A REASON TO BELIEVE
Leyf Odari lay on the woven grass pallet, listening to the sound of the others sleeping. The overseers had ordered them to erect the fabric lodges at dark, then herded them inside, giving them their meager evening rations. Once everyone had eaten, the overseers demanded the slaves’ sleep; there was a long trek ahead of them.
He was certain the journey was to the uisi mine on Houth. It was difficult to remember the passage of days, but he was certain that the finish of the harvest on Abani signaled the coming winter, which meant they would be taken to Houth to mine the glowing rock. As he speculated on their next destination, his suspicions were confirmed when the overseers entered the lodge and deposited a pile of animal skin wraps near the opening. They were going to Houth.
The Ancestor's Ring on Houth was located in a valley where the trail to the mines began. Leyf did not want to go back there, too many died just getting to the mines, many more once they arrived. He knew his days were numbered; Master Turc's slaves rarely lasted two seasons…he had already lasted four.
However, if he were to survive, he needed rest; turning on his side, he curled into a fetal position to keep warm and tried to drift off to sleep. He had almost accomplished his goal when a groan coming from the pallet next to him, woke him. The groan came from one of the new arrivals, a dark-haired man wearing dark pants and shirt, who had arrived around the time they finished the erecting the lodge. Leyf noticed the man's head was bloody; there were cuts and bruises on his face and a large gash on his arm. The overseers had called him 'pretty boy' as they dropped him onto the pallet next to his, near the lodge opening. In the dim light spilling in from the outside, Leyf could see the man struggling against his bonds.
Softly, Leyf called to the man, "You…don't struggle. If you wake the others, the overseers will beat you. They allow us just enough rest, so we can work."
The man quieted and Leyf relaxed, at least this one was smart enough to listen. He offered the man what little solace he could, "Do not fight the bindings; they will remove them after the first night. But, remember, they will put them back on if you prove yourself unworthy."
A deep raspy voice asked, "Who are you…w-where are we?"
"I am Leyf, and we are on Abani, but not for long. Tomorrow, I think we leave for Houth.
"John…I'm John,” the man's voice was considerably weaker than before
"Please be quiet, don't make the overseers angry." Leyf expected an answer but there was only silence; the new slave had fallen asleep. Leyf sighed, tomorrow would be soon enough to discover more about this stranger.
Dawn was breaking as the slaves were rousted from their sleep. Leyf hurried to his feet and rolled his mat, tying it together and looping it over his arm. He noticed the new slave was still on the ground, but before he could wake him up, one of the overseers noticed as well. The overseer pulled out a knife and slit the rope bindings on the prone man's hands and feet.
“Hey, you, get to your feet.” The burly overseer, Nall, kicked the new slave, eliciting a grunt from the man. “I said get to your feet, or I will have you whipped…move.” Another swift kick and Nall headed for another slave who was still lying down.
Leyf quietly slipped over to the man, “Hey, come on, get up before he gets back.” He helped the man rise to his feet and rolled his mat for him, then slid the loop over the man’s shoulder. “You have to keep this with you, or you will not have anything to sleep on. Let’s get in line; they let us go to the toilet then they give us food.”
The man called John nodded, but Leyf could tell he was groggy; no doubt from a blow to his head if the bloody swollen lump above his left temple was any indication. Leyf smiled; this one put up a fight. Well, no matter how happy Leyf was about that, he knew this new slave wouldn’t last long if he continued to resist.
The slaves completed their morning relief in the trees outside the lodge, then the overseers herded them back into the lodge where the helpers served a breakfast of rustic bread, and a bowl of cooked ground corn called souma. Leyf steered John to an empty piece of ground where they sat down to eat. John attempted to eat but gagged on the bread.
“John, drink your water, it will help get the food down.”
“You better eat…we’re going someplace really cold, we usually only get bread in the morning, but with the souma, they want us to keep our strength up.”
“Not sure, but I think we are going to the mines on Houth. It’s a long way, climbing through steep mountain passes. Pretty cold…think that’s what the skins are for…to keep us from freezing before we get there.”
John drank some water, and ate a few more bites of bread, then stuck the remainder in his pants pocket. Leyf was impressed; this one was smart to save the bread. They wouldn’t eat again until night, unless the guards felt sorry for them. Leyf knew from experience that was unlikely.
Overseers’ helpers…slaves who had ‘earned’ the right to serve the overseers, collected the eating utensils. The majority of the helpers were women who provided services for the overseers other than assisting with meals. When the helpers finished, Nall appeared at the front of the lodge, “Get in line, and grab a skin as you exit. Burud, Evit, M’mor, Jona; take down the lodge and pack it up. You have ten minutes before we leave.”
Leyf grabbed John’s arm, “Stay close to me,” and pushed John into the line, helping him grab a wrap. Once the lodge was broken down and packed, the overseers secured thick leather belts around their waists and chained them together. The march toward the Ancestor's Ring began.
The weather on Houth was exactly as Leyf had expected, harsh winds were driving the heavy snowfall nearly sideways, and it was cold. The overseers gathered the chained slaves into a straight line, forcing them to move close together. With a crack of a large whip, the line began to move away from the gate toward a barely visible mountain range.
Leyf was following John, wondering if the new slave would survive until they stopped for the night. The bruises on his face were turning purple, the swelling increasing, and he remained groggy. Leyf was selfish; another strong man would help those who were weak or sick. Their survival depended on their strength.
The snow was roughly two-feet deep across the valley, making passage arduous. Many of the weaker and smaller slaves were having a difficult time trudging through the deep snow. More than once someone fell, forcing the others to pick them up and keep them going. All while the overseers commanded, they keep moving.
From experience, Leyf knew the journey to the mines would take two days. They would make it to the lower mountain pass by nightfall, then the treacherous walk to the mines would be tomorrow. He was thinking how he hoped to survive the narrow mountain path when John stumbled and fell.
As he tumbled into the deep snow, John's momentum pulled an older man chained in front of him down as well. Leyf grabbed John's arm and tugged him to his feet.
"Get up, you've gotta keep moving; the overseers will beat you if you hold up the line."
"Sorry, got a little dizzy…," John bent over and helped the man in front of him stand. "You okay?"
The man nodded and was about to reply when Nall's booming voice broke through the sound of the wind, "Get in line, slave, or you'll regret it." The burley overseer walked up to the old man, "I told you, get in line, and start moving."
John's voice was tense, as though he sensed the overseer wanted to pick a fight with someone, "Leave him alone, it was my fault. I caused him to fall when I fell."
"Oh, you did, did you? Well, I suppose you're the one who needs to be punished, or maybe both of you should feel the whip." Nall was holding a short bullwhip; walking toward John, the overseer brought the whip down sharply across John's shoulders. Part of the braided thong struck his neck, the thin leather strips of the fall wrapping around his face, leaving tiny gashes where it struck and scattering droplets of blood across the pristine snow.
Before John could react, Nall raised the whip into strike position, and brought the leather strap down onto the shoulders of the old man. Crying out sharply in pain as the whip struck him, the older man fell into the snow once more.
"Damn it," John said, his voice full of controlled venom, "I told you, I caused him to fall. You didn't have to hit him." He pulled the old man to his feet once more.
Nall approached John; standing toe-to-toe, he sneered, "I should whip you for your backtalk, but I think I will wait until I have the opportunity to take my time with you and teach you a lesson." Snapping the whip to make his point, Nall laughed, "Oh yes, I will enjoy that very much. Now move."
The line of slaves began to move again, and Nall walked away. Confident the howling wind would mask his voice Leyf tapped John on the shoulder, "You need to be careful. Nall has killed many for less than talking back to him."
"I don't like bullies."
"If you like being alive, then you need to shut up."
John looked over his shoulder, "Yeah, maybe I should, but I'm not giving up."
"Not giving up? You sound like you think you have a chance to get out of here."
"Don't worry; my team will come for me, then we'll all get out of here."
The snow was falling harder, mixed with icy pellets, and the wind began blowing even harsher. Leyf abandoned his attempt to talk with John, but as he followed him, he wondered who this man was that seemed to have no fear of the overseers. He needed to find out.
They walked for nearly five hours before reaching the base of the mountain, where the path began to incline slightly toward the lower pass. When the line stopped suddenly, Leyf was surprised; they were only an hour or so from the usual campsite. He knew that the only reason the overseers would stop the march now was to leave someone behind.
With nearly a hundred slaves marching and from his vantage point near the end of the line, Leyf couldn't see what was happening through the heavy snowfall. Like the others in line, he sank to his knees to rest while they waited. Seeing that John was still on his feet, he whispered, "Hey," he was close enough to John to tug on his sleeve, "Take this chance to rest."
Wearily, John sank to the ground, "Why did we stop?"
"I don't know…probably somebody got sick or died," Leyf heard John's sharp intake of breath.
"Sick or died…what do they do with them?"
"What do you think? They get left."
"Left, even if they're just sick?"
A dusting of snow covered them as they rested, the roaring wind dampening the sound of their breathing. Fifteen minutes passed before the captives in front of them began to move. John struggled to his feet, losing his balance; Leyf grabbed his arm to steady him before he fell. John nodded in thanks and began to trudge through the deep snow. It wasn't long before they came across a body lying partially buried in the snow. As they passed, Leyf recognized the body as one of the women who had been captured a few months before. He gazed at the body, and was startled when he walked into John, who had halted abruptly. John broke the line trying to reach her but couldn't without pulling the others with him.
Leyf yelled over the wind, "Leave her; we can't do anything."
John's replied, his voice full of venom once more, "I think she's alive; we can't leave her."
The old man tugged on the chains that connected them to get John's attention, "You can't help her son; let it go."
Looking from the old man to Leyf, then at the abandoned woman, John said nothing, reluctantly turning to walk away. Leyf noticed that his fists were tightly clenched; shaking his head, he thought that this new man would just have to learn the way things are as a slave if he was going to survive.
Dusk was approaching and heavy snow was still falling, but the wind had lessened. The overseers had pulled several slaves from the line to set up the lodge in a small sheltered canyon-like pass located at the base of a steep mountain.
As they were herded into the lodge, Leyf motioned for John to follow him. "Move quickly, they'll set up a firebox in the center, the closer we are, the warmer we'll be."
They made their way to the center, as the large metal firebox, which had been transported on a wagon pulled by a horse-like animal, was brought into the lodge. In the crush of people rushing to get near the box, Leyf managed to pull John through the chaos and find spots next to the firebox.
The two men unrolled their pallets and dropped to the ground. Under them was a blanket of thick packed snow, which provided a measure of cushioning for their tired bodies. As they waited for their evening meal, Leyf saw that John had fallen asleep; Leyf drifted off as well, knowing that today was difficult, but tomorrow's trek would be worse.
Both men woke with a start as the helpers delivered dinner, once again souma but this time with some kind of meat added. John picked up his bowl, "Umm…a gourmet meal tonight." Scooping out the souma with his fingers, he ate a bite, then quickly washed the food down with water. "What the hell kind of meat is this; it's really tough."
Leyf was choking down a mouthful of food; he took a gulp of water before he answered, "I think it is safer not to know."
"How long have you been a slave?"
"Since I was fifteen, four years now; I've been lucky. I've survived longer than most."
"Where are you from, Leyf?"
Leyf put down his bowl; he didn't like to think about his family or the last time he saw them. "I…I'm from a planet called Rano. I suppose my parents, and my brother and sister still live there. I was walking home from the upper school with my best friend Arado, when we were taken. Some men came out of the bushes, gagged, and bound us. A few minutes later, a wagon arrived, and we were thrown inside. For the next several hours, other people were taken and thrown in with us; after dark, we were taken to the Ancestor's ring, and I've never seen home since." Leyf paused, a haunted look in his eyes, "Arado didn't last the first season; he got sick and died in the cubuli fields. The overseers threw his body into the river that ran next to the field."
Leyf could only nod in response, "So, how did they get you?"
"I was on Kesser with my team; we had decided to stay the night and had camped out in the woods near the stargate," John saw Leyf's confusion over the word, "that's what we call the Ancestor's ring, the stargate. I woke up and decided to relieve myself, went into the denser trees and was ambushed. I was hit in the head and knocked out; I came to as I was being dragged through the gate, and you know the rest."
Leyf appeared bewildered, "What kind of team, where are you from?"
John sighed, putting down the bowl of souma, "I'm from a long way away; I doubt you've heard of my home."
"You told me that your team will come for you, why do you believe that?"
A slight smile crossed John's face, "I know they will; they won't stop looking until they find me."
"Nobody comes looking for us...we'll die as slaves."
"I promise you…my team will find us. You need to believe that." John gazed around at the people surrounding him, huddled together as close as possible to the firebox. He noticed a frightened young girl, barely eighteen, clothed in a thin dress, and shivering despite the animal skin cloak wrapped around her. John was about to offer to trade places with her, when one of the overseers stepped through the slave pallets and grabbed her, pulling her off the grass mat.
"Ah, spotted you earlier….frail little thing aren't you?" The large man pulled her against his chest, "I think I'm gonna enjoy breaking you in as a helper." He slung the small girl over his shoulder as he ran his hand under her skirt, "Yeah, this is going to be so much fun." He turned to leave, only to find John standing in his way.
"Come on, she's not much more than a kid, leave her alone."
"You want to take her place, pretty-boy?"
"Let her go," John didn't back down, despite feeling Leyf pulling at his arm.
Anger flared on the overseer's face; dropping the girl to the snow, he rushed John, knocking them both to the ground. John rolled as he hit the snow, throwing the overseer over his shoulder, but he was weak, and it took him too long to get up, giving the younger, stronger man time to recover. As John stood straight up, the overseer hit him with an uppercut that sent him spiraling back to the ground. The overseer pulled a short thick wooden baton from his belt, and raised it to strike John, but before he could, Nall intervened.
"Drees, go find one of the helpers to satisfy you." Nall pushed the angry man away, then knelt down next to John, "You know, I told you that I would teach you a lesson, and the time has come. I can't have you interfering every time I turn around." He stood up and motioned to two other overseers to take John out of the lodge. Leyf followed, peeking through the fabric covering the lodge's opening, fearful of what Nall was going to do.
The overseers dragged John through the snow, and Nall ordered him stripped of his shirt, and tied to a wagon. The overseer withdrew the bullwhip from his belt and cracked it a couple of times, before he approached him.
"Time to make you realize that you're a slave, not a hero," Nall cracked the whip once more, before he landed the first blow on John's back. The whip left a long mark that began to ooze blood, while the fall wrapped around his torso, leaving thin bloody stripes across his chest. The rivulets of blood instantly began to freeze in the bitter cold. Nall struck John twice more before he curled up the whip and walked to the wagon.
John had sunk to his knees in the snow, and Nall leaned down, "Well…you took that like a man; I'm gonna go easy on you…this time, 'cause we need strong people for the mines. But understand this, you interfere again, and you will regret it." Nall stood up, "Take him back in the lodge, get that helper who tends wounds to clean him up, don't want him getting sick on us."
The other overseers picked John and his clothes up, and returned him to his pallet in the lodge. After they left, Leyf and the young girl rushed to him.
"Thank you," the girl was crying, throwing her arms around him; Leyf pulled her away.
"We have to help him," Leyf still had his water cup from dinner; he filled it with snow and handed it to the girl, "Take this to the firebox and melt the snow; we need warm water."
From the mat, Leyf heard John mumble, "I'm fine; just…help me…get my shirt on."
"No, we need to clean your wounds," Leyf was about to rip John's black undershirt when he heard a familiar voice."
"Leyf, don't: I have clean cloths," the voice belonged to Tian Dynn, one of the overseers' helpers. She knelt down next to Leyf and quickly assessed John's chest wounds. "Nall went easy on him; I have seen much worse."
The girl returned with the warm melted snow, "Here."
As Tian took the cup, she asked, "What is your name?" The young girl answered Inge; Tian continued, "Inge, moisten this cloth and gently wipe away the blood." Tian nodded and did as she was told.
Leyf watched Tian as she tended to the wounded man, her auburn hair, falling in soft curls around her head, turned to copper in the light from the firebox. She had been taken the year after his capture, and had quickly been chosen as a helper. He might have been young at the time, but he knew what that meant, and whenever one of the overseers touched her, he felt rage; rage he could not act on. He had kissed a girl once, and more than anything he desired to kiss Tian.
"Leyf, did you hear me? Help me turn him over…."
"Uh…sure," he slid his arms under John's shoulders and gently turned him onto his stomach. John moaned, the deeper cuts on his back had stuck to the pallet and were bleeding freely.
Tian cleaned the three long cuts on his back, "Inge, hand me that bowl." From the bowl, Tian applied an ointment to the cuts, then pointed to the cloths, "Rip those into wide strips." Soon, all the cuts on John's body were wrapped in clean bandages, and with Leyf's help, she redressed John, wrapping the animal skin around him to keep him warm.
Wiping her brow, Tian said, "Let him rest, so that he can walk tomorrow." She rose but Leyf reached out, grasping her hand, "Stay here with us tonight."
Her blue eyes were staring at him intently, "I cannot...I must return to the overseers' lodge."
"Don't…don't go," Leyf's tone bordered on begging.
She traced his jaw with her fingertip, a slight smile touching her lips, "Oh, my Leyf, if only things were different, but they are not. I must go."
Leyf 's heart was beating rapidly as he watched Tian exit the lodge. If what John believed were true, that his team would come for him, then perhaps the team would rescue all the slaves. He turned his gaze to the man sleeping next to him. Leyf wanted to believe this man, who was willing to accept punishment for defending them; he just needed a reason to believe.
Near daybreak, Leyf awoke to low mumbling coming from John's bunk. Crawling closer, he could barely make out the words, something that sounded like 'Eyla,' 'Rono,' and 'Rodnay.' Whatever those words meant they were causing John some uneasiness; Leyf shook him, waking him up.
"Teyla…Teyla, is that you?"
"No, it's me, Leyf…wake up; you must be having a dream."
John's eyes opened and he looked blindly around, "I thought I saw Teyla, her copper hair."
Leyf realized that John must have mistaken Tian for someone he knew, "You saw Tian last night; her hair is that color. She tended your wounds."
"Oh...I…thought…," John pushed himself into a sitting position, "never mind."
"Who are Teyla, and the other names you said, 'Rono' and 'Rodnay'?"
John winced as he stretched his legs, "Members of my team, Ronon and Rodney, I guess I was just hoping to see them."
"They are the ones who will come for you?"
"Yeah, they will be part of the ones who will come to find…us. Tian, who is she?"
Leyf tried, unsuccessfully, to keep from blushing as he answered, "She is a helper; she had some training in healing, so the overseers use her to patch up wounds to keep people working."
John gave Leyf a slight knowing grin, "I remember seeing her face, pretty girl."
His cheeks felt hot and realizing he must have flushed a deeper crimson; Leyf answered softly, "She is."
The morning ritual was the same, breakfast was served, then the lodge taken down, and the slaves were assembled for the mountain trek. However, this time instead of chaining all of the slaves together at waist, they chained only four together.
John, who had been chained to Leyf, Inge, and another young man, was puzzled and asked, "Why only four today?"
Leyf, at the front of their group, turned around, "If one of us falls, then we can only take three others with us over the edge. They won't lose all the slaves this way. They also figure that if we want to kill ourselves, we might hesitate if there is more than one other person we'd be killing as well."
John scoffed, "They've thought of everything, haven't they?"
"One of the older slaves, he's been a slave for nearly five years – longer than anyone, told me once that he heard from others that this slave ring has been going on for many, many years. They were culled by the Wraith several times, but the overseers just took more to replace them."
"We'll find a way to stop them, Leyf, somehow."
The overseers yelled for everyone to start moving, and group by group, the slaves began the steep climb up the mountain. Before they moved, Leyf said, "This is very dangerous; it will take us nearly four hours to reach the mine. Watch your step and if one of the groups goes over, just keep moving, there's nothing can be done for them."
Leyf saw the look in John's eyes; this man didn't like the idea of ignoring someone in danger. As they began to move, he wondered what the next few hours would bring.
The early morning was cloudy, but the heavy snowfall did not return until mid-morning. At first, the snowfall was light but as time progressed, conditions deteriorated and the snowfall became blizzard-like, the sharp wind whipping around the mountains. Inge had nearly been blown over twice, and John had yelled for her to hold onto his belt.
Not long after the gale-force winds began, Leyf heard muffled cries, and progress slowed for a moment, then resumed. Leyf was certain that a group had gone over the side; he only hoped it wasn't Tian. She was the only thing that made his hopeless life worth living. He felt John's hand on his shoulder, and heard him yelling, "Did someone go over the edge?" Leyf nodded yes, and he felt John's hand slide away.
The path was rocky and icy; Leyf tried to step onto the snow and stay away from the slick exposed rocks but at times that was impossible. There were occasional scraggly bushes and every now and then, a squat thick tree to grab onto, but they were scarce. At one point, the trail narrowed, and it was there that a single sandal rested near the edge; no doubt, Leyf thought, where the fall had taken place. He vowed to be even more careful…he didn't want to die.
Leyf estimated that they were within thirty minutes of the mine. The snowfall had lightened, and he took a chance to look toward the top of the mountain and instantly regretted it as he stepped onto a slick patch and began to slide. He yelled and felt John's hand reaching for him, but John couldn't get a grip on him. Leyf felt fingertips against his exposed arm as he slid over the side.
The sensation of nothing underneath his feet terrified him. He was screaming, but no sound left his mouth. Leyf felt an unexpected flare of heat course through his body, and in a split second, all he could think of was that he wanted to die quickly. Then the leather belt around his waist roughly cut into his abdomen, stopping his fall; swinging like a pendulum, his body slammed against the face of the mountain. Over the din of the howling wind, he was certain he heard someone yelling, 'hold on.' He didn't have any choice.
Leyf dangled over the edge for what seemed like an eternity until he felt his body being slowly lifted upward. He swung around as slowly as he could to put his feet against the rock and push up to help. It took many minutes, and several brushes with the rock before he felt hands grabbing onto his arms, pulling him back onto the trail.
"We got you, buddy…just rest a second,"
The welcomed voice belonged to John. Leyf opened his eyes and saw the dark-haired man leaning over him, Inge looking over his shoulder. Turning his head, he saw the other man in their group untangling his arms and legs from one of the scarce trees along the trail. This one had saved his life.
"We've gotta go, if they have to come back for us, they'll probably just throw us all over the side. Can you stand?"
"Yeah, I can stand." He struggled to get up, John helping him, and they began walking again. Leyf estimation was correct; they had been close to the mine entrance when he fell. About twenty minutes later, they came to the entrance of the uisi mine where Nall was waiting for them.
The head overseer strode toward them, grabbing Leyf by the throat, "Where have you been?"
Leyf's voice shook as he replied, "I…I fell over the edge; they managed to pull me back up."
Nall glared at John, "Why is it that when anything happens, you always seem to be involved? I still have many lashes left for you. Now get inside; you will be assigned places to sleep and then get your work assignments."
As they passed the overseer, he reached out and grabbed John roughly by the arm. "I'm watching you; one more step out of line and it'll be your last."
Leyf was watching John as Nall walked away, and he saw the anger flare in his friend's eyes. His friend, for the first time since Arado left, he thought of someone as a friend. He whispered as they entered the cave, "He's not kidding; he will kill you. You must be careful not to anger him anymore." John only nodded; Leyf hoped he understood.
The uisi mine's small entrance led to a narrow curving path that descended into the mountain's core; along the central path were several offshoots that led off to other levels. After about five minutes, Leyf, John, Inge, the young man with them, Rao, along with the remainder of the slaves exited into a large chamber where others waited. The slaves preceding them had unrolled their mats, and were resting; they did the same.
Leyf lay down, his body aching from the pounding it had taken when he fell. There was a long shallow gash on his right shin, a quick peek under his shirt revealed bruises on his abdomen.
"You, okay, buddy?"
Leyf looked up at John, "Yeah, been banged up worse."
John grinned, "Looks like you might need the attention of that pretty redhead…Tian, right?"
Once again, feeling his face flush, Leyf replied, "Nah, I'll just clean it up myself when they bring water, it's not deep." He noticed John gingerly lying down on his side. "My turn to ask, you okay?"
"Yeah, just pulled a few muscles back there, I'm fine." He laid his head on his bent arm. "Tell me, what kind of mine is this?"
"Some kind of glowing rock called uisi. They never told us what it does; all I know is that it's hot, backbreaking work. Mining only takes place in the winter; makes the heat almost bearable but," the young slave dropped his head, "many will die here."
John was falling asleep but he mumbled, "Told you…we'll get out of this."
Their meager meal had been eaten, and most of the slaves had settled down to sleep. Leyf was dozing when the bright lights hanging from the ceiling relit, waking everyone up. Leyf sat up just as Master Turc entered the chamber.
Turc was the chief overseer of the mine, a tall, muscular, imposing man dressed in loose pants and long robes. From the top of his shaven head to his fingertips and sandaled feet, his bronze skin glistened in the bright lights. The slaves were deadly quiet, Leyf knowing that each of them felt mortal fear in Turc's presence.
At least Leyf thought each of them was afraid until he looked at John, whose face revealed anything but fear. An appraising expression crossed John's face, as though he was taking the measure of the chief overseer. Leyf watched as this intriguing man's eyes flickered from Turc to the overseers who stood with him. If he didn't know better, he would believe that John was contemplating how to defeat the overseers. That wasn't possible, so what could he be thinking? Leyf shook his head; John couldn't possibly be thinking that he could overpower the overseers. That couldn't happen.
Master Turc began to speak, "Slaves you are here to mine uisi. As there is only a short time to enter the mines, you will work until we tell you to stop. Those of you who cannot keep up, will die; those who appear to be slacking off, will suffer the whip. Understand, you will die if you do not work."
No one spoke, those who had worked in the mine before were aware of the danger they faced. Turc surveyed the slaves, his eyes landing briefly on John. Leyf saw the chief overseer take notice of John's expression, which continued to be defiant not fearful. Turc motioned to one of the overseers.
"I think they need a reminder," pointing to a woman on a pallet near him. Two of the overseers grabbed her and ripped her shirt from her body, while another raised his whip to strike her. With a nod from Turc, the whip descended, leaving a thick welt across the woman's back, blood oozing from the wound. Turc turned toward the slaves, "Do not forget." The chief overseer strode from the room, confident that his point was made.
Leyf panicked as he sensed John tense as the whip struck the woman. Reaching out, he clutched John's arm, causing his friend's head to whip around; Leyf cautioned him, "You can't help her." John's eyes were dark, intense with anger, but he nodded that he understood. Leyf sighed, realizing that it was only a matter of time before the brave man sitting next to him would not listen but act on his need to protect them all.
After their morning ritual, the helpers distributed ragged tunics and pants to the slaves, along with heavy gloves. The gloves and clothes were made from some sort of woven material with a slight sheen to it. As they changed, Leyf noticed John seemed somewhat uncomfortable.
"Not much privacy here, but you get used to it."
John looked a bit sheepish, "Why these clothes?"
"There are sparks in the mine when the picks hit the rock, our clothes will catch fire; after losing a lot of people to severe burns, they gave in and provided these clothes."
John finished changing and Leyf directed him to roll his discarded clothes in his pallet and leave it where it was. Leyf assured him no one would bother his things, even the overseers didn't bother with the slaves' possessions. They were lined up and proceeded to descend into the mine proper.
They entered a chamber with several passageways leading away from it. There were overseers at each doorway, and one overseer was directing the slaves to the various doors. Leyf was not surprised when he, and John were both sent to the tunnel on the far right. That passageway led to the deepest part of the mine where they would be breaking the glowing rock from the walls, the hardest and most dangerous area of the mine. It was nearly a ten-minute walk to get to the core of the mine, the heat increasing with each step. By the time they reached the cavernous chamber, breathing was difficult; the air was saturated with heat.
What Leyf was not prepared for was finding Inge with them. Usually, they only sent the strongest, healthiest men into the rock chamber; sending Inge meant only one thing, it was punishment for what had happened with Nall. He caught John's eye.
"They have sent Inge with us; this is no place for her. Nall is baiting you, be careful; you can't help her."
"I'm not letting anything happen to her."
"You interfere…you die."
John didn't reply, just took the pick being held out by a helper, and walked away.
They worked for eleven hours straight, taking only two short breaks for bread and water. Leyf tried to stay close to John, who was doing all he could to help Inge. John would strike the wall close to her, cracking the rock, which made it easier for the small girl to break off chunks with her pick. Leyf was impressed, but kept a wary eye out for the overseers, in case they noticed. What probably saved them was the fact that the overseers stood at the fringes of the glowing rock deposit, as far away from the heat as they could. On the second day, that changed, Nall arrived and quickly determined what John was doing.
John was swinging the pick when Nall spun him around, and punched him in the stomach. Falling onto his knees on the cavern floor, John retched from the blow. Nall motioned to the overseers as he pulled his bullwhip from his belt, "Strip that tunic from him, time to teach this troublemaker a lesson."
Leyf counted six blows before Nall quit striking John. As he tucked his bloody whip back under his belt, Nall smiled, "Let that be a lesson to you and to the girl. I catch you helping her again, and I will whip her worse than what you just got." He turned to the overseers, "Move her away from him." Nall left with another warning to John, "I'm watching you."
Rao lifted John to his feet, mindful of his chest and back, which were striped with blood, as were his biceps and face. Leyf grabbed the cloth he had wrapped around his head to keep the sweat from his eyes but John stopped him, "I'm okay, just give me my shirt." Rao helped John put his shirt on, and without a word, the injured man returned to breaking off the rock.
The slaves worked in silence for another two hours, before they were herded up the passageway to their sleeping chamber. As soon as they arrived, John unrolled his pallet, and using his clothes as a pillow, he laid down on his stomach and immediately fell asleep.
When dinner came, John was still sleeping, so Leyf hid John's bread under his poncho. While eating his own meal, Rao crawled over and sat next to him.
Rao was older than Leyf but had only been a slave for a bit longer than John had; he was an artist from Sovan, and had never done physical labor in his life. Leyf was surprised that he was keeping up with them in the mining pit.
"Who is this man? You told me we had to look out for ourselves, but he took a whipping just to help Inge."
Leyf hesitated before he spoke, "I…I don't know. I think he has to be a military man from somewhere…he keeps talking about his team, says they will come find him."
Rao's eyes widened, "Someone will come looking for him? Could they save us?"
"No one's going to look for us; how could they find us? The overseers move us around; keep us out of sight. Tian told me that they pay off the people of the planets we work on so they won't tell anyone about us. Probably threatened to kill them." He saw the distressed look on Rao's face. "Don’t get your hopes up…no one is going to rescue us."
"But he believes that, why shouldn't we?"
Leyf glanced at the man sleeping on the pallet next to him, "I don't know why he thinks his friends won't forget him. But they will…no one remembers us, and there is no reason to believe that just because John's here that will change."
"We shouldn't give up; we should believe with him."
Lying down on his pallet, Leyf said quietly, "No reason to believe, Rao; no reason at all."
Two days passed without incident, Nall visited the mine pit often, but John was always working. However, there were changes, changes that surprised Leyf. The people next to Inge and some of the other slaves who were becoming increasingly weak from the heat and hard labor, were mimicking John's efforts. They were cracking wide areas of the vein of glowing rock, to loosen it so that the weaker could continue to break up the rock. They had taken to rotating who watched the overseers and were managing to help their fellow slaves when unobserved.
Word had trickled through the slaves the night before that several people had been lost when a cart carrying a huge load of the hot rocks had overturned. Many had been pinned under the cart, and others had been burned from direct contact with the rock. Leyf was hoping that the overseers might pull Inge from the pit and reassign her; he was concerned that she was nearing her breaking point.
He was also concerned that John was near his, as well. The dark-hair man was still working as hard as before but the grimaces that crossed his face were more frequent, and last night, when he had taken his shirt off, Leyf noticed some of the whip marks were swollen and red, not a good sign. He had sent word through the slave grapevine to Tian for her help, hoping she would be able to come to them.
However, Leyf knew that pain would not break his friend; he would break over what was happening to them. Two slaves had been beaten for hoarding food during last night's dinner, and not only did John become angry, but he saw many of the others react as John had. If he admitted it to himself, he had begun to feel anger, as well. Anger he had always repressed as a defense mechanism; he had always believed it was the only way to survive. Just take care of himself and not let the plight of the others affect him. Within a few short days, one man had made him question if what he thought was right. Maybe he should believe that there was hope they could escape, maybe he should believe they could be free.
They were nearing the end of what Leyf counted as the fourth day in the pit, when one of the older men in the pit keeled over, and John and another man rushed to help him. They were promptly stuck by the whips of two of the overseers, who yelled for them to get away from the fallen man.
John spoke, his voice raspy, measured, "He may have had a heart attack, let me see if I can help him."
The overseer stepped close to John, "Shut up, slave; this is none of your concern." He turned to the other overseer, "Get this deadweight out of here, and bring me another slave to take his place. This one's gotten too old to work, throw him over the cliff."
"Let me help him," John yelled, which only resulted in a punch to his gut doubling him over.
"Get back to work, or I'll have you beaten."
John clenched his fist, but he turned back to work. From the look on his face, Leyf knew that he was right, John's breaking point was close.
Two more days passed, and more slaves died, some from exhaustion; some from accidents, and two were beaten because they slacked off…both died from their wounds. During dinner, Leyf, John, and Rao were sitting in a huddle, eating their evening meal, as word came to them about the slaves who had died.
Rao spoke, "We have to stop this; we can't let them kill people like this."
"How do you expect to do that?" Leyf flashed Rao a hard look.
"We fight back; John fights back…we should too."
"It's not that sim...," Leyf started to reply but John interrupted him.
"How many overseers are there?"
Leyf shrugged, "I don't know, twenty?"
"That's all they need; they have the whips and clubs."
"There are about one hundred of us, we could take them if we put together a plan."
Leyf scoffed, "That's foolish. We can't rise up against the overseers…we'll die."
John looked directly into Leyf's eyes, never wavering, "We're going to die anyway according to you. So why don't we die with honor?"
Leyf was about to answer when John keeled over, unconscious. Feeling John's skin, he said, "He's burning up; I have to get him help."
He stood up and walked to the chamber opening, and stepped through. One of the overseers in the passageway grabbed him, "What are you doing out of your hole, slave? Get back in there." The overseer shoved him back through the doorway, but Leyf grabbed the edge and stood his ground.
"One of the strongest pit miners, John, is sick, he has a fever; you need to get Tian to help him."
"Oh, I do, do I? I don't have to do anything."
"He's a favorite of Nall's, do you want to make Nall angry?"
The overseer backhanded him, "I'll decide what I want to do. Take him back inside."
Leyf was roughly pitched back into the slaves' chamber, falling onto his right knee and elbow, sharp pain coursing through his leg. He limped back to his pallet, hoping Tian would come to treat John. Twenty minutes later, she did.
"Leyf…Nall is angry; but he sent me to see what I could do for John. He said he didn't want to lose such a strong worker to sickness; he wanted the pleasure of killing him when the time came."
"The man's a pig."
Tian, who was wiping John's sweaty brow, shook her head, "Talk like that will get you killed."
He glared at the beautiful young woman, "We are all going to die anyway. I think John's right, we need to stand up to these people."
Tian glared back, then turned her attention to treating John. With Rao's help, she pulled off his shirt, cleaned his wounds, and applied more of the ointment she had used before. Once she was done, she sat back on her heels, "I should have been allowed to treat him when this happened. I don't know if this will help. Pulling a packet from her pouch, she grabbed a cup of water, mixing the powder into it, "Lift his head, Rao." She coaxed the medicine into John, then gathered her things.
"Be careful, Leyf; Nall will kill you if you stand against him." Before Leyf could reply, she was gone.
Minutes later, Master Turc, Nall, and four overseers arrived. Two of the overseers headed directly for Leyf and dragged him from his pallet to where Turc and Nall stood.
"So, you have taken it upon yourself to decide what I should do with my slaves. Nall tells me you have been with us for four seasons, and have been an excellent producer. However, your insolence is not acceptable, and for that you will be punished."
"You are going to punish me because I tried to get help for one of the slaves? Then punish me."
Nall smiled, "We will."
The four overseers took turns beating Leyf, pounding his torso with blow after blow from meaty fists. For several minutes, the slaves sat silently but they soon became restless. Murmurs began to erupt from the slaves, then they began to speak opening. Cries of 'enough,' 'stop,' 'let him go' began to be heard; a look of panic crossed Turc's face, and he fled the slaves' chamber, leaving Nall to deal with the increasingly unruly crowd. The overseers dropped Leyf and began to crack their whips toward the crowd, backing out of the chamber.
Several slaves rushed to Leyf's, picking him up and returning him to his pallet, some gave up their water to clean his wounds. He was groggy, but awake, telling the others, "Leave me alone… I'm fine."
Rao looked around him at the angry faces, "Do you see now? We ran them off; you stood up to them as John does and so did we. We have to take back our lives. John believes that his people will come for him but we can't wait for that, or we will all die."
That night, the slaves did not sleep much. They discussed how to fight back as John and Leyf slept.
When he awoke the next morning, Leyf was surprised to see John staring at him. He muttered, "You better?"
"Better than you, I think." John handed him a cup of water, "Yeah, I remember that copper-haired beauty taking care of me again, still have a fever but I'm better. I understand from Rao I have you to thank for that."
"You'd do the same for me." Leyf struggled to sit up, his body in pain from the beating he underwent.
John pointed to Leyf's bowl and bread, "Eat, you need you're strength."
As they ate, Rao came up to them, dropping to sit next to Leyf, "Listen, while you guys were sleeping last night, all of us talked. We're tired of waiting to die; John, tell us what to do."
John looked at Leyf before he replied, "I think there are only about twenty overseers, we need a plan to take them out. We have to be smart about this and we need to choose the right time."
Rao asked, "John, are you sure your friends will try to find us?"
John nodded and Rao added, "Leyf doesn't believe anyone will look for us."
Leyf frowned, "I…I just don't see anyone finding us. How can you be so sure, give me a reason, give me a reason you friends would look for you."
"The only reason I can give you is that I believe in them, I trust them, I know they won't rest until they find me." John reached out, grasping Leyf's shoulder, "At some point, you have to put your trust in someone."
Leyf looked from Rao's anxious face to John's solemn expression, "Then I put my trust in you."
John squeezed Leyf's shoulder, "We need to keep this quiet, not everyone will be willing to take such a risk. Rao, spread the word to only those you can trust. We'll just have to take our chances; tell them we'll discuss a plan tonight."
They had been working in the mine pit for four hours when several overseers entered abruptly. Grabbing John, Leyf and Rao, the overseers dragged them from the pit, taking them three levels up to a chamber where Master Turc and Nall were waiting for them. The three men were forced to their knees in front of Turc.
"Well, well…what do we have here? It appears what we have are three slaves who believe they are powerful enough to overthrow me. For that, you will all die."
John's jaw clenched, "These two didn't do anything, it was all my idea. Let them go."
"Always want to be the hero, don't you?"
"Let these two go…."
"No, not going to happen; but first they will have the pleasure of watching you die at Nall's hands. I, for one, am going to enjoy that immensely."
The overseers grabbed John and ripped his tunic off, then tied ropes around his wrists, tying the other ends to rings embedded in the rock walls. Leyf launched himself at Nall, but two enormous overseers intercepted him, both punching him hard. Rao followed, but suffered the same fate.
John yelled at them, "Stop, don't try it." He looked at Nall, "Kill me; spare those kids, you need them to work the mine."
Nall stared at John, "No promises."
Raising the bullwhip, he struck John hard across the chest, then circling the restrained man, he struck repeatedly until John's chest and back resembled raw meat. He had raised the whip once again, stopping when loud shouting could be heard from outside the chamber. Nall looked at Turc, shocked and frightened looks on their faces.
Turc bellowed to the overseers in the room, "Find out what's going on out there."
As the overseers ran out, Leyf and Rao jumped up and rushed Nall, slamming the overseer to the ground. Leyf knocked the whip from Nall's hand, and slammed his fist into Nall's face. "You bastard, if you've killed him, I will kill you."
Nall was struggling with Leyf and Rao; neither of the young men noticed Turc pick up the whip and approach the nearly comatose John. The master overseer leaned down, "You die for causing this."
Turc pulled the whip to the side, level with John's neck, but as he pulled his arm back, the sound of a blaster erupted, bathing Turc in a red glow. As he heard the weapon's roar, Leyf felt himself being pulled away from Nall by a man dressed as John had been. Another soldier was helping Rao, while two female soldiers subdued and restrained Nall.
Leyf looked at the man, "John…is he alive?"
"I don't know."
Leyf pushed away form the man, rushing to John's side. Kneeling next to his friend was a copper-haired woman, two men, one frantic and one very tall, were untying his wrists. The woman looked at him as he dropped to his knees beside her.
"She smiled grimly, "Yes, how did you know?"
"He talked about you and Rodney and Ronon." He watched as the two men gently lowered John to the floor, "Is he alive?"
"Yes, but he is badly hurt." She looked over Leyf's shoulder, "Major Lorne, please get Dr. Beckett quickly; John is bleeding badly."
Leyf stood up as Major Lorne spoke into radio, "Get Beckett in here, Colonel Sheppard's badly injured."
"Colonel Sheppard…he's military?"
Lorne nodded, "Our commanding officer."
"He believed you were coming for him; I didn't think anyone would come."
"We never leave anyone behind, and we aren't leaving you behind either. Come on, let's find some medics for you and your friend here, while Dr. Beckett tends to Colonel Sheppard."
Leyf slung his arm around Rao as they were led away, "John was right…they came."
It was late as Leyf walked the corridors of Atlantis on his way to see if Colonel Sheppard was awake. He had just returned from the mainland where some of the Marines had taken the former slaves to enjoy the beach. They had been on Atlantis for nearly a week and tomorrow, Major Lorne was taking him home.
Finding a balcony on the way, Leyf slipped outside to view Atlantis at night for one last time. So much had happened since he and Rao had been hustled out of the mine and onto one of the Atlantian jumpers that was hovering in mid-air, its ramp lying across the mountain path. Events from that moment on passed as if he was in a dream.
The former slaves had been given medical treatment, hot baths, new clothes and comfortable places to sleep, not to mention more food than many of them had seen in years. As a group, they decided they wanted to stay on Atlantis for a few days to rest, get healthier, and accustomed to being free before they returned to their home worlds. He was nervous about returning home; part of him wanted to see his mom, dad, brother and sister, and part of him was scared. What would they think of him and what had happened to him? He wanted to talk to Colonel Sheppard about his family.
If it hadn't been for Colonel Sheppard, they would still be in that mine. He had shown them that they didn't have to give up, that they had to take a stand for what is right, despite what it might cost them. Major Lorne told him when they determined where the colonel had been taken, and breached the mine, the slaves were already taking matters into their own hands. When John, Rao, and he were taken from the pit, word spread throughout the mine, and the slaves started to attack the overseers. They would never have had that courage without Colonel Sheppard's example.
Colonel Sheppard…ever since he found out that John was the military commander of Atlantis, the Ancestor's home, he had found it difficult to call him John. For the first two days, John had been near death from the whipping he had received and the infection he developed. John's team, his friends, had allowed him to stay with them as they kept vigil until the colonel was out of danger. He was beginning to understand why John had been convinced his friends would come for him. They were the most loyal people he had ever met.
With a last look at the city's lights, Leyf continued to the infirmary where he slipped past a sleeping Ronon and approached John Sheppard's bed.
John Sheppard looked up from a computer pad, and smiled, "John…you continue to call me John."
"Kinda of hard, I mean once I found out that you were the military commander of this…" he spread out his hands, "amazing place, I thought I shouldn't call you John."
"Not much on formality; especially not with friends. How are you and the others?"
"We're doing okay; most of us have problems from not eating right but Dr. Beckett and the others have been taking good care of us. I heard that Dr. McKay is taking a team back to the mine, he seems pretty excited about the glowing rock."
Sheppard chuckled, "McKay thinks that the glowing rock is actually some kind of crystal that is storing energy from the core of the planet. Excited is not a strong enough word for how McKay feels about finding that rock, thinks it's a major energy source. He told me that Turc was working for a consortium that uses the rock as a power source in a manufacturing plant of some kind, then made extra money working the slaves when the mine was too hot." He paused then asked, "You been in contact with your family yet?
"Yes…well, I haven't seen them yet. Major Loren…he went to tell my parents that I was alive, and he went to see Arado's parents to tell them what happened to him. The major said he'd take me home when I was ready."
"From what I gather, you and the major have become good friends."
"He's a good guy, been a real help to me and Rao and the others. My," he paused, "…parents were looking for me; they'd never stopped. The major said they had traveled all over the galaxy looking for me. I didn't think anyone was looking for us…for me."
"Leyf, why did you think your parents weren't looking for you?"
"My dad and I had been fighting about what I was going to do when I finished school. I was two years away from making a decision, and I didn't want to be pushed into deciding too early. I figured he thought I ran away."
Sheppard sighed, "Family can be difficult, but they can surprise you."
Leyf only nodded in reply, and Sheppard asked another question, "So, how's Tian doing?"
Leyf answered, feeling heat rushing to his face, "She's good; Tian doesn't have a family, hers died when she was very young. Major Lorne asked my parents if she could come stay with us, and they said yes."
"That's good." John smiled as Leyf break into a grin, but then the grin faded.
"John, I…I didn't believe you when you said your team would come but now that I have been here, I understand. Even if the major and the others hadn't found us and we had died in that mine, the fact that we stood up for ourselves gave us our dignity back, thanks to you. But you gave us more, you gave us our freedom, and none of us thought we'd get that back."
"You and the others, you did what you had to do."
"You know that someone told Nall of our plans, someone that's here on Atlantis today. I'd like to know who that is."
"No, you don't; whoever told was just scared, Leyf. Let it go, it's not important now."
"You're probably right." Leyf hesitated, then continued, "Uh…I've decided to go home tomorrow. Will you come visit us when you get out of here?"
Sheppard nodded, "Yeah…can't wait."
"Thanks, John." With a big smile, he left the infirmary ready for his life to begin.
The next day, holding Tian's hand, with Major Lorne and his team walking behind them, Leyf Odari approached his family home. As the front door opened and his mom and dad, brother and sister rushed toward him, only one thought filled his mind. He finally had a reason to believe, a reason to trust, and he had John Sheppard to thank for being home.