugged, as if lying was a sin that meant nothing at all. He looked at Ronon, but Rodney had no idea what, if anything, was being communicated. "I knew they'd search the cart," he said. "It was too obvious a hiding place. But a wood in the dark…" He shrugged stiffly. "Hey, it worked for Robin Hood."
The boy remained on the edge of the trees, a hand pressed to his side. "I apologise for involving you," he said. "I had no idea who you were when I leapt from the horse. It was only afterwards…" His voice caught on a gasp of pain, but he recovered himself well. "I know who you are," he said. "I know what you suffered, and at whose hands. I thought…" He almost fell; grasped at a branch to stay standing. Dex leapt from the bench and started towards the lad, but Sheppard stopped him with a hand on his arm. The boy raised his head, his stance proud. "I hoped you would help me. I hoped that our causes were the same."
Sheppard shrugged, giving a short, taut laugh. "My cause? Now that's a funny thing, because I don't have a cause. I'm just trying to stay alive."
"Oh! The boy isn't talking to you, you fool," Rodney said, gasping aloud his sudden revelation. He turned to the boy, raising his chin in a noble pose akin to the one that Holbein himself had painted him in. "You recognised me. Well, I am a man of noted fame." He tugged at his doublet, straightening it proudly. "You followed me from Oxford, didn't you? Are you an apprentice seeking a master?"
"I know you," the boy said, walking forward, still trying to put everyone off the scent by looking only at Sheppard, when obviously he meant Rodney, surely he did. "I will not speak your name in case the trees have ears, but our friends were once the same, and one of those friends is in deadly danger. Please…" His voice broke off, he tottered sideways, and then he crumpled to the ground.
Everything was very quiet for a very long time - as long as Rodney could count to three, and even a little bit more. Rodney's hand come up, pointing. "He fainted. Why do people keep on fainting? Well, I'm not carrying him. My back still hurts from the last fugitive rogue that I carried." No-one else seemed to be moving. Rodney gathered up a handful of silk and clutched it tight. Things felt a bit better when he was touching such tangible evidence of the imminence of his Mark IV machine. "Are we going to leave him here? We're going to leave him here, aren't we?"
"Sheppard," Dex said sharply, perhaps even with warning in his voice.
Sheppard let out a breath, his shoulders slumping, then stiffening. "No," he said. "No, McKay, of course we aren't." He exchanged another long look with Ronon, and then the two of them moved forward together to pick the boy up.
Rodney tried to protest, but couldn't quite manage it.
Too many questions were repeated in the darkness, sounding over and over in John's head, audible in the rumble of the wheels, in the sound of hooves on the road.
It was best not to answer them, he thought. He focused on the easy things, the immediate things. After nearly two years as a fugitive, he knew how to treat simple injuries. He knew how to check that a wounded person was still breathing. He knew how to keep his ears open for the sound of pursuit, and he knew how to blend into the shadows and encourage pursuers to ride past without stopping.
Two miles passed before he allowed them a lantern. The light showed Ronon like a statue on the bench, while McKay fidgeted next to him, all anxious movements. "So now I'm in the company of three fugitives," McKay said. "Three. It was two just an hour ago. That's a rate of increase of… quite a lot. Half as much again. I am sure some mathematical formula could be applied."
"So you should have four and a half of us by this time next week," John said. He could still feel breathing beneath his hand, and a steady heartbeat at the throat.
"This one, at least, we'll soon get rid of," McKay said, twisting in the bench, light falling only on one side of his face. "You do intend to dump him, don't you - shove him in the direction of an ale-house or a nice, plump farmer? We don't need a boy in our happy band. Unless he can make comfits?" His voice rose hopefully. "Or sew. We do have a balloon to make, after all. Can boys sew? What do boys do?"
"Weren't you a boy yourself?" John said. It was easier to talk about such things than about the things that really needed to be talked about. "Or did you spring from Jove's head like Athena, ready armed with your wits?"
"Maybe he was a girl, not a boy," Ronon said. It was the first thing he had said for over a mile. Something inside John eased just a little bit. "Mistress McKay." He flashed a quick smile, bright in the lantern light.
John had expected McKay to splutter in outrage, but he just sniffed, straightening his doublet. "Of course I wasn't like the other boys. The other boys played at ball; I wrote a treatise - in Latin, naturally - on the motion of the ball after it left their hands. Parabolic, you know?" He let out a breath. "Of course, they were usually throwing it at…" He stopped, and sat more still after that.
The heartbeat continued, strong and steady. There was a hidden compartment in the floor of the cart, and John had already dug beneath the canvas to open it, extracting the herbs and bandages. He could find little sign of serious injury, though, just bruises and the evidence of riding too far and too fast without stopping for food and drink.
"It is my house," McKay said, sounding almost petulant. "At least the two of you are quite shoddy fugitives, as fugitives go. I think you misinformed me about your importance, you know. Those soldiers went right past you without going into a tirade of excitement about 'it's him! The notorious traitor is unmasked!' I'm beginning to think that the hideous torture isn't going to happen at all."
"I do apologise," John said. The heartbeat began to change beneath his hand.
"But this boy," McKay said, "has soldiers - real, live soldiers - chasing him now. This boy puts the hideous torture right back on the menu. If we keep him, that is." Neither John nor Ronon said anything. "If you carry him into my house." The horse walked a few more steps. Faint lights showed villages in the distance. "My house," McKay said plaintively. "You just came crashing in without a by-your-leave."
"Made comfits, though," Ronon said. It silenced McKay in the way that a bullet to the chest would silence a different sort of man.
The breathing quickened. John removed his hand and sat back, surrounded by the materials needed to give him wings, cocooned in canvas. The light was faint, just enough to see the eyes that opened and looked at him.
"You are John Sheppard?" The voice was little more than a whisper.
John found that his hand was resting on his dagger. God help me, he thought, but he couldn't stop himself. He didn't answer, neither to confirm nor deny it. When people knew your name, of course, your fate was already set, and the only thing that could get you out of it was your sword or your wits or plain blessed luck.
The boy was a woman, of course; John had known that almost from the start. She struggled to sit up, and John let her. "I need to go," she said. "I have very important tidings…"
"Will a delay of a day make a difference to the tidings?" John asked.
Yes! the woman's body cried out, but at length she shook her head, resting back slowly on the canvas. "It will not," she said.
John released his grip on his knife. "You're hurt," he said. "I don't think it's bad, but I'd wager you haven't slept in a proper bed for a while. Besides, those men'll be scouring the roadside, looking for you. Come back with us, and you can change your clothes, get a new horse, and set out from a completely different direction tomorrow."
McKay cleared his throat. When no-one said anything, he cleared it again and then again, until he broke into a paroxysm of coughing. Ronon clapped him on the back, and then he coughed some more. "You oaf!" he managed, between coughs. "Are you… trying to… kill me?" He waved his hand desperately. "My house."
"It's only for a night," John said. "I expect she can sew, too. Ladies usually can."
"What lady?" McKay pressed his hand to his chest, as if that could physically suppress his coughs. "What? What?" His voice was briefly almost a squeak. "He's a woman? He's a… he's not a he but a she? A woman? But he climbed a tree. He's wearing breeches. Women don't wear breeches. I used to think that women didn't even have legs, you know, but flared out from the waist like a flat-bottomed tankard. Mind you, I was fift-- eight at the time. Four. "
"I assure you that we do have legs," the woman said. "I apologise if I have shocked you, but the disguise was necessary."
McKay frowned. "Are you sure you're a woman?"
"I believe the evidence is quite conclusive," the woman said.
"But you can't turn down a request from a lady." McKay was twisting his hands together nervously, his voice still harsh from recent coughing. "I'll have to invite you in and entertain you, and I haven't got a parlour full of nosegays or a troupe of madrigal singers or pretty handkerchiefs or a spinning wheel or delicate things, and… and there are images of the human form in the treatises on anatomy on my shelves, all entirely without their clothes on, and what if a lady should stumble on such things by accident?"
"So you're inviting her in, McKay?" John asked.
"Yes," McKay said. "Yes. Yes. I have to, don't I? Oh, this is so unexpected. I'll have to wash the bed hangings." He turned to the woman. "Are you really sure you're a woman?"
"I am very sure," she said, and for the first time since they had seen her, she smiled.
Teyla had been a maid of honour to the Princess Elizabeth when Sir John Sheppard had been the most daring and accomplished of Protector Somerset's cherished pilots. If he had shown little interest in court life, that had only added to his appeal. The other ladies blushed into their handkerchiefs and fluttered sighing in his oblivious wake. Teyla only watched, and put him neither on her list of allies nor her list of those who could not be trusted, but on a list of his own. John Sheppard had loyalties, yes, but she doubted they were to princes.
But then King Edward had died, and Sheppard, along with the other surviving pilots, had been arrested. It was only the wildest and quietest of rumours that told of his escape, and they had spread for a month or two, and then gone silent. But Teyla's business was to chase down rumours and find the truth behind them. Sir John Sheppard, she knew, had suffered in prison, before his friend, Ronon Dex from the Marches, had done the impossible and broken him out.
She had not known what had become of them after that. Although she still chased rumours, the ones she had sought for the past year were rumours that struck far closer to home than tales of a rider of the wind whose heart called no man master.
And now he had surfaced here, not far away from her goal, with Dex still at his side. The moon was bright enough to show the outline of the house he was taking her to. It was a pale house, made of the soft yellow limestone common to these parts, surrounded by an ill-tended garden. The house belonged to Doctor Rodney McKay, the man who had designed the flying machines, and who had filled the hallways and corridors of power with boasting about it.
Doctor McKay had never been on her list of allies, either. Teyla's business was secrets; McKay kept a secret no longer than a duck's back kept a drop of water. It disturbed her to be forced to trust him, but she was desperate. Sheppard was more astute than he looked, and he had chosen to reveal the truth of her sex to McKay. Whatever else Sheppard was, she knew that he was not malicious. He must have considered it worth the risk.
Or maybe he just had a strange sense of honour when it came to keeping secrets from his host. If he did, then she… she envied him, she thought. Once, long ago, she had been open and honest, too, before necessity and a harsh world had put an end to that.
"I hope it won't offend decency if we put you in the bed Ronon and I have been using," Sheppard said, as he went with her up the stairs, lighting her way with a candle. "McKay appears to have sold all the other spare beds, doubtless to an unscrupulous peddler who gave him a ducat for the lot of them."
Teyla hurt in every bone. It was exhaustion, pure and simple, that had made her faint. She had followed the trail for weeks until she had found what she had been looking for, and then had ridden for three days, hunted for her life for two of them.
"I believe I started to offend decency many years ago," she said. Living as she did, she had learnt not to be coy about accepting help when it was given. Her need for a bed tonight was greater than Sheppard's. If Teyla was rested, her mistress might live; it was as simple as that.
Sheppard paused on the lantern. Two years had changed him greatly, she realised, casting shadows on his soul even deeper than the shadows the candlelight cast on his face. "Did you recognise us…?" he began,
Teyla shook her head. "Not at first. Only when I emerged from the trees." Weariness almost felled her. She grabbed for the support of the wall, and Sheppard's hand ghosted over her back, not quite sure whether it should hold her up. She found herself strangely touched by his reticence.
Sheppard withdrew her hand. "I've seen you before."
Not enough to know her name, then. It did not surprise her; his focus always had been elsewhere. "Teyla Emmagen," she said, because she had already trusted him with her life, and she had long knives hidden in her clothes, and knew how to use them.
He nodded slowly. "You served Princess Elizabeth." They reached the bedroom. Sheppard passed Teyla the light, but remained at the door, perhaps mindful of propriety.
"I still do," Teyla said.
There were so few people she could trust, and even fewer that she could confide in. They will expect you to have loyal men to work as your agents, Teyla had said to the princess years before, but they will not expect to see a woman. At first she had done her work while clothed in the proper garb of a gentlewoman, moving through the circles within circles that formed the court. Then King Edward had died, and Princess Elizabeth had no longer been favoured. A year after that, Thomas Wyatt, rash fool that he was, had raised a rebellion to kill Queen Mary and put Princess Elizabeth on the throne. Wyatt had died a traitor's death, but Princess Elizabeth, innocent focus of his plot, had paid a price almost as great.
"She is under close arrest at Woodstock," Teyla said, sitting down wearily on the edge of the bed. The light flickered, showing her echoes of the things that she had seen. "We were not allowed to accompany her, and she is allowed no communication with the outside world. There are some in the Queen's circle who still desire the death of my princess."
"Some?" Sheppard said, just a shadow in the door.
Oh, but she was too weary to fence with words. "A man called Kolya," Teyla said. "The man who had you tortured. He is planning to kill the princess, and I am the only person who knows this, the only person who can save her life."
Ronon was plucking snatches of old airs on the lute. Floorboards creaked above him, and a low wordless hum of talking drifted down the stairs. Ronon wove the music around the sounds, then added in an old Border song, stripped of its words that told only of revenge and slaughter.
'We belong to a good family,' his mother had told him, 'as noble and as ancient as the soft lords and ladies in the south. I will not have it said that we are lacking in manners, for all the harshness of the land we live in.' And so Ronon had spent the morning with sword and buckler, and the afternoon learning tunes in the parlour. He had returned from the Hot Trod, bloody and exhausted, to practise dancing the pavane with his mother's ladies.
He had forgotten how much he had valued music once. His fingers, stiffened by the sword and by rough living, tripped over notes that had once been fluid, but it was enough. It was enough.
At length the sound of talking ceased. Ronon changed to a quiet tune, one with few memories attached to it. Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Sheppard came in, as Ronon had known he would. The fire was faint, just a few tongues of flame lapping the edges of the logs, but not yet consuming them. Ronon watched his fingers moving slowly on the strings, and he watched Sheppard beyond them, as he stepped over McKay's papers until he reached the stool.
"She's uncovered a plot," Sheppard said. Ronon reached a cadence, then stopped the tune, pressing his hand on the strings to silence their lingering resonance. "Some of the Spaniards at court intend to kill Princess Elizabeth the morning after Lady Day."
Dates meant little when each day was about trying to survive, and when high days and holidays were closed to you. Lady Day was the twenty-fifth of March, the first day of the new year. By the stars and by the buds on the trees, Ronon imagined that it was in a week or two.
"Eight days," Sheppard said. His hands were very still in his lap, held between his knees. "Fortunately, the princess is imprisoned at Woodstock, which is just a few hours' ride from here. Mistress Emmagen can deliver the warning, the plot will be averted, job done, happy ever after."
Ronon ran his fingers up and down the smooth belly of the lute. "So she's going tomorrow, then?" His thumb struck a note, but his other hand was still silencing the strings. "And after that we carry on as we were?"
Sheppard stood up and moved to the window, showing Ronon only his back. "You thought I'd refuse to help. Back there. I could tell. You thought I'd let them take her."
Ronon put the lute down. "I… wasn't sure."
Even from behind, you could still read a man. Sheppard's hand tightened on the edge of the window frame, and the muscles of his neck were very stiff. "You thought I'd let his men - his men - take her away because I didn't want to risk our cart-load of supplies."
Ronon didn't like to lie, and never to Sheppard. "I didn't think you would," he said, "but--"
"Because I was tempted to." Sheppard's fist clenched. For a moment, Ronon thought he was going to smash it right through the glass. "God knows, I was tempted. Not for long. Not seriously. But…"
"I know." Ronon remained sitting, his hand on the silent lute.
"You don't know what it's like to fly," Sheppard said. "It's like… Ronon, I wasn't properly alive before I flew. I can't lose that. I can't. But it isn't… I'm not…" He half turned, but not enough for Ronon to see his face. "He's the one behind the plot. Kolya. I said we'd help her get the news through - escort her to Woodstock, and help her if there's opposition on the road." His voice rose slightly, almost as if he was seeking approval; as if he wanted Ronon to give him his blessing and reassure him that he wasn't entirely damned.
"Then that's what we'll do," Ronon said, standing up at last, with one last, quick touch of the lute. "We'll need horses, though. You think McKay'll lend us the money for them?"
Sheppard's smile was grateful. "Sweeten the request with comfits, and he'll do anything."
The flames moved to the untouched log at last, flooding the room with light.
How was Rodney supposed to work with a lady in the house? Sometimes he got so caught up in his very important work that he didn't worry about egg stains on the front of his shirt, and what of it, eh? But ladies didn't think it was nothing. Ladies bothered about things like that. In Sir Thomas Malory's famous book - fanciful nonsense, of course, but his mother had liked it - brave knights never won fair ladies with egg stains on their armour.
He couldn't find any egg stains today, though, although he checked himself over three times. With a bowl of new comfits at his side, he arranged himself at the desk in his study in a pose that suggested unstinting application at matters of the mind.
The lady in question appeared some time after ten of the clock; Rodney didn't know exactly what time it was, on account of having left his watch on the far side of the bowl of comfits. She knocked prettily on his open door, and even gave a slight curtsey, although the effect was rendered disturbing by the fact that she was still wearing man's array.
"I apologise for retiring so soon last night without proper introduction." She spoke like a gentle-born lady. Hearing such a voice from someone wearing a boy's clothes was as incongruous as hearing a quack come out of the mouth of a cat, or… or delicate lute tunes come from a man like Dex. It threw Rodney even deeper into confusion. The tip of his pen snapped, with the usual messy results. He covered it with a sweep of his shielding arm. "My name is Teyla Emmagen," the lady said. "And you are Doctor Rodney McKay. I remember you from the late king's court."
"I don't remember you," Rodney said, but perhaps that was rude; perhaps you shouldn't say such things to a lady. He tried to make things better, like a… whoever it was who mended fences. "Mind you, I don't remember many people. I've never seen any point in remembering names. What is a name but a meaningless collection of sounds? I don't think it should matter if you forget one once in a while."
His sleeve made the small splash of spilled ink larger, and everything he did to clear it up just made it worse and worse. Perhaps there was a moral lesson in that, he thought. He pressed his mouth shut, and resolved to say nothing else.
Of course, he remembered belatedly, the woman, lady, female… er… person had called him 'doctor' without prompting. "Do you, uh, need food?" he asked. "Potage? Wine? I haven't got any, but how hard can it be to make; it's simple alchemy, after all. Do you need women's clothing? I haven't got any of that, either, but Kavanagh… He hasn't got any, either, but he can run along to somewhere or other and get some. I've got money now, you know? Rent. Lots of it. Or do you need, uh… flowers, or… or a comfy chair, or jewellery, or a yapping lap dog or a little cat…?"
"I need nothing," the lady said with a smile. Mistress Emmagen, he corrected himself. His eyes kept bouncing off her like light from a polished surface, reflecting off it at an angle equivalent to the angle at which it hit. Ladies weren't supposed to have legs.
Rodney decided that he was probably quite relieved when Sheppard and Dex came crashing in from the garden in their unambiguously masculine way. Sheppard's legs might be irritating, but they were a relief to see after the lady's. "We've got horses," Sheppard said.
"Horses," Rodney echoed. He helped himself to a handful of comfits, and decided that he would offer some to Mistress Emmagen later, perhaps in an hour or two. "How much of my money did you pay for them?"
Sheppard named a figure. Rodney decided not to hear it. When he had sold his father's horses, he had received a mere tenth of that per creature. Perhaps that travelling peddler hadn't been an entirely scrupulous man. It was a sad sign of the fallen times that they lived in.
"Got saddles, too," Dex said. He named a somewhat less alarming price.
Rodney humphed, and tilted the comfit bowl towards Dex, suggesting to him that it was almost empty, and encouraging him to think of the remedy for that.
"I will pay you back," Sheppard said earnestly, "for everything."
Rodney flapped his hand, faltered a little when he realised that such a promise could actually be a threat, then resumed the gesture. "Anything for a fair lady," he said.
The lady singularly failed to melt or simper at his words. "We need to leave immediately," she said. "Are you sure…?"
"Yes," Sheppard said flatly. Dex looked at him. Sheppard returned the look with an unblinking, defiant gaze, or maybe he just had indigestion; if the eyes were a window into a man's soul, Rodney didn't know how to open the shutters.
"You're going now?" Rodney looked from man to… er… not man. "All of you?"
Sheppard had explained it the night before: threat to the princess Elizabeth, dastardly plot, urgent need for haste, innocent virgins to save, etcetera etcetera. "Now," he said, "if Mistress Emmagen is well enough."
"I am well enough," the lady said, probably resolutely, or possibly just feeling sick.
Rodney watched them turn to go. He made an inarticulate sound in the back of his throat, as if words wanted to push their way out, but he didn't know what they were. Sheppard heard it, if no-one else did. "Even if we are caught," he said, "you won't be implicated. We'll say you imposed on our hospitality without telling you what our true business was. If we run into opposition, we won't come back." He looked at Dex, a quick glance. "At least, not until the dust has settled."
Rodney said nothing at all. The lady just nodded this time, more like a man than a woman. She left first, hurrying away, eager to be gone. Dex followed without a word. Sheppard gave a slight bow, perhaps mocking, or perhaps not, then spun on his heels to go.
"I'll be able to get on with my work when you've gone," Rodney said. Sheppard took a step to go. "Of course," Rodney added, "my Mark IV machine is no use without someone to fly it." Another step. "And there's plenty of sugar left, enough for at least three more batches." Another step. "And the canvas is still on the cart, and I'm not going to lift it down."
Sheppard stopped, half turned enough for Rodney to see his brief smile, and then he was gone.
It was several months since Teyla had been to Woodstock. Her princess was a close prisoner, and although there were ways to communicate with her, they were dangerous, and could not be over-used for fear of compromising them. Teyla did her best work far away from the princess that she served.
She had woken in the morning to find her body aching more than she had thought possible, but she had pushed the pain aside, put on her clothes, and now once more sat astride a horse, engaged in the business that had consumed her life for the past years.
"Why the day after Lady Day?" Sheppard asked, as they passed over open fields, with no possibility of anyone overhearing. Labourers worked far away, a dog barked from a distant farm, but no-one moved closer than that.
Teyla shook her head. "I was unable to learn the nature of the plot."
"If she is murdered in captivity," Sheppard said, "that could be the spark that lights the fires of full-blown rebellion. Even many people sympathetic to the Roman religion will be repulsed by the murder of a daughter of the late King Henry."
"They'll make it look like an accident," Dex said. "Nothing they can be blamed for. Eliminate the problem, but don't take the blame for it."
"Indeed," Teyla agreed, "which is why I am so anxious to carry the warning. A staged accident can be avoided if fore-warned."
"And someone being held down by half a company and having their throat slit can't be." Sheppard said it lightly, but seemed to lose the heart for it half way through.
Teyla gripped the reins tightly. If Kolya and his men planned to murder the princess by force, there was nothing that Teyla could do about it. A company of armed men was the only thing that could help, but raising such a company would be seen as rebellion. The princess had only narrowly escaped execution after Wyatt's rebellion. Any further hint of armed rebellion would lead her to be put on trial for sure.
And perhaps, she thought, disquiet stabbing in her chest… Perhaps she had been intended to overhear what she had overheard, to goad her and the princess' supporters into a rash act that would discredit their mistress for ever. Perhaps the only way to save her princess was to walk away.
No, she thought, because Kolya's men had given chase and had gone to great lengths to try to catch her and silence her. The danger was real. The plot was real. She had to do this. She had to.
But to do this with others at her side… A spy worked alone, and Teyla had long since stopped denying that she was a spy. If a spy worked with others, they were people she trusted more than anyone else alive. Sheppard and Dex did not fall into that category, but being a spy forced you to use any weapons available to you, and to strike low blows. Teyla had told Sheppard about Kolya's involvement; that was a low blow. Sheppard's eyes had darkened with pain, but then everything had been subsumed in a taut mask. But Sheppard had been won over, perhaps, and where Sheppard went, Dex went.
Their path took them through a coppice, darkness shadowing the road. Teyla had not needed to warn the other two about talking in places that could hide unseen watchers. They talked of inconsequential things, like two yeomen and a boy heading to market. "To market, to market, to buy a fat pig," Sheppard murmured.
"Home again, home again, jiggety-jig." Teyla remembered the rhyme from her childhood, chanted by the nurse she would never see again.
Home again, she thought. Home again… But a spy had no home, and Teyla saw no prospect of ever living in any other way than this. She would not incite rebellion or encourage fanatics who wanted to kill the queen, but without such things, what would be the end of it?
It had been clouding over throughout the morning, and a fine rain was thickening the air when they emerged from the trees. All three of them twisted in the saddle to look over their shoulders, moving in unison, each one driven by their different experiences of life as a hunted fugitive.
"I will do the final part alone," Teyla said, when she knew that the way was still clear.
The rain grew heavier. Sheppard settled his hand more squarely on his head. "They'll be looking for a boy by himself. We're your protection in more ways than one."
"I know," she said, "which is why I accepted your offer of an escort." Or manipulated him into making the offer, but it was better not to say that. "However, the final approach is through secret ways that are best trodden just by one. You should stay on the public road. You might… distract attention for a while, but that is all." She managed a smile, because she was grateful, really she was, that these near-strangers were willing to risk the lives for her cause. "I have no desire to endanger you," she said softly. "You, too, are wanted men."
"Oh, only a little," Sheppard said with a shrug, but she had picked up reports in dark, underground places, and she had a fair idea of what scars he wore under his clothes.
"No," she said firmly, because already they were approaching her princess' prison, glimpsing the nearby town beyond the fields. "I thank you for escorting me this far, but…"
Had it not been raining, perhaps she would have seen the soldiers earlier, but there was no sunlight to glint off their breastplates and their guns. As it was, Dex saw them first, raising his hand sharply in warning. Sheppard reached over and pushed his arm down. "There's no reason why they should suspect us," he said quietly. "Innocent farmers on their way to market, remember? If we turn and run now…"
They carried on walking, the horses' hooves sounding dull in the thickening mud. Teyla's mouth went very dry. She could see them now - a small company of them guarding the road. She would have to pass them to reach her secret way.
The soldiers had seen them. "Kolya's men," Dex said quietly, his eyes even keener than her own.
Sheppard's knuckles were white on the reins. "He'll have some excuse for planting them here," he said. "Some imaginary threat, perhaps even one to the princess herself. And, by doing so, he prevents anyone from carrying a warning."
The rain fell heavier and heavier. Already the town was disappearing, lost in low cloud. I cannot do this, Teyla thought. The soldiers blocked their way, and they knew her, they knew her. But the others, with as much to lose as she had from capture, were walking on, going brazenly into the very mouth of Hell rather than back down. "No." The word felt as if it was ripped out of her, but even then it sounded quiet in the rain. "We have to turn back."
"It'll look suspicious," Sheppard pointed out.
"Better than walking unarmed into the lion's den," Teyla said.
They turned their horses heads around. The soldiers fired on them before they had gone a dozen yards.
Rodney was overwhelmed with silk. There were cracks in the walls of the stable, and they made the silk billow like an unruly cloak on a stormy day. He tried to fold it up so it didn't get dirty, but soon came to the conclusion that although the human body was the embodiment of perfection in form and ratio, made the very image of God, and all that, it was not suited to wrangling recalcitrant silk.
"I need to be nine feet tall," Rodney gasped, "with as many arms as a hydra."
Old straw got caught up in things. A peacock feather managed to appear from somewhere. "I don't need the silk yet, anyway," Rodney told it, sniffing haughtily. "It's far too early for that. Besides, sewing the silk is menial work. Done under supervision, of course." He bundled the silk up again and thrust it into the cart, stuffing in armful after armful. It seemed to take up twice as much space as it had done before he had started to master it.
The hydra preyed on his mind as he returned to the house. He had a vague feeling that they had a lot of heads, but only the usual quantity of arms. Maybe he meant 'Cyclops'. "But they're all only stupid stories," he said. Kavanagh was glowering over dough in the kitchen, making his usual tasteless bread. "How many arms does a Cyclops have?" Rodney asked him as he passed.
Kavanagh sniffed. "One, of course. Odysseus cut it off." He said it with an air of I can't believe you don't know that. But he didn't know how to make a Mark IV Aeronautical Machine fly.
Rodney headed into the parlour. His mother's lute had been placed on the bench, doubtless just cast down there by the uncivilised rogues who had invaded his house. The room seemed quiet without music from the lute, and cold without the fire in the hearth, although he hadn't lit the fire in here for over a year, until Sheppard and Dex had come here and decided to make free with chopping logs. His papers were entirely ruined, scattered across the floor where Sheppard and Dex had left them when they had been clearing places to sit.
"At least I can put things back to rights now they're away," Rodney muttered. He pushed up his sleeves and got to work on the scattered papers…; on the neat piles of scattered papers…; on the neat piles that preserved the original order perfectly, while still allowing the room to look something like a parlour, with actual places to sit, and everything.
"Hmph," he grunted angrily. On the way to his study, he popped his head into the kitchen. "Put spices in the bread," he commanded. "It's barely edible otherwise."
There were no fresh comfits in his study. His books sat there neatly all in a row, waiting for him to ask them to convey their wisdom. He had paper and pen and a whole reservoir of wisdom waiting to spill out into words and diagrams. He had silence in the house to think. For the first time in a week, he didn't have inconvenient outlaws who were likely to draw down the wrath of the Queen on his head. He didn't have lute-playing and impertinence and the sound of wood being chopped outside the window.
"At last," he said, stretching out his toes, "I've got a chance to carry on with my very important work."
Smells drifted in from the kitchen. They were not inviting. He looked at his watch, and saw that barely two hours had passed since Sheppard, Dex and the disconcerting lady had left. He dipped his pen in the ink, then held it in the air until all the ink had dried up.
Had they been captured yet? He went to the window, but all he could see was a rain-soaked knot garden, and some soggy magpies in a tree. They might be dead in a ditch by now, or captured for hideous torture. They might be blurting out his name even now, and he had an almost-finished… well, a half-finished… He had a just-started Mark IV Aeronautical Machine in his stable, and the Queen had expressly ordered him not to make such things again.
He returned to his desk; dipped his pen again. Another hour passed. He wrote four lines. Unthinking, his pen drew nasty things in the margin, like chains and a gallows and a sad-looking frog. He scored them out, and wrote nineteen words about the problem of negotiating turbulent air.
How quiet the house was, how quiet! He returned to the window, to peer out into the rain. "I don't want to be arrested," he told the absent Sheppard, who had ruined his paperwork somehow; Rodney just hadn't yet discovered the bit that he'd ruined. "I don't…" He thought of the machine taking shape in the stable. "I want to make it," he said. "I want to see it fly." And it wouldn't fly unless Sheppard kept himself alive, and came back to fly it.
And it wouldn't be made at all, he realised, unless Sheppard and Dex were here to help him. "Because I wouldn't dare to do it by myself," he said quietly, "without them as the spur." His breath frosted the cold window. He wiped it off. There was still no-one outside. Of course there wasn't; they hadn't yet had time to get there and back, even if nothing went wrong.
The room was cold. The kitchen would be warmer, he thought, so he went there and watched Kavanagh work, and talked to him occasionally of many things.
It was only when the bread was warm in his hands, smelling spicy and unprecedentedly lovely, that he remembered.
"The Cyclops only had one eye," he said, snapping his fingers. "Ha! I was right!"
The bread was indeed delicious. It was enough to make him benevolent and munificent, so he allowed Kavanagh to help him with his flying machine, and he even cast some pearls of wisdom in his direction as he worked.
There was nowhere to hide. The guns cracked, but it was too far, surely it was too far for them to hit. "Back to the trees!" Teyla heard Sheppard say, his voice muffled by rain and by her desperation.
They wheeled off the road. "Separate!" Dex shouted. "Split the target."
"But not too far apart." Sheppard was bent over his horse's neck, urging it forward. They left the track and headed for the nearest coppice, in a strung-out chain with Sheppard at the front.
The threat of the soldiers behind them was blunted, Teyla knew. By the time they reloaded their arquebuses, Teyla and the others would be safely out of range. Even if they discarded their clumsy firearms and mounted in order to give pursuit, Teyla and her companions had a start on them. But they had weary horses, too, and no strategy planned in advance. Teyla had never faced gunfire before. Her horse's hooves pounded, and rain whipped at her face. Pain flooded her body with every jolt of the saddle. It was hard not to be afraid.
"Where shall we go?" she shouted over the noise, because basic human instinct cried at her to go away, to go away as fast as she could, but her princess was ahead of her and Teyla needed to carry her warning.
"Cover," Sheppard said, but not pointing, not giving things away. Ronon looked over his shoulder, but whatever he saw there, he did not say.
The coppice bore down on them, the trees whipping from side to side with the rhythms of the gallop. Then two men took shape at the edge of it, wearing black, blending into the shadows of the trees. They fired their arquebuses, two flashes of fire barely thirty yards away.
The horses were sturdy, accustomed to being ridden by farmers and their stout sons. Sheppard's horse pranced, and he had to fight to keep control of it. Dex's continued without slowing almost to the tree-line itself, then shied sideways, loathe to enter. The soldiers drew back behind the trees. Their shots are spent, Teyla told herself, as she urged her horse to slow down into a trot. Her job was quiet one, where words were exchanged in the shadows, and people died only when they needed to, from an intimate knife by someone who stayed to hear their final breath. A weapon that could cut someone down at a distance had always horrified her. But they cannot hurt me, she told herself, unless I let them get close.
Trees were cover. Trees made everyone alike, forced to live by wits and the knife. Keep calm, she told herself, as she entered the shadowed places. Her horse moved slowly, avoiding roots and branches.
Then she heard a sound behind her; turned in the saddle to see Dex bent low, grasping the right hand of a black-clad soldier who was trying to stab him in the thigh. Sheppard hurled himself from his horse, grappling the second soldier, dragging him to the ground. They fought for the arquebus, swinging it like a club. Then Sheppard twisted, avoiding a knife that Teyla had not seen drawn; the rain and the trees made a blur of things.
"See if you can get through," Sheppard gasped, meeting her eyes. "We'll handle it here." He pushed himself up, panting, a bloody knife in his hand, as a soldier slumped to the ground. Sheppard snatched up the arquebus, and left the trees, mounting with one hand. Dex, Teyla saw, was still on his horse, a soldier crumpled at his feet. Sheppard had shown no sign of noticing him, but Teyla knew suddenly that this was only because he had never stopped being aware of him. These men had fought for at each other's side many times before.
And still she sat. Were they meaning to hold off all comers, to buy her the time to take her message, even with their lives? It was the right thing to do, of course, and she should take the chance offered, but…
"The others aren't coming," Dex said sharply.
"A trap, then." Sheppard urged his horse into the trees and set off into the heart of them.
"Or they fear a trap." Dex looked at Teyla as if she was supposed to understand.
Sheppard nodded briskly. They wove through trees, going in one direction, then veering sharply to travel in another. The rain filled the wood with sound, so the noise of their passage was less than it should have been. "A trap could be arranged," he said with a grim smile. The smile turned almost mocking when he looked at Teyla. "What say you, my lady? Shall we dispose of those gentlemen on yonder road to let you go sallying through?"
Sheppard's arm was soaked in blood, she saw, from a broad rent in the top of his sleeve, and the hand on the arquebus was stiff and pale. Dex had a gash across his thigh, and two soldiers lay still on the edge of the wood, perhaps dead. "You are hurt," she said.
"Just a scratch." Sheppard shrugged. Dex looked sharply at him, but accepted his obvious lie.
This was normal for them, she realised. She felt lost, as if the pain of her aching body was driving out all thought. She had been in control. She had manipulated Sheppard and Dex to come here with her today. And this is the end result, she thought, with knives and bullets and a cold, empty death.. She pulled the strings, but somewhere, far away and out of sight, people died because of the seeds that she planted and the messages that she sent. Armed just with secrets, she had the power to end lives. She could kill at a distance more effectively than any arquebus.
And she had known this. She had always known this, but…
Teyla let out a slow breath. Rain fell down from the bare branches, cold against the skin of her neck. "If this way is guarded," she said, "the others will be. If they are refraining from pursuing us, it is because they believe they have encouraged us to seek an alternative route, where the resistance is even greater." Manipulation was something she knew about, after all.
Sheppard was still moving forward, but they were nearing the far edge of the coppice. "Of course," he said, "they might be following us, after all, just in sneaky ways that we haven't noticed."
Dex nodded. "Or they're lying in wait-- In God's name, Sheppard, give me that. You can hardly hold it." His hand lashed out towards the arquebus, but he was gentle when he came to take it, prizing it from Sheppard's resisting hand. Sheppard glowered, but took the chance that had been offered to him, pressing his forearm against his middle to keep his injured arm still.
The trees thinned with every step. Shapes moved beyond the trees, but perhaps they were only branches in the wind, and the slanting fall of heavy rain. Not far away, she heard the sound of cattle, disconsolate in the cold.
"So what say you, my lad?" Sheppard's voice was quiet, but he spoke now as if people could hear.
Teyla's trade was in whispers, and her reply was quieter still. "I have no desire to throw your lives away. We find another way, another day."
And then they emerged into the light, and rain fell in their faces, but the fields ahead of them were clear, with nothing but rooks mustering in the trees to watch them as they fled.
This portrait shows Teyla Emmagen in the garb of a noble lady in waiting. Did the painter know what secrets she hid beneath her stately exterior? Iconographers have come up with various theories about the patterns on her dress, ranging from "they're just decoration" to "they contain a coded message relating to a forthcoming attack on the Low Countries." The true answer, we fear, will never be known.
Dex was dead. Sheppard was cracking under torture, telling important scary people in the Queen's government about how wonderful the illegal Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machines, Mark IV, were, and…
Come to think of it… Rodney cocked his head, briefly considering a hiatus in his consternation. No, no, it didn't matter if everyone in the Queen's circle thought that Doctor Rodney McKay was the cleverest person since Aristotle; the whole 'forbidden to indulge in this sort of work' was the key. Even Socrates had been executed in the end, and although his name had gone down in history as the epitome of wisdom, he was still, well… dead. And things had moved on since the days of death by hemlock. Executions were more painful now, with flames and disembowelling and things that just weren't right.
Rodney paced up and down, peering up at the dying light. "I can't die yet, anyway," he said. "Socrates had a Plato to record his wisdom for posterity. I need an acolyte." Kavanagh was scrubbing pots and didn't look up. He had a smear of flour on his nose. "And posterity's all very well…"
Rodney went outside again. The rain had almost stopped, but shallow puddles stood in the stable yard and dripped from the rosemary bushes and parsley. It seemed to grow darker by the minute, "because we're approaching the equinox," Rodney told his imaginary acolytes, preaching like Saint Francis to the sparrows and the bees, "and the time of the sunset moves fastest at the equinox, for reasons obvious even to a babe, getting later (or earlier, in the autumn) by around two minutes a day!"
The vowel turned into a cry of alarm. Someone was at the outer gate, opening it, opening it…
Rodney heard gravel crunching under his feet. He felt the wall of his house suddenly hard against his… posterior, he thought firmly, pre-empting a cruder word. "I… I knew you'd come back," he said, as Sheppard rode into the stable yard. His confidence was vindicated. Ha! His hand only trembled a little bit against the wall at his back, because the evening was cold.
The disconcerting lady was there, too; three was the sort of number that you could count instantly, just with a glance, without having to enumerate: Sheppard, Dex and the lady; one, two, three. "I thought you were…" He pushed himself away from the wall, and stood a little bit straighter. "Mistress Emmagen. Mistress Teyla. Mistress. My lady." He seemed to be heading into some sort of helix of words, that went round and round, changing only a little bit each time. "I thought…"
"But we came back." Sheppard remained in the saddle. The rain bleached him and made him look unhealthily pale. "The enemy pre-empted us. No way in. We ran them a merry dance, or maybe they ran us."
"Dance?" Rodney's tongue felt heavy. His mother had tried to teach him how to talk to ladies, but Euclid and the Almagest had sung a more urgent siren call.
"There was an ambush," Sheppard said. Dex dismounted, leaving his horse untended, and went to stand at Sheppard's stirrup. "We weren't pursued at first, but later a bit." His voice sounded blurry, like smoke drifting away into the gloom. "We took them on a long route. Went to ground in a barn for a while, to make them think that was our base if they were still watching us."
"They weren't," Dex said, without turning round.
"No. Seems not." Sheppard gave an absent smile. "So we left. Came back. We wouldn't have come back here unless we were sure."
The disconcerting lady dismounted, and took half a step towards Sheppard and Dex. Then she stopped, looking almost unsure, as if it had suddenly struck her how confusing it was to be a lady dressed as a man; perhaps she hadn't really noticed before. Dex shot her a look, and she collected herself, gave a brisk nod, and took both her own horse and Dex's into the stable. Three horses! Rodney thought. Three great hulking beasts to trample his lovely machine. "They'd better not eat silk for their dinner," he muttered, then frowned. "Sure?"
"That we weren't leading people here." Sheppard's gaze was suddenly intense, and as disconcerting in its way as the lady's legs. "Our choices are our own, but you… I won't let you suffer for them."
"Well." Rodney cleared his throat, suddenly not sure what to say. "So…" He cleared his throat again. "What now, then? Is the… lady going to give up?"
Sheppard dismounted stiffly, his foot brushing clumsily against the horse's back. Dex took a slight step back, letting Sheppard land on his own two feet, but still standing close, closer than Rodney thought people ought to stand. "We need a way to get to Woodstock Manor," Sheppard said, "that doesn't involve going by road or meeting inconvenient patrols." He whistled a strange, broken tune that Rodney didn't recognise, but then Dex took it up, whistling it true. If I had the wings of an eagle…
"Oh." Rodney let out a horrified breath. "Oh. You can't mean… But you said it had to be in eight days. Eight days! It won't be ready in eight days. It can't be. You're crazy even to think it. You can't!"
"But you can." Sheppard took a careful step, placing his foot down deliberately. Then he sighed, and with a curious half-shrug, he leant towards Dex. Dex put his arm around him, supporting his weight. There was an alarming quantity of blood on Sheppard's sleeve, Rodney noticed absently, as his mind went but…! but…! but…!
Sheppard looked back as they neared the kitchen door. "Thought you were clever, McKay."
"But… but… but…" The thoughts spilled out. Thus expressed, Rodney realised suddenly, they sounded mortifyingly like the clucking of a hen. He grasped at dignity, tugging down his doublet. "I can't work miracles."
Sheppard looked at him for a moment, blinking in the gloom. "Not alone, perhaps," he said. "But you aren't alone now. Are you?"
John hissed in pain as Ronon removed the make-shift bandage. "Arquebus ball," he spat, gripping the edge of his chair with his good hand. "These things normally can't hit the side of a barn at twenty paces."
"Hit you, though." Ronon had filled a large bowl with water from the well. It was already turning pink.
John shrugged with one shoulder. Ronon was as gentle as he could be while cleaning the wound, but the task couldn't be done with gentleness. "Only a bit of me."
"A bit of you's enough." Ronon wrang out the cloth. The ball had gouged a deep seam across John's upper arm. It wasn't bad in itself, but any wound could sicken and turn foul. People blamed the stars or foul miasmas in the air, but John put his faith in sheer, blind luck - that, and the skill of Ronon.
"I'm sure McKay can lend you his Vesalius," John forced out. Talking was something to cling to, to focus on through the pain. "It'll tell you in exquisite detail about the structure of the muscles of the-- God! Ow! -- of the… arm, and… and there are pictures, and lots of impressive Latin words, and--"
"And not a single word of sense about how keep this from killing you." Ronon's face was impassive. He had gathered herbs, too, and snatched a small pestle from the kitchen. Leaving John's arm open to the air, he started to grind them.
"It won't kill me," John said, with the stubbornness that had allowed him to jump off hills, entrusting himself to a frame of wood and canvas.
"Probably not." Ronon didn't look up. The small room began to fill with the scent of herbs, drowning out the sharp tang of blood and black powder. "This enterprise might."
John flexed his fingers, and felt the answering stab of pain from his upper arm. "Any enterprise might," he said, deflecting the blow. "Any day might."
Ronon paused, pestle in hand. "Are you sure about this? If you use your flying machine in Princess Elizabeth's cause…"
"Then it could be the end of this," John said. "The end of all this."
It should have been a hard decision. For nearly two years, John and Ronon had survived by staying out of sight, by refusing to take sides in the dissent that was spreading across the land. Even before that, at the court of King Edward, John had kept himself apart from politics and matters of faith. Unlike the other pilots, he had not joined the Duke of Northumberland's rebellion. He had not even been asked to.
Flying was everything. John had sought out McKay because the thought of his puddlejumper failing had been unthinkable. He had gone to Oxford, risking capture, because that was where the supplies were. He had swept people up into his dangerous wake, but the thought of changing his course had been more than he could bear.
But he had helped Mistress Emmagen, and he wanted to help her still. It should have felt huge, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but once that first hesitation was over, it just felt… easy, he thought, as if part of him had been waiting for a situation like this, and was slowly but surely taking its rightful place out of the shadows.
Ronon scooped out the ground herbs and began to mix them into poultice. "I know you never wanted to take sides."
"I'm not taking sides." The newly-cleaned wound was weeping blood, dark red on his upper arm. John touched the leading drop with the forefinger of his other hand. He heard the faint sounds that told that they were no longer talking unheard. Ronon didn't look up from his work, but John knew him well enough to know that Ronon was aware of it, too. "I'm just trying to save a princess," John said. "What cause can be more noble than that? Call me Sir John, knight in shining armour."
Ronon smiled, smearing the poultice onto the cloth. "Hardly shining."
"Tarnished, then. No, call that non-existent." John's arm throbbed. Worse pain was to come, he knew. "I guess I just don't like hearing about young ladies being murdered. Sides don't come into it."
"Everyone has to take sides," Mistress Emmagen said, coming silently into the room. "The state of England compels it. The gulf between Catholic and Protestant widens by the day. You have to pin your colours to one camp or the other."
"And many people count themselves as belonging to neither," John said placidly, because he had spent time with the common people in distant parts of the land, whose theology was idiosyncratic, and nothing that churchmen on either side would recognise. They were loyal to queen and princess alike, for all that they were rivals, rallying points for very different causes.
"You served the late King Edward, a fervent adherent of Protestant doctrine." Mistress Emmagen said. "The present Queen tried to have you executed for treason. By your friends and enemies are you judged."
John gripped the edge of the chair, his mind full of dark places and dark tidings. Your father is dead. "See," he said, "I prefer to choose my own side, and not be assigned to one because of whoever's decided to hate me today. Plenty of people hate me. You should see Ronon after a night in the tavern."
He had expected the lady to go on the offensive - the fanatic trying to win converts to her cause - but instead she crossed to the window seat and sat down on it heavily. "Unless you are devoted to my mistress' cause, I… I would rather you walk away. It has to be done by free choice. If you die…"
"Then I die because I've chosen to do this," John said. Ronon was very still, the firelight shining on him from behind, making his hair into a burning halo. "People are complicated, Mistress Emmagen. Even fanatics have whole dazzling array of motives. See, maybe I'm helping you because I crave excitement. Maybe I'm trying to impress you so you will look kindly on my suit. Maybe I'm a secret rebel with plans to bring down the Queen. Maybe your clever and timely mention of Kolya's name is what brought me in." She flushed a little at that. It was surprisingly hard to bring himself to say Kolya's name. "Does it matter," he asked, "if the result is the same?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, leaning against the stone recess of the uncovered window. "It does," she said, as if she was realising it for the first time. "It makes a difference to the person doing it. It makes a difference to you."
And perhaps she was right, but perhaps that was a thought for another day, because Ronon was standing up, with knife and cloth and bandages, and it was time to grit his teeth and to submit.
Sheppard was an impostor. He wasn't an outlaw, a rogue and a recipient of an ill-deserved knighthood; he was a slave-driver from the fleets of the Sultan in far-away wherever. He expected miracles. It was quite unreasonable, quite ridiculous, quite unnatural, quite heartless in the extreme for him to expect Rodney to perfect a flying machine in just eight days.
Rodney woke with the dawn to find Sheppard and Dex outside already, calmly chopping wood. He started work after breakfast, with pen and ink, with commands and orders, with coins and scurrying errands to various places to buy things that Rodney had forg-- that Sheppard had made him forget to buy.
It rained for an entire day. At some point, sacking appeared at the entrance to the stable, to stop muddy loutish footprints from marring the silk. Comfits appeared as if by magic between bedtime and morning. Kavanagh glowered sulkily when Rodney, juggling spoon and bowl and pen, proclaimed the stew to be the best one yet, "flavoured with tarragon," he asked, "and a spot of basil?" Kavanagh, fool that he was, said that he didn't know. Rodney waved him away, then called him back and told him to leave the rest of the stew.
Rodney made a small-scale experimental model. "It might be wiser not to use a rabbit for the maiden voyage," Sheppard said. One arm was in a sling, but the other held an axe in the manner of an off-duty pirate. "Let's have a turnip stand in for me. It must be the same sort of relative weight to the model as my weight is to the real thing."
Ten minutes later, the experimental craft was a blazing furnace in the gooseberry bushes. The smell of burnt turnip was surprisingly enticing. "I think it needs more work," Sheppard said, surveying the wreckage gravely.
"I'd like to see you do better," Rodney retorted, as rain made the flames fizzle and fade.
"I couldn't." Sheppard touched him briefly on the shoulder, the axe no longer in his hand. "The next one will work, just you see."
"It wasn't meant to be done in this short a time," Rodney wailed.
He went to his study to draw things and cross them out; draw things and cross them out. Cold stew fuelled his evening cogitations. It was well after midnight when he finally stumbled to bed, but sounds were still coming from outside, and he peered out into the darkness to see the shapes of Sheppard and Dex fighting with wickerwork. He wondered how Sheppard managed to do what he was doing with only one hand.
In the morning, Sheppard's face was etched with exhaustion, and Dex was hovering close to him. "I know the size and shape of the balloon, at least," Rodney announced. The comfit bowl was empty. "While I fine tune the means to make it fly true, the d-- the lady… Mistress Emmagen can sew it." He turned towards her, his eyes still sliding off her like a toddling child on a hill of ice. "You can sew?"
The disconcerting lady smiled. "The clothes that I wear have not entirely erased the skills my mother taught me."
It took many hours to cut the silk, but the four of them provided seven functional arms, such as would be the envy of any hydra. Dex proved early on that a sword was less effective than shears at cutting a controlled line in fabric. "Which is probably why members of the Guild of Tailors don't fence with their bales of fustian," Sheppard said. However, their ability with shears was somewhat lacking. Rodney couldn't be expected to excel, of course, since, hello? Man of intellect? Sheppard could be excused on account of only having one arm, but Dex attacked the silk like a dog worrying a flock of sheep, and in the end, the disconcerting lady politely but firmly threw the whole lot of them out of the stable and locked the door from the inside.
"I think we're in disgrace." Sheppard sank down heavily on the bench in the kitchen. "It's like being home with mother."
"If mother wore breeches." Dex pulled out a jug of wine from somewhere. Rodney watched it with narrowing eyes. Wine? Where…? How…? Dex might have bought it, of course, but a slow feeling of doubt started creeping through Rodney at the sight of it. Hadn't the house had a wine cellar once, long, long ago? He seemed to remember that now, and cellars… didn't… just… disappear.
Rodney took only a small glass of the stuff, and then just half as much for seconds, and half as much as that for thirds, so even if he kept going on for ever, he couldn't possibly have as many as two glasses, because that was "a proven math-e-mat-i-cal fact," he told the others, waving his finger around to show them the perfection of his point, "so you don't know what you're talking about when you say I can't hold my drink."
Thus vindicated, he went off and worked for the rest of the evening as if the angel Gabriel himself was dictating his words, covering page after page with shining wisdom. Unfortunately, something was wrong with the light, and he couldn't make much sense of it in the morning. Sheppard, cruel slave-driver that he was, refused to let him have any more wine the next night. "But it is mine," Rodney protested. "It is mine, isn't it?" Sheppard nodded that it was. Rodney tracked down the cellar door just before midnight - ha! he thought. I knew I had a cellar! - and found it locked.
Sheppard's movements were stiff the next morning, and Rodney knew that he, at least, had allowed himself wine, even as he had cruelly deprived Rodney. He and Dex had probably drunk themselves stupid, then done the sort of manly, bonding things that Rodney had seen soldiers doing in the war. Perhaps they'd even frolicked with the disconcerting lady.
When he had finished glowering through the window, Rodney wended his weary and justified way past the parlour, where he saw the disconcerting lady herself sitting there in a billow of silk, sewing it together with small, fine stitches. "My paperwork!" Rodney cried, but the lady smiled and pointed to where it had been moved yet again, still sitting in a semblance or order, but doubtless rotten underneath, like an allegory of smiling sin.
The second experimental model cleared the gooseberry bushes without mishap. Sheppard had pricked a smirking face on the turnip, and Rodney ran out onto the greensward to watch the contraption fly overheard. The turnip smirked out at him impassively. The tethering rope slipped through Rodney's fingers, but Dex leapt up like Arion's dolphin and grabbed the rope, keeping the model from flying away into the heavens. "Can't have questions asked," he said. The turnip fell out, and Dex dodged it nimbly.
They had turnip stew for dinner that night. "Although as the pilot of the real thing, I'd prefer it if this wasn't taken as precedent," Sheppard said, but he was only picking at his food. He left soon afterwards.
Rodney had never been in a room with Dex without Sheppard to bridge the gap. He swallowed a mouthful of stew. "Is Sheppard…?"
"In pain," Dex said. "He was shot. It's not healing right, though it isn't as bad as it could be. I think he'll get through this. All this work doesn't help."
Rodney blinked. "But… but I'm the one doing the work."
Dreams were strange that night. He woke just after dawn, and wandered downstairs in his robe and then, uncharacteristically, outside - actually outside! - into the morning. Dew was moist on the ground, and Sheppard was there, wrapped in a cloak, looking towards the east and the sunrise. "How long?" Rodney asked, because he suddenly realised that he had no idea how many days had passed. Time had little meaning when he was working, unless his stomach told him that it was time to eat.
"Four days," Sheppard said without turning round. "Four days until the new year starts."
"Four days." Rodney's hand rose to his mouth in consternation. "I can't do it in four days. We're making progress, but there's so much to do. And it's all highly illegal, of course. Hideous--"
"--torture, I know," Sheppard joined in. He pulled his cloak tighter, one hand visible at the front. "We're… taking steps. We ride out each day, one or other of us. They're searching for Teyla, but they clearly didn't recognise you that night on the road, or they'd have come here. They're still searching much closer to Woodstock. And Teyla has won… friends in the surrounding villages, and added them to her… network. If the search starts to edge closer to us, we'll know."
Rodney thought of wine and turnips, of laughter overheard in other rooms. "When did you do all this?"
Sheppard looked at him with sudden sharpness. "Did you think these last four days were a game to us? Were they a game to you?"
"No!" Rodney protested. "No, it's been miserable. You're a slave-driver. You expect the world from me. You think you can come here with an impossible demand, and it never crosses your mind that I might not be able to do it. And then I have to work, to work, work, work. I've made more progress in the last few days than I've made in months. If it works… If I do manage to meet your ridiculously impossible deadline, I'll have performed a feat of intellect greater than anything anyone has ever done." He rounded on Sheppard for his coup de grace, jabbing him in the chest. "And I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for you."
Sheppard just looked at him for a while, then entirely punctured the mood by smirking. It reminded Rodney of the turnip. "You're welcome," he said.
"You're welcome?" Rodney shouted furiously. "You're welcome?" The mighty galleon of his fury started faltering, its wheel stuttering. "Uh…" He made an inarticulate sound. "I don't… I can't…" The galleon founded and sank. "I'm enjoying myself," he said wonderingly. "This… this is fun. Apart from the risk of being captured and tortured, of course."
"Some people would say," Sheppard said, "that danger is what makes you feel properly alive."
"Not me," Rodney said with feeling. "I prefer to enjoy the not-danger, thank you very much." But as he went inside to the quiet kitchen, as he wandered through the dusty, empty rooms, as he remembered a life in which nothing had changed for month after month, he wondered if it was true.
Time raced on apace. To Ronon's eyes, Sheppard's beloved flying machine looked the same as it had always done, but Sheppard touched it sadly and said that she was still broken. "But he's getting there," he said brightly. "McKay can do it."
"Why do you have such faith in someone you don't know?" Ronon finally asked him one evening, with three nights to go, and dark clouds closing fast.
Sheppard leant his head back against the wall. "I don't know," he admitted. Then he said, "It's probably because I understand him. He isn't in this to save a princess or to fight a cause. He isn't even in it for friendship. He just wants to get my jumper in the air, to prove that he can."
"But it isn't like that with you," Ronon had to say.
Sheppard shook his head. The lines of pain were still tight around his mouth, etched there by a wound that had not been given a proper chance to heal, but was reopened again and again by heavy work. "I know," he said, "but it's similar. I recognise the narrow focus. Put McKay in the middle of a rebellion, and he wouldn't notice it happening." His smile was wry. "Sound like anyone you know?"
But Sheppard had changed, and was still changing. Ronon was glad of it, he thought. The two of them had hidden away for too long, in a country that didn't need its accomplished men to hide. At times, their life had been as bleak and empty as McKay's in his crumbling manor.
Even when they were sitting down, they were working, punching holes in leather straps. "Are you sure about this?" Ronon asked, twisting his awl. There was no Teyla to listen in this time, to shape Sheppard's reply.
Sheppard nodded. "Definitely. Yes." Ronon didn't like the shadows under his eyes. "We can't abandon Teyla. If we do nothing, and the princess dies… Could you live with yourself if that happened, Ronon, because I couldn't."
There had three days to go, and the flying machine was still grounded in the stable. "We might not be able to do anything, anyway," Ronon pointed out.
"Oh, stay positive now." Sheppard still said it as if he was playing a part; his genuine infectious optimism had died two years before in a cold dungeon and with the news of his father's death. "Where's your faith in McKay? His intellectual pride is tied up with making this work."
And so they were using him, as much as Teyla had tried to use Sheppard. Ronon had never dared to ask how large a part Kolya played in Sheppard's decision to get involved in the enterprise. Sheppard feared him, yes, but Sheppard was the sort of man who ran towards the things he feared.
"Besides," Sheppard said, "we've got a back-up plan."
"Not much of a back-up for our part of it," Ronon said, because he knew that if the puddlejumper failed to launch, and if the princess died because of it, Sheppard would count it as a failure. It wouldn't matter that Teyla had sent letters to trusted contacts. It wouldn't matter that a dozen people across England knew that if Princess Elizabeth died the day after Lady Day, it was murder performed by Spaniards at the Queen's court. The letters could tear England apart, but they couldn't keep Sheppard and Ronon from the bitterness of a failed task.
"No," Sheppard agreed, "but let's leave the politics to Teyla. There." He laid down his leather. "Let's see where else we can help."
Sometimes Ronon wondered if Sheppard slept at all.
They tested the balloon in the darkness just before dawn, when it was dark enough to hide them, but with just enough light to prevent the burner blazing like a beacon.
The coated silk filled slowly with the heated air. "Oh," Rodney said, frowning into the limited light. "You left it plain."
"Indeed," said the disconcerting lady. "I considered embroidering it with the arms of Princess Elizabeth, and perhaps adding a slogan critical of the present regime, but I considered that would be a touch indiscreet."
"I rather fancied my initials," Rodney said, looking upwards. It really was very large. "Perhaps a representation of my face, crowned with laurel."
"Save that for the Mark Five machine," Sheppard said absently.
Birds twittered excitedly, all of nature honouring Rodney's brilliance. The sky slowly lightened, and the balloon rose up, the basket beneath it twitching and beginning to lift. "Release the tethers," Rodney commanded. They took one each, removing them from their pegs. The basket shivered upwards, carrying its sacks of grain. Like the turnip, the sacks, too, had faces, painted with grim competitiveness by Sheppard and Dex.
Rodney grinned, then laughed aloud. "I did it! I did it!" He looked at the others, hauling at their ropes. He couldn't quite bring himself to say 'We did it', but he graciously granted them their tithe, and said, "You helped."
"Good," Sheppard said, past the strain of holding the rope. "This thing really wants to take off. Can we bring her down now?"
"Yes," Rodney said. "Of course." He flapped his hand airily, to cover the sudden realisation that he'd never considered how they could bring the thing down once it was up. Hot air rose, and just kept on rising and rising. You couldn't persuade it to change its mind and start coming down again just by speaking to it sternly. "Uh… deal with it," he said vaguely. "I've, er, got plans to make. Refinements. Valves to design, etcetera etcetera. This is only a test flight, after all."
He winced when he was back in his study, safely there with the door shut. Was that someone firing an arquebus? Was that… Oh, God, no! What were the fools doing? He drew lots of emphatic lines on his page, and wrote things in Latin.
Sheppard came in an hour later, streaked with mud and reeking of smoke. He held up his good arm to show how the muscles were trembling. There was fresh blood on his other sleeve, Rodney saw, before looking away with a sudden and unfamiliar pang of guilt. "We got her down," Sheppard said. "I take it we just need to attach my puddlejumper to the basket by ropes, and release them when the balloon's high enough…"
"Ropes?" Rodney cried. "Ropes? Doctor Rodney McKay's Cunning and Ingenious Coupling Device." He returned to his papers. "Of course, it's work in progress, but progress will be reached a lot quicker if you leave me alone."
"But we'll be ready by tomorrow?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course not," Rodney told him, as he always did; the back and forth of it was almost fun. "I'm a genius, yes, but these things have to be tested. Test, analyse, revise: that's how it goes."
Sheppard was framed in the doorway, implacable in black. "It needs to be ready by tomorrow."
"Oh." The fun shrivelled. When the flying machine was ready, Rodney could slump back in satisfied exhaustion and actually enjoy sleep again. When the flying machine was ready, Sheppard and the others would go away, and they'd probably get themselves captured, and everyone would know that he, the great Rodney McKay, had been the one to give them wings. "Tomorrow," he said.
Sheppard's shaking hand gripped the doorway. "Don't worry," he said lightly. "Perhaps Kolya's men will find us before then and pre-empt the question."
And that, in the end, was precisely what happened.
They came in the night, in the darkest time before dawn.
This precious document, showing Rodney McKay's first plans for his Mark IV flying machine, was discovered in 2005, and is now displayed in the McKay Museum in London. Numerous contemporary depictions exist of the Elizabethan flying machine, but this is the only one in the hand of their creator. It is, we have to point out, rather different from the paintings. McKay, for all his undoubted genius, was not blessed with artistic talent.
In his dreams, Rodney had created a flying machine so wondrous that it could ply its trade across the oceans, ferrying adventurers, explorers and exotic fruits to and from the New World. Young girls threw joyful flowers at his feet, and the animals who marched two by two into his shining new invention were similarly grateful, as was the voice of God, whose angels crowned him with bays and rosemary, and--
Something made him jerk awake. He raised his head to find himself surrounded by papers and lurching shadows. "They've found us," Sheppard said quietly, as he strapped a sword belt around his waist.
"What?" The ink crashed off the table. The candle guttered, sending up a plume of flickering smoke.
"Outside," Sheppard said, "at the gate. They're being stealthy - trying to find a way in so they can slaughter us in our sleep. Your locks will keep them out for a while--"
"Yes, they will." Rodney clutched at the straw that was gratified pride. "They're very cunning locks indeed. I call them Doct--"
"--but not for long," Sheppard said calmly, like a man puncturing a balloon with an impassive pin. "Add to that the fact that Kavanagh seems to have disappeared…"
"Disappeared?" Rodney echoed. Dex appeared in the door behind Sheppard, armed as Sheppard was armed, and looking impossibly scary in the lurching light. "Why…? How…? Where…?" There were too many questions. Nothing seemed quite real. Perhaps he was still asleep. The previous dream was better, and he wanted it back. There'd been glory in that, and flowers.
"To betray you to the enemy, I would imagine." Sheppard turned and began to walk away. "Perhaps he saw little promise of future happiness in a life spent making potage within sight of the books that he longed to learn from."
"His potage was singularly poor." Rodney was still sitting down. "He never made comfits." Enemies, real enemies who wanted to kill him, were prowling around outside in the darkness, but nothing felt real. Sheppard and Dex were too calm. It was positively inhuman. It was quite unfair. Perhaps Rodney really was still dreaming. Perhaps…
"So are you coming?" Sheppard said from the door, his voice showing an edge of urgency at last. "Vengeful enemies coming to kill us?"
"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh." His sleeve swept paper fluttering into the sea of ink. His footprints were black. "Where are we going? Shall I hide in the serendipitous cellar while you two go and do your manly thing and kill them all? Preserve my intellect for future generations, I mean," he added, realising that he didn't like the word 'hide.'
Dex turned sharply to Sheppard, a question in his eyes. Sheppard nodded, and Dex melted away into the darkness of the unlit hallway. Only the faintest of sounds showed that he had opened and closed a door. I wish you wouldn't do that, Rodney almost said, but didn't. It was stupid to feel left out when these two savage strangers communicated without a word. Rodney didn't want to be able to understand their savage, illiterate messages. They had swords, for crying out loud.
"I was thinking," Sheppard said, a strange note in his voice, "that we could fly away."
"What?" Rodney's squawk was too loud. He clapped his hand to his mouth and spoke through his fingers. "You can't! You're crazy! It's a death trap! It hasn't been fully tested yet!"
"We were going to try tomorrow, anyway," Sheppard said.
"But that was you!" Rodney's hand moved from his mouth with the force of his horror. "I wasn't going to fly in it. That was never the plan. Never. It's… it's… it's… it's…"
"Crazy?" Sheppard's smile was crazy, too. It still reminded Rodney of the turnip. Then he gestured for Rodney to be quiet, and opened the back door in a stealthy, showy, manly sort of way, his sword slithering silently into his hand. An owl hooted from the enormous Outside. Sheppard gestured at Rodney to follow him out into it. It felt horribly cold, the moon just a faint silver glow behind the clouds. Sheppard gestured for quiet with a finger on his lips. Rodney didn't think he could have spoken at that moment for all the perfumes of Araby.
Dex and the lady had been busy. Both parts of the Doctor Rodney McKay's Aeronautical Machine, Mark IV, had been moved into the stableyard. The improved and repaired Mark III machine had been attached to the balloon component by… my ingenious coupling devices, Rodney thought defiantly; only the most untutored of eyes would think they were just common or garden ropes. When the balloon went up, the flying machine would go up with it. When it had reached a suitable altitude and the coupling devices were released, the flying machine would glide on the wind, flying like a bird…
…or crash into a gooseberry bush, and that would be the end of Sir John Sheppard, shattered by hubris and haste.
Rodney tiptoed his way to Sheppard's side. "I can't be sure that it'll work," he whispered.
Sheppard's eyes sparkled, but the arm beneath Rodney's hand was tense. "Even though you designed it?"
Rodney still couldn't hear any enemies prowling around the walls, but Sheppard and Dex said they were there, and that… that was enough, he realised. Besides, this ending had been inevitable from the moment he had allowed these three fugitives to stay. He was less terrified than he should have been, as if he had become reconciled to this during the long days of hectic work. "Don't be stupid," he said now. "Even I make mistakes sometimes, and it was never meant to be built this fast."
Protector Somerset had tested Rodney's first flying machines, he remembered, on prisoners and vagabonds. Some of them had died. It felt different when it might be yourself. No, he thought, it felt different when it was someone you knew; when it was… a friend? his mind supplied, but that was ridiculous; that was…
"We have to take the chance," Sheppard said, and suddenly Rodney heard it - the whinny of a horse, quickly suppressed. They were there. Death was closing in on him. Death in the sky or death by the sword or death in the Tower, with torture before it.
"Can't you…?" His voice cracked. "Can't we fight them? Kill them?"
Dex started the burner. The enemy had to have seen its light, surely they had to. Something metallic sounded, the night air carrying it deceivingly, so Rodney had no idea if it was close or far away. "Bolts," Sheppard explained, hefting his slender sword. "They're almost through."
"But…" Rodney's mouth was dry.
Sheppard turned to him; clasped him briefly on the shoulder. "McKay, listen. You've done more than we could have asked. We're the ones they want, not you. Once we're gone… They'll have no evidence. We've removed all trace of our presence. Burn your paperwork, and there'll be no proof you've been helping us."
"I don't want to burn my paperwork," Rodney said faintly. The balloon was filling up. The cold air across the greensward brought the sound of another bolt failing. "It's… posterity, you know?" His own voice sounded strange to him. "It's awful when knowledge burns. Look at the library of Alexandria."
"Ronon can tie you up," Sheppard said earnestly. "Maybe thump you a bit. Make it clear that you did this all under duress. You will, of course, denounce us loudly. Kavanagh will tell another story, but they'll see what they expect to see: a discontented servant making mischief for his master. They'll have their suspicions, but you might just get out of this unscathed."
Was that death moving there in the shadows? The balloon was an enormous shape, and the sky was vast, offering so many ways to fall and so many ways to be broken on the hillside.
Sheppard, crazy fool that he was, smiled. "You always said you were going to blame me. That was the deal, after all."
"Sheppard," Dex hissed, and Sheppard's hand tightened on Rodney's shoulder, almost as if he wanted Rodney to take this chance of a way out; as if he wanted Rodney to denounce him.
The balloon was almost ready, straining against the tethers that had been driven in to the ground with metal pegs. "We can't…" Sheppard said, as the gate gave way. He and Dex had their swords ready, while the lady had a knife and a stick.
"I can't…" Rodney echoed it. Words stuck in his throat. He swallowed; swallowed again. Kavanagh had betrayed him, and although he had nothing but contempt for Kavanagh, it didn't feel nice. He had lived alone in decaying solitude, and even his servant hated him. And then Sheppard and Dex had come, and… and there had been moments, whole hours, that had actually felt good.
"It was your fault," he said to Sheppard's uncomprehending back. "That is, you were the goad. I'm glad you did it, glad… well, apart from the imminent death, and…" He swallowed again. His heart was racing when he pressed his hand to it. "What I mean to say is: I'm not walking away. I... I'm throwing my lot in with you."
"Then jump into the basket," Sheppard said tightly, without turning round, "and get ready to cut the tethers."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh." He clambered in; caught his foot on the edge of the basket; almost tumbled onto his face; came up smoothing his clothes. It was dark in the yard, but people were moving. Swords clashed, and Rodney breathed an "Oh" again, letting it out as a cracked moan. People were moving, more people than just three. Someone screamed, but quietly, as if they were too badly hurt to manage a proper scream.
"Ropes!" Sheppard commanded from the seething darkness.
"Oh. Ropes. Yes." Rodney had an eating knife at his belt. He began to saw at one of the tethers, parting its fibres. "Are you…?"
A sack of grain struck the ground - No, oh God, no! Rodney thought, it wasn't a sack, it was a body, an actual body. "I am in," the lady said, although she wasn't, because Rodney was still alone in the balloon's basket, sawing at ropes.
"Good," Sheppard said. "Ronon." Then, more sharply, "Ronon!"
Rodney was sawing, up and down, up and down. The rope parted, and the basket shivered. "Sheppard!" he gasped, voice cracking. He couldn't tell what was happening. People were fighting, but he was too far away to see them as anything but shapes.
Then the shape of Sheppard emerged from the darkness, and Rodney had no idea how he could recognise Sheppard just from the way he moved, but he did. Sheppard severed the second rope with a swing of his sword. "Ronon!" he hissed again.
With a grunting roar, the large and unmistakeable shape that was Dex pushed his assailant away from him. He covered the distance to the balloon, and made to climb in, severing the third rope as he did so.
The balloon strained upwards. The enemy lunged forward, grabbing Dex from behind, and Dex twisted, still gripping the basket with one hand, and hacked at him with his sword. The fourth rope, the last one remaining, gave way, pulling the peg out of the ground. "Ronon!" Sheppard shouted, as the balloon rose from the ground, and Dex, gasping with effort and perhaps with the pain of it - Oh, God, was he wounded? - kicked his assailant away, and scrambled over the edge of the basket.
And then they were airborne, and the enemy was shouting, more and more of them surging into the yard, but the shouts faded away from them, far far below.
"We did it," Rodney said, letting out a shuddering breath, and Dex gave a quick smile, and Sheppard, his beautiful flying machine suspended below them by ropes, said quietly, his voice rising up through the soft night's air, "We did it."
In the dark, flying was like standing on a tall hill, with the wind in your hair, and the world a sea of black beneath you. But Teyla had never wished to fly before. She had looked at Protector Somerset's pilots, had dimly recognised that they were brave, but had never considered that she, too, could be given wings. Her focus had always been too closely on people and their secrets to want to look above them.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" John said, close enough that she could feel him breathing, his back against her hunched-up knees. His was the voice of a man in love, who expected the whole world to agree that his true love was the most beautiful.
Teyla smiled, her heart fluttering. Perhaps it was wonderful. She was floating above the world, and it was too dark to see anything below them, but when dawn came, what would they see? She thought of silver rivers, and towns reduced to nothing more than a tumbled array of playing pieces, cubes carved out of wood.
Below there, far below, people slept. People crept through the night-time with evil in their hearts. Lovers climbed from windows. Frightened people tossed in their beds and prayed that today, today, they would not be captured. Men and women practised lies, and when the morning came, would put on their smiling masks and set out to ensnare people with their words.
Silent, she drifted above it all, above the lies and the deceits that were the daily life of a spy. All human creatures were alike in the dark, bound to the earth and invisible far below. Here, there was no bustle, no treachery, no lies. There were no sides here, too, and no demands.
"Yes," she said at last, but her smile was rueful, because even the eagle on its mighty wings had to come down from the skies. Her mission was unchanged, and the urgency was great.
The balloon drifted slowly, the flying machine suspended beneath it. The flying machine, John had told her, could go faster than the balloon, because of its flaps and tail fins that helped it cut through the wind like a racing boat. It had never been able to carry more than one person, but McKay had repaired it and improved it, "and you're lighter than Ronon, so it's better if it's you," John had said with a smile, but Teyla had corrected him, shaking her said, saying merely, "It has to be me." The news was hers, the cause was hers, and when it came to the final reckoning, the danger had to be hers.
"Is it time to cut her loose?" John asked, calling quietly up to the basket above.
McKay's face appeared over the edge of the basket, his hand gripping the edge as if he was in imminent danger of falling out. "Not yet. That is… I don't think so. Leave it a bit longer."
"We have to do it sooner or later," John said. "If we're going to plunge to our doom, it'll happen the same if we're cut loose in an hour as if we do it now."
"But…" McKay protested, and Teyla knew that impulse, that made you want to put off something horrible, hoping that a miracle would happen and make it go away.
"Sheppard," Ronon said. Then his words seemed to dry up. He was staying in the balloon, unable to follow Sheppard in this adventure; Teyla had enough practice in watching men to know how unbearable Ronon must be finding this. This could be their final farewell, without being close enough to embrace or clasp hands, and with witnesses to keep the important words at bay.
"Stay positive, my friend," John said, darkness hiding too much of his face. "You know what to do. We'll meet up in a few hours at most." Ronon still said nothing. There was a slight crack in John's voice. "Everything will carry on as normal, Ronon. I don't plan on dying."
"But if you do…" Ronon stopped; gathered himself roughly. "There's too much talking. We know what to do."
"Then do it," John said, looking up.
Teyla looked away, suddenly unable to bear it. Three men were risking their lives because of her. If they failed, all three would die, and this beautiful machine, McKay's pride and John's joy, would be destroyed. No-one would ever have wings again, until the world had moved on, and new cities and new kingdoms stamped across the Earth.
No, it is not for me, she thought, but for my cause. For the princess. For England. But even her cause felt faded and petty from the air, with queens and princesses alike reduced to specks in the darkness. Why do we do it? she thought. Why do we hate?
And then the ropes were unfastened, one, two and three, and the flying machine soared as sleek and joyful as falcon on the wind, and Teyla found herself crying, perhaps with the joy of it, and perhaps with something else.
For nearly two years, Ronon had watched while Sheppard had thrown himself from hilltops and cliffs, entrusting his life to the hands of the wind. For nearly two years, Ronon had stood on the edge, his heart in his mouth, watching as Sheppard's faith was proved right.
Sheppard flew, and Ronon watched. Sheppard soared, and Ronon kept his feet on the ground. And then, at the end of each night's work, Sheppard came down to earth, and once again the two of them walked side by side.
"I can't watch," McKay whispered. "Is it…?"
"It's flying." Ronon's throat felt thick. This could be the last time. It wasn't just the air that could kill Sheppard, but the uncertain destination.
"Flying?" McKay was peering through the fingers of one hand. Ronon felt a sudden unexpected sadness that he couldn't do the same. Instead, he watched. The pale wings of Sheppard's machine faded beneath them. Sheppard could ride the air currents just like any bird, 'although my jumper's more beautiful than any bird,' he liked to say.
Ronon just saw it as wood and canvas, held together with nails and twine.
"It worked," McKay breathed. "Thank God. It… well, of course, it was my work, so…" He let out a shaky breath. "I thought I might have killed them."
"It still might." The edge of the wicker basket was harsh in his hand.
"Why…?" McKay began, turning towards him. "You're…"
Afraid, he might have said. And he was, of course. Sheppard had saved his life years before, and a strange bond had been born. Even after the debt had been paid, they had stayed together. At the heart of it, Ronon thought, it was probably because he didn't trust Sheppard's life to anyone but himself. He certainly didn't trust Sheppard to look after his own life. Side by side, on the ground, they watched each other's backs, but when Sheppard flew…
When Sheppard flew, there was nothing Ronon could do to protect him. Even if Sheppard landed safely, the place he was going offered nothing but death. If Kolya was there, this time Sheppard would face him alone.
The last time had almost broken him.
"We need to follow them," he said now. He always did, driving his cart across strange hills, following the path that Sheppard had gone.
"The balloon's just a launching device," McKay said. "We can drift, and we can choose when to come down, thanks to my last-minute amendment. I've put in a rudder of sorts, for rudimentary steering…"
Sheppard had told Ronon to land as close to Woodstock as he could safely manage. 'Keep McKay out of danger,' he had said, 'because we brought him into this, after all. But if you can, and if it's safe…' He had clasped Ronon's shoulder briefly. 'We'll meet up soon, my friend.'
"We follow them," Ronon said, careful not to look below.
True dawn was a long way off, but the thickness of the night was easing. Soon he would see land beneath him, and know how far up he was. Darkness made it worse, he thought, because you could imagine it being further away and more dreadful than any of the nightmares of flight that had plagued him in the last few years.
When Ronon was a child, his father had ruffled his hair and proudly told the other Border lords that his younger son wasn't afraid of anything. To this day, Ronon wasn't afraid of a fight, and he wasn't afraid of dying. He could stand impassive in the face of things that made a Rodney McKay flutter in a panic.
But he was afraid of people he loved dying because he was far away from them; and he was afraid of the sky. He was afraid of its silence, as it held him up with invisible, weightless hands. He was afraid of its capricious nature. He was afraid of the hold it had on Sheppard. He was afraid of entrusting his life to the whim of a force of nature. He wanted solid earth beneath his feet, a sword in his hand, and an enemy who could be fought face to face.
'You don't know what it's like to fly,' Sheppard had said once, sunlight sparkling in his eyes. But Ronon did, and he feared it. Ronon did, and he hated it.
He hated it, but he would carry on, because he had to.
John could have laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it. They were heading into danger to try to save a captured princess, but the wind was in his hair, around him and beneath him and through him, thrumming through the hands that held the controls. Dawn was breaking on an uncertain future, but his canvas wings supported him as he soared with the morning birds. His arm throbbed, the wound torn open yet again by the fight and the incessant demands of his darling, but the pain felt like a natural part of the fierceness of his emotions.
His jumper was mended, made strong and more responsive by McKay's work. Flying was about learning to read the air, to interpret the subtle hints that told you where to find the currents that rose up from the ground. Right from the start, John had possessed a natural gift for it, that had allowed him to fly high when the other original pilots had foundered. But a gift was nothing unless you had a machine that allowed you to coax the most you could out of the air.
The machine he had brought to McKay had been tired and sluggish, like a shallow-water barge laden down with quarried stone. Now she was as fast and nimble as a bird, and as responsive to his commands as a pure-bred stallion.
It was so tempting just to fly, to fly. He could go with the wind currents and stay up for hours, as morning flooded across the landscape below him. It had never been like this. Even in the best of times, it had never been like this.
Teyla shifted behind him, her knees against his back. John adjusted the tail-fin, turned the crank that would open a wing-flap, and edged forward as far as he could. "Please do not inconvenience yourself on my account," Teyla said, sounding amused more than anything else; earlier, John thought, she might have been crying. "In this tight space, I have no fears for my virtue."
"But…" John said, as slowly, slowly the world lightened beneath him, still half-hidden beneath a veil of pre-dawn mist.
"I fear I have no more reputation to lose," Teyla said, the laughter gone from her voice. "I have slept unchaperoned in a house of men, and worse, before that."
It was impossible to forget that she was there. It was impossible to forget that they were engaged in a dangerous enterprise. John had chosen this path a week before and he couldn't turn away from it, just because the wind called to him and wanted him to play.
The world below them turned paler, although the sun was not yet up. John knew where they are aiming, but the currents didn't always allow him to fly straight. Smoke rose up from a blazing chimney, rising high enough to catch in John's throat.
"How far?" Teyla asked.
John changed the angle of the left-hand flap. His arm was ablaze with pain, hot blood trickling down hot flesh. "Not far," he said.
Teyla was the first person he had ever flown with; all previous flying machines were only big enough for one. He wanted to question her incessantly, to ask her if she liked this and if she liked that, to coax her into saying that she loved flying as much as he did, and that he was right to prize it more than almost anything else. At the same time, though, he was almost afraid to do so, in case her answer was not what he hoped. He was used to silence, too - just himself and the wind, although he talked to himself sometimes, and talked to his jumper, too, coaxing her into the arms of the wind.
The mist slowly faded, but the sun was still an orange smear in the east. He brought her lower and lower again, seeing the thread of the river, and the coppice where they had so nearly been killed. The road was still blocked. Some soldiers slept, while others stood on guard duty, warmed by a failing fire. The jumper was silent, pale in the pre-dawn sky, and none of them looked up.
"Are we…?" Teyla whispered, but John gave a soft hiss, commanding silence. Sound could travel strangely in the featureless air, without tree or grass to deaden it. Once, years ago, when the stakes had been less high and life had still seemed like a game, John had enjoyed flying over the enemy and talking sharply, to watch them search left, right and centre for the person who had spoken.
More soldiers guarded the entrance to the manor grounds. Despite its silence, there was nothing restful about flying the puddlejumper, and John's heart was racing with the exertion of working the controls, and a stupid, irrational fear made John worry that the soldiers could hear it.
"My usual way in is guarded," Teyla whispered, his mouth close to his ear. "Can you get to the roof?"
John shook his head reflexively. The manor was ahead of them, but the princess was held in the gatehouse. Its ancient fabric was crumbling, and its roof was irregular, offering no place to land.
"I have to," she whispered, her breath warm on the side of his face. The jumper lurched as Teyla moved behind him. He moved the jumper in an arc, the roof just six feet below. "I have to," she said again, and then, "I am sorry." She jumped, and he saw her landing in a crouch on a tiny parapet on the roof. A hand on the tiles, she looked up; waved and nodded a farewell.
But already the jumper was stalling, too close to the ground, too close to the building. When Teyla had jumped out, the jumper had lurched too badly in the opposite direction. John grappled for the controls, but he knew that he was going down, he was going down fast.
He had almost reached the edge of the trees when he stopped fighting the inevitable. A moment later, he heard a man's shout.
This portrait is generally considered to be of Ronon Dex. Although the costume is typical of a slightly earlier date, the portrait is dated 1545. Although it is in the style of Holbein, it is not by Holbein. Several similar portraits exist, all depicting young men from prominent Border families. Apparently a roving portrait painted plied the Marches, persuading Border lords to commission portraits of their sons. How this portrait survived the destruction of the Dex stronghold, no-one knows, but chemical analysis suggests that badger setts were involved.
In which the new year dawns
She had to turn away; she had to. Teyla had done what she had done to save her princess' life, and that had to come first. She had made a vow on her knees, her princess' hand in her own, and vows could not be lightly broken. If the princess died in custody, England would be riven with civil war. Teyla had to carry on. She could not watch as John struggled to control his flying machine. She could not wonder about Ronon and McKay, carried by the wind to an unknown destination.
She could not wonder…? Yes, she thought fiercely, as she crossed the leaded slopes of the roof, clutching for purchase, her breath heaving. She would wonder. She would hope. And if news came that her new, brave companions had died in this enterprise …
Then I will have to stop, she thought. People died in the cause of princes. Serving her princess, Teyla had walked through England like a child wading through still water, but innocents had been disturbed by the ripples that she left.
Someone shouted, their voice far away across the grounds. Her hand lost its grip, and for a moment she dangled there by one hand, her feet scrabbling. Niches in the roof were full of dirt and moss and feathers. A tattered flag flapped on the flagpole. She recovered her grip, but sweat pricked the back of her neck as she imagined soldiers aiming their weapons at her back. She imagined John, grounded and alone on the wrong side of a cordon of Kolya's men.
He got away, she thought fiercely. He flew like a bird, like an angel. Again and again, the flying machine had started to fall, but every time he had brought it to another invisible current of air that swept it up again, supporting it like a parent supporting a baby. After she had jumped, he would have recovered the lost height and flown out of the grounds. He was safe, now; safe.
She reached the edge, the stonework crumbling, and an old dead creeper covering the side of the gatehouse. If they were watching her, they were watching her. If they wanted her dead, then she was dead, and perhaps when her body was displayed to the princess, that would be warning enough.
Taking a breath, she lowered herself over the edge, trusting to the branches, to the crumbling cracks between the stones of the old wall. The window was locked, but the whole building was decaying, and she knew how to break through simple locks and find the secrets that lay within.
It was tight to wriggle through, and someone just an inch broader than her would have been unable to do it. The metal frame gouged at her, scraping against her breast, her belly, her hips. She fell onto a bare wooden floor in a room that was grey with dawn and disuse.
And somebody was opening the door.
John clambered out of the jumper, his foot sliding in the dew. Mist still clung to the grass. The manor was an etching in shades of grey, and the gatehouse was a cut-out, like scenery in a guildsman's play. He couldn't see anything moving, except for the slow stirring of birds rising up from their roosts.
The shout was not repeated, but he had to move fast. He was inside the grounds of the manor of Woodstock, with guards and Kolya's soldiers between him and the freedom of the wild. His jumper had come to rest in the open, only yards away from the shelter of a cluster of trees. He could hide it for now, but what would happen later? What would happen in a minute, in an hour, in half a day? "Cross that bridge when you come to it, John," he muttered.
The jumper had wheels to help him launch her off hills, or to allow her to be moved when dead and grounded. The wings hinged upwards - necessary for stowing the machine in a cart, and moving it across country, covered with a cloth. He had done this a hundred times before, turning his living pair of wings into a lifeless hulk. He did it now, then dragged the downed jumper into the shelter of the trees.
Branches tore at her wings. The wheels caught on roots. John's whole arm was on fire with pain, and he hadn't really noticed it when flying…; no, he'd noticed it, but it hadn't seemed to matter. Now every movement made him set his jaw to keep from moaning with the pain of it. Sweat prickled on his face, then evaporated cold in the morning air.
Perhaps I'm sick, he thought, as the woodland shimmered as if speckled with silver dust. Every sensation always felt heightened when flying, but landing was always dull. It never sparkled like this. It never shivered.
He touched his sleeve and stared stupidly at the thick blood on his fingertips.
The swordsman rose up from the shivering undergrowth while he was still blinking at it.
The Mark IV Aeronautical Machine was officially a success. "Well, not officially," Rodney told Dex, "on account of there being no annals to record it in, due to the whole secret, hush-hush, can't-tell-anyone-because-they'll-kill-us thing…"
Dex hissed a warning to him to be quiet. His dark face looked almost grey in the morning light, without the sun to give it depth.
Rodney peered over the edge. Really, he thought, it ought to be terrifying up here. It probably was terrifying, because, hello, enormous height? and one day he intended to determine just what it was that made things that fell down fall down, and things that went up soon change their minds and come down again. It was an ambition he had held since an apple had fallen on his head many years ago in an orchard, and it hadn't even been a good one, but maggoty at the core, and the investigation was marching steadily up his list of things to investigate or invent, "and it's in fourteenth place now," he said, as he realised that at least some of his thoughts he had been uttering aloud.
Dex made no response. "And I suppose it is terrifying," Rodney told him, careful to whisper, "because I… I'm not a brave man, you know; bravery's the mark of a man without the wit to understand what the danger is. But as well as terrifying, it's… good, you know? Because I made this. I'm the only person in the history of the world who's made a machine like this. And it worked. It worked. I didn't kill anyone. Sheppard's merrily flying off into the… the sunrise, and he didn't get frazzled like the turnip, not at all."
"No." Dex was looking straight out at the sky, clutching the basket with a pale-knuckled hand.
Rodney swallowed. He knew that Dex didn't like him, but that didn't matter, because he didn't like him back, of course he didn't. It was ridiculous to like a man like Dex, so big and silent and… and loyal to his friend, and good at making comfits, and able to play again the tunes that Rodney's mother had once played on the lute.
Of course, they still had to get down again, and there was the far-from-small matter of what awaited them on the ground. Soldiers had been running rampage over his house. Sheppard and the lady had disappeared into the blue. The sun was about the rise, and peasants and farmers liked to rise with the dawn, didn't they, and at least some of the fools might look up once in a while.
"I know you think I'm a silly prattling idiot," he said, goaded into it by Dex's stone-faced silence. "Yes, we're in deadly danger, etcetera, etcetera, but it matters to me that I'm the one who got this to work. It's something to think about, to… to stop the terror getting too overwhelming, you know? It's why I talk."
"I know." Dex's hand relaxed its grip ever so slightly, but he still didn't look round.
"The fuel won't last for much longer," Rodney said, because already the balloon was losing height, as the air in it cooled. "We'll have to…" He gestured at the string. If he pulled it, a valve would open and slowly let out the air. They would land soon or sooner - whichever they chose.
Dex's hand tightened again. He peered over the edge, frowning down at a world that looked so different from how it had looked every other day of his life. "We're not far from Woodstock," he said. "Can't see Sheppard."
Rodney grasped the string, but didn't pull it. "Shall I…?"
"Land," Dex rasped.
Rodney opened the valve. Were those shouts of warning below them on the ground? What would happen if an arquebus ball pierced the balloon? What was the range of an arquebus, anyway? He knew all about trajectories and parabolas; coming up with a mathematical equation to accurately predict the path of any thrown object was very high on his to-do list. What would happen if…? God, this might be it; the last day he would spend alive on Earth.
"Thank you," he found himself saying. "For… for the comfits, I mean. They were very nice."
Dex turned to look at him at last, and his mouth, at least, was smiling. "You're braver than I thought you were," he said. "Braver than you think."
And then the bottom of the basket struck the top of the trees - Trees! Rodney thought. I quite forgot about the trees! - and lurched sideways. They clung on, but only just, as it tumbled through the branches, crashing with the noise of a dozen elephants.
Rodney fell out first, and struck the ground hard enough to make him scream. Then silk settled down upon him like a shroud, and the whole world turned white.
She had made too much noise. The door stopped moving, only half open. As Teyla scrabbled to her feet and threw herself across the room, she heard the sound of someone gasping in alarm.
Teyla was quicker. She grabbed an arm and pulled. She twisted the person round, bundling them in her grip, pushing them down to the floor, holding them there with one hand on their mouth. "Be quiet!" she hissed, breathless. She shut the door with her foot, but the sound of it closing was far too loud, sending a thrill of desperate terror through her. But if I am discovered, she thought, I can still scream my warning. As they drag me away, I can scream.
"Quiet!" she hissed again, because she would not surrender herself, not yet. The person she had captured was little more than a girl, and her terrified eyes of suffused blue stared up at Teyla, her warm breath shuddering against Teyla's palm. She was clearly a servant. But the princess had not been allowed the company of any of her ladies in waiting, or even the most trusted of her personal servants. Even a girl like this could be an enemy, an agent Kolya or the Queen. Teyla knew all about suborning servants, after all. She had one contact she was reasonably sure of in this place, and this girl was not her.
I should kill her, she thought, because her cause demanded it. I should kill her, she thought, because…
Teyla let out a breath, and slackened the pressure of her hand. "I will not hurt you if you stay quiet," she said. "I mean no harm. A traitor is planning to kill the princess. I only wish to warn her. There was no other way in than this."
The girl tried to shake her head, perhaps denying Teyla's story, perhaps desperately trying to deny her fate. Is any cause worth murder? Teyla thought. Is any cause worth this? She withdrew her hand completely, leaving only a soft finger on the girl's mouth, and then removed even that. "Quiet," she whispered. "Please. I am a woman just like you. I just want to save a life."
The girl's hands were clawing ineffectually at the floor, as if even unconsciously she was trying to drag herself away. "I can't…" she breathed. "What do you want of me?"
"Your clothes," Teyla said, "and your coif." The girl was the same height and build as she was. Her colouring was different, but the crumbling building was gloomy, so perhaps the difference would be lost in the shadows. Few people looked too closely at a servant, after all. "I will leave you with my clothes," she said, as she removed her jerkin. "I have no desire for you to be blamed for this. I will have to tie you up and gag you." The girl gasped, her pulse racing at her throat. "It is for the best," Teyla said, "in case things go wrong. It will protect you."
She unlaced her shirt, and the girl pushed herself up against the opposite wall, her knees pulled up towards her chest, hidden by her dusty skirt. "The princess is never harsh to me," she said quietly. "She feels her captivity something awful. It was that cold this winter. She used to look out at the snow, but they wouldn't let her ride."
"And all I want to do is save her life," Teyla said. "Not to kill, not to commit treason against the Queen, just to save my mistress' life." The girl just stared at her. "Please," Teyla begged her, but she had her knife, and she knew that she would use threats if pleas did not work. There was a time for gentleness, but she had come this far, and she could not turn back now.
Biting her lip, quivering with fear, the girl started to undress. But Teyla never lost sight of the knife, even as she clad herself once more in skirts and covered her head in demure white linen.
John's sword was ready. He brought it round in a swift movement, blocking the blade that would have hacked into his shoulder. With his other, blood-stained hand, he drew the knife from his belt.
Ronon had taught him well, merging methods from the manuals with the desperate scrapping of an outlaw determined to survive the harsh law of the Marches. 'When your life is on the line,' he had said, 'don't be coy about tricking your opponent.' The pain was real, the fever was real, but the distraction…
"Feigned," he said, as he parried another blow, the force of the jarring metal feeling like liquid fire in his injured arm. "And you were trying to stab me in the back." Another blow. He searched for an opening for his left hand to sneak through, the knife blade shining and sharp. "Where's the… honour in… that?"
He was fighting a soldier, perhaps one of Kolya's, or perhaps a guard who knew nothing of the plot. "Would you believe me," he asked, "if I said that I wasn't here to make mischief?"
The soldier clearly did not. Only doing his job, John reminded himself, just as he had only been doing his job when he had flown for Protector Somerset against the Scots, and when he had unwittingly caused himself and his family to be labelled traitors to the Queen.
The sword slipped through his guard, and John jumped back, so the blade snagged in his doublet, only its very tip scratching his flesh. It took a fraction of a second for his opponent to bring the sword back. John struck with his knife, driving his enemy's sword away, and lunged with his sword. But his arm betrayed him, weak and throbbing with pain. The sword scraped weakly across his enemy's side and down across his hip, and already the enemy was coming back, stronger, younger, fitter than he was.
John sensed rather than saw the tree trunk behind him, and stepped sideways to avoid the trap. "Is it killing, now, without a trial?" he said. "I'm not here to make mischief. Believe it or not…" And, amazingly, he laughed, as the woods shimmered with his incipient fever. "Believe it or not," he said, "all I wanted to do was fly."
His jumper was behind him, her wings couched. The two swords locked, and then John pushed the enemy away. He ducked behind the jumper, then leant against her with the hand that gripped the knife. The wheels crunched on the irregular ground, but the machine moved. It was not enough to knock John's opponent over, but it was enough to halt the rhythm of his attack.
"I never had any desire to kill anyone," John said sadly, as he rose up with sword and knife. "It's true, you know. I only ever wanted to fly."
His first blow was not enough to kill, but the second was fatal. Would I kill to keep my wings? he had sometimes asked himself in the darkest times of the night. The answer was no, he hoped, but for Teyla and her cause, for Ronon and McKay, for a princess and for a riven country…
"Too late to wonder, John," he said, as blood ran down his arm like tears.
On the edge of the wood, where his attacker had left it, a horse pranced, offering another kind of wings.
If there was anyone nearby, they would have heard them falling. Ronon extricated himself from the puddled silk, his body throbbing with bruises.
Behind him, McKay was a squirming shape of white silk. "Quiet!" Ronon hissed, and part of him wanted to leave him there, to fight alone as he had fought on the Borders, between the loss of his family and the coming of Sheppard. But it was only a faint urge, already fading. Burrowing through silk like a plough through a field, he excavated McKay. "Quiet!" he commanded again.
McKay looked up at him, like a virgin bride in pooled silk from his shoulders to his toes. He opened his mouth as if for a tirade, then closed it again. "Ow," he said faintly.
Ronon crouched beside him, hand on sword. "You hurt?"
"Yes." McKay looked aggrieved. He rolled over onto his back, pawing away the silk. "Ow," he said again, uttering it as if everything was Ronon's fault.
"We made too much noise," Ronon told him. "We need to get out of here or get ready to fight. We're close to Woodstock, close to its guards."
McKay sat up. His hand rose to his shoulder, fingers clutching it. "I don't know how to fight." His voice was quiet, with only the faintest note of accusation to it, as if Ronon was supposed to know.
Sheppard had told him to keep McKay safe. Ronon and Sheppard were used to a life like this, but McKay was a sheltered scholar, so unaware of the world that he had forgotten to collect rents for two years. He was only here because Sheppard had embroiled him in this. Sheppard's obsession with flying swept many people up in its wake, but Ronon knew that Sheppard wouldn't be able to forgive himself if anyone actually died because of it. There had been other factors in his father's death, but even so, it had almost destroyed Sheppard, far more than anything he had suffered himself.
"Then come with me," Ronon said, "to a safer place." And abandoning McKay was unthinkable on his own account, too, he realised. He had been brought up to value only his own kin, but he was now many years away from the Marches and their harsh code. His world had seen too much killing, and he wanted McKay to survive this.
"Where?" McKay staggered to his feet.
Despite everything else, it felt good to feel the solid ground beneath his feet. It felt good to know that death, if it came, would come with swords and guns and things he could fight, not in a fall from the very edges of the clouds. I was afraid, he thought, but he had reached the ground alive, and his blood sang and told him that he could do anything.
A dangerous belief, he told himself grimly, even as he smiled to himself.
"Where are we going?" McKay whispered again.
Ronon raised his hand, holding it flat behind him in a gesture to be quiet. The undergrowth was still, and the only sound was the stirring of birds above them on the leafless trees. Perhaps… he thought, but it was too soon to presume.
The trees thinned, showing lighter colour ahead of them - a road in the early light of morning. Something sparkled on the ground, like sunlight on armour.
Ronon turned to McKay and stopped him with a gesture, silencing him with a finger to the lips. McKay opened his mouth, then subsided.
Ronon crawled forward. At the outer wall of the manor estate, the gate was unguarded, and the guards who had been stationed there lay dead on the ground, slaughtered where they stood.
There were too many people, the passageways full of bustle and activity. Teyla knew which room was Princess Elizabeth's prison, but she felt as if she was swimming against the tide trying to get to it. Although she was dressed as a servant, she could not risk a face-to-face confrontation. Footsteps sent her dashing through doors to hide tremulously in chambers, pressed against the door and listening while people passed. If people saw the swish of a servant's blue gown, they said nothing about it, but their innocent regard kept on driving her back.
So near, she thought, as she clawed a door shut. Light slanted through the windows from a dawn well advanced into morning. Perhaps she should just scream her warning, trusting that it would reach the right ears, but that would be throwing her life away. She would do it if she had to, but… I want to live, she thought. I will if I have to, but…
The footsteps passed. The window showed the green grass of the grounds. Was John trapped in there? Was he dead? The stone walls were thick, but cold air blew in through cracks around the windows. Her breath steamed in the chilly room, and everything that she touched was damp.
And this was the residence that the Queen had chosen for her sister, a daughter of King Henry himself.
It felt like a prison, with bars in the form of voices stopping her every move. She pressed her face briefly into her hand, still smelling there the dirt from the roof. With her other hand, she touched the door; almost opened it, but then heard fresh footsteps, booted and harsh. "I have been confined for so many months," she heard her princess say, "and now you come to me with this news of freedom."
Teyla's hand rose to her mouth. Her breath trembled through her fingers.
"It is hardly freedom, my lady," said a male voice. "I regret that I cannot…"
"You do your job, Sir Henry," the princess said. "You have been less harsh a gaoler than you could have been, but you are my gaoler still. And now the Queen my sister has been moved to grant me this sisterly gift." It was said with honeyed politeness, but with steel beneath it. "As a symbol of the new year with all its hopes of conciliation and friendship, she has granted me the right to breathe the air of the world again."
"You must--" said Sir Henry Bedingfield, gaoler of a king's daughter.
"--be guarded at all times," the princess said. "I know. But after so many months within these four walls of yours, Sir Henry, the cage doors are open. Even though the freedom is illusory and short-lived, can you blame me for taking it as soon as the sun rises on this conciliatory new year of ours?"
There is a plot to kill you! Teyla almost shouted. She pressed her lips together; pressed her hand against the door, finger curling in to the wood. Her princess' footsteps passed by, along with those of Sir Henry and at least half a dozen guards. It would be suicide to shout a warning now.
And perhaps I should have done it, even so, she thought, pressing her forehead against the door, when the passageway was once more silent.
Outside, below the window, the horses were gathering.
It felt repulsive to strip a man whom you had killed. Some men were coldly pragmatic about such things in war time. Others were avaricious, raiding the bodies for loot. John took just what he needed to fool a distant observer: breastplate, backplate and morion, and the doublet beneath it in its clear blue livery.
His fingers fumbled as he fastened the straps. The right sleeve of his own doublet was sodden with blood, and he found fresh nicks in the fabric that he had barely noticed receiving. But stained as it was, he laid the doublet over the dead man, covering up the jagged wound at his throat. "I'm sorry," he murmured, but he'd been trained as a soldier, before he had learnt to fly. Sometimes you had to kill to protect the things that were dear to you, or just because you were ordered to.
He reeled as he stood up, catching himself heavily on a tree. His wound had been opened and reopened for over a week, but he had kept himself on his feet because of the promise of wings. They said that swans sang once before they died, and he had flown the best and most perfect flight of his life, and now he could…
"Don't be a fool, John," he berated himself. There were miles to go, and things to do. Ronon and McKay were out there somewhere, and Teyla was facing danger inside. The warning had to be delivered, and the aftermath dealt with.
There was Kolya, perhaps not far away.
Pushing himself away from the tree, he walked carefully to the horse's side. "Can I ride you, girl?" he asked, and the horse leant its neck into his touch, as responsive in its way as a jumper on the wind.
"Dead," Rodney gasped, breathing it into the flat of his hand. "They're dead. Are they dead?"
Dex stood up from the last of them. His hands were drenched with blood, but his expression was wiped clean, as if he had seen things like this many times, as if he knew how to look at it, and then walk away to a place without nightmares.
"I've never seen anyone dead before," Rodney said, but of course he had. He had spent his time with Protector Somerset buried in his books, but he had not been able to entirely hide from the things that happened around him. He had talked to himself about heavenly bodies and geometry as he had walked beneath the bodies of traitors on the wall. He had hidden himself in his crumbling house, and had written treatises while England burnt around him.
You couldn't hide from it now, when it was so close. No talking, no knowledge, no pride could conceal it. The threat of death wasn't just a stick to bait Sheppard with. It was here. It was here.
"Was it Sheppard?" he asked, because Sheppard and Dex came from that other world - the world beyond the pages of cold, sweet learning.
Dex shook his head. "There's little sign of a struggle. It was done by people they trusted, at least at first."
Rodney couldn't look at them, he couldn't. He remembered how his gaze had seemed to slide off the lady in her boy's clothes. This was worse. "So the way to the princess is unguarded," he said. "We can--"
"No!" Dex snarled. His fist tightened at his side. "I don't know what to do." He looked human, suddenly - not a forbidding giant who came with the glamour of many years at Sheppard's side. "Whoever did this, they've gone, and I don't know if it's part of the plot or a trap, or something else entirely." His bloody hand raked its way across his face. "I wish we knew where the others were."
The princess' room was unguarded now that it was empty. When everything was silent, Teyla slipped in. The princess had access to pen and paper, although few of her letters were allowed to leave the walls of Woodstock, only those that passed the stern test of Sir Henry Bedingfield.
Alert always for footsteps, Teyla took up the pen and wrote her message, ink spattering in her haste. She described what she knew of the plot, and the name of the man behind it. "Tomorrow," she wrote, because if the princess feigned illness and admitted no visitors… If she spurned food and drink…
Teyla added her secret sign, then took up another sheet and wrote the message again - one for the table, and one for the beneath the pillow; two chances to be found. When she had done, she stood up, her back unaccountably aching. Her princess was riding out. The warning was given and the task was done, but what then? She had no wings to fly her out the way she had flown in. And she wanted to see her mistress, to watch her and be certain that she was well.
And perhaps the plot had been changed. Perhaps all along the date had been a misdirection. Perhaps it was today. Perhaps it was now. She had thought they were one day early, but perhaps they had been just a few minutes too late.
I have to follow her, she thought.
She left the chamber, but did not close the door behind her. Taking a chance, went down the dark and crumbling stairs that emerged near the kitchen. The kitchen, at least, was warm, and a servant looked up guiltily from warming himself by the fire. "Martha?" he said, but Teyla kept her face averted, fumbled with the locks on the small back door, and headed out into the yard.
The princess and her guard were already leaving, her once-bright hair dull even in the sunlight. "Stop." The word slipped out from Teyla's lips without her meaning it to, but quiet, too quiet, and stolen by the breeze.
Even with a knife and the skills of the last two years, a woman dressed as a servant would not be able to steal a horse, not in the unforgiving light of a sunny morning. But servants had errands - herbs and leaves to collect for the table.
Kirtling her skirt above her knees, Teyla ran.
John skirted the edge of the trees, keeping just out of sight in the shadows. It was growing harder and harder to concentrate on the task in hand. "And what is the task in hand, John?" he asked himself. To wait for Teyla to find him? To get himself and his jumper out through the cordon of guards? He didn't like to ride too far away from the poorly-concealed jumper, but Teyla was inside the house, alone in a nest of enemies. But she is better equipped than you are to deal with the situation, he reminded himself. Teyla was a spy, who knew about stealth. John was…
His thoughts just hung there, without an answer. In the Marches, he had been to the Debateable Land, neither English not Scotch. This was neither captured nor free. Getting out was a challenge, but he hadn't been captured yet. Until a sign came from Teyla that she had succeeded, he should wait. But perhaps Teyla had been captured, and now that he was in a soldier's garb, he could ride up to the gatehouse and…
He was slow to see the movement across the sward. Sunlight glittered on evaporating dew, and he clutched at the saddlebow to keep himself from swaying. A party of riders was coming from the gatehouse, and… No, he noticed, the ground had curved down towards the river, and the gatehouse was no longer in sight.
The four riders approached him obliquely down the hill. Three wore blue doublets and armour like his own, and the fourth was a lady in a dark, plain dress, riding side-saddle on a beautiful horse. John backed further into the trees, and viewed it through a criss-cross of branches. As he watched, the lady turned her face up to the sky, revelling in the sunshine like a prisoner who had been too long immured inside.
This was the princess, he realised. Had Teyla given her warning? If not, should he…?
A sudden shout caused his head to snap up. The guard at the rear jerked back in his saddle, struggled to hold on, then fell. The second guard's horse went down, but when the guard struggled to his feet again, something struck him in the head; John was not too far away to see the gush of blood. The third guard shouted something, and the princess wheeled round, but John was already surging forward.
Two men broke out of the trees to his right, one of them raising a crude standard lashed to a spear. Behind them, in the shadows, their archers were already nocking arrows for a second shot. The remaining guard fell, an arrow in the thigh, an arrow in the arm.
"Stop!" John screamed, but it was stupid, stupid, of course it was stupid, just to charge unthinkingly forward. He should have dismounted and crept through the trees to take out the archers from behind, but…
He dodged the first arrow, pulling his horse to the side by sheer blind luck at the right time. The second struck him full in the chest, and the armour deflected it, but the force of it hitting him was enough to make him reel in the saddle. When the third came, striking his thigh, he slumped forward, then fell. For a moment, he saw the pounding death that was his horse's hooves, but after that there was nothing but grass and the darkening sky.
Once upon a time, a boy called Rodney McKay had thought that the problem of flight was the hardest thing imaginable. Then the boy had become a man, and he had thought that no joy was greater than the joy of seeing his first flying machine successfully take to the air, and hearing the amazed marvelling of those who watched it. He had thought that no fear was greater than the fear that his beautiful machine would fail in front of hundreds of people, and that his name would go down in history only as a footnote, as someone who failed to give men wings.
"Somebody killed them," he whispered, scanning the forbidding wood. "They didn't do… that, not by themselves. It didn't just happen. What if the people who did it come back? We shouldn't be here."
"No." Dex shook his head slowly. "Stay in cover." He waved Rodney back, but Rodney found that there already was a tree trunk at his back, but he still hadn't backed far enough away; he could still see them, dead at their posts.
The enemy, he thought. The vast and faceless mass of humanity that wasn't Doctor Rodney McKay.
Rodney crouched down. Dex had almost reached the trees when he swung round, his blade up and ready. The crossbow bolt struck him before he had taken two steps. He fell to one knee, then almost fell further, his head sagging, then coming up again.
Bark scraped against Rodney's palm. He shrank lower and lower, making himself as tiny as curled mouse. The sound of approaching hoofbeats seemed to go on for a very long time, but was probably barely seconds. "Ronon Dex," said the rider, looking down at Dex from the glory of his height, as his men rose up from the far side of the road. "So you resurface at last, to be caught in the act: a condemned traitor slaughtering guards in the Queen's service. Run if you can, but my testimony will kill you."
"I'll kill you first," Dex rasped through gritted teeth.
"It wasn't him!" Rodney found himself shouting, scrabbling to his feet. "We were just, uh, walking… yes, walking along, and we came across this. It wasn't him. Honestly, on my word as a--"
"Rather foolish man, don't you think, Doctor McKay?" the horseman said. Then his face wiped clean of expression, becoming like stone. "Guard them," he said coldly to his men, "but leave them alive for a public trial and a traitor's death."
"No!" Dex bellowed. "No! Kolya!" But the horseman was gone, guiding his horse impassively over the dead men, and onwards, into Woodstock with his lies.
John lay forgotten in the dirt, waves of fire surging from his arm and throughout his body. His leg burnt with the fresh wound, blood spreading warm across his thigh. He tried to move, but there were too many people, too many voices. A horse passed by close to his eyes. His sword was beneath him, jagged and unforgiving. He pushed himself up onto his hands, crawled a few unnoticed feet, then slumped down again, inches away from the blood-drenched face of a young guard. The boy's eyes were open and unseeing, his body limp in death.
"My princess," he heard a voice say, and something about that voice stirred memories. "We have come to rescue you."
"Rescue?" said the princess, eager with a very human hope.
John watched it through blades of grass, enormous and blurry and close to his face. The archers were walking forward, emerging from the trees. The two horsemen flanked the princess, one of them reaching for her reins.
"I am profoundly sorry for the rude manner of our approach," said the man with the banner, "but the times allow nothing else. You must come with us. You must come with us now."
"Must?" said the princess, surveying the bodies of her guards. John lay still, dressed as a guard himself. Her eyes passed over him, her face expressing weary contempt.
"There's a plot to kill you," the man said, and his voice made John think of dark places, and hot, white, liquid pain. It made him think of nightmares that even now sometimes woke him panting in the night, and made the whole day that followed feel cold and bleak and hopeless. Then he moved, and the stab of pain brought him back to the here and now, with grass and sunlight, and a dead man's weapons within reach of his fingertips.
"Teyla Emmagen sent the news," the man said, and John tried to hear just the words, to slough away the weight of memories that clung to the timbre of the voice. "There's a plot afoot. You're to be killed tomorrow. You need to come with us, your highness."
"I do not know you," the princess said stiffly. John's fingers brushed a pistol, heavy at a dead man's side.
"But we are loyal." The man pulled at his reins, impatient to be gone. "Loyal servants of the Protestant religion, and loyal servants of Princess Elizabeth. Will you come, my lady?"
John's hand closed round the gun, as memories stalked him, as if the sky above him was nothing but black.
Teyla's breath was heaving in her lungs. Even kirtled up, her long skirt lashed around her legs. No-one shouted behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder, the place was still, the early morning sunlight gleaming on the windows.
What am I doing? she thought. Dew splashed up from the grass, soaking the hem of her shift. The princess was out of sight, heading down the broad expanse of land that led to the river, but her path was clear, painted on the grass in trampled dew.
She reached the top of the rise, and they were down, they were down, bodies spread before her on the ground. She froze there, then dropped to her knees, grasping at the tiny, sensible part of herself that knew that madly rushing forward could lead to nothing but grief.
They saw her, even so. A bow was raised, and although she was still too far away to make a difference, she was still close enough to die.
But she would not die with her warning ungiven, her farewell unsaid. Standing, she pulled off her coif to show her hair, loose around her head and shorter than any woman would wear it.
Nocking his arrow, the archer drew the bow-string back to cut her down.
Dex was dying. What did Sheppard call him, again? Ronon? A strange name, doubtless from the barbarous north, where their idea of an evening's entertainment involved stealing a hundred cows from their next door neighbours and burning a few houses along the way.
"Ronon?" Rodney said, his voice cracking. The tall man's guards stood over them with halberds and spears and other things, sharp and shiny, that could do such horrible things to people; that could rip their bellies open so bits came out of them, and they were going to do that to them, but no, no, the tall man - Kolya; this was Kolya, the man behind the plot - had ordered his men to keep them alive, so they could be found guilty of something they hadn't done, and… and tortured and disembowelled…
"…and I don't want to face that alone," Rodney told Ronon. "I mean, I don't want to face it at all, but it's not fair if you die on me and leave me by myself. And Sheppard's gone, and the lady. Teyla. Is it acceptable to call a lady by her Christian name when you've seen her legs? And I'm by myself, and it's not fair."
Ronon was still breathing, but that was all. The crossbow bolt had struck him in the side, beneath his arm. "But it hasn't gone in too far," Rodney said, "unless… unless crossbow bolts are longer than I think they are. I don't know much about all the multifarious ways you manly men think up to kill each other."
The guards were impassive. There were four of them, and Ronon could take on four, couldn't he? Someone like Ronon could kill four people in his sleep.
"Just get us free before you die," Rodney begged him, wanting to shake him awake, but not daring to touch him properly in case he made things worse. "Do your last Herculean effort thing before you die." There was blood on his fingers. Why was there blood on his fingers? He wiped them clean, smearing them on his doublet. "But I'd prefer it if you didn't die. Sheppard wouldn't like it. Although he's probably dead now, of course. But… but I wouldn't like it, either. That is to say, I don't like it. I don't want you to die."
But few people in life had ever done exactly what Rodney had wanted them to, despite the evidently superior position of his wants. Ronon let out one last shuddering breath, and didn't breathe in again.
"He's dead," Rodney said. "Oh, God, he's dead."
Their faces blank, the two nearest guards leant in to check.
"Stop!" the princess commanded, still unquestionably the daughter of a king. She pulled her horse free from the rescuer who held her. "She is a friend. If you are loyal friends of mine, then you are her friends, too. You will not harm her."
The archer kept his bow drawn, obedient not to his princess but to the man with the charnel voice. Only when that man gave a nod did he lower his weapon.
And it was that, even more than the other thing, that made John certain.
"Teyla!" the princess greeted her, as Teyla ran breathlessly down the slope. "I understand you have been sending out warnings about an assassination plot? These men are our friends, and they have come to rescue me from it."
John took that as his cue. Rising to his knees, bringing up the pistol in both hands, he fired.
Ronon's eyes snapped open. He moved as fast as a… as a… "Snake," Rodney breathed, as the two guards' faces were driven into each other, "or… or hippopotamus." One of them appeared to have a knife in his throat. "No, something with claws." The second guard was reeling, gushing blood. A spear stabbed down, but Ronon dodged it, and slammed Rodney down into the ground with a firm hand on his shoulders. By the time Rodney looked up again, Ronon had managed to grab a halberd and was standing there looking like a vengeful god of death.
I should help him, Rodney thought. All similes dried up in his mind. He had a pen-knife, and a… and a… a stick, he thought, as he found one, little more than a twig, but sharp at the end. He swallowed; swallowed again. "What shall I…?"
But Ronon was already fighting two, and only one of them was wounded. Rodney saw the crossbow bolt jerk in Ronon's side. The blood was real; the wound was real; and everything, everything was moving. There was so much… There was too much… And he longed for words, for the quietude of the pen, but someone moved behind him, and he whirled round, screaming, and stabbed with his stick, and twisted it, but came away with only half a stick, so he found his pen-knife, and he fought, hurling himself at his attacker like Aristotle hurling himself at a vexatious problem.
There was blood; there was too much blood. Fire opened up from his shoulder to his elbow, and he realised that he was crying, actually crying, his vision blurring, and he was going to die, he was going to die…
A hand closed on his shoulder, firm but not ungentle. Rodney whirled round to see Ronon, blood-stained but still standing. "You killed…" Rodney's voice crumbled.
Ronon nodded. His hand was at his side, pressed around the crossbow bolt.
Rodney grasped at the solid thread that was anger. "I said you could kill four. I said. And you pretended you couldn't. You pretended to die. You could have said."
"Couldn't risk it." Ronon's chest was heaving with irregular, jagged breaths.
Rodney looked at his blood-stained knife; at the torn-off stick. The other end was inside someone; of course it was. "Did I…?" He couldn't complete the question. He didn't know what answer he wanted to hear. Yes, you killed him, you played a useful part, you saved my life? Or maybe he just wanted to hear a No, no, you did nothing, you didn't kill, you never will.
But Ronon gave no answer, just squeezed Rodney's shoulder, as if to say that it didn't matter, that everything would be unchanged regardless. "Come on," he said, and, "Where?" Rodney asked, blinking, but Ronon was already walking, and he had a crossbow bolt in his side, for crying out loud, so Rodney had to go with him, didn't he? He had to.
He held him up, a big man and a strong one.
He held him up.
Teyla did not recognise John at first, clad as he was in the garb of the princess' gaolers. All she saw was one of the fallen guards rising up with a pistol. All she saw was a gaoler firing on one of the men who had come to save the princess' life.
"No!" she screamed, "no!" but then he turned a little, and she saw that it was John. One archer had fallen, but the second was nocking an arrow, and John hurled the useless pistol at him, striking him in the shoulder, disrupting his aim. Then his sword was out, and he ran forward, striking once then twice, as the arrow slipped from the string and fell harmlessly to the ground.
"No," she gasped, but quietly now. John had betrayed them. She had brought him here, but all along he had been…
No, she told herself firmly. Not John. She had watched him for years, and known him for eight days, but he would not, he could not…
Not even to buy himself wings? she thought. Not even if bribed with the promise of the skies…?
The horseman with the banner raised it high. The other one was fighting for the princess' reins, urgently trying to lead her away. "My lady," she heard, "we must fly."
Teyla found herself shaking her head, just shaking it to and fro as if she could wipe away the things that she was seeing. John was clearly injured, but he had cast aside his sword and was pulling an arrow from a dead man's quiver. Then the man with the banner reversed it, turning it into a deadly spear. He rode at John, who dodged it, but only just. He dropped the arrow. Before he managed to retrieve it, the man came back. The spear struck John in the chest. The blow was glancing, and the armour deflected it, but it was enough to send him crashing to the ground.
And all the while, Teyla was walking, just walking forward, unable to stop. "John," she said, and it was only quiet, but John appeared to hear her, looking up from his shattered position on the ground.
It was enough.
"My lady," she said, as she reached the princess' horse, standing between the princess and the man who held her reins. She looked up at her with eyes that held the weight of secrets. "I have always served you," she said. Then, twisting as rapidly as a stoat, she raised her knife and jabbed it as hard as she could into the horseman's thigh. Pulling it out, she stabbed again, and his grip eased on the reins. The princess jerked them free. Teyla stabbed again, then grabbed the screaming man around the waist and pulled. They fell tangled together, but Teyla was up first, her knife ready and at his throat.
"Stop!" the princess commanded. Teyla saw brown eyes looking up at her. Her knife pricked the fallen man's skin, drawing a bead of blood. She could not look away. Dimly, she saw her princess still unharmed on her horse. On her other side, the rider with the spear was still moving, hooves thundering as he tried to ride John down.
"Your princess has commanded him to stop," Teyla said, spitting out each word as the knife sank deeper, "and yet he does not obey her." The man tried to grab her wrist. "I will kill you," she vowed, "if you move, and I will kill you if you do not call him off." The knife twisted deeper, the blood like a stream. "Call him off."
He made a broken sound. She moved the knife to his chest to let him speak, the bloody sinews of his throat moving as he shouted out, "Stop!" and "Stop!" again.
Stillness came behind her. She rocked back onto her heels, her knife ready for treachery, but blood was gushing from the fallen man's thigh, and she knew that he was almost dead already, although he did not yet know it.
John was on his feet, his sword covering the one man who still remained upright, who still held the spear, half as a weapon, and half as a banner of surrender.
"How did you know?" Teyla said, crouching there with blood thick on her skirts.
John was swaying, barely able to stand. "I recognised him," he said, jerking his chin minutely at the man bleeding to death at Teyla's feet. "He was with Kolya." He swallowed. "In the dungeon. When he…"
"Teyla," the princess said, in a tone that demanded answers. She was thinner and paler than when Teyla had last seen her, but still unquestionably her princess. "And this, if I am not mistaken, is Sir John Sheppard, who liked to play in the skies." Her voice turned sharper. "These others I do not know. They said they were my friends. The two of you appear to have killed them, so what does that make you?"
"Friends," Teyla began to say, but a party of horsemen crested the rise, and there was no chance to say anything else at all before they were upon them.
It wasn't enough.
"I never saw the point of physical strength," Rodney said, shambling along with Ronon's weight across his shoulder. "I'm strong, just in other areas. God! Ow! And I… And you're too tall. Quite a ridiculously… unnecessary height, if you… ask me, and it can't… it can't be comfortable to be… carried like this."
"No," Ronon said, as his knees sagged. His arm slid off Rodney's shoulders, and he fell forward onto the ground, dropping the crossbow he had grabbed from one of the dead guards.
"Please," Rodney urged him. "Try to stand up again. Good Ronon. Er.. nice Ronon." He scraped a shaking hand across his face. "I'm wounded, too," he said, and it hurt, it hurt, like fire on his arm, and the other shoulder throbbed from falling from the sky, and "please get up," he said. "I don't know where we're going. I don't know what we're doing."
The guards were dead, and the way into the Woodstock estate was open, but they would still count as intruders. Kolya would have denounced them as the murderers by now, but instead of walking away, they were going on, like mice calmly walking into the lair of the tiger.
"A party of horsemen…" Ronon rasped. "Went that way. Follow them." His head slumped forward, his fist tightening at his side.
"Oh. Oh. You're dying for real this time." Rodney's blood-stained hands fluttered over Ronon's body, not quite daring to touch. "Or is this another trick?" He looked over his shoulder, but no-one was watching. "Is this real?"
Ronon dragged his eyes open with evident difficulty, and told him.
John didn't recognise the distinguished-looking man who led them. By then, he could hardly stand, his vision pulsing with clouds of red. The wound on his thigh was stiffening, the blood turning cold all the way down to his knee. His right arm seemed to have given up on him, finally pushed beyond the point of endurance.
There were too many men, and he was too spent to put up a fight. They ignored him at first, these men in uniforms like the one he had stolen. Two of them took up positions on either side of the princess, and two more surrounded Teyla. The man with the banner was commanded at swordpoint to yield, and was killed on the spot when he hesitated.
The rest was inevitable. "That man isn't one of mine," the leader said, pointing at John. John let his sword fall, and raised his hands. "It isn't how it seems," he said, but they didn't believe him; of course they didn't believe him.
But he had seen the man who rode behind the grey-haired leader of these men. He had seen his moment of shock and anger, impossible to conceal, as he had come upon this scene.
It was Kolya.
"Senor Kolya brought me the news, my lady," the grey-haired man said, addressing the princess. "Fanatics were planning to carry you away to use as a figurehead for their rebellion against the Queen. They planned to set brother against brother, and to turn all England into a well of tears. If it wasn't for Senor Kolya's warning…"
"Where you say 'carry away', Sir Henry, some would say 'free'." The princess was imperious still. "Some would say that they wished only to rescue a daughter of King Henry from an unjust imprisonment."
There was a crack in Sir Henry's stern exterior. For a moment, he almost looked sorry. "If proof can be found that you colluded with this plot, my lady…"
"Then I will lose my head like my mother did," the princess said, "branded, like her, a traitor to her kin." She shook her head, and looked young and worn and frightened. "I didn't collude. I didn't know."
Flying was about hurling yourself from a great height, trusting that the wind would catch you. "She didn't know," John said, careful not to step forward, not to make a single movement that could be interpreted as a threat. "Kolya's lying to you. These men here - the ones you're supposed to think are Protestant fanatics… They're Kolya's men. I recognise one of them."
"It's a lie." Kolya flapped a hand, not even bothering to be angry. "You should kill--"
"There has been too much killing here, don't you think?" Sir Henry's tone was icy. Teyla raised her head just a little, but John couldn't read the message in her eyes.
"What was supposed to happen?" John hurled at Kolya. "You would ride up, twisting your hands, to find Princess Elizabeth dead. What was it to be? A fall from the horse? And you blameless, with a Protestant banner left so fortuitously at the scene, and Sir Henry's dying guards to attest that the princess had escaped, that Protestant fanatics had spirited her away? She would have died in an escape attempt, killed by the carelessness of her friends."
"It is a lie," Kolya said again, but this time there was a note of anger in his voice. He turned to Sir Henry, spreading his hands. "I know this man. He is John Sheppard, a well-known traitor, and the woman with him is a Protestant spy. Their story is as false as their hearts. Kill them."
Sir Henry brought his hand up sharply, countermanding the order. "These men are still mine, Senor Kolya." He turned to John, his expression cold. "I know your name," he said. "You have given me no cause to trust you." He gave a sharp nod, and John found himself grabbed, thrown to his knees in front of Sir Henry's horse. His head was pulled back, forcing him to look up, and Kolya was there, watching with a thin smile of triumph on his face, and John was on his knees, and it hurt, it hurt…
"John," Teyla said, and it was just a faint thread of a sound, but it was enough.
"How did you get here?" Sir Henry commanded. "How did you and your accomplices enter the estate?"
"I flew here," John said. "I used a flying machine only big enough for two. These others… They didn't come with me. I'm not a traitor. Yes, I came here in a flying machine that was supposed to have been destroyed, but I did it because I'd heard that Kolya was plotting to kill the princess. It was supposed to be tomorrow. I guess he got impatient, or put out the wrong date to put us off the scent. Too bad for him his men flushed us out of our hiding place and made us come early."
"You were supposed to die," Kolya spat, but Sir Henry's face was the cold, hard face of a hanging judge, and John knew that he had fought, but he had lost. It had been inevitable for two years, even since Ronon had snatched him from a dungeon, and he had emerged to discover that his father was dead.
He had lost.
It was not a failure, Teyla reminded herself. Her goal had been to save her princess from this plot. She had no doubt that John was right, and that this fake rescue was in fact the assassination attempt, striking one day earlier than the report she had overheard. Between them, she and John… No, between them, she and John and Ronon and Rodney had thwarted the attempt.
Perhaps they would get blamed for it, but the princess would live. Perhaps they would die for it, but the princess would live. Perhaps…
But I do not want to die, she thought, and she felt close to tears with the force of it. She was willing to die for her cause, but not like this, not like this. And to take John with her, because in the eyes of Sir Henry and Kolya, John was more damned in this than she was. Her death would be clean, but his would be hideous.
"Please," she begged, appealing to Sir Henry. "He is telling the truth. Senor Kolya is behind this. He wants to kill Princess Elizabeth, who was entrusted to your care. He wants--"
"You are Teyla Emmagen," Sir Henry said, raising his eyebrow.
She nodded. They were probably condemned already, but if they were to have any chance at all, it lay in perfect honesty.
"I found your letter," Sir Henry said, "the one you wrote to the princess. You must have known I would find it."
It was phrased ever so slightly as a question. "I… hoped," Teyla said, "or perhaps I hoped you would not. Perhaps it is all in the hands of God, and what He decides." But she had left the door open, and had made no attempt to hide the letter. Sir Henry was stern, or so her informants told her, but fair. An attempt on the princess' life was a smear on his honour.
Sir Henry looked at her, his face giving nothing away. "I knew your father," he said, "or maybe your grandfather, in happier times before England was so divided."
"But an honourable man can produce a traitor for a daughter." Kolya looked impatient. "This new religion can corrupt even the best of sons."
Sir Henry looked at him, considering. "It can indeed."
And it was not a victory, of course. It was not a victory at all. The princess had been saved today, but the Queen would be told that Protestant fanatics had almost spirited her away, to use her as a focal point for rebellion; by writing her letters, Teyla had helped produce the proof of that. The princess had survived today, but would live only for a trial and the block.
It was better, perhaps, if Teyla had not meddled at all - better for her; better for John and his friends; better for the princess; better for England.
But how could I have done anything else? she thought.
Some people liked to run for the… for the sport of it. Rodney pressed his hand to his screaming side. He'd seen them… in the north… Soldiers and knights and gentlemen, running in harness just to… see… who won. And fighting… They liked fighting. If they didn't have… war… then they… Jousts. King Henry had liked jousts. Trying to kill each other. People died for real, sometimes. Stupid, stupid to play at death, Stupid, stupid to… run, when you didn't have to, because it was… horrible. It was…
The ground went slightly up. Ronon had pointed the way - hoofprints, hoofprints in the grass. And people talking, and heads… What were those curvy helmets called? Morions. Morions high up, with people underneath them, though he couldn't see them.
Should run away, run the other way. His arm hurt, and he'd never been hurt before, deliberately hurt by someone who wanted to kill him. Insulted, yes, but sticks and stones… Not true, not true. No, not true, but not like actually fighting for your life. Not like having your flesh torn open by someone who wanted to hurt you. Should run away. The guards were dead. Light the burner, up, up and away.
They'll probably kill me if I carry on. The thought came through suddenly clear, far clearer than anything else.
But he carried on running, heart pounding, arm bleeding. He carried on, crested the slight rise, and saw them gathered on the slope down to the river.
His foot slipped. He didn't fight it, but went down, flat on his face. If I don't look like a threat… They were slow to notice him. Call yourself a highly trained guard? he wanted to say, but lacked the breath for it. Call yourself an evil nemesis? But he snatched that thought back even as it came to him. He couldn't underestimate Kolya. Kolya had shot Ronon, and Rodney had watched him stop breathing.
Sheppard, he thought, saw him first; he was suddenly sure of this, even though Sheppard gave no sign. Sheppard was on his knees, flanked by two soldier types, and he was dressed mostly as a soldier himself, except for the breeches, which were his usual well-tailored ones, showing off his legs beneath them, where were…
Stop, he thought, Rodney berating Rodney, telling him to think, to think. Why on Earth was he here? Why on Earth had Ronon…?
Then the assorted enemies, henchmen, minions and… whoevers saw him. There were lots of stop where you ares and drop your weaponses, but Rodney pressed one hand to his heaving chest, and waved the other in vague surrender, flapping it to bring more air towards his lungs, to try to unleash his chained eloquence. "Not a threat!" he called. "Important information, etcetera etcetera. Messenger, like… Pheidippides to Athens. Don't kill, don't kill. Scholar. Look. Weapon's my pen, etcetera."
The grey-haired man on a horse gave some sort of signal to the guards. They bristled in a prickly fashion, like a self-righteous hedgehog, but they let him approach.
"I'm a scholar from Oxford," Rodney said, as breathing came steadily easier. "Doctor Rodney McKay. Yes, I served the late King Edward, but the cause of knowledge knows no princes." His eyes flickered quickly from right to left. "That is to say, it obeys princes - queens, I mean; queens - but its cause is greater. It doesn't, like, plot."
Kolya dismounted; walked towards him. "This prattling traitor has entertained Sheppard and his accomplices for weeks in his own house," he said loudly, "or so I have been reliably informed. He made the flying machine that brought them here."
"Well, yes, yes, I did." Rodney pulled at his doublet, straightening it. "No-one else could have done it. But I helped them because they were trying to stop a plot that would have plunged England into civil war. Because he's Spanish, you know. Kolya. Him. He killed the guards at the gate. I saw it happen. In the flesh. I was in the sky. Flying. Bird's eye view. I saw him." He folded his arms. Everything about him seemed to be trembling beneath that folded grip.
"The guards had indeed been slaughtered," Kolya said calmly, turning towards the grey-haired man, "which is how I was able to come in unannounced."
"It was him," Rodney said, digging his fingers into his sides. "They were killed completely - not just incapacitated but slaughtered. It's because anyone left alive would have told you who it was. Kolya's men came up as friends, then probably changed their clothes afterwards." At least, that's what Ronon had thought; that's what Ronon had told him to say. Ronon, of course, had said it all in rather fewer words.
"A lie," Kolya said calmly, but a pulse was beating rapidly at the side of his brow.
Rodney recognised such a pulse. He saw it often in people talking to him. Then he looked away from Kolya's face, looking at the rest of him. "Then why has he got blood on his cuff?" he denounced, pointing. "It's Ronon's blood, from where he shot him."
Sheppard's voice cut through any other answer anyone might have given. "Where's Ronon?" he asked, and perhaps it was just the over-exertion, but his voice made Rodney shiver.
John saw the truth in McKay's eyes. Ronon was dead.
Ronon was dead, and McKay and Teyla could talk until kingdom come, but they would never be believed. Ronon was dead, and the rest of them would follow him, but not with the quick despatch of an arrow or an arquebus ball. He couldn't face that again, he couldn't. And McKay and Ronon were only here because of him. They were…
No, no. No rationalisation, just…
He tore himself free from the soldiers who held them, ripping himself out of their slackened grasp. He had just a second, he knew, before they struck him down, but a second was enough. Snatching up a discarded blade, and hurled himself towards Kolya.
But Kolya was quicker. He always had been one step ahead, always knowing just how hard to push to make John shatter. He retaliated not by fighting John, but by grabbing McKay, pulling him in front of him like a shield, pricking his throat with a knife.
Sir Henry was shouting; John hardly heard him. The guards flanked him; John hardly saw them. McKay's mouth had frozen half open, as if he was terrified to move it in case the knife drove home. His eyes were wide, flickering from side to side.
"Sheppard," Kolya said, in a tone that still haunted John's nightmares, "you know you can never win against me."
There was so much horror attached to his voice, but John couldn't let it break him. That voice, that face, had finally emerged into the daylight, and sunlight always drove shadows away. "Funny," he said, "because I thought I already did. I escaped, didn't I? You never got me to confess to things I hadn't done. You never will."
"But you screamed." Kolya's eyes glittered as much in the daylight as in the guttering light of a torch. "Do you remember, Sheppard? You were a traitor. I gave you what you deserved." His arm jerked, as if to drive the knife home, but he arrested it, twisting his wrist at the last moment. The noise ripped from McKay's throat was quiet but hideous, like the rasping moan of something dying.
John's whole body was pounding with the rhythm of his heart, pain pulsing red across his vision. No-one else existed now, except for this man and the hostage he held. "I was never a traitor," he said, "unlike you. Now let him go." He edged forward, but just an inch. "Ronon did nothing but be a friend to me. Now let him go."
"Do you remember…?" Kolya said caressingly, as a bead of blood slid down McKay's throat.
"Let. Him. Go," John commanded.
Kolya gave a light laugh, the one that echoed in John's dreams. "But Johnny, my lad, did you think I would come here alone? Where Ronon Dex is, you are never far behind, and where you are, there is your flying machine. My men will have found it by now. When I give the signal, they will burn it. Or I can kill this foolish, prattling scholar, this Doctor McKay."
When Kolya laughed in the sunlight, the horror was gone. When Kolya offered him this choice, it became no choice at all. John had swept people up in the wake of his obsession, and he feared, sometimes he feared what he had become.
But dragged out into the sunlight, it was easy. Dragged out into the sunlight, it was no choice at all.
"You will let him go," John said coldly, calmly.
Still smiling, Kolya pushed McKay forward, and brought his hand up for a signal. Then, as McKay reeled and fell to his knees, Kolya brought the knife around and raised it high…
The world reawakened at John's back: voices, movement, shouts. He threw himself forward, sword swinging, but Kolya was faster, his knife already descending.
John barely felt it enter him. He saw McKay's red face, the mouth open, silently screaming. He heard Kolya gasp, and then shouting, all he heard was shouting.
His first shot failed to kill Kolya. Ronon wound up the crossbow for a second shot, but it was already too late. In so many situations in life, you had just one shot, and if you needed a second one, you were dead.
He had come just too late. Sheppard was down. The best lies, or so Ronon's father had taught him, had a grain of truth in them. He'd pretended to die because he'd been close to fainting from the pain. Later, he'd sunk down and told McKay to go on because he'd feared that they were watched, but his wound was real. He had barely been able to stay on his feet as he had taken the long, roundabout route to approach from the river. Now his vision was blurring, and his aim was false.
"Please," he heard Teyla beg, and then in a different voice, "Ronon! Drop your weapon now!"
In all his life, Ronon had obeyed his father in most things, and Sheppard in some. Since the day he had been breeched, he had never been without weapons, even when he had danced and sung.
He dropped the bow. Killing Kolya meant nothing. No, killing Kolya meant something. Sheppard still dreamt of him, and perhaps if Kolya was dead…
But Sheppard was down. "Can I come closer?" Ronon shouted, his hands in the air, his body bent over to favour his wound. "Is Sheppard…?"
And everyone was talking, but he and Sheppard had always stayed apart from all this. Loyalty mattered. Friendship. Kin.
He came forward; let out a breath when he saw that Sheppard was still alive. Kolya had Ronon's bolt in his shoulder, and his eyes were blazing. "You see!" he shouted. "You see the true nature of their treachery."
"I see," said a grey-haired man.
Ronon sank to his knees, perhaps closer to falling. Sheppard looked up from the ground where he lay. "You're not dead. Thought you were dead."
"Not dead." Ronon shook his head.
"'m glad." Sheppard smiled.
"And I'm not dead, either." McKay fluttered around over both of them. "Seriously, Sheppard… You… you saved my life. I've never thought much of that heroic thing, but you… leaping between me and the fatal blow, like… Oh, God, it doesn't matter what it's like. You did it."
"Wonder why." Badly wounded, defeated, Sheppard's smile was less shadowed than it had been for years.
This was probably the end. But it wasn't such a bad end, Ronon thought. In the years since his birth, he had imagined many worse.
It was strange, Teyla thought, how the things that should have mattered most suddenly seemed to matter hardly at all.
Sir Henry was an astute man and an honourable one. Having spent a year as the gaoler of a princess, he knew her measure, and she, who had let herself stay silent while she watched people reveal their true nature, finally spoke.
Teyla's fate was being decided. She barely heard it.
"Everything happened as Sir John and Mistress Emmagen describe it," the princess said. "I heard their talking, one to the other. They were opposed to these men who claimed to be my rescuers."
"And they were indeed fighting them when we arrived," Sir Henry said, "but such things can be faked. People can sacrifice their allies to give credence to a lie." But he looked at Kolya as he spoke, just as sharply as he looked at John.
John was still alive, Teyla thought. Ronon and Rodney held him up, supporting him between them as they knelt on the ground, but Ronon was badly in need of support himself. She wanted to go to them. "Please?" she asked, without intending to, and Sir Henry gave a nod. She sank to her knees beside them. John smiled weakly at her, but his eyes were already closing.
Behind him, in the trees, the first smoke was rising.
Words were exchanged behind her as she touched Ronon's shoulder, as she squeezed Rodney's hand. She turned at last to see Sir Henry standing up from one of his fallen guards, shot by the pretended rescuers before Teyla had arrived on the scene. "He confirms their story," he said thoughtfully. "Now give him some care."
Kolya started shouting. The smoke grew thicker, and the first flames were visible. Could John see it, she wondered.
"I knew her… grandfather, yes, grandfather," she heard Sir Henry say, "and of you, Senor Kolya, I have heard little that inspires liking. I let you and Sheppard confront each other unmolested. You see a man's true nature when he faces his enemy."
Kolya was clearly struggling to stay on his feet. "This is ridiculous!" he shouted. "Perhaps you are the traitor, after all."
"And how did you know of the plot, to warn me?" Sir Henry said. "And how did these so-called Protestant fanatics know that the princess would be riding out today, when for a whole year she has been kept inside? The decision to relax the terms of her captivity on this day was shared only with a few. As King Philip's agent and enforcer, I expect it would have been no difficult task for you to discover it."
"You can't believe them?" Kolya said, his voice weakened by pain.
The flames grew higher, and Teyla could smell the sharp tang of smoke. John stirred, turning his head slightly. This matters, she thought, but the rest of it mattered terribly. It mattered terribly, but somehow it seemed to matter less than the look in John's eyes when he realised that his flying machine was burning; than the way that Ronon held him up, even though he was so badly hurt himself; than the way that Rodney had run forward, breathless with anxiety, and stayed here still.
"I serve my Queen and my God and my country," Sir Henry said. "You serve a different lord and a harsher God, and your country is not my own. Would Spain benefit from a civil war in England? Would Spain benefit if the Queen's nearest heir should suddenly die?"
"I should have killed him," Ronon muttered, and suddenly the two worlds collided, Sir Henry finally noticing the closed circle that was the four of them. But he had been aware of them all along, of course.
"No," Sir Henry said, "there has been enough killing. These things require a trial. Take Senor Kolya away."
So she had won. Teyla let out a breath, but that was all. She looked at John and Ronon and Rodney, and this, this, felt more real.
John managed to walk the steps that were necessary. Wood and canvas burned quickly, and his puddlejumper was almost consumed, just smouldering ashes beneath the winter trees.
"You let him do that to save my life," McKay said, as he held John up on the left-hand side. "No-one's ever done… I mean, I wouldn't want anyone to do it, because it's senseless and brutal, and when will you manly types stop waving swords around and open your eyes to the wonder of knowledge? We'd be on the moon by now if only you people applied yourself to study the same way you--"
"McKay," Ronon warned him. He was too hurt himself to be at John's right-hand side, but he had managed to walk here unaided, on his own two feet.
"No," John said, shaking his head. "Let him carry on." Because, stupid as it was, right from the start, John had liked McKay, from the first outraged accusations about his knot garden. It was hard to dwell on shadows when McKay was in full flow.
And God alone knew how much he needed that now.
McKay cleared his throat. "Of course, I had it under control. I wouldn't have…" He stopped; pressed his lips together for a moment. "I know how much you loved that machine. I… I thought of it as mine, you know, because it was my achievement, but it was more than that to you, wasn't it? And… God, Sheppard, you gave it up for me."
"There was never any choice." His voice was hoarse, as if scoured by smoke and flames. "It wasn't…" His eyes flickered not to McKay, but to Ronon. "It wasn't hard."
He had saved a princess; he had saved a friend. He had lost his wings, but other things were more important. What were wings but… my life, he thought. He swayed and then fell, ending up on his knees beside the wreckage. For nearly two years, Kolya had stalked his dreams, and John had lived half in shadows. Flying was an escape from that, a way to live, to carry on. Now he had faced Kolya out in the daylight, and the memories had been dragged out and had lost their sting. And there were other things out in the daylight, too: friendship, loyalty… a cause.
"I can build more, of course," McKay said, lowering his voice half way through, so the final words came out as a whisper. "Make another flying machine," he hissed through a very narrow mouth. "I can do it in weeks. Better than this one."
"If they let us," John said, but fire was burning in his side, where Kolya's knife had sunk in, and…
…and nothing after that, except jagged darkness, but it never held a dungeon, just sunlight and flames. Kolya was led away to trial, again and again and again. "I will lend you my surgeon," he heard Sir Henry say, "but I cannot be seen to support you, and neither can I lie. The Queen knew nothing of this plot, hatched by evil men around her…"
Knew nothing? John thought, as sunlight blazed over him and through him and in him. It was the age-old story. Princes acted, and people burnt.
"Two of the fake rescuers still live," Sir Henry said, his voice fading in and out of hearing. "…will speak under questioning. …prove his guilt. But you… not well-received. You should…"
Perhaps a second, and perhaps an eternity passed. He heard Teyla speak. Then a hot jet of pain erupted in his side, and the next time he saw anything, it was dark.
"She was in my care," he heard. "You kept her alive, so I let you live, but go. Go."
The whole world became harsh and wild. He woke up on the far side of it, in a place of blue.
Rodney had no books. He had no Copernicus in which to scribble comments in the margin. He had no newly-discovered wine cellar, and all his notes for all his wonderful treatises had gone.
Instead, he had cold, damp breeches, and leaves in his hair. His stomach was jolted half to pieces by a ridiculously badly-designed carriage, and he appeared to have become a fugitive - admittedly a fugitive sent on his way with a packed lunch and a pat on the back by a knight of the realm, but, still…
"And I haven't got a home now," he said, as he staggered painfully from the carriage. Although he had been, hello, dying only two days before, Ronon had played carriage driver appropriately well. The balloon took up a lot of space inside. Sheppard was limp, barely less pale than the bundled silk that he rested on.
According to Teyla, this inn was safe. "They are not agents of mine," she said, "because that would be too obvious, but they are… not unfriendly."
Sheppard's weary eyes fluttered open and he looked at what was visible through the open door. "We've used this one, too."
Teyla looked at him. "I wonder how often our paths crossed without us realising it," she said quietly.
They stayed for almost a week in the end, and no-one came to drag them out and arrest them, which was a definite plus. Ronon slowly grew better again. Sheppard got worse, but then began to improve. And all the while, Rodney talked about many, many things, educating the benighted masses about the cosmos, and illustrating the ideas of Euclid with knife blades and trenchers.
It was only towards a latter evening that his words finally ran out. He sat and stared out of the window, and thought of all the months when his life had been about nothing but writing up wonderful theories…; when his life had been about a cold, empty, crumbling manor, in the company of a servant who had betrayed him.
"What are you going to do?" He dared ask it at last.
"Not got much choice," Sheppard said, propped up on a mountain of silk, with a horse-hair pillow somewhere far beneath it.
"I… believe we have," Teyla said slowly. "The burnings are getting worse. Kolya has failed, but there may be others. I will continue to fight for my cause, but…" She looked down at her clasped hands in her lap, then raised her head, looking at them one after another. "…differently," she said. "Other things matter, too. What is the point of winning your battle if you lose too much on the way?"
Sheppard looked at Ronon, the two of them sharing one of those unspoken communication things that was, in its way, as irritating as the leg thing. No, worse, Rodney realised, because it was something that he couldn't do himself, because he didn't know anyone that well.
"There's nothing else left," Sheppard said, with a smile that didn't really seem very smiley. "Might as well be useful and live up to the label." His eyes went to Teyla. Rodney found himself edging back just a little, back into the shadows away from the lantern light. "Which is to say, I guess I want to help."
"I meant it," Rodney found himself saying, although he was even further back now, almost in the dark. "I can make another flying machine. I'll need a stable, and… and… money, but how hard can that be to get?"
"Going to set up in the market and juggle figs?" Sheppard said with a smile.
It hurt. It was stupid, but it hurt. "Maybe they didn't burn my house down," he said, "now that Kolya's gone. Rents were due on Lady Day, weren't they? I've got money and space… lots of space."
"There's other places with space," Ronon said.
"And other places with money." Sheppard smiled ruefully. "Poor Dave."
Rodney said nothing. For the first time in his entire life, he felt as if he didn't entirely understand what was happening. Or maybe not the first time. Perhaps the third.
"Of course," Sheppard said, "it'll be dangerous. Despite what Sir Henry said…" He frowned, turning to Ronon. "He did say what I thought I heard him say, did he?"
Ronon shrugged, in the manner of someone absolving themselves of all responsibility. "Hey, delirious, remember?"
"More delirious than you," Sheppard retorted. His smile, though, was brittle, and then it disappeared completely. "He gave us an element of support, but it can't last. For many years, perhaps our whole life, our position will be…"
"Uncertain," Teyla said firmly, as if Sheppard had been about to say something more emphatic, but she had stopped him.
"Uncertain," Sheppard said, but the look in his eyes was at odds with the tension of his body. "So if you don't…"
"Oh." Rodney let out a breath. "Oh. You mean you're inviting me to come with you?"
Sheppard began to speak. Rodney heard only the initial sound, the start of a 'yes.'
"Of course," he said, turning his attention to his creased doublet to hide the quite ridiculous idiot grin that wanted to burst forth on his face, though why on Earth he was smiling, he didn't know, given than, hello, bandits and outlaws; people who kept getting themselves stabbed or shot; people with alarming nemeses from their dark pasts; people who would force him to make better and better flying machines, and would appreciate them and love them, and fly them, glorious against the stars.
He tugged his doublet even harder, hiding things in a cough. "As long as there are comfits," he said.
"I think we can manage that," Sheppard said. "Once a year, perhaps, if your work is satisfactory."
And for the first time in his life, Rodney understood the wealth of things that were not said. The grin came anyway, despite his best efforts to distract himself with sartorial matters. He stopped fighting it, and the others… his new friends…
They smiled back.
This is a nineteenth century drawing of a sixteenth century painting, sadly lost in a fire in 1875. The drawing was used as the frontispiece for Riders of the Wind, a rather fanciful romantic novel about John Sheppard, written by one Richard Manley. From the gushing descriptions of Sheppard's legs and the sheer number of times he gets picturesquely wounded before swooning into a passing damsel's tender arms, current thinking is that the said Mister Manley was, in fact, a woman. Chemical analysis shows a considerable amount of drool on the original version of the artwork.
In 1558, Queen Mary died, and her sister became Queen Elizabeth I. The exploits of our heroes under this most famous of queens do not need to be recounted here in full, subject as they are to academic studies, prime-time TV dramas, countless novels, Errol Flynn swashbucklers and 1930s tea-time serials.
Every school child knows about the brave Sir John Sheppard, the first and most celebrated commander of the Elizabethan Flying Corps, hero of such oft-told adventures as the Sapphire Necklace Intrigue, the Chipping Sodbury Insurrection and the affair of the King of Spain's kittens, surely one of the most bizarre episodes of European history. In his latter years, this Drake of the Skies averted the Spanish Armada with precision gliding, and was immortalised by Spencer, Shakespeare and many more. Centuries later, even Keats could express the dream of "flying like Sheppard upon the aureate air," and pilots from the English Civil War to the Battle of Britain expressed a firm belief that Sheppard was not dead but merely sleeping, and that he would return when England most needed him.
Although most people know him only as the inventor of the flying machine, Rodney McKay's name is revered by scientists the world over as the spiritual father of numerous disciplines. For over three hundred years, scientific research was driven by a scrap of paper entitled "the to-do list of Doctor Rodney McKay"; it was to be 1898 before scientists reached the final point on the list, number 94, and satisfactorily produced the solution, the germs of which must have come to the illustrious McKay so many years before. Although he became somewhat eccentric in his latter years, devoting rather more time than was wise to perfecting comfit recipes using scientific principles, his achievements in science have never been equalled. Shakespeare, it is true, wrote a character called McKay, and made him a puffed-up, over-locaquious fool, but Shakespeare had the low tastes of the masses to consider, and the masses in any age have not been renowed for their appreciation of scientific pioneers.
Until 1853, Teyla Emmagen was known, if she was known at all, only as a relatively minor lady-in-waiting at the Elizabethan court. The chance discovery of a letter in a dusty chest in Banbury changed everything, revealing that Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spy-master, was no more than the inheritor of a sophisticated network set up by Mistress Emmagen. Emmagen immediately became a darling of historical novelists and, in due course, of movie makers - the dangerous and beautiful spymistress, shown frequently, and perhaps regrettably, with few clothes on. That most famous of Bond girls, Teyla Bikini, was named in her honour. Needless to say, the truth of her life is far more interesting than any second-rate movie.
Reduced by second-rate historical novels and movies to the role of a sidekick, and unforgiveably played in one early silent movie by a sideshow giant, Ronon Dex was far more complex than that. He fast became a favourite at Queen Elizabeth's court, admired both for his warlike and his more gentle accomplishments. The queen attempted to employ him as Maker of the Royal Comfit, but, daringly, he turned down the request, preferring to adventure with Sheppard. Marlowe once dared to brand Dex a coward for his refusal to take to the air. Quite what happened the night after he published, none would say, but Marlowe, looking slightly dazed and with sugar on his clothes, recanted the following day, and became Dex's loudest champion.
All this is well-known, for even the worst of the romantic novels have a scrap of truth in them. What the world has not known until now, however, is the tale of these early years - years before they were in favour at court; years before they were the close-knit group of friends that history knows them to be. Some of the details have been invented by the present novelist, but the story behind them is entirely true.
I tried to claim this as a pinch hit, but was pipped to the post. This was a very good thing indeed, since the germ of an idea that I had when I made the claim proceeded to run away, and it was a week before it reappeared in a slightly different form, ready to be written. I'd originally played with various ideas of a fully-formed team, either working for Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, but couldn't come up with an actual plot for them until I suddenly got the idea of shifting the story to the mid-Tudor period and making our heroes outlaws.
I did try to be as accurate as possible with the historical background, working on the assumption that the recent invention of gliders hadn't materially changed anything about the world and its politics. (Elizabeth, though, will invest heavily in planes, and other countries will soon learn how to make them, too, and history will diverge from the 1560s onwards.) McKay's flying machine is very roughly modelled on a glider made by George Cayley in the early nineteenth century. I had no desire to revolutionise society by introducing steam engines or internal combustion engines to the sixteenth century (would that be called Ruff Punk?) but to work within the limits of Renaissance technology, just adding in an ahead-of-his-time knowledge of the principles of aerodynamics (and, yes, a certain extension of disbelief and a good deal of hand waving.)
1555 feels a world away from 1720, the year of my pirate AU. So much science hasn't happened yet, so McKay's tangential ramblings kept hitting the stone wall of things that hadn't quite been invented yet. It is a period that I once knew pretty well - I spent a month living in 1553, and almost did a doctorate on the cultural history of the period 1547 - 1558 - but it still felt quite limited and narrow compared with the cosmopolitan world of 1720. Still, researching it was great fun, and by coincidence, a friend discovered the Lymond Chronicles (set at exactly this time, and my favourite series of novels) just a few weeks ago, which has inspired me to joyfully reread them, which has helped with my immersion in the period.
I am feeling quite proud of myself for visiting Oxford in a story and leaving it still standing. I have destroyed Oxford in two different stories now, as well as modelling the architecture of a devastated made-up city on Oxford. I even tried to destroy Oxford in Where the White Lilies Grow, just for old time's sake, but the story demanded a port, and so had to destroy Bristol instead. I mean no ill-will to the place - quite the opposite, in fact - but it just happens. By the way, I envisaged McKay's college as Christ Church, and even though the history doesn't quite work, I couldn't shift him from there in my mental image, much as I tried to push him elsewhere.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
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