"Wait, what?" Rodney spluttered as they emerged from the Stargate with a more jarring jolt than usual. He'd been expecting harsh sunlight and acres of sand dunes, not green dappled shade. "I thought this was a desert planet?"
"Apparently not," Sheppard said, looking at the forest crowding around them. The jumper had emerged in a rocky clearing on the banks of a deep green, swiftly flowing river.
"Huh," Rodney said, peering out through the jumper's windshield. "Forested planets in Pegasus generally look like the woods around Vancouver, but this is kind of different. The trees are wrong."
"Looks more like the New Zealand bush," Sheppard said, frowning.
"I don't like it. Something's badly wrong." Rodney glared at Sheppard. "Anyway, how would you even know that?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Took some leave in the South Island when I was stationed at McMurdo. Did some bush treks."
Ronon and Teyla were leaning forward between the seats.
"This is not Saarhem," Teyla said, shaking her head. "Saarhem is indeed a desert. It has no woodlands, and no surface water. "
"Must've hit the wrong button, McKay," Ronon grunted. "Turn her around, Sheppard, and I'll pattern the Ring this time."
"I most certainly did not mis-dial," Rodney said angrily, "and you can keep your sticky mitts off the DHD, thanks very much."
"I agree that we should return," Teyla said. "This is clearly not Saarhem, which means it is an entirely unknown world. We cannot fulfill our trade mission here, and we should not take unnecessary risks."
Sheppard sighed and raised the jumper a couple of feet off the rocky ground, beginning to turn her back to face the Gate again. "There's this notion the military have that I'm the team leader, not that any of you take any goddamn notice–" He broke off, shocked into silence.
Nobody spoke, as they all stared out the windshield at . . . forest. No Stargate arched before them, just the clearing and, where the rocks ended, tangled branches.
"Where's the Ring?" Ronon asked.
"Fucked if I know," Sheppard said.
Rodney checked his tablet. "There's no naquadah signature for a Gate at all. Nada. Zilch. It's like there never was a Gate here." He looked back up at the trees and rocks and complete and utter lack of any Stargate, then turned to frown at Sheppard. "Colonel, what the fuck did you do?"
"Why do I get the goddamn blame?" Sheppard retorted, aggrieved. He turned to appeal to Teyla and Ronon. "Why's it always my fault?"
Rodney, Ronon and Teyla glared back at him.
"Sheesh." Sheppard shook his head and set the jumper gently down on the rocks. "Anyway, it was you three who were talking about Tolkien when we went into the wormhole. If we're in Middle fucking Earth it's on you guys, not me."
"Oh my god, noooo," Rodney moaned. He raised his tablet and banged his head on it a few times to convey his despair. "That's just our luck. You must have made the Gate spit us out in another universe, Sheppard. We probably are in Middle Earth! In the middle of the goddamn Hobbit or something!"
"Yeah?" Ronon said, perking up. He leaned forward again, peering through the windshield. "Hey, there gonna be dwarves?"
"Almost certainly, yes," Rodney snapped, "and a hobbit, and Gandalf the Grey, and, and a fire-breathing dragon, and fucking orcs and wargs, and, oh my freaking god, Sauron!"
"Calm down, Rodney," Sheppard muttered. "We'll find a way out of this."
"How?!" Rodney shouted, gesturing wildly at the pristine forest. "There's no Stargate and this isn't a goddam VE! This isn't a game Jeannie programmed for us, it's real. You've somehow brought us through to another dimension! After all, there had to one fucking place in the multiverse that exactly replicates Tolkien's world, or at least Jackson's take on Tolkien's world, and hey presto, with your super-gene and pink sparkly magic, here we are!"
Sheppard bit his lip. "Didn't mean to. Just, you were all talking about The Hobbit because Ronon and Teyla are mainlining the movies, and . . ." He chewed his lip. "Y'know, I think the jumper did it. I must've thought about how cool it'd be to come here, and . . . it just did."
"Something's coming," Ronon snapped, raising his blaster and moving toward the rear hatch. "We cloaked?"
"Yeah we're cloaked," Sheppard said, sounding annoyed. "SOP when we come through the Gate is to stay cloaked while we gather intel."
Ronon pulled the lever to manually release the hatch. It opened out silently to form a ramp, bringing the river into view again. The air smelled fresh and green, a little damp, and Rodney could hear the rushing water, and . . . were those faint voices?
"Ronon," Teyla muttered urgently, "That may not be wise–"
Below them in the river, a number of dwarves bobbed into view, riding in open barrels. As Rodney and the others stared out the hatch they steered themselves over to the rocky riverbank below the jumper and began to clamber out, talking across each other and pulling each other up out of the water. A small half-drowned-looking person with curly hair released his hold on the outside of a barrel and fell into the water, then dragged himself up onto a flat rock.
"Cool," Ronon said happily. "Dwarves."
"No, no, he really is a dwarf," Rodney insisted. He looked quickly up at Ronon who towered above Thorin, almost three times the dwarf's height, and grimaced. "In, ah, in spirit, anyway."
They'd stepped out of the cloaked jumper, taking the dwarves and Bilbo by surprise, and although they'd tried to introduce themselves and done the usual "peaceful travelers" song and dance, they'd been caught in a tense stand-off for the past five minutes. Rodney wondered nervously how far away the orcs and wargs were.
"He's no dwarf," Thorin insisted, his sword raised threateningly. "He's got giant blood, that one." He scowled around at the rest of the team then waved his sword at Sheppard. "And no wizard ever looked like that." Sheppard's black fatigues and tac vest were certainly highly unlikely wizarding attire, and goodness knew what the dwarves were making of his P-90.
"That one might have elf blood though," Thorin allowed, indicating Teyla who was, thank goodness, wearing brown leather pants and a knee-length silver-blue laced-up tunic, aimed at setting the locals at ease on what had been meant to be a trading mission. Her ears were covered by her hair. Thorin turned back to Rodney. "You're too tall for a halfling, but you're mouthy enough."
"Hey!" Bilbo said, affronted.
"Oh for fuck's sake." Rodney bent and untied his boots then pulled them and his socks off, exposing his feet, properly hairy now he'd given up shaving them.
"Whoa," Ronon said, grinning. "Nice one, McKay. Hidden depths. "
"Yes," Teyla said, eyeing Rodney's feet speculatively. "I think there are things you have not told us, Rodney."
Bilbo stepped forward, his face tilted up at Rodney in a determined scowl. "If you're a hobbit, where are you from? I'd have heard if there was a giant in the Shire."
"I'm not . . . we're from very far away," Rodney said, thinking furiously. "My mother was a Proudfoot, but my, er, line's been mixed with men for some time."
"Yeah," Sheppard said, obviously trying to look harmless and not managing it very well. "We're kinda like . . . time travelers, I guess. From way off in the future. It's why we're, ah, different. Taller. Generations of school dinners and healthcare plans with dental'll do that to you. I'm a wizard though, for real, and I guess I brought us here." He grimaced. "Accidentally."
An old dwarf with a long white beard in two sweeping wings peered doubtfully up at Sheppard. "You brought yourself and your companions through the veils of time? Strong magic indeed, if it were true."
"I'm very much afraid it is true," Rodney said. "Largely as we were riding in a . . ." he bit his lip. Clarke's Law, think Clarke's Law. "In a magical vehicle. A magical . . . ship."
As one, the dwarves turned and stared at the river. Thorin swiveled back, glaring. "There's no magical ship, and I am thinking no magic in any of you. For all we know you could be goblin-kind, or in league with them."
"Yes, and speaking of which," Bilbo put in, looking anxious, "those orcs and wargs must be hot on our trail. We're not safe here."
"That we are not," said a dwarf wearing a hat with long ear-flaps who had something of an Irish accent. He stepped aside and pointed to where a younger dwarf with braided red-gold plaits framing his face was kneeling on the riverbank beside someone who sat groaning and clutching his leg. "And the boy's sore wounded."
"We have to get to the lake," Bilbo said.
"Not far enough," Ronon said. "Orcs're still gonna catch you there, in Laketown."
"You know this land, giant?" Thorin asked, brows furrowed. "How is that possible if you come from the future?"
"Seen the mov–" Ronon began, but Rodney stamped on his foot and intervened.
"Ronon's a bard," he said, improvising furiously. "He, he sees things. Moving pictures. Visions. And he, ah, he knows the old sagas, the, um, historical documents. About all this—your adventures." Rodney flung out an encompassing arm. The dwarves and Bilbo regarded him suspiciously and Rodney gesticulated in desperation. "No, seriously, he knows, er, the old tongue, whatever it's called. Old dwarvish."
"Khuzdul?" the old white-haired dwarf said disbelievingly, staring up at Ronon.
"Balin, Fundinul uzbad Khazad-dûmu," Ronon chanted obligingly. "'Balin, son of Fundin, lord of Moria'. It's from Balin's tomb."
The dwarves gasped and some of them took a step back. "But, I am Balin," the old white-haired dwarf said faintly. "No other is named that. And I am not Lord of Moria, nor am I in my tomb."
"Sorry," Ronon said, looking contrite. "Spoiler alert." He thought for a moment. "Don't go to Moria. Full of orcs."
"Speaking of which," Bilbo tried again. "Even if this place, Laketown, isn't free of orcs, it'd be better than meeting them here in the wilderness. There might be, I don't know, a militia there."
"Look, we can get you away, take you right to the Mountain," Sheppard said. "That Laketown place is kinda crappy, and I mean that literally." He waggled his eyebrows at Thorin. Rodney groaned inwardly; Sheppard always thought he looked cute and inoffensive doing that, but he mostly looked demented.
"How will you transport us to the Lonely Mountain, false wizard?" Thorin asked angrily. "In your magical ship, invisible though that be?" He snorted.
"Well, yeah," Sheppard said, taking out the jumper remote and pressing a button.
The jumper shimmered into visibility and the dwarves stumbled back, crying out in surprise and wonder. Two of them tripped over each other and went sprawling, spitting consonant-heavy curses.
"Oh, it's like my–" Bilbo started to say, then he got a shifty expression and clammed up, his hand moving unconsciously to touch his waistcoat pocket. Rodney narrowed his eyes at his fellow Hobbit. That would have to be dealt with.
The dwarf with the ear-flap hat scratched his beard. "Well, that's a peculiar great barrel, to be sure. It's been nothing but damned barrels all the day long, today."
"You think they'll all fit in?" Rodney asked worriedly, looking at the unruly company of dwarves sprawled all about them on rocks and riverbank.
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "They're dwarves and a hobbit, Rodney. They're not gonna take up a whole lot of space."
"Thirteen dwarves," Rodney muttered. Then he pulled a face. "Oh, hell. We’ll be stuck in the jumper with thirteen dwarves who've been on the trail without bathing for days."
"Hey, they just had a white water river ride," Sheppard said gamely. "Probably washed off the worst of the stink."
"Are you saying we smell, wizard?" Thorin was glaring again, fingering his sword hilt. "Guard your tongue. I am Thorin son of Thráin, heir to the kingdom of Erebor."
"Yeah, yeah, sorry," Sheppard said, looking harassed and mouthing this is your fault at Rodney. Rodney shot back a your idea to give them all a ride look.
Ronon's head jerked up. "Something's coming," he said curtly, unholstering his blaster. "Get them inside."
Teyla began ushering dwarves into the jumper and Rodney grabbed Bilbo and pulled him up the ramp. Thorin and two others had moved out and ranged themselves around the wounded dwarf, swords out, peering into the trees.
"This ship floats?" Bilbo asked anxiously. "It must be hard to steer."
"Not that sort of ship," Rodney said, pushing a hesitant older dwarf off the top of the ramp and into the rear bay of the jumper. "It's a flying ship."
"A . . . what?" Bilbo went pale. "I don't. Ah, I don't think hobbits are meant to fly." He shuddered, and Rodney remembered the giant eagles.
"Yeah, tell me about it," Rodney said, trying to distract him. "Sheppard's always on at me to practice more so I don't veer off course."
"You can fly?" Bilbo's eyes were very wide.
"What?" Rodney moved a few slow dwarves further into the jumper and got them to sit on the benches. "No, not me personally. This ship—I can fly it. Not as well as Sheppard—the wizard—but I'm nowhere near as bad as he says."
"Hobbits don't have magic," Bilbo said nervously.
Rodney made a few dwarves budge up so Teyla could fit the rest in. "I don't really, well, unless you count the ATA gene, which is science not magic, albeit science of the squishy kind. No, no magic other than my giant brain, but the ship's kind of magic. It does the flying."
Bilbo looked around at the gray-blue metal and ancient paneling. "It looks somewhat elvish in the detailing. Although elves would never make anything this . . . squat."
Elvish, huh? Rodney filed that away for later consideration. He went back to the hatch and peered out, Bilbo at his side. Rodney looked down at Bilbo's messy brown hair. It was weird, knowing he was an adult when he was only the size of a kid. No wonder evil overlords always underestimated hobbits.
Outside, Ronon strode toward the ramp carrying the injured dwarf in his arms, while the other young dwarf trotted at his heels, sword out. Two of the dwarves in the hatch took the wounded one from Ronon and laid him carefully on a bench, fussing over him. Sheppard was at the foot of the ramp with his P-90 trained on the forest, and Thorin and a bald dwarf were crouched, backs to the jumper, swords raised.
Ronon leaped down to the ground. "Get in and start her up," he called to Sheppard who nodded and ducked inside just as several grotesque-looking orcs burst from the trees on the opposite riverbank and began screaming and waving weapons. One raised a huge black crossbow to its shoulder.
Ronon demolished the crossbow-wielding orc with one shot, blowing its head clean off. Then he was pushing Thorin and the other dwarf up the ramp and crowding in behind them. He hit the hatch lever and while it was closing, fired another couple of shots at the orcs, scattering them left and right. "Go go go!" he yelled at Sheppard, who had the HUD up and was lifting off.
Rodney pushed his way through the increasingly malodorous throng of dwarves, now they were in a confined space with damp clothes and beginning to warm up, and claimed the shotgun seat. Below them on the riverbank, a milling cluster of orcs snarled up at them and waved weapons frustratedly, one or two even firing a useless arrow or crossbow bolt into the air. Rodney hoped the damn things fell back and skewered them. Around a rocky outcrop he caught a brief glimpse of a man with a bow leaping onto a flat boat, but it was gone in a second. Legolas? No, probably Bard.
"Ha!" Sheppard said, triumphant. "Got away in the nick of time!"
"Thrilled as I am that we've pulled off our usual improbable rescue from terrifying and excruciatingly painful death," Rodney said sourly, "there's plenty more where those came from. This whole part of Middle Earth's crawling with orcs."
Ronon leaned forward between the seats. "Not by the Mountain. We should camp there."
Rodney threw up his hands. "Oh, brilliant idea. Let's go cosy up to the fire-breathing dragon!"
"It's asleep," Ronon said.
"Point." Sheppard nodded. "Lonely Mountain it is."
Rodney was hanging a pine-tree-shaped air freshener in the jumper when Ronon caught up with him. Sheppard had set the jumper down in a sheltered valley and everyone was outside clustered around campfires so it was almost bearable in here again, but the team would sleep in the jumper so he wanted to get rid of the last vestige of unwashed dwarf.
"Hey, McKay," Ronon grunted.
"What?" Rodney asked, tying the little string onto an equipment rack above his head. "Come to share your love of all things dwarvish?"
"No." Ronon furrowed his brows. "Why'd you call me Bard? He's that Laketown archer."
"Yes, we just missed him at the river. No, a bard's a name for a poet, or a singer. Entertains people with old songs, legends, that sort of thing." Rodney grinned up at Ronon. "It's okay. I was just making bullshit up to try and stop your short brethren sticking swords in us. You don't actually have to sing or recite poetry."
"Can I be a dwarf and a bard?" Ronon asked uncertainly.
Rodney shrugged "Sure. Dwarves must've had bards of their own. But you don't have to–"
"Used to study epic poetry," Ronon said, frowning in concentration, gazing out the hatch at nothing. "Back in . . ." He waved a hand.
Rodney nodded. Sateda. Apparently he wasn't the only one with hidden depths. "Okay," Rodney said, "excellent." He patted Ronon's arm.
Ronon shook himself slightly and jerked his chin at the open hatch. "There's food. Fili and Bofur killed a deer."
"Fili and Bofur is it now?" Rodney asked. Apart from Thorin, he had no idea what they were all called, but of course Ronon was bonding. He followed Ronon down the ramp, noting the injured dwarf propped up against a rock to one side of a campfire, being tended to by his friends. Sheppard and Teyla had treated his leg and given him antibiotics, and he looked a little stronger.
Rodney's eyes were drawn up to the heavens where a blaze of stars burned. He wasn't as familiar with the Southern Hemisphere constellations, having mostly been underground in Antarctica, but these were definitely different. Younger. No light pollution out here, so of course they'd seem closer, but there were so many, and not from either of the galaxies he knew . . . he shivered, feeling small and far from home. Would they ever see Atlantis again?
"Rodney! Come eat."
It was Sheppard, sitting near a roasting spit with Bilbo, Thorin and Teyla and waving a kebab. Ronon had joined one of the other campfires and was laughing with some of his bearded friends. Rodney wondered what they made of the dreads.
Rodney sniffed, mouth watering as he caught the scent of roasting meat, and found himself a place to sit next to Sheppard, glad of the fire's warmth. It was fine and clear, but chilly.
"You okay?" Sheppard handed him a chunk of roast venison on a stick. It was too hot so Rodney blew on it for a while.
"Yeah, I guess. Just a belated freak-out." Rodney looked at Sheppard. "This isn't a game. What in hell are we going to do? We can't let the whole disaster play itself out, but we can't kill a dragon, not to mention Sauron. I'm not even sure it'd be ethical to kill the dragon. I mean, it's sentient."
"It's fucking dangerous—we gonna let Laketown get burned to a crisp?" Sheppard said, through a mouthful of roast meat. "Also, it's trespassing. Squatting on the dwarves' gold."
Rodney raised a finger. "Hang on, we don't know that it's all theirs. Dragons like hoarding stuff."
Beside Teyla, Thorin bristled. Damn, Rodney hadn't realized he had such sharp ears. "Halfling-man, that treasure is all dwarvish gold and Smaug verily a thief. Another such insult and I will–" He subsided as Teyla spoke to him soothingly. She shot Rodney a look and shook her head slightly in warning.
Rodney sighed—it was just like any other mission. He, Sheppard and Ronon pissed off the locals, and Teyla sorted out the mess. He took a bite of venison. It was okay, maybe a little dry.
"Plus," Sheppard said, licking grease off his fingers, "it's fucked the local economy. Laketown and Dale used to be thriving. It's already ruined Dale, and even Laketown's a dump now, although that might be down to that Master jackass." Sheppard shot a sideways glance at Bilbo, who was happily tucking into a kebab of his own. "And we don’t need to kill Sauron, just . . ." he tilted his head sideways at the hobbit and raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
Rodney gaped at him, shocked, then leaned in close and whispered. "We can't kill Bilbo, he's done nothing wrong! Well, I guess he stole the–" Sheppard cuffed him on the back of the head. "Ow! What was that for?"
"Being an idiot," Sheppard said. "Not him, just," he checked Bilbo wasn't watching, then mimed pulling a ring off one finger. "Source of the bastard's power—remember the whole point of Lord of the Rings?"
Rodney chewed his lip. "Right, yeah. Need a volcano, though." He looked up beyond Sheppard to where the Lonely Mountain loomed, invisible in the night except as an absence of stars. "And this isn't one." He picked up a large pebble then threw it aside. "Solid granite, no sign of fresh vulcanism."
Sheppard nodded. "Yeah, we're gonna need to get to Mount Doom in Mordor, I reckon. But old He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's not living there yet, so that should be fine, with the jumper. Sauron's lot are only just getting underway at this point. Good time to nip them in the bud."
"We really should touch base with Gandalf," Rodney said, keeping his voice low, "but he's off checking out the Nazgûl tombs. No, wait, he's probably taken on Sauron at Dol Guldur by now and got himself imprisoned in that metal cage. And," he glanced across at Thorin and lowered his voice. "Wasn't Thorin's father stuck there as well? In Dol Guldur?"
Sheppard frowned. "Thráin? The old boy with tatts on his face? Yeah. Probably dead by now, though. Sauron really messed with his head."
Rodney nodded. "He had a map and a key, didn't he, to get into the Mountain so Bilbo could get the arkenstone? Thorin's obsessed with the damn thing, thinks it's the only way to confirm him as King."
Sheppard scratched his jaw. "I was thinking we could blow right past all that crap with creeping around in the tunnels and getting barbecued by Smaug." He indicated the dwarves with his kebab stick. "I'm not so sure this lot are up to that level of fancy choreography, plus a lot of it was probably done with CGI. Too risky."
Rodney groaned. "This is going to involve explosives, right? Always the dramatic gesture with you."
Sheppard raised his eyebrows in fake innocence. "You know me so well, Rodney. Look, I'm pretty sure a drone'll take the dragon out, but I don't wanna do it in the mountain. Might slag the place and the dwarves're kind of fond of it. Plus, we can't get the jumper in through the tunnels."
"How did Smaug get out?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Smashed a hole in the front gate, I think. We can ask Ronon; he's got it all memorized. But I'm thinking we can do that in reverse. Smash a great big hole with a pile of C4—that'll wake it the hell up and get it out to investigate. Then we–"
"Oh my god, you're going to dogfight a fucking dragon!" Rodney squeaked. Teyla frowned over at them, but he shook his head and waved her off.
"Nah," Sheppard said easily. "Not a dogfight. Just let it see the jumper briefly, lure it out, then cloak once it's over the lake and zap it with a drone. Plus, its flammable."
"It's what?" Rodney glared at Sheppard. "It's most emphatically not flammable. How could it hold all that fire if it was. Well, no, there's simply no rational scientific explanation for the fire-breathing, so that must be magic again, damn it. I hate living inside Clarke's Law."
"No, but," Sheppard persisted, "there's gotta be stuff inside it that burns, right? Even if it doesn't burn. If I light it up with a drone, I bet the explosion'll be fucking spectacular."
"I need a drink," Rodney groaned. "Surely the dwarves must have alcohol?"
Sheppard clapped him on the back. "Sorry, buddy, they lost their supplies back along the trail, when they were chased, or when the elves nabbed 'em."
"Yeah," Rodney said, "Damn. Maybe when the giant spiders got them." Beside him, Sheppard stiffened. "Oh, shit, I'm sorry, I didn’t mean–" He put his hand over Sheppard's. Sheppard's fist was clenched on his knee and he was sucking in deep, shaky breaths, trying to master himself. He never watched that part, always covered his eyes and got Rodney to tell him when the spiders were gone. They were too much like massive iratus bugs.
Rodney rubbed Sheppard's back. When Teyla looked a question at him he made a spiderlike movement with the hand Sheppard couldn’t see. She nodded, sympathetic and concerned.
"Anyway," Rodney said. "Blowing Smaug to smithereens. Excellent plan, and I'm sure you're right; Smaug’ll go up like a gas station. We should get pictures so you can boast to Lorne. I'll record it on my tablet."
Sheppard's breathing had eased. "Yeah, okay," he said, voice still a little uneven. "The Marines're gonna be so fucking pissed to've missed it."
"Oh yeah," Rodney said, "Buckets of cred. Tons of it."
" . . . Thanks, buddy," Sheppard said, after a moment.
Rodney patted his hand. "Don’t mention it."
"Okay, listen up," Sheppard called, standing and clapping his hands. It was just as well the dwarves had lost any liquor they'd packed, Rodney reflected, or they'd have been long past taking any notice. As it was, a host of bearded faces and improbable hairdos turned to stare inquisitively.
"What is it, wizard?" Thorin asked. "If such you be," he added dubiously.
"Yeah, see, we gotta figure out what to do with old Smaug," Sheppard said.
"What do you know of dragons?" called the bald-headed dwarf. "You say you are from far away."
"We are. But where we come from all this has already played out, and let me tell you, it's not gonna end well."
There was a swell of restlessness, the dwarves shaking their heads and muttering.
"It will not end well for Smaug, wizard," Thorin said, cutting across the chatter. "The dragon is a thief and an interloper."
Sheppard scratched his head. "Well, no, there's no way Smaug gets out of this alive, but if you go ahead with what you're planning you're gonna destroy Laketown, start a war, and three of you are gonna die."
"You dare threaten us?" Thorin's voice was soft but icy, falling into the sudden silence.
"I'm not threatening you, jeez," Sheppard said, frustrated. "I'm telling you what we know. 'cause for us it already happened, kind of. We've got, ah, records. Books and stuff. "
Rodney stood up as well. "It's true," he said, shouting above the angry murmurings of the dwarves. He looked at Bilbo. "He's your burglar, right? But he's going to wake the dragon. It's not sleeping as deeply as you think and it'll smell an intruder."
"Gandalf thought it wouldn't recognize me, being a hobbit," Bilbo said, frowning. He got a furtive look. "And it won't see me."
"It's paranoid about any new smells," Rodney snapped. "Even with your . . . burglar tricks. You'll wake it up, and in the end it'll burst out wanting revenge and burn Laketown down."
Bilbo paled, his hand moving to touch his waistcoat pocket.
"Fanciful nonsense," Thorin sneered. "Anyway, what care we for a town of men. If the dragon is vengeful it is not our doing."
"Kind of is," Sheppard said. "You're gonna wake it up, then seriously piss it off." He waved his hands in a placating gesture. "But look, we're here now, with the . . . magic ship, so we can do this differently. We can take the dragon out without it torching Laketown."
"That ship's no match for a dragon!" a red-headed dwarf called. "It will be swallowed whole!"
"It's got advanced weapons systems," Rodney said, years of talking across morons in the labs helping him to raise his voice to carry above the hubbub. "We can take it out with one shot. We can make the ship shoot . . . fire into the dragon and blow it up, boom!"
It was hopeless—these people didn't even know what technology was. They weren't managing to convince the dwarves, he could see that from the shaking heads and scowls, and Thorin was still looking furious about Sheppard saying some of them would die.
Ronon stood up, across the fire. He held his arms out and roared "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!"
Into a stunned silence, the old white-bearded dwarf said, "He knows the old battle cry? How can that be?"
"Just that," Ronon said. "Not much Khuzdul survived."
"In the future, where we come from," Sheppard added pointedly.
"Listen to Ronon. He knows the, er, legends of your time," Rodney said, then let Sheppard pull him down to sit.
"I gotta use Old Satedan and hope it's close enough," Ronon said. "It's true what Sh- what the wizard said. You go in that mountain, you're gonna fuck it up—you should let us deal with it."
He closed his eyes for a moment then began reciting . . . something. It was in another language, also pretty guttural and consonant-heavy, and it had the feel of lyrics, of a poem.
After a few lines, Ronon paused, and opened his eyes. "You gettin' any of this?" he asked.
"It's a bastardized form of Khuzdul, but yes, enough to follow you," the old white-beard said. "Carry on, lad."
And Ronon did, getting more into it with rising and falling cadences and animated gestures, so that Rodney felt he could almost follow the drama of the tale.
Sheppard leaned in after a few minutes. "That's more words than he's said since we brought him back to Atlantis," he murmured. "You understand him?"
"Christ no," Rodney said. "It's all Gr–, er, Old Satedan to me." He cocked his head. "But I think he's telling them the plot of The Hobbit. In, er, epic verse. Hopefully in a summarized form or we'll be here all night."
"It's kind of nice," Sheppard said, "and they're eating it up."
It was true—the dwarves were riveted, laughing or scowling as the story unfolded. One of them gasped "How can he know that?" so Ronon must be covering what had already happened.
Rodney leaned over to Bilbo. "Sorry," he whispered. "We can't understand it either. Ronon's got dwarf blood."
Bilbo shrugged ruefully. "I'm used to listening to others talk about what we should do," he murmured. "Hobbits tend to get overlooked." He shot Rodney a sharp glance. "Is it true? Can you kill the dragon?"
Rodney nodded. "You should let us," he said. "You don't want to be responsible for Smaug burning down Laketown." Bilbo paled and nodded, sitting back. Teyla leaned in and began chatting quietly to him, and he gradually relaxed. Thorin, beside her, was caught up in the drama like the other dwarves, listening intently and frowning in concentration.
At one point the dwarves erupted in applause. The young one with red-gold hair did a little dance, and Rodney thought it was over, but no, that was just a high-point, maybe the death of Smaug, and after that they looked grimmer and sometimes moaned and clutched their beards, rocking in distress.
Finally, Ronon said a last few words, which fell into a pit of silence. He stood there, head bowed, swaying. Sheppard passed him a canteen, and he drank deeply. He sat, looking exhausted, and Rodney wondered if he'd used up a lifetime of words. Maybe the team would have to learn sign language.
Thorin stood, looking shaken. "A grim tale, and I like not my part in it, if what you say about dragon-sickness seizing me at the sight of the hoard is true." He shook his head. "Yet we must have the arkenstone."
"Aye, Thorin, but at what cost?" asked the old white-bearded dwarf. "You are already changed, thinking of little else but that prize. The bard's tale does not end well, I fear."
Thorin grimaced. "It ends as it should in some ways, with the arkenstone and Erebor reclaimed, but the cost is too high. My mind almost gone such that I near-betrayed our honor, and my line destroyed, with Dáin as king." He gestured at the two young dwarves, who had clutched each other and wept toward the end, when Ronon was telling how they and Thorin had died. "I will not sacrifice Fili and Kili." They stared up at him, wide-eyed. Thorin shook his head. "It sits ill, though, letting strangers do the work of freeing Erebor."
Sheppard stood again. "Oh believe me, you'll have plenty to do. First we need your help, ah, luring the dragon out. We don't wanna kill it in there. Might bring the place down in ruins when we blow it up."
The bald-headed dwarf snorted. "Dwarves build stronger than that, wizard."
"Yeah, but the last thing you need is your mountain filled up with a rotting dragon carcass, right? Best we kill it outside so it falls in the lake." Several dwarves nodded agreement. It wouldn't be Thorin carting away decaying dragon parts, after all.
"Then there's all the rest," Sheppard went on. "The bad guy, this Dark Lord, Sauron. He's not just a threat to dwarves, but to all of Middle Earth—and he's already put together an army of orcs. We can help with wiping him and most of those suckers out, but there'll be a whole lot of clean-up needed." He looked around and shrugged. "You'll have to work together with Laketown and the elves. And I'm telling you now that unless you give Thranduil back his family jewels and somehow get rid of that Master dickhead at Laketown, you're gonna have a world of trouble."
"If you help us regain our kingdom, we will give you a share of the treasure, wizard, for I'll not be beholden to strangers. If you choose to pay these others, that is your doing." Thorin looked pleased with himself, a cunning glint in his eye.
Rodney snorted. The dwarves had no clue how much cash Rodney and Sheppard had back on Earth in untouched bank accounts—hazard pay and Rodney's past civilian contract earnings. Ronon and Teyla didn't give a damn for gold either, although Ronon'd look great in a torc; Rodney made a mental note to find him one as part of their share. Plus, if they ever got back, a souvenir or two would be nice. He should get a group photo as well, of the team with Bilbo and the dwarves.
"Yeah, okay," Sheppard was saying with fake reluctance, like Thorin was driving a hard bargain. Rodney noticed Teyla watching him approvingly. "But you gotta let us take anything we want for our share."
"Anything but the arkenstone," Thorin said. "I care naught for elf trinkets."
"Deal," Sheppard said, holding out his hand. Thorin spat in his palm and Sheppard made a face then copied him, and they shook.
"That was well done," Teyla said, when they'd retired to the jumper to sleep.
"It was mostly Ronon," Sheppard said, clapping Ronon on the shoulder. "Buddy, you were amazing."
Ronon gestured at his throat "Can't talk," he croaked, his voice hoarse. "Gonna sleep now."
"Yeah, get some rest, everyone," Sheppard said, unrolling his sleeping bag. "We've got a dragon to kill tomorrow."
From their vantage point, Rodney watched Sheppard once again refuse to let any dwarves get in the jumper with him. "No really, you'll see the action better from here. Keep your heads down. Smaug's gonna come out pissed and looking for a target."
He waved at Rodney who raised his tablet with the detonator program on it in acknowledgement. They'd crept in and planted all the C4 they had—luckily quite a lot; Sheppard really liked the stuff—in several places over the front gates to Erebor, using the hovering jumper to plant higher caches. Both a wake-up call for Smaug and an tempting exit, Rodney hoped.
Sheppard closed the rear hatch and a minute later the jumper rose into the air, rising to hover over the valley leading to the gates of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, where the dragon couldn't miss it. Crunch time.
Rodney took a deep breath, glanced up at Ronon, who nodded, then started the video recording and hit enter for the detonator. There was a deep, cracking boom and part of the gate-wall turned into rubble and tumbled down into the valley. One of the dwarves moaned and two others clutched each other. A cloud of dust rose and a few smaller rocks bounced and rolled, but nothing else happened. Rodney looked for the jumper but Sheppard had cloaked it so nothing was visible. He hoped the foolhardy idiot hadn't taken it in too close.
"Maybe the damn thing really is asleep," Rodney said fretfully to Teyla, who put a hand on his arm. "Oh god, what if we have to go in there after it because it's too cunning to come out? Dragons are supposed to be very–"
A long snake-like neck emerged from the hole in the gates, and the dragon roared defiance. It elbow-walked its way out, breaking the hole wider with another shower of tumbling masonry as the wide bulk of its body followed—oh, interesting, a part of Rodney's mind thought. Four limbs, with the front legs part of the wings, so technically a wyvern. Then the great bat-wings spread and it leaped into the air, flapping furiously and screaming, neck turning left and right to find the enemy who'd dared attack its lair.
The jumper uncloaked and buzzed the great flying beast, then vanished again, Sheppard doing some unseen maneuver. A long gout of flame filled the air where he'd been. Rodney moaned, biting his lip, praying to something, the universe, whatever, that Sheppard was out of harm's way.
"Oh god, I can't," he said, thrusting the tablet at Teyla. "Here, it's already filming, just keep it pointed . . ." He trailed off, wringing his hands and straining to see what was happening.
With terrifying speed and maneuverability the dragon rolled mid-air and spat another jet of flame. Sheppard uncloaked the jumper well out of range for a few seconds, out over the lake but nowhere near Laketown. The dragon roared and swooped off in pursuit, jetting fire again, wings extended and tail coiling behind it. The moment the plume of fire died a glowing drone appeared dead ahead, launched toward the dragon from the unseen jumper. Smaug instinctively opened wide to incinerate this new threat, but before it could summon more fire, the drone slammed in past rows of razor-sharp teeth, bang on target. Rodney gasped and Ronon cheered.
The dragon shivered, coughed once, then exploded in a spectacular ball of red-gold fire. Ronon picked Rodney up and swung him around, shouting triumphantly. Rodney found his face was wet. Around them, the dwarves and Bilbo were going berserk, dancing and yelling and hugging each other, even Thorin wild with excitement. Rodney's wasn't the only face wet with tears.
He snatched the tablet back off Teyla before Ronon picked her up, swinging her around then letting Bilbo hug her as well. Rodney was just in time to record the remains of Smaug splashing down in the lake, the jumper now visible again, hovering high above.
"One down," Rodney said shakily, ending the video program. "Thousands of orcs and a Dark Lord to go."
"Yeah," Ronon said, grinning ear to ear and punching him painfully in the arm as the jumper zoomed back toward them. "No worries."
"Well," Gandalf said, eyeing Sheppard curiously, "I must say that you don't look much like a wizard."
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "I get that a lot." He waved a hand at Gandalf's robe. "We don't wear that kind of outfit, or hats, where I'm from."
Rodney kicked his ankle, hoping Sheppard wasn't going to get into one of his issues-with-authority stand-offs. Sheppard glared at him as Rodney hastily swallowed the last of a very tasty meat pie and took a drink of mead, avoiding his eye. The mead was in a golden goblet, of course, since they were now living in Erebor, sitting around a stone table in a dining room off the enormous, stone-vaulted kitchen.
"Oh I could tell you were one right away, from the hair," Gandalf said breezily.
Sheppard automatically put a hand up to touch his hair then converted the movement into rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "What about it?" he muttered.
"It's the cowlicks," Gandalf said. "Bane of a wizard's life. It's one reason we wear the hats, and tend toward the wild and tangled look. He looked thoughtful. "Hmm, not Saruman, though. He must be spelling his hair straight. Bit worrying, that level of vanity."
"Cowlicks?" Sheppard looked baffled.
"Yes, yes," Gandalf said, buttering a slice of wholemeal bread and adding a slab of cheese, some pickle, and another slice of bread. In the week since the demise of Smaug they'd opened up trade with Laketown via Bard the Bowman. The town was thrilled that the dragon no longer menaced them, although the Master was being a predictable pain in the ass. Pity they couldn't just blow him up with a drone. "It's excess magic," Gandalf continued. "Leaks out through the top of your head. Wizards always have the worst cowlicks." He took a large bite from his sandwich.
"Look," Rodney said, before they could get any more derailed by Sheppard's bizarre hair, "Can we please talk about the fact that Sauron's back in Middle Earth and gathering a goddamn orc army? I mean, you barely escaped alive!" He waved a hand at Gandalf who still had bruises and cuts on his face. "I gather news is spreading fast that Smaug's dead, and in our, ah, histories, that triggers an orc invasion." He looked around the table. Ronon was slicing roast meat off a joint to make his own sandwich and Teyla was eating an apple.
Rodney glanced at the open door to the kitchen. Bilbo was out there somewhere teaching Bombur to make Shire-cake, far enough away not to overhear them. He leaned in toward Gandalf. "And we need to talk about that bloody ring of Bilbo's. The one he stole from Gollum."
Gandalf raised his eyebrows, an impressive move akin to a couple of small hairy animals jumping up and down, and put his cheese sandwich down on a gold platter. "The ring," he said somberly. "Yes."
"You do know which ring it is, right?" Rodney frowned at the wizard. " 'One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them'."
"Ah," Gandalf said, looking as though he'd lost his appetite. "That ring. Evil news, indeed."
"No no, it's excellent news, because now we can get rid of the damn thing once and for all," Rodney said, tapping the table. "But what I want to know is, does it have to be Mount Doom in Mordor? To get rid of it?"
"Mount Doom? Well, yes," Gandalf said. "It was forged in those fires and only those fires can unmake it."
Rodney frowned. "You're certain about that? Not just any volcano full of magma? Like, say, one that doesn't have a Dark Lord in residence?" He'd been distressed to learn that in defeating Sauron at Dol Guldur, Galadriel and the White Council had driven him away, to hole up in Mount Doom and start turning Mordor into one of the inner circles of Hell. He'd hoped they could avoid Sauron entirely. That black swirling vortex thing he did was freaky; even the shielded jumper might not be safe.
"There are no other fiery mountains in Middle Earth," Gandalf said, shaking his head. "None with cauldrons of molten rock sufficient to bring a ring of such power to its end."
"But if we could find another fiery cauldron, or something even hotter, that'd do it?" Rodney persisted. "There's no special magic to Mount Doom just because the ring was made there? It's just a matter of sufficient heat to completely destroy it?"
"What're you getting at, Rodney?" Sheppard asked. "We know ordinary fire won't hurt it. Just makes the inscription glow, right?" He turned to Ronon, who nodded.
"Won't even melt in dragon fire," Ronon said. He grinned. "If we still had a dragon." He reached over and fistbumped Sheppard. Rodney rolled his eyes and Teyla smiled into her apple.
Gandalf nodded. "Yes, any lake of fire such as that within Mount Doom would do just as well. But only the molten rock of Mount Doom exists, in Middle Earth—and even that would not destroy the Ring instantly. It would take some minutes."
"Seems a bit chancy just flying around places right off the map here, Rodney, hoping to find another big volcano with easy access," Sheppard said. "Like you said, the orcs could be here any day and we're gonna need the jumper to deal with them."
"It is a very good thing that our drone supplies were replenished from the cache on Bellron," Teyla said.
"Yeah, we should have enough drones on board to pretty much decimate the orcs," Sheppard agreed, drinking some mead.
"But we need to get rid of Sauron first," Rodney said emphatically. "Once he's gone the orcs will be leaderless, well, relatively so. They'll lose heart, anyway, and be easier to deal with." He turned back to Gandalf. "And to get rid of Sauron we need to destroy the ring, right?"
"Indeed," Gandalf said, inclining his head. He'd listened with grave attention to their stories about traveling from the future and knowing this world's history because it was documented in their own books and legends. Rodney was worried the other shoe was going to drop at some point, but so far Gandalf seemed unfazed. Wizards probably saw a lot of weird shit, and Gandalf had been around for quite literally ages.
"C'mon, Rodney, what's your idea? I can tell you're working up to something." Sheppard eyed him knowingly.
Rodney took a breath. "We throw the ring into the hottest fire there is. Into the sun."
Getting the ring away from Bilbo took a certain amount of planning.
"We'll have to restrain him," Rodney said, because it was obvious. "You know how it is once that thing's got its hooks into someone. It's all 'you'll never have my preciousss' and bared teeth."
"I can hold him down," Ronon offered. "He's pretty small."
"Bilbo is a friend and I am loath to use him thus," Gandalf said, frowning. "He has done nothing to deserve rough treatment."
"Nor shall we," Teyla said firmly. "We will talk with him, and persuade him of the need to relinquish the ring."
"If you think he's going to listen to rational argument–" Rodney started to say, but Teyla held up her hand.
"I will talk with him, Rodney, as will Gandalf. I have had many pleasant conversations with Bilbo in the past few days and I believe he will trust us."
"Well, okay, but I'm not having him on the jumper, changing his mind at the last minute when we're too close to the sun's corona to mess up the timing," John warned. "Someone else is gonna have to take the ring."
"It will have to be a hobbit," Gandalf said. "They are more immune than most to its evil influence. "Master McKay?"
"I, um, me?" Rodney said, looking nervously at all the faces turned toward him. "Oh. I'd kind of assumed we'd try not to handle it at all. I mean, we're not actually going to throw it into the sun. I'll have to insert it into a drone so Sheppard can just fire it off once there's no doubt the drone'll be captured by the sun's gravity."
Sheppard was shaking his head. "The jumpers aren't sentient, but they're close to having their own AIs. And the drones talk to the jumper wirelessly so they're part of the jumper network. We can't risk the ring somehow affecting the jumper and taking her over. Got to minimize the amount of time the ring's in actual contact with the drone."
Gandalf was looking baffled. "This magical ship has abilities that are unknown to me," he said.
Rodney bit his lip, but Sheppard was right. "Look, okay. We have to assume that ancient tech like the jumpers—which to be honest we've never fully understood—might interface with magic in this world." He frowned at Gandalf. "Sheppard's saying that our magic ship—the puddlejumper—might go bad if it’s the one holding the ring for any period of time. That the ring might control it."
Gandalf considered this. "The ring has a powerful drive to find a master and corrupt that master." He nodded at Teyla. "Or mistress." Teyla inclined her head graciously. "What you say may be true, if the 'jumper', as you call it is in some way a creature in its own right."
"Feels like it to me," Sheppard said, shrugging. "They've got personalities. This one's my favorite and I don't want her fucked over by the goddamn ring."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "But it's fine to let the damn thing mess with me! Oh, all right, I'll prep the drone so as to quickly insert the ring in its payload container, but I'll carry it until the last minute. Happy now?"
"Peachy," Sheppard said with a grin. "I trust you to be more bloody-minded than any old ring of power, Rodney. It's a vote of confidence."
"Yet another lovely jaunt with you, playing chicken with a sun's corona," Rodney grumbled, secretly pleased by what Sheppard had said. "Good thing I brought my sunscreen."
"It seems a pity that so powerful a magical ship lacks a heroic name," Gandalf mused. "She has bested a dragon, will help us destroy the One Ring, and, I gather, will rain death upon Sauron's orcs. Truly, she is a marvel." He cocked an eyebrow at Sheppard. "What do you call her?"
"Um, Jumper Three," Sheppard said. "Sorry."
Gandalf sighed and shook his head.
Sheppard adjusted the straps on Rodney's tac vest and gave him a pat. "I fail to see what good this is going to do me when the main threat is being irradiated," Rodney complained.
"All your idea, Rodney," Sheppard said cheerfully, as Rodney checked him in turn.
"Well, sometimes I have stupid ideas. I'm going off this whole lunatic scheme, and–"
"Master McKay," said a deep voice behind him.
Rodney turned, looking up. "Ah, right. Hello, Gandalf."
Gandalf stepped to one side. "Master Baggins has something for you."
Bilbo stepped out from under Gandalf's arm. "Teyla and Gandalf have explained . . . and I'm not really one for flying you know, especially so high, so I, I'm giving you . . ." He took the ring out of his waistcoat pocket and held it out, then snatched it back with a snarl, pressing it to his chest with both hands. Then he moaned and shut his eyes.
Teyla moved to stand beside him, a hand on his shoulder. "It is for the best, Bilbo. Already it has done you harm. You must give it to Rodney so that it can be destroyed and harm no one else."
For a moment it looked as though Bilbo might jam the ring on his finger so as to vanish and elude them, and Rodney noticed that Ronon was just behind him, poised in readiness.
Bilbo sighed and thrust the ring out at Rodney, who took it and stepped back a pace, startled.
The second he touched the ring he felt a dark, distant interest like a shadow passing over him. He stared at the ring, seeing how beautiful it was, how it shone. Already he felt smarter, more capable. The mathematical system he'd invented after being zapped by the ascension machine and had never since been able to understand unfurled in the back of his mind and he could see how to complete it. The ring was amazing! With this, he could crack the problem of recharging ZPMs, he could defeat the Wraith. They were mere insects, beneath his notice anyway. He went to slide the ring onto his finger, to clarify the insights.
"No!" Sheppard grabbed his arm, his voice urgent. "Rodney, snap out of it. Put the damn thing in your tac vest pocket!"
"I, what?" Rodney blinked up at him then around at the others who were staring at him, frowning.
"C'mon, Rodney, put it away."
Reluctantly, Rodney slid the ring into one of the smaller pockets on his vest. The pressure on his mind eased a little and he shook his head. "Sorry, I don't know what . . ." He could still feel it there, a heavy weight of knowledge and power. "We should go," he said to Sheppard. "I'm not going to be able to handle it for long."
"Channel your inner hobbit," Sheppard said grimly, and pushed him up the ramp into the jumper.
Twice on the trip to the sun Rodney found his hand creeping toward the tac vest pocket where the ring throbbed and radiated power. Each time he forced himself to grip the edge of the seat cushion and resist. Sheppard shot him a few worried glances and kept up a running patter about what kind of siege machinery the orcs might have, or some such nonsense. Rodney barely heard him.
"Okay, we're in range," Sheppard said, finally, when the sun was a vast pulsing ball of light, even with the jumper windshield opaqued to 99% and both of them in sunglasses. "Shields're at maximum but they won't last long. You've got two minutes to get it in the drone and close up the firing chute. Then I'm out of here before we're toast."
Rodney hurried to the back of the jumper and slid back the firing chute cover. He fumbled the payload container open, doing everything manually, afraid to use his ATA ability in case it interacted with the ring.
"One minute, Rodney!" Sheppard called.
"Yes, yes, almost there." Rodney hesitated, then pulled his shirt out of his pants and made a cup of it, gritted his teeth and slid a finger into his tac vest pocket. The ring very nearly slipped onto his finger, as if it was trying to, but he started reciting pi and managed to grab it in thumb and forefinger—3.14159265358979...SO MUCH YOU COULD BE, SO MUCH YOU COULD DO...No! 32384626433832—and dropped it into the cupped shirt. The pressure eased slightly.
"Thirty seconds!" Get a fucking move on!" Sheppard yelled. "I can't leave the controls and come back there, not this close to the corona. Rodney, please!"
Shakily, Rodney tilted the pocket of cloth over the payload container and dropped the ring into the drone's interior, then slammed the container shut and slid home the cover on the firing chute.
"Now! It's in, fire it now!" he shouted, and the jumper shuddered slightly, then Sheppard swung her around in the tightest possible arc, and headed back to Middle Earth.
Several minutes into the return trip, the dark pressure at the back of Rodney's mind eased, and then vanished completely. "Oh thank Christ," he said. "It's gone. It's finally gone."
"Mission accomplished?" Sheppard asked, looking over at him, eyebrows raised.
"That was a worryingly close call and it's not like I can go to the Grey Havens to chill out with the elves, so I'll probably be scarred for life, but yes. Mission accomplished."
Sheppard grinned. "Knew you could do it, Rodney. Atlantis'll sort you out. Y'know—instead of the Grey Havens."
Rodney sighed. The elegant, alien mathematical system had slipped away again, elusive as a dream, and he was weary as he'd never been before, not even after the Wraith siege. His mind felt fragile and abused, as though he'd recovered from a goa'uld infestation. "Well, maybe. I want ice cream, though, as soon as we're back. This calls for the healing power of a fudge ripple sundae."
"You got it," Sheppard said. "Now, I've been thinking about a name for the jumper."
Things had changed a bit by the time they got back to the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo looked a lot better, waving cheerfully as the jumper settled gently down near the still-trashed gates. The dwarves were lined up in front of the rubble in full battle array and Gandalf was there with his staff, as were Ronon and Teyla. Teyla had her bantos ready and a P-90 slung over her tunic, and Ronon had Sheppard's P-90, and his own blaster in hand. He was frowning out at the valley leading up to the gates of Erebor.
The valley was full of armored elves.
"I see Thranduil got here," Sheppard said as they came down the ramp.
"Wants his dead wife's necklace, the White Gems of Lasgalen," Ronon said. Rodney turned to see a giant elk cutting a swathe through the ranked elves as the elf-king approached.
"He dares trespass here!" Thorin was enraged. "He shall meet dwarvish steel!"
"Yeah, no," Sheppard said. "Look, you got Erebor back, and the arkenstone, so you'll give us our share, and we'll give him his family jewels, and everyone'll be happy." He clapped Rodney on the back. "Rodney here just destroyed the dark lord's ring of power and we killed your goddamn dragon, so we're gonna stick to the deal we agreed, right?"
Thorin turned a nasty shade of puce. "I cannot be forsworn," he gritted out through clenched teeth.
"That's the spirit," Sheppard said.
"Mithrandir! Well met!" called Thranduil to Gandalf.
Gandalf raised his staff. "Well met indeed, King of the Elves of Mirkwood."
"I come for what is rightfully–"
"Yeah, yeah," Rodney said, fed up with all the macho posturing. "You'll get your necklace, just hold your horses. Or elks, whatever."
Gandalf winced, then stepped forward, declaiming dramatically. "We have great news! This is the hobbit McKay and the wizard Sheppard. With their magical ship they have destroyed Isildur's Bane, the One Ring. Sauron is no more and shall never darken these lands again!"
A ragged cheer went up from Ronon, Teyla, Bilbo and the dwarves. It was something of an anti-climax, Rodney realized, since Sauron hadn't really had a chance to lay waste to Middle Earth this time.
Thranduil looked puzzled. "I had thought Sauron long since defeated."
"His soul was bound to the Ring," Gandalf said. "He gathered power at Dol Guldur as the Necromancer, menacing your forests and in time, all the land. I was overpowered at his fortress and only saved by Galadriel and the White Council. But I fear the evils he set in train are yet to be visited upon us, for he gathered an army of–"
"Orcs! Orcs!" came a cry from the rear of the elven army, and a runner approached, sprinting toward Thranduil. "An army of orcs!"
"Just so," Gandalf said, waving a hand. "The orcs are upon us."
There were still battles, and legendary deeds were done and boasted of for many years to come, but with Rodney and Sheppard in the jumper taking out huge swathes of the invading orc army with drones, it was over before nightfall.
They blew up the orc commander and his primitive semaphore gear right at the start, took out the giants in short order, then turned to the monstrous worms, closing the tunnels and crushing the orc cohorts under tons of rock and soil.
"Giant worms?" Rodney screamed at one point as the jumper dodged to avoid a vast lashing head tipped with rock-crunching mandibles. "What is this, fucking Dune?!" The monster exploded as the drone found its mark, spraying the valley with pulverized worm-flesh.
"Yuck! That crap better not have gotten on my jumper!" Sheppard shouted angrily as two more worms emerged from the hill with a grinding roar.
"Yes, yes, you can wash the car when it's over," Rodney yelped. "Look out! There's another one!"
Ronon, Teyla and the dwarves fought savagely, alongside Thranduil's elves and a contingent of men from Laketown led by Bard. Gandalf blasted orcs left and right and Dáin and the dwarves of the Iron Hills arrived in the nick of time, goats and all.
At the end, when it had all come down to clean-up, Sheppard and Ronon took the jumper up to search out the last pockets of skirmishing orcs and wargs. Ronon had the best memory of the extent of the battlefield.
Rodney sat on a fallen slab of masonry before the gates to Erebor with Gandalf and wolfed down a power bar—carrying an evil magical artifact had played hell with his blood sugar. Bilbo and Teyla were helping some of the Laketown women at a makeshift field hospital inside the dwarf halls and groups of dwarves and elves were out wandering the battlefield making sure all the fallen orcs, wargs and assorted monsters were dead, and dispatching them if not.
"Um, I've got a favor to ask," Rodney said, glancing up at the wizard.
Gandalf smiled down at him. He was covered in dirt and less savory substances, and looked tired, but content. "Name it, Master McKay, Ring Bearer. We are all beholden to you and your colleagues."
"Well, it's not so much for me, but for Sheppard. Also, you need more air support to get rid of the last of the orcs and suchlike. Can you call in the giant eagles? It'd make Sheppard's day, to fly on one."
Gandalf stroked his beard, his eyes twinkling. "I think that can be arranged, and it is, as you say, a sound tactical move." He stood and raised an arm, calling over the brown wizard who'd been chatting with the bear-guy, Beorn. "Radagast, bird-friend! We need your help!"
"I regret ever suggesting this!" Rodney yelled later on, when Sheppard, called back to Erebor via his headset and beside himself with excitement, had made the whole team mount four of the giant eagles, saying it was the chance of a lifetime and other such nonsense.
Ronon and Teyla had needed no urging, but Rodney had balked. "Look, I'm with Bilbo on this. I don't think Hobbits are meant to fly. Not unless they're safely tucked away in jumpers or 747s or the like."
A pouting Sheppard was impossible to resist though, and it was hard to regret the sight of him and Ronon whooping with glee as they soared over the battlefield and dropped grenades on a few last orcs. Rodney managed to wave briefly at the two lunatics, even if he did spend most of the flight clutching the neck of his giant eagle, eyes shut and whimpering.
"You think this'll work?" Sheppard peered out the jumper's windshield at the rocky clearing by the river where they'd first emerged to find no Stargate behind them. He opened the hatch and they got out to stand and stretch, looking about at the tangled forest.
They'd finally taken their leave, after endless feasting, songs and toasts, and of course after accepting a generous share of dwarf treasure from Thorin. Other than keeping a trinket each as a keepsake, they'd bestowed the necklace on Thranduil and had entrusted the rest to Bard, with instructions to use it for the poor of Laketown. Teyla had suggested it, saying that with Bard's leadership in the battle and this new fund, he'd soon be able to oust the Master and his cronies.
"That was most invigorating," Gandalf said, clambering out after them, "and a great deal more comfortable than horseback, I must say." Rodney'd let him have the co-pilot seat for the trip from Erebor and the old wizard had been full of childlike wonder.
Gandalf raised his staff and closed his eyes, concentrating, then opened them again and beamed at Sheppard. "There is indeed a nexus here, between the worlds."
"Ah, yeah, about that," Sheppard said, rubbing his jaw. "We kind of made up that stuff about coming from the future."
"It's more like a different reality, a different universe," Rodney put in. "It was a freak combination of Sheppard's sparkly magic, his ridiculously strong ATA gene and an over-helpful jumper."
"I had surmised as much," Gandalf said, nodding. "Had you altered the future so vastly with your interventions I would expect you to wink out of being, unmade." He twinkled at them. "And that would have been a very great pity."
"Oh, well," Rodney said, taken aback. The old boy had an unexpectedly good grasp of the paradoxes of time travel. "Yes, that's correct. But, different universe, different timeline, no problem." He grimaced. "Well, except for the obvious one of getting home again."
"I believe I can help you with that," Gandalf said.
Rodney waved his hands, indicating the trees and rocks and sad lack of ancient technology. "But there isn't a Stargate we can use. It's a big ring of naquadah that opens a wormhole to—well, usually just to other places in the same universe, but this time it acted more like a quantum mirror, thanks to Sheppard and the jumper."
Gandalf put a hand on the curve of the jumper. "Ah yes, the magical ship. Jumper . . . Three, I think you called her." He looked pained.
"Well, I was thinking," Sheppard said hesitantly, "and I wondered if maybe she shouldn't have a special name, like you said."
"Oh, indeed," Gandalf agreed. "She is a great treasure and will live on in legend. What did you have in mind?"
"Um, I thought . . . 'Sword of the Light'?" Sheppard said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Well chosen. A fitting name for a great weapon against the Dark." Gandalf closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then ran his hand along the upper flank of the jumper, above where the right drive pod had retracted. "Im est-cin magol-o i galad - coth-o fuin in hi ambar a cín bar!" he declaimed. Where his hand had traced, red-gold letters were burned into the gray metal of the jumper.
Gandalf turned to Sheppard. "She is 'Sword of the Light' indeed—Magol-o i galad in Sindarin, the elf-tongue."
"Wow," Sheppard said, wide-eyed. "I gotta learn how to do that or all the other jumpers'll be super jealous."
"What, we have to name them all now?" Rodney demanded. Typical of Sheppard to turn the jumpers into a harem.
"Well, yeah," Sheppard said. "Don't want them feeling left out."
"It's simple," Gandalf said. "Merely call up your power and say "I name you", and the name you have chosen. Perhaps a brief mention of the ship's heroic qualities as well. It will need to be in Sindarin—do you have the tongue?"
Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "He can google it. The internet's got Sindarin translators."
"Well then, you have all you need." Gandalf patted the jumper fondly. "She is a fine vessel. Elf-made, if I'm not mistaken."
"Ah, no," Rodney said. "Made by an ancient people we call . . . the Ancients. Hmmm, not very imaginative of us, now I think about it. Teyla calls them the Ancestors."
"Indeed, indeed." Gandalf nodded. "But of course they were elves, these ancestors, these ancients. No doubt about it."
"What?" Rodney said. "But Sheppard's related to them, or at least he's got the ancestral ATA gene. Are you saying he's part-elf?"
"Wizards arose from the elves of old, Master McKay. His ears are unmistakable."
"Not the goddamn ears again," Sheppard muttered, coloring. Ronon snorted, then tried to look innocent when Sheppard glared at him.
"And me, Gandalf?" Teyla asked, frowning. "Are you saying I am part-elf as well?"
"Oh yes, my dear. Descended from the Silvan elves, I think—I saw that you formed a fast friendship with Tauriel. Your line tends more to the healing magics, wise counsel and the warrior arts."
"Sounds about right," Ronon said. "So, how're we gonna get home?"
"Direct and to the point, as I'd expect from so brave a dwarf," Gandalf said with a smile. "We must take our leave, my friends. Then you will board your ship and I will open a portal. Magol-o i galad will take you safely home. She knows the way."
"Will you be well, Gandalf?" Teyla asked. "You are all alone. There are . . . things in Mirkwood." She shot Sheppard a glance of apology and he made a face.
Gandalf chuckled. "They are long gone, as are all the beasts fueled by Sauron's evil. And I will be perfectly fine, I assure you. I've traveled all of Middle Earth in my time. That's what Mithrandir means: Grey Wanderer. I shall pay Thranduil another visit, then see if I can find the one the Ring has most damaged, and ease his last days."
"Oh, you mean Gollum," Rodney said. "I'd forgotten all about him." He peered around. "He's not following us, is he?"
"Probably," Gandalf said imperturbably. "He has not forgotten the Ring, nor will he live long now it is no more. He has been . . . stretched too thin."
"Watch him, he's slippery," Ronon said. "Can't trust him."
Gandalf nodded. "I will heed your advice. Now farewell, and a safe journey home."
They said their goodbyes and trooped back on board. Through the windshield, Gandalf raised his new staff, set with a magical sapphire from the dwarf hoard, and cried out in Sindarin. There was a blue flash, then once their eyes had recovered, a glowing blue disc hung in the air, looking very much like a wormhole with no actual Stargate framing it. Rodney sent his IDC and Chuck's voice sounded in his headset. "AR1? Boy, is everyone going to be glad to see you guys. It's been two weeks!"
Gandalf waved, and with a salute, Sheppard took them through.
He was right; the other jumpers sulked for a week until they all had heroic names engraved in letters of fire. 'Sword of the Light' was a hell of a mouthful for Sheppard's favorite, so he just called her 'Lightsaber'. "Same difference" he said breezily, and Rodney suspected that had been his plan all along. The video of Sheppard's dogfight with Smaug became a favorite, often played along with the one of Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass.
Ronon only ever wore the torc at parties, as did Teyla her silver elven earrings set with emeralds. Sheppard mostly used his golden goblet to hold golf balls, and the book of spells written in gold leaf that Rodney had claimed never yielded anything that worked back in their own universe, but was just the right height to stop his desk from wobbling.
The group photo was a great success, and Rodney made everyone on the team a framed copy.
~ the end ~
group photo before the halls of Erebor
Sheppard's favorite jumper