Major Sheppard leaned on his shiny new sword and said, "Actually, we're knights on a sacred quest."
The kid's eyes went wide. Ford could see him pull himself up taller, out of a slightly sullen slouch.
"A quest! My father never goes on quests, he just stays here and tells everyone what to do. Sometimes he sends Brutus to the town to buy things."
"My name is Lord John of, uh, San Francisco. That one over there--" He aimed a creaking arm at Teyla, who inclined her helmet in the boy's direction. She creaked, too. "That's Sir Robin. Sir Robin the Brave."
Ford concentrated very hard on turning his snicker into a cough.
"Sir Robin has taken a sacred vow not to speak or show his face until our quest is fulfilled," Sheppard said, his face completely straight. Ford made his own sacred vow never to play poker with the man.
"What is your quest, sir?" the kid asked, reverent now.
"We're riding to rescue a, a... princess," Sheppard said. Ford coughed again. His chain mail rattled. "She's being held prisoner."
"By a dragon? Is she the most beautiful in the land? My sister says princesses are always beautiful because of their noble blood."
"Hmm. You know, this princess is more of a... clever kind of princess. She doesn't have to be beautiful."
"Or nice," Ford muttered. Sheppard made a movement that was probably him trying to shoot Ford a sharp look, but he was hindered by the neck guard and ended up turning his entire body vaguely to the left. The sword drew a curve in the mud.
"Why are you looking for her if she's not pretty?" the boy asked, looking kind of annoyed that the knights weren't catering to his imagination in a more appropriate and legend-like way.
Sheppard's smile grew slightly plastic. "Because she is important to us and we want her back."
The boy seemed to be processing this. Major Sheppard was looking at him with a very bland expression. "Princess Rodney is a dear friend," Sheppard said after a while, quite solemnly. Ford's stomach was starting to hurt.
"Very dear," he choked out, but Sheppard held up his iron-gloved hand.
The boy said, "Rodney is a funny name for a princess." He sounded a bit suspicious now.
"Seen any people named Rodney around lately?" Sheppard asked, his voice completely neutral. His armour creaked.
"My father had a slave named Rodney," the boy said. Breathlessly he recited, "He was a very bad slave. He was mean to me. He told me to be quiet even though he was the slave and should be quiet himself. My father had him beaten and sold him to the mines."
There was a long pause. The boy looked proud. Teyla was absolutely motionless - although she'd not moved much before, Ford could tell she was actively still now, like a cat about to pounce.
Major Sheppard's expression turned grim. Ford could actually see his sense of humour running out, like a countdown. 3...2...1...
"Is that a fact?" Sheppard said slowly, sounding improbably like Colonel Sumner. Ford felt a chill race down his spine.
"Yes," the child said, clearly not a great interpreter of social cues. "That slave was just terrible. He would not work. And he said he was a doctor but he couldn't even brew bintel-bark tea. And I got to stand really close when they beat him, too, I got some blood on me and father said it would make me a man sooner."
Teyla's armour rattled when she moved to put her heavy, slightly rusty arm on Sheppard's shoulder. There was a clang when it landed.
Teyla cleared her throat softly.
Sheppard gave the boy a last, narrow-eyed look and turned away.
"Hey," the boy said. "Are you leaving, sir?"
"That's right," Sheppard said without inflection.
"Aren't you going to speak to my father?"
There was another pause, a briefer one.
Sheppard took a deep breath. "No, we're not. Our quest just got-- Our quest is of great importance and we must not tarry." He started walking back toward the horses. Halfway there he stopped and turned back. "Who is the owner of the mines?"
"Lord Halwen, the Duke of Molt," the boy said automatically, with a touch of ceremony. Clearly an important guy, the Duke of Molt.
"I guess we're going to Molt," Sheppard said.
They rode toward Molt in silence. The road was deeply grooved and covered in an icy, muddy sludge that made their horses slide and stumble. Teyla was clinging to her plodding chestnut gelding's mane with tension evident in her armour-clad shoulders. "The Athosian people do not keep beasts of burden," she'd told them with barely concealed distaste when presented with her horse.
"Well, Sir Robin does," Sheppard had said. "Up you go. Just sit there and look like you belong."
Ford had not done a lot of horseback-riding, but enough to - for once - outshine Teyla. It did grate a little that he'd got the fat pony. He was a page. "We need a page, and you're him." "But sir--" "Just hold my lance and look obedient, okay, Lieutenant?"
Sheppard had the biggest helmet, with a pretty cool plume on top.
Now it had started snowing, a thin flurry that stung Ford's cheeks. The wind crept up under his chain mail like cold fingers. His ass hurt. He thought warm thoughts about kicking Dr McKay's fool ass once they found him. Who got himself taken by slave traders? Nobody else had had any trouble holding them off, but McKay had of course wandered off somewhere with his beeping little GameBoy and when the rest of them had beaten off the attackers, he was nowhere to be found. They found the GameBoy trampled into the turf, still beeping faintly.
None of that would have happened, of course, if McKay and the Major hadn't had their fight, a fight that Ford had partly overheard and could still make neither head nor tail of. It was in the corridor outside the Major's quarters and Ford had just been passing, not even on his way there. And he'd heard McKay say, "--gonna do? Beat me up? Who are you, Marty McFly?"
And then, Sheppard said, "Goddamn it, Rodney, don't go around calling--"
"Why? I've been a coward all my life, it's not that bad."
And Sheppard, lowering his voice: "You're not anymore, though."
"Just forget it, okay, forget it. I don't want to anymore. I just object to the stupidity. I object to pointless neuroses. Everyone had embarrassing hook-ups on Christmas Eve. Seriously, haven't you noticed that Bates and Heightmeyer don't look each other in the eye anymore? And do you know--"
"Bates and Heightmeyer?"
"--why I notice stuff like that? Cause I'm not usually that interested in the office gossip, you know?"
"No, you know what, I'll just be obscene about it. I feel like being obscene, it helps sometimes. Fuck you. And fuck off."
Then McKay had marched away, right past Ford without so much as a glance, and Ford had stood there and heard Major Sheppard mutter, "Objects to pointless neuroses, right."
After that, they'd been weird around each other. Grumpy, silent, and McKay would go traipsing off the second they got through the gate. And Sheppard wouldn't call him on it, which meant whatever they were doing, had done, were fighting about, was interfering with work and Ford should say something. But when he tried, the words dried up before he even got out a "Sir, with all due respect."
He didn't want to go around suspecting things about his CO. Especially not a cool CO like Sheppard.
Teyla flipped up her visor with a clash of metal. "If the directions are correct, we will be in Molt by sundown. I advise that we find an inn and visit the mines in the morning."
Sheppard turned his handsome grey around and circled Teyla. "Negative. I think it'll be more in character to look up his Dukeness first. Visiting knights, you know. We're here to hook up with the bigwigs. I'll chitchat, drink some flagons of ale, make some discreet inquiries about my lost slave." His mouth twisted on the last word as if it pained him to say it. Jesus Christ, Ford thought. What was going on?
Ford had to stand behind the Major's chair throughout the banquet. It's guard duty, he thought, clenching his jaw. It's my watch. The Major was being served enough food to keep Atlantis going for a week.
"I do not concern myself with the day-to-day handling of the workforce," the Duke said, tapping his fingernails on the elaborately decorated ox-horn flagon in front of him. "But I do remember this one. Why would you want him back?"
"Wh-- Oh. He was part of my late wife's dowry. Call it sentimentality."
"I see. Yes, we do wish to cling to some remembrances." The Duke had at least three mistresses; he wasn't being discreet. Mrs Duke had curtsied briefly at them, twinkling suggestively at Sheppard, and then excused herself. Ford imagined that she was lying in her boudoir waiting for passing knights to sweep her away.
"Well," the Duke was saying, "this slave was simply not...performing. After only three days he tried to escape. I had him branded and sold him for a pittance to a merchant from Stold."
Ford watched Sheppard's knuckles turn white where they gripped his own, less elaborately decorated horn.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this knight thing," Sheppard said later, on the road.
"I was impressed with how you didn't beat him on the head with his own horn, sir," Ford said. There had only been a minor incident involving ale and the Duke's intricately embroidered cloak. Sheppard had grinned a grin that was superficially drunk and stupid but glittered with malevolence underneath. Ford had closed his eyes and waited for the screaming to start, but apparently the gathered knightly types were used to drunken louts and spilled beverages. There had been laughter and indulgent handwaving, and a grey-frocked slave girl had ran up to carry the soaked garment out of the room, and another one had ran up with a new one, only slightly less opulent.
"Dr McKay is not making it easy for himself," Teyla mused. She'd taken off her helmet. They were all leading their horses; they were walking by moonlight. It was still cold. "He must know we'll look for him. It would be wiser to stay in one place."
"McKay's not very good at taking orders," Sheppard said. Ford kept his mouth shut.
Someone said, in a loud voice, "Stand and deliver!"
They stopped. Three men on horseback had materialised out of the forest and were now blocking the road.
"Deliver what?" Sheppard asked. His voice was calm, full of casual good humour. Ford could tell he was itching to kick some ass.
"Purses, weapons and horses," the leader of the pack said. They were all wearing rags over their faces. Their swords weren't as shiny and impressive as Sheppard's, or even Teyla's, but they looked pretty sharp.
"Now, now, we'll need those for our sacred quest to spring McKay from slavery," Sheppard said, reaching into his saddlebag.
"Stand and deliver," the lead robber said again.
"No, you know what," Sheppard said, casually pulling out his Beretta and waving it around as if he had no idea what it was. "You deliver."
The lead robber's eyes narrowed. "You refuse?" he asked in the tone of someone getting ready to do more work than he liked to.
Sheppard brought up the gun. "Uh, yeah. Now you drop your swords and run like the dogs you are."
Ford thought he must have heard that line in a Western. Sheppard even affected a Clint Eastwood-esque dry mumble.
The lead robber urged his horse forward and Sheppard shot him. Ford saw the hit open a third eye in the man's forehead before he toppled of the panicking horse. Then Ford himself had his hands full because his pony, too, was panicking, rearing up, almost pulling him with it. "Whoah, whoah," he said, trying to get a better grip. His feet slid in the freezing mud.
When the pony had calmed down and Ford got him towed back out of the ditch, the robbers and their horses were gone. Except the one, lying on his back in the middle of the muddy road. Sheppard was crouching over him. When he looked up at Ford, the moon reflected silver in his eyes.
Ford almost took a step back.
"You did not have to kill him," Teyla said. Even though she'd had no previous experience with horses, she'd controlled hers better than Ford had his and did not seem to be soaked to the skin and about to get frostbite. Sheppard's horse hadn't even flinched, of course.
"He kind of made me want to, though," Sheppard said. "I'm sorry about that." He straightened and rolled his head from side to side, stretching his neck.
"He did mean us harm," Teyla said, relenting.
Sheppard dragged the dead robber into the ditch. They continued.
The winter sun was pale and sickly. The yard smelled like kitchen slops and dung. The merchant from Stold, a stout middle-aged man with a scraggly beard and seriously funky hair was backed up against the barn door, Sheppard's sword point resting against his bobbing Adam's apple.
"I swear, my lord, I swear I did not know he was stolen property. He had the Molt Duchy brand! It's quite recognisable, I could not have been mistaken, it's a line with two circles, it's--"
"I'm not interested in the Duke's brands," Sheppard said, tilting his head. "I just want Ro-- my slave back. I'll even pay you for your expenses."
"But, but, but, but, my lord! You do not understand!" The man swallowed. Tears were running down his face. His eyes were bulging. "You come too late! Oh, mercy, mercy. He struck my foreman. He attempted escape. I could not hope to sell him--"
The blade moved. The merchant screamed shrilly. A thin trickle of blood started running down his throat. His breaths came with hitches and stops, cutting up his voice.
"I, I, I, I... I kept him in the, the, aaaaaaah, in the prison hole for two days and this morning, this morning, I, I, my--eldest son took him to the clearing to put him down--"
Ford felt a stab of dismay, even though he'd seen this coming. He'd known Dr McKay would get himself killed. It was inevitable. And still, he gasped with surprise to have it confirmed. It hurt, too, which was shocking in itself because Ford had gone around thinking he didn't like McKay.
Sheppard showed nothing. "Where is your son?" he just asked, his sword perfectly steady.
"He has not returned!" The merchant's crumbling face smoothed momentarily. "Perhaps it is not too late, perhaps--"
Sheppard moved in closer, suddenly and violently. He pushed his face right against the crying merchant's. "Pray," he said. "Pray your son's already dead."
Ford put a hand on his pony's shaggy neck, feeling tired and cold and so unbelievably ready to never see this world again. Sheppard let the merchant go and turned. His expression was completely blank.
It started snowing on the short ride up the path over the small hill, through the forest. They followed two rows of footprints in the mud. It wasn't quite freezing and the snow melted when it hit the ground.
Sheppard's plume was turning white.
"What's the plan, sir?" Ford asked, not liking the way his voice sounded anxious. He wasn't feeling very much like a Marine right now, as if his pageboy outfit and his fat pony had turned him into someone less capable than the real Ford, Aiden: 1st Lieutenant.
"We find McKay," Sheppard said without even trying to turn around. "If he's alive, we ride like hell to the gate and don't look back. If he's dead... we can ride a little slower."
In the middle of the clearing was a shallow pit, a shovel and the dead body of a man lying flat on his back. Ford couldn't make out a face, it was just a mess of gory flesh. He couldn't tell if it was McKay or not, but Sheppard hardly glanced at the corpse before taking his horse past the scene and onward.
Only one row of footsteps lead away from the body, into the forest.
"Doctor McKay may be alive," Teyla said. "I feel there is hope."
"Yeah," Ford said, kicking his pony into a trot. "I sure hope so."
They followed Sheppard in the thickening flurry, but the ground was uneven and Ford's pony could hardly keep up. Teyla was struggling to stay in the saddle.
"Major!" Ford yelled. "Hold on, we're not--"
A gunshot echoed between the trees. The pony reared and Ford felt himself slipping, slipping, until he got a leg on the ground and kept himself upright with both hands twined in the pony's mane. "Fuck, fuck," he said under his breath.
Up ahead, he saw Sheppard's horse falter and fall. "Major Sheppard!" Teyla called.
Then Sheppard's voice, exasperated, just this side of shrill: "Goddamnit, Rodney, stop shooting at the cavalry!"
The alien, gurgling wail must be the horse dying, Ford thought, with cold shivers down his spine. Other than that, everything was quiet. Then he saw Sheppard's plume rise again, wobbling a bit.
Then Sheppard just stood there, holding up his arms, pulling off his helmet with odd, jerky movements. Waiting.
Ford held his wild-eyed pony and waited, too. Sheppard's horse made a last choking sound and was silent.
McKay stepped out from behind a thick tree trunk. He had a gun trained on Sheppard, but his hands were shaking. Ford couldn't quite make out his expression. He was wearing a grey baggy robe and some kind of clumsy wooden shoes.
"It's me," Sheppard said, his voice gentle but not quiet. McKay stumbled on something and Ford held his breath, waiting for him to shoot himself in the foot, or shoot Sheppard by accident, or maybe even throw a bullet Ford's or Teyla's way. It didn't happen, though, McKay just slumped to his knees, the gun still held up.
Sheppard said, "Rodney," and went to him, and plucked the gun out of his hand, knelt, too, and put his arms around him.
Ford held his pony and waited. After a while, he heard McKay say, frantic but relieved, "Oh, God, it is you, it is you. Oh, God."
Teyla's hand touched Ford's shoulder and he started.
"Give them a moment," she said. She'd taken off her helmet and snow was gathering in her tangled hair.
Ford turned away and patted his pony instead, scratched him between the ears and on his withers. He heard Sheppard say, "Yeah, he's dead."
McKay said, "I didn't even know they'd got my gun as some kind of free gift. These people are unbelievable."
"But you got it off him--"
"Yeah, cause he forgot the safety. They'd figured it out but he, I don't know, he forgot because he's stupid. Was stupid. I was going to die and he forgot the safety."
Ford and Teyla led their horses out of the forest and waited at the edge of the clearing.
"I am relieved," Teyla said. "This has been a difficult time for us."
"Especially for the Major," Ford said, he couldn't help it.
"Yes, especially for the Major," she said, smiling at him.
And after a while, they came walking out of the trees, Dr McKay staggering a little, his shoulders slumped. He was leaning on Sheppard. Ford heard, "--thought you were dead, of course! That's what the slave trader told me. I guess he thought that'd make me meek."
"Clearly it didn't work." They both turned and looked at the snow-covered corpse in the clearing.
"I wanted to give up, trust me. I was all ready to settle down to my new life as a mindless animal, abandoning hope. I just kept snapping."
"Doctor McKay, I am pleased to see you," Teyla said and McKay smiled lopsidedly at her.
"I'm incredibly pleased to see you, too, Teyla, you have no idea."
Ford nodded. "How you doing, Doctor?" He could see Sheppard beaming at McKay.
"Do you want details? Cause I got details." He was pretty pale, pretty ragged-looking. There was blood spatter on his grey robe. "I have a brand, I have cane marks all over my back! I just killed a guy with a spade--"
"Maybe the details can wait," Sheppard said, and he ruffled McKay's hair and patted his cheek. Ford wasn't even surprised anymore. Right now it wasn't even really weird. "Let's take the party back to Atlantis."
Ford felt himself smile, and the smile grew broader. Oh, he was feeling relieved. Even in this clearing with the corpse on the ground, even with McKay's hand clutching the Major's embroidered tunicsleeve. "You want to take my pony, Doctor?" he said.