The Price of a Pardon
a sequel to The Pirates Prisoner
Rodney McKay wasn't sure what he expected to happen when he decided to throw his lot in with the enigmatic Captain Sheppard and his alarming crew, but it definitely wasn't near-constant brushes with almost certain doom. The angry mobs are a worry, too, as is the espionage, the last-minute rescues, the alarming quantities of crime, the dastardly rogues bent on killing them, the scheming enemies, the swooning maidens and the secret tunnels. Will Rodney and his new companions survive to get their happy ending?
This is a sequel to The Pirate's Prisoner. Here is a brief synopsis of what went before:
The year is 1721, and Rodney McKay, son of an English merchant, has been sent to Kingston to oversee his father's acquisition of property. Rodney is a man of scientific bent, and tells everyone he meets of his staggering intelligence. Strangely, few people in Kingston are impressed, but news of his boasting travels out to sea, where it reaches the ear of notorious pirate captain, John Sheppard.
So it is that Rodney finds himself awakened at night by an unmannerly ruffian who claims that his master has a need for Rodney's brain. Flattered, Rodney follows the ruffian. It is only after he arrives on the pirate ship Atlantis that he realises that he has actually been abducted by pirates.
The pirates are a dastardly lot. The unmannerly ruffian is called Ronon, but even more alarming is the woman, Teyla, who dresses in men's clothing – shocking! – and seems most fierce. The captain, Sheppard, is the worst of the lot, and Rodney knows for a fact that he's blood-thirsty and evil. Sheppard tells Rodney that he requires him to build a diving bell, such as the one recently made by Rodney's mentor, Sir Edmond Halley. Although reluctant to help pirates, Rodney can't help but be flattered that someone at last recognises his brilliance, and gets to work.
The weeks pass. As Rodney works, the Atlantis has several encounters with the ships of one Kolya, a personal enemy of Sheppard's from war that ended some eight years before. Because Sheppard used to serve in the Royal Navy, until it was discovered that he was a traitor, selling secrets to the enemy. Captain Lorne, once Sheppard's loyal lieutenant and friend, has never recovered from the sense of personal betrayal, and has made it his life's work to track Sheppard down and bring him to justice.
At length the diving bell is done, and Sheppard, Rodney and the others go down to retrieve something from a wreck below. When they come up again, they discover that Kolya has taken the Atlantis. Sheppard fights Kolya, but yields when Kolya threatens to kill Rodney. However, just before Kolya is able to get his final revenge, Lorne's ship is sighted, so Kolya cripples the Atlantis, and flees, knowing that Sheppard will receive an agonising traitor's death when Lorne catches him.
Lorne comes on board, but Sheppard hands over the item he recovered from the wreck: proof that he was framed so many years ago, and that the true traitor was his commanding officer. Lorne promises to ensure that Sheppard receives a full pardon.
Rodney, meanwhile, has finally realised what he has known deep down for weeks: that Sheppard and his crew are far from the bloodthirsty rogues he thought them to be. He also realises that he's been happier on the Atlantis than he has ever been in his life, and the story ends with Sheppard, Rodney, Ronon and Teyla looking towards a happy future.
And now the story continues…
In which Rodney McKay is abducted by pirates for a second time.
It really was quite intolerable, Rodney McKay thought, as strong hands bundled him roughly into the hedgerow. Being abducted by one unmannerly ruffian was quite enough for any man's lifetime. Being abducted a second time was beyond outrageous.
He tried to tell the said unmannerly ruffian quite what he felt about the situation, but the prickles undermined his eloquence, turning it into a muffled scream. Bindweed and buttercup tangled his ankles, so that the untutored might have mistaken his dignified deportment for desperate kicking. Thorns tore at his clothes, and tangled leaves blocked out the sun.
"I faced down pirates." He cast his threats into the earth like seeds, where they could take root and grow into something terrible. He also got a mouthful of mud.
Hands hauled him free from the grasping branches. "I was one of the pirates," said his abductor.
It really was too much! A new word was needed in the English language, because this went far beyond any words he knew. Not even Latin helped, and the only Greek he knew was couched in the phrasings of Aristotle, who was not prone to expressions of outrage. "You've already abducted me once," he spluttered, dragging himself thornily to his feet. "You can't abduct me a second time."
Ronon was taller than Rodney remembered him, and looked like a creature out one of his nurse's stories – one of the wraggle-taggle gypsies, perhaps, who slept on the cold hard ground, or perhaps one of the wild, fair folk from under the hill, except that Ronon was neither fair nor little, and the stories were ridiculous superstition, anyway, relics of a time when foolish forefathers worshipped stones – and he seemed quite incongruous in the ordered pastures of Gloucestershire, where the hedgerows, for all their prickles, at least grew where man commanded them to grow, in nice straight lines. "I just did," he said.
Rodney scraped mud from his face and removed a forked branch from his hair. It gave him time to draw dignity around himself like a cloak. "Besides, we're on the same side now," he said. "I'm practically your captain. If you feel compelled to abduct somebody, go and abduct somebody else. Parson Watkins always sleeps with his door unlocked, or so common gossip has it. Fondness for the ladies, you know." He flapped his hand. "Go away. Shoo."
It had never worked with Charlotte Dauncey's spaniel, either. "We need your help." Ronon grabbed Rodney's arm.
"Then what about asking for it?" Rodney demanded. "What about approaching me in a normal fashion? Why--" His hand rose to a scratch on the side of his neck. "--drag me through a hedgerow like a common ruffian? (That's you that I'm casting as a common ruffian, I hasten to add, and not me.) Is that the normal piratical way of requesting a boon? It is possible to approach people in ways that don't involve violence and rude behaviour, you know."
"I tried the door. A pinched old man threatened to set the dogs on me."
Quite unconsciously, Rodney shrank a little, although the hedgerow already hid him from those big, blank windows. It had not gone entirely well, the big revelation scene. Rodney had practised it, and had read from flawlessly-crafted notes. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate,' at least not until the dust had settled after the big climax on page eleven. Running away to join a troupe of players, his father had spluttered, was considerably less preposterous, and considerably more legal. There had been much shouting, and threats had been issued against the safety of his favourite telescope.
"We thought it would be better for you," Ronon said, "if you were seen to be taken against your will."
"Better?" Ronon was striding away, so Rodney had to scurry behind him. His hair lashed in his eyes, undone by prickles and the gentle breezes of Old England. "How can it be good to drag someone through a hedge? You quite derailed my musings on natural philosophy."
Ronon's step did not falter, but his voice did, just a little, cracking on the penultimate word. "So you can return home afterwards."
Rooks cawed in the trees above. The air was rich with the scent of corn and earth and honeysuckle. Rodney had spent his entire childhood here, always looking at the stars, always longing to escape. He had never consciously noticed the flowers, or the way the rooks wheeled at dusk. He had never noticed the songs of labourers in the fields, not until Sheppard's men had sung the same songs, and something quite unexpected had twisted inside Rodney's heart.
He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. They were several hundred yards from the house now, almost to the edge of Spindle's Spinney. He remembered how he had trotted along behind this man in a town on the far side of the world, walking freely into captivity, because he had not realised what was happening. "Oh," he said. "Oh. You can't trick me that way again."
Ronon walked into the dappled shadow of the trees. As he did so, he seemed to relax minutely, as if casting off an ill-fitting coat. "I have him," he said.
Teyla emerged from shadows. "Rodney." Her mouth smiled, but her eyes did not.
"You're in the Low Countries," Rodney accused her. He jabbed his finger in Ronon's direction, realising a fact that the outrage of a second abduction had temporarily caused him to mislay. "Both of you. You're both in the Low Countries."
"Apparently we are not." Teyla smiled just a little.
Rodney's hand continued jabbing. "Sheppard left you with the ship. He wasn't taking anyone back to England until the pardons were secured, he said, because he refused to entrust his people's lives to the fickle fancies of a king. He gave orders."
Rodney and Sheppard had crossed the Channel alone, and had parted in London, Sheppard to go to the Admiralty, and Rodney to return to his father's house to break the news of his small change of plan about the entire future direction of his life. On the way, of course, he had happened to pop into the Royal Society, to casually mention his dazzlingly-ingenious diving bell, far more effective than Halley's, and worthy of an instant Fellowship for its humble creator, your servant, Rodney McKay. Explaining how he had tested it had proved challenging. In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate,' at least not until the other Fellows had finished reading his plans and had realised the obvious genius therein. There had been much shouting, and threats had been issued against the liberty of his person.
"We followed him, of course." Teyla said it as if only a fool would expect otherwise. Ronon stood there strong and tall and resolute, his stance clearly saying that he refused to entrust his captain's safety to anybody but himself.
"Oh." Rodney scanned the dark trees. "Where is he, then?"
Teyla exchanged a troubled look with Ronon. "As far as we have been able to ascertain, he arrived safely in London. He took a room in an inn, and on his second morning, he set out in the direction of the Admiralty--"
"Sheppard's missing," Ronon said. "We need you to help us find him."
"You need me." McKay nodded slowly, looking perfectly satisfied. "Of course you need me." He swallowed visibly, looking from side to side. "Why do you need me?"
Ronon shouldered his way past McKay, ignoring his outraged squawk. "We must hurry." His horse was waiting for him, reins tied securely to a branch. He unfastened the knot with a few brisk tugs, and climbed into the saddle. "Got you a horse." He nodded in the direction of a smaller animal.
"Have clues been left behind?" McKay mounted it distractedly, without appearing to notice what he was doing. "Has a trail been left behind, couched in intricate puzzles that only a sizeable intellect can unravel? Are there notes cast in cipher? Do you require me to fashion a cunning machine with which to extricate him from an impossible situation, perhaps a very small hole? Precision would be required, as well as strength. Perhaps some form of winch?"
Ronon urged his horse forward. The fading sunlight struck him in the face as he emerged from the trees, and long shadows stretched across the grass. It would be night soon – another cold night, spent pacing and shivering and planning and worrying. English nights were cold, and were full of unfamiliar noises. He had only lived on the Atlantis for a few years, but it felt wrong to spend a night on a bed that did not rock with the rhythms of the sea.
"--working from the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, but improving upon them, of course. Newton himself--"
He heard shouting from the direction of the house. Without sparing a glance for the others, he urged his horse faster, heading for the dark road they had found earlier. High banks rose on either side, making it almost as dark as night.
The others rode just behind him; he heard the pounding of hooves, and stiffened at the sheer noise of it, so different from silent raids on warm nights in the Caribbees. "Masterful design," he heard McKay say, the words jerking out of him, and ending with a yelp. Ronon hunched down over the animal's neck, and felt a springy branch whip across his shoulders. "Exceedingly cunning." After that, McKay's words were drowned entirely by the thudding of hooves.
The track grew darker, as if they were wading through a sea of shadows. Could McKay find Sheppard? Ronon and Teyla had travelled through an unfamiliar country, guided only by the name of McKay, and a memory of him talking about a place called Bristol. Now they had him, but the mission was far from over. There was no ship to return to at the end of the day, for songs and drinks beneath familiar stars. Ronon had been slow to accept that the Atlantis had become his home, but now he was away from her, he felt like a ship adrift. He was wandering in the night, without a star to steer by. Sheppard was missing. Sheppard was gone.
The lane joined a larger road, and they crossed it, heading into a broad strip of woodland, full of plump, soft trees. Mindful of his horse, Ronon set a slower pace, hating the fact that he was dependent on the physical limitations of something other than himself. It was days since Sheppard had disappeared, and every hour that passed made it less likely that they would find him alive.
"I do not believe," McKay said, sounding slightly breathless, "that scientific principles have ever been applied to the problem of finding missing persons. I shall become the father of the discipline – its Aristotle."
"We don't need you for your brain this time," Ronon told him harshly.
"I shall…" McKay trailed off, frowning. "You don't…?" His horse walked a few slow steps through fading light. "Then why do you want me?" A bird cried mournfully in the trees.
"Because you are respectable," Teyla told him.
"Respectable?" McKay echoed. "I'm not…" He trailed off again. The bird cried out a second time, then flew away. All that Ronon could see of it was that it was black, and that it was no threat. "I suppose I am," McKay said. "Are you sure you don't…? No. Of course not. Respectable."
Ronon and Teyla had presented themselves at the Admiralty, trying to discover if Sheppard had arrived on that fateful day, but doors had been slammed in their face. Ronon didn't know the right words to say. In this cold, alien land, the rich and powerful were like players on a stage, and Ronon didn't know how to play that part.
"That's long enough," he said, pressing his hand to his horse's neck. He kicked it into a canter.
The light lingered, stretching like a taut cord between day and night. They passed a village where bells were ringing, and they saw a couple wandering in the flowers. They forded a stream, and Ronon concentrated on the path ahead, and wished that enemies and not miles and days lay between him and Sheppard. He wished this was something that could be won with swords, not words. He wished he was back on the Atlantis. He wished they had never come to England. What was a pardon but a piece of paper? But, no, it was more than that. To Sheppard it was his whole life.
At the cusp of twilight, when familiar stars began to appear in the unfamiliar sky, Ronon heard shouting and the angry clatter of bells. Teyla drew alongside him. "I believe this is the village where we acquired the horse for Rodney. It appears that they saw you, after all."
Ronon shook his head. "This one was the coat. The horse place had a different smell."
McKay snorted. "You don't--" Ronon kicked his horse into a gallop. They tore along together, across open fields, across the smooth shoulder of a rounded hill. Not even darkness was the same in this strange land, but running for your life was. Ronon knew how to stay alive, and he knew how to keep his friends safe. The shouting faded to nothing, but he kept on running. It was fully dark before he stopped, lit only by the light of a silver moon.
"--have to steal everything," McKay forced out through gasps. "Why not try paying for something one day? You will find that it makes life less--" He grimaced, pressing one hand to the small of his back. "--uncomfortable, and with fewer angry mobs."
Ronon tightened his grip on the reins. "We tried." He was no savage. Compared with the rich in their villas, his family had been poor, but he had attended both church and school. On the Atlantis, it hadn't mattered at all where he had come from. Sheppard had trusted him from the start, and that was what mattered. While Sheppard might have seen his life as pirate as a kind of prison, to Ronon it was freedom. On the Atlantis, he belonged. Here, people took one look at him, and slammed prison bars in his face. He had tossed his gold pieces at their feet, but even then they had called him a thief.
He reached behind him for his pack, dragging out a skin of water. Some of it trickled down the side of his neck, and he wiped his hand harshly with the back of his hand, tasting strange rivers from unknown hills.
"Oh." McKay let out a breath. He looked around him, seeming to realise for the first time that he had come quite so far from home. His shoulders slumped, and his face was silver shadow in the moonlight. "Sheppard's missing?" he said, and he chewed his lip, and, for once, said nothing more.
Respectable, Rodney thought, surveying his reflection in the windowpane. He struck a new pose with his cane, and tried to emulate the expression assumed by Mister Booth in Drury Lane when portraying a supercilious nobleman. "Respectable," he said aloud. His unfamiliar wig itched, and he poked a finger behind it, scratching himself. As he did so, he dropped the cane.
"Respectable," he said once more, as if he were one of those primitive people who believed that a thing would become true if you spoke its name often enough. He groped for his cane, and headed for the entrance, proud, defiant, respectable. I was entirely mortified. His mother's voice rang in her ears. Appearing with ink on your sleeves and dirt on your shirt front, prattling about things that are not to be mentioned in polite society. We are a respectable family, Rodney. I feel our status sliding every time I let you loose in society.
But manners maketh man, he told himself, as he noticed the puddle just in time to avoid getting mud on his brand new stockings. It was nonsense, of course, but it was what these prattling fools in society seemed to believe. And so he would veil his intellect by wrapping it in the fashions of the day, and he would curb his insightful conversation and say what was expected. But don't mention the word 'pirate', he reminded himself, as he stood clothed in garb entirely purchased with pirate gold. The shopkeeper had managed to be thoroughly obsequious and thoroughly condescending both at the same time, which was an accomplishment. You do not deserve clothes like this, his manner had exuded, even though he doubtless thought that Johannes Kepler was the man in the Spittlefields market who could balance like Simon Stylites on a pole, and would not recognise elliptical motion if it struck him on the head in a dark alley.
The second puddle leapt out at him and bested him. Grimacing, he shook the drops off the trailing tails of his coat as best he could. Workmen bustled past him with supreme indifference, clambering like agile monkeys up the scaffolding that clung to the edge of the crumbling building. Respectable, he reminded himself again. Sheppard was in trouble. He had to keep his head, or Sheppard would slip away from them forever.
The liveried servant at the door greeted him. Someone shouted out from above, and dust rained down around Rodney. Coughing, he introduced himself. The servant nodded, impassive, and showed him in.
The receiving room was dark and dingy, with old-fashioned windows and warped glass. Rodney sat down stiffly on the fading chair, then stood. He paced to the window, then back again. He began to look at the books, and ran his finger along the edge of the desk. He adjusted his coat, and combed his fingers through his wig. He had insisted on a slightly nautical look to his costume. "I faced down pirates, you see," he had told the shopkeeper. "I played a pivotal role in a naval battle against pirates of extreme ferocity." The shopkeeper had not looked impressed. The waistcoat, made for another man, was too tight, and chafed under the arms.
Pictures lined the wall, but there, neglected in a dark corner, was, "a mechanical model of the solar system," he exclaimed, "which I refuse to call an Orrery, because it is scandalous that a creation of purest reason should be saddled with the name of the rich patron of the creator, even if the patron in question is for some reason, clearly money and influence, a Fellow of the Royal Society." He was dimly aware of the door opening and closing. "And here it lies in a crumbling building, because the buffoons who possess it fail to realise how prized such things are. Of course," he added, "I could make one myself if I chose." Someone cleared their throat. Rodney cleared his own. Respectable, he reminded himself. In hindsight, it was probably best not to have used the word 'buffoon.'
He turned round slowly. A small man had entered the room, dressed mostly in black. "Are you a Sea Lord," Rodney asked, "or a Civil Lord?"
"Neither," the man said stiffly. "Benjamin Larner, at your service, under-secretary to the Board."
"Under-secretary?" Rodney echoed, then snapped his mouth shut. You always say the wrong thing, his mother shrilled in his ears, shaking her finger. Why is it so impossible for you to remember correct etiquette, when you are capable of filling your head with useless lists of star names? "Rodney McKay," he said, not opening his mouth very far at all.
"McKay." Larner nodded, inviting Rodney to sit down, then sat down himself on the far side of a large desk. "How can I help you?"
Don't mention the word 'pirate', Rodney reminded himself. "I have come for news," he said. "Humbly, that is. I humbly request, your humble petitioner, etcetera." He swallowed, adjusted his perspiration-smeared grip on his cane, and tried again. "I am seeking news," he said, his voice echoing on the dingy panels, "of--" There was a loud crash outside. Rodney strained to see out of the warped glass of the window. "Are you aware that your building is falling down?"
Larner ruffled papers. "We are," he said stiffly. "Work is to commence next year on a replacement. The plans have already been drawn up."
"That's good." Rodney swallowed again. "John Sheppard," he blurted out. "Captain John Sheppard, late of the Royal Navy. Have you seen him?"
Larner stood up, his chair scraping unnecessarily loudly on the floor, and pulled down a volume from the shelf behind his desk. Then he tutted, and swapped it for a different one. He opened it with an over-dramatic thump. "You shouldn't do that." Rodney raised one helpful finger. "It shakes the ink-well. I once lost a promising essay on the structure of light to a…" He pressed his lips together. Inky grave, he thought, but he didn't say it. He remembered Sheppard smiling at him on the deck as dolphins played in the ocean.
"Sheppard, John," Larner said. "Pirate, outlaw and traitor. I have him." His finger pressed onto the page like the finger of a hanging judge.
"It's, uh… it's not as simple as that," Rodney said. "It's a funny thing…" Larner had mentioned the word 'pirate' first, he reminded himself. "It was a false accusation. The Governor in Kingston saw the proof, and sent word of it back to England. Captain Lorne did the same. He was to be pardoned. It was all sorted out."
"It is interesting," Larner said, his finger still on the page, "that you know so much about the affairs of a pirate."
"Oh, he abducted me," Rodney said, "and forced me to labour for him. That's how he found the proof he needed, because of my ingenious machine." Larner's eyes narrowed. Rodney shrank a little further back in his chair. He remembered evenings with Sheppard and the others on the deck, talking beneath a setting sun. Ronon and Teyla had abducted him from his father's house so as not to implicate him in any wrongdoing. The way was still open for him to walk away from this whole affair, to claim that he had been coerced all along, and resume normal life with his reputation unstained.
"But he was truly innocent of the things he had been accused of," he said. "Everyone who saw the proof agreed that he would receive a full pardon. So he isn't a pirate any more, not really. And he's gone. He set off for the Admiralty on Monday last, and that was the last anybody saw of him."
Larner grunted a way that somehow managed to convey complete disbelief yet total acceptance both at the same time. "The reports you mentioned were indeed received, but Captain Sheppard did not arrive for his scheduled appointment." He slammed the book shut in a way that was clearly meant to convey that the interview was at an end.
"Really?" Rodney stood up. "Is that true? Uh, not that I'm accusing you of…" He fumbled for his cane. "Never mind." He looked at the planets in their frozen orbit, almost said something about the so-called orrery – Cicero had written about such a device, in God's name, so why should it bear the name of some modern earl without the wit to recognise what he was being given? – but decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Sheppard was missing, and nothing was more important than that.
He thought he managed quite a respectable goodbye, all things considered.
"The landlord's looking at us." It was fortunate that the inn was full of noise, or McKay's whisper would have reached the ears of the man in question. "Did you steal from him, too?"
Teyla gripped the edge of the table. "We did not."
With a roar of laughter, a man at the neighbouring table almost tumbled from his bench. The fire crackled, and Teyla looked up at the ceiling, dark with years of smoke. The fresh air of the open ocean seemed impossibly far away.
"He's still looking. Are you sure--?"
"We did not." Teyla snapped it harshly.
Not so many years ago, she had worn fine gowns, and had lived in a spacious villa, with servants waiting on her every need. She had run away from that life because it had threatened to turn into a cage, with marriage to a man who saw her as nothing more than a trophy. Now she wore men's array and lived freely, outside that cage. But when she had requested admittance to the Admiralty, doors had closed like prison bars. There were bars even in the eyes of McKay, who knew her.
McKay looked awkward and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting new clothes, but was more at home here than Teyla would ever be. "What will you do if you never find him?" he asked.
Ronon's head snapped up. McKay said 'you', Teyla noticed with little surprise, but with more sadness than she might have expected. They would return to the Atlantis, and sail around the world as John had intended. No, she thought, they would all trickle away one by one by one, until there would be nothing left but a handful of shadows on an empty ship, and then even those shadows would have to drift away and return to the emptiness of the lives they had lived before.
"We'll find him," Ronon said. "We'll never give up looking."
Music started up from the far side of the room. A young man with night-dark hair stood up and sang, his voice slightly hoarse and imperfect.
"Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain.
I've never had but one true love,
In cold grave she was lain.
I'll do as much for my true-love,
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."
Ronon slammed his first on the table. "Jenkins sings this one."
"Yes." Teyla nodded, blinking back sudden tears. Perhaps that was the truth of it. Perhaps they would never return to the ocean. Perhaps they would linger in this noisy city for ever, never able to bring themselves to give up searching for him.
The main door opened, bringing in a blast of cooler air, setting the smoke swirling. The song continued, but Teyla and Ronon and Rodney all turned sharply to the door, and all let out a breath when it was not a familiar face. A lady came in with large skirts, a handkerchief raised to face. Servants hurried her apologetically through the public area, showing her to the stairs. The song at last faltered. Even music bowed to status.
If I wore a gown, Teyla thought, could I command answers? The lady paused and gave commands, asking for this and for that, and for anything that she willed to be brought to her. Teyla had chosen to be free, but here in London she was bound by the choices she had made. Perhaps the life she had chosen for herself was just another kind of prison, after all.
"But how can you find him?" McKay said, pushing his hand up behind his wig. "London is an enormous city, with over six hundred thousand souls. If someone wants to remain hidden--"
"Wants?" Ronon's expression was deadly.
"That is to say, if somebody wants to keep him hidden, to keep Sheppard hidden. Somebody else, that is. Somebody else." McKay swallowed visibly, cowering back in his chair, then let out a breath. His hand rose tremulously. "You found no evidence of foul play."
Teyla clasped her hands tightly. They had searched prisons and gaol cells. They had questioned those who had frequented public hangings. They had scoured the bills of mortality, looking for unknown deaths and unknown burials. They had questioned loiterers and hawkers and whores between the inn and the Admiralty, and nobody had seen anyone who looked like John being set upon. In a space of less than quarter of a mile, he had disappeared without a trace.
McKay seemed to be struggling to find the courage to say something else. Several times he raised his hand, and several times he lowered it. "Occam's Razor," he croaked at last. "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. We have Sheppard, and we have somebody stealing Sheppard. That's two entities, one of which left no evidence for his existence. On the other hand, we have Sheppard choosing to leave for some reason known only to himself – possibly a good one, I hasten to add. See, I'm not saying anything against your captain." He spread his hands as if to show that he was unarmed.
"He wouldn't leave," Ronon snarled, "not without telling us."
"Yes, because we all know how forthcoming he was about his true reasons for being interested in that sunken ship." McKay cleared his throat nervously. "That is to say, no, no, you're right. Of course you're right."
Teyla chewed on her lower lip. "But if you are right, then how…"
"Horses!" McKay snapped his fingers. "And girls seem to find him handsome – did you see that wilting maiden in Lisbon? She was quite unimpressed when I explained the scientific principles behind her maidenly blush – the circulation of blood, you know, as discovered by Harvey – and only had eyes for--"
"Rodney," Teyla said, the word more like a plea than anything else.
"I'm sorry." McKay gripped his tankard, but did not raise it. "That is to say: I've had an idea. I think I know how we might be able to find him."
end of chapter one
Preliminary sketch of an unknown man (now known to be Rodney McKay) by Frederick Hollingsworth, 1721
According to Hollingsworth's day book, a "red-faced gentleman, evidently in haste" appeared in his studio one afternoon, "clearly uncomfortable in a new wig and badly-fitting clothes." He claimed that he only had a few minutes, but declared that "that is surely time enough, because how difficult can it be to indulge in mere scribbling of likenesses? It's not as if any skill is involved, after all." The gentleman proceeded to demand a portrait of himself, "using one of your stock bodies – a stout and dignified one, in a martial, nautical pose, because I faced down pirates, don't you know?" As well as a heroic pose, he stressed the need for "respectability," although this claim was somewhat undermined by his evident intention of paying in heathen gold, rather than in God's own English currency.
According to Hollingsworth, the gentleman then clapped his hands to his mouth, said, "D*** it, I've mentioned pirates again!" and ran out. However, Hollingsworth evidently had a good memory for faces, for he produced this picture after the gentleman had gone, and circulated it amongst his artist friends. "If you see this gentleman approach your doors," he urged them, "pretend you aren't in."
In which broken hearts are littered across the southern counties.
It was exceedingly vexing, Rodney McKay decided, to be surrounded by people who complained all the time. Certain people, it seemed, had no awareness of normal social niceties. It was quite intolerable to arrive uninvited in someone else's beloved native land and then criticise it all the time. He would never do a thing like that. He would never…
He let that thought trail away. It seemed wiser, all things considered.
"Doesn't look much like a forest," Ronon grumbled, jerking his chin at the wide expanse of scrubland, littered with coarse-looking ponies, damp and dripping.
"Nor does it look new." Teyla's eyes were on the tumbledown relic of an old cottage, doubtless now the haunt of highwaymen and bandits and all manner of evil things, possibly even wolves, and maybe even spiders.
Cold rain dripped down Rodney's back. "I'm sorry my country isn't big enough or new enough for you. We have a rich and complex history, and the great deeds we have performed on the theatre of the world's stage are all the more remarkable when you bear in mind that we are, in fact, quite small. It's the best country in the world, and it's my country, so it's quite unmannerly for you to--"
"Thought you wanted to leave it," Ronon interrupted, proving beyond doubt that 'unmannerly' was entirely justified as an adjective. "You said you wanted to spend your life on the Atlantis and never go back."
Rodney cleared his throat. Let that stand for a fittingly contemptuous answer! Ha! he thought. He cleared his throat again, and scraped rain from his face. Foul, stinking weather! It was allegedly August, but as miserable as January, and the dark weather made it seem like evening before its time. In the last inn, he hadn't found a single person who had even heard of Newton, and when he had tried to explain the laws of motion to the assembled multitude in the tap-room, using pepper-pots and oranges to illustrate his argument, there had been talk of throwing slops at him.
He trudged on in dignified silence for a while, then decided to spread a little knowledge to at least two of the benighted masses. "In England," he said, "the word 'forest' doesn't just denote a place of dense trees, but is a legal term, meaning land set aside for the king to hunt in. William the Conqueror himself denuded this area almost entirely of people in order to create a vast hunting ground--"
"What did he hunt?" Ronon, benighted mass that he was, perked up at that.
Rodney waved his hand airily. "Oh. Things." He looked left, then right, then back again, looking for glittering eyes in the bracken. "The present king doesn't do it much, of course, since this is the Age of Reason--" He said it pointedly, but the points fell unheeded on stony ground. "--but 'forest' continues to exist as a legal definition. Except in capital cases, forest law, not the law of land, holds sway here."
"Which means?" Ronon seemed to be eyeing something behind a beech tree.
Rodney peered suspiciously in the same direction, but saw nothing. "More to the point," he said, quite loudly, "is the question of why Sheppard would come all the way to the New Forest – if indeed he did, because it is always possible, of course, that this whole dismal journey has been an enormous red herring. Which it hasn't," he added hastily, remembering that the whole thing had been his own inspired idea.
It all came down to horses. To travel anywhere, you needed a horse, or perhaps a donkey or a mule, of some manner of boat, if you went on water, or your own sturdy feet, if you were one of those people, or a sedan chair, if you wanted to get easily through streets too narrow for a carriage, or even an ox. Horses were the most conventional choice, though, and Rodney couldn't imagine Sheppard on a mule; he was far too dashing for that. However, Rodney McKay knew one more thing: that Sheppard had come to London without a horse. If Sheppard had been desirous of leaving the capital, first he would have needed to acquire a horse. If he had been eager to travel quickly – "and this is Sheppard that we're talking about" – he would have used the posting inns to ensure that he always rode a fresh, fast mount.
"Of course," Rodney had told the others, "the whole plan falls apart if Sheppard was unmemorable, but, well… he isn't. Is he?"
Sheppard, it seemed, had left a trail of fluttering hearts across the southern counties of England. "Have you seen a dark-haired man?" he had asked, to maidens tall and short, to girls with tumbled yellow locks and girls with dark curls, to plump matrons who should have known better, and to grey-haired grandmothers who proceeded to demonstrate that age did not always bring wisdom.
"Oh, yes, sir, I saw a man with hair like the wing of a blackbird in autumn."
"Was he a tall man, quite slim?"
"Oh, yes, with black velvet coat-tails surging from his waist like flowing water, hugging the smooth yet muscular curve of his… I beg your pardon, sir, I don't know what came over me."
"With… er… ears?"
"Such lovely ears, and not at all like how you trace them in the air with your mocking hands, begging your pardon, sir."
"With such lovely skin, and eyes you could drown yourself in. Such a gorgeous, exotic accent; is he Welsh? So silent and troubled, just waiting for the love of the right woman to melt the ice around his frozen heart. But when he smiled… Oh, sir, when he smiled… And the hair! How does he get his hair to do that?"
"He's a notorious pirate, and he ties it up with the sinews of captured maidens."
In hindsight, perhaps it might have been better not to have mentioned the word 'pirate', although in his defence, he had only said it once, and he'd been quite provoked, and he certainly hadn't deserved an entire evening of angry glares from Ronon and Teyla, after they had finally finished running away from the angry mob. Ronon had taken over the questioning the next day. For some reason, it had involved knives. The mob had been even angrier, and the hedgerow even damper.
But here they were. The trail had led them across Sussex and Hampshire, and now they were deep in the New Forest, heading towards Lymington by the sea. It was a small port, and much of the coast around was the haunt of smugglers. It would be an excellent place from which to sail in secret. It would be an excellent place for Sheppard to shake off all pursuit and disappear for ever. "But he could have done that in London just as easily," Rodney mused out loud. "Why come here, unless he's decided to go recruiting amongst the ranks of the smugglers? Or maybe your carolling pirates have sung too many ballads of Robin Hood, and he wants to try his hand as an outlaw in the forest." Green would suit him, Rodney thought darkly. Everything suited him.
His companions said nothing. They rode through a thin expanse of sturdy trees, the rain pattering on the leaves above. A dog barked, but far away. Rooks rose cawing from the tree-tops.
Rodney cleared his throat. "At least I was right about the fact that he appears to be travelling alone."
Ronon twisted round sharply in his saddle, his look eloquent and ferocious. Rodney gripped the reins tighter, then slowly forced himself to relax his grip.
This was the end of the road. Taking advantage of the fortuitous juxtaposition of a sharp stick and a patch of mud, Rodney had sketched a map that had demonstrated to his companions that very fact. If they didn't find Sheppard here… If they didn't find Sheppard here…
Perhaps he said some of it aloud. "We are very grateful to you for helping us," Teyla said, "but--" She broke off, distracted by a sudden movement in the undergrowth.
After ascertaining that it was nothing more sinister than a rabbit, Rodney considered what she had said. She had said 'helping.' She had said 'us.' She did not consider him part of the crew. She and Ronon were the abandoned ones, looking for their captain, and Rodney was just the stranger who was helping them. When the search was over, she wanted him to go back to his father's house. That was why they had created the whole charade of an abduction in the first place, so he could leave them.
"I don't…" He found himself unable to say more. The rabbit had friends. They darted away in a flurry of flashing white tails, scampering past heedless ponies into places where twilight lurked behind bramble bushes, making it seem almost like night.
What would happen if they never found Sheppard? In the warm sunshine of the Caribbees, Rodney had wanted nothing more than to walk away from everything he had ever known, and spend his life exploring the world in the Atlantis. But that had been when the Atlantis had meant Sheppard, and Sheppard had meant the Atlantis, and the two had been impossible to separate. Sheppard was the one he had sat with on the deck, discussing everything under the sun. Sheppard was the one with the library of books. Sheppard was the one who had not only heard about Newton, but could explain his laws of motion without even using pepper-pots. Sheppard was the one who had been willing to die to save Rodney's life. Sheppard was the one who had asked him to stay, who had looked at him without a trace of mockery, who had seen beneath the veneer of words, who had liked him.
I don't know what I'll do, he thought, but he did not say it aloud. Ronon and Teyla were all very well when Sheppard was there to bear the brunt of interaction, but Ronon was… Well, it was quite reasonable for Rodney to be a tiny little bit afraid of him, given that he looked like a savage, and as for Teyla… She wore men's clothing, for crying out loud! She--
"Someone's coming!" Ronon hissed.
Oh. Rodney shrank into his saddle. You read about such horrible outlaws in forests – about highwaymen and smugglers and murderers gone to ground – and it was almost night now, darkness galloping up behind him when he wasn't looking. Or perhaps it was one of the numerous angry mobs they had attracted on their journey, or maybe a flock of love-sick girls, searching for--
"We have done nothing to arouse suspicion," Teyla said, "not since yesterday, at least." That came with a quite unjustified glare in Rodney's direction. "We should continue on our way, and act normally."
"Normal," Rodney repeated, clutching dignity around him like a cloak and refusing to rise to provocation. "Ah. Yes. Respectable. I can do that."
It had never been so hard to carry on his way. It had never been so hard to keep his hand from his sword, to keep a steady grip on the reins, to stay in the middle of the track when an unknown stranger was fast approaching from behind.
"Is it…?" McKay asked.
Ronon snatched a look behind. "No."
Not Sheppard. It never was. Sometimes Ronon wanted to bellow aloud with the frustration of it. Sheppard was gone. Sheppard was gone, and they tip-toed through the soft fields of England, following a trail that was more than a week old. Ronon had to put his blade away, and play the game McKay's way. There was no-one to fight over this. There was no-one to hate. There was just an endless expanse of road, and endless days of disappointed hope.
"Is he…?" McKay ran his hand through his sodden hair.
Ronon's horse snorted. An animal plunged into the undergrowth. A leaf drooped under the weight of rain, sending a torrent of droplets into the grass. Ronon breathed in and out sharply; in and out. His knife burned at his belt, and the air seemed to shimmer with the intensity of his readiness. Night grew closer with every breath, but his awareness only grew more sharp.
The hoofbeats grew closer and closer. A man passed, hunched over the neck of his horse, his face almost hidden by a high-collared coat. Mud splashed from his horse's hoofs. Ronon let out a breath; realised that his hand had been close to quivering with the tension. Not an enemy, he reminded himself. But England had stolen Sheppard, and everyone, from the pretty, insipid maidens in the taverns to the red-cheeked labourers in their fields, was part of that. Even McKay…
"He didn't even pause to wish us the time of day," McKay said, his hand still worrying at his hair.
Even McKay. Ronon gripped his reins, and reminded himself that McKay had helped Sheppard find what he needed. There had been times on the voyage to England when Ronon had felt almost fond of him. But now… He bit his tongue, and concentrated on where he was going, watching the traveller dwindle into the distance, looking for movement in the trees.
"You hear about such terrible things happening to innocent travellers at night," McKay said. "How did it get to be night?"
"Because the sun went down." There was a note of sharpness in Teyla's voice.
"Actually," McKay said, "the sun stayed where it was, and the Earth rotated." His voice wavered towards the end.
The darkness grew thicker. This strange so-called forest was full of sound and movement. Small shaggy ponies wandered at will, and several times Ronon had seen a fast-moving brown creature with branches growing out of its head. There were very few people, and although the sea was apparently close, Ronon could not smell it.
"But we'll be there within the hour," McKay said hopefully, just a voice now.
'There' was this place called Lymington. 'There' was the place where the road ended in water. 'There' was the place where Sheppard might slip through their fingers forever, the trail lost in the endless ocean.
Ronon refused to believe that Sheppard had done this by choice. He refused to believe it. He refused to believe…
His head snapped up. "What was that?"
Teyla frowned. "I heard…"
"What?" McKay's voice was high. "I didn't hear anything. What…?"
"Quiet!" Ronon dismounted, and time and distance fell away. He was leading an expedition to get supplies for the Atlantis. He was guarding his captain's back, creeping silently through the wilderness, alert for any enemy. Stay back! He raised a sharp hand, ordering McKay to stay where he was. Sounds came again – a brief cry; the whicker of a horse – and Ronon ran forward, his steps silent. When it was just you and an enemy, it didn't matter what country you were in, it didn't matter what trees shielded you, it didn't matter what flowers gave their scent to the air.
Teyla was with him, a shape in the gloom. Ronon nodded at her, giving his orders. They separated, Teyla melting into the dark. Ronon kept low, darting from tree to tree. The sound came again, nearer this time, and he drew his pistol from his belt.
There was just enough light to see it by. The man who had passed them had been thrown from his terrified horse, and lay groaning and pleading on the ground. Another man approached him, cloaked and masked, his pistol steady in his implacable hand.
Ronon said nothing, just shot, but rain and distance marred his aim, and the bullet struck the attacker in the arm. From surprisingly far away, another pistol sounded. Teyla, Ronon thought. The attacker stiffened. His head half turned round, then he stopped, pulled himself into the saddle of his dark horse, and rode away.
Ronon stayed very still. It could be deadly, he knew, to emerge from hiding too soon. Enemies sometimes had accomplices, and sometimes flight was a trap. Stalks dug painfully into his knee, and he tasted mud and leaf mould. He remembered coming across a stranger fighting for his life on a distant shore, and how had had resolved to walk on by, but had somehow ended up fighting alongside the stranger. That was how he had met Sheppard – a stranger under attack, about to be killed.
Time passed. He heard noises behind him, and a bird above, and rain pattering on unfamiliar trees. He did nothing as the fallen man struggled to his feet again. He did nothing as the man failed three times to catch his horse's reins. He did nothing as he caught them on the fourth attempt, as he calmed the animal, and he mounted, as he carried on his way.
"What happened?" McKay asked, as Ronon and Teyla returned to him through greyness and rain. "What was that? I heard guns. Is anybody… uh… dead?"
Ronon mounted without answering. "I believe it was a highwayman," Teyla said; Ronon remembered songs about such people, sung on the decks in a world impossibly far away. "Ronon shot him in the arm, and scared him away."
"Are you sure he's gone?" McKay asked, and continued to ask it twitchily all the way to journey's end.
Rodney McKay reached Lymington without being ignominiously slaughtered and dumped in a ditch. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerged on the other side. Not that he would have been killed, of course, not by anyone as petty as a highwayman. He had faced down pirates, don't you know? He was bloody, bold and resolute. If the highwayman had returned for bloody vengeance, Rodney McKay would have met his coward's gaze with dignity and determination, and the highwayman would have been the one to turn tail and flee.
"We would have made mince-meat of him," he told the others, as they rode down Lymington's broad High Street. Lights shone in tavern windows, and young men laughed in the street.
Teyla did not turn round; she seemed unduly tense, almost miserable. Ronon, though, treacherous savage that he was, gave a snort. "That's why you squawked like a girl when that rabbit--"
"It was a rabbit of extraordinary magnitude," Rodney said with dignity, "and twilight can create unusual optical effects. That is a well-known fact."
Ronon snorted again. Rodney let out a slow breath. Why did he say these things, he wondered. The journey home, with Sheppard, had felt like a slow laying aside of a lifelong accumulation of masks. The moment he had set foot on English soil, he had felt those masks go back on. He was the same Rodney McKay that he had always been, and that, he knew in his heart of hearts, was not always a good thing.
"I…" He started to say something; what, he did not know.
"Where would he stay," Teyla said stiffly, "in a place like this?"
If he had stayed at all, and not taken a boat to come what may. Rodney decided not to say it; they all knew it, after all. "The taverns near the dock-side will be rough," he said, "and after narrowly escaping death at the hands of a highwayman, I have no intention of stumbling into a nest of smugglers." Ahead, on the left, just before the road began to slope down towards the quay, he saw the broad arch that led into a stable-yard of what was clearly a coaching inn, under the sign of an angel. When they drew closer, a delicious smell of roast pork came wafting out from its warm-looking interior, and, ooh yes!, perhaps even steamed pudding with cinnamon and apples. "We'll start there," he decreed.
They rode through the arch of the stable, where the smells were quite definitely neither of cinnamon nor of pork. "We're looking for a man," Rodney began, before realising that nobody within earshot was sufficiently female to have noticed Sheppard. Tossing his reins towards a convenient boy, he entered the inn, and headed for the prettiest serving maid, and, oh yes, it was apples, and there were huge jugs of rich cream, and juicy currants, and… He cleared his throat. "We're looking for a man," he said. "About the same height as me." He stood on tippy-toes as he said that bit. "He has a slight colonial accent. He doesn't wear a wig, but wears his dark hair tied back, and he's lean, and he has--"
"Oh, yes." The maiden pressed her hands together, as a blush spread over her silk-soft cheeks. "That's the captain."
"…ears," Rodney said limply. He stopped breathing for a while, the started again, his hand gripping the edge of the bar. Ronon and Teyla flanked him, as tense and watchful as a pair of hunting hawks. "The captain?" It came out rather like a croak. Rodney cleared his throat. "Pira--" He stopped himself just in time. "Captain Sheppard?"
"Captain Ford," the maiden said.
Rodney was surprised at how sharply the disappointment struck him. He turned to the others, but they were positively quivering in their excitement, like Mistress Henrietta stalking a mouse, God rest her fluffy, feline soul. Ah, Rodney thought. Assumed name. Of course.
"Is he still here?" he asked, keeping his voice admirably steady.
The maiden nodded. "He has taken a room. I believe I saw him come in not many minutes ago." Her blush showed that this was not a mere belief. This maiden had watched him every step of the way, doubtless lingering on the way his velvet coat-tails clung to his…
Enough of that! He cleared his throat, said the right things, and so it was that, mere minutes later, he and Ronon and Teyla were being led by candlelight to the end of their quest. Rodney thought of maidens in the tales of King Arthur, leading knights into traps most terrible. He thought of… No, he wouldn't think of such things. Sheppard was here, perhaps, possibly, maybe. One way or the other, this was the end. This was the end, and then, and then…
"Leave us," Ronon commanded the maiden, and then again, louder, when she demurred. "Leave us!"
She scurried away, and then it was just the three of them and a blank door. It was the three of them and a room, and beyond it… what?
Ronon knocked. There was no answer.
Rodney shifted on his feet, shoes scraping on the worn rug. His stomach rumbled with a sudden pang of hunger. His heart fluttered in his throat.
Ronon knocked again. "Sheppard." It was rasping, more like a plea. He knocked again and again, then stopped, fists against the door, forehead pressed to the wood. "Sheppard." It was quiet, little more than a whisper. Teyla's lips moved. It looked like, "Please, John." Rodney said nothing. He tried to, but his voice was choked.
The door remained closed, shutting them out. Maybe he's in trouble, Rodney wanted to say. He remembered Sheppard surrendering to Kolya, injured, beaten and bound. Ronon and Teyla exchanged a long look, and there was a nakedness of feeling there that made Rodney feel suddenly like a stranger, locked out from both sides of the door.
"Sheppard!" Ronon bellowed. He hurled himself at the door, striking it hard with his shoulder.
A key turned, but nothing else. If there were footsteps, they were so muffled by carpet that Rodney could not hear them.
Rodney was very aware of the sound of his breathing. He saw Teyla touch the door handle; saw her hand falter minutely; saw it turn. He saw the widening crack of light. He saw a fresh fire in a hearth, and a dark coat slung over the back of a chair. He felt the touch of air from a slightly-open window.
This time even Rodney was included in the shared look. His hand on his knife, Ronon entered first. Teyla followed close behind, and Rodney went last. The door swung shut behind them, and he sucked in a breath at the slight click that it made.
A figure was standing with its back to the room, facing the darkness of an undraped window. One hand was on the white-painted wood of the window-frame, but the muscles were taut beneath the show of nonchalance. Rodney well knew that pose. He had seen it on the deck of the Atlantis, when Sheppard had stood at the rail, gazing out at the distant lands that had closed their doors to him.
"Sheppard," Ronon breathed. None of them seemed quite willing to close the final gap that lay between them. The three of them faltered by the door, leaving Sheppard on his stage by the window.
"Who is looking after my ship?" Sheppard did not turn round, but there was ice in his voice.
Teyla edged forward barely an inch. "We thought--"
"I told you to stay." Sheppard's hand tightened just a little on the window-frame, fingers pressing into the white.
"We thought you were in trouble." Ronon's voice was the voice of a much smaller man.
"And now you have satisfied yourself that I am not." Sheppard turned, just a little. His profile was the same as it had always been.
"Why--?" Ronon took two steps forward, but still the gulf remained.
"I told you to stay with the Atlantis." Sheppard's face was hidden from them again. "I have... business to attend to."
"By running away from us?" Ronon looked utterly stricken. Teyla was blinking hard, perhaps on the verge of tears. "Damn it, Sheppard." Another step. "We've followed you across England. We thought you needed us. McKay said you were travelling alone, but I didn't believe it. We didn't believe it. We thought--"
Sheppard said nothing. Seen from behind, he was as still and as cold as a statue of stone.
"Damn you, Sheppard!" Ronon took the final, fateful step. He grabbed Sheppard's arm, dragging him round, forcing the man to look at them.
Sheppard made no sound at all, but Ronon cried out as if he had been stabbed. He snatched his hand back, and opened his palm to the flickering, golden light of the candle.
The blood glistened, dark as a denunciation.
"It was you," Rodney gasped, his voice freed at last. "You were the highwayman. It was you."
end of chapter two
Lymington High Street, with the Angel Inn, on a gloomy market day, November 2008
Outside the Angel Inn, late eighteenth century
In which there is much talking, and an inequitable division of apple crumble
Why was it, Teyla wondered, that she noticed the most trivial things when her life was changing? She saw the dark red pattern on the hangings of the bed, and the coarse grain of the dark wood panels. She saw the way the wax dripped down from the nearest trio of candles, driven into stalactites by the breeze from the window. She saw the shrivelled leaf that lay on the counterpane.
She still remembered what song the caged bird had sung, the day she had left her mother's plantation and run away to sea.
Most of all, though, she saw John. She saw how he stood there, his face frozen, his jaw set, but with secrets in his eyes that she could not penetrate. Now that she knew what to look for, she saw the wet stain on his dark sleeve, and she saw his hands at his sides, clenched and empty.
He did not deny the charge. He did not deny it, but he was hurt. Her mind fluttered like the bird had fluttered that day, but at least this was something she could focus on.
She moved forward. "Let me…" she said, not really expecting him to let her, but knowing that she had to try. Let this at least remain normal – one last relic of the life that they had lived.
He was stiff, as he so often was, but she put the weeks of fruitless searching into her hands, and led him insistently to the bed. He sat down when she directed him to, and let her free him from the jacket. The shirt sleeve beneath it was soaked with blood from shoulder to elbow.
"A highwayman, Sheppard." McKay was pacing up and down behind her. "You came to England for a pardon! Couldn't you have stayed out of trouble long enough to actually get it? Are you trying to add every type of criminal activity to your repertoire? What next: smuggling? Regicide?"
John allowed her to gently pull his sleeve up. His upper arm was a mess, but there was too much blood for her to judge how severe the wound was. Her fingers brushed skin. She felt him flinch, but he remained still, allowing her tend him. Even on the Atlantis, he had seldom allowed this. It struck her suddenly that this was a concession. He was giving away what he could afford to lose, so he could concentrate on guarding those things he needed to keep.
"And all without a word!" McKay exclaimed. The light flickered as he walked past the candles, fading dark, then light; dark, then light. "Ronon and Teyla were worried sick. Have you any idea what they went through to find you? We were in daily danger of being arrested or torn apart by angry mobs, but we kept going because of you. We thought you were in trouble. We thought you needed us. And all along, you were swanning off, breaking female hearts across the southern counties, and, oh yes! robbing people on the king's highway. We cannot forget that little detail, can we?"
Teyla was leaning over John, her face close to his arm. His face was turned away, but she could see the bare skin at the base of his neck, and see how fast his pulse was racing. He was breathing fast, too, although he hid it well; it was only her proximity that allowed her to see it.
"By all means, throw away your own pardon," McKay raged, "but you have a whole ship-load of loyal crew whose pardons are tied in with your own. Do their lives mean nothing to you? And what about me? I was abducted a second time, and dragged on a wild goose chase across England. I was almost killed a dozen times, but I--"
Ronon smashed his fist into the wall. Teyla looked up to see the aftermath. Ronon was pulling his fist back as if to strike again, perhaps at John, perhaps at McKay. "Ronon," she said firmly. She said his name again, and then again until he looked at her. "Ronon. Will you go downstairs and get me water and some bandages? Please," she insisted, and saw Ronon look at John's arm, saw him let out a breath, saw his fist fall stiffly to his side. "Please," she said again, and Ronon left. The candles flickered as the door closed behind him.
"Sheppard…" McKay sat down in a high-backed wooden chair. There was a plate of bread and grapes on the table, and he picked up a hunk of bread and tore it in half. "Seriously, Sheppard, why?" Beneath his anger, he looked quite as stricken as Ronon.
"Perhaps," John said, "I realised that a life on the right side of the law didn't suit me. You saw how well crime paid."
She held his arm still with a tight grip at the elbow. Bunching up a loose piece of his sleeve, she began to wipe the blood away. John sucked in a sharp breath as she did so. Candlelight played on the back of his neck. Everyone was the same there, she thought, no matter what masks they wore. "I do not believe that the wound is very serious," she found herself saying. "I believe the pistol ball gouged a seam in your flesh, but nothing more." Still enough to kill, of course, if the wound became infected. Life was so very fragile.
McKay took a bite of bread; chewed it; swallowed. "I thought you were different." It was quiet, addressed to his hands.
Close as she was, she saw the way that John was quivering minutely, perhaps with pain, perhaps with something more. She wiped another smear of blood away. As she did so, she felt him strain a little against her grip, but she held on. The quietest of sounds escaped his throat, but he said nothing more.
Perhaps she would have spoken then, but Ronon returned with the water before she could do so. She concentrated on thanking him, and on doing what she needed to do to treat John's injury. Unbidden, Ronon had brought brandy. She wondered if it was for himself or for John.
With a wad of fabric soaked in water, she started to clean the wound. This time, John made no reaction at all. He was looking at the window, at the only place where none of them were. When Teyla glanced up, she saw that Ronon was watching fiercely, looking at the injury that he himself had made. Perhaps unconsciously, his hand was on his knife.
She dipped the fabric in the water for a second time, and started on the deepest part of the wound. "You should leave," John said, as if he had been surprised by pain into saying it.
"Is that what you want?" Her voice was close to his ear; her eyes on his wound and the pulse at his neck
His lips parted, then closed again. "Yes," he said. "Go away. I told you not to come."
"You don't want us here?" She felt Ronon at her back, but he was leaving the talking to her. McKay was munching bread.
The pause was shorter this time. "No."
She released his elbow, and grabbed him instead much closer to the wound. "Stay still," she told him, when his head snapped round. "I need to--"
"So it all ends here," McKay said. "Just like that, without a thank you."
"John," she commanded, using her whole hand to press the damp fabric on the wound, "please tell us the truth."
His gaze skittered away from her, always away. "I am."
"No." She shook her head, and for the first time was absolutely sure of it. "There is more to this than you want us to believe. You are acting under some coercion."
This time he just shook his head minutely.
"John," she said, still holding his arm, but giving up all pretence of working on the wound. "Please. It is us."
She felt him try to pull away. She saw his pulse racing at his throat.
"Do you believe we would be in danger if we stayed?" she asked. Behind her, she heard Ronon suck in a sharp breath. "You want to drive us away for our own protection." She relaxed her grip, but he did not pull away, letting her touch his arm with mild fingers.
She moved away first, knowing that even in his unguarded moments, it was best not to push things too far. She sat on the bed beside him, and Ronon crouched down at their feet, his eyes burning.
"Tell us," she said quietly. "If you are in trouble, let us help you."
"No, I…" John turned away from them again, his gaze returning to the open window. When he spoke again, his voice sounded almost defeated. "Very well. I went to the Admiralty like a good boy--"
"But you didn't!" McKay protested. "I enquired after you. They said you hadn't--" He broke off sharply. "Sorry. Being quiet." Perhaps Ronon had glared at him; Teyla had eyes only for John, feeling suddenly that he might fly away like thistledown through that open window if she stopped watching him.
"I was… intercepted," John said, and gave a harsh breath of laughter. "A certain… gentleman met me at the gate. His credentials were impossible to argue with. I was to perform a little service for him, he informed me, or the offer of a pardon would be withdrawn. He was most convincing." John turned round, voluntarily looking at them for the first time. "I tried to refuse, but it wasn't just me. It was everyone's pardons – everyone on the Atlantis. They had only been declared outlaw because of me. I couldn't--"
"You could have killed him," Ronon said.
John gave a mirthless smile. "That wasn't an option, believe me. So I agreed."
"He wanted you to turn highwayman?" McKay exclaimed. "What? Did he want you to recover a love token from a jilted sweetheart?"
"There's a certain merchant in Lymington." John stood up, went to the window, and tugged at the sash. The sounds of the street faded to nothing. "Apparently there are some suspicions about his loyalty." John remained at the window, but at least this time he turned to face them. "I've been charged to uncover proof that he's involved in certain enterprises that he shouldn't be involved in."
"And they couldn't just arrest him?" McKay asked.
John shook his head. "He has important connections – friends in high places. Hence my involvement. Either I return with the proof, or if everything goes spectacularly wrong, and I am discovered…"
"They'll wash their hands of you, and deny all knowledge," McKay finished for him. "Just a known traitor making mischief."
"You have it there," John said bitterly.
"But why turn highwayman?" McKay stood up, grapes trailing from his fingers. "Is criminal activity the first thing that springs to mind with you piratical types? We had Ronon stealing things left, right and centre across England, and now you. 'Prove a man's guilt' does not automatically equate to 'go a-robbing on the king's highway.'"
"I was trying to intercept his dispatches," John said, "until you so helpfully stopped me."
"I shot you." Ronon rose to his feet. "I'm sorry."
"Was it you?" John shrugged with his good arm, dismissing it as nothing. "I thought it was McKay, since I'm, well… alive." The glimmer of a smile looked almost genuine.
Teyla rose, too, and went towards the window, remembering all the times he had stood at the rail of the Atlantis, tolerating people beside him, but not too close. "Why were you trying to do it alone?" she asked.
He looked as if the question had surprised him. "Because…" He frowned. "He told me I had to go instantly, and go alone."
"As if you've ever done what you were told," Ronon snorted. He was wrong, of course. When the safety of his crew was at stake, John would do anything.
"You could have found a way to send word," Teyla said, but she knew the truth, of course. Once again, he was taking on the burden by himself. He seemed incapable of believing that people might want to share it. "If word had reached the Atlantis, everyone would have--"
"Because I'm the captain," John said harshly. "They would have taken it as an order. I can't--"
"No," she said, shaking her head, smiling sadly. "That would not have been the reason for their coming, just as it was not the reason with us. We want to help you, John. Please, let us help you."
"Yes," said McKay, "because, well, we're here now, and I'm good at finding proofs. Admittedly, I normally limit my attention to finding proofs of challenging mathematical theorems, but I'm sure I can apply my skills to the world of daring espionage. Every criminal gang needs brains. Er, not that you're a criminal, of course, but…"
"Don't send us away, Sheppard." Ronon moved to John's side, and clapped him on the back. "Any man fights better with comrades at his back." He lowered his voice a little. "You showed me that, Sheppard."
John looked at them, closed his eyes, and then she saw the moment when the tension flowed out of him. He opened his eyes again, but no words were necessary. The answer was already there.
Rodney McKay knew when an injustice had been committed. When faced with something contrary to all laws of justice and fairness, he was never one to keep silent. He would go to the correct authorities and make his complaint.
For now, though, he contented himself with complaining to Sheppard. "Your bowl is bigger than mine." He jabbed his spoon in Sheppard's direction. "We both paid exactly the same amount, but your helping is easily larger, at least five parts to my three. And," he said, waving the spoon with all the emphasis required by a concluding point, "she gave you more cream."
Sheppard raised one eyebrow. "I guess she likes me more than she likes you."
"I can't think why." Rodney snorted. "It was quite sickening. There were maidens swooning all across the southern countries. Why does the female of the species only see the veneer? They flutter and they swoon at foolish fops in pretty clothing, and they remain blind to true worth and intelligence. And now you're a highwayman. They sing ballads about highwaymen in the taverns. Low-down criminals, of course, but you wouldn't think so by the way the maidens press their hands together and sigh." He faltered; swallowed once or twice. "Which is not to say that you're a criminal or…" He recovered his decisive grip on his spoon. "Almost twice as much as me, Sheppard. It isn't fair. I intend to complain."
Sheppard pushed his bowl over, using his uninjured arm. "I've had all I want." Rodney was about to plunge his spoon into his plunder when Sheppard said, "But I am a fop? You're saying that?" His eyes glittered in that way that Rodney had learnt to recognise as a sign that he wasn't really angry, just pretending. At least, that's what he thought it meant. He knew how to read truths in the stars, but people were a thing far harder.
"No," Rodney stammered. "No. Not at all." He took an over-warm mouthful. Truth was, Sheppard had spent most of his time on deck in a loose shirt and breeches, and reserved his velvet for when he was playing a part. If only Rodney could work out how he managed to keep his hair in place!
His repast over, Sheppard seemed keen to return to business. The window was safely shut, the fire was bright and burning, and Ronon had taken a position near the door, as if he expected assassins to burst in at any moment. "His name is William Wheeler," Sheppard said, turning sideways in his chair, forearm resting along its back, "a respectable merchant who has chosen to built a sizeable residence in this small provincial port. He is quite the dabbler in natural philosophy, or so I understand."
Rodney snorted. He had no time for dabblers.
"Trouble is," Sheppard continued, "he is on visiting terms with the Duke of Montagu when his grace is resident at Beaulieu, and he corresponds with some of the greatest names in the land. Interestingly," he said, treacherously not looking at Rodney, "the Duke of Montagu is a Fellow of the Royal Society--"
Rodney snorted. He had no time for dabblers who used their money and influence to buy honours that should by rights have had his own name on.
"--and has recently been granted the islands of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent."
Ronon looked up. "Is that where we…?"
"Yes." Sheppard nodded. "So it would be better, all things considered, if said duke should stay well away from Lymington."
"Indeed," Teyla said, with apparent feeling.
"But…" Rodney raised his spoon again.
"Because we can't risk McKay blurting everything out to him in an attempt to show him that he, rather than the duke, deserves to that fellowship." Sheppard, treacherous pirate that he was, still refrained from looking at him. "I can see it now. 'I designed an ingenious machine for John Sheppard, that most notorious pirate. Beat that!'"
Rodney turned his attention to the last few mouthfuls of apple crumble. It seemed wiser, all things considered.
"So what's the plan?" Ronon asked. "Break into his house?"
"I tried, but there were people in almost every room, and ladies present." Sheppard looked rueful. "I've made contact socially, but he's not forthcoming. Robbing his courier seemed like the best option at the time."
"But you have us now," Teyla said. "Many things are open to three that are not--"
"Four," Rodney rasped, and nearly choked on his final mouthful. When he had finished coughing, he gripped the edge of the table. "There's four of us. I know you're an untutored savage and can't do advanced mathematics, but surely you can count to four. Unless you…" The crumble renewed its assault, and he coughed again. "Unless you're not including me."
He was sure they had been exchanging looks as he had contended with his streaming eyes, and the imminent danger of death! "You don't have to…" Sheppard began.
"I want to." Suddenly he was back on the deck after the departure of Lorne, so sure that everything was ending. "I thought it was all decided."
Sheppard rose from his chair; walked to that accursed window. "This isn't some far away place, some holiday from normal life. This is England. This is the laws of England. This is going against someone who moves in the same world that you do."
And that means? Rodney wanted to say, but he remembered, too, how he had instantly assumed the worst about Sheppard. Teyla had been the one to work out the truth, whereas Rodney had just denounced him. Worse, he realised, Sheppard had expected them to denounce him. This is so new to me, he thought, but this, too, he did not say. Dealing with people. Having friends.
Perhaps Sheppard took his silence as acceptance. "Wheeler has a wife," he said, moving on, "and a daughter of seventeen. It is possible that a woman might be able to obtain information by that route, if she were respectable enough to gain admittance to their circle."
It was Teyla's turn to looked pinned. "You want me to… You want…" Her hand fluttered to her men's clothing. "No. I…"
"You said you wanted to help," Sheppard said, his back to them, with ice in his voice, that old, familiar tone. "If you can't, then go. Please. Out of danger. If you stay…" The ice fragmented. His hand came up to the elbow of his injured arm, holding it tight.
"Yes. Yes." Teyla sounded dazed. "Of course. If that is what is needed."
"I want to help, too." The words came bursting out with all the force of several minutes silence. "I don't care if it's England. I didn't have to come all the way here. I didn't have to put myself through the humiliation – and it was humiliating – of watching maidens gush over you without noticing me. Yes, yes, I know they abducted me, but I could have un-abducted myself; they were quite clear about that. I… I don't really know why, just that I was happier on the Atlantis on the voyage home than I've ever been in my life, and I think… I've never really had a friend before, and I don't know if… but I don't want to walk away." He sniffed, reaching for his handkerchief. "Besides," he said, grasping desperately for lost dignity, and gaining it, even if he did say so himself, "you'd be lost without me. I can't walk away and leave you. You'd blunder your way onto the gallows."
Sheppard said nothing, just breathed in and out, his hand on that thrice-cursed window. But when Rodney moved, he caught a glimpse of the reflection there. Perhaps it was just that the glass was warped, that it looked like that.
"Yes," Rodney said, suddenly desperate for there not to be silence, "I'm your last chance to get out of this alive. And with nice, shiny pardons, of course, which is rather the whole point."
"Oh, so everything's all right." Sheppard turned around again, and whatever Rodney had seen in the reflection was gone, hidden behind his usual calm. "Rodney McKay's on the case." He raised a mild eyebrow. "So what's your plan?"
Rodney scraped his bowl, searching for the very last dregs of cream. Then he brushed some dust from his cuff, stretched his legs towards the fire, and decided that it was imperative that he educate Ronon and Teyla forthwith about the principles of combustion that made it burn so warmly.
Drawing of a masked highwayman by Jane Crossley of Boldre
Jane Crossley was seventeen in 1721, when – according to her memoirs written in 1780 – she saw a masked man riding out past her mother's cottage in Boldre in the New Forest. "All I could see of him was his eyes above his mask," she said, "but it was enough to set my maiden's heart a-fluttering." She drew this picture the following day, but kept it secret, fearing that her mother would hand it to the militia who would use it as a means to identify this most interesting robber. Jane later married a justice, but she seems to have kept her romantic fondness for gentlemen of the road, frequently knitting them mufflers and delivering them to the sorry wretches in their gaol cells. What the condemned men through of these gifts has not been recorded.
In which Rodney and the captain are finally introduced
Rodney decided that it was best not to analyse the chemical composition of the dark puddle at his feet. Holding his breath, he stepped over it, and carried on his way, weaving around coils of rope, and deftly avoiding the treacherous pitfalls of wet, slippery patches. Reaching a bollard, he wiped it clean of dew and raindrops, and perched on it, looking out at the water.
It was early morning, not long after dawn, but Rodney had found his sleep most troubled. Highwaymen had lurked in bushes and jumped out at him, and there had been such a dreadful noise from the street. Rumbling cart wheels had become the drums of an execution guard, as Sheppard swung dying from a gibbet. Then Rodney had had his hands lashed behind his back, and was led to the same fate. It had been hard to sleep after that.
Outside, everywhere had the soft greyness of early morning. The water was dull silver, and the salt marshes on the far side of the river mouth stretched out like a smear of shadow on the surface of the sea. Boats were everywhere, anchored on both sides of the river, and a few were already moving, heading out through the narrow channel through the marshes. Boats of all types were found here, ranging from… boats, to, er, big boats, and small boats, and, er… large boats. Some of them were inhabited, too, with muscular savages hauling on lines and shouting to each other in quaint nautical dialect.
I'm really here, Rodney thought. It seemed like a strange thing to think, but everything was shimmering, as if caught somewhere half in a dream. There was prettiness, but there was brutality, too. He was here alone, but he had companions sleeping back at the inn. He was dabbling with danger, this time not because he had been coerced, but because he had chosen to.
And he could turn around now and ride away, and nobody would come after him. He could return to his father's house, take up the threads of his old life, and never dream again.
Or maybe never wake up.
He stood up sharply, and was about to return to the inn, when he saw another figure far ahead of him, also standing a morning vigil at the edge of the sea. He knew instantly that it was Sheppard, although he had not known that he could recognise the man so easily, half-faded into the morning gloom as he was. As Rodney hesitated, his feet took matters into their own hands, and began to walk him towards Sheppard. He would have words with them afterwards, he thought, as he closed the final few steps.
Sheppard made no sign of being aware of his approach. Rodney's feet stopped their morning course just behind him, and Rodney almost cleared his throat, then decided not to. Sheppard looked quite remote and strange, standing there with the wind stirring the tails of his long coat, like some figurehead carved of wood. Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again. Perhaps he would go away - urgent business, and all that. His feet had made him do it, anyway. Of course Sheppard wouldn't want to talk to him.
"Are you going to say your piece," Sheppard said, without turning round, "or do you intend to hover there until the sun rises?"
Rodney made an inarticulate sound by accident. He tried again. "I couldn't sleep. The street was disgracefully noisy."
"Smugglers," Sheppard said, "moving their wares. Best call them Free Traders round here, though. It's wiser."
"Oh." Rodney eyed the nearest bollard, and decided to make a play for it. Sheppard did not contest it. "Oh," he said again. His hand fluttered towards his throat. "Will they, uh, kill me if I call them…? It seems harsh. You never killed me when I called you a bloodthirsty p--" He stopped that, too, remembering his resolve not to say that word rashly in strange places.
"Was tempted to sometimes."
Rodney let the comment pass with dignity. "How do you recognise a smug-- free trader?" He looked from boat to boat, from sailor to sailor, and then back at the quay, where people were already moving, heading down to the water. One particular rascally fellow caught his eye. "Is he--?" He jerked his chin subtly at him. "--you know?"
"Very probably." Sheppard sat down, not on a bollard, but on the edge of the quay itself, one leg dangling over the water. It seemed quite a precarious pose, but Rodney supposed the man knew what he was doing, and refrained from offering advice on stability and centres of mass. "Most everyone is around here, it seems."
"Oh." Rodney seemed to be saying that a lot. He converted it into a sound far more triumphant. "Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "Perhaps that's Wheeler's dastardly secret! He's in league with the smugglers. Traders. Free Traders." He said it quite loudly. A gull screamed in answer.
"Very probably." Sheppard smiled ruefully. "Unfortunately, that appears to be the default status in these parts." He twisted round, studying the people on the quay. "That man there isn't in league with them, as far as I have been able to determine." Then, before Rodney could manage a disconsolate 'oh', he carried on. "The landlord of the Angel is hand in glove with them. There's a tunnel, you know, running from the cellar all the way to the river. I began to explore it a few nights back, before discretion paid me a rare visit and urged me to stop."
"A secret tunnel," Rodney gasped. "In England?" He drew his coat tighter, and the morning felt suddenly colder, as if the breeze held the knives of a thousand dastardly rogues.
"Yes, in England." Sheppard's eyes glittered. "You don't have to travel to the far side of the world to find dastardly rogues, huh? Our kind are everywhere."
I didn't mean what I said last night! Rodney wanted to protest. Yes, so he'd instantly assumed that Sheppard had reverted to wicked ways, but he had been provoked. Sheppard himself had expected them to think the worse of him; that was why he had played the part in the first place, acting so cold, telling them to go away.
Sheppard expected us to think the worst. He thought it again more slowly, and for a moment he felt as if he was teetering on the brink of understanding so many things.
"Why?" The question tore itself free from his lips without him intending it. Sheppard looked at him, and his eyes said don't ask, and Rodney looked instead at a dark boat heading out to the river mouth, white gulls circling it. "It won't be for long," he said. "Once you complete your task and find the proof – and how can you fail, with me on your team? And Ronon's useful, too, of course, and Teyla… But once that happens, you'll get your pardon. The slate will be wiped clean. Everyone will know you were always innocent."
Sheppard turned away from him, looking out to sea, but Rodney found himself on his feet, closing the last few steps to the edge of the quay, and then found himself sitting down beside Sheppard, despite the watery grave that glittered at the foot of the precipice.
"They won't let me go that easily," Sheppard said quietly. He looked at Rodney, a rare honesty in his eyes. "If I give them what they want, there'll be other requests. There'll always be other requests. They'll dangle this pardon in front of me, and I'll have no choice but to do what they demand, because… it's my crew, McKay. They're good men. They're only in this because of me. And it will keep going. One more task, and then one more task, and it will never end."
"You might be killed first." Rodney meant it quite genuinely as a consolation, but the moment he said it, he realised that it might not have come across that way. "I mean…" He tried to soften it, tried to explain. "If this Wheeler really is embroiled in something serious, he might be prepared to kill…" He stopped himself just in time – or perhaps, he thought, just a fraction too late.
"Slavery or death," Sheppard said. "Have you ever considered a career in inspirational speaking, McKay?"
The sun broke free from the trees on the far side of the river, and the water melted into liquid gold. "Then we'll just have to ensure that neither of those futures come to pass, then." Rodney felt fresh air play around his ankles, and coarse ground underneath his hands. "You're not doing it by yourself any more," he said. "There's four of us now. How can we fail?"
"How can we fail, indeed?" Sheppard said, but at least he was smiling.
But they walked back to the town each one of them alone.
The person in the looking glass was a stranger, Teyla told herself. The stranger was wearing a gown that touched the floor, and her waist was hugged by a tight bodice. A frippery of lacy drape clung to the stranger's shoulders, and there was a jewel at her throat. Her hair was piled up high, and fell down to her shoulders in soft curls and ringlets. Her face looked stiff. Her body looked imprisoned.
Teyla moved, bringing her hand up to her chest, and the stranger moved too. It was not a stranger, of course. Her own hands had known how to pin her hair just so, moving as deftly and as swiftly as they moved when priming a pistol. Her own hands knew how to pull and fasten laces, and she knew how to stand like a lady, and she knew how to walk, and she knew how to act.
For five years, she had lived on the Atlantis, wearing men's clothing, and fighting as one of them for the life of her friends and the hopes of her captain. It felt as if those years had meant nothing. She was in a gown again, and it ought to feel strange and unfamiliar and horrible, but it did not. That life had ended, she had told herself gleefully, again and again and again. The looking glass told her otherwise. That life had never gone away, and the last five years had been nothing more than a dream.
She wanted to tear it off. A gown like this was not just a gown, but a prison, binding her to things that she had thought to have escaped forever.
There was a knock at her door. Old habits took over, and she prepared herself to receive her visitor, stiff and polite. "You may enter." There was no need even to disguise her natural voice.
McKay managed two steps before faltering to a halt. "You look…" He swallowed, his hand fluttering as if he wanted to snatch the errant word from the air. "Female," he settled on at last.
She smiled; it was either that, or weep. "I always have been."
"Yes. Yes." He looked flustered, and his eyes were skittering away from looking too closely at her. "I… I've never been good at talking to ladies," he said. "They like to talk about clothes and… and about the doings of the prominent figures in the neighbourhood, and I never know what to say. They…" He took another step, and closed the door behind him. "Sometimes they laugh at me," he confessed, "behind their handkerchiefs."
"I am still the same person I was yesterday," Teyla assured him, as the figure in the looking glass stared back at her, and told her the truth of that statement. "Talk to me the same way you always do. Though not in society," she added, after a moment's thought. "Remember the part we are playing."
"Of course." McKay gathered himself enough to offer her his arm.
It was a part, Teyla reminded herself. It was just a part. And it was done for John's sake, because he needed this sacrifice from her. If he had asked her to risk her life to save him, she would have done so without a thought, and this was no different. Just a part, she told herself. Just a part.
Stage one of Sheppard's plan, it seemed to Rodney, consisted of nothing but walking. It offered no chance to exercise anything at all, except for his poor, abused feet. His intellect languished, unwanted and uncalled-for. There were no opportunities to use stealth and guile and to reveal himself as a master of espionage of the first order.
It did, though, take him past numerous hat shops.
On their third course of the High Street, he tried to talk to Teyla about lace bonnets.
Teyla, it seemed, did not want to talk about lace bonnets. "I am still me," she hissed, holding onto his arm with a touch that looked light and elegant, but somehow managed to hurt him very much.
"Oh. Yes. Sorry." But you couldn't say 'sorry' to a beautiful lady in an expensive gown, even if it was one that hadn't been made for her, but had been bought hastily from a fleeing widow, no questions asked. "I apologise."
He wasn't sure how it was possible for her grip to become even more painful, but she managed it.
"Perhaps the hat shops are a cover for the activity of smug-- free traders," he said, lowering his voice. "Although I believe that brandy is their principal import, and it would be hard to imagine how one could hide brandy in a--" It ended in a squawk. Teyla, it seemed, had given up all pretence at gripping him like a lady would grip her gallant escort.
They headed down the steep slope that curved to the quay. Now that the light was better, Rodney could see that a large ship was being built on the far end of the quay, near the mouth of the river. The tide was high, and the channel was broader, although the salt marshes still reached out far into the sea.
A puddle was approaching. The only way to avoid it was to force Teyla to go through it, and you couldn't do that to a lady – his mother had been quite insistent about that fact, after Charlotte Dauncey had treacherously blabbed – even if she was the sort of lady who could put a pistol ball through your sizeable brain at twenty paces. Cold water splashed unpleasantly onto his stockings.
"How much longer do we have to do this?" he hissed through the side of his mouth. Teyla tightened her grip. "What?" Rodney protested. "I didn't say anything wrong this time."
The grip tightened even harder – he was going to have bruises come morning! – and Teyla said quietly, casually, "I believe that may be our man."
"Oh." He swallowed. "How do we--?"
"John confirms it," Teyla said.
"What? How did you--?" Rodney turned round as fully as he could with a lady on his arm, but saw no sign of Sheppard anywhere. That was part of the plan. Rodney and the others were supposed to pretend that they didn't know Sheppard. That way, Sheppard said, if something went spectacularly wrong with one prong of the attack, the other prong could continue to strike home. 'He wants to keep us from going down with him, should it all fall apart,' Teyla had explained sadly, after they had left him. They were even staying in different inns. The only people who had seen them together were a few serving wenches and stable boys and a scattering of early morning smugglers, and there was no reason for them to talk.
"So…" Rodney drew himself up, smoothing the front of his coat. This particular prong lay entirely in his hands. "Mister Wheeler?" He hurried forward, heedless of puddles. "Mister Wheeler!"
The man turned round. He was younger than Rodney had expected, or perhaps he just wore his years well. His eyes were keen in a lean face, and he was distressingly tall. It was never good to commence an offensive when you had to look up at your enemy. "Do I know you, sir?" he said, his voice polite but far from friendly.
"Rodney McKay." Rodney fumbled one-handed in his pocket. "I came to these parts some years ago on business from my father, Robert McKay of Bristol. You were…" He covered the lie in a more frenzied searching of his pocket. "I have a letter of introduction, but I… I seem to have mislaid it."
"How regrettable." Wheeler stood with his hands folded in front of him. Rodney decided that he was most definitely a rogue.
"My father is interested in branching out into your line of trade – not in competition, or anything," he added hastily, suddenly realising the flaw in that little part of the story, that had seemed so inspired as he had walked past his third hat shop.
"They have salt in Bristol?"
Rodney felt himself growing flustered. It would not do, he told himself. It would not do. He tried a new prong. "I have also heard great things of you at the Royal Society." He waved his hand in a self-deprecating fashion. "I was taught by Sir Edmond Halley, you know. I'm not a Fellow yet… Paperwork, you know. Administration…"
His voice trailed away. Wheeler seemed to be waiting for him to say something else. What obvious social nicety had he forgotten? Oh yes. Introduce the lady. He had designed astronomical clocks in his head during that particular childhood lesson. Who would have thought that knowledge of polite behaviour would actually be useful one day?
"Oh," he said. "This is my cousin, Miss Beckett." It was assumed names all round, Sheppard had insisted, except for Rodney, the only one of them whose name didn't appear on some ledger in the Admiralty with the word 'pirate' next to it, underlined thrice. "My aunt settled in the Indies," he explained, "and married--" Teyla's grip tightened again, right on the tender point from the previous half dozen occurrences. Keep it simple, Rodney remembered. Sheppard had been most insistent about that. If in doubt, say nothing. So he pressed his lips together, and waited for the prong to strike home.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Beckett." Wheeler bowed, oily customer that he was. "Is this your first visit to Lymington?"
They talked for a little while, saying polite nothings. Rodney's mind started to race down cunning paths. Sheppard had tried to rob Wheeler's personal courier, who was doubtless carrying incriminating dispatches full of evil intent. The courier must surely have said something about his close encounter with doom.
"We had a terrible journey," he said, when there was a pause in polite admiration of the sparkling nature of the water. "The weather yesterday was quite abominable, and we were almost set upon by a highwayman, but my man fired a pistol and scared him away."
"There have indeed been reports of a highwayman in the forest," Wheeler said smoothly, with never a guilty start. "He will be brought to justice soon enough." He smiled thinly. "If you will excuse me…" He nodded at someone Rodney couldn't yet see, then turned back to Rodney, smiling. "Do you know Captain Ford?"
"No," Rodney said, then he remembered. Sheppard. He meant Sheppard. What was Sheppard doing here, and…? "No," he said again, his voice a little higher than it should have been. "I don't. We haven't met. Never."
Teyla was gripping him tightly again, but this time he thought it wasn't deliberate. He could feel her hand trembling through his sleeve.
"Captain Ford." Wheeler did the introductions. "Miss Beckett. Mister McKay." Hands were shaken. Hats were doffed. Nods were given. "Captain Ford is a former officer of His Britannic Majesty's Navy," Wheeler told Rodney. "He is a brave man to come so openly to a place like this, where, I regret to say, there is much lawlessness, and valiant officers like Captain Ford are not always viewed as the stalwart heroes that you and I know them to be. We must admire him."
Rodney stammered something that might have been an 'indeed.' Sheppard smiled smoothly. "I am here purely on private business. I wish to purchase a property by the sea, far away from the hustle and bustle of city life."
"Then you and I shall be neighbours, eh, Ford?" Wheeler clapped Sheppard on the arm. When Teyla's fingers dug in warningly, Rodney realised that Wheeler was striking Sheppard exactly where he had been shot.
Sheppard, though, gave no sign of it. "Indeed we will," he said.
Someone shouted something further down the quay. Wheeler turned round, indicated something with his hand, and turned back to them. "Business calls me, I'm afraid. It was a pleasure to meet you."
The proper goodbyes were said. Rodney watched Wheeler walk away, and tried to ascertain whether that was the gait of an inveterate villain. He decided that it probably was.
"Why did you show yourself?" Teyla hissed sharply, though outwardly she looked as composed as ever, the beautiful lady on his arm.
"So we can be seen together socially," Sheppard said. He looked tired, Rodney noticed suddenly, now that he was caught in the full afternoon light. "After all, Wheeler himself made the introductions."
Etiquette made everything so very difficult, Rodney thought. But he thought he had walked through its minefield and emerged safely on the other side. His prong had gone in nicely. Now all the had to do was wait until they could prod a little deeper. He just hoped that the next part of the offensive was kinder on his feet.
Ronon hated England. He hated Lymington. He hated this plan.
He hated not being allowed to follow Sheppard everywhere, his guard and shadow. He hated being banished to a different inn, forced to pass in public as McKay's man. He hated not being able to force answers at the point of his sword.
He hated this inn, this Nag's Head, where men came in in groups, and sat together and laughed together in that tight, inward-looking way that came from facing danger together. He hated their songs. He hated the ale.
"The brandy's good, though," McKay said, swirling a rounded glass, "and surprisingly cheap. Of course, that's probably because it's been brought in by…" He took a large mouthful. "By shining examples of the enterprise of free trade," he said loudly. Someone at the next table looked up.
He hated McKay. He hated the fact that Teyla was trapped in her room upstairs, because she was a lady now, and could not descend to the tap room. He hated the fact that Sheppard was out somewhere in the night alone, and that he would return to a cold room in another inn. Ronon had watched from the quay-side as Sheppard and the others had met this Wheeler, but watching was all he had been able to do. Sheppard had commanded him to scout out the town and its environs, and that much he could do, but Sheppard had also told him to sound out the stable boys and boatmen, and that was something Ronon didn't know how to do.
He was sure that a trap was closing in around them. Everyone in this place knew each other, and they were the strangers.
He pushed his chair back harshly, wanting nothing more to get out. "Wait!" McKay waved his knife. "I… er… I don't think you're supposed to do that, not without permission." His eyes flickered from side to side. "You are my servant, after all." Ronon heard a low sound come out of his throat, almost like an animal. McKay cleared his throat. "Not that these people seem over-addicted to etiquette."
The music changed. People thumped on the table, shouting out a name. It sounded like 'Captain Ford.' Captain Ford. That was Sheppard! Ronon gripped the back of the chair, but then the song started, about a pirate called Captain Ward. He had heard the words before, far away on the Atlantis, but the tune was unfamiliar.
"Go, then." McKay's voice was rendered almost silent by the song. "I've finished here, anyway. I'll retire to my room, and think… and do… and plan…"
Ronon took in a taut breath, and breathed out again. He wanted to bellow at the singers to be quiet. He wanted to haul Sheppard free from these snares and drag him back to the Atlantis, to go where no treachery could ever catch them ever again.
He hated this. He hated what it had made him. He had betrayed Sheppard the night before, by being so quick to doubt him. He had had two years of exposure to Sheppard's masks, and he should have known. He should have known that Sheppard would never have left them without good cause. He should have known that Sheppard was only pushing them away to protect them.
This country was making a savage of him, and he hated it, hated it.
The song was drawing to its conclusion. Flushed with ale, the singer reached the defiant climax:
"Go home, go home," says Captain Ward,
"And tell your king from me,
If he reigns king of all dry land,
Then I reign king of the sea."
But it was never as simple as that in real life. The dry land's king had reached always into the Atlantis, and he still did.
He sat down again, knowing that a room upstairs would feel just as much of a prison as this crowded tap room. As he did so, he noticed someone approaching their table, weaving through the crowd with an air of purpose. He reached for his knife, gripping it under the table.
"Mister McKay?" the newcomer said. McKay nodded, looking like a hunted beast brought to bay. The stranger presented him with a folded note. "From Mister Wheeler," he said.
He was probably taking his life into his hands by venturing out into the streets at night, but Rodney had to see Sheppard. It felt cool outside, and the clouds were racing in from the sea, promising more rain. Songs faded behind him, but as he crossed the road, he caught snatches of different songs from the various taverns and private houses that lined the way.
He paused outside the Angel, wondering whether to go in. Standing there in the street, he turned the letter over and over in his hands. It was an invitation. Wheeler had invited him and Teyla to his house for dinner upon the morrow night. I don't know what to say, he thought. A whole evening of it, leading the offensive. A whole evening with the prong gripped firmly in his own hands. A whole evening with Sheppard's future resting not on the fruits of his intelligence, but on his ability to say the right thing in a social situation.
I can't, he thought. I can't… You could lie to yourself for your entire life, but when the moment of truth loomed on the horizon, you could lie no more.
Someone hurried past him in the darkness, heading for an unknown rendezvous. Rodney looked up, but even the stars were gone. There was nothing here to anchor him to anything he had ever known.
Something moved against a high window – a shape passing in front of a golden bloom of light. Rodney took a step back to see it better, and realised that it was Sheppard, standing in his window, looking down.
Rodney raised the letter, then saw the self-same gesture performed by Sheppard's hand. Sheppard had received his own invitation. Sheppard was going, too.
Of course, Rodney thought, as he hurried back to the dubious safety of a room in a haunt of smugglers, that wasn't necessarily a good thing. Wheeler might have invited them all with evil intent. It could well be a trap, and they would all be caught in it, all together, with no-one left on the outside to rescue them from certain doom.
But it felt better, knowing that Sheppard would be there. It really shouldn't, he thought, but it did.
end of chapter four
Towards Lymington Quay, November 2008, but without hat shops
In which Mister Wheeler receives some guests
Rodney McKay had always found peas trying. When young and foolish, he had once demanded to know the name of the man who had invented them, so he could take him to task for designing something so unfit for purpose. They rolled across your plate. They slithered treacherously off your knife. Sometimes they escaped completely, and bounced off the buttons of your waistcoat, to land on the floor at your feet. It was quite impossible, Rodney thought, to provoke a villain into unmasking himself when your verbal sword thrusts were blunted by the need to contend with peas.
He hazarded a glance around the table. Sheppard, of course, was in total control of his peas, rallying them as if they were members of his crew. Teyla ate hers singly and elegantly. Wheeler must have declined the offer of peas. Perhaps that was significant.
Wheeler sat at the head of the table, under the proud gaze of some recent ancestor. Sheppard appeared to be the guest of honour, which seemed quite unfair, as did the blushing glances that the daughter, Althea, bestowed on him over the centrepiece. Servants glided round silently, helping people to food from the dishes that covered the table. The pigeon was quite exquisite, as were the jellies.
"Did you see action in the late war, Captain Ford?" Wheeler asked.
"I did," Sheppard answered smoothly. "I was stationed in the Indies. My ship was successful against the Spanish on several occasions, and less successful, I'm afraid, on several more."
"The Indies?" The idiot daughter clapped her hands together. "Did you meet any pirates?"
Rodney spluttered, betrayed by a pea. Teyla's foot pressed sharply onto his own. Sheppard, however, calmly took his wine glass in his hand, and said, "I'm afraid we did not, Miss Wheeler. We heard reports of them from time to time, but never had the fortune of coming face to face with one of those gentlemen of the sea."
"Damn good thing, too." Wheeler slammed his hand onto the table. "Gentlemen of the sea! That's a good one."
"Althea is quite taken by tales of pirates, Captain Ford," said Mrs Wheeler. "I hope you will forgive her. Bloodthirsty rogues on the far side of the world can have a certain glamour in the eyes of young girls, I'm afraid."
Sheppard took a swig of his drink. "While bloodthirsty rogues on your own doorstep remain just that." He raised his glass. "To the extirpation of bloodthirsty rogues, wherever they may be."
"Bloodthirsty rogues," Rodney echoed belatedly, when everyone else had responded to the toast. It wasn't, perhaps, quite the sentiment he had intended to express. Teyla's foot pressed against his again. Wheeler and Sheppard were still looking at each other over lowering wine glasses. The daughter seemed flushed.
Rodney defeated the final pea. A terrine of something or other looked at him temptingly from the far side of the centrepiece, and a servant responded to his gaze by helping him to some. He declined more peas. A breast of partridge appeared on his plate as if by magic. Sheppard's glass, he saw, was full again.
"Mister McKay is on the verge of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, my dear." Wheeler turned his traitor's gaze on Rodney, while he was occupied trying to ascertain what the something or other was in the terrine. Rodney managed not to splutter. Teyla's foot added more bruises down below. "What is your particular area of interest, McKay?"
"Astronomy," Rodney replied, "although I am accomplished in all branches of natural philosophy, and I have designed many cunning machines, most recently a--" He cleverly disguised his almost-slip in a cough. Another bruise appeared on his ankle. "I studied at Oxford," he said, a little desperately, "where I was Sir Edmond Halley's favourite pupil."
"But not his most modest one, I see," Sheppard added treacherously. He raised his glass to his lips, and lowered it again. Was his hand trembling slightly, Rodney wondered.
"Come, now, Ford. If a man cannot trumpet aloud his own accomplishments," Wheeler said, "then who will?" He lifted his glass in another toast. "To the Royal Society, and all its Fellows."
"To the Royal Society." Rodney repeated it a little stiffly.
Sheppard was trembling, he thought, but as soon as he was almost sure of it, Sheppard laid down his glass, and his hand disappeared out of sight. There was no tremor in his shoulders or the way he held his head.
Teyla's foot pressed into his own. Perhaps he was missing something. Perhaps Wheeler and Sheppard had been duelling with words for the entire exchange, and he hadn't noticed. How difficult this game of dissembling was! In all his life, Rodney had never been anything other than honest, much to his parents' consternation. Yes, honesty was a virtue, his mother had told him through gritted teeth. Lying was indeed a sin, but it did not do to tell the Dowager Lady Burnett that her singing was vile, or to tell the squire that his intellect was a little less than that of a toad.
Life would be so much simpler if they could just tell the truth. However, he concluded a moment later, life would very probably be shorter, too. If they were truthful about their reasons for being in Lymington, they would very likely end up dead. It was, all things considered, a convincing incentive to practise deceit.
If only he were better at it! His bruised ankle told him quite how bad he was at this game, and there were hours more of this to get through before the night was over.
The sun went down at last, ushering in full darkness. In this cool climate, it was hard to remember that it was August, and that the rich sat down to their evening's entertainment before night had fallen. Ronon's hand felt almost raw from pressing it impatiently against the broad, alien tree at his back.
Now, at last, it was safe to move. There was no moon, not yet, and the house, located a little way out of town, was surrounded by sheltering trees. The whole time Ronon had been waiting, he had seen not a soul go past.
He crossed the lawn, past the strange shapes of cut bushes. Water trickled somewhere to his left, and his legs brushed against rich-smelling herbs. The next step had the crunch of gravel, and he stopped, drew his foot back, and tried another route.
As he reached the corner of the house, a door opened. Ronon pressed himself into the shadows, and watched a girl shoo a cat out into the garden, and then, with a guilty look over her shoulder, fish some food out of her pocket to throw after it. So that was the servants' entrance, then. Lights shone out of the small windows, and when Ronon breathed in, he could smell food.
He waited until the girl had gone, and retraced his steps, skirting round the herb garden, passing dark windows. The cat ran past him, streaking into the darkness. Ronon followed it round the corner, and moved cautiously forward, until he stood beneath a pair of large windows on the floor above him, each one glowing with the flickering light of many candles. He took a step back, then another, then another. He saw the back of someone's head, and another step back showed him Sheppard, looking intently at something that Ronon could not see.
He clenched his fist, suddenly furious at these demands that had taken Sheppard and Teyla from where they belonged, and put them behind glass, forced to play these games of rich, deceitful people. But if he did his job well tonight, all that would end. Sheppard had seemed edgy and anxious, reluctant to give his consent to Ronon's enterprise, but this was something that Ronon had done before. Straight in and out. Grab what you needed to grab, and get out if you heard anyone coming. Everyone in the house would be occupied with the business of dinner, and there would be plenty of noise to hide any sound that he might make. It was safer, really, than the dead of night.
He made his way back to the darkened windows at the rear of the house, treading cautiously through the gravel. None of them had been left open. The inn had windows like this - two vertical panels of glass panes that slid vertically over each other. He tried to push up the lower panel up, trying each window in turn, but all three were locked.
In the darkness, the windows revealed nothing about what was inside them. He stood a step back, surveyed them all, and settled on the middle one.
Something moved behind him, and he whirled around, whipping his knife out of its scabbard, but it was only the cat, heading back to the kitchen for more scraps. Ronon let out a breath. He had done this many times before, he reminded himself. He could do this. It was necessary. Sheppard needed him to do this.
Knife still clutched in his hand, he turned his attention back to the window. He could try to prise it open, he thought, trusting to a lever and brute force, or he could smash the small pane nearest the lock, and reach through the hole to open it from the inside. Both methods would be noisy, but the inhabited rooms were far away. If he was cautious... If he bided his time after committing the act...
Ronon drew his knife, reversed it, and struck the hilt hard against the window.
Apparently it was the custom in England for the ladies to retire when the dishes were removed. Teyla watched the men stand to acknowledge their leaving. McKay looked terrified, as if she was abandoning him to a nest of scorpions. Wheeler smiled, every inch the gracious host, lord of this house and everyone in it. John was as stiff and as distant and as polite as he been at the worst of times, before the promise of a pardon had caused the sun to burst forth within him.
We will find the proof you need, she vowed silently, although she could show none of it, limited as she was by the part she was playing. For the first few weeks of the voyage, John had been relaxed and happy, quick to laugh and quicker to smile. She wanted that John back again.
She wanted Teyla back again.
Clothed in a gown and politeness, she walked away from the battleground. The door closed behind her with a click. Wheeler spoke, but she could not hear what he said. Were masks being laid down and swords pulled out for the fight? And elsewhere in the house, Ronon was fighting his own battle, and she was unable to help there. She had to walk away. She had to walk away.
Mrs Wheeler led the way to the drawing room, where a servant stood ready to serve them tea. Teyla sat where she was invited. She drank what she was given, holding the cup delicately with powerless fingers.
"Are you newly arrived in England, Miss Beckett?" Mrs Wheeler asked.
Teyla lowered her cup; after all this time, her body knew exactly how to behave. "I am," she said. "I found it cold, at first, and I found the landscape very strange, but there is much beauty in a place like this. I can see why Captain Ford wishes to settle here."
"I hope he does," Althea said warmly. Her mother glanced sharply at her. "Oh, come, mama, society is sadly lacking in this part of the county, and papa is away so very often."
Teyla wondered if she would be committing a faux pas by asking. There was a whole new game of danger in the drawing rooms of polite society, so very different from the dangers of battle, but in both of them, one wrong move could ruin everything. "Mister Wheeler travels a lot?" she asked.
"Especially lately," Althea said. "Trade isn't what it was, now that so many have lost their fortunes in this confusing South Sea affair, but still he goes away, often for weeks at a time. And even when he is home, messengers come and go at all hours. We're lucky to keep him for one whole dinner."
"Althea!" Mrs Wheeler said sharply, striking the way Teyla had seen John strike, cold beneath a veneer of silk. "I do apologise for Althea. It is, of course," she said to her daughter, each word barbed, "entirely inappropriate to complain of such things in front of a guest."
"I took no offence," Teyla said smoothly. "Surely conversation can be more free now the gentlemen are not with us."
"See, mama?" Althea tossed her head. Flushed with success, she leant forward, hands clasped to her breast. "Did you see any pirates, Miss Beckett?"
"Althea!" Mrs Wheeler commanded, and that was the end of it. As her friends faced their own separate dangers in other rooms, Teyla smiled, and sipped tea, and talked about hats and shoes and muslin.
Ronon unwrapped the thick fabric from his hand, and flexed his fingers, although he already knew that the cloth had done its work, and the glass had left him uninjured. After deliberating for a moment, he slid the window closed behind him. Tonight was about caution, not speed.
It was entirely dark inside. He moved forward slowly, holding his hands out to feel his way. A faint golden light showed under the door, and the window was a square of dark grey, but that was all. He needed light, of course, and that was the danger. Light would show him to anyone who passed outside. Light would illuminate his face and his hands, like a beacon in the darkness. But how could he find what he was looking for without light?
Footsteps sounded on the far side of the door. Ronon darted backwards, following the remembered route back, and tucked himself behind the thick velvet curtains. They muffled the sound, but faintly, ever so faintly, he heard the footsteps pass. Someone shouted something, short and sharp.
Ronon let his hand linger on the curtains, then, with a sharp breath, took hold of them and pulled. It was newly dark, and the servants hadn't yet closed out the night. There was a risk that someone would notice that the curtains were closed before their time, but the risk of being spotted with a light was greater.
He had a tinderbox in his coat pocket. Pulling it out, he struck a spark, and used it to light his small stump of candle. The light it gave was small, but he had made do with worse. Shielding it with his hand from the window, he raised it high, and turned in a semi-circle, surveying the room he had found himself in.
His instinct had been correct, it seemed. He appeared to be in Wheeler's study.
Wheeler had unfastened the bottom button of his waistcoat after the ladies had retired. Port had appeared from somewhere, and every glass was full. "To the ladies!" Wheeler raised his ruby glass. "Can't live with them, and can't live without, eh, gentlemen?"
"The ladies," Rodney echoed. Perhaps it was just the drink, but this Wheeler seemed different from the one he had met on the quay. He was quick to toast, quick to drink and quick to laugh.
Or perhaps not so quick to drink, he thought, as he noticed how little port had gone from Wheeler's glass. Sheppard's, in contrast, was almost empty. Rodney shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Although his ankle was pleased at the respite, he missed Teyla's foot, always ready to warn him when things were becoming dangerous.
"Why choose Lymington, Ford?" Wheeler asked, his face convivial in the firelight. The dishes had all been cleared away, leaving only fruit and comfits, and plenty of wine. "It is not the most obvious place for a man like you to settle."
"I like its aspect." Sheppard reached for a carafe of water, but spilled more than a few drops as he poured it. "I received… disappointments in the capital, and want to retire to lick my wounds somewhere where I will not be troubled by society, excepting your presence, of course."
"As good a reason as any." Wheeler rose and walked to the sideboard, where several flasks of brandy stood. "It will be good to have a man of your experience resident in the town. Perhaps we can ride out together and put down this highwayman. What do you say to that, Ford?"
Sheppard half drained another glass of port. "Sounds like a plan." Red splashes stained the tablecloth.
"Of course," Wheeler said, "dragoons pass through every now and then, but it can be a lawless place. I worry for my daughter. If one were to be caught alone in the forest, there would be very little help for you." His hand closed sharply on his chosen flask. "Terrible state of affairs," he said, shaking his head.
"Terrible," Sheppard said. Rodney saw how tightly he was gripping the arm of his chair, his knuckles white.
"Brandy?" Wheeler said cheerfully. "And you needn't worry, McKay. This was not brought in by our doughty free traders. I paid the full duty."
"I wasn't…" Rodney swallowed. "I wasn't… I mean, I know. That's good. I never doubted it."
The brandy was good. Wheeler swirled his around his glass, savouring the fumes, but Sheppard downed his in one. Rodney remembered another time, when Sheppard had drunk brandy on the deck to try to forget the fact that men had died under his command. He had been wrapped in solitude then, having commanded everyone to stay away. Only Rodney had dared to approach then, but now, imprisoned by the parts they were playing, he could only watch from a distance.
"How did you like the Indies, McKay?" Wheeler struck suddenly, his offensive cloaked in smiles.
Rodney almost choked on his brandy. "How did you--?" He imagined Teyla's foot striking him very hard indeed. He should have denied it, of course – denied it smoothly and calmly. Too late, now. Too late. All he could do was gape like a rabbit frozen in the path of a hunter.
"Your colour," Wheeler explained, "as if you have spent long days out under a hotter sun than England has seen this summer. You mentioned that you had an aunt in the Indies, and so…" He tapped his nose. "You will find I am most observant, McKay."
"They… they were hot," Rodney managed to say, "and full of--" Not pirates, he told himself. "--strange animals," he said. He didn't dare look at Sheppard as he said, "I am most relieved to be back home." Then he had to take a sip of brandy to recover. Sheppard, he saw, was on his second glass.
Rodney stood up, making a show of the need to stretch his muscles. He walked to the sideboard and back again, and sat down in Mrs Wheeler's empty chair, next to where Sheppard was sitting. The next time Sheppard made as if to drink, Rodney kicked him under the table. Sheppard reacted not one whit.
"I, too, prefer England to foreign parts," Wheeler said. "What is it that they say? An Englishman's home is his castle? This is mine."
"Indeed." Sheppard took another large mouthful of brandy. Rodney's foot sent its urgent message. Drink loosened tongues. If Sheppard let himself get drunk, he might say anything at all. What was he thinking of? He could get them all killed – Rodney, and all of them.
There was a tap at the door, and a servant came in, bearing a note on a platter. As Wheeler took it, Rodney tried once again to get Sheppard's attention, but Sheppard was watching Wheeler intently, watching him read the note. Perhaps he should be studying Wheeler, too, Rodney thought, looking for signs of roguishness, but by the time he did so, Wheeler had already stowed the message somewhere. There was no sign of consternation on his face, nor of murderous intent.
"Well…" Wheeler stood up, and pulled a watch out of his waistcoat pocket. "Shall we rejoin the ladies?"
Sheppard pushed his chair back, and stood up, supporting himself with one hand on the table. He was holding himself unnaturally stiffly, with every muscle taut. He swayed a little as he stepped away from the table. "I'm afraid I must excuse myself early," he said. "Please convey my compliments to Mrs Wheeler."
Wheeler hesitated just for a moment, but Rodney only had eyes for Sheppard. By the time he thought to glance at Wheeler, his face was all smooth control. "That is indeed unfortunate," Wheeler said. "Jeffers will show you out."
And Sheppard left, walking with that careful deliberateness of the very drunk. He left, leaving Rodney alone in the lion's den with the lion himself, and not the faintest idea what to say to him.
The desk drawers were unlocked, so Ronon discounted them. Several books and ledgers were strewn across its surface, but Ronon gave them barely a glance. This country might be strange, but some things were true the world over, and he knew that people engaged in illegal enterprises did not leave incriminating evidence in plain view. Writing was a powerful tool, but it was a dangerous one, too, because secrets committed to paper had to be protected.
He searched for secret drawers and false bottoms, but found nothing. A chest rested against the far wall, and he crouched down in front of it, raising its heavy lid with one hand, but it contained only clothing. He cursed under his breath. There had to be something here; there had to. If he found nothing, they would have to endure days more of this. He had to find proof. If he didn't... He lowered the lid silently, resisting the urge to slam it shut in fury. His circle of candlelight lurched wildly, and he clenched his fist, stood up, and turned in a circle. Perhaps that cabinet...
A key rattled right the door. Ronon's heart suddenly started pounding very fast, almost drowning out thought. He hadn't heard... No, he had to act, and now. Perhaps the window...? No, there was no time. He saw everything at once, evaluating hiding places, dismissing them. The key began to turn in the lock. The door, he thought. Behind the door. He seared the route into his mind, pinched out his candle, and made for it, just half a dozen steps, avoiding obstacles.
Only inches from his face, the door opened.
Rodney trailed desperately, anxiously, in Wheeler's wake. All three ladies turned around at their entrance. Even this new Teyla, polished and unfamiliar in her gown, could not conceal the flicker that passed over her face when only two of them entered, and no third. He left, Rodney tried to convey with his eyes, but he wasn't good at such things. He remembered trying to signal silently to a fellow student during a lecture at Oxford, but an important message about the problem of calculating longitude at sea was received as a question about roast partridge.
"Captain Ford had to leave us, I'm afraid," Wheeler told the ladies.
Two of them fluttered in dismay. Teyla gripped her tea-cup tighter, splashing a tiny drop in the saucer. He just left, Rodney tried to tell her, of his own accord.
"That is a shame," Teyla said, turning back to the other ladies, and not letting Rodney catch her eye for many a minute.
Rodney had no choice but to sit where he was told. When can we leave? he thought desperately at Teyla. Comfits were passed round. They were very pleasant. Shouldn't we go after him? It was strange, he thought, that by putting on a gown, Teyla had become the person who knew her way around a social situation. On the journey from London, she had been the ragged stranger, and he had navigated her through the pitfalls of civilisation. Or tried to, anyway. The angry mobs hadn't helped.
"If you will excuse me but for a moment…?" With a quick bow, Wheeler left the room. Rodney stared after him. Was he going to finish off Sheppard?
"Will you entertain us with a few tunes, Althea?" Mrs Wheeler framed it in a way that was not a request. "Althea is most accomplished at the harpsichord, Miss Beckett, Mister McKay."
Althea took her seat at the instrument and started to play, and the torrent of fluid notes were bars that bound Rodney to his seat.
Ronon heard someone enter the room, one step, then two. They stopped there, separated only by a thickness of wood. A pool of light flowed into the room, though the far side of it was still in gloom.
Ronon did not dare breathe. He had his hand on his knife, but he didn't think he could use it, not on someone who was doubtless just an innocent servant, not when a murder would turn a difficult situation into a full-blown catastrophe.
His fingers smarted from the flame. Had he left a trace of candle smoke? He had only broken one small pane, but perhaps there was a draught. The curtains were closed. Had this person expected them to be open?
He could hear the other person breathing. Very slowly, he let out a breath of his own. The hilt of the knife felt damp in his hand.
In public, he was McKay's servant. Perhaps some story about an urgent message, and no-one answering the door. Something about seeing an open window… No. He couldn't. He'd have to strike with the hilt, to knock the person unconscious but spare their life.
The door shivered, then ever so slowly started to close. The light withdrew, and then with a click was gone. But the moment the door was shut, the person on the other side started running.
There was no help for it. Ronon had to get out, and he had to get out fast. He ran to the window, hauled it open, and clambered out into the garden. Gravel crunched under his feet, and he ran, out into the darkness, out into the trees, and away. And there in the darkness he waited breathlessly, but long minutes passed without any pursuit.
But he was empty-handed. He had failed.
'A few tunes', apparently, meant 'play for hours', and 'accomplished' meant 'quite tedious.' Rodney's neck was stiff from polite attentiveness, and he felt deeply weary; he had never tried for so long to be polite before. Well, never really tried much at all, to be honest.
At length it was time to depart. "Do you think he--?" Rodney began, but Teyla hushed him, not letting him say a thing until the last lights of the house had faded, and even then hushing him when he tried to say anything that mattered.
Ronon emerged from a doorway as they neared their inn. "Where's Sheppard?" he demanded in a fierce whisper.
They told him the truth. "Wait here," Ronon said, and disappeared into the night.
People passed in the street, some bellowing out some song about a rambling sailor. Rodney hoped he wasn't going to get bloodily killed. This English town seemed suddenly more dangerous than a nest of pirates in the Indies, and a polite dinner with a respectable man felt more dangerous still. Had all these things been happening beneath the polite veneer of English society all along? Perhaps they had. He had never had much interest in the doings of other people.
Ronon returned, his face grim. "He's not in his room," he said, "or in any of ours."
The night positively cackled with its danger, and Rodney was at the heart of it, lost, without an anchor. "Then where is he?" he asked.
Neither of the others had an answer for him.
Lymington High Street, 1832
In which the world is dangerous and full of doubts
It was Ronon who found him in the end.
It was only a wild guess that brought him there. Instinct cried foul play. Instinct urged him to storm back to Wheeler's house and demand at sword's point that Sheppard be returned to them. Instinct urged him to cut a swathe of intimidation through the smugglers at the waterfront, until they admitted who had done this thing. He wanted to search the dark places of the forest, to dive beneath the surface of the river, to break into every room in every house in this forsaken town.
But he remembered that McKay had been right about why Sheppard had left London. He remembered, too, how often Sheppard had stood at the bow in the teeth of a gale, and how even his darkest moods could be lifted by swift, fresh air on the open deck.
He found him where the river met the sea, where winds raced round the smooth curve of land. His steps slowed when he saw that dark figure, illuminated by the new-rising moon. He was not often one for being tentative, but his voice died in his throat. He tried again, saying his name.
Sheppard did not move. He was on the ground, his legs stretched out in front of him, his back to the trunk of a fallen tree. As Ronon neared him, he saw that a naked sword lay across his lap.
"Sheppard." He tried it again.
Sheppard said something faintly, or perhaps it was just the wind.
All caution vanished. Ronon closed the last few steps. With much stammering, McKay had informed them that Sheppard had drunk too much at dinner, and Ronon could smell the brandy on him even now. "Are you drunk?" he asked. Perhaps that was all it was. Everyone on the Atlantis had been drunk on occasion. Beckett the surgeon had once taken a wrong turn on deck after half a bottle of brandy, and had almost tumbled into the sea, although he could still save a man's life, even when deep in the bottle.
"No," Sheppard said, his voice faint, forced through closed lips. "Yes. I had to."
Ronon sat down beside him. This was not open sea, after all, he saw, but a channel between England and some nearby island, not many miles away. Almost invisible in the faint moonlight, a lugger was heading from the island to the shore.
"Someone came," Sheppard said. "I didn't use my sword." His fists were clenched tight, but Ronon could see that the knuckles of his right hand were bloodied. "The sword's to make others – God! – to make others think twice."
But Sheppard had shown no sign of noticing Ronon approach. If Ronon had been an assassin…
"Knew it was you," Sheppard whispered.
Damn it, but there wasn't enough light to see by! But Ronon was close enough now to hear how rapid and shaky Sheppard's breathing was. "You're hurt," he realised. "No, you're sick."
"Both." Sheppard pressed his head back against the tree. The fist came up almost to his chest, then down again, to rest on the guard of his blade. "I realised I was poisoned almost from the start, of course."
"Poisoned?" It was a knife in his stomach, twisting.
"I thought..." A faint sound escaped Sheppard's throat – one Ronon had never thought to hear from him. "Thought if I drank enough… Dilute it. Soften it. Efface one poison with another. Make me purge myself. Of course… God!" He hunched forward, then arched back again, following the curved line of the tree trunk. "Hard to… to keep your wits about you at dinner when drunk and poisoned, and, damn it! it hurts like the devil."
Moonlight was silver on the naked blade. "Wheeler poisoned you?"
"Stupid of him, if he did." Sheppard cracked a faint smile. "Blow his cover. Perhaps he's desperate. Perhaps…" Sheppard sounded as if he was fighting for every word. "No, it felt it right at the start of the meal, and he… I don't think… We all drank from the same carafe; I noticed that. Perhaps in the Angel. I took some ale before dinner, to get the courage to…"
Poison was a coward's weapon. No blades could stop poison. Ronon slammed his fist into the tree. "Who would do that?"
"Wheeler's agent? A smuggler frightened by my naval background?" Sheppard managed a harsh laugh. "Think I'd fit in better if I unmasked myself as Captain Sheppard? I hadn't realised… this place was quite like this. Thought… thought the respectable route would work."
"I'll kill them," Ronon swore.
"Got to find them first." Sheppard brought one hand up to his face, pressing his fingers into his brow. "Perhaps it was to flush us out into being rash."
"By killing you?"
"I'm not dead yet." The fingers dug in deeper, bone white. "But I… Ronon, I thought about it. I looked at the sword. Rather die that way than poisoned, writhing in my own filth."
Ronon removed the sword, sliding it gently away. He wanted to hurl it into the river, never to see it again, but he did not. The moment it was gone, Sheppard brought his knees up toward his chest, wrapped his arm around them and hunching forward.
"Why come out here by yourself?" Ronon asked. The lugger had passed them silently, but he heard a faint splashing out in the mud flats and salt marshes. "You could have sent a message." Sheppard said nothing. "Damn it, Sheppard, you don't have to ride these things out alone."
"I'm not alone," Sheppard said, raising his head, smoothing his clothes, looking out to sea.
"But you would have been," Ronon said, "if I hadn't found you." The sword trembled in his hand.
"Yeah," Sheppard said; just that.
The chair was heavy, and Rodney almost lost his grip on it several times as he manoeuvred it towards the door. He was breathless by the time it was in place. Perhaps that was why his heart was pounding so.
Poisoned. Sheppard had been poisoned, but still he had kept up his polite, measured conversation. His spine had been perfectly erect when he had left the table, but when Rodney had glimpsed him returning to the inn, he had been hunched over, looking as if the slightest breeze would fell him. Rodney had let the curtain fall back over the window, but the image stayed with him still.
What sort of a man was Sheppard? What sort of people had Rodney let himself get embroiled with?
There was a light tap at the door. Rodney felt as if a pit had opened up in his stomach. "Who's there?" His voice quavered.
"Teyla." The door muffled her voice, making it impossible to judge whether it was really her. He edged forward; knelt on the chair. Are you really…? he thought. He dragged the chair sideways just enough to let the door open a slit.
Teyla squeezed through the gap. He saw her looking at his make-shift barricade, but she made no comment. "We believe he will live," was all she said.
Rodney let out a breath. Something had clamped itself around his heart, it seemed, because now it released its grip, just a little. The closed door helped, and the fact that Teyla was here, looking more like her normal self, despite the gown.
"But the situation has changed." Teyla spoke quietly, as if there were ears at neighbouring walls. "John has enemies, and we are no closer to finding the proof of Wheeler's guilt. Ronon found nothing."
"Nothing?" He watched the candlelight play on Teyla's face, making her seem both fierce and soft. "What was--?"
"Ronon broke into the house while we were eating."
"What?" Rodney squawked, then remembered the possibility of silent listeners. He lowered his voice; gripped the back of the chair. It was a while before he could make the next words measured enough. "Nobody told me. Don't you…?" The candle guttered, sending patches of darkness across the room. "Don't you trust me?"
"John trusts your loyalty," Teyla said gently, "but not your discretion. He feared your manner at the table would betray us." She reached for him; almost touched his arm. "It is because you are honest, Rodney. You find it hard to play games of deceit."
"Virtuous," Rodney said faintly. "Yes."
It was because he was better than they were, he thought, when Teyla had left. He shoved the chair back into place, and sat down upon it, stiff and cold. Lying came easily to them. Could he have endured the dinner had he known that Ronon – he had passed the man off as his own servant, for crying out loud, so the disgrace of any wrongdoing would be on his head! – was committing crime on the other side of the wall? I could have done it, he thought, but he knew he could not. His ankle bore bruises enough, just for bearing the weight of Sheppard's disguise.
He thought of Sheppard stoically enduring poison, and of an unseen enemy who hated him enough to want to kill him by stealth. What sort of a man was Sheppard really? Rodney had thought him a bloodthirsty pirate at first, but then had realised that he was not. They had watched dolphins together, and they had talked about books and natural philosophy, and about places they had been, and place that they wanted to go. For a while, it had almost lulled Rodney into thinking that Sheppard was just like him.
He was not. Sheppard lived in a world of death threats and danger, and he knew how to deal with such things. Until his adventure in the Indies, Rodney had never stared into the face of death before. Nobody had ever wanted to kill him. Well, nobody had meant it seriously, anyway, although that fat scholar from Corpus Christi had appeared quite earnest when he had scrawled his challenge and pinned it to the College gates, for all the world like Luther with his articles, and that idiot so-called gentleman with rooms in the front quad had gone as far as to wave his sword around, and… well, he had quite deserved that particularly well-crafted put-down, just as the scholar had entirely deserved to have his work torn to pieces in front of a hundred people, and…
But that was beside the point. Nobody had ever wanted to kill him, and now…
Stupid Sanderson – William, Walter, whatever his name was! No, he didn't count. He'd issued the threat in verse, for crying out loud, having recruited some affected dandy of a poet that he counted amongst his friends. Then there was that visiting scholar from Bohemia. If you were going to be inconsiderate enough as to have an unpronounceable name, the least you could do was refrain from spluttering death threats when people forced its heathen syllables into sounds more suitable for an English tongue.
Nobody had ever tried to kill him before, Rodney thought quite firmly, until he had thrown his lot in with Sheppard.
Smugglers passed in the night, screams and laughter came from distant parts of the inn, and Rodney eyed the barricade that was his chair, and did not sleep.
"You should go," Sheppard said, but Ronon had faced down his captain in worse moods than this. Sheppard's orders were usually sound, but he had an inability to see things clearly when his own safety was on the line.
"No," Ronon said, stating it as a fact.
Sheppard had barely made it to the bed before collapsing. Now both hands were clenched tight around handfuls of bedding. Ronon had extinguished everything, down to one candle, but it was enough to see the clefts of shadow on his pain-etched face.
"Go." It sounded strained, barely an order at all.
Ronon shook his head. He sat with a pistol on his lap and a blade in his hand, ready to defend his captain at all costs.
Sheppard rolled onto his side, turning his head away, seeking the place on the bed that the candlelight did not reach. "Please," he said, his voice barely audible at all.
His tone made Ronon tighten his grip on his blade, curling the hand around its hilt, but, "No," he said, then, his voice hoarsening, "I can't, Sheppard. He might come back to finish the job--"
"And I'm as weak as a kitten," Sheppard said, his face still hidden, "but I could defend myself if I had to."
"I know that," Ronon said, "but two men can defend themselves better than one."
The light flickered. Ronon snapped his head up, but it was only a current of air from the badly-sealed window. There was no sound from outside the door. Even the street was almost silent, the night already halfway to morning.
"I can't…" Sheppard shifted. "Take the light away, Ronon, damn it." His voice was so raw as to be painful.
Ronon picked up the pewter candle-holder, and moved it to the dresser near the door. The lurching shadows made it look as if the whole room was full of enemies, darting forward with swords. Then he sat down again, and Sheppard was just a featureless shape in a bed, lost in darkness.
There was no shame in being hurt, Ronon thought; it happened sometimes to even the strongest of men. There was no shame, too, in accepting help from others. But it was easier to say it than to do it. It was hard for a man like Sheppard to let anyone see him give in to pain. It was cruel to stay here, but worse to go.
"Is it worth it?" he found himself saying.
Sheppard stopped moving. All sound ceased.
"There are hundreds of boats in the harbour," Ronon said. "We have money. We could take one and return to the Atlantis. No-one would catch us." Sheppard still made no movement. "Why are you putting up with this?" Ronon demanded. "Trapped by scheming rich men – asking 'how high?' when they tell you to jump. Stuck in this forsaken town. Poisoned. They'll come back for another go, of course."
He gripped his blade hard enough for this fist to tremble. Everything had gone wrong since they had left the Atlantis. Everything was out of joint. He had spent the whole time a dozen steps behind Sheppard, chasing him through a strange, cold country. There were no friends here. There was nothing. He was nothing, just a servant and a housebreaker and an unwanted bodyguard.
"Just walk away," he urged Sheppard, his voice catching on the last word. "No-one will care that they don't get their pardon. There's a whole world out there where the British authorities can't touch us." There was still nothing from Sheppard; still nothing. The whole world felt stilled, listening, but still Ronon spoke on, each word landing like another step along a barred footpath. "We've been all right for years," he said, "without their pardon. It's just a stupid piece of paper."
He stopped at last. The darkness stared back at him, and a horse whinnied outside the window. "Not to me," Sheppard said quietly, "and so…" His voice trailed away. He was so still that Ronon felt a sharp stab of fear, until he heard the faint rasp of his captain's breathing.
Sheppard had devoted years of his life to clearing his name. It had tormented him, the knowledge that he had been falsely accused. 'You should have seen him before they called him traitor,' Beckett had once told Ronon, his tongue loosened by brandy. 'You wouldn't have recognised the laddie.' Ronon hadn't understood, not at first, wondering why the opinion of distant strangers had mattered more to Sheppard than the opinion of his crew. 'It's because it's about loyalty,' Beckett had explained. 'They accused him of betraying his own men. But also,' he had said, raising his glass in a wry toast, 'it's about us. He blames himself for the fact that we're outlaws with prices on our heads. It eats him up inside.'
And now Sheppard's plans had come to fruition, but everything was worse, far worse, than it had ever been on the Atlantis. "Is it worth it?" Ronon asked quietly.
But Sheppard did not answer, and stayed silent until the morning. Ronon guarded him, though, and that, at least, was something entirely right.
There came a point in every man's life when he had to decide whether to make a stand for what was right, or whether to give in to fear and tyranny. Rodney was English, and England was built on upstanding, courageous people standing up and resisting tyrants. King John's barons hadn't cowered in their chambers, but had confronted him and made him sign the Magna Carta. Simon de Montfort hadn't hidden behind a wooden chair, but had gone out and invented Parliament. Now England luxuriated in the shining perfection of Parliamentary democracy, because a group of courageous men had thrown out the Papist tyrant barely thirty years before, in a revolution both Glorious and bloodless.
Rodney stood tall, smoothing his coat-tails down. He strode with determination and dignity towards the door, then stopped with his hand brushing it.
Take the early Christian martyrs, he thought, and all the saints and hermits that littered the primitive years before the Enlightenment had burst forth upon the land. They hurled themselves quite cheerfully onto the swords on their enemies, and the parson in his pulpit said that this was a good thing, yes, really, it was, young Master McKay, and you are supposed to listen in sermons, not argue, and perhaps your father should beat some sense into you when you got home, because you know what the Bible had to say about sparing the rod.
He cleared his throat. Saints and martyrs were quite addicted to mortifying the flesh by going without breakfast and wearing hair shirts. This, he thought, did not really support his case.
There came a point in every man's life, he thought pointedly, when he had to decide whether to let fear rule him, or whether to go out and demand what was his right as an Englishman. This hollow feeling inside him demanded that he acted.
He pushed the chair aside, and opened the door. Nobody killed him. It was quite late in the morning, but nobody had come to tell him how Sheppard was. Perhaps they were all dead, and it would fall to him to avenge them. He didn't really know how to carry out the sort of vengeance that a dastardly smuggler would understand. Writing a scathing rebuttal of their thoughts on phlogiston did not seem entirely appropriate.
I hope they're not dead, he thought, as he hesitated at the top of the stairs. His thoughts were running noisily down alleyways, trying to distract him from the fact that the main road was quite terrifying.
A scattering of people were sitting at tables downstairs, but no Ronon and no Teyla. A smiling maiden stood behind the bar, and her bodice seemed tight enough – quite disturbingly tight, in fact – not to conceal any jagged blades. He clenched his fists for courage. He had taken this step. He had left the safety of his room for one thing, and one thing only. He would not let the tyrants keep him from his breakfast. "Bacon," he told her, "and sausage." She smiled and said that she would bring it.
He had done it, he thought, as he sat down a table, his back safely pressed to the wall. He had refused to cower. He had stood up for right and justice and…
Poison! he thought. What if the sausages were poisoned?
They smelled nice when they came, but when he took a bite, he thought that they tasted like ashes. What was that speck…? Oh, spices. A dog sidled hopefully past his table, eyeing his plate. Rodney cut off a small piece of sausage and fed it to the dog, but it ran away before he could monitor it to see if it started dying hideously.
Somebody shouted loudly out in the street. Rodney sat very still in his chair, opening and closing his hands convulsively. The door opened with a crash.
Perhaps he would chase the dog, he thought. He would have to watch it for a sufficient length of time, and keep a record of his observations. Perhaps he would… Yes, there. Slip through that door, run across the yard, duck down into the stables. Not cowering at all. Not hiding. Just a strategic withdrawal. Waiting for his canine experiment to run its course. Conducting cunning espionage from behind the hay. Fooling the villains by not being where they expected him to be.
A pair of feet drew closer; he saw them criss-crossed with blades of yellow. A hand closed on the back of his jacket, and he was hauled out, and it felt different, so very different, from being abducted by Ronon or Sheppard or any of the others. He opened his mouth to scream, but a hand stopped his voice. It smelled of oil and salt and horrid things.
Ronon inhaled a great lungful of air. His eyes felt gritty from a night without sleep, and his muscles ached from being permanently on guard. He would be in there still, but Teyla had insisted that he get some air. He trusted her with Sheppard's safety, of course. Of course he trusted her.
He started walking, stretching cramped legs. The morning was grey, and a cool wind disturbed the surface of the water. Sheppard had been sleeping when he had left him, his skin pale, and his hands restless even in sleep. He had spoken in his sleep – a rasping plea to somebody not to leave him, to please come back – but that was something Ronon was going to forget hearing; something he would never speak of to anybody.
The wind reminded him of how foolish he had been to try to persuade Sheppard to abandon this enterprise. He knew his captain well – better, perhaps, than Sheppard thought he did. The only way to end this was to find whatever proof it was that Sheppard had been charged to find. That meant breaking into Wheeler's house again and searching harder. That meant capturing a courier, stealing his packet, and interrogating…
Footsteps raced up behind him. Ronon whirled round, ready to face them, but they passed on – just a group of boys heading along the quay. An older man shouted commands from a skiff, but Ronon couldn't understand the dialect. A large grey bird flew low over the water, brushing it with slow wings. In the distance, he saw people moving about on the mudflats, standing up on terrain he would have considered impassable.
He reached the end of the quay, and paused there, knowing that the terrain ahead was more dangerous, and there were known enemies nearby.
He was just turning back when something struck him hard on the shoulder. He staggered back, but kept his balance, bringing his knife up, but there were too many of them – half a dozen of them, surging forward. They struck him all at once, and his knife flashed out, but it was not enough. He felt himself fall, grasped only at empty air, and then the water closed over his head.
Lymington Quay, nineteenth century
In which Discretion and Valour go to war with each other
Rodney was shoved face down in the straw. The hand scraped over his face, moving to the back of his neck, holding him down. When he tried to scream, he inhaled straw and dust, and it was foul and stinking, and he choked, he couldn't breathe.
He flailed, he struggled, but all he could grasp was handfuls of straw, and they were empty handfuls, nothing concrete to hold on to. He sank deeper, and felt enormous pain explode in his side. The hand twisted, and he struggled onto his side, gasped a mouthful of stale air, choked, spluttered, then screamed when his attacker kicked him again.
The man was a monster – a flash of dark hair, a shadowed chin, deep-set eyes, teeth and an open mouth. "Don't," Rodney gasped. "Don't." He scrabbled desperately; managed to drag himself backwards by inches. The foot found him again, and he didn't recognise the pained yelp as coming from himself, not at first. "Don't," he pleased. "Don't."
The monster stood over him, striding out of nightmare. "The London gentleman's been talking about things that he shouldn't," he sneered.
"You mean me?" Rodney squawked. He saw a rope over a beam, a slanting ray of light, a high window, a sparrow flying through the rafters. "There's the thing, you see. I'm not from London. I'm from Bristol – near Bristol, anyway. Solid merchant stock, too, and not really a gentleman – at least, not in the eyes of the squires and gentry, even if they are puffed-up fools."
The monster crouched down over Rodney, and grasped a handful of his cravat. "Go home," he spat. "We don't take well to meddling strangers round here."
"I'm not meddling," tried to assure him. "Honestly, I'm not. I… I… I…" He swallowed hard; tried to get his voice under control. "Nice Free Traders. Good Free Traders. Please don't kill me."
The man hauled him upwards by his cravat, and Rodney clawed with reaching fingers, but found only straw. "Why not?" the monster sneered, his breath foul.
"Sheppard!" Rodney screamed, but his attacker's hand turned it into little more than a gasp. "Sheppard! Ronon! Help me!"
The monster's eyes glittered. Rodney brought his arm up, clenching his fist, and struck the man in the side of his face. He struck again, then curled his fingers, striking, clawing. He writhed desperately, struck out with his feet, clawed, clawed, and had no idea how he did it, but then he was crawling away, body afire with pain, jacket still gripped in his attacker's fist. He kicked behind him, kicked wildly; slipped, fell forward. His chin struck the stable floor, and it hurt, oh God, it hurt.
Footsteps sounded outside. A woman's voice sang a snatch of song, about green fields and meadows all covered in corn.
Rodney gave one more kick, and dragged himself to his feet. He lurched out into the stable-yard, where he stood panting and in pain, choking on the remnants of the straw.
Ronon sank almost to the bottom, but he kicked desperately, knowing that there would be ropes and nets on the bottom, and that a man could drown in six feet of water if his legs were caught. He rose upwards, knife ready in his hand, and broke the surface, gasping. But something struck him on the head, driving him under again. He had snatched air, but not enough. He saw a long dark shape above him, broken into fragments by the waves. An oar, he thought. They were trying to drown him with an oar.
He came up again, twisting at the last minute to surface a few feet away from where his attackers had expected. The oar glanced off his shoulder. "Help!" someone was shouting. "He's drowning!" Another voice screamed, "Catch hold of the oar!" He flailed, treading water, but it was hard to dodge when your legs were slowed by water. He saw a face, malicious with false concern. The oar scraped along his arm, and his knife notched it, but then it smashed into his head, and everything wavered.
He sank; he knew that much. He saw darkness, and distant grey light. He heard people shouting, muffled and distorted. He lost his grip on his knife, but he lunged for it, the blade scraping across the palm of his hand. He felt that line of pain, at once sharp and distant.
Something brushed against his foot. His lungs were bursting. A dark shape passed above him, and something jabbed down sharply in front of him. "He's drowning." It was very faint, very far away. His lungs were bursting. His lungs were…
He pushed off desperately, but something was wrapped around his ankle. He kicked, kicked again; felt it tearing free; rose through jagged patches of darkness and light…
He surfaced next to a punt; closed his hand around it; sucked in a great gasp of air, and then another. Someone shouted, and he bellowed himself, slashing with his knife at the reaching, threatening hand. He pushed himself under; felt the punt pole catch him on the back.
He had to keep low. Even away from the quay, the deepest keels were only a few feet from the bottom. He wove under their sharp lines, rested his hands on anchor cables and ropes. When his lungs were nearly empty again, he pushed himself up on the far side of a lugger, shielded by its bulk from the shore. He tossed his hair away from his head; tasted blood on his lips. A gull wheeled above him, and there was shouting from the shore.
It was quite outrageous, Rodney thought, as he struggled up the stairs. It was quite outrageous for a respectable man to be assaulted in an English inn. It was quite outrageous to be kicked in the straw like a common… like a common…
His breath caught on something that could almost have been called a whimper. Oh God, he hurt, and he… and he…
Quite outrageous, he thought. They'd made him go without breakfast, too, after everything he had risked in order to get it. Something should be done about it. People shouldn't be able to get away with assaulting distinguished scholars. They shouldn't…
Some straw-dust caught in his throat. He coughed and coughed again, clutching at the balustrade for balance.
He had acquitted himself with dignity, he told himself. He hadn't pleaded, at least not much. He'd wrested himself free from the villain's grip and sent him sprawling in the straw. He had…
Oh! What if they were following him? He didn't think they'd followed him as he'd torn out of the stable-yard and crossed the road, but perhaps they had cohorts and minions and henchmen and partners in crime. His hand slipped on the balustrade, and his almost fell, his feet tripping over themselves.
Were those footsteps behind him?
Ronon's whole body screamed with exertion. His throat felt raw and his chest was aching. He had scraped his hands bloody on barely-seen obstructions below the water, but when he emerged for the last time, he still gripped his knife.
Two men were on duty just inside the entrance to the tunnel. Ronon rose from the water dripping, and walked confidently towards them. "Who are you?" the first man demanded, sloshing brandy from his horn cup. The second one was more dangerous, with a sharp face, and eyes fiercely sober. "Whose crew you in?" he demanded.
Ronon felled him without a word. It was only afterwards that he answered, so deep in the tunnel that no light was visible. "Sheppard's," he said. Always that.
"Are you awake?" Teyla asked gently, little more than a breath.
John pushed himself up on his piled pillows. "I'm kind of wishing I wasn't."
She poured him a tumbler of water from the jug. "Does it hurt very badly?"
His shrug was fragile; his skin little darker than the sheets. "I'll live." He blinked, and it was just foolish fancy, but it seemed to her that even his eyelids had a translucent look to them. "How are you?"
Water splashed over the top of the tumbler, landing in droplets on her gown. "I am fine." She said it pointedly.
He pushed himself higher. When she passed him the water, she saw – how could she not? – how it dipped almost down to the bed, as if he lacked the strength even to hold it. She saw, too, his defiant look as he dared her to say anything.
"I'll live," he said again, sipping at the water, then raising the tumbler again and draining it to half gone. "My head hurts, but that's hard liquor for you. It's never a good idea, over-indulgence. Mind you, it saved my life."
Teyla smoothed her dress, forcing out the creases from a night of desperate worry. While she had endured the polite foolishness of the society of gentlewomen, John had been in agony from poison, and Ronon had been risking his life in a dangerous enterprise. She was trapped in these clothes, forced into a role of attentiveness and worry. This gown made her nothing. This situation made her nothing.
She took a deep breath. "I wish--"
Someone knocked at the door – quick, sharp, urgent taps. Teyla stood up, but John held up his hand, commanding her to stop. Throwing aside the bedclothes, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, clothed only in shirt and breeches. The knocking continued. Teyla moved silently towards the door, raised her hand to the door handle, but did not yet open it. John reached for his sword belt and pulled it on, then twisted his hair back into a knot at the base of his neck. His hand came up again, urging her to step back. "Who's there?" he called.
"McKay," came the reply. "Please let me in. Please."
John was at the door in a few swift steps. McKay well-nigh tumbled through the moment it was open. "Thank God," he said. "Thank God." He looked round as if he could not quite believe that nobody had burst in behind him. "I thought…" Then he drew himself up with a visible effort. "I was assaulted," he announced. "A ruffian assaulted me in the stable, but I bested him. I landed a blow right here." He mimed a blow to an imaginary jaw. "I kicked him there. I wasn't…" His voice wavered, and he tottered towards the chair, and fell rather than lowered himself into it. "I got away," he said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Teyla watched John return to the bed; saw him wrap his arm around the post as if that was the only thing keeping him standing. "Are you hurt?" she asked McKay.
McKay nodded. "He kicked me." He sounded hurt and aggrieved, as if he could not quite believe that such a thing had happened. "Several times." His eyes flickered towards John. "But I'll…" He winced as Teyla tried to touch him. "It hurts."
"Let me--" Teyla began, but McKay's head snapped up. John reacted too, pushing himself away from the bed, placing his hand slowly on the hilt of his sword. Teyla was the last to hear the footsteps outside.
Wait. John held up one finger. McKay's hand was pressed to his mouth, the colour draining from his face around it, and his chest was heaving. There was only one knock this time, and a low voice calling her name. She rose, but John was before her. "It's safe," Ronon's voice said, quiet on the far side of the door.
John unlocked the door, leaning on the handle slightly more heavily than he ought to have done. "You should be in bed," Ronon told him gruffly.
"Really?" She saw John raise an eyebrow. "You should be dry."
Ronon was sodden and filthy, and there was fresh blood on his brow, just below the hairline. "They tried to drown me," he said. "I used the tunnel to get back." He nodded at John. "Just as well you made me check that out."
Teyla stood torn between them, not knowing which one needed her attention first. Ronon looked exhausted, but far too tense to sit down. His hand closed on the back of the hard wooden chair, then snatched itself away again.
John sat down slowly on the edge of the bed. "What happened?" he asked. And it was perhaps at that point, even then, that Teyla knew what was going to be the end of it.
Rodney told Teyla that he was quite all right, thank you very much, and that he didn't need looking after. She disobeyed him, though, and brought him water and a sip of brandy and a twist of some powder that she said would take away the worst of the pain. His knuckles were hurting worst, he told her, "because I hit him quite hard." She smiled, and told him that his ribs were not even cracked, let alone broken.
It was after that that Discretion started tapping an insistent finger on his shoulder.
"You should leave," Discretion told him, just as Sheppard said those self-same words. "You should leave," Sheppard said. "All three of you."
Ronon and Teyla protested, of course. Rodney rose and walked ever so slowly towards the window, though Discretion reminded him of the dangers of going too close. A pistol ball travelling at its expected velocity was not stopped by glass, after all.
"That's two of you set upon in one day," Sheppard said. "I can't…" He stopped for a moment, shifting audibly on the bed. "I was told to do this alone." His voice was tight. "I refuse to let anyone else die for it."
Discretion told Rodney that the man had a very good point. But he found himself opening his mouth, even so. "I don't think I was attacked because of you," he said. "The man…" He cleared his throat. "The rogue spoke as if he was a smuggler who had taken offence at something I'd said. Perhaps I forgot to call them Free Traders once, and did so in an audible fashion. Such a thing is possible."
Discretion folded its arms and shook its head despairingly at him. Ronon liked what he had to say, though. "They were a dockside gang throwing their weight around. People like that, they have to go after strong-looking newcomers. They have to show them who's boss."
"Which is precisely the sort of impression Wheeler would want to create," Sheppard said patiently, "if he was behind it."
Discretion decided that Sheppard was firmly on its side, and a thoroughly sensible sort of chap. Rodney took hold of the curtain ties, and reminded himself that Sheppard's idea of sensible involved making polite conversation when he knew he was dying of poison.
"I'm not leaving until you leave," Ronon vowed, folding his arms.
"Damn it, Ronon!" Sheppard half started up, then sat stiffly back down again. "I don't want--"
"We're not on the Atlantis now," Ronon said. "You can't command me."
"Is it mutiny now?" Sheppard's voice was like ice.
"No." Ronon's voice sounded pained, rasping in his throat. "You know it isn't."
"Loyalty, John," Teyla said, her skirts rustling. "Friendship."
Discretion told Rodney to stop listening. Discretion pointed out that he could very easily have died down in the stable, and that the only sensible thing to do was saddle a horse and get out of town as fast as possible. Life as a merchant's son was tedious, but at least it didn't get you murdered in a pile of stinking straw. When Rodney chewed his lip and pulled the curtain tie harshly through his fingers, it reminded him that he didn't even have a useful part to play. He was the liability – a pair of ankles to kicked under the table whenever he opened his mouth. They excluded him from their plans. They lied to him.
"It is reasonable to assume that there will be more attacks," Sheppard said.
"And we will be ready for them," said Teyla.
Discretion told him that this was quite ridiculous. If the flames were burning you, you ran away as fast as you could. You locked yourself in your study and wrote about the heavens. You tried to forget the fact that the rich idiots laughed at you and tried to trip you up in the street. You certainly didn't come back for more.
"Please," Teyla said quietly, and Ronon stood there with his arms folded, not pleading, just stating that he wasn't moving. Rodney looked away from them, towards the window, his vision blurring, or perhaps that was just the badly-crafted glass. Discretion crept away, leaving behind something small, something quiet, that wondered if anyone would ever feel such loyalty towards him.
Teyla had never seen so aware of time ticking on. The church bell struck one, then two. She bought a new bonnet, then twisted the ribbons around her finger until the end of it turned white.
She had not told John what she intended to do. Perhaps it was foolishness. Perhaps she feared that now she was in a gown, they would try to prevent her from taking risks. Perhaps she had something to prove to herself…
Or perhaps it was just the right thing to do. Other approaches had failed, and now it was her turn.
When the hands stood half way between two and three, she saw her quarry pass in a carriage. The minute the carriage had passed, she hurried along the lane that ran behind the inn, heading towards the edge of town. Several people stared as she passed them, but she had a small knife in her dangling pocket, and a larger one strapped to her thigh. Sometimes the most deadly weapon was the one that was concealed, and nobody would expect a well-dressed lady to know how to fight.
When she reached the front door of Wheeler's elegant house, she took a moment to compose her mask, then knocked. A well-dressed servant opened the door. "Miss Beckett." His disapproval was evident beneath his polite façade.
"I apologise for arriving unannounced," she said, "but I am travelling without a maid, and my cousin is nowhere to be found. I believe I may have lost a necklace here last night. I fear that the clasp broke, either during dinner or after it."
"I do not believe the maids discovered anything, Miss Beckett," the servant said, "but do come in. I will announce you to Miss Althea."
And so, invited, she crossed the threshold. The house looked different in full daylight, though still darker and more cluttered than she instinctively felt that houses ought to look. Dark pictures hung on every wall, and the sky was grey through small-paned windows.
"Miss Beckett!" Althea came running, trailing hair ribbons. "Mama and Papa are out. Come, let us talk awhile while Jeffers questions the maids about your necklace."
Teyla followed her into the parlour. "I believe I shocked your father's man rather badly," she confided. "Are unmarried ladies not allowed to wander the streets alone in England? I have much to get used to, it seems."
Althea sat down, her hands clasped tremulously in her lap. "Is it very different in the Indies?"
"Very different." Teyla glanced over her shoulder, playing the part of a guilty conspirator. "I… No, I should not say."
"Is it pirates?" Althea clapped her hands together. "Please tell me, Miss Beckett. Mama will never find out."
"Very well." Teyla smoothed a crease in her sleeve. "It is hard to live long in the Indies without encountering them. I remember seeing one fine pirate captain, stealing along the shore one Sunday afternoon, as I returned from church. He was very handsome, with a shining sword and a velvet coat. I almost wished I could run away to sea and serve on his ship."
"Oh, Miss Beckett!" Althea pressed a quivering hand to her mouth. Then she seemed to collect herself. "Of course," she said, "I know they are rogues and murderers really. It doesn't seem…" She tugged at her muslin, pulling it closer around her breast. "Someone broke into the house last night."
"Oh, Althea, that is terrible!" Teyla pressed her hand to her chest.
"It was while we were eating," Althea said. "Is it not horrible to know that some rogue was creeping around inside these walls, even as we sat here and thought no evil? I found it quite impossible to sleep last night. Jeffers has boarded up the window, and father has put a man outside, in case the rogue returns, but, still…" She shuddered. "It is quite horrible to contemplate."
Teyla took a moment to compose her voice. "Did they steal anything?" she asked.
"They broke into papa's study," Althea said. "Papa believes they were in the pay of one of his rivals, trying to steal information about his business. But here's the good part." Althea's eyes were shining. "Papa's too clever to be robbed that way. He keeps all his documents in full view, not even locked in any cabinet. The thief walked right past them."
Teyla's heart was beating very fast. Could it be possible, she thought, that Althea could not see it? "How can he do that?" she asked.
"Because they're written in an unbreakable cipher," Althea said. "No-one in all the world could read them, even if they did manage to steal them. Safer than any lock, papa says."
"Cipher?" Teyla frowned. Her hand was clenched, fingers grasping her skirt.
Althea stood up. "I'll show you," she said. "I know where papa keeps his spare key." She headed towards the door. "Tell me more about that pirate captain. Did you ever find out what his name was?"
His bruises were stiffening, and it was becoming harder and harder to walk. Rodney had waited in terror, barely able to breathe, when Sheppard had ventured out to bring them some food. Exhausted and bloodied, Ronon was asleep in a chair, and Teyla had returned to her room to rest. There was just the two of them left, and Sheppard was cold and sharp and brittle, but fragile under it. Rodney had no idea what to say, and so he talked about pork and apple sauce and crackling, until Sheppard laughed, which made Rodney stop mid-word, feeling unexpectedly pierced to the heart.
"What are you going to do?" he said, when that laugh had long-since faded into silence.
Sheppard put down his knife. "I have to end this somehow."
"But you said…" He looked at the grey sky beyond the window. "You said this wouldn't end, even if you…" He flapped his hand in a circle. "You know."
Sheppard closed his eyes just for a moment. His smile was sudden, and might have convinced Rodney just a few months before. "But it might," he said. "If I find this proof that they want, they might pat me on the back and send me on my way, all past sins pardoned."
And then Sheppard would be back on the Atlantis, to sail the world with Ronon and Teyla at his side. It had been so easy for Rodney decide beneath a sunny sky that this was the life that he wanted, too.
"I have to bring it to an end," Sheppard said, tightening his fist. "Even if it doesn't end it properly, I can't let…" He looked Rodney full in the face. "The others are stubborn, disobedient, mutinous rogues, but you aren't, are you? You should leave."
"You don't…" His throat was dry. He swallowed hard. "You don't…"
"There'll be no hard feelings." Sheppard smiled, opening his hand. "If I ever get the Atlantis back, I'll send word to you. You won't be closing any doors. Not unless you want to." There was a tiny pause before the last sentence.
Discretion cleared its throat, reminding him that it was still there. This was the perfect opportunity, it pointed out. He could save his own skin without it making any difference to his future. Of course, Discretion added slyly, he was a fool if he still wanted to do that thing with the ship and the pirates and the sailing around the world forever more. This was just a taster of what that life would be. It would be short, it would be uncomfortable, and he would be useless, pushed onto the sidelines, forgotten.
He told Discretion to go away. He remembered dolphins and a bookshelf; song, music and smiles. He remembered all that, but they felt far, far away, and further with every minute.
It was an old trick, a ridiculous trick, but Althea was no cunning enemy who was wise to such things. Teyla gasped, pointing at the window. "What was that?" she cried.
Althea ran towards the window. It was only moments before she turned back again, but moments were all that Teyla needed. She snatched a handful of papers, returned the top one to its place, and held them behind her skirt. "I though I saw someone," she explained. "I thought it might be the thief returning."
"Oh, I do hope not." Althea chewed her lip, looking stricken and scared – a young girl afraid for her life, and no longer a girl lost in the glamour of pirates. Teyla had done that to her – Teyla and Ronon and John together.
"I think it was just my eyes playing tricks on me." Teyla smiled reassuringly. "I apologise for scaring you. I have quite a headache today." She fluttered her spare hand to her brow. "In fact, I believe I will return to the inn and retire for a while. If you will so kind as to send news if you find my necklace…?"
She let Althea go to the door first. As she followed, she tucked the papers into her bodice, and covered them with her folds of muslin.
"I have to finish this." Sheppard pushed himself to his feet, and snatched up his coat. His movements were less fluid than normal, and although the man was in many ways an enigma, Rodney knew enough to know that he was still in pain.
He stayed in his own chair, though. "Where are you going?"
"I would have succeeded," Sheppard said, which was not entirely a sequitur, "if you hadn't come along that night. I had him, the courier. There'll be more. He has them most days." His voice was fractured, broken up by his efforts to dress. "I can't ask Ronon to break in again. We have to get it at source. We have to interrupt the supply."
Rodney twisted his cuff miserably in his other hand. "What do you mean?"
He knew, of course. Sheppard was planning to play highwayman. Sheppard was taking one more step on the path that led to the gallows. Unless he got bloodily murdered first, of course. That was entirely possible, too.
Rodney remembered confronting Sheppard on the deck, when everybody else had left him well alone. He'd talked about hair, then, or something stupid like that. "But it's daylight," he said. He couldn't find a way to bring hair into it.
"It'll get dark in time."
"But you…" He tugged the lace so hard that his fingers hurt. "Don't," he said. "Please."
"I have to, Rodney." Sheppard stopped with one hand on the door. "I have to bring this to an end before anyone dies."
"But what happens if you die?" Rodney managed, but only too late, only after Sheppard had gone.
end of chapter seven
The stable yard of the Angel Inn, Lymington, November 2008
Lymington river, upstream from the town and looking towards the New Forest, November 2008
Which is entirely taken up with code-breaking.
After Sheppard left, Rodney locked the door with trembling fingers. Ronon stirred, snoring, and Rodney gasped, his hand flying up to his chest. He would-- Oh! A cherry, abandoned on the floor! He reached under the dresser to pull it out, wiping it clean with spit and his shirt sleeve. It was too squelchy, and it dripped onto his cravat. "Tinker," he said, depositing the stone on the top of the dresser. How many cherry stones did you have to have before you ended up with 'pirate'?
He sat down. Perhaps he dozed, because the room became thick with shadows, and bodies hung from gibbets and ravens made horrible sounds. He started up when somebody knocked at the door. "What…?" he croaked, leaping to his feet, but Ronon was there first, easing the door open.
Teyla squeezed through, and Ronon closed the door so swiftly behind her that her skirts were caught, and she had to pull the tail end of them through with both hands. "I have some of Wheeler's letters," she said, pulling a small sheaf of papers from her bodice. "Where's John?"
Suddenly they were both looking at him. Without meaning to, Rodney took a tiny step backwards, but the chair stopped him, pressing itself against the back of his legs. He sat down heavily. "He left," he said. "I tried to stop him, but you know how he gets."
Ronon brought one hand to his brow, and let out quite a scary noise indeed. "I was asleep," he said. "God damn it all to Hell!"
Rodney fluttered one hand hopefully. "He'll be back. He went to steal…" The flaw in his argument became apparent at that point, but he carried on, each syllable a little weaker than the one that came before. "…Wheeler's… lett…ers. Oh." He couldn't quite keep that small sound back.
Teyla looked over her shoulder, as if startled by some sound that Rodney could not hear. Then, with a sigh, she held the papers out towards him. "They are written in cipher," she said. "It is quite impossible to break."
Impossible? Rodney felt something that had been slumbering raise its head sharply inside him. If he hadn't been quite so terrified, he would have rubbed his hands together like a craftsman preparing for his master-piece. Once upon a time, men had deemed it impossible to breathe under water for many minutes at a time, and he'd proved the falsity of that claim, hadn't he? Take that, Sir Impossible!
"It will be a simple substitution cipher," he told his rude, piratical companions. "Nothing is more dangerous than over-confidence. These foolish dabblers write down their darkest secrets on paper, confident in the power of their ridiculous cipher. But here," he said, tapping his forehead, "resides the key to all locks."
He spread the papers out on the bed, and sat down in their midst. There were six sheets, written in at least three different hands. Teyla and Ronon seemed most uninterested in being elucidated. They were talking in fierce, low voices. "Too dangerous," he heard Ronon say.
He stiffened for a moment at that, but not even deadly danger could dampen the eagerness of a hound when… something, something… knowledge and vindication and… whatever. He prodded with his finger at carefully chosen letters. "The truly foolish rogue preserves the word breaks," he told them. "Do you know how many single letter words there are in the English language? Not many, my friends. A letter all on its own will be an I or an A, or perhaps an O, or perhaps some cunning misdirection, such as saying, 'A, we will rob Widow Bartlett, and, B, we will steal sausages from the butcher, and C, we will tell lies about someone far superior to ourselves in intellectual faculties, and have it so that everyone in the College thinks he is a--" He cleared his throat. "But that is unlikely. Rogues are seldom clever."
"It is too much to hope that he will not discover their loss," Teyla was saying. "If so, he will soon discover that I was in a position to take them. I fear that our position in this town is forever compromised."
"We're not going anywhere until Sheppard's back," Ronon growled.
"I know." Teyla looked at him, as fierce as any man, for all her petticoats. "I know that."
"Unfortunately," Rodney told them, "in this case, the word breaks have not been preserved. But all is not lost. Frequency analysis!" He hurled it at them like a triumphant fusillade.
They said nothing; did not even ask him to explain what he meant. Sheppard would have asked, he thought. Teyla had moved to the door, standing with one hand against it, her head turned as if listening. Ronon skulked at the window, pressed into the shadow of the drapes.
"You see," he told them, papers spread around him like a king's robes, "some letters occur in the English language far more often than others. All you need to do is count the occurrences of each letter in your enciphered text. The one that occurs most often is almost certainly E, and the second one is T, and nobody is very fond of Z at all. Of course," he admitted, "it is possible for the truly cunning rogue to plant false trails by deliberately using words that are packed full of uncommon letters. A puffed-up fool with pretensions at being a natural philosopher, for example, when wishing to conceal his thoughts from his far more intelligent fellow scholar – and it was completely ridiculous, of course, because his ideas were drivel – might litter his text with meaningless references to ancient kings of Persia and Babylon, but even that is not enough to fool the truly determined--"
There was a crash outside the door. Someone shouted out in the street, shrill and sharp. Footsteps hurried away.
"Frequency analysis," Rodney said, not really opening his mouth very much at all. "I just need a pen, some paper, and a few hours at most."
"Impossible to break!" he muttered some time later, his fingers black with ink. "The words of an over-confident blaggard."
Ronon and Teyla were talking in low whispers, almost fading into the gloom. Rodney rubbed his eyes. It was almost dark, he noticed. How had it come to be almost dark? He needed light, and he told them so, and they brought him one small candle. The curtains were drawn. He rubbed his eyes again, and suddenly realised quite how badly his ribs were hurting.
"Damn it!" he swore, when Ronon and Teyla had moved again, sitting taut in different chairs. His candle was an oasis of Enlightenment and intellectual effort in a den of roguishness and iniquity. "Some letters occur more than others, but never enough to… Oh! Perhaps that's the E."
People passed singing in the corridor, blundering into doors and walls. "Beware of Long Lankin," they sang, "who lives in the moss." Something thumped against the door, making it shudder. Ronon and Teyla were watchful on either side of it, their poses mirrors of each other.
"If that's the E," he said, "and that's the T and that's the A…" His voice trailed away. It would, perhaps, make a coherent message if the subject was obscure Assyrian deities, or perhaps the curse words of some benighted tribe over in the--
His head drooped forward. He propped it up, and continued to count. "I'm going to go after him," Ronon said, but Teyla grabbed his arm, and said, "No," and when Ronon almost snarled at her – really snarled at her! – she said, quite firmly, "I am as worried as you are, but we have no idea where he has gone, and it is not safe out there in the dark. We are no use to him dead."
Dead? he thought, as his finger moved, pointing, counting, marking things down.
The street grew silent. When he next looked up, Ronon was asleep, and Teyla was watching him with sharp attentiveness. Rodney looked at her; blinked. His mind was racing with letters and numbers. "Of course," he told her, "it is always possible that he has encrypted each letter using a different Caesar shift." He rubbed his aching eyes; moistened his dry lips. "It is a well-known method, described by Signor Bellaso some two hundred years ago. The French call it le chiffre indechiffrable, which means 'the unbreakable cipher.' It is impossible to break unless you know the key word."
He was not aware of sleeping. Letters marched arm in arm across the room, with the D and the F being particularly glowery. Evils Zs hammered at the door and tried to get in. Twirling the tails of its periwig, a martial G tried to pin him with a sword. Snarling vowels pinned him down in the straw and kicked him in the ribs. Sheppard was dragged off by a gloating W.
He rolled over, flailing, and paper stuck to his face and his lips. Furious consonants retreated into the shadows of wakefulness. His body screamed at him and told him that moving was an impossibility, but he sat up stiffly, hand pressed to his side. "He hasn't come back," Ronon said, and the candle was all burnt down, and the faint light from the curtains told him that it was already morning.
"The trick is," he told Ronon, "that you write the alphabet out twenty-six times. The first row, marked A, consists of the alphabet in its proper order. The second, marked B, consists of the alphabet shifted by one letter, and so on, all the way down to Z. Then you take your key word."
Teyla started awake with a cry. It was the first time, Rodney realised, that he had ever seen a lady sleep. "He wouldn't have left us," Ronon said, clenching his fist, but there was doubt there in his voice, beneath the façade of certainty.
"To protect us," Teyla said sadly.
"But doesn't he know…?"
Teyla shook his head. "I believe he does not."
"You take your key word," Rodney told them. "Let's say for the sake of argument that your key word is 'pirate.' This means that you encrypt the first letter of your message using the P row of your alphabet table. The second letter is encrypted using the I row, with every letter shifted forward--" He thought for a moment. "--nine spaces. The third letter uses the shift that starts with R. And so on. When you run out of letters, you repeat the key word. It's quite simple. Even a fool could do it." He stretched himself upright, hand pressed to his ribs. "If he knew the key word, that is."
"You and McKay have already been attacked," Teyla said fiercely to Ronon, "and Wheeler must surely have no illusions about me any more. If we walk out of this room…"
"I am not sitting here," Ronon hissed, "when Sheppard is out there, in danger."
Rodney's belly rumbled. Letters danced in front of his eyes. "I need breakfast," he said. "It is impossible to break a cipher unless you have food. I have a theory that mental activity consumes more energy than heavy labour. That is why it is necessary for those engaged in the affairs of the intellect to consume more than mere labourers, whose faculties, and therefore their need for sustenance, is quite slight." He sighed at memories of bacon past.
He wasn't entirely sure what happened next, but evidently the decision was taken to go down to the tap room together, the three of them ready to take on all comers. Discretion waved a tiny hand and pointed out that it was quite foolish – they were all supposedly living in a totally different inn, for crying out loud, for all that they had spent the night in Sheppard's room in the Angel – but the hollow in his belly thought that it was rather sensible.
"Would you believe it, sir?" said the maiden behind the bar. "They took a highwayman in the forest yestreen."
"A highwayman," Rodney echoed. "Yesterday. Yesterday evening." He reminded his mouth to slam itself shut. He reminded his hands to look quite innocent and unconcerned. "Good morning, Mister Wheeler," the maiden said, and Rodney, pinned, had no choice but to turn around, had no choice but to smile, had no choice but to utter the correct greetings. His tongue twitched rebelliously in his mouth, wanting to talk about key words and ciphers. The wood of the bar was coarse at his back.
"Indeed, Mister McKay," Wheeler said, with a cold, cold smile. "It is the so-called Captain Ford himself. It really is quite outrageous! I invited him under my own roof and let him partake of the hospitality of my table, but he was no more a captain than you or I. He tried to rob a courier of the Mail. He was a desperate rogue, I hear, and it took six men to bring him down."
"Down," Rodney echoed. Ask where he is now, something whispered insistently inside him. "Where…?" He moistened his lips. "What's become of him?" he asked.
"As luck would have it," Wheeler said, "the Winchester Assizes are sitting this very week. It would have been foolish to confine him here in Lymington, with so many rogues around, some of them doubtless his accomplices. He was clapped in irons and taken straight to Winchester. I imagine he will hang for this before very long." His eyes glittered. "I cannot bring myself to regret his passing. He passed himself off as someone he was not, and entered my house under false pretences."
"Shocking," Rodney said weakly. His hand curled behind his back, scraping against the wood of the bar. Letters danced all over the tap room, but Wheeler's face was completely unmarked by them, entirely clear. Ronon was glowering at Wheeler's back, he saw. Teyla had disappeared completely.
"Excuse me," Rodney croaked. He slipped away, pounding up the stairs, clawed at the door, pressed it closed, his breath heaving. Then the door moved beneath his fingers, straining, pushing. "No," he whimpered, "no," and pressed it closed, but Ronon pushed his way through, followed by Teyla. "He's been arrested," Rodney told them. "Taken as a highwayman. Imprisoned. Not here, but in Winchester. In Winchester. Not here."
Everything was fluttering, and it was impossible to breathe. Discretion was clamouring most terribly, telling him to run away right now. He pushed it away sharply, and returned to his papers. The letters stamped in orderly lines, and it was impossible to be entirely terrified when they were posing their questions. "Key word," he said, clawing at the sheaves. "Need to find the key word." He swallowed; looked up. "What are we going to do?"
"Rescue him, of course." It was Teyla who said it, but Ronon's face carried the same message.
"Oh." A corner of paper crumpled. Something eased inside him, because these were Sheppard's crew, who doubtless had escaped from more prisons in their time than Rodney had written acclaimed articles. But Discretion raised itself to its full height, waggling its finger. They didn't mean that he was supposed to go with them, did they? It was one thing to risk death at the hands of rogues and smugglers, but this was going up against the laws of the land! It was crossing the Rubicon. It was going beyond the pale. It was all manner of worrying metaphors, all of which added up to the fact that if he was captured while engaged in this enterprise, it wouldn't just mean death in a ditch – not that that was a pleasant fate, mind – but it would mean incarceration and shame and execution and public disgrace.
"Find the key word," he said, his voice sounding shrill in his own ears. "Perhaps I can guess it. What sort of a word would a man like that use? Smuggler? No, it needs to have every letter different. It weakens the encryption if a letter occurs more than once in the key word, since you are using one shifted alphabet twice as often as the others, which means that you can apply… that you can apply…"
The door opened and closed again. He looked up sharply, scooping his papers towards his chest. Ronon seemed to have disappeared. He had a dim memory of the Ronon and Teyla talking together while Discretion had lectured him, and while key words had clamoured in his mind. He caught a glimpse of Teyla's face, taut with anguish, but then she turned quite decisively away.
"Althea," he said. "Though would he use his daughter's name? Would he bring an innocent young girl into whatever evil plots he is fomenting? And starting with A would not be advisable, because it would mean that the first letter and every sixth letter thereafter wouldn't be encrypted at all, and… oh! Repeated letter. So that won't work on two accounts."
He turned over a page in his notebook and tried again, scrawling and crossing out; scrawling and crossing out. His belly reminded him that breakfast hadn't happened properly, and Discretion was restless, pointing out that Wheeler was probably pacing downstairs, and that rescuing highwaymen from prison was not the done thing for a respectable man, not the done thing at all.
Ten more pages were filled. He was nearly at the end of his book. "I need paper," he said, but Teyla was at the door, sneaking it open.
Rodney blinked, wondering how much time had passed. Ronon was dirty, his sleeve torn, and a fresh line of blood on his cheek. "Got your clothes," he said, passing a bundle to Teyla. "They're down there in force. Your door had been kicked in. Our horses have gone. I had to go over the roof. Damn near didn't make it." His eyes flickered towards Rodney. "We won't make it out that way, not all of us."
The two of them drew closer. "We are not…" Rodney heard Teyla said, but the rest was just a hiss of whispers. "I know," Ronon said, then said something about Sheppard, about Sheppard not wanting… "No." Teyla interrupted him. "…in as much danger as us if he stays," she said. "…didn't have to help us."
Rodney felt cold, surrounded by danger, poised at a crossroads where no road was safe. The letters mocked him with his inability to penetrate their secrets. Then Teyla said quite loudly that she was going to get changed, and that they should turn away and not look.
"What about treason," he said, "as a key word? Evil? Plot? Conspiracy? No, too many Cs." He could feel his heart beating very fast. A lady was undressing only yards away. He had never seen a lady without her clothes on – well, apart from that time when the equatorial mount on his telescope had broken, and the telescope had unfortunately become fixed on Charlotte Dauncey's dressing room. His mother had been quite furious, which was outrageously unfair, since technological malfunctions in shoddily-made devices could hardly be blamed on him. His father, though, had called him a sly dog, and said there was hope for him, after all.
"There," Teyla said, and she was a dressed as a man again, although it was looking like two pictures laid on top of each other: pirate, and lady, creating something that was both, and yet neither.
He jabbed his pen into the small bottle of ink, dripping black on the counterpane. "Or perhaps something entirely innocuous," he said, "like cabbages. No, too many repeated letters." Ink blotted on his page. "Protecting secrets is harder than it seems. There really are very few words that don't have repeated letters." He swallowed. "Pirate would work, of course. So would prison. So would death. But not gallows. Gallows is right out."
He turned his notebook sideways and started writing across the lines, filling in gaps. There was an inordinate amount of noise coming from the street. Ronon and Teyla seemed to be deciding something portentous. If you don't listen to them, Discretion told him, you can deny all knowledge when you're dragged in chains before the bench. Suddenly Teyla was grabbing his arm, and Rodney bundled up papers, sealed his ink bottle, and went with her, words and letters dancing before his eyes. "Murder wouldn't work," he whispered, "but neither would escape."
He knew by heart the first two dozen letters from each paper, and he chased them as Teyla dragged him into another room – a small room, littered with furniture, perhaps used as a store room. Coldness gripped his heart, but he spread the papers on the floor, and started to work.
The next time he looked up, ten more pages were covered with a criss-cross of false workings. An enormous pounding was coming from somewhere outside. Teyla pressed her finger to her lips. They're breaking down the door to Sheppard's room, Rodney thought. We escaped death by minutes. Then he looked at the quality of light coming in through the small window, and thought that it had perhaps been hours, after all, rather than anything less.
People were shouting – everywhere there was shouting. His companions whispered fiercely, and guarded the door. When everything was silent again, Ronon gave a sharp nod, and then they were on the move again. Unruly papers tried to leap out of Rodney's arms, and he teetered along the corridor, expecting any moment to be pierced from behind with a sword. Teyla hushed him into an alcove, where he muttered key words under his breath until they beckoned him out again. He saw a glimpse of the stable yard through a half-open door, and someone appeared to be lying on the floor, two booted feet sticking out from behind the bar.
Teyla grabbed his arm. One of his papers made a bid for freedom, but he thwarted it. Then he was in a cold, damp room, full of barrels. "Repeated R," he muttered, "in 'barrel', and I'm not happy about the presence of the A." Ronon heaved a barrel aside, his face red with the strain. "Are you…?" Teyla asked, and Ronon said "yes", and then he was raising a trap-door, ushering them down into the dark.
"Is this the smugglers' tunnel?" Rodney whispered, but even that, thistledown-soft as it was, echoed in the darkness like a hundred spirits watching him. It was dark, impossibly dark. He bumped into something, smashing his knee. Was that a rat squeaking ahead of him? "I don't like the dark," he breathed. Ronon and Teyla seemed to be able to move entirely silently, like cats in the night. Perhaps they had abandoned him. Perhaps they had led him down into this hell, and had left him here to die.
A hand closed on his arm, and he yelped. "This way," Teyla said, and Rodney jammed the papers into his pocket, and gripped her sleeve. The place was dank and stinking, hewn from the cold, forgotten places of the earth. The ground sloped downwards, and no step was quite where his feet expected it to be. He almost fell several times, but Teyla hauled him up. At other times, his feet balked and announced that they could not possibly take another step, but the prospect of being abandoned here alone was worse, far worse, than anything he might blunder into in the dark.
"If I cannot second-guess the key word," he said quietly, anchoring himself on that in the darkness, "perhaps I can second-guess the first words of each message. If one flank fails, you should attack on another. It's there in all the treatises on war. At least," he added, as his feet squelched in something repulsive, "I think it is. I haven't actually read them."
His encrypted letters stamped in serried ranks across a field of war. He rallied them like a general, until a faint grey light appeared ahead of him. He blinked, scarcely able to believe it. "Stay here," Teyla told him, but he edged forward, drawn by the light. He heard voices, and someone cried out. He drifted further forward, bathed in grey, unable to stop.
Ronon reappeared, a dark silhouette. Rodney followed him, and ducked down into the sedge and the mud of a twilight riverbank. "How does one normally start a letter?" he mused. "'Sir', or 'Dear sir.' I will assume first one and then the other, and see what falls out."
He tried one and then the other, but the only thing that emerged were heathen gods with lots of consonants in their names. Perhaps Wheeler and his friends were heathens, in league with--
Ronon dragged him forward. Water splashed even up to his thighs. Apparently they had a boat now. Apparently they had a boat with two dark sails, called the Mary Ellen. "Did you…?" He swallowed hard. "Did you steal this?"
The others seemed occupied with hauling ropes and doing other nautical things. Rodney tried a dozen more salutations, but could not rid himself of the heathen deities. He had to hold his papers up to catch the very last of the light, but even when the light faded to darkness, the letters remained, scoured on his mind.
Other boats passed in the darkness, voices carrying over the water. Ronon and Teyla were whispering urgently about mud flats and charts. They struck a spark, and looked at a sheet of paper, shielding the light with the dark bulk of their bodies. "It doesn't mark the way through the mud," Ronon said. "That'll be their secret." Teyla said they had to stick to the channel. "But that means…" Ronon said, but Ronon's head was thick with salutations.
Those salutations chased him through the night. The worshippers of heathen gods chanted 'dear sir' and 'my lord' and 'Mister Wheeler' and dates, dates, dates. Ink ran away in water, filling the world with black. 'You will never learn our secrets!' cackled a coven of evil letters, dark and vile and spiky. Something crashed, and there was quite a lot of shouting.
"I think I need to try a different approach," he mumbled, pulling himself up in the morning, a hand on the edge of the boat. When he blinked upwards, something seemed different about the sail. "What…" He cleared his throat. "What happened?"
"We took some shot," Teyla explained. She and Ronon looked drawn with tiredness, their eyes rimmed with red. "I had to repair it with my petticoat." She nodded towards her abandoned bundle of ladies' clothes.
"Shot," Rodney echoed. Ronon's hand were raw, he noticed, the palms burnt as if by ropes. "I didn't…"
His hands trembled. Crawling on his hands and knees, he grabbed a spare sheet of paper that had somehow escaped him. "A different approach," he said. "Let's say I assume a six letter code word, endlessly repeated. That means I can take the first letter, then the seventh letter, then the thirteenth, and so on…" He began to write them down. "Then I do the same with the second, the eighth, the fourteenth, etcetera. I end up with six shorter messages, each encrypted using a simple Caesar shift. Although they will not contain actual words, the usual frequency of letters will still apply."
Ronon snatched his paper away. Rodney protested, jabbing his outrage with his dripping pen. "That's our chart," Ronon said.
"You brought a chart?" Rodney said. That meant that they had thought ahead. That meant that they had intelligence. That meant… "Where are we?"
"The wind took us too close to the Isle of Wight during the night," Teyla explained, "and we are still in the Solent, but on course for Southampton Water. We need to decide whether to go up the River Itchen or this Itchen Navigational." She pointed at a straight line on the map.
"That'll be a canal," Rodney explained, dimly remembering his father talking about such things. "It has locks and towpaths and rough bargemen. I think the river would be best for a boat with sails. At least, I think so."
The sails flapped overhead. Ronon and Teyla did quaint nautical things, and the sun rose higher and higher, pale and watery in a thin white sky. Rodney asked Ronon if he could at least tear off a bit of Dorset and the far side of the Isle of Wight, since they were of no use to anyone. Ronon's answer was quite rude. Rodney was reduced to filling in the gaps in his designs for a perpetual motion machine, back on page two of his Book of Profound Musings, labelled as such, with capitals. "Of course," he said, some time later, "the key word might be seven letters long."
"Down!" Teyla hissed. Rodney sprawled flat on his face, as monstrous letters loomed in front of his eyes, their horrible limbs reaching across the page. A pistol fired close above him, then again and again. A heron rose up, flapping. Oh, Rodney thought, after Teyla told him that it had actually been safe to rise quite some time ago. We appear to be on a river.
Oh, he thought, some time later, as the drooping branches of willow tried to entangle themselves in his hair. We appear to have stopped. "This isn't Winchester," he told them, because they were foreign and probably didn't know. Then Teyla brought him apples and a loaf of bread, and that was a Good Thing. Soon the willows withdrew, and there was wind in his hair instead. He thought he might have a 'the' in the middle of one of his papers.
He raised his head when Teyla said "becalmed." A squat cathedral was visible on the far horizon, and birds raced athletically across broad water meadows. "King Alfred did something or other here," he told them. "I think so, anyway. When he wasn't burning cakes, that is. Or was it King Arthur? The Round Table's in Winchester Great Hall, I think. That's where Sheppard will be tried." He had covered twenty more pages, quite destroying his designs for a flying machine. "The something something something," he read out loud. "Something something the something something something the something with a T in it." It was a start, at least. His heart was racing with the thrill of approaching triumph. He was about to do the impossible. He was about to solve a cipher that no-one in the world had ever solved. He was about to go Ha! very loudly indeed.
Ronon lowered the sails, and Teyla pulled out the oars. The boat edged forward through the shallow river, and the sun finally broke free from the clouds, just as it was fading into the west, about to sink into another night.
"Jack," Rodney said. "The key word… Jack. Jacob. Jacobus. Jacobus! Why? No no, that doesn't matter. If I use that key word, I get…"
The city walls loomed ever closer. "We should moor the lugger somewhere safe," Teyla said, "and go in on foot."
The message seemed to be talking about the king, about the king's itinerary, about… "Jacobus!" Rodney gasped. "Latin for James. They're Jacobites! They're adherents of the deposed Papist tyrant!" He clambered out of the boat, and stood wavering on the shore. "Jacobites," he murmured, feeling cold all over, his triumphant ha! fading into dust and ashes. Soon the grass beneath his feet turned to cobbles. Bent over his papers, he almost tripped over a barrel. "God!" he gasped. "I know what they're planning to do. They're going to--"
"Oh, yes, the highwayman," a man was saying, in response to something Teyla had asked him. "They tried him yesterday – uncommon fast, but the Assizes were sitting. They wanted him hanged as quickly as possible, before his accomplices could spirit him away. The king's at Salisbury, you see. The death warrant was asked for and signed, all within an afternoon."
"He's dead?" Teyla's voice sounded as faint as a summer breeze.
"He's to be hanged upon the morrow," came the reply.
"--kill the king," Rodney's lips said, stubbornly insisting on finishing what he had to say. "Tomorrow."
The mouth of the Lymington River, November 2008
Rodney McKay's hand-drawn map of his code-breaking voyage
In which a highwayman is brought to justice
They were singing in the ale-houses of the death of highwaymen. Teyla clutched her tankard in both hand, but felt too ill to drink anything. She felt wrong and out of sorts, no more herself in these familiar clothes than in the gown she had worn for the past few days.
John was going to die in the morning.
"I never robbed any poor man yet," sang the men on the far side of the fire-flickered room, "nor ever was in tradesman's debt." She looked at McKay, who sat with shadowed eyes, twitchy and miserable. "But I robbed the lords and the ladies gay," they sang, "and carried the gold to my love straightway."
"He hasn't admitted a true love yet, has he?" a man shouted from another table, further from the fire.
The chief singer flapped his hand. "We'll change that bit tomorrow, after he gives his speech. He'll die well. The gentlemen of the road always do."
McKay was gripping the edge of the table. "What are we going to do?" He was whispering, even though there was too much noise in the tavern for anyone to hear him. Teyla herself barely heard him, merely going by the movement of his lips, and the fact that her own heart was crying the same question.
The singers called for more ale. Thus lubricated, they declaimed another verse.
"My father cried, 'Oh my darling son,'
My wife she wept and cried, 'I am undone.'
My mother tore her grey locks and cried
'Oh in his cradle he should have died.'"
Teyla's tankard tipped over, spilling ale across the surface of the table. She snatched it up before it was fully empty. As she did so, she saw Ronon pushing through the crowd. "What happened?" She leant forward eagerly, ale soaking into her sleeves.
Ronon smelled of darkness and outside. He slid in next to McKay. "It's too well guarded," he said, and she knew how much it must have cost him to say those words. "I asked the sort of people who looked as if they'd know. They said…" He took a mouthful of McKay's ale, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "They told me that it's customary for condemned prisoners to stay in prison for weeks before the sentence is carried out. They're allowed visitors. People come to gawp, but sometimes friends smuggle in knives and files. People do escape."
"But not this time." McKay said it before she could bring herself to.
"They've hurried things through because the King's so near. No-one's allowed in. The guard's increased. I couldn't…" He almost slammed his fist on the table, but changed it at the last minute to a slow, firm pressure. "We can't get him out that way."
She closed her eyes briefly. "It will have to be tomorrow, then." ("Tomorrow!" the singers echoed, raising their glasses between verses. "He'll give us a good death tomorrow.")
"Snatching him from the very scaffold." McKay's ink-stained fingers twitched, as if even now they wanted to be writing. The hard-won letters were folded in his pocket.
Someone stuck up a note on a set a pipes. "No!" cried an old man. "Finish the song first. Tell us about the funeral."
"Hush, then," said the chief singer. "Hush, then, and listen."
"You'll have to change it tomorrow," said a man with thin, dark hair.
"Captain Ford is his name," nodded a man by the fire. "What rhymes with Ford?"
"Hush!" cried the singer, climbing onto the table, spreading his hands. Silence stole outwards from him, as if he was death.
"And when I'm dead and go to my grave
A flashy funeral oh let me have.
Let hundred bold robbers follow me,
Give them good broadswords and liberty.
Let six pretty maidens bear up my pall
Give them white gloves and ribbons all.
That they may say when they speak the truth,
'There goes a wild and a wicked youth.'"
The ale-house erupted into applause, but Teyla bowed her head and wept.
Upon the morrow, it seemed, Rodney was going to oppose the age-old justice system of the country of his birth. He was going to take the plunge into full-blown criminal activity, not in far-away distant climes, where normal rules didn't apply, but on his very doorstep.
Discretion was not at all pleased with him. It was pacing up and down, red-faced with disgusted rage. "If you do this…" it said, too outraged to complete a sentence. "If you really do this…"
Go away, he told it quite firmly, slamming a decisive first on the table. Discretion had been hounding him for days, but he, Rodney McKay, had had enough. Sheppard was a good man – an infuriating man, admittedly, but a good one, more or less, give or take a little matter of piracy and highway robbery – and it wasn't right that he should die for something he had been forced into.
And Sheppard's my friend, he told Discretion, with more wonder in his thoughts this time than decisiveness. He'd never really had a friend before. If he walked away now, what would life offer him ever afterwards but the memories of what might have been? Through some amazing miracle, Sheppard understood him, and that was something too precious to throw away without a fight. We don't let our people die. Had Sheppard said that to him once? No, he thought, Sheppard lived that. Sheppard had surrendered himself to Kolya to save Rodney's life, and he was only captured now because he had tried to end the intolerable situation before anyone else got hurt.
Of course, he thought, there was the small matter of high treason and the imminent assassination of His Britannic Majesty King George, the first of that name. He probably should be doing something about that, really. Loyal subjects weren't supposed to sit around in ale-houses while dastardly plots were unfolding, aimed at their king. Not that he felt any particular personal attachment to the king, but when people went around assassinating kings, bad things usually followed, like civil wars and general bloodshed, and it was very hard to practise decent natural philosophy when ravaging armies tramped up and down the country, billeting themselves in your study; and, besides, Jacobites harked back to a more primitive age, where heretics were burnt on bonfires, and this was the Age of Reason, for crying out loud, and the Jacobites had no truck for Enlightenment, preferring to worship stones and idols.
Duty, his old nemesis, cleared its throat. Discretion sulked, knowing itself bested, but Duty told him that he should rush off right now to save the king. Let Ronon and Teyla save their captain. He would save his king. The grateful monarch would grant him not just a Fellowship but the Presidency of the Royal Society for sure. Ahem, Duty said, reminding him that the thought of reward was not supposed to come into it. This was the right thing to do. Save his king and country and everything he held dear, and things like that.
Several minutes went by, and still his body was showing no sign of moving. People were singing of the great hangings of yesteryear, and he really wished that they wouldn't. I want to save Sheppard, he thought. He felt disquiet when he thought about the killing of the king, but when he thought about Sheppard's death, a fist reached into his belly and twisted his guts quite painfully.
Still, he thought, perhaps he could do something. Grabbing his notebook, he leafed through it until he found the last clean page, on the back of a half-finished sketch of a machine that could calculate the sums of pairs of numbers. "I need somebody who will take a message," he told the others, "and that somebody will need a horse. I suspect I will need some pirate gold, too."
Ronon and Teyla looked up hopefully. Rodney remembered hangings he had almost seen, passing with his face averted at the back of the crowd. They were always an ungodly crush of people, and the guilty wretch was often more a hero to the crowd than a villain, for all that they delighted in seeing him hang. There often weren't all that many guards, and it would be easy to…
"And something else," he said. "A few more things. I think I know how we might be able to save him."
A dog barked. Ronon froze, but the sound was not repeated. McKay was hopping from foot to foot behind him. "House-breaking," the man breathed. "House-breaking in England. Though I suppose it doesn't count as a house." Ronon prized off the first of the railings. "Though I doubt it makes much difference to the severity of the sentence, the fact that it is a shop, not a house."
The second bar came off, then the third. Although it was the dead of night, there were far too many noises in this city. People were passing not too far away. A cat yowled, and there was distant singing from at least two taverns, two different songs criss-crossing in the night.
"We can't let ourselves get caught," McKay hissed earnestly, catching hold of Ronon's arm. "We're no use to Sheppard that way. If it looks bad…" He took a visible breath. "I'll go in alone. It's only sensible, really, since you wouldn't recognise the things I need. If anything goes wrong, you get away. Then you can rescue both of us in the morning."
Ronon nodded just once. "Yes," McKay mumbled. "Yes. Well." His hand opened, then closed again. The dog barked again, nearer this time, and McKay gave a silent yelp. "Sorry," McKay whispered, and then the last bar was off.
Ronon gently opened the window. He saw McKay swallowing hard, but he knew there was no false reassurance he could offer. McKay was irritating, infuriating, but perhaps not so bad underneath it all. This was his idea. After all the squawking he had done about stealing, he had volunteered himself for this task.
But, "I'll help you up," was all Ronon said. Above him, silent in the breeze, the apothecary's sign swung to and fro.
Teyla held up the small, chipped mirror. She stood clothed in the clothes she had worn for so long on the Atlantis, her hair tangled from a night and a day at sea, her hands reddened from hauling ropes. In front of her, spread out on the narrow bed, was the water-stained gown she had carried in a bundle from Lymington. Half the petticoat was gone, used to patch up a sail, but the gown could still be worn. In the press of an execution crowd, nobody would notice the flaws.
How can I best help him? she thought. Who was required tomorrow: Teyla the pirate, or Teyla the lady?
She tried to tell herself that it did not matter. What mattered was who she was beneath the clothing. What mattered was what she said and how she acted. What mattered was whether she could save him, not what garb she wore while making the attempt.
She let out a breath. It was not true. The people who mattered might see what lay within, but her clothing would affect how strangers would react to her. That was why she had assumed man's array in the first place, after all. She herself had believed that clothing mattered more than anything else. She herself…
The last fading moments of song came from down below. Teyla moved to the window and leant softly against it with her hand, looking out into the midnight street. I myself…she thought.
But that was a thought for another day. What mattered now was saving John, and she would wear whatever costume was required for that task, and would play whatever part, because that was all it was: a part.
The core beneath it was true, though. No matter what she wore, she was Teyla, and she was going to save her captain's life.
I'm robbing a shop, Rodney thought. I'm really doing it. I'm robbing a shop.
With every step, something small and gibbering inside him reminded him of the extra years that would be added to his sentence if he continued to do this thing. He sorted silently through a cabinet, and added another item to his sack. They'll send you to a particularly horrible colony for that, it told him. Put it back, and they might send you to a pleasant one, all sunny, with flowers. House-breaking without stealing? That's not too bad. Tell them you were doing it to save the king.
Was that a sound upstairs? He froze, heart pounding. He was three rooms away from the small back window; three rooms away from Ronon. If Ronon was still there, that was. Perhaps Ronon had abandoned him, and…
No, he told himself. No, he told that small, gibbering part of him. This was his idea, and there was no going back on it. He didn't want to go back on it. Ronon wouldn't abandon him, because they were all in this together, all bound in the same criminal enterprise. Fancy that, he thought. I'm part of a criminal gang. He'd never been in a gang before. He'd once been pushed into a ditch by one, though.
The sound was not repeated. He moved to another cabinet, and found a veritable cornucopia of items that he needed. Perhaps he would need a bigger sack. Things rattled alarmingly when he tried to lift the one he had.
A gang, he thought, because the gibbering part of him had given up entirely, and had joined Discretion and Duty in glowering outrage on the fringes of his mind. He faced them with Determination. "I'm doing this thing," it told them, "and you know what? It feels good."
Well, actually, it felt quite uncomfortable as he tried to shoulder the sack without it clinking too badly. It felt quite terrifying as he crossed the hall. But it felt quite lovely when Ronon was still there, big and reassuring and wonderful at the window, and when he was safely out in the street again, the relief felt amazing.
"I did it," he said, as Ronon took the sack from him, shouldering it effortlessly. "I broke into a shop. I stole things. I really stole things, all by myself. I did it."
"I'm not sure this would normally be something to boast about," said Ronon, sounding suddenly so like Sheppard that Rodney stopped walking for a moment. When he resumed again, any doubts he might ever have entertained were gone. He wanted to do this thing, and if he set his mind to a thing, then it happened, because, hello? Rodney McKay!
The cathedral bell struck six. Teyla had long since given up on sleeping, and now at last she rose, and began to pull on her tattered petticoats.
All night long, she had heard the sound of hammering. She thought it was the sound of a gallows being built, or perhaps the sound of John's coffin being put together beneath his window. Or perhaps she had slept after all, and it had just been the sound of fear and dreaming.
John was due to die at ten of the clock.
He needed a laboratory for this, Rodney thought. He needed a dedicated room set aside for his highly delicate work. He-- Something exploded with rather a loud bang. He coughed, flapping at the smoke. He needed a room set aside for his… work. Perhaps a lair, since he was now the resident genius of a criminal gang.
Or not criminals, he thought, as he poured one powder into another. He scraped the back of his hand across his brow. They were misunderstood – heroic outlaws condemned because of treachery. They were…
A bottle cracked. Rodney threw his cloak over the smoulder and flames.
It didn't matter what they were, he thought. The clock had just struck eight.
The crowds were gathering. There was almost an hour still to go, but Teyla took her place amongst them.
"I hear he's very handsome," said a girl not far away from her.
"He didn't say much at the trial, though," an older woman told her, shaking her head with disapproval. "No pleading, just stood there most of the time, dignified like, but when them in robes got too impertinent, he stopped them with a quip. Least, I think it was a quip. It might have been an epigram. It's hard to tell with these clever folk."
Teyla edged forward, slowly weaving her way towards the front. "A new song," someone was calling over the crowd, "newly printed today by Mister Brown. The last words and confession of Captain Ford, highwayman, sung to the tune of Wilkins and his Dinah." The voice sang a snatch of it.
A young man pushed past her, pulling out a penny. "One for my grandpa, please."
It was as if John was dead already, his last words committed to song, his body buried with paper and black ink. But Teyla said nothing and moved on. Two more people yielded, parting without realising it to let her through. Only four rows separated her from the gallows.
"I hope he gives us a good morning's entertainment, the poor lad," someone said behind her. Teyla kept her fists clenched tight, and fought the urge to strike him.
A pair of children were complaining that they could not see the gallows. Someone was selling pies, and Teyla was surrounded by the smell of warm spiced meat.
"And when I'm dead," someone sang. "And when I'm dead…"
Teyla turned sideways to edge through a gap, but there she stopped, one row from the front, a lady drawn to watch a man die.
They were late bringing Sheppard out.
Ronon had been in position since not long after dawn, pressed flat against the roof, half-hidden by tangled creepers. He didn't dare look over the parapet very often, but he had seen Teyla there, looking away from him near the front of the crowd. He could not see McKay.
Just after ten, the bell started tolling for a death. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd. The next time Ronon looked out, he saw a group of young men clambering onto a roof on the far side of the square. Ladies were leaning out of upper windows, handkerchiefs clasped in their hands. People were climbing on each other's shoulders, piling up boxes and barrels, doing anything they could to get a good view. Nobody stopped them. Perhaps, he thought. Perhaps…
He sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the roof. The youths on the far side of the square saw him, waved, and copied him. Ronon adjusted his grip on his pistol; adjusted it again.
The bell tolled on.
Rodney leant against the wall and tried to look casual. He flicked dust from his rather grimy sleeve. He looked at the heavens as if stars would magically appear in the middle of a summer morning. He counted paces from one side of the street to the other. "Waiting for someone," he muttered, when a woman walked past.
If only the bell would stop tolling! It wasn't right to kill a man to the sound of his own funeral bell. Though perhaps, he thought, if you were the condemned wretch, that would be the least of your problems. The dying part was probably less pleasant.
The crowd's roaring was the first sign that Sheppard had appeared. At last, Rodney thought, slumping with relief, then trying to disguise it with a pretended sneeze. That was the thing about waiting for something. By the time it finally happened, you were too overwhelmed with relief to even think about being scared.
Teyla's view of John's approach was concealed by the gallows, but all around her people were cheering, and the ladies at the high windows were blowing kisses and waving their handkerchiefs. Why does it take so long? she wanted to ask, but the man beside her had an answer for that, even though she had not asked it. "Taking his last drink," he said. "A glass of wine or a bowl of ale. Hard to drink when your hands are tied."
The cathedral bell kept on tolling. The crowd behind her pushed forward, and a constable stepped forward, urging them back. Men in black were climbing onto the gallows, ready to do their work.
Her first sight of John almost made her gasp aloud. Those around her were less retrained, gasping and cheering. He was standing in the back of an open cart, his hands bound in front of him with ropes. At some point since leaving Lymington, he had acquired new clothes, and he was dressed like a gentleman, in fine linen and black velvet. The man beside her was impressed. The last wretch to be hanged, he said, had appeared in rags, but if you couldn't wear your best clothes to your own hanging, when could you wear them?
She felt herself strain forward, feet moving despite herself, but forced herself to stop, forced herself to wait. John saw her, though; she was suddenly sure of that. He gave no sign and sent no message, but she was sure that he knew that she was there. What had it been like for him, she wondered. She had been so focused on the rescue that she had spared no thought for what he must have been feeling, imprisoned in a condemned cell miles away from the place he had left his friends. Had he expected them to come after him, or had he thought he would die alone?
We will save you, John, she willed silently. Have faith.
They led John onto the gallows, his hands still bound. A clergyman stepped forward and intoned a long prayer. Through it all, John stared straight ahead, more like a captain on the wooden deck of his ship than a condemned man on the gallows. Teyla's hands were moist, her heart beating fast in her chest. The constable at the foot of the gallows yawned, covering his mouth with his hand.
An official read from a book, droning almost inaudibly about John's crimes and the punishment that was to be meted upon him. "Speak up!" people shouted from the back of the crowd. The man beside Teyla snorted in disgust. "What's the point of it if they can't do it properly?" he wondered.
Then it was John's turn. The crowd hushed expectantly. "Let's hope it's a good one," Teyla's neighbour muttered. Teyla dug her nails into her palms, looked up at John, and wished and willed that this would have a good ending.
"For those things that I have done wrong," John said, "I am truly sorry. For those people I have failed, I am truly sorry. I have committed robbery in my time. I never meant to. It… happened. And to the young men out there: don't do what I did. That's what I'm supposed to say, isn't it? Don't turn to crime." His head moved for the first time; until then he had been looking straight ahead. As he moved, Teyla saw that his cheek was bruised, and she saw further bruising at the collar of his shirt.
"But I'm going to say something different," John continued. "Don't put your trust in princes." He smiled; even managed a wry laugh. "And it's not just princes. I've done lots of wrong things, and I probably deserve this, but I'm here today because people, my so-called betters, put me here, and what could I do about it but accept the fate they'd decreed for me? So don't be too quick to trust. Don't…" He snapped it off, and stopped, long enough for the crowd to start muttering. "No," he said quietly. "Do trust, but trust the right people. Trust your friends. Trust the people who've proved themselves. Don't trust people just because they tell you that they're better than you are, and that it's your duty to believe them. Don't--"
"That's enough," the clergyman said sternly, but, "No!" the crowd cried. "Let him speak!" The official with the book shook his head. From somewhere out of sight, drums started a slow beat.
It was time. "Not the best," Teyla's neighbour said, "as speeches go. I like it when they weep." But then he, then all the crowd, fell silent. There was no sound at all but the tolling bell and the slow, low rumble of the drums.
John was blindfolded and guided up the step. The noose was put around his neck. The drums rose to a crescendo. Then, with one last prayer, he was hanged.
Which is full of daring rescue attempts
The drums rolled louder and louder, and the crowd hushed. That was his signal. That was his signal, wasn't it? But what if… No, no, he had to do it. Better too early than too late. He had to… Now. Now. He had his spark all ready, didn't he? Yes, yes. Bring it just so, and apply it to the stone pot thus. Yes! Yes!
Smoke billowed out – smoke, God, yes, and he knew there would be lots of it – that was the whole point, after all, and he'd designed it himself and… But so much! It got into his eyes. It made him cough. Choking, he managed to light the second pot, then the third. And… oh, yes! He was supposed to fire a pistol, too, wasn't he? He dragged it out from under his coat, and managed a shot, then shrank inwards, because what went up always came down, and what if the ball…?
Smoke. Smoke. Yes. "Help!" he cried, running forward. He coughed, clawing at his streaming eyes. "Help!" he screamed. "Enemies! Rebels! An attack! Help!"
Smoke rose behind him like a wall. "Help!" he cried again, and then he was round the corner, coming up at the rear of the execution crowd. "Help! There's dozens of them! No, hundreds!" he screamed, and I'm a respectable gentleman and couldn't possibly be involved in a rescue attempt, could I, because, well, look at me, and… "Help!" he screamed. "Help!"
And first one, then two, then dozens, then hundreds of them took up the cry.
People were screaming at the back of the square. The constables raced forward, elbowing their way through the crowd, ordering people to stand aside, to let them through.
And Sheppard was dangling from a rope, dying before Ronon's eyes.
The screaming grew louder. Like a ship on fire on the sea, a wall of smoke rose up from the back of the crowd. The screaming spread. The official laid down his book. The clergyman ran down the steps and disappeared.
The rope was taut, its fibres straining. Ronon levelled his pistol, took aim, and fired.
As soon as the screaming had started, Teyla had crouched, reaching for the knife strapped beneath her skirts. The instant Ronon's pistol sounded, Teyla moved. The people in front of her had already turned away, straining to see what was happening at the back of the square. She pushed past them, raced up the steps, and was there when the last fibre gave way. John fell, but she caught him, held him up until his feet had found their balance. "John," she said, over and over. "John. I have you." She could hear him gasping, sucking in air.
"Madam," someone said tentatively. "You can't…" She turned and felled him, striking him across the jaw. Taken by surprise, he staggered and fell off the gallows. Hardly anybody seemed to notice. Smoke had filled half the square by now, and she could already begin to smell it, sharp and acrid.
"We need to get somewhere less conspicuous," she told John.
He was still blindfolded, but she saw him nod. She guided him towards the steps, but felt him stagger. When she took a firmer grip on him, he did not pull away.
Jabbing his pistol into his belt, Ronon climbed over the edge of the roof, and started to descend, grasping hold of handfuls of stout creeper. When he was still his own height from the ground, he jumped, landing heavily, but already springing up, running forward. "What's happening?" he heard people say. He elbowed them aside, pushing through until he had reached the base of the gallows.
Teyla already had Sheppard. Grabbing his knife, Ronon sliced through Sheppard's blindfold. "Got some of my hair there, buddy." Sheppard's voice was hoarse and ravaged, but it was enough to make Ronon grin. He grabbed Sheppard in a brief one-armed hug, then turned his attention to the ropes at his wrists. He sawed through them, and Sheppard helped, moving his bound wrists up and down so hungrily that the edge of Ronon's knife drew blood.
"We must hurry," Teyla urged, when Sheppard was free.
They were far from safe, of course. They had Sheppard, but they were still in a hostile city that wanted Sheppard dead. Most of the crowd were busy fleeing from the smoke, but some had noticed what had happened. "He's escaped!" he heard a woman screaming, sounding more thrilled than terrified. "Out of my way!" he heard someone thunder. "Let me pass! The highwayman's getting away!"
They made half a dozen steps before Sheppard paused.
Rodney could barely see the gallows platform over the crowd, but the third time he tried jumping up, he could see that the gallows themselves were empty. The sixth time, he saw someone in formal clothes shouting orders with much expansive movement of his arms. That meant that it had worked. He had done his part – his most vital, pivotal part – and the others had spirited Sheppard away. He had succeeded. They had succeeded.
But people were milling about all over the place. People were screaming, trying to run away, getting in his way. There were hundreds of them between him and the others. Don't go without me! he wanted to cry. He bit his lip, and pushed forward, struggling to wade against the tide.
The smoke moved faster than he could. Soon he was coughing, and everything ahead of him was slowly fading into grey. He pressed his hand to his mouth, and continued forward. The crowds grew thinner; the square almost empty. "It was a smoke-screen!" someone was bellowing. "It was nothing! To me!"
He took another step, and suddenly felt as if he was alone in the square, like a solitary ship emerging from the mist to find the ranks of the enemy ahead of him. They would know it was him for sure. His respectable clothes weren't really that respectable, after all, and he knew that he had an intelligent look about him, such as you would expect of someone capable of making such a cunning diversion using only an apothecary's stores and their own wits. They were going to kill him. They were going to capture him and torture him for information. They were going to…
He scurried sideways. He had to make the rendezvous point. He had to make the rendezvous point without a horde of people chasing him, because that really wouldn't be good for anybody. If hordes of people were chasing him, then he'd have to lead them off on a wild goose chase – make a diversion so that the others could get away.
But what if the others weren't waiting for him? They had their captain back now. What if they had gone off and left him? No, no, they wouldn't do that, would they? Sheppard wouldn't, anyway. But Sheppard had been half-hanged, for crying out loud, and might not be in a state to call the shots. But Ronon and Teyla…
No, he thought, as he scurried too fast and scraped his palms on a wall. He remembered Ronon waiting outside the apothecaries', and how they had taken him with them as they had left Lymington. They wouldn't…
"What took you so long?" Ronon said, appearing from a shadowed doorway.
Rodney yelped, pressing a hand to his thudding chest. And Sheppard was there, too, and Sheppard smiled, and said, "Now let's get the hell away from this place."
Ronon had paced out their escape route during the darkest hours of the night, and again at dawn, but the light now was different. Places that had looked safely shadowed were now stark with light, but there were still doorways, and there were still small dark lanes to go down, and still a low wall to scramble over.
The river was not far ahead of them now. "I think we've done it," McKay said out loud, gasping with lack of breath. "I think--"
A pistol ball crashed into the wall beside him. Ronon tightened his grip on his own pistol, but did not require Sheppard's warning look to keep him from firing it. These were not ruthless enemies, but innocent bystanders and constables doing their job. Besides, as McKay had pointed out, they were trying to win a pardon for Sheppard, and it wouldn't really be politic to saddle them all with a charge of multiple murder.
Another pistol sounded. Nobody made a sound, so he could only assume that it had missed them all. Peering back, he thought he could see two pursuers. Their pistols would be useless now, unless they could reload on the run. If they stopped to reload… But if they stopped to reload, Ronon and his companions would escape.
He led them into a narrow yard, through a gate into a narrow garden. Someone shouted from an upstairs window. "If we split up…" Sheppard began, in his ravaged voice.
"No." Ronon and Teyla said it together, knowing that if the worst came to the worst, Sheppard would surrender himself to let the others get away. Not this time, Ronon swore to himself. Not this time.
A dog barked behind them. McKay's breath was coming in great, heaving gasps. And there, ahead of them, was the sparkle of the river.
As they closed the last few yards to the water, Teyla tore at her hair, pulling it out of its elegant arrangement. She ripped the muslin from around her breast, and as she scrambled into the lugger, she reached for the bundle she had stowed there at dawn, and pulled on her old, patched jacket. "Take your coat off," she hissed at John, as Ronon twisted his hair into a knot, and concealed it under a boatman's cap.
McKay, his hands fumbling, was striking a spark. As Teyla unfastened the rope, she saw Ronon take the final pot from McKay's hands and hurl it as hard as he could towards the shore. Smoke surged out of it. Dimly, as they moved away, she could see shapes blundering around. A pistol fired, but the ball landed harmlessly into the water.
After that, there was nothing but rowing.
"I guess that was the sort of thing they mean by 'last minute rescue,'" Sheppard said.
Rodney decided to take that as evidence that they were finally safe. For a very long time, the only talk had been orders and warnings. The river was broader now, and the sail was hoisted. Apparently they had the wind on their side, and were due to have the tide in their favour once they reached Southampton Water. Such things were good, of course. Such things meant that it was very probable that he had gone up against the law of the land, and won. Not that going up against the law of the land was exactly a good thing, but… Well, saving Sheppard's life was good. Winning was good, too. Would the Royal Society accept expert cobbling-together of smoke pots from rudimentary materials as being something worthy of a Fellowship?
"We could not do it earlier." Teyla's voice was but little affected by all her rowing. "They relaxed their vigilance once the deed was done."
"But you knew we'd come, right?" Ronon said.
Sheppard said nothing for a moment, his hand rising to his reddened neck. Now that Rodney had noticed it, it was hard to look away. Sheppard had been hanged. Sheppard had been hanging by his neck, only minutes from death. "I knew you would try," he said at last, "if you knew that it was happening. I thought…" He swallowed, obviously in pain. "I thought Wheeler might ensure that you didn't find out, either by keeping the news secret or by killing you." He looked at them one at a time, including all of them in his look. "It was too dangerous. You shouldn't have--"
"Bullshit," Ronon swore. Rodney found himself on the point of uttering his own similar, though less rude, objection.
"But…" he managed; cleared his throat and tried again. "But you're glad we did, aren't you?" He didn't often spend much time wondering how other people were feeling, and he suspected that whenever he did, he probably got it wrong. But to lie there in prison, knowing that you were about to die…! To feel the rope go around your neck…!
Sheppard looked away. "I can't be. You risked--"
"John," Teyla said, her voice low. She was a strange medley of a creature now, with her rich gown covered with her pirate's jacket. She looked like neither one thing nor the other. No, he thought, a moment later. She looked like herself, and just that.
"Yes," Sheppard said, his hand rising to his throat again. "It's a horrible way to die, and to die in public…"
Their boat passed under the shadow of some trees, the tips of the masts brushing the dangling fronds. Rodney shifted position, and as he did so, the papers crumpled in his pocket. Ah, he thought, remembering that. He fought the wild and completely wrong impulse to say nothing at all, and to let them all sail on, on through Southampton Water, out across the Solent, into the Channel, and away to where the Atlantis waited.
He raised one hand, waving it, then lowered it again.
"I shouldn't have let myself get caught," Sheppard said. "I was trying to intercept the courier, but it was a trap. I should have known. I can't go back to Lymington openly, not now, but I have to do something. There has to be some other way."
Ronon's head snapped up, but it was Teyla who spoke. "We have the letters," she said. "I acquired them on the afternoon of day you were taken."
Rodney saw Sheppard's moment of shock. It was quickly concealed, but not, perhaps, as quickly as normal. So it was all for nothing, his posture said, but his face smiled, and said, "That's good. Anything incriminating?"
This was where Rodney came in. This was his moment of glory. This was his chance to bask in Sheppard's praise and to hear the man say that they would all be lost without him. He opened his mouth, then closed it again; gripped the edge of the boat just a moment. "Apparently the king's on a progress through the southern counties and he's due to arrive in Chichester at sunset, and Wheeler and his friends…" He took a deep breath. "Sheppard, they're going to kill the king today."
Sheppard said nothing for the space of time it took Rodney to count to three. "Then we'd better stop them, hadn't we?" he said.
The sun shone through patchy clouds, sinking slowly into the west. According to the charts, they were passing Portsmouth harbour. "And Chichester's the next inlet," McKay announced, although he appeared to be holding the chart upside-down. "I think so, anyway. It's a confusing area."
Sheppard was sitting taut at the tiller. Ronon had tried to approach him to examine whatever injuries he had sustained in his arrest, but Sheppard had waved him away, saying just, "Afterwards." Now Ronon worked on the sails. It was easier to be doing something than to do nothing; such a thing had always been true.
"We might not need to do anything," McKay offered, for at least the sixth time. "I sent a message, after all."
Sheppard appeared to have little faith in McKay's message. He continued his course without even turning round.
"Admittedly, I didn't know any names to whom to address the message," McKay continued. "Nobody in the king's circle knows me, or knows that I am a reliable source. I copied out one of the coded messages, though, and told them to be careful. Of course…" He was twisting his hands together anxiously. "Of course, it might have come across rather more as a threat than a warning. If the boy took the message, anyway, and didn't abscond to the ale-house with his pirate gold."
The reflections grew longer on the surface of the sea. Ronon had little idea how protocol worked around this British king, but he doubted they would be able to approach him easily. Unless your name was known, it seemed, you could shout the truth at the top of your voice, but nobody would listen to you. If your name was the wrong one, they would actively disbelieve you. That was what had condemned Sheppard in the first place, years before.
"What are we going to do?" he asked, his voice low.
"We'll find a way," Sheppard said. "We always do." Then he sighed, letting out a slow breath. "Listen, you don't have to--"
"Of course we do," Ronon said, but Teyla said it better, saying, "We want to, John. We would not be anywhere else."
Sheppard half turned towards them. "He's not your king."
"But you're our captain," Ronon said, but once more Teyla said it more aptly than he could have managed. "You are our friend," she said, "and what better way to secure your pardon than to save the king's life?"
"I hope so," Sheppard said, and although there were shadows in his smile, it seemed genuine, too.
The sun sank lower, and the sky began to turn orange behind them. They were in the multiple inlets that formed Chichester harbour, but apparently that meant that the wind was no longer favourable, and that the tide had become their enemy. Rodney could see a tower on the horizon that he presumed was Chichester Cathedral, but it seemed a long way away. We're not going to make it, he thought.
Another sail was ahead of them, bigger than most of the ones they had passed in the Solent. "Wheeler?" Ronon asked.
"It could be," Sheppard said. His hand moved beside him, as if he expected his pistol to be there, but of course it was gone. He had come unarmed from the gallows, and was still unarmed.
"I should have written it up," Rodney said. "My method of breaking the cipher, that is. That way, even I die, the method can be named after me. Posthumous honour, and all."
On the distant boat, light gleamed in a golden beam, as if of a telescope catching the sun. Sheppard took them forward. From across the water, Rodney could hear the sound of church bells ringing in jubilation, perhaps for the coming of the king. We're too late, he thought.
The boat ahead of them was close to the shore, perhaps already moored. It grew bigger with every passing moment, although Rodney could have sworn that their progress was desperately slow. His belly rumbled with lack of food, and he licked his lips again and again, desperate for water. He needed to relieve himself. He needed to sleep. He needed to be far away from here. He needed all this to be over. They'd saved Sheppard, but Sheppard was now dragging them all headlong into another dangerous adventure.
No, he thought, as the sails loomed ever nearer, that would be me. He'd solved the message. He'd piped up about it. Although it was terrifying, this was the right thing to do.
There was a flare of light, a crash of sound. A cannon! Rodney thought, as he threw himself to the deck and cowered as something slammed into the water, showering him with a fountain of water. The boat rocked terrifyingly. Should have seen the light before I heard the sound, he thought, according to the scientific principles that lie behind the movement of both. But perhaps they were too close for the difference to be noticeable. Perhaps…
A second cannon fired, and this one struck true.
The ball struck them just below the water line, and passed through to hole them a second time. Was anyone hit? Teyla looked round desperately, but her companions were still moving. "Bail!" Ronon shouted, but John was already shaking his head. "She's holed too badly," he said. "Abandon ship."
They were not far from shore, but the enemy held it. As water raced in through the twin holes, the lugger listed sideways. Teyla already had water up to her ankles, soaking her skirts. She scooped them up as much as she could, but the water was rushing in too fast. There was no time to hack the heavy material off; no time to remove her gown.
"I can't swim that far!" McKay was shouting, before he lost his balance and fell in backwards. With a quick, desperate glance in her direction, John jumped in after him. As the water took her, Teyla saw him surface next to McKay.
Her skirts pulled her down, but she kicked hard and struggled to the surface. Ronon was there, treading water beside her. "Skirts," she gasped, and he nodded, and said, "I'll help you if you need me to."
The shore always seemed impossibly far away when you were in the water, able to see nothing but its shining surface. Taking a deep breath, Teyla did the only thing she was able to do: she swam.
"I can't," Rodney gasped. "I can't…" Sheppard was still there, supporting him, hauling him up by the back of his coat when his exhausted limbs shouted that they could not do this thing, that they could not move another inch. His chest felt as if it was going to explode. He coughed, choked, from the taste of sea water in his mouth.
"Where…?" Water closed around him. This time Sheppard found his wrist. Rodney heaved a mouthful of air, and managed a few more strokes. "Where… we… going?" he gasped, because the shore wasn't far away, but Sheppard wasn't taking them towards it, but at an angle. "There!" Rodney gasped, struggling to point. Sheppard caught him before he sank too far. "Go there!"
"Enemies," Sheppard said, and Rodney sucked in a sharp breath at that, because he'd totally forgotten the enemies in the terror of being about to drown. Pistol balls aiming at his head! A cold-eyed enemy taking aim, and he was helpless, helpless…
He paddled ever more desperately, but his body felt heavier by the second. The water pulled him under, and closed on him in gold-tinged darkness.
The shore was muddy and lined with tussocks of grass and reeds. Ronon crawled on hands and knees, then slumped down onto his stomach. He rolled over onto his back just in time to see Teyla collapse beside him, her whole body heaving with the effort of swimming with heavy skirts. But she was the first one to speak. "Where's… John?" she gasped.
Ronon raised his head as much as he dared. He had deliberately brought them to shore some distance away from the enemy skiff. Sheppard would have done the same; whenever he had seen the other two heads in the water, they had been on course for… "Damn it!" he cursed. "What's he doing?"
"What?" Teyla asked, rising up behind him.
Far away, too far away, Sheppard was emerging backwards from the water, dragging the limp body of McKay. The enemy skiff loomed behind them, and half a dozen figures were walking towards them.
I'm not dead, Rodney thought, because he clearly remembered drowning. He remembered other things, though, but dimly: Sheppard holding him up; Sheppard telling him that they were almost there, that he should put his feet down and start walking; panicking because he couldn't, he couldn't. He didn't remember Sheppard dragging him from the water, but he must have done so, because here he was on the shore.
He tried to push himself up with his arms, but they trembled like the legs of a newborn foal, depositing him back down again. "You saved my life," he mumbled into the mud. It was quite unpleasant, really. Getting up was worse, though.
Sheppard said nothing in reply, though Rodney felt the man touch him on the shoulder. By the changes in light and shadow, Sheppard appeared to be kneeling up beside him.
"Captain Ford," a voice said. "You're supposed to be dead."
The hand pressed a little harder on his shoulder. "I have often been a disappointment to people," Sheppard said.
Oh, Rodney thought. Oh. It was Wheeler. It was Wheeler and… He tried to roll over so he could see, but Sheppard's hand kept him down. He was fairly sure that Wheeler was not alone, though. Sheppard's body blocked most of the shore, but… One, he counted. Another. God, three. Three that I can see, and…
"Although I presume that your name isn't really Ford," Wheeler said. "Your savage friend calls you 'Sheppard'. Surely not the notorious Captain Sheppard of the Indies? But no matter. I don't know who sent you to bother me, but it doesn't really matter any more. You've failed."
"Perhaps," Sheppard said. "Maybe that's why I came here: to get revenge." His hand rose to his throat. "It is not a pleasant thing to hang."
"No," Wheeler said, coming closer. "No, no, no… You know more, or think you do."
"You're going to kill the king," Rodney blurted out, until Sheppard's hand, pressing hard, silenced him in mud.
"Really?" Wheeler gave a brittle laugh. "What a shocking idea! I often trade here. I'm here on perfectly legitimate business. Of course," he added, laughing again, "If I was embroiled in such a terrible enterprise, I wouldn't be in it alone. I would, perhaps, be guarding the shore against meddlers, trying to draw their attention while my friends did the deed elsewhere. It would mean, of course, that you would be entirely too late."
Rodney felt Sheppard's hand quiver, but, "Luckily I'm a persistent man," was all he said, his tone light.
"I know it," Wheeler said. "Unfortunately, you are also a dead man. Mister McKay there is a prattling lightweight. Miss Beckett is just a woman, and your savage is no match for my crew. Your pistols are swamped with water." He drew a pistol from his belt and pointed it at Sheppard. "Mine, however, are not."
"No!" Teyla hissed, grabbing Ronon by the arm. He strained, snarling, trying to pull away. "Wait," she urged. Their pistols would not work, and they were two hundred yards away from Wheeler and his men, likely to get cut down if they approached openly. "We have to think," she said. She nodded at the water. Perhaps they could swim underwater and approach in the shadow of the lugger. Perhaps they could crawl inland and…
She did not even see the mud-coated figure who rose up behind her, not until it had grabbed her.
"We can settle this the honourable way," Sheppard said. "Nobody else needs to get hurt."
"A duel?" Wheeler lowered the pistol. "It has a certain appeal."
Sheppard stood up slowly, and Rodney blinked up at him, watching him glance round briefly, perhaps looking for Ronon and Teyla.
"On the other hand…" Wheeler nodded, and one of his men whipped out a pistol, aimed, and shot Sheppard in the back.
Which tells of endings and the open sea
Sheppard fell down onto one knee, then fell further, his hand sinking into the mud. "You shot him!" Rodney cried, and when he sprang to his feet, he was barely aware of how exhausted his limbs were. "You shot him in the back." He went down again at Sheppard's side, shielding the man from further harm. "Have you no honour?"
"Plenty," Wheeler said, "but he is a condemned highwayman and very likely a pirate to boot. There is no need to be honourable to such a one. It surprises me, Mister McKay, that you would throw you lot in with someone like him."
"Because he has more honour than you have," Rodney screamed at him. Was that blood? God, was that blood, dripping down into the mud? "He's a good man, and… and now you're going to kill me, aren't you? You're going to…"
Sheppard went slack against him. Rodney pawed at him until he had purchase, and lowered him onto the shore. His lips moved, but no sound came out of them. Somebody was shouting not too far away.
Rodney's heart was pounding in his ears, and everything lurched with the dizziness of exhaustion and terror. Sheppard was dying. They had failed, and any moment now, Rodney was going to get shot. It all ended here. All his choices, they all led here.
"Please," he whispered, perhaps to Sheppard, perhaps to Wheeler; he did not know.
The shouting came again. "I said stop! Lay down your weapons. Stand aside."
People. He swallowed; swallowed again. People were coming. Wheeler had reinforcements. No. No. He heard the sound of hoofbeats; saw horses slowing down as they reached the edge of the mud. "Sheppard!" he hissed. "Sheppard!" but Sheppard made no response; didn't even move. There was spreading redness on the back of his sodden shirt, and the hand that was outstretched in the mud looked lifeless.
"You, too, sir," a voice bellowed.
His hand on Sheppard's back, Rodney looked up, looked around. Ronon and Teyla were being dragged forward, struggling in the grip of several men. Rodney tried to catch their eye with a desperate I think he's dead, but they were too far away.
Wheeler was hurrying forward, greeting the evident leader of the new arrivals. "I caught these--" He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he glanced at Teyla. "--people attempting to land with clear criminal intent. This one here," he said, indicating Sheppard, "is a known highwayman, condemned just yesterday at the Winchester Assizes. I have reason to believe that he has committed other crimes, too." He jabbed a sharp hand at Ronon and Teyla. "See the sort of people he associates with."
"That's not true!" Rodney pushed himself to his feet. Mud slipped beneath them, and he almost fell, but not quite. "Well, yes, some of it's true. I mean, he was condemned at the Assizes and he is…" He swallowed hard. Don't mention pirates, he reminded himself. "But that's not the point. He was unjustly condemned. This man's a Jacobite and he intends to kill the king. Sheppard… I mean we… We found out proof. He's trying to silence us." He found himself reaching out a desperate hand, pleading. His hand was stained with Sheppard's blood, he saw. "Please. He's going to kill the king."
"How ridiculous." Wheeler laughed, flapping his hand dismissively. "Desperate men, you see," he said confidingly to the newcomer, "tarring others with the brush of their own crimes."
"Indeed," said the newcomer. He was not a tall man, and he was wearing all black, except for a plain but expensive cravat at his throat. As he dismounted, his boots sank a little into the mud, and he looked down at them, seemingly disgusted.
"We have proof," Rodney said desperately. His hand had already gone to his pocket before he remembered the truth. Yet even then they kept on moving, pulling out the sodden, ruined fragments of paper. All the ink had washed away. His brilliant proof was gone.
"Of course they don't have proof," Wheeler sneered. "Send word to Winchester, and you will know the truth of it. These wretched creatures stole their leader from the very gallows. I was instrumental in his capture, which is presumably why they came after me for revenge."
"Indeed." The newcomer crouched down beside Sheppard, and touched the red marks at his throat. "I can see the proof of that."
"Please." Rodney grabbed the man's arm. "It isn't true." God, but he felt like crying! His eyes hurt with too much dirty water, and he wanted to sleep for a week, and Sheppard was very likely dead, and Wheeler was telling such lies, and it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair! He felt as if bars were closing around him, and the whole world was narrowing to just this patch of mud. Was this how Sheppard had felt, he suddenly thought. Was this how Sheppard had felt during all the long years in which he had been falsely accused? "Please," he begged, "we haven't done anything wrong. Well, actually, we have – we did quite a lot of things wrong, really, like stealing, and… but it was all done for the greater good. We had to find out what he was up to. He's going to kill the king!"
"No, he isn't," the newcomer said.
"Please!" Rodney all but screamed.
Ronon and Teyla were close now, both struggling desperately. "Sheppard!" Ronon was bellowing, and Teyla was shouting, "You have to listen to us," and "please!" and "John!"
Rodney hauled at the man's arm. "Or maybe not him," he said. "He's got accomplices. He as good as said. You have to… I mean, please believe us, and Sheppard… you have to… But the king! It was going to be at sunset. I had the proof even though I lost it. You have to do something."
The man looked down at Rodney's hand in disgust. "And you are?"
"McKay," Rodney told him. "Rodney McKay."
"Ah." The man raised an eyebrow, but added nothing more.
"The evidence is clear," Wheeler said. "End this nonsense."
"Indeed I will," said the man, and he snapped his fingers. Within seconds, Wheeler's men were disarmed and taken.
The instant that the men released her, Teyla ran forward. Wheeler was protesting loudly as he and his men were dragged away, but Teyla barely noticed them. All she saw was John lying on the shore, his back covered with blood. "John!" she gasped, falling to her knees beside him.
Then McKay was there opposite her. "They believed me." He was twisting his fingers in front of him. "They believed me. I convinced them. They believed me. I did it. I…" He swallowed audibly. "He's going to be all right?"
Ronon threw himself down beside her, and now there were three of them, a wall against the world. John moaned quietly, and rolled onto his side. "Hurts like hell," he whispered.
"You're alive." McKay's exhalation was shuddering.
"Yeah. It…" John grimaced. "It seemed wiser to play dead until it was clear which way the wind was blowing." He looked at McKay, his expression unguarded. "I didn't have to try very hard, I have to admit."
"Stay still," Ronon commanded.
McKay's hands were still fluttering. "Should we… uh… you know. The king. Those people. Possible imminent arrest."
Ronon sliced up the back of John's shirt. The ball had stuck him beneath the shoulder blade, well to the right of his spine. It was bleeding heavily, and the ball was probably still in the wound. His survival was by no means guaranteed, but she said nothing to that effect, because John would know it as well as she did. They had both seen friends die in the aftermath of battle.
"Got to stop the bleeding," Ronon said, "then get that ball out."
John nodded once, indicating an I know. Then he gestured them to stand back, and stood up, leaning heavily on Teyla for support. Rodney rushed in to support his other arm.
"So you were successful," said the leader of the men who had carried Wheeler away.
John nodded, but she could feel how tense he was, and knew that it came from more than just pain.
"I have to admit that I didn't expect you to resort to highway robbery when I set you this task." The man's nose wrinkled in distaste.
"It was you!" McKay cried. Ronon gasped and started forward, his fists clenching.
John spread one hand, and they both subsided. "I did what I had to do, Woolsey," he said wearily. "You have what you wanted. The king?"
"Is safe," the man called Woolsey said. "McKay..." His nose wrinkled in fresh disgust. "I intercepted a most unorthodox message from someone called McKay. Fortunately it came to me, and not to any of my… colleagues, who might not have been as disposed to believe it as I was. The king's itinerary was changed. These were not the only desperate rogues arrested today."
"Oh." McKay let out a shuddering breath. "Oh. I saved the king. I did it." He looked up hopefully. "Do you… er… have the copies of the ciphers that I sent you, because I've lost mine, and… Royal Society, you know?" There was a long pause. "No?"
John swayed. Teyla held him tighter, and McKay snapped back whatever else he had been about to say.
"You promised Sheppard a pardon." Ronon stepped forward, standing far taller than the man who held John's fate in his smooth, uncallused hand. "He did what you wanted – damn near got killed for it." He stepped forward again. Woolsey stepped back. "Keep your promise."
Woolsey took another step back, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped away speck of mud from his face. "I'm afraid it's not as simple as that."
"You can't!" McKay shouted, the words sounding as if they had been torn from him. John swayed, almost falling to one knee. "No," he said quietly. "No, Ronon," and Ronon, thus commanded, snatched his fist back with evident difficulty.
"You can't do this," McKay said, his voice raw. "Sheppard said you'd try. He feared all along that you wouldn't let him go. He's saved the king, for crying out loud! You should be giving him a knighthood."
"The king will never know about it," Woolsey said. "It will be kept from him. You see…" He pulled out his handkerchief again, twisting it in his hands. "Since his visit to Hanover some years ago, there have been… fears that he would prefer to live there permanently, neglecting his greater duty here. That cannot happen. It is in the interests of all loyal Englishmen that the king stays here, at the helm of this, our mighty ship of state. It took much persuasion to induce him to make this tour of the southern counties. If he were to discover that an attempt had been made on his life…"
"Then we'll tell him," McKay said stoutly, "unless you--"
"You would not be advised to blackmail me, McKay." Woolsey's voice was chilly. "I merely point out that you will not be able to call upon the favour of the king. And need I remind you that you are all guilty of capital crimes? You are not in a position to bargain here."
"But Sheppard's innocent," McKay pleaded. "He always was. For eight years… God, for eight years! I've only lived it for a few weeks, but he and his crew had lived it for years, because he was betrayed, because the law believes people with influence, and let the truth be damned."
Woolsey jammed his handkerchief back into his pocket, and turned away slightly. "I am not the one pulling the strings here, McKay. I have my own masters."
"Then stand up to them." Ronon looked disgusted.
Teyla could feel John fading away beneath her touch, but struggling to stay upright. "Please," she begged, but this was not a battle that could be won by any of the weapons she possessed.
Finally John spoke, raising his head. "I'll do whatever you want," he said. "You don't have to pardon me, but pardon my crew. I beg you, please. Please…"
He sounded broken, but it was, she thought suddenly, one of the bravest things she had ever seen him do. He stood there exposed, his soul in his face, his wet shirt making his body look almost fragile.
Woolsey turned away. The whole world hung trembling, waiting on his word. Behind them, in the west, the last of the sun sank below the horizon, and not far away, a king she would never meet faced the evening, never knowing how close he had come to dying.
"To hell with it," Woolsey said at last. "I'll make sure you all get pardons, the whole sorry lot of you."
McKay waved his hand, just the fingers. "And a Royal Society Fellowship? You don't happen to have influence there, do you? No?"
But Woolsey was already turning away.
It would be the ultimate irony, Rodney thought, if Sheppard died just after finally getting his pardon.
He lay on piled pillows in the cabin on the ship that was taking them round the coast of southern England. "Wouldn't it be better in a place that… well, that didn't move?" Rodney wondered out loud.
Sheppard barely opened his eyes. "It feels better this way. More like home. Though I know it isn't. Doesn't feel right."
"Home?" Rodney asked, but he knew, of course. The Atlantis.
Woolsey had sent a physician – a man who claimed to be very important indeed, and a man who had wrinkled his nose in disgust and said that he was not a mere surgeon, to treat such a wound. Rodney remembered trying to talk to Beckett about the circulation of blood, and despising him, a little, for not knowing anything about it. This man knew all about it. This man couldn't save Sheppard.
In the end, Ronon had taken the pistol ball out, though that was something that Rodney had no intention of thinking about ever again. That was two days ago, and the wound was not yet showing signs of putrefying. But Rodney didn't have to be a physician or a surgeon to know that Sheppard was exhausted. Quite apart from the latest wound, he'd been shot in the arm, poisoned and half-hanged, and he had kept going only because he needed his pardon.
"You're not going to give up, are you?" he asked now.
Sheppard moved his head slightly. "Give up?"
"Now that you've achieved your goal." Rodney looked out of the small window at the lurching sea. "I've heard of it happening. People devote their whole life to proving some theory, and then when they do…" He snapped his fingers.
"I have no intention of dying," Sheppard said.
"But you've lost what you were living for." The moment he said it, Rodney realised that it had not, perhaps, been entirely tactful.
But Sheppard just smiled, and said, "No. No, I haven't."
The ship left the coast of England behind, the white cliffs fading into a line of grey ocean. Teyla knocked on John's door, and entered when he told her she could.
He was still lying on his side, still favouring his back, but she thought there was a little more colour in his cheeks. At least he refrained from gaping when he saw her; McKay had not been so controlled.
"Yes," she said, feeling almost shy. "I have decided to wear a gown more often." She had purchased it from a trader in Dover. It was a far cry from the rich gowns she used to wear, being coarse and practical, but she knew that it made her look unmistakeably female.
Clothes did not make her who she was. Everyone on the Atlantis knew that she was a woman, and if they found it harder to accept her when she wore a gown… well, then it was up to her to show them that she was no less herself than she had ever been. The world might judge her differently depending on what she wore, but those people that mattered saw her as she was. She saw herself as she was.
"I believe," she said slowly, "that I threw away too much when I walked out of my own life. Even freedom can have bars."
"Yes," he said, as his eyelids slid shut, and he slept.
She sat by him as he dreamed.
Ronon stood at the bow, straining towards the coast that held the Atlantis. Someone cleared their throat near him, and he whirled round, glaring.
"I'm sorry." McKay cleared his throat again. "I… er… It's just that it's forever, isn't it? Once we're back on the Atlantis. Sheppard's not going to want to go back to England again, not after it nearly killed him."
"I should hope not," Ronon said with feeling.
He still couldn't see her on the horizon. He remembered thinking that a ship could never replace the home he had lost, but that seemed so far away now. His time in England had shown him that he was miserable away from her. The Atlantis had given him friends: Sheppard, Teyla, Beckett, and one or two others. England had taken one look at him and dismissed him as a savage.
"It's just that…" McKay cleared his throat yet again. "It's a very long time until the next transit of Venus, which is the principal reason for men of my interests travelling the world, and… well…"
Instinct was to turn away, but Ronon remembered how McKay had solved the cipher, how he had volunteered himself for the raid on the apothecary's shop, how he had come up with the plan that had saved Sheppard's life. He was infuriating at times, yes, but then he thought what the Atlantis would be like without him. For some reason, Sheppard seemed to be amused rather than infuriated by McKay's prattling, and he smiled more when McKay was around. Perhaps, Ronon thought, it was because McKay was the only person on board who did not in any way think of Sheppard as his captain. Perhaps, in Sheppard's eyes, he was the only one there entirely by choice.
"Hey," he said, giving McKay a quick grin, "there'll be other things - stars and the like. And strange animals. I saw a sea monster once."
"Really?" McKay looked nervously over the bow.
Ronon clapped him on the back. "No," he said, and there ahead of him, tiny on the horizon, were the sails of the Atlantis.
He was home.
John rose from his bed long enough to announce the news of the pardons. "You can go home now, lads," he said.
Afterwards, when the Atlantis was almost empty, and the harbour was full of her crew negotiating passages with ships going near their own particular home ports, Teyla watched Carson try to manhandle John into his cabin. "We kept it ready for you," he said. "I knew you wouldn't be capable of coming back in one piece, daft lad that you are."
"I'll be fine," John said, though Teyla thought he looked deeply weary – wearier than he had looked when they had first left Chichester. She had expected his return to the Atlantis to be like sweet water in the desert to him. "Go home, Carson. You can do that now."
By nightfall, there were just the four of them. "So this is it," McKay said.
"Yes." John stretched out his legs, leaning back against the pillows she had insisted on putting against the side. "Welcome to a life of respectability."
"Are you sure you can manage respectable?" McKay asked. "I mean… Not that you're a criminal, or anything, but… I mean, your attempt to get pardoned did seem to involve a lot of crime, not to mention all the angry mobs."
"True," John said, "though I hear that you were the worst criminal mastermind of the lot of them."
"I wasn't!" McKay spluttered, then stopped, and made a soft noise almost of satisfaction. "Mastermind? You really think so?"
"Still," John said, "I've sworn off things like that now. I'm pure as the driven snow. Let's hope you mastermind types don't start dragging me down."
But there was a shadow there, behind his light words. "You expect them not to return," she said, in sudden realisation. His crew had gone, returning to see parents and friends they had not been able to see for many years. Surely he could not believe that they had gone forever? Some had, of course, and had murmured awkward farewells, but most intended to return.
"Why should they?" John asked. "They had no choice but to stay when they'd been declared outlaw because of me."
She rounded on him, suddenly angry. "Is that the only reason you think they stayed? Is that the only reason you think we stayed?" It was, she realised. All those times he had given them the slip; all those times he had turned to them and urged them to leave… He truly believed that they only followed him out of the duty that a crew owed to its captain. "John…" she began, but then her fury turned itself, moving away from him and onto the world that had scarred him so. "We came after you because you are our friend," she told him, "and because the Atlantis is our home, and because this is the life that we have chosen."
He smiled in response, but she did not think that he truly believed her, not yet.
Weeks passed. Summer turned into autumn, and Rodney had explored the small Dutch town down to every last detail, had located everyone with even a smattering of intellect, and had exchanged theories in charade form and badly-accented Latin. Sheppard grew stronger, but even Rodney could see that something wasn't entirely right.
"Are you sure you want to come with us?" Sheppard asked him once, when they were lounging together on the deck, half-heartedly debating the issues raised in a month-old issue of the Spectator.
Rodney blinked, taken by surprise. "Of course."
It was true, he realised. He had made his decision on impulse, months ago in the Caribbean Sea, and perhaps if they had departed immediately around the world, he might have lived to regret it. But now his decision had been tested, and still stood firm. He had thrown his dice in with Sheppard's once and for all back in Lymington, when he had refused to run away, and in Winchester, when he had gone up against the law of the land. No, perhaps it was earlier than that. It was in London, where he had entirely failed to be respectable, and it was in Gloucestershire, where his father had given him only mockery and furious incomprehension.
"Of course," he said again, and he had not realised how much of a weight had laid on his heart, not until it upped and left, just like that.
"We will have to hire another crew," John said, but Teyla just smiled, and said, "Give it another week."
Carson returned first, armed with packages from his mother, and dressed in wine-red velvet, "now that I'm a respectable man." The others came in ones and twos and threes, until by the end of October, fully two thirds of the crew had returned.
On the first day of November, they cast anchor. Teyla joined John at the rail, as he looked up at the full sails. After a few minutes, McKay and Ronon took up their places on either side. Teyla wore trousers, the better to haul ropes, but she wore a brooch on her bodice, and her hair was neatly braided.
"Where are we actually, er… going?" McKay asked.
John leant back against the rail, turning his face to the sky. "Does it matter?"
"Uh… No. No, I don't suppose it does." McKay pulled on his lip with his teeth, then mirrored John's pose, looking up to the white sails above. "No," he said, with something close to wonder in his voice. "I don't suppose it does."
And John laughed, just with the pure joy of the moment. It was, Teyla thought, the first time she had ever seen him do that.
"But if…" McKay raised a finger. "If you can find a way to go somewhere where I can discover something or analyse something or invent something or theorise on something…"
"We will, Rodney. If we can."
"Royal Society, you know." McKay cleared his throat. "And not dying horribly would be a plus. Not having to rescue you from certain death. Though I suppose you'd rather avoid such things, too. I broke into an apothecary's, you know. Though you got hanged…"
"Not dying horribly would definitely be a plus," John agreed.
Teyla looked at Ronon, and saw him struggling to suppress a laugh. Unbidden at the far end of the Atlantis, someone started singing a song of a never-ending voyage, and the ship that was their home.
She joined in, smiling through tears, as the sun rose ahead of them, calling them on.
Richard Woolsey, painted by Thomas Bateman, 1732
Until the discovery of the documents used as the basis for this story, Richard Woolsey was just a footnote in history – a minor merchant's son working as a petty clerk in an office loosely attached to the Admirality. This tale reveals a whole new side to him. Clearly he was a figure of considerable importance in the early Georgian secret service. Considerably more research is required in this field.
1. A note on the source material
In January 2008, after forty years of bring-and-buy sales, the St Peter's Church in Winchelsea finally reached its target in its church roof appeal. Work commenced in April 2008, and it was in May of that year that the workmen found a stash of closely-written documents in a small lead-lined box that had apparently been used for a roof tile, perhaps in a time of privation and shortage of lead, or perhaps as an act of literary criticism. These documents consisted of scraps of letters, reports, musings and even the beginnings of an autobiography, all written by Rodney McKay. The story called The Price of a Pardon is, of course, a fictionalised version of the tale, but the events themselves are taken from the newly-discovered documents, and many of McKay's original words have been preserved.
How accurate are McKay's documents likely to be? It is clear that McKay was fond of exaggerating his own importance, but many of his claims stand up to scrutiny, in particular his characterisation of smuggler-infested Lymington at this time. There is, of course, no report of any attempt on the king's life during his tour of the southern counties – the only "progress" of his reign – but McKay's account offers a good explanation for this silence. It is difficult to argue with his solution for the famous chiffre indechiffrable, often called the Vigenere cipher, which is there in black and white, over a hundred years before Charles Babbage made his own solution. Crytographic histories will have to be rewritten.
How the documents came be keeping the rain off the faithful in Winchelsea is, however, a mystery that will probably never be solved
2. Famed in Song and Story: a Hero of Renown – part 2
A short overview of the folk tradition surrounding John Sheppard and his crew
In part one, we examined the extant ballads that told of Captain Sheppard and his crew. Many sources were searched, and we believed that we had discovered every scrap of song and story that had been recorded. Then came the discovery of the incredible sheaf of documents that were used as the basis for the preceding story. This showed us that several pieces of lore and song that had previously been thought to be unrelated did, in fact, tell of Captain Sheppard and his crew, even if the original tellers had no inkling of this fact.
Only one copy of this ballad exists, printed in Winchester by Anthony Brown, stone mason, grocer and printer, in 1739. For the most part, it is a fairly generic example of the "highwayman's last words", probably written and prepared before the event. The two verses referring to the escape appear to have been hastily added, and the traditional closing moral has been stubbornly adhered to, even though the moral of the story might more appropriately be, "you can get away with anything as long as you have loyal friends."
My name is Captain Ford, I'd be bound for to say,
And I went a robbing upon the highway.
With a brace of good pistols and trusty broad sword,
Oh, "Stand and deliver!" was always the word.
If I meet with a poor man who's hungry and dry,
With victuals and drink, his wants I supply,
We drink rum and brandy till I've spent all my store,
And when it's all spent I go robbing for more.
I went on the road with my pistols in hand,
I met a rich squire and I bade him to stand,
But there in the bushes, six men were concealed,
With muskets and pistols they bade me to yield.
As three stood before me, three seized me behind,
And in Winchester gaol I was closely confined.
I was tried and found guilty – the judge he did cry,
'Prepare yourself, wretch, for tomorrow you die.'
My father he weeps and says 'I am undone.'
My mother she wails for the death of her son,
For my wicked ways have proved my downfall,
And now I will hang on the gallows so tall.
But up spoke his comrades, a dastardly gang,
'Oh, shall our bold captain be suffered to hang?'
Like wolves in sheep's clothing, they hid in the crowd,
And there from the gallows, to save him they vowed.
With evil and devilry, they summoned thick smoke,
And as he was hanging, they shot through the rope,
And then these bold rogues from the city did flee.
He came there to die, and he went away free.
My name's Captain Ford, I am bound for to say,
And I go a-robbing upon the highway,
With pistols in hand and my friends by my side,
When night falls on England, I rove and I ride.
So come all ye rovers wherever you be,
Attend to my tale and take warning from me:
If you want to live till you're old and you're grey,
Don't go a-robbing upon the highway.
The merchant's daughter
Francis Ward, a young clergyman who took up a living in southern Gloucestershire in 1831, took a great interest in the folklore and folk tales of his flock. In a letter of 1833, he describes the following conversation.
"After I had lectured her about the importance of cold feet and hungry bellies in creating a proper sense of holiness in the poor, I had her tell me another of her tales. 'Oh yes,' said she. 'I will tell you the tale of the merchant's daughter and the gypsy. It was a great, great house, down Bristol way. A rich merchant had a beautiful daughter called Rosalind, and she had suitors come to her from all over the world, but she would have none of them, and sat in a tall tower…' 'A tall tower?' quoth I. 'In a merchant's house in Bristol?' 'A tall tower,' she insisted, 'gazing at the stars, and dreaming. And one day she saw a wild gypsy from her window, tall and strong and with wild dark hair, and she ran away with him and was never seen again, even though her father roused half the shire to hunt her down.'
"'No! No!' cried another rustic, overhearing. 'It wasn't a merchant's daughter, it was a merchant's son. I know, because I once saw the house with my own eyes. He was called Rhodri, and he was always a strange lad, gazing at the stars – you got that bit right, if nothing else – and talking in a tongue that no-one could understand. His father despaired, but those in the village who saw him, those in the village not blinded with book-learning… They knew the truth. Rhodri was a changeling, a fairy child, and one day a wild creature from below the hill came to bring him home. He was tall and dangerous with long dark hair, and he rose up from the ground in the fairy dell, and he dragged Rhodri into a wild hedgerow, and Rhodri was never seen again.'
"I left them arguing, both of them fervently believing that their story was the true one. I can only assume that at some point in the past, a merchant's daughter did indeed run away with a gypsy – a shocking thing, indeed! – but that in the mind of my second informant, it has become confused with a heathen tale from beyond the River Severn. Rhodri is, of course, a Welsh name, and fairies, as all right-thinking men of letters know, do not exist."
I spent months debating whether to write this story. The Pirate's Prisoner is so special to me that I was terrified that a poor sequel would ruin it. However, as the months went by, I came to realise that I felt that a sequel was necessary. Rodney made his decision to join Sheppard on impulse, and it really hadn't been tested. I started worrying that the happy ending of the first story would fall apart at the first hint of adversity, and so I wanted to take the characters one step further on their journey, to a place where I was far more certain that their happy ending would work.
I've made very little up in this story. Lymington was indeed a notorious haunt of smugglers, and there are indeed numerous reports (admittedly none of them verified) of tunnels running from the various inns to the river. The king did indeed travel to this area in the summer… well, the summer of 1722, but I decided that it was acceptable to move it by one year in order to fit the time-scale of my story. (I did consider moving the entire story on a year, but, perversely, felt happier moving history than fiction.) Wheeler is made up, but Jacobites were actively plotting at around this time. In fact, the Earl of Orrery, subject of Rodney's vitriol in chapter one, was imprisoned on suspicion of Jacobite plotting in 1722.
Elements of the first story were inspired by A Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, so it felt only right to take inspiration from its sequel, Queen's Play, in this story. Those who have read that book will, I hope, recognise the incident in question.
I really enjoyed writing this, and I hope that fans of the first story are pleased with the sequel. Thank you for reading!