by Eildon Rhymer
When an ambush leaves Ronon hurt and Sheppard badly injured, the two of them are forced to go on the run. A Runner for seven years, Ronon should find this all too familiar, but this is something new…
They walked straight into the ambush.
Their attackers had been hiding in the trees, concealed by the thick brown leaves. When a leaf fell onto his shoulder, Ronon looked up. That gave him an instant of warning, but not enough. The man was already leaping down on him, in a shower of dead and dying leaves. Ronon ripped his knife out of his sheath, but not quick enough. He was knocked to the ground, and his attacker came up first, lithe and quick, his own blade ready for Ronon's heart.
Leaves continued to fall, and Ronon lashed his head sideways, spitting, and shook off the leaf that had landed on his face. Then he rolled further, and the tip of the blade scraped shallowly across his chest as he moved, and sank into his upper arm.
Before his attacker could haul out the blade, Ronon brought his left hand up, sinking his second knife into the enemy's stomach. He twisted; twisted again. Blood welled up in his attacker's mouth, and Ronon heaved him off, ripped the blade out of his stomach, and, howling, killed the second man who had dropped down to circle him.
The sharp crack of a pistol caused another shroud of leaves to fall. A third man fell, revealing Sheppard, breathing fast. "Scissors cut paper," Sheppard said, "and gun beats sword. Have we ever shown you Raiders of the Lost Ark?"
"Indiana Jones and Nazis," Ronon said.
"Ah. I see we have."
Falling to one knee, Ronon finished off the man Sheppard had wounded. No need to question him, not any more. This was not the first attack. They knew who these enemy were, and knew that the only thing they wanted was death.
"I can't see any more of them," Sheppard said.
The leaf fall had almost finished, with only a few leaves still drifting down from the trees. The last one settled gently on the dead man's hand, then slid to rest on the long blade that he was still clutching. The metal was steeped in blood from tip to hilt.
Ronon stood up. "You're hurt."
"Yeah." Sheppard gave a wry smile, but then it faded into a sigh. "Yes, I am."
Ronon is pressed between two thick roots of a tree, his chest heaving. The bark is rough against the back of his head, and his weapon has already sunk deeply into the bed of massed leaves. Not far away, a broken branch is swinging in the wind, creaking and grating. He shoots it down. Two Wraith lie dead on the edge of the forest, and he knows that he is safe from pursuit, for a moment, at least.
There is blood on the dark mass of leaves. Grimacing, he pushes up his sleeve, examining the bloody gouge that runs from shoulder to elbow. He swears under his breath. He fought the Wraith unscathed; a jagged branch did this damage as he closed on the second one.
Reaching into his pouch, he pulls out the wrapped package of bandages, given to him long ago by some villager too foolish to shun him. He hopes they are still clean, but there is nothing he can do if they are not. The wound needs to be bound and protected from the worse dirt of the forest floor. If there is already dirt in the wound, there is nothing he can do about that, either. The only water here is stagnant pools, steeped through with mud. He will find clean water before nightfall, he hopes. No, he will find clean water before nightfall, even if he has to visit a dozen worlds. Fever is his deepest fear. If he falls into delirium, he will not be able to watch for the Wraith, and there is no-one to watch for him.
He pulls out the bandage and starts wrapping it around his arm. He starts at his shoulder, and has to hold the end of the bandage with his teeth. By the time he reaches his elbow, his whole body is taut with pain. He cries aloud at the pressure on the lacerated flesh. Alone, unwatched by anyone, he can voice his pain in a way he never did when he had friends. He is quiet when he knows himself hunted, but sometimes, when entirely alone, he howls.
"Your turn," Sheppard said, when Ronon had done what he could. It was not enough, he feared.
Ronon had opted all along not to wear the clothes of Sheppard's people, and not to bear their weapons. Why should he, when he could move more silently in his own clothes, and kill more effectively with the weapons that he knew? It was not a matter of pride, and it was not a matter of identity. It just made sense. And, for that reason, it also made sense to carry with him the same supplies that the soldiers of Atlantis carried in their vests. It had felt like a bounty of plenty, at first, after years of eking out scavenged goods.
He pulled out the dressing, sealed and sterile, and placed it on his lap. Gritting his teeth, he pulled the knife out of his bicep, sucking in small, tight breaths of pain. Blood flowed down to his elbow. He dropped the knife with a cry of fury, suddenly hating it for causing this pain.
"Should have left it in," Sheppard said.
"No choice." The hilt had been heavy, pulling down on the blade. Ronon fumbled one-handed for the dressing.
"Let me," Sheppard offered.
Just for a moment, Ronon considered refusing. Then he looked at Sheppard, propped against the tree, his face pale yet determined, just as he had been when Ronon had tended to his wound. Only a fool refused help when it was genuinely offered. Being self-sufficient had not been by choice.
Ronon handed Sheppard the dressing. "I guess all those games of doctors and nurses were useful, after all," Sheppard said. "Hold still and –" His words ended in a gasp. He drove his head back against the tree, and the muscles around his eyes tightened. "Uh… I can't move my right arm too good." His smile was a lie papered upon pain. "Guess you'll have to make do with just one."
In the end, Ronon held one end of the bandage, and Sheppard held the other. Throughout the whole binding, both were silent.
He is lying on the ledge of a cliff, rock beneath him and pressing into his side. The overhang should protect him from the weather, but the wind is driving the rain directly at him, drenching his face and hair.
The people huddled in the trees below him are Wraith worshippers. Sometimes the Wraith send their slaves out after him, instead of coming themselves. Sometimes, as their human necks snap beneath his fingers, as their human blood gouts over his hands, he wonders if he has become the Wraith's executioner, killing slaves who no longer please them. Sometimes he wonders if they are the bait in a trap.
But still he kills them. They are the enemy, and they are to be killed. Walking away is out of the question.
Every morning, when he wakes up, he has two aims in life, and one of them is wrapped up in the other. He will survive, and he will kill anyone who hunts him. He will live, and he will rid the world of Wraith, one by one by one. Once, when he was new to this life, the second aim was subordinate to the first. Now, he suspects, it is the other way round. Once, he killed to live. He killed so that one day he could go home again. He killed to rob the Wraith of the victory of his death.
Then somewhere along the years, he stopped clinging so fiercely to life. The prospect of a homecoming became an ever more distant dream. Life became nothing more than solitary endurance.
He still kills Wraith, and he always will, but he has stopped caring quite so much about staying alive. Once, he had something to lose; now he has nothing.
The people below him have not seen him. They begin to move away.
Ronon rises into a crouch, and leaps to the ground below. The landing jars, but he is already up again with knife and gun, and the sodden twilight is filled with screams.
There were four of them, framed in the coarse brown fronds of the fading undergrowth. Their clothes were speckled brown, blending into their surroundings. Two were standing close to each other, talking in low voices, while the other two faced outwards, crossbows at ease in their hands.
Ronon kept very still. A slight breeze stirred the ferns, and leaves still drifted down from above, dislodged by large black birds. Ronon had crept forward, shivered forward, covering his approach with these natural sounds of the forest. He was crouching, supporting himself with his wounded left arm, his right arm on his weapon, ready to attack.
He could take two of them, he thought, before the others realised he was there, but his weapon was "not subtle," as Sheppard had whispered, just minutes before. "Not as loud as mine," he had admitted, nodding at the P90 suspended at his chest, "but too garish for covert operations." Still, even if they became aware of where he was hiding, that didn't mean that they could hit him. He had the advantage of cover, and the advantage of surprise. Chances were, he could take all four of them without them landing a single blow.
Retreating a little from his hiding place, he turned back towards Sheppard. Four, he indicated with his fingers.
Sheppard had lowered himself stiffly to the ground, in control of himself all the way, but the way that he was sitting now looked more like the result of a fall. His arm was pressed against his side, and his head was resting against the tree trunk. When he saw Ronon turning towards him, he raised his head and visibly prepared himself for movement, but Ronon had caught a glimpse of what came before that. For a moment, he had seen Sheppard as Sheppard had not wanted to be seen.
Four, he indicated again, careful to keep his face unchanged.
Sheppard began to struggle to his feet. Stay down, Ronon indicated, lowering his own head, miming the need to keep hidden. Sheppard quirked a smile, and raised his thumb. Ronon wondered suddenly if he could stand. His wound was low on his shoulder, below the collarbone, and it had already robbed him of nearly all the movement of his right arm. His jacket was too dark to show the colour of blood, but could not hide its wetness.
Ronon turned back to the enemy. The crossbowmen had their backs to him now. Now, he thought, pressing his fist into the ground, readying himself to leap into action. If he took them now, he would win.
But if he failed – if his wound slowed him, or if one of the enemy turned round, or if there were more of them, hidden as he was hidden – then they would come for Sheppard. Even if he killed them all, the sound of the battle could bring others running from elsewhere in the forest.
He sank back into the carpet of leaves, paused for a moment, then returned to Sheppard. "If we go that way," he whispered, "and keep low and quiet, they won't see us."
He had not meant to wander so close to the settlement. "You're a Runner," the young man says. "I've heard of people like you."
"Go away," Ronon snarls at him. "The Wraith can track me."
"You kill Wraith." The young man eyes his weapons. "How many have you killed?"
It is no longer a lie. The first twenty, he remembered the exact manner of their deaths. The twenty after that, he remembered as a hectic blur of fighting and movement, almost like a dream. For a hundred after that, he kept counting. Sometime after the second year, he had lost count. Even his talk of years is meaningless. He tries to keep counting by the Satedan way of measuring time, but he spends his time going from world to world, going straight from winter to summer, from night to day, from never-ending darkness to never-ending light. He has no idea how long it has really been, and no idea how old he really is.
"How long since you've slept in a proper house?" the young man asks. "Come home with me. My cooking leaves a lot to be desired, but I'll wager it's better than anything you're used to."
Ronon walks faster. "The Wraith –"
"I hate the Wraith," the young man spits. "I'm prepared to take the risk."
Ronon recognises the look of a young man who fancies himself as a hero. Perhaps he once wore that look himself once, long ago. He knows he shouldn't, but it's been so long, so long. Sometimes the Wraith leave him alone for weeks, so it is by no means certain that they will come tonight. If they do come, he will be ready. It is a long time since he has fought to protect anyone other than himself, but he has never forgotten how it feels.
He goes with the young man, and eats better than he has eaten in years. He sleeps on a soft bed, beside a glowing fire.
Not long before dawn, he wakes up to discover the young man trying to rob him. "I'll be a hero," the young man sobs, when Ronon breaks his wrists. "A hero if I take a trophy from someone not even the Wraith can kill."
Ronon leaves him alive, but the next time someone offers him shelter, he walks away without a word. The next time someone offers him food, he shouts at them, and turns away, but something clenches tightly in his stomach, like a fist.
They had both switched their radios to silent, but the flashing light indicated that someone was trying to contact them.
Ronon lowered Sheppard onto a fallen log, braced him for a moment until he discovered the strength to sit upright by himself, then moved away.
"You answer that." Sheppard nodded towards the flashing light. "Tell them I'm in a meeting."
Ronon pulled the radio out of his pocket. "Ronon," he hissed.
"It's good to hear your voice," Teyla said. "Rodney was most worried."
He heard the sound of McKay protesting, but he couldn't hear what he said. A bird screeched overhead, high and shrill. "What was that?" That much he heard, the scientist's panicked tones emphasised by the radio.
"What's your status?" Ronon asked, unthinkingly using the words he had heard Sheppard and others use.
"We have almost reached the Gate," Teyla said. "I believe we have shaken off pursuit. We are unharmed." Another squawk from McKay. "However, Doctor McKay has twisted his ankle."
"Twisted?" he heard McKay protest. "It's broken. Or as good as broken, at least. It–"
"Sheppard's hurt," Ronon said, almost harshly. "It's bad."
While speaking about Sheppard, he had been moving slowly away from him. He returned to his side now, and sat next to him on the log. Sheppard let out a breath, and leant ever so slightly against him, as if seeking not support, but balance. "Ronon's hurt, too," Sheppard said quietly, in a lull in McKay's questions – Where? How bad? He's not going to die, is he?
It was heard. "Left arm," Ronon had to admit. "Nothing I haven't had before."
"Are you still being pursued?" Teyla asked. McKay was noisily panicking in the background.
Ronon nodded, then said it aloud. "Yes. We killed three more, evaded another four, but there's more of them, still close." Sometimes he heard sounds in the forest that he suspected were neither animal nor bird. He had been about to say something to Sheppard, but could tell that Sheppard already knew.
"I believe we will reach the Gate within minutes," Teyla said.
"Go through," Sheppard said. His weight was slightly heavier on Ronon's arm. It was his good arm, his fighting arm. It made Ronon edgy, but he did not move away.
"We will go through." He could hear the smile in Teyla's voice, beneath the worry. "Then we will return with a jumper and a team. Where are you?"
Ronon looked up at the brown canopy. Although the leaves were thinning, and there were patches of sky criss-crossed with bare black branches, there was no way they could be reached by a jumper. "Forest," he said.
"Head for open ground," Teyla told him. Open ground, with no cover. Open ground, exposed to the enemy from above. "We will come for you as soon as we can."
The transmission ended. "They will," Sheppard said, a little while later.
Ronon nodded. "I know."
Often, Ronon works on instinct. It is instinct that tells him which way the attack will come from, and although he is not always right, he usually is. It is instinct – that, or long training that has seeped into his very bones – that tells him how to fight. It is instinct that tells him when it is safe to lay himself down and sleep – though sometimes this is necessity; sometimes he has to sleep, even though instinct screams at him, telling him it is not safe.
Instinct is safer. Instinct works on a level that is far away from thought, from imagination… from memory. When he is attuned to every movement, as alert as prey, nothing exists but this moment. He cannot lose himself in dreams of the past. He cannot lose himself in painting pictures of the future.
Sometimes, though, instinct abandons him, and leaves him standing at a fork in the path, not knowing which way to go.
Such decisions came hard to him, in the early days. He had been trained to follow orders, and he had idolised his first commander, and would have jumped off a cliff for no other reason than that this commander had ordered it. In time, he had come to have men and women under his command, and he had been the one to make decisions, but only about operations, about keeping alive in the field. Larger decisions were left to others, and, because he trusted his superiors right up until the terrible betrayal of the final ending, he accepted that. He was trained for nothing else.
All that was changed now. Within moments of being released to run, he had to make the decision whether to live or die. Within a day, he had to make the decision of whether to try to return home. Within two days, he had decided that he would face the Wraith head-on, and fight, rather than run from them. Within a week, he had to decide whether to team up with others, or to run alone.
His path still has forks in it. Decisions still have to be made, but far less often now. Past decisions have taken on the force of habit, and are so deeply ingrained that they have become indistinguishable from instinct.
As he stands at the latest fork in the path, he wonders what he would do if the man he has become could go back ten years and live the life of the man he once was. Would he obey? Could he obey? Could he keep his head down, just one of a long rank of soldiers, and let the enemy come, waiting, waiting until the order was given to fight?
He is not one to ask too many questions of himself, but on this day, and on many days to come, he is sure that the answer is no.
The forest was thinning out, enough to show that dark clouds were racing in from behind them, promising rain. Sheppard's steps were growing slower and slower, and he was breathing in wheezing gasps. Ronon's arm was throbbing from fingertip to shoulder, and blood was trickling from beneath the dressing, running like fingers down his forearm.
"You need to rest," Ronon said, catching Sheppard around the waist to stop him from falling.
"If I sit down again," Sheppard said, uncharacteristically earnest, "I don't think I'll be getting up again." His face cracked into a smile. "Fancy carrying me?"
But within minutes, he was sitting down. The rain started first, falling noisily onto the trees above, bringing down a cascade of wet leaves. Not long after that, they came upon a tiny stream trickling a narrow course through mossy rocks. "Seems clean," Ronon said. He washed the blood away from his arm, and scooped up a handful and tipped it into his mouth.
"Gotta stop, after all," Sheppard said quietly. "Give me a moment." He sat on a rock, and leant forward, resting his forehead on his good arm. Despite his concern for his friend, Ronon felt something twist inside him that was far from pain. You only let someone see you like that when you trusted them completely.
Ronon waited; tried his radio again, but there was no-one there. Then he saw movement not far away beneath the trees. He started towards it, bringing his hand up behind him in a gesture of prohibition. One man, he thought. Just one man.
He leapt the stream, and ran after him, his steps padded by the damp leaves. Again, ahead of him, he saw a flicker of movement, brown against brown, and he headed after it, bending low. The ground rose gently, and then he reached a place where the trees were spaced more thinly, and the muddy ground was visible through the sparse covering of leaves. There were two sets of footprints, fresh in the newly-damp earth. Two. Just two.
He drew his gun, and slowly, deliberately, closed his injured hand on the long-bladed knife that he had taken from the man who had stabbed Sheppard. He began to walk forward.
The voice from behind him made him whirl round, but he already knew that was it Sheppard.
"Seems I can walk well enough when I have to," Sheppard said. "Adrenaline, huh?" There was no smile in his eyes. "Don't, Ronon."
"I can take them." Ronon tightened his grip on the blade that wounded Sheppard.
"I'm sure you can." Sheppard's hand reached subtly for the support of the nearest tree. "But the others will be here soon. See, I'd rather see us both get out of this alive, than watch you head off on a revenge mission and never come back. I'm kinda used to having you around."
"It's not revenge."
"Yes," Sheppard said. "Yes, it is." Ronon could see how hard he was fighting to stay upright. "Rescue's that way." He nodded in the opposite direction from the fading footsteps. "So that's the way we're going."
With one last glance along the path, Ronon turned and followed.
The Wraith have culled another village, coming in with darts while he slept in the forest nearby. This time, their attention is all on the villagers; they spare no thought for him. Even when he screams at the sky for them to come down and face him, to leave these people alone, he remains untouched.
The first time this happened, he thought it was a coincidence. He is still not entirely sure that it is not, but it has happened enough that he fears they are doing it deliberately. If they cannot destroy his body, they mean to destroy him with guilt. He is death to all he goes near. They spare him, and take innocents instead – women like Melena, and children like the child Melena can never have.
The culling doesn't take long. When it is over, he wanders towards the village, drawn, despite himself, by the awful fascination of death. Smoke is acrid in his nostrils, and soon he can hear the sound of wailing.
He blinks back memories. As he does so, he sees a figure half-hidden in the trees beside the track.
"Help me," the man whispers, his voice cracked with pain.
Ronon edges towards him; crouches down. The man has broken his leg badly, bone visible through the flesh. The smell of smoke clings to his clothes, and it is clear that he has been running from the culling.
"Help me." The man reaches out towards him.
Ronon almost touches that outstretched hand, for it has been weeks since he has last been this close to another person. The man's eyes meet his.
"No." Ronon shakes his head, and stands up. "No, I can't."
It is not too far from the village. He can hear the sound of survivors, and knows that people will find this man soon. Ronon's touch brings only death. He can kill – oh, yes, he can kill – but people die when he gets too close. Sometimes they deserve it, but sometimes they do not. There is no tenderness left in his hands, and no mercy in his heart.
The man screams at him to come back, oh, please, come back, but Ronon walks away.
They were almost at the edge of the forest, when Sheppard fell to the ground, and didn't get up.
"Go on," he rasped, waving Ronon on, but only with his fingers.
"Leave no man behind," Ronon quoted at him.
"Not leaving me." There might have been force in the words, once. Now they were just a whistling whisper. "Get the others. Come back."
Ronon peered up at the sky, his face naked to the rain. He remembered how the sound of flying machines in the sky had once meant death and a fight for his life. Now he craved the sound, because it meant safety. It meant not having a friend die beneath his own useless hands.
"Not leaving you," he swore. They had their transmitters. If the jumper came, Teyla would find them. She would find them no quicker if Ronon was there at the tree line, waiting for them, but then Sheppard would have to wait alone.
Sheppard gave a faint smile. "Why… don’t I have… proper soldiers – obedient… men who… follow orders?"
"You wouldn't want them," Ronon said.
"Would be hypocritical, I suppose –" Sheppard coughed weakly. "– given my record."
"Lie still," Ronon urged him. He unfastened Sheppard's jacket, and examined the sodden dressing.
But Sheppard cringed when his fingers ghosted over it. "No," he begged. "Please. Please don't. Please leave it. They'll be here soon."
The rain was sheeting down, and the temperature was dropping as night approached. Ronon's dressing had turned pink, with watery smears of blood seeping down his arm. Sheppard had managed to roll half onto his back, and the rain flattened his hair away from his face. His skin was tinged with grey, or maybe that was just the dark sky reflecting from the rainwater on his face.
He needed to be kept warm – that much Ronon remembered from his lessons in field medicine. He had lost a lot of blood, and there could have been all manner of dirt on that blade. Ronon had no words for this, but he raised Sheppard as best he could, careful to avoid jostling his injury, and propped him against his body. Sheppard closed his eyes. Ronon felt him lose consciousness, but he did not relax his grip.
Doctor Keller wanted him to stay in bed, but all he had was an arm injury. "Give my bed to McKay," he said, over his shoulder. It was a cheap shot. McKay's ankle had been bound by the medics on the jumper, and he had been one of the rescue party that had come out to the place where Sheppard had finally collapsed. He had not once complained about it. When Sheppard woke up and was out of danger, then and only then would the whining start.
The doctors had worked on Sheppard for several hours, and said that they were optimistic. Ronon had little time for such talk. He sat, and waited, needing to see it with his own eyes before he could hope.
Teyla sat with him for a while. McKay eventually hobbled off, perhaps to sleep, or perhaps to unleash his anxiety on his hapless assistants in the lab. Even Ronon missed the moment when Sheppard briefly opened his eyes. Lulled by painkillers and exhaustion, Ronon slept in the chair.
The following morning, Sheppard awakened for longer. There was the usual banter with McKay, the two of them saying so much, while appearing to say the exact opposite. Teyla squeezed his right hand. "Apparently there was a risk of permanent paralysis," Sheppard said, "but doc says I've dodged that bullet." Teyla's grip tightened. Sheppard smiled. "Yes, I can feel that."
When Sheppard slept again, the three of them went together to the mess hall to get something to eat. The sat in the window, and although the sun was weak, lost behind thin clouds, Ronon felt warm. McKay tried to filch food from his plate. "Because you've only got one arm and can't stop me." Ronon demonstrated what a lie that was, then turned laughing to greet Teyla's smile.
Afterwards, though, he returned to Sheppard's bedside, and the gentle sounds of the infirmary lulled him into memory.
"Hey," Sheppard said quietly. "What're you thinking?"
Ronon pressed his mouth shut, but then he remembered how Sheppard had leant against him, how Sheppard had begged him not to touch his wound, how Sheppard had let himself be seen with all his defences down. "I was wondering if I've grown…" He searched for the word. "Soft," he said, at last.
Sheppard raised his eyebrows. "You? Soft? If you're soft, I'd hate to see the other guy."
Ronon let out a slow breath. No, he thought. If he had grown soft, it was no more than he needed to be. And perhaps soft was not the word, after all. Perhaps the word he was looking for was… No. He stopped that thought. Don't think too much. Don't look back. Instead, he patted Sheppard on the unwounded shoulder. "Glad you're back, buddy."
"Well…" Sheppard smiled a lop-sided smile. "Glad to be back."
Teyla and McKay arrived then, and the four of them talked and laughed until Keller came with clapping hands to hurry them away.
Note: I didn't mean to write this. I'm 80 pages into a
longer story (probably around 100 – 120 pages when it's done), which I've not
started to post yet. However, this little piece struck me quite insistently at
four in the morning a few days ago. (Why do ideas always come at the most
awkward times?) After I'd finished it, I remembered that chapter one of said
long story is also set in an autumn forest amid falling leaves, with our heroes
hunted by bad guys in the rain. It's a month since I wrote the first chapter,
so I'd forgotten this. So when I come to post the first chapter of the longer
story, it will look as if I'm lacking in ideas and keep using the same one. Ah
well. It is autumn, and I wade through fallen leaves every day on the
way to work, and it often rains,
and bad guys shoot at me most every day.
I guess real life just seeped into both stories.
Now I'm off to write some more of the story that I'm really supposed to be writing. These people don't whump themselves, you know…