The Pirate's Prisoner
by Eildon Rhymer
Rodney McKay hadn't realised he was being abducted by pirates at first. (If he had, he would, of course, have resisted with proud defiance, willing to die rather than submit.) Now he finds himself on the ship of the second most notorious pirate in the Caribbees, immured in a dank prison (well, a fairly spacious cabin, but that's not the point), forced to prostitute his intellect in the service of evil. And there's a savage on board, and a woman – an actual woman, in man's clothes, would you believe? Will Rodney ever escape and make it back to London to receive the Royal Society Fellowship that is surely awaiting him?
Chapter the first
In which Rodney McKay is abducted by pirates without realising it
Rodney McKay had just been elected Fellow of the Royal Society and was receiving the adulation of all, when some unmannerly lout grabbed him by the shoulder.
He opened his eyes, blinking into the flickering of a dying candle. The chorus of approbation faded, and became the crackling of the fire. He saw writing, monstrous large, and raised his head from the pages of the book.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to disturb me when I'm thinking?" he snapped, raising his hand to his stiff cheek and jaw.
"You were sleeping."
"It might have appeared so to an ignorant peasant like you, but I was thinking." He sniffed. Halley had been there, and had declared himself quite outclassed by his pupil. Aristotle had said that his own name would fade from the history books, replaced by the shining star that was Rodney McKay.
"And now you're coming with me."
It did not sound quite like Turland. He frowned, and cast his mind back to the words he had barely heard. No, it was definitely not Turland's voice. "You're not…!"
He groped for his letter opener. Thus armed, he turned round, chair scraping on the floor. The man was a veritable giant. He looked like a wild man from the pages of Herodotus, or like one of the raggle-taggle gypsies who stole away the squire's lady in the song, except that she went willingly, because wit and brains counted for nothing when a certain type of lady was involved, and they giggled into their silk handkerchiefs when you tried to court them, then went off and simpered at the types who could hunt and play cards and show a fine leg, but thought that Newton was the acrobat down at the fair who could balance three oranges on his nose.
"Who are you?" he stammered. "How did you get in?"
"I persuaded your man to let me in," the unmannerly giant said, with a slight pause before the word 'persuaded'. Rodney did not like that pause. It seemed to leave space for all manner of unpleasant things to slip into the gap.
"Oh." He swallowed. The letter opener was slippery in his hands. "Are you after gold? I don't have any gold. Well, I do, but… To be accurate, my father has. He's the second wealthiest merchant in Bristol, or maybe the third by now, because he was wringing his hands quite anxiously before I embarked, and a lot can happen in four months, and, yes, he sent me out here to represent his interests and acquire some holdings – " And to get that ridiculous notion of scientific pursuit out of your addled brain. Science is a pastime for bored gentlemen to dabble in, not for solid merchant stock like you. "– but we do it with paper and promissory notes. As you can see, I haven't even got tapestries and fripperies to bedeck the bare walls of my humble abode."
"But you have a brain."
"Yes. Yes." He put the letter opener down, and turned himself to present a more favourable aspect to the light of the fire. "It's that obvious, eh?"
"You talk too much," the big man said. "Every ship out of Kingston brings news of you."
"Oh." The chorus of approbation from his dream swelled louder. "Oh." He had only been in Kingston for three weeks, after a hellish journey from Bristol to the Caribbees on one of his father's ships – and the captain had been quite rude in his eagerness to hurry him off the ship and onto the shore – but he had met many people in that time. To think that his fame was already spreading! Ha! he thought, imagining himself confronting his father as he stepped out onto Bristol docks with all the honours of a king, his coming trailed with breathless expectation in the Bristol Weekly Mercury – nay, in the Spectator itself.
"You're coming with me," the big man said.
"But it's the dead of night!" he protested. "I feel the cold, and there might be footpads and… and… other things, and…"
"They won't touch you when I'm here."
He looked the man up and down. His bare forearms were as broad as two of his own, and marked with a worrying number of old scars. His hair was quite ridiculous, and he appeared to be wearing a shark's tooth around his neck. Although he was very clearly not a gentleman, he had a sword at his side. "Yes. Well. I can well believe that." He worried at his papers. "Why do you want me?"
"For your brain." The man smiled, his teeth flashing in his shadowed face.
"Huh." He grunted, nodding with slow understanding and approval. It made sense. He had come to this benighted place like St Paul to Ephesus, dazzling them with the bounty of his intelligence. He supposed he could forgive the unmannerly fashion of the asking. This was not England, after all. Perhaps in the Caribbees the accepted manner of issuing an invitation was to send a savage servant to drag you from your studying in the dead of night. "What do you need me to do?" he asked.
"It will be explained later," the man said. "Best bring your cloak and hat. It's cold outside." Rodney eyed the man's thin shirt and his bare arms. Cold for a puny man like you, the man's face clearly said. I'm a brainless giant and do not feel the cold.
Huffing, Rodney grabbed his cloak, thrown over the back of a chair hours earlier, when he came in from the afternoon round, overflowing with the urge to rewrite Euclid. Jamming his hat onto his head, he grabbed the candlestick, and prepared to follow. "Who is your master?" he asked the big man's retreating back. "I presume he has a pressing problem, one which necessitates this… uh… unconventional mode of requesting expert assistance. Is it architectural in nature? Has he glimpsed some mystery in the heavens? Has he come to a halt on the fourth page of the Principia and requires a more subtle mind to provide explanation?"
The large man said nothing. They walked through the silent house, with its bare walls and echoing floorboards. The single candle flame looked mournful, like the small beacon that was Enlightenment in an ignorant and uncomprehending world. Rodney felt a sudden pang for the brightness and warmth of home, even though he had spent his whole childhood wanting to get away.
"Snuff the candle," the man said, and Rodney did, leaving it on the shelf beside the door.
Despite what the man had said, it was not really cold outside, but temperatures that at home would have caused him to push up his sleeves, here made him shiver. It was nearly four months since he had left England, but the smell of this place still felt alien, and the night-time sounds were the strange sounds of dreams and stories.
The streets were not empty. The merchants' premises were dark, and the dwellings above them were silent, but people moved in the shadows, and from the side of one house he heard moans and giggles. Several dwellings still showed lights, and laughter issued from taverns and gaming houses. He had forgotten to check his timepiece before leaving the house, but he suspected that it was well past midnight, but that night was not yet at odds with dawn.
The wind moved above him in unfamiliar trees. "Where are we going?" he asked again, but received no answer. He moistened his lips. "You should call me Sir, really," he said, "because I am your better."
"I have called only two men master in my life." The man's unyielding back showed that Rodney was not one of them. "Respect has to be earned."
"Oh. Yes." His father would have bristled with righteous fury, but his father also bowed and scraped and tugged his forelock to the nobles and gentlemen who bought his wares. At Oxford, Rodney had excelled in his studies, but to all the noble scions, he had been nothing.
They walked in silence for several minutes. Rodney had no fondness for silence. "That's Berowne's residence," he said, pointing to the half-built building to their right. "It will fall down within three years, you mark my words. There are basic flaws in the engineering. I keep telling them, but they refuse to listen. They were quite unreasonable. How was I to know that fellow he's employed is the most respected architect in the Caribbees? It doesn't stop him from being an ignorant charlatan. His ideas are quite stuck in the seventeenth century."
"Be quiet," the big man said.
Two streets later, they passed Mrs Beauchamp's salon. After his four afternoons there, he had been requested somewhat rudely not to return for at least a week. It was only fair to give others a chance to shine, they had told him. Well, he could respect that, he supposed. It was never pleasant to be outshone. "It's a small pond here," he told his guide. "We had reigning wits and men notorious for their intelligence, and then I stepped off that boat, and..." He spread his hands. The rest, he knew, was self-evident.
"Oh. Yes. Danger. I know." The shadows were back – footpads and ruffians and perhaps even pirates. There were far fewer than there had been only a decade before, or so he had been told, but there were far more than he would have liked. Not that he had any intention of meeting one, except dead, if that could count as a meeting. Gaps between houses showed the flare of light that was the watch tower in Port Royal across the bay. He had visited the ruins only a week before, and had shivered at the thought of the old city lost beneath the harbour, and shuddered at the sight of the famed Calico Jack, dead and rotting on Gallows Point.
The moon was gibbous, and patchy clouds moved across its face, so the world alternated between total darkness and faint gloom. His guide seemed untroubled by the darkness, and Rodney drew closer. The ground grew uneven, but he bit back his protests, and concentrated on not falling over.
They walked like that for quite some while, as he focused on his feet, and let his mind fill with speculations about what wonderful service he could perform for this man's master. It had to be something urgent and important. Perhaps he was some reclusive gentleman whose son and heir had fallen down a well, and…
He stopped in his tracks, as the world took shape around him. "We've left town," he gasped. "Where are we going? This is… Nobody lives out here."
"No." The big man shook his head, his face featureless mask in the moonlight.
"Then why…?" He swallowed. Behind the big man, the water of the bay was streaked black and silver. It was enough to show him the small boat that was pulled up to the shore, sheltered by trees from the watchtowers at the port. Somebody was waiting in the boat, their face turned towards him.
"As I said," the big man said, "you're coming with us."
"Us." He looked at the boat, looked at the man, looked at the sword at the man's side. Those strong arms that had protected him from footpads suddenly seemed quite the opposite of comforting.
"Yes." The big man nodded. His hand moved; landed on Rodney's shoulder.
"You…" He swallowed again, dreams of adulation fading. "You're abducting me?"
"You're our guest." The fingers dug in. The sword looked very long and very sharp.
"Oh." There was nothing left in his mouth, but still he swallowed. His treacherous feet moved him down to the shore. "I'll scream."
"From what we hear, the good folk of Kingston will be pleased to have you gone. They'll probably have a parade."
"Hey!" he protested, but fear conquered outrage. "Are you going to eat me? I've read about savage rituals."
"Captain wants your brain."
"My brain? Oh. Oh." He wished his feet would stop walking. He wished his mouth was stop babbling. Think. He needed to think. They were going to eat his brain. Ha! he imagined himself telling his father, confronting him on the dock. Say what you like, but when they wanted the mightiest brain in all the West Indies for their heathen rituals, they chose me. Of course, he would be dead by then, which would rather limit his capacity for gloating.
His treacherous feet had taken him to the small boat by now. The other figure stood up, and shot a sharp look at the big man, then turned towards Rodney. "No-one is going to eat your brain."
He felt his mouth gape open. "You're a woman." He shut it again, then opened it. The moonlight was sufficient to show him that she was most definitely wearing man's array. "Do you… do you know that you're a woman?"
"It has come to my attention, yes."
Stupid. Stupid, Rodney. He felt himself getting as tongue-tied as only women could make him. "Well!" He gestured sharply with his chin at his captor. "Does your savage friend know that you're a woman?"
"Of course," the big man said. "Now, get in."
"Why… why ever should I want to do that?"
"Because the captain needs your brain," the big man said, drawing a knife. "He said nothing about you being in a position to father sons."
"Ronon!" the woman said sharply. To Rodney she said, "You will not be harmed. We have a… problem with which we require your help. We heard news that a very clever man had arrived in Kingston, and…"
"Well, I am clever." He found it impossible to take his eyes off the blade. And had he not dreamt of scenes like this: holding court like Solomon, while hundreds of petitioners came to reap the benefits of his intelligence? News had spread. He had only been here three weeks, but already news had spread. "I am free to… to refuse?"
The woman smiled. "Of course not. If you refuse, we will take you by force. There are many ways to render a man incapable of fighting. I know them all."
"Ah. Yes. Of course you do." An image flashed into his mind of Charlotte Dauncey, she of the insipid smile and fluttering laugh. His father wanted Rodney to marry her. His mother said she had good childbearing hips. Her brother had once smashed the telescope Rodney had started to build in the back garden. Her spaniel had once bounced him weeping into the hedgerow, where there were prickles.
He stepped into the boat. The big man stepped in behind him, and they pushed off. "I'll protest," he said. "When I see this captain of yours, I'll… I'll refuse to do what he asks. I… I can pay. My father will ransom me. I'll bring down the weight of the authorities upon you."
They were both rowing. They said nothing.
He saw the light of Port Royal, closer now. He thought of a city subsiding beneath the waves because of a movement of the crust. He thought of bodies beneath the water, and dead men swinging in chains.
"You're pirates!" he gasped.
The moon emerged completely from the clouds, and he was adrift upon a sea of silver. I should have fought, he thought. Not that he was noble enough to have received the instruction of an Italian sword master, but even the commonest of men knew how to brawl. Or, no, he should have stood there proud and defiant. 'Kill me where I stand,' he should have said, baring his chest. 'I will die ere I prostitute my intelligence in the service of foul pirates.'
His hand closed on the edge of the boat. Big ships were all very well, but little ones… You felt so tiny and lost when there was only a small shell of wood between you and the endless deep. He'd gone out with his father into the Bristol Channel as a boy, and while his father had felt the thrill of the salt and the possibilities of riches over the oceans, Rodney had wanted to know how the boat floated, and how to navigate by sun and stars.
"They'll catch you," he said. "There are patrols here now – sturdy crews with hearts of oak, taken from the green fields of England."
"No-one can catch us," the big man said.
He remembered the knife. He sat in silence – and how far were they taking him? Miles? – and thought miserable thoughts wrapped up in gratifying ones. His stomach rumbled, and that distracted him for a while, but soon he had nothing. The lights of Kingston were fading, and the lights of Port Royal grew nearer, then dwindled in their turn. Once clear of the lights, the oars were stowed and the sail raised, and the boat stopped hugging the shore. After that, the silence was almost total, and there was just him left alive in a whole world of water, with two ruthless abductors at his side. Then the moon went behind a cloud, and he was alone in a sea of darkness, and it didn't matter that they wanted him for his brain, because he was going to die. He was going to die here, far from home, and all alone.
"We are almost there," the woman said, her voice unreadable in the dark.
The cloud across the moon turned thinner, and he saw a ship ahead of them in the pale light, and heard the soft creaking of its halyards. It showed no lights, and if it had any distinguishing marks, they were hidden by the night. Behind him, the big man made a call, like the eerie hooting of an owl. The same sound answered him from far above. A single light appeared, like a lantern shielded by a hand.
Their boat drew closer, into the shadow of the ship, and a rope was thrown down. "Climb," the big man said.
He could always jump, he thought. He could throw himself into the sea, and go to his death rather than serve a pirate. All he needed to do was think of suitably defiant final words.
"I'm not good at climbing," he said. The moonlight was enough to show the silver blade. "Uh… I'm trying. I'm trying."
He took hold of the rope, which turned out to be a rope ladder of sorts. Climbing it was horrible. He was dangling between a nest of blood-thirsty villains and a watery grave, and the rope twisted in his hands, and his palms hurt, and his head told him that he should shout those defiant words and let go, but his body screamed No! and clung on for dear life, and climbed and climbed and climbed.
Then strange hands were helping him over. He slumped to the deck, then collected himself enough to stand up, brushing his clothes down. "I demand to see the captain," he said, standing as tall as he could.
No-one said anything, but then the woman was at his side, her hand firm on his arm just above the elbow. "I will take you to your cabin."
"What?" He looked round from side to side. "No! I demand to see the captain." Perhaps he would give a speech about king and country, about honour and justice, and prick the scoundrel's conscience so he let him go and repented his wicked ways. I never doubted what I did, McKay, until I met you. Or perhaps he would just fall to his knees and…
But the woman was leading him away, and his treacherous feet were following. "There is a bed," she said, "and food and wine."
"We should put him in the bilges," the big man said, "with the rats."
"Ronon!" the woman said, but less sharply this time, and if she half shared his opinion, really. Her grip was strong as she directed him to something that could only be called a staircase with extreme charity, and forced him down the rungs. Then she led him to a cabin and shoved him firmly in. Before he could recover himself, the door was shut, and the key had been turned.
A small covered lantern lit the small room, showing that there was no-one else inside. He hammered at the door for a while, promising awful vengeance, then turned to the bed. There was indeed food and wine, so he helped himself to it, then drafted the defiant speech he would make when he met the captain in the morning.
Teyla knocked on the door. There was no answer. Exchanging a look with Ronon, she called out softly, "It is Teyla. I am coming in."
The cabin was dark, lit only by moonlight, but she was used to that, and she knew her way surely around every inch of this ship in the dark. The ship was barely rocking at all, anchored in the smooth harbour, but habit made her steady herself on the table full of charts, feeling her way past its rounded corners.
She heard the sound of him moving in the bed, and her sharp stab of relief told her quite how afraid she had been that he had passed from life, so close to the fruition of his plans.
"We have your man of science." She sat down on the stool. Experience told her not to get too close to him, no matter how badly he was hurting. He accepted her as the equal of any man on his ship, but he could not entirely shake off his upbringing. Ronon was allowed to tend to him when he was hurt, but she was only allowed to touch when his life was on the line, when the red heat of battle engulfed them.
"Good." She heard him sitting up, the breath catching in his throat, but the face revealed by the moonlight showed little sign of pain.
"He is as vexing as your informants said," she said with a smile.
"I don't need him to be good company. Can he do it, do you think?"
"He believes he can do anything."
"That's good. And if he fails…" He moved, clearly struggling for a position that did not hurt. She dug her nails into her palms, fighting the urge to help him. It was an indication of quite how much pain he was in, that he allowed her to be alone in his cabin at all. "If he fails," he said, "then we can teach him a lesson about empty boasting. It'll be quite heart-warming. Watch us spread moral lessons wherever we go."
She gave a faint smile, but, "I hope he will not fail," she said.
"Yeah. Me, too."
It was said lightly, but she knew how much this meant to him. It meant enough for him to come here to Kingston, despite the patrols and the price on his head, the moment he heard rumours of a newcomer who boasted of his skills in science. It meant enough for him to stay at the wheel through a day and a night of storms. It meant enough for him to run from an encounter with one of Kolya's ships, even as a well-aimed pistol shot from the enemy's poop deck had struck home. It meant enough that he had sailed on, resisting all pleas that he should rest, until he had brought them to their mooring. Only then had his strength given out. Only then had they discovered quite what damage that pistol shot had wrought.
It remained to be seen if it meant so much to him that he would die for it.
"I took him to the cabin we prepared," she said. "Ronon is not pleased."
"Ronon can live with it. We're not savages. We treat our guests well."
She nodded, remembering the first day she had met him. Her parents had wanted her to marry a lecherous old man, and so she had done the only thing that came to mind, and had dressed herself as a boy and run away to sea. She had spent half a year desperately careful to avoid being discovered, only to find out that the captain had known from the start. "It evidently suited you to pass as a boy," he had told her, "so I didn't say anything. I was wondering how long you'd let it go on for." But there had been steel in his eyes when he had made it clear to the crew that there would be no ribald comments, and that no-one laid a hand on her without her consent. There had been no need for him to tell them what the penalties would be.
"Are you…?" She clenched her fist tighter. "Do you need anything?"
"No." She heard him settle painfully onto the pillows. "You and Ronon have already brought me the only thing I need." She saw him smile, weary with pain, but saw the brightness in his eyes. "It all starts here, Teyla. At long last, maybe this is finally it."
"I hope so," she said, as she left the cabin, wondering if he would sleep. "For your sake, I hope so," she said quietly on the cold deck, to the stars.
end of chapter one
Preliminary sketch for a portrait of Rodney McKay, by William Hetherington, 1720
According to Hetherington's day book, McKay engaged him for a portrait in October 1720, saying that he needed to have his likeness recorded for posterity before he faced the "certain doom" that was his forthcoming passage to Jamaica. Hetherington duly produced this sketch, but McKay was unhappy, declaring it a poor likeness that failed to do justice to his "noble mien and lofty brow." Hetherington admits to responding, somewhat testily, that a true likeness was impossible when presented with a subject who refused to sit still, and who talked incessantly throughout the sitting. The association was thus dissolved, and the portrait never completed.
The formula depicted on the paper is doubtless a play on McKay's name. Any resemblance to certain other famous formulae is clearly coincidental.
Chapter the second
In which Rodney meets the second most notorious pirate in the Caribbees
Rodney woke to find the world swaying beneath him. It had really happened, then. He had been abducted by pirates, and was immured deep in their lair, heading out to sea, far away from civilisation and the reach of law. They had locked him in. The beatings would follow, and the manacles, and foul punishments when he refused to…
Oh! A grape! He snatched it up from where it must have fallen when he had eaten the night before. Its sweetness exploded in his mouth, still sour from sleep. Then he started to pace, twisting his hands in front of him.
Sounds came from outside his cabin. Feet padded on the roof above him, and he heard shouted orders and the sounds of ropes being hauled, sails being adjusted, and all the usual sounds of a ship under way. He could not hear any screaming, but perhaps the places of punishment were deep in the bowels of the ship. Maybe the captain cut people's tongues out so they couldn't scream. Maybe…
Foot approached his door. He heard the key turn, and the woman's voice said, "May I come in?"
He took up position in the centre of the room, his hands clenched and resolute. "You… you can open the door," he said, "but you can't come in. It wouldn't… wouldn't be seemly."
The door opened, letting in the light of a lovely day, sunlight filtering down from the hatch at the top of the steps. The light was more than enough to show him that the woman was beautiful. It was also quite sufficient to show him the knives that she wore at her belt, and he already knew how strong her grip was, and how she moved, not like a lady at all. "Seemly?" she said. He thought there was ferocity in her lovely smile.
"Not that you pirates care about such things," he said, "but it matters for respectable people like me." Rodney! Have you no shame? I will unable to show my face in public for a whole season! That foul smell and the yellow smoke…! And in front of the Dowager Lady Burnett as well! "Well, it matters to some people. There isn't… You haven't got a… a… chaperone."
"I do have Ronon." She moved to one side, and the light was blocked out by the figure of the large man who took up his place behind her. He was even more terrifying in the sunlight, his shadow reaching right into the room.
"Ah." He swallowed. "Have you come to drag me away to dreadful torment. I won't break, you know."
"I have come to take you to the captain."
"Oh." His mouth was dry. He had drifted towards slumber with defiant speeches echoing in his mind, and at the very cusp of sleep he had come up with a perfect one, but all of that seemed to have slipped from his mind. He was all alone on a pirate ship, and there must have been hundreds of villainous crewmen within shouting range, ready to cut him down with their cutlasses and bait him with the pointed ends of their swords. All he could do was go calmly and defiantly, then, like Socrates taking the hemlock, and…
"Coming!" he gasped, when she placed her hand on the handle on her knife. "Coming!"
The big man called Ronon did not come with them, but there were plenty of other dastardly henchmen watching them as he climbed the steps and emerged beneath the blue sky. Although he was trying to look straight ahead – defiant, Rodney, and robed in calm and honour – he could not help but see them. They did not look like a cast of demons from Dante's Inferno. There were no toothless grins and cackling maws of mouths. Most of them looked no different from the seamen on one of his father's ships.
"They look…" he blurted out. "You don't look like pirates."
He saw her quirk an eyebrow, but she said nothing.
Perhaps the truly evil-looking ones had been kept out of sight. Maybe all the normal-looking ones had been put on deck to lull him into lowering his guard. "Although that Ronon friend of yours…"
"What about him?" she said sharply.
"He… uh… looks the part." He looked round to check that the man was not within earshot. "Is he a Savage? I have read about them, and –"
"Two years ago," the woman interrupted, "the captain left the ship to go on one of his solitary enterprises. He was expected back within seven days, but it was three weeks before he returned. We kept the rendezvous." Her eyes bore into his own, as if trying to convey some message. "When he returned, he was… not well, and he had clearly been much worse. He also had Ronon with him, and there Ronon has been ever since. People distrusted him at first, but the first man who called him a mere savage to his face… Let us just say that he could not sit down for a week."
"Which, come to think of it, was not a very good counter argument," Rodney could not resist saying.
"That was two years ago," the woman said, "and neither of them has breathed a word about what they went through during that time away, and Ronon has never said a word about what his life was like before he met the captain. We do not ask. We know he is loyal, and he is one of us. Do not judge by appearances, Rodney McKay."
"I… uh…" It sounded like a warning. The urgency in his eyes told him that it was a warning, but he had no idea what it meant. He had never been good at reading the truths that lay behind men's eyes, or unravelling the meaning of their honeyed words. His father had despaired of him. Apparently you needed such a skill in business.
She gave a quick smile with no humour in it. "The captain is waiting."
The most prudent thing to do seemed to be to follow her. They reached the quarter deck, where a silent man stood at the wheel. Another man was facing away from them, standing with one hand on the rail. From behind, he looked like a gentleman, with a knee-length coat of wine-red velvet, flaring from the waist and falling in fashionable folds. He wore no wig, though, just his own dark hair, pulled back loosely into a tail and tied with a scrap of leather.
The captain. Rodney's mouth was as dry as a desert. The woman gestured him on, then stepped back, and suddenly she felt like a dear friend, like a protector, like a sister, and she was going, leaving him alone with the devil himself.
The captain turned round. "So you're McKay."
And you abducted me, you foul demon, and I will see you hanged on Gallows Point. "Yes," he said.
The captain looked even more gentlemanly from the front, with a long dark waistcoat buttoned over a clean white shirt. He had no cravat, though, just an open shirt, criss-crossed loosely with white ties at his throat, and instead of stockings and shoes, he was wearing leather boots. Rodney had expected to see the stocky face of a brutish murderer, but the man's features were fine – just the sort of face that would set the ladies a-simpering into their fans.
Rodney decided that he hated him. Of course, he was a pirate captain and he had abducted Rodney from his bed to use him in his foul enterprises, so he hated him already, but…
"I know who you are!" he gasped, suddenly remembering the woodcuts and posters in the market hall in Kingston. "You must be John Sheppard."
"So the likeness is getting better. A few years ago, it was terrible. Not even my own mother would have recognised me."
Rodney found himself incapable of doing anything other than gaping, his finger held out in accusing horror. This was the third most hated pirate in the Indies! There was a reward of two hundred pounds…!
He must have said at least some of it aloud, for Sheppard raised his eyebrow, and said, "I believe I have the honour of being promoted to second now that Calico Jack has gone to meet his maker."
"He was a friend of yours?"
"No," Sheppard said shortly.
The sky was blue above him. Birds played on the thermals, not so very different from the gulls in the harbour at home. The smells of strange vegetation drifted from the shore, and here he was on a pirate ship, facing one of the most notorious pirates who plied the seven seas.
"You… you…" He had heard the stories. Turland had relished them on the voyage, and had relayed them to Rodney while dressing him and trying to tidy his study. Rodney had barely listened, but it seemed that all the horrible bits had decided to embed themselves in his brain. "You stole… You… you once killed… You sank…" His tongue refused to frame the horrible details. There was something else, too – some other reason why all the decent folk of Kingston spat when they said his name – but he could not remember what it was.
The captain denied nothing. He was standing stiffly, even haughtily, with his forearm pressed to his side, and the other hand gripping the rail. His face was pale, probably with anger. "Have you finished?" he said, and Rodney realised that he had been spewing out unfinished sentences and gaping like an idiot for a full few minutes.
Well, never let it be said that Rodney McKay could not match a ruthless pirate captain for hauteur. He drew himself up. "I will not submit to such a one as you."
"Don't want you to submit." Sheppard had an accent that Rodney could not place. "Feel free to be shout defiance as much as you like and be generally obnoxious - though I warn you that my crew might not share my forbearance. I don't much care what you say. I just want the job done."
"Job?" He would resent the 'obnoxious' later, if he was still alive.
"Yes." He saw Sheppard's hand tighten on the rail, and watched him look up at the sails and the sky beyond them.
He was all alone with the man, he realised. Well, apart from the man at the wheel, and the men in the rigging and those clambering on the yard arm and hauling on the bowline, and… and all the other nautical things that his father thought he ought to know about, but which he somehow did not, because, really, why did a man need to know about what you called all the bits of a boat, when he could spend his time filling his brain with a catalogue of the heavens, or unweaving a rainbow? Still, he doubted they could get to him in time to stop him if he made a play for the captain's sword, or maybe just gave the man a shove and pushed him into the briny deep, and…
"They'd kill you," Sheppard said quietly, "before you made a single move."
He saw Ronon there, watching out of earshot, and the woman, and a dozen other men, who no longer looked like ordinary seamen on an ordinary ship, because he had never seen seamen before who looked quite so deadly, as if they would tear a man to pieces if he as much as struck their captain with the little finger of his left hand.
"Oh." He could feel his heart beating in his chest, and his breathing was shallow, as if something was stopping him from getting all the air he needed. "Yes. The job."
"There's a certain wreck," Sheppard said, "a few hundred leagues from here. There's something on it that I need."
"You mean treasure," Rodney said. "Huge wealth that belongs to other people."
Sheppard did not deny it. "We've tried everything. It's stuck fast and can't be raised. It's too far down for a single man to hold his breath."
"What do you expect me to do about it?" Rodney protested. "I can't make you grow gills. I don't know what your superstitious little mind thinks that science is, but it's not magic." Then he remembered that this was the second most ruthless killer in the Caribbees, and it was perhaps not a good idea to speak to him as he would speak to Turland. He folded his arms, and decided not to speak another word, no matter how much this foul villain provoked him.
"You told everyone in Kingston that you were a pupil of Edmond Halley."
Rodney snorted. "Not that anyone there knew who he was. And I wasn't just his pupil; I was his right-hand man. His assistant. He told me he was his equal. At least, he would have…" He snapped his mouth shut, remembering that he wasn't talking.
"Edmond Halley," Sheppard said patiently, "wrote a paper describing how he was able to stay underwater for over an hour."
"How on earth would someone like you know that?" Rodney squawked.
"I read it."
"You?" He pressed his lips shut again. Stay quiet. Stay quiet. Don't provoke the ruthless killer in his lair.
"Yes, me." Sheppard gave a wry smile, the Rodney was not fooled. The hand that held the rail was white and trembling now, as if the captain was fighting a killing fury. "And if you're his pupil, his right-hand man, his equal, his better, then you can make such a device for me."
"And if I refuse?"
Sheppard said nothing; he didn't have to.
"You'll kill me in a hundred horrible ways. I understand."
"You can have pen and paper" Sheppard said, "and we'll get you any supplies you need. You have my word that you won't be mistreated."
"The word of a pirate." It meant nothing, of course. Rodney felt suddenly, ridiculously on the point of crying. Perhaps it was just the salt water and the cold wind in his eyes.
"The word of a pirate," Sheppard said, with a strange note to his voice. "So can you do it? If it is beyond your capabilities, I –"
Rodney drew himself up haughtily. "Nothing is beyond my capabilities."
"Good." Sheppard grinned. "So we have ourselves a deal. You make me my diving bell, and I won't let my blood-thirsty ruffians tear you to pieces and feast on your heart."
But Sheppard was already turning away. "Go now, please," he said, his voice faint and taken by the wind. So Rodney did.
Teyla looked at Ronon with troubled eyes, then went to take McKay back to his cabin. When they were clear, Ronon pushed himself away from the shroud, and headed to the rail. "He'll do it?"
"He didn't say no." Sheppard was facing forward, his hair escaping its tail and blowing over his cheek. "Of course, he thinks I'm going to have him tortured to death if he refuses. That does tend to act as an incentive."
"I can give him an incentive."
"I know you can." Sheppard sighed. Ronon recognised the willpower that was keeping him upright. "The question is more one of whether he can do it, not whether he will."
"The way he talked, he can do anything." Ronon grunted. "He talks too much."
"That he does." Ronon heard the smile in Sheppard's voice. "His true abilities are doubtless less than he makes out. Perhaps there nothing behind his boasting, and we have risked all this for a fraud."
Ronon gripped his knife. "I'll kill him if…"
"No." Sheppard let out a breath. "Don't listen to me. I know his type. He's the best we're likely to get. If he can't do this thing for us, nobody can – nobody we're likely to get our hands on, anyway."
"And what then?" Ronon asked. "You'll give up?"
Sheppard had never been one to give up. It had been one of the first things Ronon had seen in him, when he had come upon him cornered and fighting for his life on that rocky shore. He had taken three sword thrusts, and he had been desperately outnumbered, but he had just kept on fighting. Bitter experience had taught Ronon not to get involved in other people's fights – not to get involved at all, not with anything – but he had found himself wading in. Sheppard had repaid the favour two-fold just days later, and that was that. Ronon had never consciously made the decision to join him, and Sheppard had never asked, but it had just ended up happening. It's only for a little while, he had told himself, but weeks had become months, and months had become a year, and then two. But long before those two years were up, he had woken up one morning, and realised that he couldn't imagine himself living anywhere else.
"I don't know," Sheppard said. "You can only keep on fighting for so long before –"
"That's the wound talking," Ronon said sharply. "You always were a fool. Dolling yourself up like some English gentleman, and pretending that you aren't as weak as a kitten."
"I could still fight if I had to."
"I know it." Ronon took his place at the rail, at his captain's right hand. "Doesn't change anything, though. The surgeon's squawking like a chicken in the cockpit."
"Carson'll get over it." Ronon knew the signs, though; it was only through the sheerest force of will that Sheppard was on his feet right now. "I had to do it, Ronon. McKay needed to see John Sheppard, notorious pirate captain. He didn't need to see an injured man lying on a mountain of pillows."
Ronon decided not to argue. He would have done the same, had the situation been reversed, though that didn't mean he had to like it in others. "You need to get back to bed now, though."
"Think I'll stay here."
But he allowed Ronon to help him to sit down. His legs stretched out on the deck, he leant his head back against the wood, and looked up at the full sails. His mouth turned ever so slightly into a smile.
At least half the crew had served on British ships during the late war. They told Ronon that Sheppard had always been a most unusual captain. Apparently regular captains never opted to sleep on deck beneath the stars, and were loathe to show weakness in front of the crew. "That's because I'm a pirate captain," Sheppard had said, when Ronon had mentioned something about it. "We break the rules. It is rather the point." But of course Sheppard had learnt his trade under officers like that. Ronon still didn't know quite how much Sheppard still retained of those years spent under the red ensign. Of the manner of his leaving, of course, he still retained so much.
"I'll send for Beckett," though, was all he said.
"You do that," Sheppard said. "Worse than my mother, you and Teyla together." His eyes flickered over the quarter deck, and the people on the sails. "All of you."
"Course we are."
Sheppard's eyes slid shut, then opened again, and he looked up at the sails at the Atlantis. "She's beautiful," he had said to Ronon on one of the early nights, after drink had loosened his tongue. "She's the most beautiful thing in the world. I was broken when I came to her, but now…" He had taken another swig, burying his words in amber liquid. Ronon had been new to sea life, then, and had not understood. Sometimes, now, he thought he did.
"Help me out of this ridiculous coat and waistcoat." Sheppard preferred shirt sleeves in the summer, and wore a simple black coat when it was cold. Like all of them, he usually went barefoot on deck. Ronon helped him off with the unfamiliar clothes. Blood had seeped through the shirt, he saw. For a moment, Sheppard's expression reminded him painfully of the expression of his small nephew, caught doing wrong.
"Beckett," Ronon chided him. He caught the eye of a watching deck hand, and gave the signal that the surgeon was required, and another to show that although haste would be appreciated, it was not a matter or life and death. He took his place at Sheppard's side, but far enough away, in case his captain wanted to be alone.
"I hope McKay can do this," Sheppard said, his eyes still on the full white sails. "I've waited seven years for this."
Ronon had only waited two, and sometimes it felt like a lifetime, as if he had never been anywhere other than here, and sometimes it felt like a blinking of an eye. "I'll kill him if he can't," he said.
Sheppard chuckled. "Yeah. You do that."
end of chapter two
Chapter the third
In which the captain's nemeses are introduced
Lorne had charts spread all over his table. Sleeves rolled up, he leant over them, tracing courses. The last patrol had brought in nothing, and the newest bones at Gallows Point were already four months old. Although the number of pirates was decreasing by the year, there were still far too many of them for his liking. His hand tightened on the edge of the table. He was still out there, laughing at them all from his ship of murderers.
Every night he prayed that the next dawn would be the one that he captured him. Every morning and every sunset he scanned the horizon for those pale sails. Every day for nigh on seven years…
He slammed his hand down onto the chart, his palm encompassing many leagues of ocean. If only it were so easy! If only he could reach out and pluck that foul creature from the waters, and crush him in his palm. If only the world was rid of him! It would be a thorn plucked from his flesh, and a knife from his heart.
He had heard the sound of the boat returning. News from Kingston. It was always at its worst when he was awaiting news. So many false sightings! So many near misses, when his heart was pounding in his chest with expectation, but the pirate slipped away. Perhaps this was the one. Perhaps…
"Captain?" The knock on his door came ahead of time, showing that the person who had returned with the boat had walked faster than normal.
He composed himself, hands on the edge of the table. "Come in."
Lieutenant Barrington's face was flushed; after many years at sea, he had never adapted to these warmer climes. "He was spotted, sir," he said without preamble. "Just before dawn, two hours out of Kingston on a bearing west south west."
There was no need to say who 'he' was. "Then we follow. Make ready to cast off."
"With respect, sir…" Barrington moistened his lips. "We're still loading food and water. It will be at least an hour."
"Damn it!" Lorne slammed a fist into the table. And hour could make all the difference, but he had been long enough at sea to know that lack of water could make even more. Duty to King and country meant little to men who were dying of thirst.
He forced himself to stay calm. "Any other news?"
"A English gentleman went missing in the night. His man was babbling, saying he'd been assaulted by a savage giant, and that when he woke up his master had gone."
"Savage giant," Lorne echoed, feeling as he thought a hound must feel, at the first phantom glimmer of a scent.
"That's what I thought, sir, but why would Sheppard send his bodyguard into Kingston to steal an Englishman? This McKay was newly arrived, I understand, and had made no friends in Kingston. He has no particular wealth or influence."
"No rich lord to pay his ransom?" Lorne sat down, and gestured to Barrington to do the same. "It doubtless means nothing. Leave it to the Kingston authorities to unravel. Port?" He reached for the decanter, and poured two small glasses. If his hand was trembling, it could be attributed to the movement of the ship.
"Thank you, sir." Barrington took a sip, then another. "Forgive me for asking, sir…"
"No need to call me sir, Tom," Lorne said, "not over a glass of port."
Barrington looked at him. "Why do you hate Sheppard so?"
Lorne's hand tightened on the glass. "He's a pirate. The things he's done…"
"We all hate him for that." Barrington's brow was shining with beads of sweat. "We hated Calico Jack, too, and all the others, but with Sheppard, it's…" He stopped; hid himself in the glass of ruby liquid.
He could say so much, or he could say nothing. The man's a traitor; that would be enough. It could not have been the port that loosened his tongue, for he had drunk but a sip. Perhaps it was the hope of an ending that trembled just out of reach. Perhaps it was too many weary fruitless years, without anyone to share them with.
"I served with him," he said, "during the war and before."
Barrington raised his eyebrows, but perhaps he had known this already. It was not that many years ago, and the events of those terrible last hours had been no secret at the time.
He could have stopped there, but he did not. In his mind, he saw those early days at sea, so many years ago. "I was a king's letter boy," he said, "older than all the others at sixteen, and less well-born. Sheppard was fifth lieutenant. Like me, he had joined the Navy later than most men – even later than me. And he was from the colonies, of course, and had but little patronage. But he was kind to me."
But he would not tell Barrington about those hellish early days, outclassed by boys far younger than him, and taunted when the officers weren't looking. The hands could not be openly disrespectful to a gentleman's son, but there were many ways of subtle humiliation. Sheppard had protected him without flourish and fanfare. Quietly but effectively, he had eased those first few months for him.
"In time, I took my exams and made lieutenant, and Sheppard… Well, he was good, very good, but…" There was no need to explain. Barrington and Lorne were from the same class, and had both watched less able men with influence step over them to positions of glory. It had been even harder for Sheppard. Lorne had offered to share what little patronage he had, but Sheppard had refused, and had declared himself content to remain a lieutenant until the end of his days, as long as he could serve on good ships.
"When the war started, we served on different ships, but near the end of the war, I heard that he had at last been given his own ship. I pulled all the strings I possessed, and managed to get posted to his command."
He fell silent. He took another sip, seeing his own reflection in the dark red liquid. His eyes slid shut, and fell into memory. Battles, glorious battles, and Sheppard at the fore. Hours on watch beneath the stars. And then… And then…
"He betrayed us," he said hoarsely. "He was traitor to his Queen and to his country, and he was traitor to…"
To me. Barrington was no fool, and read the truth in the silence. Perhaps Barrington knew what it was like to have an officer you looked up to – someone you admired above anyone else. Not him, though; he was not fool enough to think that of himself.
He placed the port back on the table, suddenly losing the taste for it, and stood up. Barrington rose, too, putting the mask of loyal lieutenant back on his face. "We'll catch him one day, sir," he said.
"Yes," Lorne swore, thinking of the bones on Gallows Hill. "Yes, we will."
Rodney was cursing every pirate who had ever sailed the seven seas. "It's all Plutarch's fault," he said. "If Plutarch hadn't written about pirates, then nobody would have got the idea of trying to make their fortune by preying on others at sea, and we wouldn't have had Calico Jack and William Dampier and… and… and Shakespeare was no better, riddling his plays with pirates, although they were rather unpleasant ones, but if he hadn't, perhaps people would have stayed quietly at home, and then Captain Sheppard wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't be here, immured in a prison cell, forced to put my intellect to the service of evil."
There was nobody there to hear him. Fresh food and water had been placed in his cabin while he had been outside talking to the captain, so at least he wasn't going to starve, but hours had gone by since then, and they had just abandoned him.
"And most of all," he shouted, in case Sheppard was sitting outside, laughing at Rodney's invective, "I hate you, Captain Sheppard. I curse you to the deepest circle of Hell, where there are demons and… and things, and you will suffer for ever more."
There was no laughter. Nobody tore his door open and dragged him off for foul punishment, for being so courageous and resolute as to speak of the captain like that. Nobody came at all, but there were footsteps outside, and the sound of men working on a ship under sail.
Perhaps it was better if the door stayed locked. Perhaps he should barricade it, dragging the table across the door and throwing all his weight against it, so nobody would ever be able to drag him out for torment vile, and Captain Sheppard would never get his diving bell and his enormous haul of ill-gotten treasure.
Then he thought of bones hanging from Gallows Point, and thought what a horrible way it would be to die – slowly starving in a prison until you were nothing but bones.
He picked up his pen; scrawled a few more lines. By the time he surfaced again, he found that he had covered four pages, filling them with words and figures and scratched-out plans. He had no idea what the time was, but his stomach told him that it was at least evening.
He looked back at what he had written; chewed his lip, and wrote more.
"Damn you," he shouted. He placed the pen down, careful not to mar his precious workings, and stamped to the door. "Damn you, Captain Sheppard!"
Because the man had issued a challenge. The foul, unscrupulous, perfidious creature had launched an appeal to Rodney's intellect. If it's beyond your capabilities… And Rodney had to show him that it was precisely within his capabilities, thank you very much. Never let it be said that Edmond Halley could do something that Rodney McKay could not surpass. This was a challenge, and when the pen was in his hand, the world just fell away.
"I hate you!" he screamed. "I hate you!" And he pounded at the door, and shouted and demanded until they yielded and came for him, opening the door to show light.
Rodney took a step backwards, his fist falling to his side. Shouting suddenly seemed far less of a clever idea than it had seemed just minutes before. The lantern bathed his room in a warm golden glow, but outside was cold and full of pirates.
"You are to come on deck," the woman said. "Captain's orders."
"Why?" He tried to speak, but his mouth had dried up, and no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Why?"
The woman's smile was sharp. "Entertainment."
"What?" Oh God, oh God, he had read about things like this – about upstanding travellers forced to dance by spears jabbing at their toes; of people hanged until they were almost dead, then let down to howls of laughter; of people forced to strip, and then having unthinkable things done to them.
"And fresh air," the woman said.
He clenched his hand tight, then opened it again. She was not alone, of course, doubtless flanked by pirates who would take delight in stringing him up like a pig and dragging him screaming to the captain's feet.
"Oh." He raised his head, forced a look of calm defiance on his face – or, at least, the sort of look that Mr Booth assumed at Drury Lane when playing a tragic hero facing certain doom – scooped up his hat, and followed her.
Teyla sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, and watched their guest peer suspiciously at the watered ale. "It is not poisoned," she told him.
"No." He took a mouthful, and grimaced, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "It is just… unpleasant."
"It is the same as we are drinking," she said sharply. "The same as the captain drinks."
"Yes. Of course." He took another tentative swig, then caught her looking at him. "I'm not used to it, that's all. See, I'm drinking it. I'm drinking it all."
"Would you prefer water?" She knew that her smile was nasty, but could not help it.
"I have drunk cheap ale before," he said. "When I was at Oxford, I'd go out every night, carousing with the other fellows, my bosom companions. I can hold my drink. I may have a shining intellect, but I'm not lily-livered."
She reminded herself that he was their guest, and that so much depended on his work. It was just so hard to like him. She had tried, speaking gently to him to reassure him when Ronon was teasing him with talk of brains, but the man just chattered and protested and looked on them all as if they were nothing. He was clearly disgusted by the sight of a woman in man's clothing, and he thought Ronon a savage. Here he was on deck, with his coat and his hat and his buckles, sneering at their fare as if it was poison.
"Then drink," she snapped, "and keep quiet."
Of course, she had to admit, she would very likely have disliked him even if he had been the most gracious man in the world. John had risked so much to bring him on board, and was risking his health even now with this charade of his. This man who held John's happiness in his hands, and the friends who had fought at his side, watching him endure so much over the years, could only stand and watch, powerless to help.
"When does the… uh… entertainment start?" He was incapable of following a simple order, too.
"Now," she said, seeing Ronon stalk on deck with a sword in his hand.
"What?" She saw the man's throat working. "You're going to make me fight him?"
"Of course not," she snapped.
Jones the gunner was Ronon's first opponent. They took up position opposite each other, and started to circle, swords in hand. Teyla leant forward, her breath quickening. They were fighting in near darkness, lit only by two low lanterns, and when they engaged, the shadows were huge and monstrous. The faces on the far side were just smears in the darkness. I could have been married, she thought, with two fat children in a house of cold stone. Her mother had always told her that men like this were brutes, but now she lived with a hundred of them, and although not all of them were her friends, they were all her people.
She took a sip of ale, feeling it cold down her throat, and listened to the rhythmic clash of steel. Her nostrils were full of the smell of ale and the tang of sweat and the richness of spices, and Ronon was fighting, eyes shining in the candlelight, moving like liquid flame.
"Is it a punishment?" McKay's eyes were wide. "Is the savage going to hack that man to pieces? Did he get dirt on the captain's shirt cuff, or some other terrible sin like that?"
"It is a fight," she told him. "A friendly fight."
"With real swords."
"Ronon is too good to draw blood unless he wants to, and Jones is not good enough to draw Ronon's blood at all." She grinned fiercely. "Not that he will ever stop trying. It makes good sport."
McKay grunted, clearly not impressed. She blinked, and when she looked back at the fight, she saw it as if through his eyes – saw the latent brutality of Ronon's movement; saw the potential for murder in the blades; saw the crowd of spectators as the brutes her mother had warned her about, desperate for bloodshed, or worse.
Ronon felled his opponent, sweeping his legs out from under him, then stopping with the tip of his blade just short of his throat. Men called out comments, but none of them loud, their voices as muted as the light.
"And another one comes to the slaughter," McKay sneered.
She looked away; it was that or say things that would harm John's cause. She could not see the captain anywhere. She hoped he was resting in his cabin, but she knew how unlikely that was. No, he would be at the wheel, alone on the quarterdeck, the wind at his back.
The sounds of fighting swelled, and then came the sound of another ending. She raised her head to the sky, and took another sip of ale. No-one else came forward to challenge Ronon. There would be more fights later, perhaps, but for now someone started to sing a quiet ballad of the fair folk who lived beneath green mounds, and were beautiful and as terrible as the night was long.
"You're free." McKay's voice was different, almost hoarse. "You can go wherever you like. You aren't bound by all the rules of society. You can take anything you like. You can beat each other into a bloody pulp without anyone calling for the Watch. Women can dress up in men's clothes and wear knives, and absolutely none of the strictures of society mean anything to you."
"Free?" She rounded on him. "The only people free in this world are gentlemen like you, with money to buy anything you want. You buy your way into positions of influence and make laws that keep yourself there. You buy wives like cattle, and when someone dares stand against you, you ruin them."
"You think I'm free?" He slammed his tankard down, empty now. "I'm expected to inherit my father's business, and my own wishes have nothing to do with it. I want to devote my life to study. I want to live in a country house with servants at my command, and to fill every room to overflowing with books, and to write articles, and to travel the world seeking out the truth about the earth and the heavens. Instead I'm going to have to spend my life with ledgers, and marry Charlotte Dauncey – whom, I'll have you know, I don't even like, let alone love – and raise heirs who will have to endure exactly the same thing, and none of it, absolutely none of it, is what I want to do, and it's a shameful waste of my intellect, like a beautiful flower fading and dying for want of light."
He raised his tankard again, found it empty, and put it down. She was about to say something – what, she did not know; perhaps it was even gentle. Then he spoke again. "No, my good woman. None of us are free, not you, and not me. You and every man on this ship are under the thumb of this captain of yours, forced to obey him or face cruel punishments. He's the only one round here who is completely free, caring for nothing and nobody, not knowing the meaning of the word duty, able to do whatever he wishes, and to hell with the consequences."
She stood up stiffly, clenched her fists to stifle the rage. "You know nothing, Rodney McKay," she hissed, and left him alone, and took her place at the side of her chosen people.
Rodney felt quite alone and forgotten on his side of the deck. Singing continued on the far side, and he saw people coming and going, clambering over the other bodies, managing to keep their balance despite the swaying of the deck. For the third song, the woman sang, her voice surprisingly full and sweet. He saw drink passed from hand to hand, and after a while there were a few more fights, this time with sticks and with much quiet laughter. A third lantern was brought, and lit their faces with a golden glow, but his side of the deck felt very cold, despite his hat and coat.
Another song was sung, and memories stirred from early childhood: his nurse singing a tune much like this in front of the fire, singing strange words about strange places, all of which meant that you are safe, Rodney – safe and cherished with me.
"My hounds they all go masterless,
My hawks they flee from tree to tree,
My youngest brother will heir my lands
My native land I'll never see."
His mouth felt dry from the salt beef. He wanted some more drink, but how on earth could he approach a dastardly gang of pirates, his mug held out like a begging bowl? No, it was probably best to stay here nice and quiet, and hope they forgot him. Perhaps he could slip away and steal a boat, or something. Perhaps he could escape.
"I see you do not approve of the merriment," a light voice said from beside him.
Rodney started. He barely recognised the man at first. Sheppard was wrapped in a dark cloak over a white shirt, and his feet were bare. He wore a hat, though, which was at least something – one last vestige of the civilised and safe world that no longer existed out here.
"It's savage," Rodney said, "which is, of course, no more than can be expected. Sword fights…"
"Singing," Sheppard said. "Drinking. So depraved. The young men now abed in England would never do such a thing."
He had seen worse in Oxford, of course, and had once stood outside several expensive fleshpots in Covent Garden, but that… "That's not the point," he said. "You're pirates. How many people do you have chained down below?"
"Plenty." Sheppard's eyes gleamed. "Your tankard's empty. Let me get you some more."
Rodney watched the man walk across the deck; watched how the song faltered, but did not stop. He saw the way people looked at him. Sheppard, he saw, exchanged a few whispered words with Ronon, and nodded at the woman, then took his place behind a scrawny man and waited for his turn at the ale.
When he walked back, both Ronon and the woman watched him intently. Rodney wanted to look away, but the approaching pirate captain held an awful fascination, like an angel of death, black against the lantern light. There was a careful deliberateness to the way he was walking, as if he had already drunk too much already, and was trying hard to disguise it. Rodney nodded smugly to himself. It was no more than he had expected.
"Here you are," Sheppard said, passing him the tankard. "You –"
He broke off, and looked upwards. The song, too, cut off in the middle of a sound. A gull called from far above them, but Sheppard was already moving, so careful caution to his movements now. "Douse the lights." His whisper carried, but the order was already being obeyed before he had even spoken it.
"What?" Rodney whispered. His hand was wrapped around the tankard, cool drink splashing onto his skin. "What's happening?"
"A ship," Sheppard said over his shoulder, still intent on other things.
"And a sea bird told you?" Rodney snapped his mouth shut, remembering Ronon signalling as an owl. So a ship was coming. Please let it be a Navy frigate, he thought, that will drag Sheppard and his men away, and rescue me. He swallowed. As long as they didn't just sink Sheppard's ship on sight. He fought the urge to stand up and shout, "It's me! I'm a friend! Don't shoot!" He would be killed before he uttered a word. Sheppard had said that to him, once.
The men were silent, all songs ceased. There was no moon tonight, though a few stars showed silver through gaps in the thick cloud. He could hear the sound of bare feet on the wooden deck, and knew that people were moving around, doing whatever they needed to do to evade the newcomer. Nobody remembered that he was here, and it was too dark, too dark, and if he tried to move, he might fall right off.
He drank some ale. He blinked into the darkness, but that only made things worse, for he could see faint figures moving, all of them featureless. He tried to stand up. If there was a ship out there, he could not see it. Their own ship was utterly dark, moving like a ghost through the night, bringing death.
He had no idea how long passed. A shape like a black bird perched beside him, unfolding dark wings. "She didn't see us," Sheppard said, "or, if she did, she had equal interest in staying unseen."
"Oh." His voice was quite unwilling to work. He drank some more ale, and this time it was warm, warmed by his hand on the tankard; or maybe his body was just icy cold. "Who…?" He cleared his throat, but even that sound was like a cannon shot in the silence of the night. "Who was it?"
"I suspect it was one of Kolya's ships."
"Pirate. Spanish. He and I… tangled during the war."
"But the war's been over for seven years." Rodney still heard no other sound; he wondered if the whole ship could hear his words.
"Not to Kolya, it hasn't," Sheppard said, "and not where I am concerned. Of course, the Spanish government declared him outlaw, so nothing he does is strictly an act of war. He's a pirate, like me. Preys on the weak. Ruthless, of course. Not to be trusted. Totally devoid of conscience and scruples." He sounded almost bitter. Perhaps he was jealous.
"What a surprise." Rodney took some more ale. "Even the other pirates hate you."
"It's only to be expected, huh?" Sheppard sat down beside him, stretching out his legs with a faint sigh, as if of relief. "How goes the work?"
Rodney sat upright. His thoughts seemed sluggish all of a sudden, as if he was wading through thick mud. He struggled to penetrate them, to remember the fierce excitement of working in the cabin earlier – when he hadn't been terrified for his life, that is. "It will take a long time," he prevaricated. "I will need wood."
"I have a source of wood."
"We have three."
"But it's… It's…" He laid down the tankard; looked at his own unsteady hand, a faint smear in the darkness. "Hardly anybody in history has achieved this. I know Halley did, but he had a team of assistants."
"But you're more clever than any of them." It was said like a simple statement, without even triumph in it, but Rodney knew that it was really a weapon.
Even so, there was nothing he could do but answer him. "Of course I am."
"So you can do it?" It was too dark to see the expression on Sheppard's face.
"Of course I can do it. My skills are not in doubt. But I need time, and people, and… and supplies. Not just wood, but specialist supplies – not something you can find lying around on desert islands or floating on the ocean or peddled by vagabonds in shady ports."
"Name what you need," Sheppard said, "and we will get them for you."
"Steal them, you mean." The ale softened the disgust in his tone.
"Of course," Sheppard said, and that bitter edge was back. "That's what I do. The only difference this time is: you're coming with me."
end of chapter three
This portrait, dated 1741, shows Evan Lorne in captain's garb, although of course by that year he was long-since retired. Family legend, as conveyed to me by Gladys Jenkins (nee Lorne), holds that Captain Lorne strongly resisted having his portrait painted, but that his aged mother had her heart set on it, and sternly said that he would "sit there and look noble and pretty, or forget all thought of a legacy."
Chapter the fourth
In which crime is committed
Ronon found Sheppard at the rail, his face turned upwards, sensing the air. "It's going to rain before the night is over," the captain said.
Ronon said what he had come to say. "I don't like this."
"The weather?" Sheppard said with half a smile. So that was to be the way of it, then. Sometimes before a dangerous endeavour, Sheppard's tension manifested itself in scathing words and ice. Ronon preferred that, he thought, to the smiles.
"You know it's not that." He leant on the rail, openly using his bulk to reinforce his point. "It's this whole affair. You're still not well…"
"It's been five days, four of them with our charming guest on board. I think that counts as at least ten."
"You're not well," Ronon persisted. "You're healing, but you're not healed. Let me go."
"You are going, Ronon."
He tightened his grip on the rail. "Let me and Teyla do it ourselves. I want you to stay behind."
"You want, Ronon?" And there, at last, was the ice, or a glimmer of it.
Warm breezes stirred his hair. He heard distant voices, but nothing near. There was little that could not be said in front of the crew, but perhaps there were some things. "You don't have to do everything, Sheppard," he said. "You don't have to lead every excursion."
"I don't." The smile was back, but so was the ice, not far behind it. "I let you and Teyla bring us our charming guest."
"Then let us do this," Ronon pleaded. "You stay here and heal." Then, when Sheppard still gave him nothing, he found himself saying, "Don't you trust us?"
"You know I do." There was no ice now, and no smiles.
And Ronon knew, of course, which was what made it worse. Few of the crew ever mentioned the name of Aiden Ford, but Beckett could always be persuaded to talk about anything, especially when stolen brandy was pressed into his hand. Ford had been Sheppard's right-hand man in the early days, until he had led an expedition to shore, and had never returned. "The captain changed after that," Beckett had said. "He'd lost men before, and he's lost men since, but this was something different. He'd planned to lead the expedition himself, you see. In his mind, it should have been him."
"But, either way, it's madness to let McKay come," Ronon said now.
"You're saying I'm crazy?" Sheppard raised one eyebrow.
"We abducted him from his bed," he said. "We're keeping him here against his will. And you're taking him into a town…"
"He's the only one who can recognise the supplies he needs."
Sheppard's tone brooked no argument, but from that very first day, Ronon had won the privilege of arguing, even when the cause was hopeless. "Get him to write descriptions or do drawings, then." When Sheppard said nothing, he hissed, "He's going to get you killed, Sheppard. He'll shout."
"I'll stop him."
"I'll stop him." He moved his hand to the hilt of his blade. "If he as much as opens his mouth…"
"Then you'll be gutting him as soon as he sets foot on shore." The smile was back, and Sheppard, seldom one to touch, clapped Ronon on the shoulder. "This is my game, and we do it my way."
"No." Sheppard shook his head, and turned his back to the rail, leaning against the ship that was his own. "I appreciate your concern, but there is nothing more to discuss."
And Ronon had known that it would end like this, of course, just as Sheppard had surely known that he would object in just this way. "Had to try," he said, more lightly than he felt.
"Yes." Sheppard looked at him, and if he had been about to say something else, it was nipped in the bud by the loud protestations that heralded the arrival of McKay.
The game was afoot.
The rain started not long after they left the Atlantis. Teyla felt the heavy drops strike the back of her hands on the oars, and turned her face upwards to receive them. There was always something refreshing about rain, even when it came in the form of storms that threatened to tear the timbers of the ship apart.
McKay predictably complained, sheltered beneath his hat and coat. "I'm going to get soaked through. I'm going to catch my death. Oh! Is it a storm? I've heard about these tropical storms."
"Just regular rain," John said. He was in the bow of the ship, but for now he had turned his back to their destination, and was looking back at his ship as it faded into the darkness. She did not need light to know what his expression would be.
"You could help hoist the sail," she said sharply to McKay. "That would stop you catching your death."
"Me?" he squawked, as if the very thought was an outrage.
"There is no such thing as gentleman or commoner when life is on the line," Ronon grunted, not looking up from his work.
"Very trite." McKay sniffed, "but I see the great Captain Sheppard isn't doing his share of work."
"He would –" she started hotly, but John stopped her, holding up a hand.
"Sound travels across water," he said, no longer gazing after his fading ship. "You don't want to draw attention. If a cannon ball smashes into the boat, it won't make much difference that you're our innocent prisoner, and we're the dastardly pirates. We'll all be dead at the bottom of the sea."
She heard McKay suck in a breath for a tirade, then snap his mouth shut with an audible sound. He said nothing for a long while, as the boat slowly edged towards shore. She remembered the first time she had hauled a sail, and felt just how heavy they could be. Rowing was worse, though. She had thought herself about to die from the agony. Those first few weeks on the brig had been a physical hell, but she had bitten her lip and not complained, and soon her body had changed shape, muscles forming where before they had been just softness.
I could have been embroidering handkerchiefs, she thought, or cowering under a parasol at the merest hint of rain.
Water trickled down her back, easing the stickiness of sweat. Her hair was pulled back in a rough knot at the nape of her neck, and the soft leather shoes on her feet felt like a second skin, and for a moment, despite everything, she grinned into the darkness and the cool rain that peppered the ocean around them, and the breeze that stirred her wild, free hair.
"I don't even know where we are," McKay whispered, as the trees on the shore became audible, even above the patter of the rain.
"Hispaniola," the captain told him. "Saint-Domingue."
"Oh," McKay said. "I haven't seen any charts." It was said with a touch of defensiveness, as if he was suddenly afraid they would think less of him because of his ignorance.
"No." She heard the smile in John's voice, and the tension that underlaid it, and she bit back the retort she wanted to make.
None of you are free, she remembered McKay saying. Of course they were not. She had traded one prison for another sort of trap. Once she had spent half a year on the Atlantis, she had known that she could never leave. This prison was voluntary, and there was much joy in it, but that did not make it any less of a prison for all that. She could sail beneath the stars with the wind in her hair, but she could not see her mother again, and she would very probably not see old age.
"Where are we going?" McKay's voice was too loud, but they were in the shallows now, and it was drowned by the swaying palm trees and the waves dragging at the sand.
"There's a certain settler," John said, as he jumped out, water to his knees, and prepared the haul to little boat in. "Quite the eccentric. Considers himself a scientist, just like you, though far less accomplished than you, of course. His home is a treasure trove of useful equipment."
McKay was holding onto both sides of the boat, as the waves rocked it from side to side. She heard his quivering breathing, and realised that he was probably entirely terrified. They had dragged him from his home and swept him up into an adventure that he had not wanted to be part of. He was a prisoner, and he spent every day in fear of his life. "You've robbed him before," he said.
"Of course." John grinned. "We're entirely without scruples."
Teyla jumped out of the boat, and offered McKay a hand. "As long as you stay quiet," she said gently, "no harm will come to you."
"But I don't know how to stay quiet," McKay said, almost sadly.
They started walking, and then they kept on walking. They walked and walked, and kept on walking, and it must have been miles, and he'd heard of labourers who walked fifteen miles to market, then fifteen miles back again, but that didn't mean that just anyone could do it, and his feet hurt, and it was raining. Raining! When it rained, you got your man to throw more wood onto the fire, and settled down in an armchair with the Almagest and chuckled over the quaint mistakes that the ancients had made, and thanked your lucky stars – not that you believed in them, of course – that you had been born in a more enlightened age, and then you moved to your table and made notes for your treatise that would usher Europe into a new scientific revolution. You didn't go outside in it. You especially didn't go outside in it in the dark.
With pirates, he added, setting out to do some crime.
He was quite ridiculously wet, soaked through to his shirt, and the air was thick with moisture, and felt too thick to properly breathe. The trees above him were most definitely not the trees of home. There were no mighty beech trees, no elegant birches, no oak and no ash. The trees had leaves that shivered, and thin bare trunks that swayed in the wind, making the leaves whisper as if they were plotting with each other to bring him down. The ground squelched under foot, and he knew that there were all manner of horrible insects, and…
"Crocodiles!" he gasped. "Are there crocodiles? I read about them in Herodotus. They can eat a man whole."
"There may be all manner of monsters," Sheppard said, "but if you keep your voice down…"
"I know. I know. Being quiet."
He wondered if he had ever been quiet so miserable. This wasn't exercising his strengths. Working in his cabin for the last few days, there had been times when he had almost been happy, as he had perfected his design and been so sure that even Halley would judge his the superior model. On the second day, he had removed his cravat, and on the third day he had gone out on deck without his hat, although the ferocity of the sun had quickly sent him scurrying back to reclaim it. Nobody had pursed their lips, looking at him as if he was transgressing some common law of decency by being seen thus in public. Nobody had seemed to care what he looked like at all.
But they cared about what he could do. Looking at his workings, Sheppard had grinned and called him a marvel. Of course, the grin was a death's head grin and murder lay beneath it… and, really, if a common murderer said good things about you, you couldn't put any store in it… But Sheppard had said he was a marvel, just because of the work that issued from his intellect.
His foot sank into mud up to the ankle. "Are we nearly there yet?"
"Nearly." Sheppard stopped, with Ronon and the woman – he now knew that she was called Teyla, but it was impolite to call a woman by her Christian name. Of course, it was impolite to think of her as 'the woman', but she left him with no choice – flanking him.
"We're nearly there." Sheppard's voice suddenly took on a tone that reminded Rodney of all the times his father had told him off when he had accidentally broken some knick-knack or frippery while rushing through the house for paper or a microscope – though, really, it was only to be expected. Tiny filigree ponies with topaz eyes were made to be sacrificed on the altar of scientific discovery, and deserved nothing less. "If you do anything to endanger us…"
"I'll kill you," Ronon said.
"The same holds true on land as it did on the boat." Sheppard glanced at Ronon, then back to Rodney. "If you shout out, anyone who comes won't distinguish between you and us. You're with me, and that implicates you, at least for tonight."
"I'll say I'm your prisoner."
"You aren't bound. You haven't been mistreated. Who would believe you?" Sheppard took a step forward; held by his voice, Rodney recoiled, but could not retreat. "I've already told you that you won't be harmed, and that promise stands. We're good at this." He gave a quick smile, faintly visible in the darkness. "You aren't in any danger tonight, unless it's danger of your own making. Keep your head down, be a good boy, and tell us what we need to steal, and you'll be safely back in your cabin in no time."
Rodney nodded; what else could he do? He nodded, and they walked on, and soon reached buildings, shrouded in dark. A dog barked far away. The trees thinned and the mud hardened and became tracks, marked with grooves from carriage wheels and wagons. The rain grew heavier, though, and he thought that the little town looked very sad.
There were no lights, but the moon, just past full, was bright enough behind the rain clouds to cast the whole world in a faint grey light. Then, a few steps later, he saw a golden light away to his left. It was a watch tower, he thought, keeping watch on the sea, looking out for pirates who would steal in during the night to rob people of life and happiness. Over here! he wanted to shout. He's here! But his throat felt clogged, incapable of uttering words.
"There is a watchman," the woman hissed, her voice barely louder than the wind.
Sheppard nodded. Ronon took off, and for a man who was so large, he seemed to shrink and become no more than a shadow. When Rodney blinked, Ronon seemed to disappear completely. I don't believe in spirits, he told himself. Ronon was just a man, and that made it worse, far worse. Men preyed on men, and there was such nastiness in the world, whereas the world of the stars and the elements was so pure and so uncruel. You were never safe. You could amass a head full of knowledge such as the world had never seen, but could still be cut down by the footpad's knife.
They waited – Rodney, and a woman in man's clothes, and the most heartless killer in Christendom. Ronon returned, appearing out of the darkness like one of the ghosts that Rodney didn't believe in, oh no, he most definitely did not. "He won't be troubling us," he said.
"You killed him." Rodney turned to Sheppard. "He killed him." He looked for blood, but the darkness hid it.
"So in we go," Sheppard whispered. "Be quiet. Once inside, use signs or touch." He touched Rodney on the arm as if to demonstrate, and it felt like the touch of death.
His mind in a daze, he barely remembered what came next. They opened a window; that much he knew. Sheppard caught him when his foot got caught and he almost fell, and it was horrible, to be so close to a pirate. But more horrible a moment later, when he thought about the fact that he was now inside somebody else's house, having entered without permission, and he would be killed if anybody caught him here – killed, even though he was innocent; his name becoming a curse and his memory spat upon, even though he hadn't ever done anything wrong. It seemed like the worst thing of all – the injustice of it.
And then they were in a laboratory of sorts, though a slapdash one, made by somebody without enough wit to deserve one. Somebody was holding up a candle, shielding it with their hand, and the faces of his companions turned into the demons that they were, all fiery light and deep shadow.
Sheppard's hand moved, like darting flame in the flickering light of the candle. Tell us what you need.
He needed tubing, and a valve – or, better still, the materials with which to make a better one. He needed glass and lead – no, Sheppard said he had another source for that – and… God, so many things. He needed a fully equipped laboratory. Halley had employed a team of labourers, but Rodney was being expected to do this all alone in the cabin of a pirate ship. It couldn't work. Even with his intellect, it couldn't work.
A touch on his arm. A look. A warning.
Oh. He swallowed, and wandered around, his flesh creeping at the thought that he was in somebody else's house. That, he indicated. That. Ronon picked up what he needed. Sheppard had come with a bag. The woman was on watch, her ear to the door.
Just days before, he had been woken from sleep to find Ronon standing over him. Ronon had… God! Had he killed Turland? You expected your house to be like a fortress. It was yours – your private sanctum where you could shut out the ridicule and cruelty of the world, and just be yourself. When people just broke right in, it was tainted. Somewhere in this house, perhaps just separated from him by the thickness of a ceiling and a floor, the owner was asleep, thinking himself safe, and…
Another touch. He clenched his hands at his side, and continued to move around. That, and that, and that.
He moved in a daze. Sometimes he almost bubbled over with the urge to shout – Sheppard's here! He's in your house! Take him! Save me! – but he felt as if someone had their hand around his throat, preventing him from producing sound. That, he pointed. That…
"There's someone outside!" Ronon hissed.
"The light!" That was Sheppard. Their candle flame was blown out, but that only served to show the torch that was approaching outside, and even over the sound of his sudden rapid breathing, Rodney could hear someone speaking, and then a shout.
"I guess it's back to the boat." Sheppard's hand closed on his arm, and he was dragged to the window, pushed out, to land in a tumble of hands and knees in the mud. Ronon landed beside him, and was up before him, to turn back two steps ahead of him, and reach for his arm.
The shout was repeated, and answered by another. A dog barked, far nearer now than it had barked before. "What now?" he gasped.
"But I can't…" But Sheppard was grabbing him, and Ronon tugged at his sleeve, and his feet were pounding on the path, then sinking into the mud, and rain sheeted against his face and poured down his front, and his breath, oh God, his breath was tearing in his lungs, and people were shouting behind him, and there was a second dog, and a third…
He's here! He's over here! Take him!
"I can't…" His chest felt as if it was being torn in two. His legs felt as if they had been turned to pulp. He was going to die. Oh God, he was going to die. He was…
Someone grabbed at him. He tried to scream – more like a dying gasp, really – but a hand closed over his mouth. He struggled, panting, heaving, and the hand was removed. "Quiet," Sheppard whispered. "Take a minute."
"Ronon's gone to draw them off," Sheppard whispered.
"He's good at it. He'll be fine."
And slowly his breathing came under control, although his legs… His legs hurt, and he needed to lie down and sleep, but Sheppard was already pulling him out from behind the tree – and he had mud all over him, and was soaked – and was dragging him on. It was miles to the boat, miles, but the noise of the dogs was fading, and…
"I thought… you said… you were good… at this… robbery thing," he gasped.
"This is good," Sheppard said. "No-one's dead yet."
And he saw nothing but darkness and the figures at his side, and sensed nothing but the mud beneath his feet and the rain on his face, and felt nothing but the tearing pain of too much exertion, but at least they were moving slower now, more like just a fast walk, and minutes passed… minutes… hours…
The trees thinned. The boat was there, and Ronon! Ronon was in the boat! "I lost them."
"Not a scratch."
Helped by Sheppard, Rodney staggered into the boat, and collapsed to lie on his back. Rain sheeted into his face, and it was cool, so cool, so delicious, so fresh. He took it in with his tongue. His chest rose and fall, and he felt the boat quake beneath him as it was pushed off, and heard the sound of oars, and he was safe, and he was resting, and no-one had torn him to pieces with their fangs or dragged him off to be hanged for a crime he had not committed.
It was a long time before he was able to sit up. They were far from land. Lights were bobbing on the shore, but if people were shouting invective, they were too far away to be heard. "I thought you said you were good at this," he said again.
Nobody answered. Ronon was sculling, keeping them steady in the ocean. The woman was bent over Sheppard, and in the faint light, Rodney saw a dark mark on his exposed shirt.
"You're hurt," he gasped. "I didn't hear them shooting."
It was the woman who answered, in a voice that started sharp and grew yet sharper as she spoke. "It was not from today. Captain Sheppard was shot the day before you came on board. The injury has reopened; that is all."
"Oh." Rodney had no idea what to say. He thought back to all the times he had seen the captain around the ship. There had been no sign of injury then, had there? "Then… Then it was rather stupid to come out tonight, wasn't it? Why didn't you say something? Is it a case of ridiculous pirate pride?
Amazingly, Sheppard chuckled. "Quite the match for your ridiculous scientist pride, don't you think?"
"At least I don't almost get myself and everybody else killed," Rodney retorted. "I don't break into people's houses and steal things."
Sheppard tried to sit up, but the woman stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, McKay," Sheppard said, "but we needed you there. Couldn't have done it without you. It'll be the last time, I promise."
Rodney huffed, and looked away. The sail was raised, and as they inched slowly back to the Atlantis, the rain stopped, and by the time they were back on deck, the stars were out.
He was still looking away hours later as he leant on the rail, watching the unfamiliar stars, with the sound of singing drifting up from below. Then he retired to his cabin, but did not sleep.
end of chapter four
This is an artist's impression of the brigantine Atlantis. One of the great mysteries of the tale of John Sheppard is why he called his ship by a name of a place famous for sinking. Sailors are superstitious creatures, and one would have thought that none would want to sail on a ship so named. Perhaps they were too uneducated to know the true meaning of the name, or perhaps the name was intended metaphorically, to show how, as pirates and outlaws, they were sunken and buried, outside the protection of the law. Maybe he also span them a tale of how sunken things could one day rise again…
Chapter the fifth
In which Rodney McKay emulates a mouse, but fails to learn a lesson from Monsieur Perrault
Some time between noon and two of the clock, Rodney McKay realised that he was disgusting.
He wrinkled his nose at the stink of himself. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, horrid with dirt and mud. Sweat poured down his neck in torrents, and he had worn the same stockings since he had been abducted by these evil creatures so many days before, and since then he had waded through swamps of unimaginable foulness.
He needed to wash – not himself, of course, because everybody of any intelligence knew that too much water on your skin was a sure-fire way to catch vile diseases – but he at least needed a clean shirt and a new pair of stockings.
He wrenched his cabin door open, then halted, struck by the realisation that it was no longer locked. Thinking about it, he realised that it hadn't been locked for a good long while. Hmm, he thought. Interesting. But the need for clothes was a more pressing one, so he climbed up the steep staircase and headed onto deck.
"You," he shouted, calling to the nearest man. "I need my clothes washed."
The man looked at him with utter insolence, and carried on his way.
They all stank. Perhaps it was just the heat of the afternoon that made him notice it. Perhaps it was because he had made three attempts to design his valve, and the fourth attempt was a crumpled up piece of paper on his cabin floor. It was a stinking den of villainy. Stinking. Stinking. Stinking.
He stamped along to the quarterdeck and made for the stern, where at least the air was fresh, having come across nothing but open sea. There he spread his arms and raised his face to the sky, and felt the cool breeze flow under his arms and across his neck, drying the sweat.
It was only when he looked down again that he realised that Sheppard was there, sitting on the folds of a cloak, a book in his hand.
"I need someone to wash my clothes," Rodney told him. "I can't work when I'm filthy."
It was a shocking lie. His mother had oft rebuked him for emerging from his laboratory with stains on his shirt front; she shuddered to think, she said, that he would one day come down to dinner like that when they had company. But he called upon all his outrage at his unnatural imprisonment, and managed to invest the statement with ire and dignity.
Sheppard looked at him. His own shirt was vexingly white. Rodney was just drawing in a breath to present his well reasoned case, when he was struck by curiosity – "men of our station are not meant to be curious, my son. I do not care how old the earth is, or how far away are the stars; I just take the money." – by the book in Sheppard's hand. He twisted his head, trying to read its title. What did pirates read, anyway?
"A Treatise on Divers Ways to Torture Trembling Dowagers?" Sheppard closed the book, keeping his finger in the page and the spine turned away from Rodney. "A Murderer's Almanack?"
And how did you learn how to be a pirate, anyway? One could not go to university and study under a doctor of piracy. Rodney shook his head briskly. Filth, he thought. "I need fresh clothes," he stated, "or these ones washed."
"Then wash them yourself." Sheppard's eyes gleamed nastily. "Or can't you find any water, out here on the open sea?"
"I can't…!" He stopped, adjusted his mantle of dignity, and said in a measured tone, "I need to devote all my attention to my work, just like you need to devote all your time to your… captainly things." He was proud of that shot, though he took care to check that he was out of sword reach. "I see you are not partaking of the work."
"I'm confined to ship." Sheppard placed the book down, slowly, deliberately, firmly. Rodney still could not read the spine. "Carson was quite insistent that if I was bloody-minded enough to leave on any damn fool excursions – those were his actual words; he was not polite – then it would be no-one's fault but my own if I died there and then."
"Which would be good riddance," Rodney said after a pause, because he knew he ought to.
"Perhaps." Sheppard shrugged, then gave a faint gasp, as if of pain. "So here I am, and Ronon's out there in my place, getting you lead." He spread his hand. "I'm waited on hand and foot. Food. Wine. Books. Anything, as long as I don't move." There was an edge to his voice. His fist slammed towards the book, then at the last minute slowed, so his hand touched it quite silently.
"How nice for you," McKay said bitterly.
Sheppard's mouth tightened. "Get back to work, McKay," he said after a while. "Wash your own clothes. Next time one of my cowed minions comes to feed me grapes, I'll get him to bring you one of my spare shirts." He was silent for a while. "Go," he said, when Rodney hadn't moved.
"Going," Rodney said, and fled with quiet dignity, telling himself that he had come out of the encounter quite well. He had faced the demon in his lair, at any rate, and had dared to tweak his beard.
The sun was setting as the Atlantis drew into sight. Ronon smiled at the sight of it. This was home, calling to him across the sea. He imagined Sheppard standing at the rail, waiting for them – and perhaps that was him there, that shape at the bow – and Teyla and Beckett, and all the others who had become his friends.
Then something about the angle of the light made him remember another home – returning from the fields to be greeted by his mother and his grandmother and the shy smile of Melena. He had never asked her to be his sweetheart. Perhaps he would have done so at harvest, but at the end of the summer, the storm had struck, and the mountain had turned to thick dark mud, had shivered, and had fallen.
He gripped the side of the boat with whitened knuckles. "An act of God," the priest had said, smiling benevolently. Ronon had turned his back and walked away, leaving the ruins of the church, wading through the burial ground with its newly dug graves, and had left and never gone back. If it had been an act of man, he could have spent his life seeking vengeance, but there had been nobody to blame, nobody to hate, nobody to care for, no cause to fight…
The water shone like liquid gold. He saw shapes in the rigging, and knew each one by name, just by their tiny outline and the way that they moved. Nearer, and he saw that Sheppard was indeed waiting for them, and Ronon's nostrils caught the faintest scent of broth and ale. The sail billowed, and he was in the lea of the brig. Soon he was home.
"You're late," Sheppard said, as he clambered onto deck.
"Did the job, though." Ronon grinned. "No, no-one's hurt. Took a little longer than we thought; that's all. There was no trouble."
They had been away for two days. Sheppard nodded once, and stepped back to allow the winches to be hauled into place. Ronon took the opportunity to examine his captain critically. He looked better, he thought, as if by some miracle he had acceded to Beckett's orders and rested. Perhaps it was the closeness of their goal. Just months before, if Sheppard had been told that a certain course of action would almost certainly get him killed, he might have just done it, anyway.
"I need a drink," Ronon told him. The journey had been arduous, and land was a thin strip to the east, fading into the darkness away from the sun.
He headed towards the ladder that led below. As he did so, McKay accosted him. "Where have you been?"
"Away," Ronon said, but McKay stood his ground, red-faced and stubborn. "Getting you lead," Ronon told him.
"Why do people keep on saying it's for me?" McKay protested. "Your imperious captain's the one who wants this thing made. I just compile the shopping list. Oh, and do all the work and supply the brains, of course. And suffer. He made me wash my own shirt." He frowned, cocking his head. "Where did you get lead from, anyway?"
"Took it from the roof of an abandoned church." An image flickered into his mind of a ruined church in world turned brown with mud. He pushed it away.
"You stole from a church?" McKay's voice was shrill. "That's… That's…"
"No different from anything the nobles and gentlemen of England have been doing for centuries," Sheppard said from behind him. "Half the mansions of England were built with stone and lead plundered from the monasteries."
"We're pirates, McKay." Ronon heard the edge to Sheppard's voice, symptom of two days of waiting. "We steal things. And now you have your lead."
"Now I have my lead," McKay echoed, "and an unwelcome history lesson. Thank you very much."
Rain sent them below deck. Those who could be spared from running the ship were gathered around the wooden benches, faces lit by flickering lanterns.
"Your turn, Teyla," Tom Evans called.
Teyla shook her head. "I have already sung tonight." She sometimes wondered what they really thought of her – a woman who was neither a lady to be treated with respect, nor a whore to tumble in the hay. Perhaps their banter with her was a little less free than with each other, but it was not enough to cause her worry. This was so much better than it could have been.
"Then who?" Tom appealed to the room. "Somebody give us a song."
Then she saw McKay faltering in the doorway. It was the look of cautious disgust on his face that decided her. "McKay can sing a song."
"Oh, I don't… I can't…" But the men were baying, laughing, reeling him in. McKay's hands flapped, and his mouth was opening and shutting like a fish. "I can't sing. I sound like a frog."
"We like frogs," Tom said. "Sweet William sounds like a dying sea cow, but he still takes his turn." That was Jones. "Come on, Master Scientist, take your turn," William urged him.
"But I can't… I can't…" McKay drew himself up, and she saw his hands clenching and unclenching at his side. Then he assumed an affected pose, twisted up his face, and started to sing. "Gather your rosebuds…"
"No!" Carson stood up, raising his tankard. "None of your namby-pamby chamber songs. We need a muckle sang – a ballad from bonnie Scotland."
She saw hurt pride and relief war for precedence on McKay's face. At least he had tried. He had stood up before them – and she had been terrified the first time she had sung here – and he had been prepared to sing. "Move over," she told Tom, then gestured McKay over to the space she had made.
"A muckle sang." Carson had drunk a little too much, though she knew from experience that he would be as calm and steady as any man if anybody required his care.
Carson's voice was far from perfect, but he always sang the words with feeling, telling the old ballads more as stories than songs. He sang of Tam Lin, the young and handsome lord who drew the attention of the Queen of Elfland, and was doomed to live in thrall to her, cast out of human society, and feared by all. Then he sang of Thomas the Rhymer, who met the same queen, and was taken away beyond mortal ken.
"And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven."
She heard McKay shift beside her, but she was held by the story, although she had heard it so many times before.
"For forty days and forty nights
He waded thro' red blude to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea."
She heard McKay suck in a breath as if to speak, then heard him let it out again. It was only when the song was finished that he spoke. "Your songs are all about death and violence. Why…? No, of course I know why."
So, defiant, she stood up and sang of Sovay, the woman who robbed on the highway to test her sweetheart's love, and Lovely Joan, who robbed the young dandy who would have stolen her maidenhead. McKay stayed, though, so she let Tom sing "Good luck to the Barleymow," and by the end of it she saw that McKay's lips were moving, joining in the chorus as if despite himself.
He did sound like a frog, though.
"No!" Rodney bellowed, his hands on his hips. "Are you fools? Have you got straw for brains? Put it there! No, there!"
The diving bell was taking shape. Sheppard had given him free use of the ship's carpenter, his mate, and the ridiculous overgrown boy who looked as if he had been behind a hedge with his britches round his ankles when God was handing out brains. He had given him brawny men to work the cranes and winches, and pock-marked gunners to work with the molten lead, and the cook, of all people, to tend the furnace, although shouldn't he have been back in the galley roasting albatross and trying to make salt beef taste a little more like a royal banquet and a little less like leather?
"Yes, yes, there, you brutes. Now run along and do whatever it is you people do, and come when I snap my fingers. No, not you! Boy! Stay there. Cut that plank of wood. No, there!"
"You shouldn't talk to them like that."
It was the Scottish man who had been presumptuous enough to rescue him from having to sing. Why not? Rodney was about to demand, then remembered that these people were heartless pirates. They could slit his throat if he provoked them too much.
"Good point," he said. "Nice pirates. Good pirates. Good… muscles. Please don't kill me."
"No," the Scotsman said. "You shouldn't speak to them like that for any reason."
Rodney took in a careful breath, then let it out when he realised that nobody looked likely to disembowel him at that very moment. The Scotsman's face was mild, almost gentle. Of course, one could smile and smile and be a villain, according to the bard, whose place at the pinnacle of the pantheon of English worthies would be less certain once Rodney had…
His thoughts trundled to a halt. It was harder to think such things when he was stranded on a floating den of iniquity, casting his pearls before swine. For the first time, they felt almost foolish.
"They're used to it," he said, shaking his head. "Captain Sheppard bellows orders all the time, treating them like mindless animals, reinforcing his commands with the crack of a whip." Not that he had heard such goings-on, of course, but the captain had been injured. He would be in full fettle soon. Leopards could not change their spots, although perhaps they could disguise them for a while, perhaps by… uh… painting them with… mud…
"Who are you, anyway?" he demanded briskly. He faced the man, then recoiled from him with a gasp. "You've got blood on you."
"I'm Carson Beckett," the Scotsman said. "Ship's surgeon."
"Oh." He wrinkled his nose. "Have you been… uh… cutting somebody's leg off?"
Beckett shook his head. "The blood's from earlier – lad got an elbow to the nose. Bloody awful. No, I've just been seeing to a stubborn bastard who thinks the normal rules of human endurance don't apply to him. He's well on the road to recovery now, but only because I sat him down and reminded him of… Well, enough of that. But it's enough to drive a man to drink. He always was like that, even when we served the Queen. He once fought off pirates with half his thigh laid open. Damn nearly died of it, but I cured him afterwards. I was down below, of course, sewing up the other poor buggers, and didn't see him play the hero – another word for idiot, if you ask me – but they told me afterwards, when they helped him down below."
"Sheppard," Rodney realised. "You're talking about Sheppard. He used to be in the Navy?" And the man was literate, of course, and spoke like a gentleman, despite that untraceable accent. "He was an officer?"
It was… it was horrible. Sheppard had taken an oath. He'd served beneath his country's flag, and then turned pirate. How could any man do such a thing? How could he? Rodney quivered with all the outrage he had been taught in tedious sermons and dull lectures. He had to go and confront the man. He had to shame him. There must have been a scrap of honour in him once. Rodney would use all his eloquence to appeal to it, and if that failed, he would… he would challenge him to a duel.
"…and when he left," Beckett was saying stiffly, "I came with him. There are still a score of men here today who did the same as me. When you see how a man deports himself as his comrades fall around him, then you know him. When you have a man on the surgeon's slab, then you know what he is made of."
"Yes," Rodney said in disgust. "Blood and guts and violence."
Rodney thought it might be Friday. The night before, the moon had been almost new. That meant that he must have been on the ship for nearly two weeks. He wondered if the people of Kingston were in a consternation over his departure, but then he let out a breath, knowing that they were not. Then he wondered if a ship was already carrying news of his loss back to his father. His mother would scream. His father would mourn an heir, but would he mourn a son?
He was fixing tubes into barrels, his shirt still damp and prickly from the sea water he had washed it in rather badly in the night before. It was not long after dawn, although when he had emerged proudly from his cabin, he had found that the bulk of the crew was already up.
"Where's the captain?" he asked the carpenter's mate as he passed him.
"Away," the man said.
Rodney sat very still for a few minutes, as thoughts pattered across his mind like scampering feet. Sheppard was off the ship, and he was still on it. Sheppard and…? The next time somebody passed, he asked them where Ronon was, and received the same answer. Sheppard and Ronon; captain and savage. He saw no sign of the woman, either. The evil triumvirate was gone. And what did the mice do when the cats were away?
He moistened his lips. Not that the crew was showing much sign of playing, now that the cruel yoke was loosened from their necks. But Rodney was fully capable of being the mouse. A brave mouse, though, not a cowed one. A mouse that roared, not a mouse that squeaked.
He cast the barrel aside, flinching as it rumbled across the deck, to come to rest against a bulkhead. He stood up, and smoothed his clothes down, feigning casualness. Sauntering, whistling a little, he went to where the little boat was stowed. It was indeed gone.
Rodney looked from side to side, then shielded his eyes to peer up at the crow's nest. No-one seemed to be watching him. He sauntered towards the stairs and clambered furtively down below deck, grabbed a lantern from his room, then went even lower, lower and lower.
It had to be here somewhere. What? he wondered, so he shook his head twitchily and told himself that he was looking for piles of ill-gotten loot or chained up prisoners or a harem of captured maidens that he could rescue. He went past guns. He tried closed hatches, but none of them were locked. He found a room full of powder barrels, and backed away swiftly, guarding his lantern. Rats were nibbling at bags of flour, "which is disgusting," and he found sealed barrels that claimed to hold ale, "and the smell's right, so they're certainly heavy, so it's probably true," and right at the bottom there were barrels of water.
It was horribly dark in the hold, and he suddenly realised that he was below sea level, with water pressing in on him from all sides, kept out only by a thickness of wood. "He won't keep it here," he said, "not where everyone else can find it. No, it's in his cabin."
He headed back to the deck, where the air felt sweet and almost homely, even though it was flavoured with all the scents of a pirate ship. Sheppard's cabin was in the stern, and Rodney made his way there.
Soon he was trembling. He touched the door casually, his body averted, his hand at his side, touching the wood only with his fingers. The door stirred. He swallowed, and pulled his lip in with his teeth. Nobody was looking.
Taking a deep breath, he darted in, and shut the door behind him. This was the monster's den. This was the enemy's heartland. He thought of Monsieur Perrault's Bluebeard, who told his wife not to enter the forbidden room. She entered, and crept out again, but there was blood on the forbidden key, and Bluebeard knew, he knew. He killed her, and 'be bold,' the room said, but that was another story – a tale his nurse had told him. "Be bold," he whispered, "be bold, but not too bold, lest thy heart's blood should run cold." And in that tale, that started so like Monsieur Perrault's tale, the lady had killed the murderous husband, chopping him into a hundred pieces.
"No time," he whispered. "No time for this. Think. Concentrate. Mark every sign." He pushed himself away from the door, adrift and unanchored in the murderer's lair. The cabin was almost austere, with a narrow bed and a bare table. There were rolled charts against the wall, and a chest beneath the window… "Aha!" he said, and knelt down in front of it, but it was locked. It undoubtedly held – the talisman. The jewel that is the secret of his strength – something of immense importance, and Rodney could…
Footsteps! He bit his lip, but they passed on by. He remembered what it had felt like to be in that poor settler's house, robbing him of his store. This felt worse. But it wasn't; of course it wasn't. Pirates had no rights. This was his duty. He was being quite amazingly brave.
Be bold, be bold, but not too bold…
There was a small bookcase on the opposite wall, and he stopped, drawn by the books. Euclid! Oh. It was the same edition as the one he had. The Principia? Ha! The man was showing off, pretending to understand it. Leviathan. Over-rated. The Faerie Queen. Sentimental nonsense. A life of Pliny the Elder… Acceptable, though the prose was over-rated. Robinson Crusoe. A book he hadn't heard of! He pulled it off the shelf, and looked at its title page. It was barely two years old, and claimed to be a true account of a mariner stranded on an island for twenty-eight years, until he was 'strangely deliver'd by pyrates,' or so the title page said, "and I don't want to read about them." He shoved it back on the shelf, then pulled out the Newton, just to make sure that the covers weren't being used as a blind to cover more nefarious works within.
"See anything you like?"
Rodney dropped Newton with a crash. It was Sheppard. Sheppard was back. Rodney turned round – turning had never seemed to slow – and saw the pirate captain standing in the doorway, leaning against it with one hand.
"You were off the ship," Rodney stammered. They had distinctly told him that Sheppard was not here. "You were off the ship," he said accusingly.
"Was," Sheppard stressed. "I came back."
"I can see that."
There was silence. Rodney wondered which bodily part he was going to lose first. Not my tongue, he thought. Please not my tongue. Or my hands. I'm attached to my hands. That is, I want to remain attached to them.
"It was unlocked," Rodney protested. "You shouldn't leave doors unlocked if you don't want people to go through them."
"Unless I left it open as a trap." Rodney hated it when Sheppard's eyes glittered like that, and hated that slight smile.
"Did you?" His mouth was horribly dry.
Sheppard said nothing. He took a step forward, and Rodney felt the bed pushing against the back of his legs, showing him that he had been steadily retreating.
"I'm going," he stammered. "I… I won't do it again."
Sheppard stepped to one side to let him past. The doorway was narrow, and Rodney had to brush against the fall of Sheppard's coat, and his flesh crept – he hadn't known that such a thing was possible before, and thought it just the foolish fancy of the poets – at the proximity of the man, sure that he was about to be gutted.
"No," Sheppard said, "you won't." But he let Rodney pass before he said it again. "I mean it, McKay. Never do this again."
Rodney fled, running with quiet dignity to the safety of his own prison.
"We have fresh reports, sir." Barrington placed a sheaf of papers on the table. "He's been sighted across the archipelago. He appears to have no clear route in mind, but he's sending men ashore in several places."
Lorne looked at the reports. They were ghosts and rumours, but it was all he had. It had to be enough. "Then we proceed."
"With respect, sir…" Barrington's ruddy complexion was even more flushed than normal. "We haven't received fresh orders. Perhaps we should…"
"We proceed," Lorne said. This was worth risking his career for. For years he had toed the line, going out on patrol, returning to port with the scent still fresh in the air. He had broken off the chase to escort passenger ships. He had languished for days in port while noble-born lieutenants were entertained by ambassadors in their mansions.
Not any more. "We are close, Tom," he said. "I can feel it. And this time I will not rest until he is ours."
end of chapter five
This portrait has been included for the sake of completeness, but almost certainly does not portray Ronon Dex. This drawing was done by an artistically-inclined maiden from Marseilles, who caught a glimpse of this man down at the docks and was most taken by him. In her journal, she waxed lyrical about his "pirate garb" and his "look and hair, like unto a savage from Herodotus." The similarity of this description to Rodney McKay's thoughts on Ronon Dex has led me to include this picture, although needless to say, the chances of this handsome stranger actually being Ronon Dex are so minimal as to be practically non-existent.
Chapter the sixth
In which Rodney is almost useful in a naval battle
Rodney looked out one morning to see dolphins playing beside the ship. "Look!" He cried out without thinking. Smiling, he looked around, but there was no-one to share them with.
The dolphins were sleek and gleaming, and they seemed to look at him with merry eyes, and grin with delight at their own antics. He watched them crest the waves; watched them plunge down below; watched them emerge to leap even higher than before.
He glanced round again, but he was still alone. The morning breeze was cool, tugging his hair free from the twist of leather he had artfully tied it with. In that moment, he vividly remembered the night he had first trained his new telescope on the sky and seen the disc surrounding Saturn, that had so amazed Galileo in his time. He remembered trying to drag his mother out to see it with him, but she had yawned daintily at the very thought, and after that, he had only ever watched the heavens alone.
He turned back to the rail. "Sail to windward!" someone shouted from far above.
His hand tightened. A sail? Windward. That meant… He moved along the stern, leaving the dolphins behind, but he could see nothing on the horizon but haze. The sky seemed to bleed into the sea, and he could barely tell where one became the other.
Sheppard was suddenly prominent on deck, although Rodney was sure that the man had been nowhere to be seen a moment before. He pulled out a telescope and extended it, looking grim. Everyone watched him. "Prepare to go about," the captain commanded.
The crew rushed in diverse directions. It looked like chaos at first, but then Rodney realised that there was actually scrupulous order to it, if only you knew where to look. Not that he knew, of course. His father had tried to teach him about sails and lines – "Not so you can captain a ship, of course, but enough to tell if a master knows his trade, when he comes to us with a pretty tale of how well he will guard our cargo" – but Rodney had never been able to keep the jumble of explanations in his head.
"Lee ho!" the captain shouted, his voice carrying across the ship.
The man at the wheel turned it hard to the left – port, Rodney reminded himself. The boat turned, and the wind hit Rodney full in the face. We're heading directly at the other ship! he thought. He's going to…
The ship lurched. People hauled at ropes and lines, and he was aware of enormous movement overhead, as many tonnes of canvas and wood swung into a fresh position. Wind tore across his face, hair in his face, in his mouth.
There was going to be a battle. There would be guns and cutlasses, and they would be wading through red blood to the knee, as Beckett's ballad so ominously put it. There would be innocent people hacked to pieces, and golden ear-rings torn from the ears of lovely highborn ladies, and no quarter given, and Rodney was right in the middle of it, and, yes, he could hold up his hands and tell them that he wasn't really a pirate, just an innocent prisoner held against his will, but what if they found the diving bell – and, really, it was impossible to miss it, since it took up half the aft deck – and asked him if it was his work, and…
The wind was solidly behind him, cold on the back of his neck. Behind him. The wind. Behind him. The ship...
So now, apparently, they were going away from the invisible boat on the horizon. It seemed a very curious way to plot an intercept course. It was probably a trick. It was some vile, dastardly pirate trick, designed to lull people into a false sense of security before…
Oh. And now Sheppard himself was approaching him! "We're all going to be somewhat preoccupied for a while," the captain said. "You should go down below."
Rodney was not sure if it was an order. "While you board an innocent merchant ship."
Sheppard just looked at him. Rodney had never before known that a single blink could convey such disdain. Perhaps it was just his imagination, though.
"Right." Rodney pushed his hair back with his hand, fighting the errant strands. "How long's a while? How long until it's… over?"
"She's faster than the Atlantis, and has already changed course to give chase, but I have a good crew. If she catches us, it won't be until at least noon."
"Oh." He gave up, and turned to face the wind, leaning on the rail at the stern. "Is it a navy frigate –?"
"Come to drag my evil soul to justice? No. We believe it's one of Kolya's – Captain Ladon's sloop, by the looks of things."
"Oh. Then shouldn't…?" Rodney swallowed; tried again. "Shouldn't you be off doing… captainly things?"
"I have a good crew. They know what to do." Rodney turned just enough to catch the look of pride on Sheppard's face. Then a strand of hair blew into his eyes, and he couldn't see anything at all.
Even so, when Rodney looked back from the top of the hatch that led below, he saw Sheppard back on the quarterdeck, master of the ship, at the heart of everything. His hair looked quite impossibly dashing, despite being tied back with a leather thong as flimsy as the one Rodney had essayed that morning. Perhaps Rodney should ask him how he managed it. After they had finished fighting for their lives, of course.
Ronon found Sheppard on the quarterdeck. "We're running?"
He got a brisk nod in reply. It was all he expected.
"If that's Ladon," he said, "we're bigger than them, and better armed. If we move to intercept him–"
Ronon slammed a fist into a bulkhead. When he had first felt it, this urge to fight had taken him by surprise. As a young man, he had been good at fighting, but had never taken any joy in it. But then, two years after the loss of his home, he had come upon Sheppard fighting for his life on a beach. Ronon had joined in, and suddenly, for the first time in two years, a part of him that had been dead had raised its head and became alive again. In the months that followed, he had only felt this sense of being alive when he was fighting. Now, of course, he felt fully alive all the time, and that fierce sense of near joy could be prompted by any manner of things, not just by a sword, but the feeling had never entirely gone away.
He liked to fight, and he was good at it. At every other task, there were others who were better than him, but nobody was better than him at fighting. Everyone had a part to play upon the Atlantis, and this was his.
"It's not like you to run from a fight," he said.
Sheppard looked at him with deceptively mild eyes. "You know the truth of that."
And Ronon did, of course. Sheppard was scrupulously careful about choosing his fights, and avoided far more than he sought. It was just that this was one of Kolya's men, that thorn in Sheppard's side. If they took him on, they would win, and Kolya would be short one ship, and robbed of his best lieutenant.
"No-one else is arguing, Ronon," Sheppard said. "We're running. Need I remind you who's captain round here?"
Ronon ran out of arguments. The cause had been hopeless from the start. He knew Sheppard's reasons for acting like this. It was partly for McKay's sake, and partly because of the monstrous machine that was taking shape on the aft deck. Sheppard was so close now to achieving his desire, and he would do nothing to jeopardise that, even if it meant slinking and running like a coward.
"Cheer up, Ronon," Sheppard said, with a smile that failed to reach his eyes. "She's faster than us. You may get your fight, after all."
Rodney paced in his cabin, and tried several different ways of tying his hair. He pulled out a pen, and tried to write down ruminations and musings, but his thoughts were far too full of imminent death to have much room for profound truths about the workings of the universe.
He was cooped up, pushed aside, told to get off the deck because he was would be in the way. It was quite outrageous! "But it's safer here," he told himself. Masts could fall on your head when you were on deck. He'd seen a picture of a ship with its mainmast down, bodies crushed beneath the wood and ropes.
But he couldn't see! Doom could be fast approaching, and he couldn't see. He opened the door, went up the steps, and poked his head out. The hair stayed unruffled, the thong secure. He emerged completely, and took a few steps towards the stern, then crept to the rail. The pursuing ship was definitely visible now. doggedly gripping the Atlantis' tail like a terrier. He heard Sheppard's voice – something about a stern-chaser – and saw Ronon standing like a Drury Lane savage, bristling with guns.
"Captain says you're to go below," someone shouted.
"Yes. Yes." They all seemed so competent, all at their places, all busy with their tasks. Very few orders were shouted, and no-one was being whipped into submission with barbed whips. There had been three floggings on the merchant ship that had brought him out to Jamaica, and the master had seemed quite proud of them.
"Captain apologises; says he omitted the words 'without delay'; says that omission has now been rectified."
"Yes. Yes." He removed his hand from the rail. Nearly three weeks now, or was it more? Somehow, as the time went by, he had begun to forget to count the days. For most of those, he had been useful. He was the key to the success of the captain's nefarious enterprise. He was the only one who knew how to build the diving bell. People came to him for orders and instructions, buzzing around him like bees to a honey-pot.
"Captain wishes to add, 'and stays there until I drag him on deck myself.' He apologises for being too busy to phrase it as a request."
Rodney went down below.
Of course, he thought, a little while later, 'below' did not have to mean his cabin. His cabin had never been mentioned by name. 'Below' covered all manner of things, from the hold full of barrels of ballast and water, to the mysterious store rooms that had so enticed him, to the mess, where food could sometimes be found.
He closed his book, and headed for the mess. The tables had been cleared away, and heavy guns had been brought out and wheeled into place, their muzzles stuck out through hatches that had been opened in the side of the ship. "Where… Where's the food?" He knew it was a stupid thing to say, but it was just such a shock, to find these instruments of death in a place that just the night before had held food (poor fare, admittedly) and song (barbaric.) He could feel the beating of his heart; feel the sweat rising on his palms. Death was close. Death was close and there was nothing he could do about it.
No-one answered him. A red-haired man, who had sung quite eloquently the night before about his wish to be transformed into a small bird so he could fly to his sweetheart's breast and nestle there for ever more, appeared to be the chief gunner. Rodney sauntered over to him, then recoiled with a gasp when one of the man's unmannerly assistants walked directly at him, as if he was not even there. The lout's elbow caught him in the side.
"We're working," said the man who had wanted to be a bird. "Go away." It was not said quite that politely, though.
Rodney maintained a stiff dignity, despite the rudeness. "I can help. I know all about military engineering. Edmond Halley, my mentor – I'm like a son to him, his intellectual heir – advised the Emperor of Austria about the design of his bastions in the late war. In time of war, the mathematician is your friend. I trust you know what Galileo wrote on trajectories?"
The bird man grunted something that might have been a no. He was intent on doing something trivial to one of the guns.
"You don't know what Galileo wrote on trajectories?" Rodney exclaimed. "Of course, knowledge has moved on since then. When you want to fire them – so it's going to come to that, is it – actual firing? – let me work out–"
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Captain says…"
Rodney retreated. When they all died, let nobody dare say that it was his fault. He'd done his best. Pearls before swine, it was. Pearls before swine.
The sun was high, and the sloop was almost upon them. Teyla gripped her pistol, and readied herself for the fight. At last, she thought. At last.
She had hated the chase. When hard sailing was required, she was reduced to messenger. "I will expect the same from you as I expect from any man," John had said, when the truth about her sex was open at last, "unless you tell me otherwise. It is all I ask of any of my crew. If you feel that you cannot perform a task properly, tell me, and I'll give the task to someone who can. Pride gets us killed. If you accept the task, I will expect to see it performed well."
She remembered the quick spike of anger she had felt; remembered how it had faded as quickly as if had come, to be replaced by acceptance. She had kept the agreement, though. Although she was far stronger than she had been before she had gone to sea, she would never be a match for a man two spans taller than her, with arms as thick as her leg. She could climb the mast with the best of them, but she could not lift a cannon ball. She could fire a pistol and few could beat her when she fought with a stick, but when teams were chosen to haul sails, they did not include her.
The stern-chaser sounded, but the ball landed in the ocean, missing the sloop by several chains. The guns were ready below, in case the sloop drew alongside. She was ready with her pistol to pick men off from the rigging or to take a shot at Captain Ladon, if he showed himself. They all had swords and knives, ready to repel a boarding party, should it come to that.
Was she afraid? She felt alive, as if the blood that was coursing through her veins was more rich than it normally was. Everything was vivid; her feet could not stay still.
"I am afraid," she had confessed to John, one evening long before, when the prospect of battle had loomed in the morning. "I fear I will never be as brave as a man."
He had stopped her before she could say any more. "Every man feels afraid sometimes. No," he had said firmly, when she had tried to protest, "every man. Every sane man, anyway. The man who never feels fear is a fool – mostly likely a dead fool. You're not afraid because you're a woman; you're afraid because you're human, and because you're not a fool."
"Even you?" she had asked.
"Especially me," he had grinned. "I was scared shitless in my first battle. I still am half the time."
He had been exaggerating, of course, but since then she had learnt to read the subtle signs of fear in every man around her. They all showed it in different ways. Some showed it in twitches. Some touched pendants around their necks. Some tried to bury it in anger, and after the battle was over, many of them buried it in drink. Ronon hid his in fury, and John showed his in a tight jaw with a twitching muscle beneath it, and in the way he held his hands.
"It is a terrible thing," he had confessed once, over ale and a blood-stained bandage, "to stand there knowing that at any moment, something could pierce you or rip bits off you, and there's Carson waiting with his knife, like the devil at your shoulder, who sooner or later will get us all."
And as for her…? She shifted from foot to foot, and checked and rechecked her pistol, and readied herself for the fight.
The stern-chaser fired again, and once more the ball fell short. Then she frowned, seeing movement beneath the enemy's bow. "They have a bow-chaser!" she shouted. "They have a bow-chaser!"
The enemy's gun fired.
The guns had started firing, the sound echoing through the ship. Rodney paced, his hands pressed to his face. He thought of cannon balls tearing through the wood, erupting into his cabin because he was immured here and couldn't see them coming. He thought of people dying up above, and Spanish pirates swarming over the rail and cutting down Sheppard and all his crew.
He tore his door open. Above him, through the hatch, there was an enormous crash, and he shrank down, shielding his head. Then he straightened, pressing his fist to his mouth, raced towards the mess; stopped, braced himself against the wall, looked wildly from side to side as the gun fired again. Somebody screamed, and there was shouting, everywhere was shouting.
Rodney ran – and it was dark down here, despite the sunlight up above. Was it noon already, or was it later? It felt like an eternity since he had stood at the stern and delighted at the dolphins. He heard another scream, and it was closer now, as if for some reason he was choosing to go towards it, choosing to go towards the place where people were screaming and getting hurt.
"Where is that boy?" someone shouted. "Oh, you'll do. Hold him down."
It was the Scottish surgeon. A young man was lying on his slab, streaked with blood, and screaming. "Belay that, Jim," Beckett said, his voice suddenly surprisingly gentle. "You'll be up and about in no time." The gentleness vanished like a candle flame snuffed out. "Don't just stand there, man. Hold him down."
"Me?" Rodney swallowed; looked over his shoulder. "I can't –"
"Of course you can. It's not bloody difficult. Just hold him down. I need to…"
Rodney decided not to listen to what the surgeon needed to do. His feet edged him forward, and he touched the young man's squirming body, careful to avoid the blood. "Where… where shall I hold him?"
"That'll do. That's lovely. A bit firmer. Higher, perhaps? Don't be squeamish. We'll both look as if we've bathed in blood before this bloody affair is over." The surgeon was talking to him as if he was a skittish animal that needed firm but gentle handling.
Rodney let his eyes glaze over, and wrote formulae in his mind. Beckett worked. Above them, not far away through the wood, guns sounded. The first time, Rodney flinched, and the young man's arm lashed out, and Beckett cursed. The second time, he kept on pressing down, and fought the movements of flesh and blood beneath his hands.
"There we are," Beckett said.
Rodney blinked. The young man was limp beneath him. "Is he… Is he dead?" He removed his hands from the body, finding them stiff and aching.
Beckett ran his hand over his face, smearing blood. "Fainted. We can't be certain of anything in this sorry world, but I don't believe this injury will be the death of him."
The young man would live. Rodney had helped save a life. "What happened?" he found himself asking. "A cannon ball?"
"He fell." Beckett grimaced. "Silly bugger was on the mizzen and didn't take care."
"He fell. But there's a battle…"
"And before it's over, we'll see more people injured through accidents than through enemy action. Ships are bloody dangerous places." Beckett scraped more blood over his face, then wiped his hands on a bloody rag. "Here comes another. Oh." His face turned grim.
"They have a bow-chaser," said one of the newcomers, as if this act was somehow cheating on the part of the enemy. "Brought a shroud down. A block hit him on the head."
"Help me." Rodney hesitated only for a moment, then took the legs of the lad who had fainted on the slab, and helped Beckett lift him onto a rough pallet in the corner. By the time they had finished, another young man lay on the slab, barely recognisable as human because of the blood that covered him. The two men who had brought him had already gone.
"Not good," Beckett said, shaking his head. He touched the man's throat and then his lips. "He's gone."
"Gone." Rodney swallowed. "Dead?" Another crash sounded on deck, horribly close. Was that thud the sound of another body falling? "Have you read William Harvey on the circulation of the blood?"
"Of course I haven't bloody read William Harvey on the circulation of blood."
"I just thought –" He felt blood on his own face now. "–that it might help."
"Nothing can help. He's dead." Beckett heaved a sigh. "Help me get rid of him."
"Off the slab. There'll be another poor bugger along in a minute."
"Oh." He was touching dead flesh. He was touching dead flesh. The slab was awash with blood, and another roar came from above them, followed by a mighty cheer. That was good, wasn't it? That was a good sign?
"The splinters are the worst," Beckett said. "At least a cannon ball is quick, but when it hits wood, it can turn a man's flesh into shredded meat."
Rodney felt bile rising in his throat, but kept it down. He could hear people moving, and the timbers were creaking and groaning like something that was a-dying.
"Would they tell us?" he asked. "If the ship was overrun and everyone was dead, would they come and tell us?" He remembered the cheer. "If the battle was over and the enemy was vanquished, they would tell us, wouldn't they?"
"Course they won't," Beckett said. "They'll be too busy."
"But that's… that's…" He swallowed again, tasting bitterness in his throat, and blood on his lips. "Inconsiderate," he said.
"Quite." Beckett opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle. "Brandy?"
"I don't…" It was probably cheap, probably horrible. Rodney looked at the blood on his hands; at the dead man lying in the corner. "Yes. Yes, please."
It was indeed horrible, but it also seemed like the most wonderful thing he had ever tasted. The guns were silent. No more footsteps sounded in the passage, bringing them fresh young men to die on the slab.
"Poor bugger." Beckett had drained his glass in one go. He was looking at the dead man, and for a moment he looked utterly heartbroken, as if he was about to cry. He looked ten years younger than he normally did. "I didn't think it'd be like this," he said, pouring another glass, "when I took myself down to the docks on the Clyde and enlisted to go to sea."
He sat down. Rodney hesitated, then sat down beside him. "Why did you leave the Navy?" he asked.
Beckett studied his tumbler, red fingerprints on the glass. "It isn't like it is in the songs. When there's a couple of hundred men in a floating hell, the monarch on his throne in London seems so very far away. You're loyal to your ship and to its colours, and if your captain is a good one, you're loyal to him. It means so much more than distant thrones."
"I don't understand."
Beckett took another sip. "I told you before. The captain left, and I followed. I wasn't the only one."
He saw the dead eyes of a man who had died before they could try to save him. "But why did he leave?"
"He had no choice," Beckett said harshly. "They accused him of treason. They would have killed him. We helped him escape. He hired us out to a master who was short of hands and not over-fussy where they came from, but even though the captain was damn near broken up inside on account of what had happened, he showed his worth. When the master died, the ship was his."
Rodney barely heard it. "Treason," he echoed.
"Passing secrets to the enemy."
"For God's sake, man," Beckett snapped, "have you got eyes in your head or a brain in your skull?"
Somebody coughed quietly in the doorway. Rodney started like a child caught with a tunic full of fresh apples. Brandy sloshed over onto his lap.
"I'm sorry. I…" Beckett scrambled to his feet. "It's over?"
"Took her mainsail down with a chain shot." Sheppard looked as taut as a rope that was about to snap.
"So we're out of danger?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard did not answer. He had taken two steps into the room, and was looking at the bodies on the floor.
Beckett was shaking his head. "Jim ought to recover, but he won't be climbing any more masts for a while. Wat's dead."
Sheppard said nothing. He was standing very still.
Rodney tried again. "So we're–"
Sheppard rounded on him. "I told you to stay down below." Each word was like a sword thrust. "I expect to be obeyed."
"You came on deck against my orders. You tried to interfere with my gunners. God alone knows what damage you did in here. If I hear that Wat died because of you…"
"He was quite helpful, actually," Beckett offered.
It did nothing to assuage Sheppard's fury. Rodney felt the wall at his back, and there was nowhere else he could back away to, nowhere else at all. If he had ever been tempted to forget that this man was a ruthless murderer, it was unmistakeable now.
"Never," Sheppard spat, "disobey a direct command again. Damn it, McKay, it's your life on the line."
"But… But…" Rodney was opening his mouth and closing it again uselessly. Sweat was sticky on his palms, mingling with the blood.
"I don't want to hear your voice." Sheppard held his hand out. "Give me the brandy." Snatching it up, he walked out, his steps almost silent despite his evident fury.
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. Beckett looked ruefully at his half-empty tumbler. "You got off lightly," he said.
"Lightly?" Rodney's laugh was high. He tried to get his breathing under control, and tried to stand steady and unconcerned. "So now he's off getting drunk, is he, to celebrate his mighty victory?"
Beckett shook his head. "There's work to be done. There'll be repairs, and this poor bugger to have a burial, and we need to put many more leagues between us and that sloop. But after that, when it's dark…" He let out a breath. "Then he'll drink, yes."
The sea was silver with moonlight when Rodney saw Sheppard at the bow. He had no idea why he started to move towards him.
"Don't," they tried to tell him. "Not tonight. Any time, but not now."
The man was completely alone. Everyone else, even Ronon and Teyla, kept their distance. They glanced at him often, but everyone was subtly turned away.
Rodney walked forward. He had helped save somebody's life, holding him down despite the fact that he had been terrified. He had shared a drink with somebody in the aftermath of a job well done. He had seen a man die.
The diving bell lay on its side, held in place by a wooden frame. Rodney touched it. That, too, was his.
"What?" Sheppard said. "They didn't warn you not to approach the lion in his lair?"
Rodney raised his chin. "They did, actually."
"Yet still you come." If Sheppard was drunk, he was hiding it well, but the bottle of brandy at his feet was almost empty.
"I… I was checking on the diving bell," Rodney managed.
"The monstrous machine." Sheppard quoted what some of his crew had started to call it. "Is it… well?"
"Quite well." Rodney moved to the rail. There was something quite beautiful about the sea at night, black and silver beneath the stars.
"I meant what I said earlier," Sheppard said. "I give you the run of the Atlantis, but when I tell you to stay out of the way, you obey me. You saw…" He stopped and snatched up the brandy. "You saw today how easy it is to die out here."
"Yes." The rail was cold against his forearms. "Is that why you're out here getting drunk?" he blurted out. "Because one of your crew died?"
"How perceptive." It was cold as ice.
"So why is everyone else staying away?" Rodney found himself asking. His nurse had always told him that his tongue would be the death of him.
"Because I told them to." Sheppard took a swig from the bottle. "Unlike you, they actually obey me sometimes."
He held the bottle out to Rodney. Rodney accepted it gingerly, and took a sip.
"So what do you want to berate me about this time?" Sheppard asked. "You desire perfumes for your shirts? Your ink is too thick? The cook refused to give you a second bowl of broth?"
"I…" Rodney's mind went blank. He was a prisoner on a pirate ship, and his whole existence was a catalogue of complaints, but in that moment, he couldn't hunt down a single one. "How do you get your hair to do that?" he blurted out. "It looks as if you've tied it back without a thought, but it stays like that. When I try it, it all falls apart."
"My hair." Sheppard looked incredulous. "You approach the lion in his lair because you want to ask him about his hair?"
"You should say 'mane', really, to maintain the metaphor." He stopped – Stupid, Rodney. Stupid – then opened his mouth to apologise, or perhaps to beg for his life, but then he saw movement in the silver path of the moon. "Dolphins!" he cried.
Sheppard looked the way Rodney was pointing. "Dolphins," he said, and smiled.
end of chapter six
This woodcut, which purports to show Teyla Emmagen, appeared in "A True Account of Divers Pirates and Buccaneers of the Caribbean, as Told by One who Sailed with Them, to Which is Attached many Illustrations and an Account of Many Hangings, Terrible to Behold," published in 1748 and attributed to one John Smith, clearly a pseudonym. The book devotes a whole chapter to Teyla Emmagen, but none of the facts stand up to scrutiny. It is doubtful that the author knew anything about her beyond her name, and the similarity of this picture to other pictures of female pirates suggests that the publishers have a selection of "stock woodcuts" that they inserted more or less at random.
Rodney McKay gifted all his "plans, ruminations, essays and all the astonishing truths contained within my papers" to the nation. Sadly, the nation was less grateful than McKay doubtless expected her to be, and few papers survive. This scrap, however, surfaced last year during refurbishment work, when it was discovered being used as insulation in a loft in Lowestoft. It is a dazzling find, portraying as it does McKay's early notes on his "monstrous machine", the diving bell.
Chapter the seventh
In which Rodney stands firm in the face of Duty, and the captain goes below
When Rodney had been on the Atlantis for nearly a month, Duty sidled up and tapped him on the shoulder.
Rodney had never had a very good relationship with Duty. Duty was the reason why you were supposed to listen attentively to Parson Watkins' sermons, rather than design astronomical clocks on scraps of paper hidden up your sleeve. Duty was why you had to tag along with your father to tedious meetings, when there was a whole sky just waiting for you to explore it. Duty forced you to sit at the feet of your aged grandmother and listen to her ridiculous stories of the dukes and earls and reigning belles she had once been the bosom companion of. It also had a very stern opinion on telling her to her face that you didn't believe a single word of her ridiculous lies, and was quite unbending when it came to the sanctity of her marchpane fancies.
As the sun began to sink towards the sea, and as Rodney put his finishing touches to his masterpiece, Duty decided to renew its acquaintance with him once more. "You could introduce a fatal flaw," it told him. "Make this thing a death trap."
He froze, hand on the smooth surface. Commit murder?
"It isn't murder when it's a pirate. He's put himself outside the law."
But what if Sheppard isn't the one who goes down in it? What if it's one of his men? What if it's Teyla? I can't kill a woman. And as for his men… Remember what Beckett said. They're here out of loyalty. You can't kill a man for loyalty.
"Of course he'll go down in it." Duty was quite clear on that point. "You've spent a month on a small boat with the man. If a job's really important or dangerous, he does it himself."
That much was certainly true. Captain Sheppard, the second most feared pirate in Caribbees, had placed his life in Rodney's hands. It just needed one small flaw in the design, and the captain would be dead, and Rodney would be the toast of Kingston. They'd make ballads about him back home.
"It won't be murder," Duty said, "but justice."
Rodney looked at his diving bell, huge and gleaming in the sunlight. I can't… I can't deliberately do bad work, he told Duty. Sheppard had grinned at him the night before, and told him yet again that he was a marvel. No-one else in all of the Indies could have done what he had done. I can't put my name to a flawed piece of work, he said. People will know. 'There goes Rodney McKay, failed scientist,' they will say. 'His machines kill people.'
"Designed deliberately to kill." Duty had an answer to everything. "A master gunsmith is still deemed a master even though his machines bring death. No, Rodney, only a mind of great skill can create a machine that outwardly looks sound, but which hides a fatal flaw. They will marvel at your skill and cunning, and wonder at your courage."
Rodney ran his hand over the wood. Beyond the rail, he saw a distant strip of land. He thought of all the innocents waiting there, their lives in his hands.
"Do it," Duty urged him.
Rodney remembered nights of song, and dolphins playing in the waves. He remembered evenings spent beneath the stars, when he had learnt that Sheppard knew almost as many star names as he did, but that Ronon knew different names for many of them. He remembered holding a man down as he struggled on the surgeon's slab, and he remembered the taste of cheap brandy.
You should have asked me earlier, he told Duty, folding his arms. I've almost finished. A flaw needs to be introduced right at the start and incorporated into the entire building process.
"It should have occurred to you earlier." Duty was stern. "All this time, and you never once thought it?"
A scientist has his pride. Of course he had wanted to rise to this challenge to the best of his abilities. Professional pride is far more important than mere morality.
Duty snorted in disgust. "I see bad company has corrupted you. They will have to keep a gibbet free for you at Gallows Point."
"I don't…" He swallowed. "I don't…"
Duty sauntered away, grinning with insufferable smugness. Rodney lingered with his diving bell until well past dark.
"Careful!" Rodney shouted. "Careful, you lubbers! Keep it straight!" Teams of men hauled and strained, and the diving bell rose into the air, then was slowly moved out until it was over the sea. "Lower it!" he shouted. "Steady. Steady."
The teams let out the rope, easing it over the winch, and the bell descended to the sea. It touched the surface of the water – "Keep it level! It has to be level!" – and sank slowly beneath the waves. Rodney scurried to the rail and looked over. The only thing that remained of it was a small circle of disturbed water, and the thick rope that protruded from the water.
"You called them lubbers." Sheppard's sleeves were rolled up, and he was sweating, his breathing audibly fast. He must have taken his turn on the ropes, although Rodney had not seen him there.
"Yes." Rodney watched the dwindling circle. "It seemed like a… a nautical thing to do. You do it."
"Oh." The rope was almost still. The largest thing he had ever created was down on the bottom of the sea. "It's going to work," he said. "Of course it is."
Sheppard nodded. "When I go down in it, you are, of course, coming with me." He said it almost casually.
"I am?" Rodney gripped the rail tighter. "But I can't swim." It was not quite a lie.
"You don't have to be able to swim."
"But…" The sea looked so deep and dark and utterly merciless, with wrecks and skeletons on the sea bed, as thick as snow in winter. "I don't… I can't… I… I'm the brains of the operation. I'm not the man of action. I can't do this."
"I don't have your book learning." Sheppard was looking out to sea. "I won't be able to operate your pumps and valves, which are quite exceedingly subtle and cunning."
"They are that." Rodney nodded with gratification. "But… But that's not the point. I can't… You didn't tell me I'd have to do this. This wasn't part of the deal."
"I seem to remember I took you prisoner and coerced you," Sheppard said. "There was no deal."
"Yes. Yes." And bloated bodies drifting through the seaweed, and those were pearls that were his eyes. "But… But…"
Science wasn't supposed to be like this! Science was about books and plans and libraries. It was quiet nights beneath the stars. It was designing things in theory that you never made in fact. And if you did make something, it wasn't something that could kill you. Other people, perhaps. You didn't test your potential death trap on yourself.
"You're coming," Sheppard said, still not looking at him. "Any alterations you would care to make to your design? Any… modifications, in light of this news?"
"No." Rodney frowned, shaking his head. "No." It must have been five minutes now. He opened his mouth to shout a command, then saw that Sheppard was about to give the order. He snapped his mouth shut, but Sheppard gestured to him to continue. "Bring it in," he shouted.
The men hauled, the bell rose from the ocean, bleeding water. Still dripping, it was pivoted until it was above the deck, then lowered. When it was still a few feet above the deck, a man ducked underneath and reached into its interior.
Rodney watched. Everybody watched. He could still hear Sheppard's breathing beside him, although it was almost back to normal speed.
"It's alive," the man said, holding aloft the metal cage. The rat inside it was not even wet.
"No modifications at all?" Sheppard said quietly.
Rodney shook his head. "None."
Sheppard smiled. It did not look like the smile of a ruthless pirate captain, not at all.
"Well, I guess this is it." Ronon recognised Sheppard's tension in the way he was speaking, with forced brightness, and the way he was standing, hands clenched at his side.
Ronon just nodded. For the first time in a very long time, he actually felt afraid.
The enormous lead-lined bell came to rest on the blocks that had been prepared for it. Beyond it, and beyond the rail, Ronon could see the shore, close enough to see the green of the trees. The sky was clear, but not yet blue, for it was only just past dawn. Sheppard had been impatient to start. Ronon doubted his captain had slept for even a minute during the night.
"We should name it," McKay said suddenly. "Something noble, like… like…"
"You don't get to name things on my ship," Sheppard told him.
"But I made it," McKay protested. "It's only fair…" His voice trailed away.
They all watched it for a while. "Well…" Sheppard's hands unclenched, then clenched again. "I'll go first. Leading from the front…"
Sheppard moved to the bell and crouched down, one knee and one hand on the ground, then went even lower. There was barely eighteen inches between the bottom of the diving bell and the deck, and Sheppard crawled underneath it. Ronon saw him stand up, saw his bare feet on the deck, and then he was gone.
Teyla went next. "After you," Ronon said to McKay. The scientist had protested loudly all evening to anyone who would listen, but now, for once, he was silent. Even when Ronon shoved him towards the bell, he said nothing. He just clenched his hands at his side, an echo of Sheppard's nervous gesture, and stepped forward. Then he, too, was gone.
Ronon took a breath. He went down on his knees, then lay on the deck and crawled under. It was far less dark inside than he had expected; McKay had even included a window of sorts, made of thick glass. A shelf of wood ran all the way round the inside of the bell, and the others were already sitting on it. Sheppard had evidently only just finished helping McKay up, while Teyla was fastening straps around her body. Their feet dangled just above Ronon's head, and he had to turn his body carefully sideways to avoid jostling them. Clambering onto the empty part of the shelf, he fastened the straps around his chest.
"Off we go," Sheppard said. It was not even an order, not as such, but the men heard it, and obeyed.
The bell trembled as its ropes grew taut, and then rose off its blocks. The chains rattled beneath them, attached to their weights. Ronon looked down, and saw the deck below his dangling feet. It moved further and further away, and then with a creak of ropes and a shouted order, the deck gave way to the first glimpse of water.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," McKay was muttering, perhaps unconsciously. A few seconds later, they were entirely above the ocean, suspended above the deep, held in place only by a few straps and the skill of a talkative scientist who had every reason to want to kill them. Sheppard had assured them that he trusted McKay, but suddenly his reasons felt far less convincing.
The water grew closer. "Oh God," McKay whispered. "Oh God." The weights touched first – "they're for steadiness," McKay had explained – and the base of the bell touched the waves, and the weights and the lead took it under. Water rose. It touched his toes, covered his ankles, rose to his knees. Then the light blinked out as the window went below the surface, and the yellow light was replaced with muted green.
The water reached the shelf. "Lift us up again! Lift us up again!" McKay shouted. He jerked a hand out at Sheppard, grabbing his arm. "Give the signal. Get one of the signal ropes. Let them know." But Sheppard shook his head. The water rose to their waists, and there it stopped.
"I see her." Sheppard was looking down, and his voice was strange. Ronon eased his grip on the strapping just a little, and looked down, too, seeing the dark shadows of the wreck and the lighter shapes of the reef that had claimed it. They were still moving downwards, but the water was no longer rising. They were enclosed in a pocket of air, with water on every side.
It felt like being buried alive. He was being inundated by a flood of mud and water, buried beneath it, suffocated. This was nothing he could fight. Swords were useless here. This was just him, frail and human against the vastness and heartlessness of the natural world around him.
But Sheppard needed him, and so he was here.
If only my mother could see me now. Even after so long on the sea, Teyla had never entirely grown used to it. There were times when she would stop what she was doing and marvel at the fact that the little girl who had grown up being silent in gowns and bonnets was seeing such sights as these.
Green light surrounded them, and they were breathing underwater, like the fish. She, Teyla Emmagen, was in a place where no man had been before, and was seeing things that few men had ever seen.
"Let's see how things stand." John began to unstrap himself.
"You're getting out!" McKay squawked.
"It is kind of the point."
John pushed himself off the shelf, sliding almost silently into the water. Barely a dozen seconds later, his head emerged, like the axle at the centre of the spokes that were their knees. "I've given the signal for them to take us that way a bit," he said, indicating with his hand. "It's safe for a few more yards." His wet hair shone almost green in the light.
Five signal ropes had been let down around the bell, each one marked with a different colour and indicating a different command. True to Sheppard's signal, the bell moved sideways. John held onto the shelf with one hand, nodded once, then disappeared again. "This'll do," he said when he returned.
Teyla nodded, and began to undo her straps. Beside her, Ronon did the same. "You're going?" McKay said. "You're all going? You expect me to–"
"You stay here," John told him. He dived down, and reappeared almost immediately with the end of the fifth rope. "You're responsible for the air supply. Pull on this when you need more."
"But–" McKay protested, but John was already gone. Ronon followed, with a quick unreadable glance back at Teyla. Teyla slid into the water after them, but stopped to look back at McKay. He looked quite lost, and the green light made him look sick. "It should not take long," she told him.
Then she was below the water, blinking into the changed light. Although she had only learnt how to swim a few years ago, Teyla was one of the best swimmers on the Atlantis. She felt at home in the water, as swift and darting as a little fish.
The reef was a cloudy splash of colour, and the wreck was dark. John had halted the bell for the final time just yards above the top of its hull. Broken against the reef and strewn across the ocean floor, its masts and lines were tangled. John was ahead of her, and he turned, holding up his hand. She understood the warning. Wrecks could be deadly, full of shattered spars and grasping lines.
"I'm not asking you to come," John had said, the night before. "It's–"
"Of course we are coming." She had closed her hand on his, and for once he gave not even the slightest flinch.
"Couldn't keep us away," Ronon had added.
"We know the dangers," Teyla had assured him, "but every day is a danger. This is worth it – a hundred times worth it."
But no mariner liked to see a wreck. It was like the dancing skeletons who had met the three young nobles on the road. As you are now, so were we. As we are now, so will you be.
They'd all gone. They'll all gone and left him alone. He was suspended in a bubble of air. He was going to… "No, of course I'm not going to die," he told himself sternly, then clapped his mouth shut because speaking used up air. This is my design and my work. Of course it's not going to kill me. I refuse to be one of those fools who gets themselves killed because his own work blows up in his face.
Was the air growing stale? He took a deep breath. Was it enough? Was he growing light-headed? Was it growing hotter? He scraped his hand across his face, then opened his mouth wide, wiggling his jaw and trying to clear his ears. They had stopped several times on the way down to adjust to the pressure, but he could still feel it – still feel the weight of water pressing down on top of him.
A shape approached below his legs. He pulled them in, his shoulders and head pressing against the side of the bell, and watched Ronon's head and shoulders emerge. Ronon grabbed the shelf, pulling himself to one side as Sheppard appeared beside him, and then Teyla. They all gasped in mouthfuls of air.
"It's getting stale," Rodney told them. "I'm having trouble–"
"Then get fresh air." Sheppard nodded at Rodney's signal rope.
"I… Yes. Right." Rodney tugged at the rope. The others waited, just floating heads in the water, with their bodies distorted and inhuman beneath them, as if they had become part of the water themselves. He heard a thud below them, reverberating dully. Sheppard disappeared, and reappeared after a while with a tube. The other end, Rodney knew, was attached to the weighted barrel of air that the crew had just sent down to them. "But…" Rodney began again, but they had already left him alone again.
Rodney had to stand up. He had to unfasten his straps. He had to stand precariously on the shelf – and how he wished he'd put more straps and handles on the inside of the bell! – and reach up to the very apex of the bell. There he turned the wheel – God, it was stiff! It wouldn't turn! It would never turn! – that operated the valve. He let a sufficient amount of the stale air escape, then lowered himself carefully into his seat again and let out a small amount of fresh air from the tube.
"You did it." Sheppard was smiling at him, just a face above the water.
"Yes." Rodney felt himself smile back. "It's far better than Halley's method." It should have been terrifying. No, it should have been impossible. Rodney McKay had countless strengths, but physical agility in the face of certain death was not one of them. But he had done it. He had…
Sheppard was gone again. Teyla reappeared, gasping, then went. Ronon barely seemed to breathe at all when he returned.
He should have made miniature bells, fed through tubes with air from the main bell. Sheppard hadn't asked him for those, and it hadn't occurred to Rodney to suggest them. He had seen only the problem at hand. What happened after his part was finished was not something that had ever crossed his mind at the start.
He wished they would come back. It was horrible, waiting. No, what was he thinking? Better here on a nice flimsy wooden shelf, than out there swimming through a wreck, where the fish were as big sheep, with teeth as sharp as any wolf's.
Something flickered against the window, like a moth flying in front of a candle flame. He looked up, and saw a mass of bright red fish. When he leant forward and looked down between his knees, he could see the colours of a coral reef, but muted, as if seen through a dirty mirror. There was a whole amazing other world down here, full of species that man had yet to catalogue. This diving bell was quite as miraculous in its own way as a telescope was, unlocking hidden worlds.
"I've found the door," John said, returning from his twelfth dive.
Teyla was tiring. "Is the air..?"
"Yes," McKay snapped. "I'm looking after that."
"There's a spar across it," John said, "and a tangle of lines. Help me move them. Please."
He was hiding his emotions less well than he normally did. Perhaps it was the fact that the water slicked his hair to his head, making his features more prominent. Maybe it was the tiny bubble they were in, cut off from the rest of the world. Weary, Teyla felt as if her own face was naked. Ronon, she saw, was afraid of something here beneath the waves.
"It won't take long, will it?" McKay was worrying. "I said an hour at most. I didn't calculate for more."
John said nothing. Teyla followed him into the dark.
The obstruction was gone, moved away in tiny stages with frequent pauses to grab a lungful of air. After checking that there were no more obstructions, Sheppard had signalled by rope for the bell to be moved, and it had shivered through the water, close enough to the hull for the underwater plants to trail against their feet.
The black square of the hatch lay beneath them. "I'm going below." Sheppard's smile was grim.
"I'm going with you," Ronon said, though the sight of that dark hole made him shiver with fears that he had long forgotten.
Sheppard shook his head. "I'll have a line. I want you at the other end of it, to pull me out if that's what I need. As for you, Teyla, I want you to rest for a while."
"No arguments." Sheppard smiled again. "I can see you need it."
Perhaps the air was poisoned in the bell, despite all McKay's protestations. Teyla was a swift and supple swimmer, but it was harder than Ronon had ever thought it would be to keep on diving to the limit of your lungs' capacity.
"This is for me to do." There was no smile now. Sheppard looked first at Teyla, then at Ronon, and then at McKay, and the expression was the same for all of them, as if the scientist was fully one of them, alongside the other two of them who had fought at Sheppard's side for so long.
Sheppard must have planned for this. A thin cord was already wrapped around his waist, its end coiled and thrust into a pocket. He pulled it out now, and uncoiled it, passing the spare end to Ronon.
They went into the water together. The wreck had stayed almost upright on the reef, and Ronon felt the deck beneath this feet. Then, with one last look over his shoulder, Sheppard went below.
"It's been too long." McKay chewed at his lip.
"It has been very little time at all." But Teyla, too, looked worried.
Something rumbled, like a crack of thunder heard through eight fathoms of water. Rodney jerked his head up. "Is it a storm?"
Perhaps it was the unearthly light, but Teyla looked scared for the first time since he had known her. Rodney wanted to say so many things, but somehow it didn't seem like the place to say them, enclosed here below the waves. He let out stale air, and let in new, and concentrated on that.
It had been too long. Ronon's lungs were bursting, and still Sheppard did not emerge from the darkness.
Up to get more air, or go after him? There was no time to debate. Ronon tugged on the line, and felt only resistance. Still gripping it, he pushed himself towards the dark square – a dark cave beneath the ocean, his grandmother had said, which leads to the underworld and to hell.
Through the hatch, light faded to almost nothing. Ronon felt his way along the narrow line, and found it caught on something wooden. Sheppard! He couldn't call for him. Spots danced across his eyes from lack of breath. Sheppard! Something snagged against his thigh. He reached out; groped; found a hand. And there lie all the dead, who will come surging out at the end of days, when the Lord comes again and the waters cover the sea.
The hand grabbed his; his heart was pounding, roaring in his ears. Then the hand dragged him down – and the devil reaches his out his hand, and the water will claim us all in the end – and everything within him cried out and he tried to snatch his hand away, but it held on, and with the last fragment of breath and sanity he knew that this was Sheppard, and that they were both seconds from death, and that he had to hold on.
The hand showed him a line that was caught around a foot. Ronon tore at the line, and the other hand was helping him, and there were three hands, four, and then the foot was free. Hands pushed him towards the square of murky green light. He went through it, and there above him was a dark circle, shining with an even brighter light. His chest was agony and his head was pounding, and the light and the darkness all merged into one.
"Help me." Teyla's cry filled their tiny bubble.
Rodney swallowed once, then pushed himself off the shelf, holding onto it with one hand. Shapes were moving beneath him – one, two, three. One came closer and resolved itself into Teyla, with Ronon in her arms. "Take him." She thrust him at Rodney. A moment later, she returned with Sheppard.
Ronon was heavy, even in the water. Rodney had no idea what to do, but he knew that he had to keep the man's mouth and nose out of the water, so he grabbed his chin and held it up. Ronon's heart was still beating. He coughed and spluttered a bit, then his eyes snapped open. "Sheppard," he gasped.
"Still here," Sheppard's voice said. He looked awful, though, pale even in the heat of the pressurised air. "I got stuck," he said. "Ronon saved my life. Damn near lost his own, by the looks of it."
"And he's bleeding!" Rodney cried, seeing redness in the water.
Ronon pulled himself free from Rodney's arms, and hauled himself up onto the shelf. Rodney could not suppress a gasp at the sight of the jagged tear in his thigh. Water took the blood and carried it away; on dry land, he thought, it would be bleeding horribly.
"We need to go back to the surface," Rodney said firmly.
"No." That was Sheppard, shaking his head.
"No." Sheppard disappeared again – and was the man an idiot? He had almost drowned, for God's sake! There he was, heading back to the place that had almost killed him.
Ronon snarled, and would have followed him, but Teyla stopped him, a hand on his arm. Rodney looked miserably up at his beautiful valve. It wouldn't be enough to save them, not if a stubborn fool of a pirate captain was determined to kill them all.
There was another booming rumble. The diving bell trembled. Ronon and Teyla exchanged anxious looks. Ronon pressed his head back against the wood, clearly beginning to feel the agony for the first time, then collected himself. His expression made Rodney very glad that Sheppard, and not himself, was the object of the big man's anger.
But this time Sheppard was gone for barely half a minute. This time he came back with a wooden chest in his arms. He passed it up to Teyla, then let Ronon help him up to the shelf.
Sheppard did not look like a man who had almost died just a few minutes before. He placed the chest on his lap almost reverently, then his hand rose to his throat to pull out a small key, strung on a leather thong around his neck. He pulled the thong over his head, and placed the key in the lock. It turned with an audible click.
Rodney let out a breath. The other two, he thought, were still not breathing.
There was another boom. The bell lurched sideways, then was still. But Sheppard seemed oblivious to it. He reached into the chest, touched something inside, and for a moment his expression was that of a devotee touching a relic.
Treasure, Rodney thought. Something twisted inside him, as if this sight physically hurt him. Just another pirate with his loot.
The bell lurched again. Sheppard looked up, and his eyes narrowed and his jaw set. "Are we done?" Rodney found himself asking.
"We're done." Sheppard's voice was unreadable. "I've got what I came for."
The diving bell started to ascend; one of them must have given the signal. It moved slowly, jerkily, moving for a while, then stopping. Rodney yawned and yawned again, pressing at his ears to ease the pain from the pressure change. The air had never felt so hot and stifling. To die so close to the surface… But he felt flat. Even the fear felt flat.
Nobody said anything. Rodney kept his eyes closed. So it was that he felt, rather than saw, the moment when they broke the surface. The water retreated, and soon he was free, and there was delicious fresh air surging into his lungs – such a wondrous contrast to the air in the bell – and a breeze against his bare feet.
Sheppard had got what he had come for. That meant that Rodney was free.
The bell lurched sideways, hauled above the deck. As if from some invisible signal, Sheppard and the others leapt down when it was still three feet from the deck. Rodney stayed still, back pressed against the wood. He heard people shouting. It didn't sound much like triumph, but one had to expect pirates to revert to savagery when they'd got their hands on a pile of loot.
Sheppard appeared to have left the treasure chest behind, though. Rodney unfastened his straps, then grabbed the chest, finding it surprisingly heavy. He supposed he should go and share in the triumph and bask in his share of the adulation. He didn't feel triumphant, though. Presumably this feeling of flatness came from knowing that he had assisted in a vile crime. Duty would be pleased with him.
He dropped down to the deck and crawled out. There seemed to be a lot of booted feet around. When he stood up, the chest held protectively to his body, he saw Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon with knives in hand, surrounded by a horde of dastardly rogues. The chief dastardly rogue had a feather in his hat and a scar across one eye. "Captain Sheppard," he said, with a thin smile.
"Kolya," Sheppard made reply.
end of chapter seven
Chapter the eighth
In which the words "frying pan" and "fire" come to mind
Kolya, Rodney thought. Feared pirate lord, and Sheppard's personal nemesis and thorn in the side. "Oh," Rodney said aloud. "This is just marvellous."
Nobody seemed to hear him. Nobody was paying the least bit of attention to him. They had all taken their place like players on the stage at the start of the penultimate scene of the play – the one when the villain received his just desserts, and the hero triumphed, and then there was a scene of much rejoicing and probably a wedding, and then the final bow. There was even a chorus of disreputable thugs in the background. All that was lacking was the orchestra and a song.
"Here I am, emerging from almost certain death in a watery grave, and what do I find? Now I'm on a deck with not one pirate captain, but two. This really is not right. This really is not fair. This is like coming out of the frying pan to find yourself not just in a fire, but in a raging furnace."
Sheppard shot him a very quick glance. Rodney subsided, pressing his lips together. The chest in his arms was very heavy, the gold and jewels presumably packed so tightly that they did not even rattle.
"Mr Christopher," Sheppard said, "why is Kolya on my boat?"
"I'm sorry, captain." The man who answered was one Rodney had seen around the deck, although he had not known his name. He often took the wheel, and shouted orders to the sail hands. Perhaps he was the first mate, or whatever they called it. Perhaps Rodney should have paid more attention. He had lived on this ship for a month, and knew only a handful of names.
"Sorry?" Sheppard echoed. The enemy swords were close to him, holding him still. "You should have run."
"But that would have killed you." The Christopher fellow was straining against the two men who were holding him. "She came on us from behind the cover of the island, and we can't manoeuvre easily, what with the reef. The anchor was down, the sails were furled, and it would have killed you if we had–"
"You should have done it," Sheppard said, and Rodney gasped, head snapping up, at how heartlessly Sheppard could condemn his three companions to death like that.
"I'm sorry, sir. It was my decision."
"I trust you at least tried to resist?" Sheppard's voice was harsh.
"Any dead?" The harshness cracked.
"I don't know. I –"
"How touching." Kolya stepped forward, pressing his hands together. His Spanish accent was very evident, although he was conveniently fluent in English. "Mr Christopher knows my reputation as well as any other man aboard. He knows that I prefer to spare the lives of my fellow pirates."
"How merciful of you." Despite the swords at his body, Sheppard gave an insolent smile.
"Quite. I preserve the lives of anyone who consents to join me, and I can be quite… persuasive. Your Mr Christopher and his men have betrayed you, Sheppard. Oh, hear them protesting. 'It's a lie! We didn't…! We would never…!' It is easy to lie after the fact. No, Sheppard. Your ship and all its crew will join my fleet under a captain and officers of my choosing."
"No place for me in your merry band, then?" Sheppard was still smiling. How could he stand there, facing the loss of everything, and smile? He had to be utterly without a heart. Or insane. Yes, that was it. The man was crazy. And… and rash. And courageous. And as taut as a bow string, his hand clenching at his side, and his tendons visible on his neck, beneath the wet fabric of his shirt.
Kolya shook his head. "Sadly, my mercy has never extended to my fellow pirate captains. And there is no world that can exist in the mind of man where I would show mercy to you."
Sheppard smiled ruefully. "I thought as much."
It was at that point that Ronon acted, and all Hell, as they said, broke lose.
"No!" Ronon bellowed, and sprang forward. A sword came at him; he caught the flat of it on his forearm, and smashed it away. Someone lunged for his side, but he evaded them. "No!" he cried again, and other people were shouting all around him – he heard Sheppard's voice, but couldn't tell what he was saying – and he caught flashes of movement. He saw a face, and drove into it with the side of his fist. A knife skittered off his knuckles. He rolled, hand on the deck, and pushed himself up again, ducking underneath the swing of an axe.
Kolya was ahead of him. Kolya. He saw the man's chest, all tatty lace and faded velvet. Two inches in the right place was all it needed. He had his knife. Someone grabbed at his right wrist, but he wrenched himself free, and he sighted, aimed and threw, all in one movement.
But his leading leg faltered. He waved just a little, and the knife went wide. Kolya dropped to the deck, and the blade flew over his head. It hit the far side of the deck, but by then Ronon was already falling, dragged down by half a dozen pairs of hands. He screamed, bellowed; tried to push himself up again; tried to throw them off. Someone stamped on the middle of his back. A foot slammed into his injured thigh, and a scream ripped itself free from his throat. His vision wavered, boiling with pain. The foot struck again, and he saw his own hand curl into the deck, and he heard everyone shouting; everyone else was shouting.
"This one I want." Ronon saw booted feet stop in front of him, just out of the reach of his hand. "No, don't maim him. He can be tamed in time and made to fight my battles."
"No," Ronon spat. He saw blood coming from his mouth; where had that come from? "I will never call you master."
"They all say that at first." Seen from below, Kolya's face was like the face of a grinning devil carved high on a church roof. "One master is much the same as another, as long as you get your share of the gold."
"You would have to kill me before I would submit," Ronon spat.
"Ronon," he heard Sheppard say warningly, but even his captain seemed faint and far away. There was only Kolya.
"Some months ago," Kolya said, crouching down before him, "I came across a village between the mountains and the sea. It was quite ruined, drowned when the side of the mountain had come down in a storm four summers past, but the priest still ministered to his flock, such as it was. I went, of course, to make my confession, and afterwards we… talked. He mentioned a giant of a lad who turned his back on God after the cataclysm, and was doubtless now either dead or in bad company, which, needless to say, he considered far worse. This was barely half a dozen leagues from the place where you were first seen in Sheppard's company. Interesting tale, is it not?"
"I'll kill you!" Ronon swore. "I'll kill you!" None of them knew, not even Sheppard, not even Teyla. For this man, for this devil to know… It felt as if Kolya had reached into his chest and was crushing his heart.
"How are your parents, Ronon Dex? How is the sweet Melena? How is the master you promised to serve with your life? Just bones beneath the mud."
"No!" Ronon howled, but far away, as if through water, he heard Sheppard calling his name urgently; heard Teyla speaking to him; even heard McKay, who was berating Kolya and calling him an unmannerly rogue.
Ronon let out a breath; breathed in, and let it out again. "No," he said quietly, his voice like ice. That was over. They were dead and gone, and nothing Kolya said could change that. This was his life now. This was his home.
He raised his head, and looked Kolya steadily in the eyes. "I will not serve you." He spat out each word like a stone. Afterwards, he did not look away.
Kolya looked away, though. He pressed his lips together angrily, and stood up. A signal was given, and agony ripped through Ronon's thigh as another kick landed, and another, and another.
"Stop!" Teyla begged them. "Stop! Please, stop!" Blood was pooling under Ronon's leg. She watched him struggle, then watched as his struggles ceased.
Kolya held up his hand, and the beating mercifully stopped. Teyla had tried to rush forward, but arms had grabbed her. She had landed a few blows, but the enemy was far too numerous. Her arms felt bruised, her shoulders wrenched.
"I don't want him killed, after all." Kolya prodded Ronon with his toe, grimacing as if he was filth. Teyla willed Ronon to be only faking, to lash out a hand and grab Kolya's leg and drag him down, but Ronon lay still. "Still breathing," Kolya said, and then he turned to her.
"Teyla," he said, and at his smile she was sixteen again, commanded by her mother to smile and simper as men older than her father leered at her, and made lying talk of marriage. "Your story is not one I know, but I do not doubt that it will be as fascinating as your friend Ronon's."
She tried to spit in his face, but it fell short.
"So unlike a lady," Kolya sneered. "I have heard stories about women who dress themselves in a man's clothes and deport themselves as a man. I hear that as they play a man's part, they lose their female… parts. Do you have a man's part, Teyla?"
"Go to Hell!" she spat, but the hands were holding her back, and someone was breathing on her neck, ripe with ale and rottenness.
"I will find out the truth of it soon enough." He touched her face, and she snapped her head round and tried to bite him. He snatched his fingers away just in time, covering it with a laugh. "She has spirit, that much is clear. I am sure we can break that spirit, can't we, boys?"
She tried to kick, but they were stronger than her; they were always stronger. She had done everything that a man could do, and she had fought better than many of them, but she had never been able to overcome that difference in strength. She had been unable to help in the battle, and now she could not break free. The world had come crashing back again. For four golden years, she had been judged purely for who she was and what she could do, but in the world outside the confines of the Atlantis, she was defined only by her sex – as a body to be bought and sold; to be laughed at and looked down upon and dismissed.
"Bind her," Kolya commanded. "We will have our sport later."
She heard John shouting, desperate to save her. McKay was spluttering with horrified outrage, threatening Kolya with the law, saying that he could not stand by and watch, but there was nothing either of them could do.
She fought – of course she fought – but they lashed her wrists with rope, and tied her kicking feet, too. Then she was dropped on the deck like baggage. She was close enough to Ronon that she could have touched him had she not been bound, but his eyes were shut. At least he would not see it happen.
It was unconscionable. It was monstrous. It was horrible, and it was happening in front of his very eyes – in front of the eyes of Rodney McKay, who had always excused himself from the cock fighting and the bare-knuckle brawling because he did not like blood. Ronon had been beaten into unconsciousness before his eyes. Now Kolya was talking about… about forcibly taking Teyla's maidenhead, and was laughing.
All was lost. All was lost. This was all his worst nightmares – all those horrid visions that had plagued him when they had first entered the Caribbean Sea, haunt of pirates. It was every chilling story ever told at night. It was heavy black writing in chapbooks and handbills, telling their lurid stories of death and punishment.
And all he could do was clutch the treasure chest and shout words that nobody bothered to listen to. He was barefoot in a wet shirt, for God's sake. He had no weapons. He'd never known how to use a weapon. And they had swords. They were cold-hearted killers with knives and swords, and they had taken down Ronon as if he was no stronger than a dotard of four score and ten – just felled him, dragging him down like a bear in a bear garden.
Somebody should do something, he thought. Please, somebody, do something. Where were Sheppard's crew? Had they all turned traitor? But, no, surely they wouldn't. They wouldn't. They'd seemed so loyal – far more loyal than any seaman he had seen on the long voyage from England, serving within the law. So why weren't they…? Oh. He saw the men with guns, facing outwards at the edges of the quarterdeck. Holding Sheppard's crew at bay. Keeping them away. Removing them from the stage, so there was only… "Us," he whispered. "Only us."
Perhaps Sheppard heard him. Rodney had watched him while Ronon had been taken down, and had watched him while Teyla had been threatened with assault. He had raged. God! Rodney had never seen anyone so furious – positively white with it. Swords had held him back; swords and hands, and Kolya's word, which had promised him death.
"You… you won't get away with this!" Rodney shouted. He took one step forward, then another, but they were tiny steps, barely an inch.
Kolya began to turn towards him. One of the men holding Sheppard started to smile. And Sheppard took his chance. He lunged forward; and Rodney couldn't see clearly what happened next, just a confusion of bodies moving, but at the end of it Sheppard was free, a line of blood across his collarbone, but not heading for Kolya, not heading for Ronon or for Teyla, not heading for Rodney, but heading away, away from them all, away from them.
"Sheppard!" The cry tore itself from Rodney's throat without him having any conscious involvement in the decision to speak. The air was cold on his wet shirt and his feet were bare – how vulnerable you felt when your feet were bare! – and Sheppard was trying to save his own skin, and…
"Oh!" This time it was a cry of horror. Rodney retreated, back a step, back a step, back. Sheppard was down, his legs dragged out from underneath him with a rope. Men surrounded him. Rodney saw movement; he saw nothing but movement. Shoulders jerked, and legs. He saw feet. He saw a hand, reaching up. He saw blood. For a very long time – for long seconds, perhaps even a minute – he saw only that.
That was Kolya, striding forward. The mass of bodies parted, and there was Sheppard, streaked with blood, taut with pain, but pushing himself up with his hands. "A duel," his swollen lips said, and it seemed in that moment as if all else was silent, and there was nothing in the world but that word. "Your quarrel's with me. Let's end it one way or another."
No, Rodney breathed. Oh no. The man was a crazy fool. He had just been savagely beaten, and he had almost drowned not long before that. Kolya was strong and stout and fresh and surrounded by his own men, while Sheppard was wearing just britches and a wet white shirt, neither of which offered any protection at all against a sword thrust, and he didn't even have a weapon of his own.
"Not that you should care about such things," Duty whispered in his ear, "since he's a ruthless pirate himself. Let the two of them kill each other, and–"
Be quiet! Rodney shrieked silently, though he was far more rude than that. Go away!
"A duel?" Kolya raised his eyebrow. "How quaint. But if it would amuse your old-fashioned sense of honour… I always did plan to kill you myself."
Kolya nodded to one of his men, who came forward to help him remove his coat. Beneath it, he wore a thick dark waistcoat. Rodney had no idea if a waistcoat counted as armour, but he reasoned that it could do no harm. Better than a wet shirt, anyway. Kolya also, which was more to the point, had two swords.
Sheppard rose to his feet, plainly in pain, but covering it well. "He's got two swords!" Rodney called, but Sheppard gave no sign of hearing him.
He did, however, gesture lightly at Kolya's array. "But you have two long beaten swords, and I have a pocket knife." Rodney recognised the lines from a ballad Beckett liked to sing. Like all the others, it ended in blood and vengeance.
Kolya tossed Sheppard one of his swords, and Sheppard caught it one-handed. It was undoubtedly the worse of the two. Perhaps Kolya deliberately kept a broken blade for circumstances just like this, like a Florentine duke might keep poison in a chalice in case unwelcome friends came by. Sheppard unsheathed it, and tested its weight, taking a few experimental swings. "Then shall we begin," he said, but Kolya was already lunging at him before he had even finished speaking.
Rodney had never seen a duel before. He had seen a challenge issued, and he had seen the aftermath, but he had never seen the actual event, unless you counted fights on the stage of the play house. He knew that duels had their own code of honour and he knew about things like the need for seconds, but that was all.
He knew little about sword fighting, either. He had overheard the young nobles at Oxford talking about their Italian fencing masters, and they babbled words like contracavazione and punto reverso and passato and the like. It was all barbarian babbling to him. His mind was crammed with so many things, and he had always thought that he knew so much more than common men, but he realised with a sudden pang that there was so much more that he did not know. The meanest man on Sheppard's crew knew how to sail a ship, but Rodney had forgotten almost everything he had been told about boats. He knew nothing about swords, and had no idea how to defend himself, or how to defend a friend. He knew nothing. He knew nothing.
And if Sheppard was winning, or if Kolya was prevailing, he did not know. Sheppard lunged, and Rodney had no idea if it was good lunge, or if it was one to make a fencing master groan. Kolya swung; was it the swing of a master? Teyla was watching, struggling to stand. Did she know more? Ronon was stirring sluggishly, and he surely did.
Rodney didn't know. His throat was sore, and he realised he had been shouting out loud the whole time – saying what? He did not know even that. Nobody was paying him the slightest attention. Perhaps he was invisible. Perhaps he had died under the water, and had returned as a spirit who did not realise he was dead.
Kolya's men pressed forward, and for a moment Rodney could see no more than the heads of the antagonists. He bit his lip. His arms were aching, his body was aching, his back, his heart.
He remembered fights in plays – how people sprang on tables and swung from ropes. When the crowd parted, he saw that Kolya and Sheppard were locked together, gripping each other close. It was more like brawling than fencing. Then Sheppard used his feet, and Kolya used his fist. They parted. There was fresh blood on Sheppard's shoulder, and a small circle of it on Kolya's side.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't… God! How was it supposed to be? It was supposed to be about honour and… and… politeness, and… and set movements, and Italian terms. But it was about death, really. Dress it up however you liked, and it was about death. At least Sheppard and Kolya were not trying to hide it. This was real. This was real. The world of the nobles with their duels and their Italian terms was not real life. The world of his mother, with her dinners and her dances, was not real life. Rodney had disdained all this, but what had he done? He had shut himself in his room and covered pages with his thoughts and his plans, but none of it had ever stepped out of the domain of the mind. He had never lived.
"And now I'm about to die," he whispered, almost sobbing, because it seemed like the most ridiculous thing in the world, that he should have an epiphany on the deck of a pirate ship, while watching two feared pirate captains attempt to murder each other.
The crowd obscured the fighters. Rodney edged forward, then edged forward a little more. He saw Ronon looking up at him, his eyes blazing, held down only by two distracted men. He saw Teyla tearing at her bonds until blood flowed down her wrists. And Sheppard, his drying shirt sticking to his body, showing every drop of blood that was being torn from his flesh.
Rodney edged forward again. He was still holding the treasure chest in his arms. Could he bring it down on the head of a man from behind? Could he do that? Could he? He swallowed, as Sheppard gripped the rail, his head sagging just for a moment, then hurled himself forward. Kolya's crew shouted aloud. The next time Rodney saw Sheppard, his sword was bloody. His shirt was bloodier still, though. If he had wounded Kolya, Kolya had hurt him worse.
Ronon's eyes held a desperate plea. Rodney swallowed again, and moistened his lips. He gripped the chest; began to raise it.
The crowd parted. Locked together, the two captains lurched through the gap. Frozen, Rodney heard the screech of metal against metal. He swallowed again – how dry his mouth was! – and then someone grabbed him, pulling him back. A hand gripped his upper arm, and there was something cold against his throat. A sword! A tiny whimper escaped his throat. It was a sword, and Kolya… Kolya was holding him, using him as a shield.
"I tire of this game." Kolya's voice was loud in his ear. "Surrender, or I will kill this man."
Sheppard's chest was heaving, and there was little white left on his shirt. "You'll need a better bargaining chip than that," he said dismissively. "He's not one of mine. He's done the job I needed him for. I don't care what happens to him."
Rodney could not speak, he could not breathe, he could not move. The sword was cold against his throat. He felt as if he had been standing on the edge of a cliff, and the whole world had fallen away from beneath him, leaving him wrapped up in the coldness of empty space.
"Come on." Sheppard's sword was raised, gripped in his blood-streaked hand. "Let's resume."
The sword pressed against his flesh. Was that blood? Oh, God, was that blood? It hurt – it hurt so much. So cold… But Kolya's breath was warm against the side of his neck, breathing fast with exertion and perhaps with pain. "A pretty lie," Kolya said, and the blade pressed deeper, and this time it really did break through his skin; he could feel the warm stickiness of blood at his throat. His vision went cloudy and he thought he was about to faint. "I mean it," Kolya said. "I will kill him."
Rodney saw Sheppard grip the sword, his knuckles as white as bone through the blood on the back of his hand. He heard Ronon shouting, and Teyla pleading. But louder than it all was Kolya's breathing. Louder than it all was the sound of the hooves of the pale horseman that was Death, coming to claim him.
Sheppard laid down his sword. There were no words, no quips, no defiance. There was just silence.
Kolya pushed Rodney away, and advanced on Sheppard, sword outstretched. "Kneel," he commanded, and Sheppard did.
"No," Rodney whispered. "No", and he didn't know what to think, he didn't know what to do, but he only knew that it felt awful.
"Sail ho!" somebody shouted.
Kolya lowered his blade. Two of his men stepped forward, each of them putting a hand on Sheppard's shoulders, keeping him down. Sheppard did not look defeated, though. His head snapped up, and he looked keenly in the direction that all Kolya's men were suddenly looking.
"It appears to be a frigate of His Britannic Majesty's Navy," Kolya said, when he turned back. "This changes matters." He raised his blade to Sheppard's throat. "I am tempted to kill you, but your own people will give you a death far more hideous than anything I can manage. You will watch every man on your crew die a traitor's death, and then they will string you up, and the birds will peck out your eyes, and you will scream for death long before it takes you. And I have drawn your blood." He smashed Sheppard in the face with the hilt of his sword. "I have repaid the blood you took from me so many years ago."
Kolya snapped his fingers, and his men started to head for the rail, ready to swing back to their own ship. But he had one more act to perform before he left. "And I shall take the chest that this prattling man of yours is so carefully guarding," Kolya said. The chest was removed from Rodney's protesting fingers. Rodney reached after it, but the muscles in his arms felt like water.
"I took care to cripple your ship before I boarded it," Kolya told Sheppard. "Your rudder is broken, and you will not be able to escape your fate." With that, he strode to the rail.
Rodney blinked. Sheppard was on his knees, swaying as if he was barely conscious. Ronon had struggled into a sitting position, and Teyla had managed to get her wrists free. The crew rushed forward, the false Mr Christopher leading them, but Sheppard shook his head ever so slightly.
It was in silence, then, that they watched Kolya's ship leave. It was in silence that they saw the sails of British justice grow larger and larger.
"We can fight," Rodney found himself saying. "Maybe I can repair the rudder."
But Sheppard shook his head, and gave his order, and thus so easily was everything lost.
end of chapter eight
Chapter the ninth
In which a pirate is brought to justice
"It is definitely Sheppard." Lorne had struggled to keep the telescope steady, his hands were quivering so much.
"And Kolya," Barrington added, not for the first time.
The two pirate ships were already separating, and Lorne had to choose which one to go after. There was not the slightest room for doubt in his mind. "Sheppard is our target."
"But Kolya…" Barrington spoke quietly, keeping his dissent hidden from the crew. "He has done far more damage to innocent shipping than Sheppard has ever done. He has a fleet…"
"So the damage will continue even if we take the flagship," Lorne said. Sheppard. In front of him. Not moving. Not moving at all. "With Sheppard, we can eradicate the entire operation, root and branch." He dragged his gaze away from his enemy's ship to look his first lieutenant full in the face. "Sheppard was one of ours, Tom. Whatever evils Kolya has done, he did not betray our King. It is our duty to bring a traitor to justice."
Perhaps it had all been an illusion. He snapped his gaze back, but the Atlantis was still there, still not moving. With the wind behind them, they would be on her within the quarter hour.
"Kolya has left, and the Atlantis looks stricken," Barrington's voice said from beside him, but at the same time from so far away. "I suspect that Kolya's sword has already sent Sheppard before the final seat of judgement. He will have loaded the crew and the stores onto his own ship, and there will be nothing left on the Atlantis but death."
"But we still need to see him dead."
They drew closer. The strip of land grew larger – so familiar still, even after all these years. This time the tide was high, and the water was dark. His men had careful orders, even so. Reefs had claimed so many ships.
A lurch. "We're aground! She drove us aground!" A shuddering had run through the entire ship, almost as if she had been wailing and grieving for what had come to pass. But the orders had been calm, and the men had worked on until there had been no choice but to abandon ship and be taken in by the boats of the White Hart.
"Sir? Sir?" He wondered how often Barrington had called him. Lorne let out a breath, and raised the telescope, but it lurched, showing him a glimpse of the Atlantis, then a glimpse only of the empty sea. "It could be a trap, sir. It is an oft-used ploy – to pretend to be stricken, then attack the rescuers. Perhaps Sheppard and Kolya have joined forces and set up this charade."
"Not Sheppard," Lorne said with certainty. "Not Kolya." Lorne had been present when Sheppard had given Kolya the scar he still bore on his face. They had both been captains in other men's fleets, but the hatred between them had always been personal, ever since Kolya had turned his guns on a fleet of fishing boats and called it a legitimate act of war.
"But, with respect, sir, we need to be prepared…"
"I am prepared." He had been prepared for this for seven years. He had dreamt of this moment, longed for this moment. To have Sheppard in his power, alive or dead… To bring him to justice… To heal that jagged wound that Sheppard had left on his soul so many years ago…
And for it to happen here, in just this spot. It was as if the years had fallen away, and Lorne was seven years younger, watching the collapse of everything he had held certain in the world. The strip of land still shone beneath a sun-drenched sky, although the sea was smooth, no longer churning with the loss of a Navy sloop.
"I can see people on deck." He managed to force the telescope to stay steady. "I can see…" Men at the halyards. A figure with dark hair, giving an order. A flag rising on a ship that had famously flown no flag for nigh on seven years.
"I'll be damned," Barrington swore beside him. "He's surrendering."
"You're surrendering," Rodney exclaimed. "So this is it. After all this, after everything, you're just rolling over and surrendering at the first sign of trouble."
"Hardly the first sign, McKay." Sheppard threw the words over his shoulder as he worked, though it sounded as if his heart was not really in them.
"They'll hang you," Rodney persisted. "They'll hang the lot of you. I saw what was left of Calico Jack. It was horrible."
Sheppard ignored him. He had put on a dark coat over his damp shirt, covering the blood. He had given orders, speaking to his crew as if their treachery meant nothing. Beckett arrived on deck now in response to one of those commands. "None dead," Beckett said, "but it was a close-run thing. Nasty affair. Could have been worse, though."
"Indeed." Sheppard pressed his lips together in something that could have been a faint smile. "Look after Ronon."
Ronon spoke up, looking strained and horrendous as he struggled to stay upright. "You need it more."
"You're like little boys," Rodney cried, as
justice approached them on white sails. "'He's hurt worse than me.' 'No,
he's hurt worse than me.' It's stupid! Is it some silly manly pride thing? If I
were hurt, you wouldn't catch me being so stupid as to pretend I wasn't."
"Little boys." Beckett clapped him on the back. "I've been thinking the same myself for years. I think I like you, McKay." Then he was all business again. "Ronon first. At least let me get you a crutch."
Rodney glanced for the hundredth time at the approaching British ship. There was no possibility of running, not now. The crew, he saw, was more still than he had ever seen them. They looked different, somehow – more small, more frail, more human. It was because they had all laid down their weapons, he realised. There were no knives in belts, no pistols strapped to their sides. Barefooted, and most of them wearing only shirts and breeches, they looked like prisoners already.
"It wasn't treachery," the one called Mr Christopher was saying. "It wasn't like he said. With you gone and with us caught unawares, and with all the hauling gear being used on that bell, I thought… I thought he would get us in the end, whatever we did. I remembered what you always said – that lives comes first. If we had fought on…"
"I would have returned to a ship full of corpses; I know." Sheppard nodded, smiling wearily. "It was my fault. I couldn't see anything except what lay below. I should have taken more precautions. And we're all still here, and the Atlantis is still afloat."
"And, excuse me, a great big Navy frigate is bearing down on you," Rodney could not keep from pointing out, "so I think this 'all's well that ends well; no harm done so no hard feelings' thing is a bit premature, not to mention stupid. You didn't even get to keep the treasure you were after. It was all for nothing. All of this, everything, for nothing."
"I hope not." Sheppard looked at the approaching ship. Rodney saw how fast his pulse was racing in the side of his neck, as if he had just run a race. When Sheppard turned to look him full in the face, Rodney almost gasped; he had grown accustomed, it seemed, to Sheppard looking away while talking to him. "You don't need to worry about your personal safety. Whatever happens, I'll make sure they know that you were my prisoner and were here under duress. This is your rescue." He gave the briefest flicker of a smile. "This is your sturdy hearts of oak coming to carry you home. You can dine out in Kingston for years to come on your tale of durance vile on a pirate ship."
"You think I care…?" Rodney blurted out, surprised both by the force of his feeling and the loudness of his words. He let out a breath. "Well, yes, of course I care about that. I don't want to die. I don't like pain. My mother's kitten – Mistress Henrietta, it was called; I ask you! – scratched me once, all along the arm, and… Well, the dining thing would be good, too. I believe they were quite unconscionably rude to me in Kingston, now that I come to think about it. They totally failed to appreciate me."
Sheppard was still standing there, bloody injuries hidden by his clothes. Ronon was standing upright, though he had consented to lean on a crutch, while Beckett was muttering about the stubbornness of idiot pirates who refused to lie down and make his job easier. Teyla had red marks at her wrist, and was more brave and more fierce and more loyal than most of the men Rodney had ever met in his life.
They were pirates. They were heartless, murderous, vile pirates, and they had grabbed Rodney from his bed, and they had threatened him and forced him to work for them, and they forced him to thieve, and they had nearly got him killed several times over.
And Sheppard had been willing to die to him. Sheppard had laid down his sword and presented his throat to Kolya, rather than sacrifice Rodney's life.
"I don't care about any of that," Rodney said quietly. "I don't want to see you hanged. I don't want to see any of you hanged. I… I'll put in a good word for you. I'll work hard. I'll do what my father wants me to do and I'll become a pillar of the local community, and… But that will be too late. That'll take years. I'm not good at being a pillar. I can expound, but I don't think I can persuade very well. I was never good at lawyer's rhetoric."
"Thank you, Rodney." Sheppard smiled, and Teyla touched his arm, and Ronon hobbled over – "Stop that!" Beckett grumbled – and clapped him on the back. And so, as the British ship drew so close that he could see the features of the men at its rail, Rodney stood with the pirates, as one of them.
His first thought was that Sheppard had not changed. As Lorne stepped onto the deck and began to walk towards him, part of him was a dozen years in the past, approaching the officer he had always admired more than any. Reality seemed to shift with every step. He had longed for this moment for so very long, and now it hardly seemed real.
His men flanked him with muskets and pistols, threatening slaughter if anyone made a false move. Sheppard, though, was utterly still, surrounded by his closest henchmen. The large savage appeared to have taken a wound to the leg, and when the surgeon who was working on it raised his head, Lorne realised that it was Beckett, who had once been surgeon on the Bright Phoebe.
"Captain Lorne." Sheppard inclined his head in greeting, and the voice was the same as it had always been, speaking across the years. Now that he was closer, though, Lorne could see that he had changed, after all. He did not look much older, but his face was more like stone. He had once had a supple face, expressive and quick to laugh, but there were lines beside his eyes and mouth that suggested that his expression now tended more to the grim.
"Sheppard." He managed to say his name steadily. He even managed to refrain from striking the man. Nothing felt real. He wondered if he would wake up to find that this whole thing had been a dream.
The shorter henchman started forward. "He isn't–"
"Be quiet, McKay," Sheppard snapped. "This man is my prisoner," he announced clearly, "here under duress. He is innocent of any wrong-doing, as are my men. They followed me out of loyalty."
Lorne's fist trembled with the urge to strike. I was loyal, too! "You really mean to surrender?" he asked, and it was horrible to find that this man could still hurt him, and totally ridiculous to feel hurt. "Just roll over without a fight and surrender?"
"Yes." Sheppard nodded. "I am placing myself at your mercy."
"Then you will receive none," he spat.
"No." Sheppard shook his head, and gripped the arm of the man called McKay, as if to forcibly silence him. "I do, however, have something I would like you to read. If you will permit me…?"
Lorne narrowed his eyes, but nodded with forced graciousness. He watched as Sheppard reached under his coat, and he nodded to his men to ready their weapons. "Not a weapon," Sheppard said quietly, as he pulled something out from his belt. He handed it towards Lorne, and Lorne cautiously took it.
It was a small oilskin packet, such as would contain important documents at sea. Lorne unfastened it, his hands trembling shamefully and visibly, and began to read.
It struck him like a knife in the heart. "It's a lie," he croaked.
"No." Sheppard sounded placid, but Lorne had once known him well, and knew that he was quivering with tension, as much or more as Lorne was himself. "You know his hand and his seal."
Lorne forced himself to read to the end. If it was true… If it was true… But handwriting could be imitated, and a seal could be stolen. No! He had shaped seven years around his knowledge of the truth. If this were true…
No-one could be allowed to hear it – nobody. "We talk about this alone," he rasped.
"These three come with me," Sheppard said. "Ronon and Teyla know the story already, and McKay deserves to hear it."
Lorne moved as if he had been struck on the head. The papers in his hand burnt like acid. "If it's true…" He stopped at the rail, where the wind would take their words out to the empty ocean. "My God, Sheppard, if this is true…"
"I had my suspicions," Sheppard said, beside him at the rail, "but I couldn't share them with you. I couldn't spread rumours without proof, not about something so huge. But I kept my eyes open. When I was on the White Hart that night, an opportunity presented itself to delve deeper. I found this."
Lorne gripped the rail, but he was half a league away, and it was evening, and his captain had gone to the flagship for dinner and a conference. The stars were bright, the war was almost over, and for one night only, he was in command of the ship.
"I tried to get back to the Bright Phoebe but Cunningham detained me on a series of pretexts. I thought I'd been careful, but he must have discovered that I had found him out. I managed to take a boat, as you know. That was when he ordered his men to raise the anchor and give pursuit."
Sheppard, urgently hailing them from below. "We have to go," he had gasped. "We have to go now." But the signal had not yet come from the flagship. Lorne had said as much, but Sheppard had been insistent. But the White Hart had come after them – their own flagship turning on them. The Phoebe had lost the top of her mast, had been driven towards shore. She had struck the reef, sharp and deadly in the low spring tide, and she had foundered.
"I hid the evidence in a lead-lined chest," Sheppard said, "and concealed it in my cabin. It's remained there for seven years at the bottom of the sea."
The boats had rescued them, bringing them to the deck of the White Hart. "You fired on us!" Lorne had spluttered, but then Cunningham had appeared and announced that he had commanded it. Sheppard had not wanted to leave the sinking sloop, but had been struck on the head by his rescuers and dragged onto the deck of the flagship. Still unconscious, he was bound in chains and hauled below. "You can't do that!" Lorne had shouted, but Cunningham had explained that he had no choice. Sheppard had turned traitor and had been selling secrets to the enemy. "Four ships have already been lost because of his treachery. Would you have us lose more, Lieutenant?"
"Why didn't you say something?" Lorne said now. He gripped the rail harder. "If your story is true, why didn't you say…?"
"They gave me no chance to speak, as well you know." Sheppard's voice was harsh. "And who would have believed me? My evidence had gone down with my ship. It was the word of a merchant's son from Boston against a viscount's son with friends at court."
"You believed him, Evan."
It was said quietly, without reproach, but Lorne had to look away. He had believed Cunningham. Yes, the commodore had claimed to have proof, but Lorne had never asked to see it; young officers were expected to believe their superiors without question, and certainly never ask for proof.
But most of Sheppard's crew had not believed it for a moment. When they had reached port, they had broken Sheppard free from the gaol, and had voluntarily turned themselves outlaw. Lorne had not been one of them. And so he had despised Sheppard ever since. He had needed Sheppard to be the traitor Cunningham had painted him, because if he was not, then Lorne had been the true traitor all along.
"But… But…" He swallowed, desperately trying to order his thoughts. "Cunningham's dead now, and his behaviour after the war lost him many friends, but he ended up an Admiral. This can't be spread abroad."
"What?" squawked the man called McKay. Lorne had forgotten all about his presence; had forgotten the presence of everything in the world, except for Sheppard
and the ghosts.
"An Admiral," Lorne repeated. "The King's Navy would never recover from the scandal. The common man would be singing ballads about it for the rest of the century."
"So you're just going to cover it up?" McKay's voice rose higher and higher. "Sheppard risked so much for this. I didn't understand at the time, but I understand it now. It was all for this. Everything… It was all for this. And you're going to…"
"No, he isn't." That was the large man, his voice as low as McKay's was high. The woman stood at his side, her face matching his for fury.
"He's the scapegoat," McKay said. "You're going to let the world go on thinking he's a traitor, because the true traitor is too important for his name to be sullied. It's… it's disgusting."
They really sounded as if they despised him. Sheppard was a pirate, and Lorne was a captain in the Royal Navy, who spent his time tirelessly protecting innocent seafarers from the depredations of pirates, but Sheppard was the one with the loyal friends. Even this McKay, apparently a prisoner, had somehow turned into Sheppard's fierce defender.
He made his decision – and, oh, that he was weary! "Only the King can grant a pardon," he said, "and this will have to be reported to my superiors, but I think this proof of yours will be enough. As I said, Cunningham had lost much of his influence before his death."
"So it isn't about justice at all," McKay said, "just influence. If this Cunningham was still alive and high in favour, this proof would be floating in scraps on the wind."
Lorne ignored him; that was just how life was, and you just had to live with it. "It can be put about that you were falsely accused due to the machinations of an unknown traitor. There is no need for Cunningham's name to be told outside the circle of those who need to know."
"Of course, there's still the matter of seven years of piracy…"
"Not helping, McKay."
Something twisted inside Lorne's chest. "You were driven to it by necessity," he said. "The people love such a thing. They will sing about you as a second Robin Hood."
"I doubt the King will take such a sanguine approach," Sheppard said.
But he would be pardoned, Lorne thought, not least because he knew too much. The Admiralty would have no desire to antagonise someone who had held evidence in hand about the treachery of one of their own. Sheppard's slate would be wiped clean, and he would be free to return home, not, perhaps, with honour, but at least without ignominy.
And as for Lorne, who had spent so many years trying to capture him? He felt as if his life was in tatters, and the future stretched ahead of him, full of nothing but ashes.
"So what are you going to do now?" Rodney asked, as the wind filled the sails of the newly patched-up Atlantis.
"What he's going to do now is sit down and let me take a look at him," Beckett said. "Let's see what nasties this coat is hiding." He began to peel it off, tutting angrily. "Now you're no longer a pirate, is it too much to hope that you might actually come placidly and let me stitch you up? Oh, this is too much! Sit down, lad, before you fall down. Before I clout you on the head, and make you," he added under his breath, as he lowered Sheppard to the deck. Sheppard, for his part, made only a token show of resistance, and ended up all but falling.
Rodney bit his lip while Beckett worked. There were several sword cuts, and they had bled horribly. Rodney knew exactly how much blood was contained in the human body, and it looked to him as if at least half of that was currently adorning Sheppard's shirt.
"Somebody bring me something to use as pillow," Beckett shouted. "Doesn't do for the captain to lie on the cold hard ground. Or a leg will do. No, not you, lad. Need I remind you that you have a nasty little gash on your thigh that will… Oh, thank you, lass. Hold his head and shoulders just so."
"What am I going to do?" Sheppard said. There was a faint hitch in his voice as Beckett worked. "I'm going to…"
"For God's sake, man, stop talking," Beckett snapped. "I'd rather you stopped breathing, too, but that wouldn't be wise, all things considered. Just stay still, and as for you… you stop encouraging him."
They sailed in convoy, and when Lorne looked through his telescope, he could sometimes see Sheppard on the deck of the Atlantis. He was never alone.
"I am so sorry," he had said to Sheppard, just before returning to his own ship. "I believed the worst of you. I know that I do not deserve forgiveness."
"I'm not one to hold grudges," Sheppard had said. "People make mistakes."
"No." Sheppard had clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't. You believed what a superior officer told you, just as we were all trained to do."
"But the men didn't – Beckett and the others."
"And all the other officers did." Sheppard's gaze had been sharp. "The men, as Beckett would say, are contrary buggers, and the fancier an officer's clothes, the more inclined they are to think everything he says is a pack of lies, even as they make their salutes and do what he tells them."
"But I thought…"
"No." The hand had tightened. "This wasn't your fault. You made a choice, and you didn't shirk from the consequences of that choice, and in the end, when presented with fresh evidence, you had the courage to admit that you were wrong. I don't hate you, Evan."
But I hurt you, Lorne had thought.
"You're a good officer," Sheppard had said. "You made your choice – don't let it ruin your life. Make your life a good one."
Lorne lowered the telescope, but the image of Sheppard and his friends was slow to fade. Let me sail with you, part of him had wanted to cry, but that part was quiet, now. Seven years had passed. Sheppard had new friends now – friends who deserved him. That part of Lorne's life would never come back, no matter how much he wished it.
Barrington appeared at his side. "So it's over, sir."
Lorne let out a breath. "Yes, Tom, it's over." Barrington was a good friend, and most of his other officers were fine men. He had his own ship, and he had brought many pirates to justice over the years. Kolya was still out there, his flagship only half a day away. Perhaps, after he had captured Kolya, he would go back to England, and retire. With a captain's pay, he could afford a modest house, and perhaps take a wife.
Make your life a good one, Sheppard had said, and he thought perhaps he could.
"So what are you going to do now?"
"Still he asks," Sheppard said. "Persistent, isn't he?"
It was the day after their encounter with Captain Lorne. Sheppard was reclining on deck, and Ronon was sitting stiffly beside him. Beckett, Rodney knew, had thrown his hands up in furious despair, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves, it was no fault of his, but he would get 'I told you so' inscribed on their grave stones after they had turned up their toes and died.
Sheppard looked at him. Despite the lines of pain, there was something different about his face now, though Rodney had no idea what it was. "You can go back to Kingston, of course, and resume the life we so rudely ripped you from."
He didn't want to go back to Kingston. He hated Kingston. "They laughed at me," he said.
"As for me…" Sheppard stretched out his legs, wincing. "I'm supposed to report to the Governor, then head back to England to await his Majesty's pleasure. Lorne is sure that a pardon is on its way, but it needs to be sealed by the King's fair hand."
"Oh." A bird passed overheard, rejoicing in the thermals.
"I've got men who haven't been home in ten years," Sheppard said, "seven of them spent outside the law. They need to go home."
"Of course." Everybody wanted to go home in the end, didn't they?
Sheppard raised his head, watching the same bird. "I can sleep in a bed that doesn't move. I can go home, and see what a mess my brother's made of father's business."
"Oh," Rodney said. He wandered off after that.
Sheppard took a turn for the worse in the night, and was confined to his cabin for three days. Ronon carried on walking around the deck with his crutch, though he was clearly in agony. When Sheppard emerged, Teyla hovered beside him protectively. Rodney swallowed hard, and took up the same position at Ronon's side, telling himself that although the man could be scary at times, he was most definitely not a savage.
"I don't want to go back to Kingston," he blurted out, one evening. Ronon just looked at him, but later that night, Rodney said the same thing to Sheppard. "I don't want to go back to Kingston."
"Back to England, then," Sheppard said.
"I have never been to England," Teyla said quietly, and Ronon added, "Neither have I."
This should have been Rodney's cue to tell them how marvellous it was. He could tell them about the green fields and the rolling hills, about the solid oak trees and the country churches, about the bustle of the ports and the beauty of its universities, and about the staunch undaunted freedom of a people who kicked out kings when they trampled on their freedoms, and sometimes even chopped their heads off.
But he had never liked the green fields – he kept standing in unpleasant things that issued from cows – and the country churches were full of Duty and tedious sermons. The ports were full of fathers who wanted you to abandon your dreams and bury your life in ledgers and figures, and the universities were full of rich idiots who thought they were better than you just because their fathers had a title. Even liberty seemed to count for nothing when an innocent man could be condemned for treason just because his accuser had friends at court.
In England, his future was mapped out. He would inherit his father's business, and science would become just a distant memory. People would laugh at him behind their hands, and he would marry Charlotte Dauncey who would produce sticky-fingered brats who would ruin all his work.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Teyla interrupted him, her voice low and fierce. "I have no desire to go back home," she said. "I have no desire to wear skirts again. I will not return to a life of embroidery and duty."
"Got nothing to go back to," Ronon said.
Sheppard was silent for a very long time. "Of course," he said at last, "there's no need to stop at England. We can pop by, pick up our pardons, let the lads go home and see their loved ones, if that's what they want. Of course, we'd need to visit a certain island first…"
Rodney frowned, then gasped. "Buried treasure. You mean buried treasure."
"Of course." Sheppard looked quite pleased with himself. "Enough to keep every man in food and clothes for a dozen years, even if we have no further source of income."
"Besides, you were never very good at being a pirate," Ronon said.
"Hey!" Sheppard protested. "I was very good. I was the second most notorious pirate in the Caribbees."
"That was because of the treachery thing. You had a huge list of people we weren't allowed to steal from."
"He did, you know," Teyla said, clearly for Rodney's benefit. "It ran to three pages."
"Easier to list who we were allowed to steal from," Ronon said gruffly. "Slavers, and other pirates." He, too, turned to Rodney. "Most of the treasure came from Kolya."
"Oh." Rodney's brain was slow to catch up. "So you let Kolya rob innocent travellers on the high seas, then you robbed him, and this was somehow moral how?"
"It felt more acceptable," Sheppard said stiffly, "but that's not the point."
"What is the point?"
Sheppard looked up at the sky, where the first stars were beginning to appear. "The point is," he said slowly, as if Rodney was the stupid one, "that I am proposing giving up piracy – I really ought to, what with the pardon and all – and becoming a legitimate mariner, as free as a bird, as the songs say. Let Lorne hunt Kolya. I feel like circumnavigating the world."
"Oh." Rodney felt the movement of the deck, as familiar to him now as the sound of his own breathing.
"The stars in the southern hemisphere are different, you know." Sheppard's voice was suddenly quiet. "There are islands with strange species not yet studied by any man in Christendom. There are strange rocks, and places where the tides go backwards."
"Tides can't go backwards."
Sheppard shrugged, and in that moment Rodney realised what had changed about him. He looked as if a huge weight had been removed from his shoulders. His movements were less taut, and his smile was more free. What would he have been like had the shadow of treachery not fallen upon him so many years before?
"There will be fresh wrecks to explore," Sheppard said, "and –"
"You're asking me if I want to come with you," Rodney gasped.
Sheppard said nothing, just quirked an eyebrow, but there was no need even to consider it. "Of course I am. Why? Did I look as if I wasn't?"
Above them, the stars grew brighter. Music drifted up from the hatches, as people sang of hope and the open sea, and for once Rodney's heart felt so full that he had no desire to express it in words. His smile, and the smiles of his friends, said more than words could ever say.
Francis Christopher spent fifteen years sailing with Captain Sheppard before he retired and settled in Dover, where he bought an inn. When his inn sign was blown away in a storm, he painted a new one. So admired was this new sign, that he soon was able to set up in business as a painter of signs and murals. Six pieces of his work survive, four of them depicting male figures clearly modelled on the same man. Scholars believe that this man was Captain Sheppard himself, painted by the aged sailor from memory as he longed for the glory days of his youth. This picture is a Victorian sketch of his sign for the Jolly Pirate in Winchelsea. It is the nearest we have, and perhaps will ever have, to a likeness of Captain John Sheppard.
Famed in Song and Story: a Hero of Renown
A short overview of the folk tradition surrounding John Sheppard and his crew
The figure of Captain Sheppard appears to have captured the English imagination. There are a dozen extant examples of broadside ballads, the earliest bearing a date of 1748 and the imprint of Mr Reeves, a part-time printer and apothecary from Cheltenham. Cecil Sharp collected over a dozen versions in 1908-9, most of them showing only minor variations from the printed versions. The version reproduced here is dated 1754. The confusion in narrative voice is typical of the time.
Come all ye lads who plough the seas, come listen to my song -
It is a stirring ditty, and it won't detain you long.
It is a tale of piracy, upon the raging Main –
A tale of lies and loyalty, in good King George's reign.
I was brought up in Boston, John Sheppard is my name,
But as a son of Neptune, I lately earned my fame.
I listed in the Navy and I boldly went to sea,
And served my Queen with honour – 'twere none so brave as he.
But one there was upon his ship, a traitor to the crown.
"I plan to fell this hero bold; I envy his renown!"
Why evil filled this traitor's heart, I cannot know or tell;
His name is writ in water and his soul will burn in Hell.
Through the traitor's wicked lies, this hero lost his name.
His wrists were bound in iron bands, his feet in fetters twain,
But Sheppard called a little bird: "Oh fly and find my crew
For some there are – just one, just two – who know that I am true."
They came for him in dead of night and freed him from his chains,
They did so out of loyalty, and not through hope of gain.
Not one, not two, not three of them, but fully twenty-nine,
They willingly turned outlaw, upon the storm-tossed brine.
So I was forced to piracy upon that raging Main,
Like Robin Hood upon the deep, I robbed the lords of Spain,
(But honest sturdy English folk, I let them sail on by.)
My name became a bitter curse; my mother wept and sighed.
My ship was called Atlantis, a noble brigantine.
The crew who served upon that ship were loyal, brave and fine.
For seven years and many leagues, we sailed upon the sea,
But oh! my heart was weary, for the traitor still walked free.
But at the end of seven years, this hero's race was run.
"Alas! Alas!" his men all cried, "Our captain is undone!"
But then upon the deck he cast the proof that cleared his name,
And so once more John Sheppard gained his honour and his fame.
So here's to Captain Sheppard as he sails upon the sea!
And cursed be all traitors, wherever they may be!
And here's to Captain Sheppard's crew, so loyal, stout and bold!
And here's to all true Englishmen – and now my story's told.
Teyla Emmagen was also immortalised in song. Hers appears to have been one of the earliest examples of the family of songs that tell of women who dress themselves up in man's array in order to enlist or go to sea. (c.f. The Female Drummer Boy, High Germany, The Handsome Cabin Boy etc.) The example reproduced here is an oddity. It was collected by Percy Grainger in 1907, from "Daddy" Wiggins in Burford workhouse, but while most songs of this type rejoice in the daring of the female protagonist, the last two verses of this version tell a different tale. Grainger conjectured that some well-meaning vicar had clumsily replaced the existing verses with lines that better reflected the sort of lesson he wished his parishioners to learn. Although our anonymous scribe has clearly attempted to follow the conventions of folk song, the difference of style and message is very clear.
It's of a pretty female, as you shall understand,
Her mind was set for roving into some foreign land.
She dressed herself in man's array, as you will shortly see,
And left her home and family, resolved to go to sea.
A man attired in captain's clothes was walking on the strand.
She signed with him for seven years and left her native land.
He was a pirate brave and bold, a man of deadly fame;
His name it was John Sheppard, and Tailor (sic) was her name.
Her hand was long and slender, and her cheek was dusky gold,
Her waist was small, her hair was long, or so I have been told.
The crew all sighed and rolled their eyes, and cried aloud in joy:
"What a pretty lad he is, this handsome cabin boy!"
In battle she was fearless – an Amazon was she!
She bent her back to oar and rope, and ploughed the raging sea.
"No boy am I!" at last she said, grown weary of her lie.
"I always knew you were a lass," bold Sheppard made reply.
And soon her skin grew tough and coarse; she learnt to curse and swear.
She slept beside a hundred men! Men's breeches she did wear!
No husband now will have her; she will never be a wife.
She refused her female duty, and threw away her life.
So all you foolish headstrong maids, a warning take from me.
If you would put on man's attire and roam the raging sea,
Remember that a maiden should be modest, meek and mild,
And marry where her parents wish, and bear her man a child.
No songs survive about Ronon Dex. His name, however, appears to have become a byword for strength. Francis Griffin, pastor of Cerne Abbas, wrote in a letter of 1876:
"My son is strong as a Ronon, and as bold, too." Thus boasted Mrs Ward, doughty mistress of the belaying pin, as I overheard her from behind a hedge. After lecturing her on the sin on pride, I could not refrain from asking who this Ronon was, not remembering him in the Bible or the pages of the heathen Greeks. She mumbled something about some famous pirate. "Something to do with Captain Sheppard, I do believe, him as we hear tell of in old Gaffer Watkins' party piece, when he has some ale in him. You should have heard him sing it at the Whitsun Wakes in '63 – or was it '64? – proper stirring, it was." I told her sternly that it did not do to call on pirates' names in one's similes, and instructed her to use the name of Samson in future."
Despite the disapproval of hectoring parsons, the saying lived on. The Opies, researching for their seminal book on children's playground law in the late 1950s, recorded "as strong as Ronon" in several schools in Dorset, and in one school in Warwickshire, children vied with each other to "be the Ronon" in one particularly rough game.
The name of Rodney McKay does not survive in folk tradition. Alexander Pope, however, penned this epigram in 1720:
"Here stand I, the name's McKay
A man with far too much to say."
Needless to say, this is not up to Pope's usual standard.
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