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Jack's Viking Sky 1

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Author's notes: Jack's Viking Sky is an 8 book series, starting with SAND


Jack's Viking Sky 1

Jack's Viking Sky 1

by Mitch H

Date Archived: 09/03/05
Website:
Status: Complete
Category: Drama, Adventure/Action, Hurt/Comfort, Slash
Characters/Pairings: Col. Jack O'Neill, Dr. Daniel Jackson     Jack/Daniel      
Rating: NC-17
Spoilers: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Permission to archive:
Series: Jack's Viking Sky
Notes: Jack's Viking Sky is an 8 book series, starting with SAND
Warnings:
Disclaimer:
Summary: Surviving a crash was the first step in Daniel's struggle to keep Jack alive on an unknown world. As venom slowly destroys Jack's body, Daniel struggles alone within the confines and terrible restrictions of a Viking culture corrupted by Nirrti's influence. He must make the greatest sacrifice of his life simply to keep Jack alive.


Jack's Viking Sky
By Mitch

BOOK ONE - SAND

Previously on Stargate SG-1

Nirrti made a fatal error when she captured SG-1. Her bid to develop a superior host had driven her through many human life spans, had driven her to alter and experiment with whole planets of humans. But among her latest experiments was a telepath who listened to Jack and finally understood Nirrti's evil intent. With the aid of his fellow telekinetic, the telepath killed Nirrti, ending any future damage she would do to the uncounted worlds she'd toyed with.

A day's ration, the value of Daniel Jackson was a lie the bounty hunter Aris Boch told the Tauri in his grip. Jack's value, he stated honestly. But he never said what bounty he could collect if he captured Daniel Jackson, the Tauri who opened the ancient's secret roadway and who was responsible for systematically bringing about the downfall of the goa'uld empire. That price never went down.

Chapter 1 - Crash

Cold blowing sand scoured across every bit of exposed skin on Daniel's face and hands as he frantically struggled, gaining five more steps in his desperate scramble to drag Jack's unconscious body away from the crashed ship. Blood ran from a cut on the younger man's forehead and trailed into his left eye. He couldn't afford to pause and wipe it away. Clear vision wasn't the greatest of his worries at this moment.

Sand stretched from horizon to horizon under the hazy, yellow sun. Gritty sand clogged the air he breathed. Cold bit at his skin, nipped at his eyes, and knifed into his laboring lungs.

Less than an hour ago Daniel had killed the ship's pilot, a bounty hunter who'd taken them captive in a distant solar system. He'd stabbed him in the chest with a broken strut from the ship's control panel. The bounty hunter's yellow-green blood was on Daniel's hands, along with too much of Jack's blood. The man, one of Aris Boch's race, would never collect a bounty from any goa'uld again.

Three more steps. Daniel gained three more steps up a sand dune, and then was hit with icy wind blowing full-force over the top, down at him. It blew toward the ship, blew in the direction from which they were fleeing. Daniel gulped in frigid air and abrasive sand and renewed his struggle to drag Jack over the top, over and down, down as far and as fast as he could. The ship would self-destruct any minute.

He'd lost count of the ship's self-destruct timer that had started the moment the bounty hunter's heart had ceased to beat.

The alien bounty hunter, driven to the edge of madness by Jack's stubborn refusal to reveal secrets he didn't possess had moved from torturing Jack, to injecting him with a debilitating venom, to deciding his life was better ended at the point of a knife. The moment the bounty hunter was poised to eviscerate Jack, Daniel had finally broken free of his cage, grabbed the improvised weapon and struck. Without hesitation, he'd struck a mortal blow. But the alien died slowly, slowly as the ship responded to his voice command to execute an emergency landing on the nearest planet along their route. He and Daniel had been locked in a life and death struggle during the meteoric plunge through the rending atmosphere, through the slamming impact with the desert landscape. But finally, as the ship jolted a few rough yards along the planet's sandy skin the bounty hunter died. Jack and Daniel were thrust into another struggle to survive the impending disaster as the ship's self-destruct timer began to count.

That had been too many minutes ago. They were still too close to the ship. Daniel pulled Jack over the top of a dune and lost his footing. Together, they rolled down the other side, Jack flopping loose-limbed, and Daniel flailing as he tried to recover control of his momentum. Cold sand scraped his hands, his face, and his left leg. His pant leg had been torn days ago during his imprisonment, the day the bounty hunter had taken his boots. His glasses were long gone in the ship.

He hit the slightly harder packed sand in the little valley between the dunes. There was a break from the freezing wind down here. Daniel lurched to his feet. His boots were still in the ship, but he had socks on. They afforded some protection from the cold that had slapped him in the face the moment he'd pried the airlock open. He still had the green BDU jacket he'd left Cheyenne mountain with, but it did next to nothing to insulate him from the cold. Jack was still mostly dressed in the BDU's he'd been wearing when they were captured by the bounty hunter.

At the bottom of the dune Daniel ran the few steps that separated him from Jack and knelt at the unconscious man's side.

"Jack! Come on. Wake up. We have to move. The ship is going to--"

Daniel never got a chance to finish his sentence. A white flash blasted through the sand-filled air, followed a fraction of a second later by a dense boom. Daniel's ears rang as he flung himself prone over Jack.

Wind swept down the dune, this time from a new direction. It was a concussion blast from the ship. Daniel protected Jack as best he could, as he hadn't been able to during the days on the ship when he'd been locked in a cage, helplessly watching Jack be tortured to the brink of death.

Roaring was all Daniel was conscious of for several minutes. Then he became aware of holding Jack in his arms in a full body embrace. He tightened his arms, and then tried to rise up. Sand was packed all around them. Daniel renewed his struggle, pushing sand away. He pulled Jack up, clearing the frozen granules from the unconscious man's face.

"Jack. Can you hear me? Hell, I can't even hear myself," he swore as he tried to listen to see if Jack was breathing. He put a hand on his chest and felt movement. "Come on, Jack. I need you to wake up. We need to get away from here. The ship is destroyed, but we're going to freeze to death if we sit here on our asses."

Daniel scooped more sand away.

"Mmm," Jack groaned. He tried to bat Daniel's hands away. "Wha . . . happened?"

"We're out of the ship. Can you hear me?" Daniel helped him as Jack struggled to sit up.

"What? I can't understand you. My ears . . . " Jack said, as he cupped one ear.

"Explosion," Daniel said loudly, feeling the grit of sand granules between his teeth. "Ship blew up. Hurt our ears."

"Where's the ship?" Jack asked.

"I haven't seen any, but I want to go take a look at the ship." Daniel said, and then pointed back over the sand dune they'd just rolled down. "Wait here. I'll be right back." He held his hand up at Jack, and then scrambled on hands and knees back up the dune. At the top of the crest, he surveyed the smoking pit in the distance. There was nothing left but smoke and the glassy slag of melted sand. The sloping side of the dune he stood on was peppered with slag marks and bits of molten metal. They'd barely made it to safety.

Marveling at the narrow escape, Daniel turned his back on the wreckage and took long, sliding strides back down to Jack. Daniel's hair was longer than he liked, having left on this mission before he had time to get a haircut, it was long enough to be whipped around by the wind. He shoved it back off his forehead in a gesture he hadn't used since his early days in the stargate project.

"It's totally destroyed," he announced as he reached Jack's side, pleased to realize his hearing was improving.

"What? Dead?" Jack asked, with one finger in an ear. "Is he dead?"

"Dead," Daniel said as he nodded. He dusted caked sand from his hands and knees.

Jack nodded, and then leaned back against a heap of sand that had been pulled off him by Daniel. He pulled his jacket closed, fumbling with the buttons. "There's no antidote, Daniel."

"That's the least of our worries, Jack. I got a look at this planet as we were coming down. We're in the middle of a desert. I think it covers the whole continent."

"Any signs of civilization?"

"None that I could see in the split second I had to view the place. Besides, I was a bit busy at the moment trying to kill that son of a bitch."

"Shouldn't have done it," Jack said, his head bowed. "He'd have taken you to Tatenen, turned you over for the bounty. You'd have had a chance to be rescued by Teal'c and Carter then--"

"No. That was never something I considered doing. The minute he injected you with that spider venom I knew he didn't intend to sell you. He wanted to torture you to death--"

"Your job on any mission is survival, Daniel. Haven't I taught you--"

"No."

"So we end up in the middle of a desert, a damned cold desert, I might add. And now we both get to freeze to death, if the venom doesn't kill me first, that is. Then you get to die of cold or thirst, right?"

"Jack," Daniel shouted, then stopped himself. He sat down cross-legged. "We're alive. Let's take this one step at a time, okay?"

Jack regarded him silently for several heartbeats. Then he smiled ruefully. "Okay. One step at a time while I still have muscles left to step with. Any idea which direction to head out into?"

Daniel swallowed, then tried to match Jack's smile. "East. I think. East. In a desert, it's best to pick a direction, and then hold to it. We'll take a site by the sun, and then move out. When it gets dark, we stop, get a bearing by the stars if we need to keep moving. Or dig in somewhere. It's cold."

"Noticed that, did'ja?"

"Hey, at least you've got footwear. One, anyway," he added as he pointed at Jack's one booted foot.

"What the hell happened to my other boot?" Jack asked.

"If you don't remember, I'm not going to remind you," Daniel said bluntly. "Feel like trying to get going?"

In way of an answer, Jack climbed stiffly to his feet. He swayed and Daniel caught him before he went all the way down.

"Easy." Daniel pulled one of Jack's arms over his shoulder.

"Woo. I feel like crap."

"You look like it too. Bruised up. He really worked your ribs over with that electric stick. Do you feel like anything's broken?"

"No. He was good at what he did. Beat me at just the right level to cause maximum pain, and minimum damage. He'd have been a real asset to the Iraqis." Jack chuckled. "Not that they really needed any help, mind you."

"Uh, yeah," Daniel said, shaking his head. "East. Ready?"

"No. But, yeah. I'm freezing already. Let's move. See if we can find a warmer place to freeze in before nightfall."

"Okay," Daniel said, knowing that there would be no warmer place within a day's walk, probably much more. He'd gotten a good look as the ship spiraled toward the continent where it had crashed. The terrain was virtually featureless. To the west and north he'd seen only sand, and to the south, the white of an ice cap. But toward the cresting sun, he had seen the glint of what he hoped were distant rivers.

Jack panted with each labored step in the blowing sand. "I need new boots. Two. Not just one. I need a hot bath. And worst of all, I forgot to tape the Simpsons again!"

Daniel nodded.

They crept along the valleys between the meandering lines of dunes, ever eastward, always buffeted by the wind, scoured by the sand. The sun passed straight overhead and Daniel called a halt, took a bearing against the hazy sun and plotted its path by reading his shadow on the sand.

They had no provisions. Thirst began to rule their conscious thoughts. On several breaks, Daniel scrambled to the top of a dune and scanned for signs of plants, a glint of sunlight off water, anything that might break up the monotonous sameness of the sand dunes. He saw nothing.

Each time he came back down Jack asked if he'd spotted an ice cream stand, a coffee shop, or he'd start naming fast food chains, asking if Daniel had seen this one or that one.

By mid-afternoon, Jack was limping with each step. The spider venom he'd been injected with was doing its work. His muscles were being attacked and dissolved. His ability to move was slowly being destroyed by the venom, and the demands on his system to walk, to search out a place to survive in the desert were hastening the destruction.

The sun set as Daniel stopped on the leeward side of another dune. A dune among thousands exactly like it, he chose this one as their wind shelter for the night because it had a good curve to it, providing more of a windbreak. The sunset was spectacular as light was refracted through the sand particles in the air. Brilliant bands of gold and red shone upward like eyelashes of a giant as the orange disc sank behind the horizon.

"It's too cold. We can't go on in the dark." He helped Jack to sit on the ground.

Jack straightened out his legs and rubbed his aching thighs. "I'll stay here. You should go on--"

"We can't afford to separate. I know deserts--"

"I know you do, Daniel," Jack said harshly. "But I have more survival training than you'll ever--"

"We're not separating," Daniel said calmly. He dropped to his knees and began digging a hollow in the sand. He piled the moved grains on the windward side. "We'll sleep in here, share body warmth. I want to take a bearing before we go to sleep. See any stars yet?"

"I said you should go on without me--"

Daniel stopped his digging and looked up at Jack. "We're not . . . We are not . . . separating. Do you understand me? I know deserts. I'd never find you again."

"You should go on alone--"

"We're not separating," Daniel said, his voice low, but harsh.

The sky was inky black by the time they were nestled in the hollow Daniel had dug.

"It's surprisingly warm," Jack remarked as he snuggled in Daniel's arms.

"That's just because we're out of the wind. I wonder if the sand ever stops blowing here."

"I don't see a single constellation I recognize. Wish we had a nice double sleeping bag. Hey, can you see the stars without your glasses?"

"Yeah. Kind of," Daniel answered. "They're a lot of little squiggles though."

"Well, you're kind of used to looking at little squiggles, aren't you?"

Daniel snorted. "Not exactly."

"You got a headache from not having your glasses?" Jack asked softly. He twisted in Daniel's arms, bringing his face against the man's cold cheek. He brought a hand up and pushed the long hair back from Daniel's forehead.

"No. It was pretty bright in this desert today, even with the haze of sand in the air. Plus, I don't really have to strain to see details. It's not like I'm hunched over a desk working on a translation. But it was dark in the ship."

"Yeah," Jack murmured. "Let's not talk about the ship."

"We shouldn't talk at all. Waste of moisture."

Jack snorted out a bark of laughter. "Mister Survivalist, giving me tips on survival?"

Daniel drew in a breath, and then nodded. "Yes. Now, hush."

Jack laughed, softer this time. He pressed his lips to Daniel's unshaven cheek. "Danny," he murmured against the cold skin.

Daniel turned his gaze from the stars and regarded Jack solemnly.

Jack's brown eyes were as dark as the night sky. Set on his pale face, they reflected the sparkling heavens above. His eyes shone with the pinpricks of light that traveled across galaxies to adorn the black canopy far overhead.

Daniel tilted his head and brought his lips to Jack's. They kissed. Alone in a frozen desert light-years away from their world, their friends, their home, shivering in a cradle of sand, they kissed softly, secretly, as they had been doing for years.

Chapter 2 Survival

Sand filled Daniel's senses. Sand, stinging cold in the blowing wind, abraded his skin. It filtered down the waistband of his pants, pooled in the clammy sweat of his crotch. It coated his damp armpits. It ground into the corners of his eyes. It filled his nostrils and, with each breath, scoured his throat like a wire brush.

The exertion of struggling through the shifting sand had him sweating, which chilled him more as the wind whipped at his body. His hair, too long when they'd left on the mission, whipped around his face. The hazy sun, a brighter yellow than Earth's sun, had started working on the strands, bleaching them back to the pale color they'd been when Daniel had first met Jack long ago, deep under Cheyenne Mountain.

Daniel checked the position of his and Jack's shadow. It was one big shadow now, on this, the third day of their trek through the desert. Jack could no longer balance enough to take a step unaided.

With every miserable, scratching step Daniel took, he was all too conscious of the fact that Jack was just as sand-coated as he was.

Turning them slightly right, Daniel kept the pace steady. There was something green on the horizon, probably another cactus. Hopefully, another cactus. Desperately he clung to the belief that it was another cactus rich in moisture, tall enough to crouch by for a while, to get a modicum of relief from the wind. It was too early in the day to camp there.

Camp was a glorified term for what they'd done the past two nights. Huddle was more accurate. Huddle and shiver in a pit in the sand and share body warmth was what they did at night.

But Daniel estimated they'd reach the cactus, if that's what it was, by a little after noontime. Maybe they should spend a night there. But no. He'd already decided they shouldn't. The distance they could make during the rest of the day could well mean the difference between Jack living and dying.

Two factors tortured Daniel. The first thing he dwelt on was that the venom was progressing through Jack's system, would continue to progress for about a month from the time it was injected into him. The debilitating effects were escalating hourly, and the more Jack walked, the faster the effect would escalate. The second thing that occupied Daniel's mind was that the faster they could reach food and water, the better chance Jack had to survive. The venom wasn't intended to be lethal. The bounty hunter had explained, coldly, succinctly, it was intended to completely debilitate its victim so he was easier to torture, to control, to extract information from. A poisoned man had an even chance of surviving the venom, but only if he had food, water, and rest. Jack had none of those here in the middle of the desert. Least of all, rest. They had to keep moving, to find food and water, or resting would be worthless to Jack's survival.

"Damned if we do, and damned if we don't," he muttered.

"Wh-- what?" Jack asked, keeping his eyes focused on the ground.

"We're getting closer to that cactus," Daniel said. "I'm sure it's a cactus now. We'll be able to get water out of it. Something to chew on too. Fill our stomachs."

"Mmm. Good. Coffee. Black," Jack said, his words brief and breathless. Focusing on the ground, focusing on the visible progress kept Jack going.

They reached the blotch of green Daniel had seen through the haze of blowing sand. It was one tall cactus, barrel shaped, and a smattering of grasses. The stalks of grass bent low in the wind, their roots tenacious in the base of a dune. Carefully, Daniel lowered Jack to the ground by the grass. Then he did damage to the cactus. Deep in its heart, there was a clear, slightly viscous fluid. He used part of the plant to bring the precious fluid to Jack.

"You first," Jack said, slumped on one elbow. "And don't try to fake me out, Daniel." He glared up at the younger man, snorting gusts of air through his sand-clogged nose.

Glaring just as harshly, Daniel sipped at the liquid, not bothering to filter the sand from the stuff. More sand blew into it as he held it to Jack's lips.

With every drop of moisture consumed, both men rested by the grass. Daniel twisted around, plucking the strands and stuffing them in the pockets of Jack's ripped jacket. He put chunks of cactus in his own pockets. The roots of the cactus went in too. They'd carry everything they could. Chewing the stuff, even though its nutritional value was probably nil, would help.

As they prepared to move out Daniel took a bearing, and then trudged along, this time with Jack's left arm over his shoulders. He switched sides at each break, hoping to keep the muscle damage to Jack equal on both sides.

Darkness fell, bringing the extra boost of a greater chill factor to the stinging sand that whipped at their head and hands. The pit Daniel dug that night was deeper because the sand seemed softer. That didn't bode well for traveling the next day. He went to sleep clutching Jack tightly.

They rationed out the lumps of cactus for three more days.

The sixth dawn that greeted them on the new planet left Daniel numb in his misery. It was probably a beautiful sunrise, sending striations of color bands up from the horizon to the zenith. The sand particles in the air refracted the rays and colored the sky, but he was so tired he couldn't focus well enough to tell. There was a constant throbbing in his temples. Sneezing in the blowing sand made the throbbing escalate to blinding heights. When that happened Daniel found himself absently gritting his teeth until his jaws hurt as much as his head. But the pain in his temples was a decent distraction from the agony of the newly lacerated soles of his feet. Each step sent a fresh wave of pain lancing up from the flesh that had been severely damaged a day ago.

He took his bearing, lifted Jack to his feet and took a careful step toward the hazy, orange ball. Jack hung limp in his arms. Daniel hoisted him half onto his back, letting Jack's legs drag. The weight made his back muscles burn. They made three agonizing feet of progress in the shifting sand, then Jack groaned and lifted a foot.

"That's it. Slow and easy, Jack. Slow and easy," Daniel said, realizing his voice was so raspy that Jack might not hear him over the howl of the wind. He couldn't even hear himself.

"Froze."

"Yeah. It's cold," Daniel agreed absently. His fingers and toes burned from the cold. Jack had to be in so much more pain. His body was breaking down bit by bit.

"Sun."

"Yeah. You can feel it getting warmer, right?"

"Order . . . Whopper, fries, 'kay?"

"Yeah. Fries too, Jack. With ketchup." He knew the man wasn't delirious. It was just an extension of the running commentary Jack had been keeping up during their trek. He'd whine about how miserable things were, what supplies they needed, what he'd get, or do, or wear when they got back home. It was Jack's way of coping.

Daniel's way of coping was to hold Jack tightly, and focus on the hazy eastern horizon and the promise of those glints of what he hoped was water he'd seen from high in the atmosphere seven days ago.

Weary hours later Daniel heard a faint but sharp sound penetrating the ever present howling of wind. He stopped and adjusted his grip on Jack's wrist, straining to hear anything other than the wind whipping sand at him.

There it was again, a clank of metal on metal! Then he heard a creaking sound. The sounds were coming from ahead, in the direction they'd been plodding, and slightly to their left.

"Jack, hear that?"

"Mmm. Wh--"

"I heard something. Come on. Let's try to pick up the pace a little." He hoisted more of Jack's weight onto his hip and took a longer stride. They'd been making such limited progress. The sand was just too unstable here, too soft, too impossible to move through. Daniel had tried dragging Jack for a while, but that had proved just as difficult, and had gotten too much sand in Jack's lungs. Carrying him over his back slowed them more than this half carrying, half-dragging compromise.

"Heard something," he said again, encouraging himself as much as his nearly unconscious companion. "Sounded like metal."

With his precious burden, Daniel stumbled on into the swirling, frigid sand.

He came to the sharp decline of a dune, rounded it and came upon people. People! There was a small knot of them; five altogether, huddled down in the sand by a small handcart. They seemed to be sharing a meal.

Daniel stood several yards away from the glorious sight, Jack hanging from his embrace, and stared in near-disbelief. People!

"H--" He cleared his dry throat. "Hello," he called, his voice barely above the croaking level he'd managed when telling Jack of the sound he heard.

"Hello," he tried again, managing more volume.

One of the people stood and Daniel tried to wipe at his eyes. The man looked too tall, too big. He blinked, trying to clear the sand from his vision, but the man stayed just as tall.

"Trick of the eyes. Closer than I think we are."

"Mmm," Jack groaned.

"Hello," Daniel repeated. "My friend and I . . . need help. Can you help us?" he asked as he moved forward a few painstaking steps.

Now the rest of the group jumped to their feet. They were dressed in light brown robes, with hoods that obscured their features, no doubt to protect them from the blowing sand. The shortest among them stood at least a head taller than Daniel. He kept moving closer to them, dragging Jack, slowly, steadily closer.

"We've been lost in the desert. Could you help--"

"Great Odin!" one of the robed people shouted. This stirred the others and they all drew back several paces.

Daniel stopped, almost losing his grip on Jack. He shifted his hold, bringing Jack up again. "We mean you no harm. We're peaceful explorers."

"Landvaettir!" a woman cried fearfully.

Daniel peered at the hooded figures and picked out the speaker, though her features were obscured behind her hood.

The largest of the group cuffed her lightly with the back of his hand. "Quiet, woman. These be Highborn. It be plain to see. Ye'd bring their wrath down on such as we?"

"Never. This one sees, old man," she said, giving him a back-handed swat on his broad chest. "But here? In the low desert? Nay. It cannot be. We must be seeing the spirits--"

"Odin," another of the group said, awe clearly stressing his voice.

"Odin?" Daniel asked. "You . . . " he paused, realizing he knew the language they were speaking, and continuing to speak English to them was absurd. He cleared his dry throat and tried again, in their own language, a commoner's dialect of an ancient Norse tongue. "We are men and, as such, greet you. We are not landvaettir, not spirits, nor sprites from the earth, but men, seeking your help."

"Hear them, husband? They say they be men, just as ye judged they be."

"Highborn," the tall man repeated. "In the low desert." He shook his head.

"Please," Daniel said as he crossed the final yards separating them. He looked up at the circle of people. They were extraordinarily tall, taller than Teal'c, taller than anyone he'd encountered in recent memory. He couldn't hold Jack up any longer. Cradling the man, he sank to his knees, and then sat down, staring up at them.

Suddenly the woman lurched in front of the men of her group, holding her arms wide as if to shield them. "Sky! Sky caste!" she exclaimed. "He be Sky caste! And unveiled! Odin, what evil has been wrought this day?"

The men took several steps back. Daniel instinctively tightened his hold on Jack and looked up at the distraught woman. He had no hope of fleeing. "We come in peace," he tried to reason with her.

"No veil. And injured. He be damaged. And his companion, they both look near death. Rimthurses find whoever caused this injury to occur. Blanket, husband. Let me bring it to him, and water. Water for the Highborn and the Sky caste."

"Water," Jack murmured.

Daniel shifted his grip, turning Jack to half lying across his lap. "Water. Yes, water, please." He realized Jack must have recognized her language. Jack understood more languages than he ever let anyone know he did.

"And no veil," the woman said as she shook her head.

The blanket was brought to her and she scurried to Daniel. She dropped to her knees in front of him, pushed her hood back, revealing her black hair, dark eyes and cocoa skin. She drew the blanket around his back and up over his head, and then she tucked it around Jack as best as it would reach. Daniel tried to tug it off his head and use more of it to wrap Jack, but she frantically screeched at him and tugged it back over his head.

"Nay. Ye've lost ye veil, Sky. Cover yeself lest ye drive them to do what they've no right to." She pointed at the knot of men who now all seemed to have their backs turned to Jack and Daniel.

"Veil?" Daniel asked, not sure he had understood the word correctly. "Thank you for the blanket."

"A loan needs no thanks. Charity hurts the Highborn. Though, ye look hurt near to death already. Him too. Water?" she asked as she held an animal bladder out to him.

It was small, large enough only to hold a half a liter of water, and it was made of well-cured animal skin. Daniel pulled out the stopper and sipped slowly. Then he held the flask to Jack's lips. Jack drank long and deep and then passed out in Daniel's arms.

"Woman," the tallest man called again. "Woman, be he covered?"

"Aye. Covered. Water in them both. They've taken a full flask."

"Then tell them, tell them I would speak with the Highborn. Do it, then away with ye."

She seemed to scowl at the man, but turned back to Daniel. "The husband of this one wishes to speak with ye companion if he be able? But this one sees, ye companion does sleep. Then this one's husband, he'd speak with ye . . . if it will not offend. Only speak as to a Highborn, this one thinks. Ye'll speak with him?"

Daniel peered from under the flap of blanket and looked from the tall man to his wife. "Uh, yes?" he said, questioningly.

The woman nodded, then stepped away and returned to her seat near the meal they'd been sharing.

Daniel peered past the big man at the bundles of what he assumed were food. The other three, all apparently male, joined the big man's wife.

"Highborn," the big man said as he stood before Daniel, but peered at Jack's closed eyes. "This one would speak with ye."

"Yes, and I would like to speak with you . . . with ye also," Daniel said, trying to think of everything he knew about the people who followed the ways of Odin.

Apparently, the big man took it as an invitation to sit with him. He sank cross-legged in front of Daniel. He pushed his hood back, revealing a head of thick, black hair, eyes that were darker than Jack's, and skin like caramel. Sitting, he was still a head taller than Daniel. He was clean shaven, with no hint of whiskers on his face. His skin was lightly lined with wrinkles around his mouth and across his brow.

Startled at the man's dark complexion Daniel stared openly. "Your Norse heritage, I had assumed from your language and your reference to Odin that you were . . . well, descendants of Vikings."

"This one be Lars," the big man said, indicating himself, "leader of his family, and fair trader to the lower desert people of Nortvegr."

"Nortvegr?" Daniel asked, surprised, because he recognized the word to mean a traditional way of life, or a route to take, not a location. They spoke an ancient Norse dialect. They had to be descendants of Vikings, transplanted here by an Asgard. Daniel shrugged.

"This place is Nortvegr?" He tried not to stare at the man's hands. They were much larger than Daniel's. Lars seemed to be a big-boned man, and with plenty of muscle too. He was a formidable figure, even seated on the ground as he was.

"Aye. All," Lars said as he solemnly passed his hand around the horizon. "Nortvegr. We be of the Nortvegr, too. Lars, I am, and all that are my people. Wife, brother, the two young ones," he said, indicating the others in the group. "All here follow the Nortvegr."

"Water," Jack asked, again using the language Lars and Daniel were speaking.

"Yes, Jack." Daniel held the skin up again, and the blanket slipped from his head.

Lars gasped and turned away. Daniel reacted to the big man's seeming aversion and tugged the blanket back over his head, leaving the tail of it to drape down his forehead as Lars' wife had wanted it. It partially obscured his vision. Jack swallowed, and then carefully pushed the container away. His eyes closed as he became limp in Daniel's arms again.

Daniel took a small swallow himself, and then stoppered the skin and set it by his side.

"The Nortvegr? You follow it?"

"We do," Lars agreed, not understanding that Daniel was asking for clarification. "We honor the ways of our fathers, stretching back to the beginning of time when the Highborn were many, and lived all across the face of Nortvegr. We honor the ways that keep the few Highborn left in our care, strong and alive. Odin gives us this charge and we honor it."

"Few that are left?"

"Aye. Those in the city of the Highborn, far to the north. And of course those Highborn like him who come a venturing among us of the working caste." He pointed at Jack's prone figure.

"Highborn like him," Daniel said and watched as Lars nodded. He pursed his dry lips and looked around at the other traders. "And those people with you? Are any of them of the Highborn like my friend?"

Lars burst out in a laugh. "Course not. None that small, can ye not tell? Even this one's woman. She be taller'n any full-grown Highborn I ever heard of. Course, I only seen less than a hand's count of Highborn in the flesh. Never none in the low desert." He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head forward.

Daniel knew the body language indicated that Lars wanted an explanation of why he and Jack were here in the desert. He wondered what kind of reaction he'd get from his tale. These were simple people, existing deep within the cultural confinements of a civilization long gone from modern Earth. But the truth was always best, Daniel thought.

"We crashed in the desert. Our ship crashed. We came here from another planet--"

Lars laughed again. "There are no other worlds than here. This one be not a yearling babe to be hearing such tales. Or do ye continue to test this one?"

"Odin preserve a fool," the woman cursed her husband. "The Highborn be injured in the head. He be Sky caste, and lost his veil, ye damned fool! Didn't even know he'd lost it, from the way he came in here staring around at the lot of ye. Horny bastards," she finished half under her breath as she glared at the men around her.

"Jack," Daniel said, indicating the resting man cradled in his lap, "my friend, is of your Highborn caste. And your wife refers to me as Highborn also. So Jack and I are of the same caste, and are all of you . . . ye of another--""

Lars' eyebrows shot up his broad forehead. "Woman," he said, without turning to face her, "ye be right. The Sky caste be ill. He does not even know who he be, it seems. He does not know what place Odin decreed for him. He does not know he be Sky caste!"

"Give the poor sweetling a mirror," one of the men said. "He'll know right enough. This one will hold the mirror for him," he added with a lascivious chuckle.

Lars ignored the man. "Ye be Sky caste, of the Highborn. Worker," he said holding the back of his thumb to his own chest, "Highborn," he said, now pointing at Jack's still form, "and Sky," he said, pointing at Daniel.

"Eyes of blue," his wife said, "and hair of honey, the rarest of all them that Odin blessed us with, charged us to protect and preserve as his gift to us. The living proof of our ancestry."

"The way to the gods," one of the other men said, reverently. "Through the Sky caste."

Daniel shook his head. "I'm sorry. I don't understand. You say there were once many Highborn here, but now there are only a few?" He didn't want to be having this discussion now. He wanted them to help Jack, to give food, shelter, take them some place warm and out of the wind!

"Ye don't remember? Odin made us long ago. He sent his servant goddess, Nirrti to the world. She made us from the Sky caste, took us from the bodies of Sky caste women and made us big and strong so that we could conquer the wild places. But soon there were less and less Highborn babes seeded in the Highborn women, so great Nirrti set the Highborn aside in their own city to preserve them.

"Odin saw our sadness at having our ancestors disappearing from us, so Nirrti's temple guardians set aside a new tradition, to give us Odin's blessing through the Sky caste. To give our seed to the Sky caste blesses our family generations up the line into the future. This be the way of the Nortvegr, Highborn. We follow the Nortvegr."

Daniel sat there pondering the tale Lars had related. Nirrti had been here! She had altered these people, changed them from the Nordic ancestors that had been transplanted here, possibly by Thor himself.

"How came ye here, Highborn?"

"We crashed," Daniel repeated, but stopped when he saw the sour look on Lars' dark-skinned features.

"Speak not of other planets. It be not even a practice for babes, such blasphemy. Would mean death for any to indulge ye in such nonsense. Call me not ye as would any worker caste, as this be unseemly. Proper speech for a Highborn ye must say . . . you, not ye.

"Came ye to the low desert by sea? And crashed on the great cliffs of the western shore? But where be his servants?" Lars asked, pointing at Jack. "Where be them that brought ye here?"

"De . . . Dead," Jack mumbled as he lay in Daniel's arms.

Jack must have understood enough to know that Lars was asking about who brought them to this planet. And he was right. The bounty hunter was dead.

"Dead," Lars said the word as if it were a curse. He shook his head. "Leaving the two of ye alive to wend across the low desert alone?"

"He needs time, husband. The Highborn both need time to heal."

"Hush, woman!" Lars snapped angrily. "I'm knowing my own business, sure now. Mind ye tongue right quick. Lemmel, make 'em a fire to warm by."

"Charity hurts the Highborn, old man!" Lars' wife snapped, matching her husband's ire. "Lust has ye take advantage of the addled state of the Sky caste, and of the sick Highborn?"

"Woman!" Lars shouted, his deep voice cutting through the howl of the wind. He rose and went to the knot of tall, dark people.

His wife glared at him, matching his scowl and not giving an inch.

At the mention of a fire, Daniel reflexively shivered. Now that he wasn't moving, the air felt colder. He pulled Jack to his chest and wrapped the blanket tighter. Jack's face was now out of the wind, out of the blowing sand. Without being aware of it, Daniel began small movements back and forth, rocking Jack.

"Danny, water," Jack whispered against Daniel's chest.

Turning his attention from the argument Lars was having with his wife and someone named Lemmel, Daniel held the skin of water to Jack's lips. "Slow this time, Jack. Hold it in your mouth for a bit. Try to let it rinse some of the sand down. I don't think it's worth wasting a mouthful to rinse and spit. We might not be getting a lot more. They don't seem to have many provisions."

Harsh words were still being exchanged between Lars and his wife.

"It was ye who gave the water," the big man shouted.

"A swallow only, as be my right to any, even Highborn in the desert! And blanket on him, be only a loan, as I said to him plain enough!"

"And a fire--"

"Before night?" she asked, incredulity easy to hear in her voice.

Lars rocked back on his heels and crossed his arms. He stood silently, flicking his gaze from the handcart to Daniel and Jack. Finally, he nodded. "Ye be right, just so. This one be an honest trader. State the value up front. No hiding it for later." Lars seemed to ponder the grains of sand at his feet for a while.

Daniel studied the big man, watched the reaction of his people, and then gave Jack another small sip of water. He resumed his slight rocking, but hid the water skin in the blanket. The woman had said she gave them only a sip, and he didn't want to remind her they still had the precious liquid.

He watched Jack's face for a moment, saw the features grow slack and felt Jack's breathing become deeper, more regular. He hoped Jack was asleep and not merely passed out from pain and exhaustion.

Lars returned and took up his seated position. He pushed the hood back from his face again, revealing calm features. "This one would ask if ye have coins or some value to exchange for what ye need. Or perhaps the sick Highborn, if he can speak his worth?"

"My friend is very ill," Daniel began, and then stopped. Voicing their vulnerability was not the wisest way to start a conversation about value or coins. "I speak for my friend. His voice is bothered by the wind." A slight lie, perhaps, Daniel thought, but strategic. "We have no coins with us, nothing left to pay you with."

Lars looked as if he were deep in thought. "It grieves this one to speak of it but my woman tells the truth. Charity hurts the Highborn and thus, forbidden. We can loan what ye need for survival: blanket, warmth of our fire at night, but charity, we may not give to ye." He shook his massive head, his long, black hair swaying with the movement. "Though it grieves us, as ye have obviously been done wrong by the cliffs that crashed ye, and the death of the Highborn's servants. Tarried too long in the south seas till the ice sheet came to close the ports, did ye? Perhaps the Highborn's people will come for him?"

"We're grateful for the loan of the blanket," Daniel said, sure of expressing that clearly, but unsure of anything else to say in this discussion. "No one will come for us. None of our people know we're here." And that was very true. Sam and Teal'c had been stunned during the attack by the bounty hunter, dazed and unable to help as Daniel and Jack were whisked away into the man's ship. They were undoubtedly back at the SGC by now, but would have no clue as to where their two missing team mates were.

"Payment could be made by his other servants if we take ye from the low desert?"

"No," Daniel answered honestly.

"Then, this one wants to know if ye be of a mind to impart? No offence meant by this one, but ye seem to have lost more than ye veil and robes. The imparting cloth of the Sky caste, if ye've lost it too, how can a man know?"

Daniel was completely at a loss as to how to interpret the meaning of the big man's words. He understood the individual words, but the context did not make sense. Interpreting a foreign language without understanding the context was worthless. That's why so many people who used Budge's guide produced garbage.

"Impart? Are you asking if I need to tell you something?" Daniel asked for clarification.

"Impart, as a Sky caste," Lars said plainly. "Would ye be more comfortable if my woman were to speak with ye first?"

"Speak of imparting something? You want me to speak to your wife about imparting something?"

"If ye've a need and me being a man be too hard to talk with. I mean, if ye have no coins, and the Highborn has lost all his trade goods . . . Ye've naught but ye rights to impart, as be the right of all Sky, in the villages or even down here in the low desert. If ye wish to buy goods for the Highborn that way . . . we've water, food, robes even. Ye've no shoes. Clothing? What would ye require for the trade, for this one to impart to ye?"

"Impart to me? What do you need to impart?"

"My seed, alone. I'd wish to impart to ye my seed and in return, bless this one, his family and the children of this one, even to the next generation. We follow the Nortvegr."

"Your seed?" Daniel asked, all to aware that he was still completely lost in this conversation.

"Mine alone. We've not enough food and water to spare and still live, to pay for the blessing of this one and also this one's eldest son to lay with ye. We could bargain for the blessing for one only to lay with ye." Lars' chin was high as the man spoke with bare honesty.

Daniel's restless tugging at the blanket ceased. He stopped his slight rocking of Jack and stared from beneath the flapping edge of the blanket at Lars. The big man waited, his mouth clamped in a thin line, but his face was placid.

A blessing? Lars wanted a blessing from Daniel? And this blessing involved lying with him. And Lars' seed.

Lars' woman sat with the others, but her body language showed tense expectation. She was leaning toward Daniel. The other three men were completely still.

"Has this one offended?" Lars asked calmly. "Does this one owe atonement to the Sky caste for speaking of lying with ye when ye've not laid out the imparting cloth? This one's woman thinks ye've lost ye imparting cloth along with ye veil. This one has no way of knowing, has he offended, or do ye wish to make a bargain for water and food? This one can offer clothing, that blanket to the Highborn. If ye wish to bargain for enough so the Highborn might survive, or would ye wish to survive alone?"

"His survival," Daniel said succinctly and slowly, "is as important as my own. Any bargain I make would include what Jack needs."

"Then ye'd bargain for that much. Aye. This one can offer to help with the sick Highborn. Carry him, we could. Shoes, Sky? We've journey bread, meat from the desert long-ears. We've more water too. Another skin of water?"

"Husband," the woman called nervously. "Be the Sky offended? Odin would not take ye from me, would he? This be a cause for death, such an offense to approach a Sky caste when he has not laid out his imparting cloth. Offended, husband? Be the Sky offended?"

Lars turned toward her. "Give him time, woman. It will kill me and curse my line for a generation to leave them in the desert as they are. If I offend him so much that the Sky caste demands my death here and now, then so be it. A quick and honorable death I earn for myself."

The big man kept talking about his own death. And a blessing. Lars wanted a blessing, from a Sky caste, and was willing to trade for the blessing. The way of getting this blessing, that's what Daniel had to learn. It could not possibly be what it sounded like. Lars wanted to lay with Daniel. And Lars' seed. Could that be . . .

"Lars, you have not offended me. I would ask that you help me remember how the blessing, the imparting is accomplished. I've been injured in the desert. I've forgotten many things."

Lars turned back to Daniel, but quickly closed his eyes. "The blanket has slipped. This one sees the blue. This one offends even now, given that no bargain has been opened. This one sees the blue eyes of a Sky caste and he feels a stirring in his loins, even as he tries to open a bargain. This one offends."

"My blue eyes," Daniel whispered. "My blue eyes?"

"The color of the sky," Lars said softly, gently, as if speaking to a slow child. "Ye've truly forgotten?"

Silently, Daniel regarded the man before him. Lars' skin color was dusky, a dark cream like caf-au-lait. His build was huge, bigger than any man Daniel had encountered on Earth. He was broad of shoulder, and long of limb. He was well proportioned, but larger than Daniel seemed able to truly comprehend.

An Asgard, possibly Thor himself, had undoubtedly planted Nordic people here, but the goa'uld Nirrti had come sometime after that. Nirrti had done something to the human stock of this planet. She'd altered them, making them not just stronger, but larger. He wondered if their bones were denser. The gravity of this world felt no heavier than Earth's. But what else had Nirrti done to them? The Nordic people of Earth's history were fairer of complexion, with hair and eyes light, not dark. Light like Daniel. His Dutch ancestry gave him his blue eyes, and his hair, brown when short and protected from the sun, but pale when bleached by it for even a short amount of time. Like the time it had taken him and Jack to walk from the ship to Lars' small caravan.

Absently, Daniel brushed at the blanket, smoothing his hair from his forehead, and then pulling the corner of the wrap back over his upper face. Blue eyes. Lars was aroused by his blue eyes.

Daniel looked down in his lap at Jack's face. The older man seemed to still be sleeping. His deep brown eyes were closed, his face slack. The wind was too loud now to hear if Jack's breathing was regular or not. Daniel swallowed, feeling the pull of dryness in his throat, the scratch of sand.

He looked up at Lars. "Tell me how a Sky caste gives this blessing to . . . to one of the worker caste."

Lars spoke in low, calm tones. He explained the significance first, talking of the honor a Sky caste gave to his people. To impart one's seed, to give it to a Sky caste, was the highest act of faith in their gods. When they imparted their seed, giving it into the body of the Sky cast, this act sent their message of faith to the gods, and brought about a blessing on them and the next generation of their family.

The blessing came from the gods, not the Sky cast. Daniel thought that detail was very important.

"All know, charity injures the Highborn. Most of all, the Sky caste," Lars finished. "This one will not part from the Nortvegr, even to save himself. This one offers no charity to ye, or for him," he said, indicating Jack. "This one will take death first, and spare his sons from the curse of injuring the Highborn."

"Leave us here to die," Daniel whispered, his voice lower than Lars could hear. "That's the way you protect your children from a curse. Or I give you . . . I . . . " He stared off into the distance, not seeing the haze of swirling sand now.

Lars wanted to have sex with him.

With cold, academic detachment, Daniel considered the situation. Historically, on Earth there were many precedents for what Lars was proposing, even with various gender combinations. The symbolic marriage of the Akkiti festival during the Period of Ur III, and of course the sacred act of prostitution begun by Heroditus were examples that came to mind for Daniel. Prostitution was what Lars was proposing. Plain and simple. It was prostitution. Sex for monetary value.

"How else might a Sky caste earn things he needs to survive?" Daniel asked.

"Things? A Sky caste be not permitted to own things, other than what he can carry wrapped in his imparting cloth, of course. His veil and his imparting cloth, and what coins he can wrap in the cloth of his caste."

"Can't own things?" he asked in utter shock. He pondered this for a moment, then pushed for more answers. "You say, he," Daniel said slowly, deep in thought. "What about the women of the Sky caste?"

"They who dwell in the forbidden garden of the Highborn city? Of course, they never leave it. The temple guardians, those who speak for the goddess Nirrti, they follow her decrees, they ensure that those in the forbidden garden live apart, stay pure, so as not to procreate with us and lose all Sky caste from our world forever."

Then the genes Nirrti altered were dominant. Daniel looked down at Jack. His eye color, his darker hair color was dominant too. There might be very few blue eyed, blond people left on this planet now, despite the isolation decree. Perhaps Nirrti wanted a control group for her experiment.

Among Sha'ure's people, there were none left with light eyes. They'd been taken from Earth so very long ago that any recessive light-eyed genes among them had vanished.

"But all Highborn have the right to practice the trades of the worker caste, at any time, any place. Have ye other skills? But no. None would be enough to earn what ye need for both of ye to survive the low desert, ill, injured as ye are. This one be grieved to say, Highborn must only be offered the value of work, value that be fair to all castes."

"You'd pay me no more for labor than you would anyone else? Anyone of the worker caste?"

"Aye," Lars said solemnly. "Charity hurts the Highborn."

"In what way does it hurt them if it keeps them alive?" Daniel asked, as always voicing the heart of a matter boldly.

"It does not. It weakens them. To weaken the Sky caste leads to their doom and would deprive us of the blessings of our gods."

"Survival of the fittest," Daniel said, with irony. "So your Sky caste aren't treated like pampered pets. No great cathedrals to live in, no velvet slippers and satin caps for your religious figures. And no begging bowls either."

"Slippers?" Lars asked. "Ye need boots in the low desert," Lars said, pointing to Daniel's sand-encrusted socks. "Not velvet slippers."

"Yes. Yes I do need boots," Daniel said, too aware that Lars had no idea how much he needed them. A day back in their journey they'd come to an outcropping of crystals. It flowed north and south as far as they could see. And their path lay due east. To try to skirt the jagged flow would make Jack's death a certainty. They had to cross it, Jack with one boot on, and Daniel's jacket wrapped thickly around his other foot. Daniel crossed in his socks, supporting Jack as best he could, while the sharp edges of the crystal gave him little cuts with each step.

His feet were bloody and sore. The sand dried in the painful gashes in his flesh, and his socks were fraying around the cuts. Jack's stumbling gait had torn Daniel's jacket to shreds. Still, revealing that weakness didn't seem to be a good idea at this time. Jack's condition was easy enough to see. Letting these people know they were both in bad shape was definitely not something Daniel wanted to lay out in the open.

"What skills might ye possess? None will earn enough, but still, this one would know."

"I'm a linguist. I translate spoken as well as written words."

"Scribe? Ye scribe? A keen skill. Much in demand. But pay for scribing be, as all others, set by the guild of that trade. Pay would not earn ye a flask of water in the low desert, even for a day's labor. Many letters, bargain papers even. Still, a good skill. Have ye quills, ink with ye?"

"No."

Lars rocked back and tapped his thick fingers on his knees. "Ye have not even a single coin?"

"No. We have nothing to trade."

"Ye choose death, then," Lars said, in a way that sounded as if he'd accepted Daniel's and Jack's fate, and of course, his own for being present at the place where the two Highborn would die.

Solemnly Daniel regarded the big man. "No," he said softly. "I'll bargain. I'd lay out an imparting cloth if I had one."

Lars' woman lurched to her feet and scurried to Daniel's side. She pulled a white cloth from her voluminous robe and then pulled out another, light brown like the robes of all there.

"Something to use as a veil, Sky," she said. "To open the bargain, ye remove the veil. If ye decide the bargain goes wrong, if ye wish to not . . . not bargain, don the veil and we will go from ye, from this place." Her hand shook as she placed the white cloth at Daniel's knee. "And no real imparting cloth, but this will do for a symbol, aye?" She held the scrap of brown fabric out to him. "A loan, mind ye."

Daniel took the dark cloth, but kept his cradling hold on Jack. "Thank you for the loan. I don't know what to do . . . Where do I lay it out?"

"Here," Lars said, indicating the ground between them. "No blue on it, but we've an understanding it will be ye imparting cloth. The offer to bargain, ye make when ye lay it out. To accept me into the bargain, ye remove the veil. Remembering this, now?"

"I don't remember it," Daniel said, "but I understand." He spread the cloth on the sand and piled bits of sand on the corners to anchor it slightly. The wind was blocked by Lars enough to keep it from being blown away.

Lars smiled. "The veil be off!" he announced. With his eyes on the cloth, he began issuing orders, calling for a fire, for the others to settle in. They'd be camping here because their leader now had a legitimate reason to stay, to use up some of their precious fire fuel here. A bargain was opened.

The woman left, seeing to her chores as the other three men repositioned the handcart. It blocked the wind too, and Daniel and Lars were now seated between it and a nearby sand dune. A fire pit was dug, wood laid, and a small blaze soon danced near the bargainers.

Lars called two of his men who came, their eyes averted from Daniel. "They'll take the Highborn to rest by the fire," Lars offered to Daniel, his eyes averted too now. "The woman will give him water from the flask, as part of the bargain. And the blanket stays on him, to be part of the bargain also."

Daniel nodded, though he realized none were looking at him. He shifted his hold on Jack. For a brief second he held Jack higher, cradled to his face and studied the still man's features. Jack's eyes were closed. Daniel bowed his head and kissed Jack's dry, cracked lips.

"Wha," Jack mumbled.

"They're going to move you to rest by the fire, Jack. We're camping here for a while. Just ask for water when you need it, okay? I'll talk to them about giving you some food. Maybe a broth to start with."

He tugged the blanket from his own body and wrapped it securely around Jack, covering his face with a corner, blocking off the wind and the blowing grit. "Lift him carefully," Daniel said. He held the flask out to Lars who merely had to reach to the side to lay it at the pallet Jack would rest on.

The huge men moved at Daniel's bidding, managing to get their arms under Jack without once looking at Daniel, without touching the blue-eyed man. They lifted Jack as if he weighed no more than a sickly child. Daniel watched as they transported him the two steps away to the pallet Lars' woman had made for him, and set him down gently. The woman knelt at Jack's side and held the flask to his lips.

Satisfied, Daniel turned back to Lars. The big man's gaze was firmly locked on the cloth spread on the ground between them.

Wearing nothing but what he had on when he arrived in camp, Daniel shivered. Thus, the bargaining for his body began.

Chapter 3 - Bargain

"Sky," Lars said solemnly, "this one seeks to bargain for an imparting with ye."

"Yes," Daniel said, nodding. He had no idea what kind of response Lars' formal declaration merited. But, apparently his nod was sufficient, because Lars began to speak.

No water was offered him during the talk. Many times Daniel had to stop and ask for clarification, to belabor a point until he was satisfied they both were in agreement. His throat was dry, and his hands numb with cold, but he sat up straight, spoke strongly, hid any signs of weakness that he could.

Daniel began to wonder how big Lars was down there. Would his size be in keeping with the rest of his body? Would Nirrti have altered these people in stature but not in their sexual organs? No. Of course she wouldn't. In Earth mythology Nirrti was sometimes referred to as the enchantress of the universe. She wouldn't neglect that part of these men.

A clear thought formed in Daniel's mind. He wouldn't be able to accommodate Lars. His body wouldn't open up that far, that deep. Though, what choice did he have but to try? The biting cold of the wind and the stinging of the blowing sand was a constant reminder that he had no other choice.

Deep into the negotiation, Lars pulled out a scrap of parchment and a charcoal stick, marked a few figures on it and then handed it to Daniel.

Viking runes, Daniel noted. He took over the chore of writing, inscribing the bargained items as they were agreed on, passing the parchment back to Lars to study and approve as each was marked down. Items were brought and displayed for Daniel's inspection, then placed by Jack's pallet. After each item was agreed on, Lars seemed to be allowed to look Daniel in the eyes, but only for a few heartbeats.

The trader had to adjust himself a few times after these shared looks. His cock was apparently hardening in an uncomfortable position. This firmed up Daniel's thought that Lars would be too big for him to accommodate.

It was also difficult to batter away the fleeing thoughts that this might all be some horrendous trick, a cosmic-level joke on him, that Lars would rape him and leave him for dead.

"Ye be a strong bargainer, Sky," Lars acknowledged with a broad smile. "Many a man this one has bargained with for the gold rock, for the river metal, and sand colors, but none as keen a bargainer as ye. As they say, the Highborn are not fools. The Nortvegr keeps them strong, 'tis true."

"I suppose it does," Daniel agreed flatly.

"He needs much," Lars said, his tone solemn now as he glanced at Jack's still form, cocooned in a blanket. "Much more than would ye alone. A Sky could survive, imparting on his own, with only a few blessings in exchange for food and water. All that a Sky may own, and no more. But with him, to bring him from the low desert to a place to heal, ye'll need to strike many a bargain. The road is long, Sky."

"East from here, there are rivers?" Daniel asked, his eyes lingering on Jack's still form, a rough shape hidden under the blanket.

"Aye, this way, east," Lars said, indicating the direction Jack and Daniel had been traveling. "Two hands of days more and frozen solid. Too far for the ill Highborn to travel, but ye could make it alone. Then north to the treks of the low desert people."

"So you'll change your route, take us to a rendezvous point, and help arrange for us to get passage with a caravan going north."

"Aye. Mark it so, Sky. This service we will give to the Highborn Jack." Lars handed the parchment back to Daniel.

Lars would travel five days off his route while Jack rode in the cart, to reach a caravan of traders he knew would be traveling north to a small village. There, Daniel would be able to find shelter for Jack, to keep him out of the wind, keep him warm while the venom burned through his system.

Jack would grow worse before he began to heal.

When Lars had bargained away all he could, almost all he had to make a profit, Daniel signed his name at the bottom of the parchment. Then Lars politely instructed him to add the Sky caste symbol, a stylized sun with rays shining down. Below that, Lars added his own mark and the symbol of the trader's guild.

Payment was placed on the imparting cloth, the marked parchment promising the goods Jack and he needed. And coins. Daniel took them. He pocketed the coins in his tattered BDU pants and folded the parchment up, then tucked it in his pocket. Then the two men stood.

Daniel followed the caravan leader away from the warmth of the fire. He heard Jack's voice, hoarse and desperate.

"Danny. No."

His step faltered as Daniel realized Jack had been awake and understood enough to know what he'd just bargained for. But Daniel had made up his mind. With his back stiff, Daniel kept walking to the relative privacy of Lars' handcart. A heavy tarp was stretched from one side of it and pegged into the ground of the leeward side of the dune where they camped. Flaps at each end made a small shelter from the blowing sand.

The big man crawled in. Daniel followed. On hands and knees, he followed.

Jack would have a warm place to sleep tonight, the coveted position by the fire, and a blanket. He'd have nourishment. Broth. Water.

Lars smiled at Daniel and hesitantly touched his hand, and then trailed fingers up to Daniel's tattered tee shirt. Daniel tugged the shirt off and began to unfasten his pants. His boots were long gone before the crash, as were his glasses. His slight astigmatism made seeing small details a hard task that left his eyes weary after a few hours.

The cold nipped at Daniel's bare chest.

Meat was scarce this far south on the continent. Water was as precious as gold.

Pulling his own robes off, Lars scooted back on the pallet and watched as Daniel removed socks crusted with blood and sand. Then Daniel carefully folded the precious items with his meager clothing. He was naked now. It was horribly cold in the little shelter.

Lars grinned, and then indicated for Daniel to lay down on his back. As he moved to the center of the pallet, Daniel smelled Lars' arousal. His own cock was shriveled from the cold, the fear, the real fear that he chose to ignore.

Lars knelt between Daniel's spread thighs.

Warm robes were essential in the cold desert. Most people thought of deserts as being hot. But in winter, they could be just as frozen as a Himalayan mountaintop. This was an arid desert. There was no snow to melt, no snow to give a drop of life-saving moisture. But the absence of snow didn't make it any warmer.

The low desert nights often reached deadly, low temperatures. Combined with the constant wind, the temperature made warm robes life-saving necessities. Jack and he needed robes.

Even though the negotiation had been thorough, and the payment made, Lars still seemed reluctant to touch his hands on Daniel. Hesitantly, he crooked his big arms under Daniel's legs and lifted. The big trader's skin was dark, with a dusky sheen to it. His barrel chest was broad, and his arms were thick with muscles. Two long braids framed his face. The rest of his thick, black hair hung loose halfway down his back. There was very little body hair on Lars, only a light dusting of fine hairs across his forearms, and none on his chest or belly. His groin was as hairless as his chest and stomach. He had no stubble on his face.

Daniel shifted his gaze up, focusing on Lars' dark eyes.

They had to have the robes. Some of the people from this encampment had given up pieces of their own clothing, their own defense against the blowing sand, the deadly cold. The clothing was piled out there by Jack, waiting for the bargain to be completed. They'd suffer hardship for the rest of their journey so their leader could partake of the Sky caste.

Lars stared down into Daniel's blue eyes. Black into blue. Lars' big cock was hard and dripping clear liquid from the engorged tip. The big man bent sideways and retrieved a small flask of oil.

The hollow of Daniel's throat fluttered as he worked to keep his breathing firmly under control. Lars' gaze never faltered. The big man was going to get every ounce of treasure he'd bargained for; Daniel's blue gaze.

Daniel felt spatters of cold oil drip from the cock tip onto his opening. He shuddered, but he showed no fear.

Lars groaned in pleasure, lust naked on his features. He licked his lips and stroked himself to spread the oil, to ease his entry into the blue-eyed Sky caste, naked beneath him.

Four skins of water were in the pile with the robes. Four skins would keep Jack hydrated, let it be possible for his body to process the protein in the broth, and hopefully, stop the poison from destroying his heart muscle.

Pressure against the back of Daniel's thighs increased as Lars hunched closer. The oiled tip of his cock touched Daniel's asshole. Daniel licked his own cracked and dry lips.

The loss of moisture was deadly. The meager replacement they'd managed through breaking open a cactus plant on their hike had kept them alive. Dehydration would kill faster than the poison, faster than the cold.

Four skins of water would help save Jack's life.

Daniel grabbed at the blanket he laid on, holding himself still. Lars pushed forward, bearing his cock down on Daniel's exposed hole. Daniel kept his eyes open.

Four skins of water was a fortune to Daniel.

Four skins of water was a fortune to Lars, taken from his reserve meant the trading trip would be shortened to the point of a major loss of profit for the little band of traders. They'd feel the loss harshly for the rest of the winter.

He felt Lars push forward, the slick head of his cock piercing him. Pain blossomed across his ass, and then centered in a band around the invading cock. Daniel panted, but kept his eyes open. Sweat broke out, first across his brow, then descending down his chest and legs. The perspiration, combined with the wind gusting under the tarp had him shivering harder.

Jerked meat, some small animal Lars described that sounded similar to a rabbit, was in the pile of clothing. There were two wrapped parcels of meat, half the supply Lars had. His people would finish the end of their journey on what they could trap, or go hungry.

Lars pushed himself deeper into Daniel, his hips rounding as he gazed at the man under him.

Daniel clenched the blanket and bit his bottom lip. He couldn't pant any longer. The pain swamped him. Lars was huge. He knew he'd cry out when the big man went into him further.

Shoes. Daniel needed shoes. Jack still had one boot. Daniel had tied his own jacket over Jack's other foot, giving him as much insulation against the bitter cold as possible. And the jacket had shredded to rags in the cutting crystalline flow they'd crossed not long ago. Daniel left the flow with ribboned soles, bloody socks, and no jacket.

He couldn't carry Jack in this sand. He'd tried. He'd desperately tried when Jack's leg muscles had been so affected that each step became torture. He'd tried. But the sand was too soft. So they'd settled for making a few yards of progress an hour. Yards.

Dragging Jack by his arms was impossible through this sand. But there was a blanket in that pile by the fire. A blanket, with Jack lying on a blanket, Daniel would be able to drag him across the dunes ahead of them if need be.

Though he'd negotiated a huge burden from Lars, for the big man to change his route to take Jack to a village, Daniel wanted alternatives, backup plans. He had a couple of hours of negotiation as a base for his trust in Lars, to base his understanding of customs, of the terrain ahead. That wasn't enough for Daniel when it came to Jack's life. He had to have the blanket.

Lars' mouth hung open now and his breathing was as frantic as Daniel's. He pushed in another inch and Daniel couldn't muffle the screech of pain that invasion tore from him. Desperately he fought to keep his eyes open. Blue. Lars had paid for the blue. Daniel would deliver his part of the bargain.

If he closed his eyes Lars would stop, the bargain would be broken. It sounded like Lars had said he would kill himself.

Boots, given up by Lars' woman were on the pile. She'd finish the trek through the frozen desert in heavy socks. Daniel would leave the camp with her boots on his feet and with her husband's cum in his body.

The big man was not even halfway seated in him. Daniel felt his throat burning and returned to the strategy of biting his lip to keep himself from screaming. It worked.

He watched Lars work his way toward hyperventilation and realized if the huge man passed out and fell on him he'd be in big trouble. Daniel squirmed, working his thighs up to Lars' shoulders. In this position he was safe from being crushed to death by the giant over him.

Lars stopped moving, and just held his lustful gaze locked on Daniel's eyes. Daniel's gaze was dancing back and forth from Lars' left eye to his right and back again. He gauged the big man's closeness to orgasm. It seemed to be imminent.

Then instinct had Daniel reaching up, stroking Lars' face. He touched lightly around the man's eyelids and that did it. That sent Lars over the edge of resistance into a crashing orgasm. He bellowed as his cock throbbed in Daniel's body.

Cum blasted up from the fat, hanging balls, through the thick vein on the underside of the shaft. Cum geysered from the slit in the purple head into Daniel's body, flooding him with the hot seed.

Daniel clenched his jaw and quivered in pain as the huge cock pulsed thicker with orgasm, gave that final bloating, and stretched him beyond his pain tolerance. He cried out again, but he kept his eyes open.

He kept his eyes open and locked with Lars' fevered gaze.

Four skins of water, robes, meat, a blanket and the warmth of the campfire meant life or death. Boots, transportation for Jack for a few days, these were worth what Daniel sold of himself.

With a deep groan, Lars leaned sideways and collapsed onto the pallet by Daniel. Rolled by the force of the big man's arms under his thighs, Daniel had to push away to free himself of the horrible impalement. Coming off of Lars' cock was mind-numbingly painful.

Lars' eyes were now closed. Daniel rolled away and wrapped his arms around his own chest. He struggled to breathe calmly. It was a difficult battle.

His ass was burning. Lars' cum leaked from him. If the big man had really pumped that huge cock into him, had really fucked him, Daniel knew he'd be unconscious right now. Touching Lars' face seemed to have done the trick, tripped the man into orgasm.

For the first time since they'd entered the shelter Lars spoke. "Joyful bargain, Sky."

Daniel sighed in relief. He'd done it. He'd succeeded. For this time. He'd committed to three times, three times under Lars. He lay there, shivering, hurting, hurting like he could never have imagined before. Behind him the big man rustled around, pulling his robes back on.

Daniel felt the warmth of his own tattered tee shirt as Lars draped it over his shoulder.

"Cold, ye be, Sky. The Highborn are not made for the low desert. The cold eats too much from ye. Oh! Blood. Blood, Sky," Lars said, his voice harsh, but low.

"Just . . . just give me a minute. A short time to rest."

"Ye . . . Blood, Sky."

"Yes . . . yes," Daniel said breathlessly. "I'm not surprised," he added with a sardonic chuckle breaking up his words.

"Not good."

"No, it's . . . it's okay," Daniel said. "I expected it. Just let me rest for a while."

"Ye need care I cannot give. I cannot touch ye, until our next bargained time."

"Okay. Just . . . Lars, just let me . . . " Daniel swallowed, feeling the dryness of his throat pull. His stomach hurt. "Rest." Oh, how he did not want to contemplate the next time. Not yet, not now, not for a long, long time. No.

Lars draped the torn BDU pants over him. Somewhere in the back of his mind Daniel was grateful for the warmth, but couldn't be bothered to say so. A cold wind whipped him as Lars crawled from the inadequate shelter. The tarp had done hardly more than keep prying eyes from them. But then, perhaps none would have looked, even if Lars had taken him by the fire circle. Maybe these people followed customs of cultures which afforded privacy for those in necessarily tight living spaces.

A groan escaped Daniel as he tried to rise. Too soon. Too soon. He needed a few minutes to recover. But it was so cold here. He'd be much warmer by the fire, with Jack. By Jack. He needed to be at Jack's side.

Daniel heard voices coming from outside the privacy of the tarp. It was Lars and his wife talking in low tones.

"Husband, the blessing be given?"

"Aye, woman. Your sons are blessed. The Sky held to the bargain, but he be small. Even more so than I have ever heard tell among those who've lain with a Sky caste. The imparting hurt him."

"Husband," she said slowly, her voice tinged with fear, "his veil. It was on the ground. He forgot it."

"He'd not have used it. He'd not, I swear by the ancestors, wife. He'd not have, though I swear I did not expect him to be so small.

"Small?"

"Aye. There be blood."

"Odin," she swore. "Though, during an imparting . . . it would not mean death to ye. And he made no objection?"

"Just so, as ye say. He be determined to live, that one. And with his ill mate too. For the Highborn Jack, our Sky would sacrifice much."

"Then the Highborn love as deeply as we. I've often wondered, with their ways, if that were possible."

"Seems it be, woman. Stay. Tend him. He hides his weakness from us, but he be very near to death himself."

"Wait, husband, was there issue? Perhaps Odin's smile from the Sky caste?"

"Nay. How could there come issue? As I said, he be near to death himself."

As he heard Lars walk away, Daniel sat up and got his shirt on. He was fine. Lars was wrong. He wasn't near death. He was just cold. Just cold.

Wriggling into his underwear and pants wasn't pleasant. He didn't bother to try to clean himself up. The pain was too great. And besides, his underwear was already filthy. A little blood and Lars' cum wouldn't make much difference. Walking might help the pain though, might relax the strained muscles. He pulled his bloody, fraying socks on and crawled from the small shelter.

Lars' wife knelt in the sand there. Daniel came face to face with her. She looked solemn. In her hands was the white cloth she'd given him earlier. Daniel paused on his hands and knees, regarding the scrap of fabric.

"Veil, Sky. So the others will not be stirred to spill their seed before ye. It be time for a meal, not for the pleasures men seek at their own hand."

"Thank . . . thank you," he said as he shifted back on his heels and took the cloth. "A veil," he said, arching one eyebrow at the cloth. He shivered from the cold and the pain drenching his muscles.

"Not like the fine cloth ye lost, I'm sure, but all I have to offer. If this one may, Sky?" She held her hand out and Daniel gave the cloth back to her. She took it and then draped it over his head, the fringed edge hanging down in front of his face. She wrapped the sides down and around his neck, and then knotted them in back.

"There, Highborn. None will offend now. Under the veil ye be safe from their manly lusts."

"I see," Daniel said, noting that she'd switched from calling him Sky, to Highborn. "But not very well," he added with a short, painful laugh. The world was half draped in white now.

"Highborn?"

"That was a joke. Though, not a good one. I can't see very well with this thing on."

"Aye. The fine veils to be found in the Highborn city, they be made of cloth so finely woven, so covered some, I hear, with jewels and stitching around and gold beads and, oh, so fine that it be said a Sky can peer out through them. See the world maybe. Jewels. Gold marks. Had ye one such as that?"

She held a flask of water out to him and Daniel took it, swallowing slowly, feeling the dryness pull his throat on the first swallow. Then he looked past her to where Jack lay motionless, cocooned in a blanket.

"My friend, has he been given more water?" Daniel tilted his head back so he could see her clearly. She had no qualms about looking him in the eye, it seemed.

"He's not asked. I tried to offer, but he turned from me."

After a second swallow of water, the pain in Daniel's throat eased. "You said there was food now? He'll need soup, something soft. His jaws are too tired to chew much, I'm sure. His muscles are weak, but he desperately needs meat."

"A thick soup with meat? Aye. That can be prepared for him. But this one would ask, Highborn. Ye have been hurt by the imparting. Was it against ye will? Has this one's husband earned his death?"

Daniel opened his mouth, then closed it. He thought carefully about her words. "I was not hurt against my will. I knew the imparting would hurt me." Would that be enough of an answer? Lars seemed to be constantly risking his death, and doing so readily. These people seemed to have no fear of death.

"Aye. Then the bargain was done well," she said.

"Yes," Daniel answered solemnly.

"Ye'd forgotten to take the veil in with ye. This one feared when it was found still on the ground. This one feared ye'd not be able to don it should the imparting go wrong for ye. This one's husband be an honorable man, and if ye'd don the veil during the imparting, he'd stop. As all who follow the Nortvegr, he'd break the bargain, take his death, rather than touch ye against ye will. We follow the Nortvegr, and would not bring harm to a Sky caste."

"Tell me, are there any worker caste in this world who do not follow the Nortvegr?" Daniel struggled with the foggy concepts of this new civilization. His thinking was just not clear enough. He was too exhausted, in too much pain.

The woman smiled. "Nay. None alive."

"Still, you make constant references to following the religious lifestyle, the Nortvegr."

"Just so, Highborn."

"I suppose it's like verbal crucifixes, or prayer beads. Maybe more like Hassidic Jews who use their clothing and appearance as a constant reminder of their religion. As do the Amish, down to the details of showing no buttons on their clothing."

She shook her head. "Speak ye of things from the City of the Highborn? Such mysteries are not for the understanding of low desert traders. Ours be a simple world."

"I suppose I do," he said with a wry smile, trying to block out the pull of exhaustion. "These are concerns that have no place here in the low desert. And I think I'm talking to help myself ignore the pain . . . Never mind."

With each step giving him a new blossom of hurt, Daniel walked slowly to the campfire, to the pile of goods that now belonged to Jack. The food, water and supplies, Daniel could bargain for, but not own. The coins wrapped in the imparting cloth, and the veil on his head were his, but everything else now belonged to Jack.

He put a robe on over his filthy fatigues, needing the extra protective feel of the layers right now.

Later, cocooned completely in their new blanket and nestled by the fire, Daniel cradled Jack's head on his shoulder.

"Why?" Jack whispered hoarsely, his voice all but destroyed by the venom. It was the first word Jack had said since Daniel had gone to lay with Lars.

"Because I chose to," Daniel whispered, his cracked and wind-chapped lips against Jack's temple. "This time, it's my choice. I chose to not die, and I chose to not be without you, here or anywhere."

"Go on alone . . . survive--"

"No. This time I have the choice. And I've made it. I have options . . . We have options we didn't have in the past. When you left me to die on Klorell's ship, we didn't see another option. When you were dying of old age and I had to leave you in Kynthia's care and return to Earth, there was no other option.

"We've been in situations in the past where there was no choice, no options. This time, I've found other options, and I've chosen them." Daniel grew silent.

Jack slid his hand up Daniel's chest and touched his cheek. "Hurt . . . you, Danny."

"No," Daniel said with a moan, his voice suddenly close to breaking. "No. He didn't."

"Cried . . . out . . ." Jack's fingers were trembling. What was left of his destroyed muscles gave out and his arm plopped on Daniel's chest.

"I won't next time."

Jack's only response was to try to hug Daniel. His muscles couldn't complete the move.

Daniel felt the change in Jack's arms and hugged him tightly.

In the darkness, with the wind whipping the blanket wrapped over their heads, Daniel snuggled against Jack. The soup had been fantastic. He'd spooned mouthfuls into Jack, forcing the withdrawn man to eat.

Then after the meal Jack slept while Daniel huddled over him, warm in the new robe, warm with the thick hood over him. It was called a bucca, this unusual hood. Made of a circle of cloth, it could be tucked back, pulled up, folded close, or worn loose.

The veil kept slipping down, so Daniel had pulled it off and stuffed it in a pocket of his robe, but kept the bucca on his head, kept himself covered.

After he'd taken off the veil, and while Jack slept, Daniel had come face to face with another aspect of being Sky caste. Imparting, offering their connection to their ancestors, and requesting a blessing for future generations was not the only way worker castes responded to blue-eyed people. One of the men seated across the campfire began discretely jerking off. He was masturbating under his robe while staring at Daniel.

It was evident when the man reached orgasm. His body tensed and he gasped. One of the others laughed at him. The masturbator made a swipe at the one who'd laughed and they ended up wrestling for a moment, one in a headlock, then the other. Lars laughed at them, rocking back in his cross-legged position by the fire. When they rolled too near him, kicking sand at him, he bellowed a curse at them. The men broke apart and the camp grew silent again.

Through the ruckus, Jack never woke. Daniel kept a hand lightly on his chest, and periodically flicked the blanket back from his face to check on him. Shortly after that Daniel had crawled into the cocoon of a blanket, snuggled with Jack and tried to sleep.

For the first time on this planet Daniel and Jack spent a night without shivering and breathing blowing sand. Pain in his legs and back, but mostly pain rooted at the base of his spine kept Daniel from sleeping. He'd been too dehydrated to take Lars. He'd been torn. He was still bleeding.

Chapter 4 - Trek North

Sunrise came too early. The embers of the fire were placed in a pot that swung from the underside of the small cart. Any unburned fuel was packed carefully away. Daniel coaxed more broth down Jack. With chunks of meat in it, the food he got was much richer in nutrients than the rest of the party ate.

"Gotta take a piss, Daniel," Jack said. His words were terse but his shaky voice betrayed his weakness.

"That's a good sign. Got enough liquid in you for some to come out." Daniel put the food bowl away in his new shoulder bag. A tuc, Lars had called it. Then he helped Jack to his feet. Daniel swayed, lurching a step to regain balance for himself and for Jack.

This morning Jack was dressed solely in the other thick robes and native undergarments Daniel had acquired. He was warm and much more comfortable than he'd been in the binding BDUs with the ever-present abrasive bands that sand seemed to fill no matter what position he was in. Daniel still had on his filthy BDUs under his new robe.

At the edge of the encampment Daniel held Jack up as he relieved himself. Lemmel approached, waiting until Daniel looked up at him. The big man, Lars' youngest son, ducked his head. Daniel bowed his own and tugged at the bucca, half obscuring his face.

"This one comes . . . The Highborn, Jack, this one comes to help . . . The cart, Da says . . . help the Highborn, Jack. He rides today." Lemmel seemed to be speaking to the ground.

"You're going to help me get him in the cart?"

"Nay! Nay. Nay, Sky. This one'll do the honors of carrying the Highborn, Jack."

"I can . . . " Jack protested, his weak voice snatched away by the cold morning gusts of wind.

"Jack, it'd be wiser to save your strength," Daniel said. "Lemmel, if you'll just take his other arm?"

"Nay," Lemmel objected, lurching a step away. "This one doesn't wish to . . . touch ye. Not for this one to touch a Sky . . . "

"I'm not leaving Jack's side," Daniel explained patiently.

"Ye've not donned the veil, Sky."

"The damned veil . . . is in my pocket. Just go away, Lemmel. I can get Jack to the cart."

"Aye. Da says ye most likely can, but Ma says if she sees me not help she'll skin me alive. She be a formidable woman, my Ma."

"Yes, I don't doubt that," Daniel said calmly. Jack's legs were shaking already. Daniel's thighs were burning from the effort to balance the both of them in the soft sand.

The rest last night had been good for Jack, had stopped his constant shivering, but time was the enemy that had dogged their heels on the trek from the downed ship. Each passing hour, more of Jack's muscles were deteriorated by the spider venom in him. No amount of rest, nutritious food, or warmth would stop that. He was weaker this morning than when he'd laid down last night.

Daniel tugged Jack's arm over his shoulder and managed the few steps to the wooden cart packed with trade goods and supplies. The cart was narrow but tall, and Daniel realized he had no hope of avoiding hurting Jack, trying to lift him alone into the cart. He let Jack lean against the two wheeled cart, and fished the white cloth from his pocket. He got it over his head, but it slipped repeatedly over his eyes too far. He couldn't tie the thing and hold Jack up at the same time. Finally, Daniel tucked the tails behind his head and pulled the bucca up to anchor it in place.

Lemmel was a half-step away, nervously shifting from foot to foot. "Lift him now, Highborn?"

With the veil on, Lemmel had switched from calling him Sky, to Highborn.

"Yes, Lemmel. But be careful. Try to keep his back straight." Daniel put his hands under Jack's shoulders, determined to ease the older man as much as possible. His limbs needed to be straight when he was laid down, to help with circulation, hopefully to even out the stress to his deteriorating muscles.

Grinning in relief Lemmel stepped beside Daniel, almost touching him, then swiftly lifted Jack completely out of Daniel's grasp. He stepped to the other side of the narrow cart. Limping, Daniel hastened after him. By the time he got around there, Lemmel had gently laid Jack on the packages in the cart, his legs straight, his head and back supported well by the soft bundles Lars had arranged carefully. The cart was small, barely large enough to hold Jack.

"There," Lemmel said, sounding very pleased with himself. "Now maybe she'll not skin me, eh, Highborn Jack? For putting ye here as he wanted?" He pointed at Daniel.

"My name is Daniel. You can call me Daniel."

Lemmel laughed and shook his head. "This one'll not be worthy of that honor, Highborn."

The move into the cart had apparently exhausted Jack, and for a moment Daniel stared at him, fully realizing the older man would have probably died today if they hadn't reached Lars' group. He reached out and touched the back of Jack's hand.

Lars brought Jack's large blanket, the blanket Daniel had earned but could not own. He handed it to Daniel and waited until it had been spread, tucked, tented over Jack's face, all to Daniel's satisfaction. Then Lars ordered the group to move out.

Scrunching his lacerated toes in his new boots, Daniel followed a step behind the cart. The wheels of the cart were unconventional, like nothing Daniel had ever seen on a hand pulled wagon before. They had bands stretching around them, meticulous in construction, the bands resembled tank tread more than anything. He watched them for a few steps, noting the way they swayed in the sand, the way four of the big men had to lift the cart when they got too close to the base of a dune.

Travel would be restricted to the firmer packed valleys between the rising dunes. Still, it was laborious for Daniel to walk in the shifting sand.

Lars' wife paced beside Daniel. "The veil troubles ye, Highborn."

"Yes. I can't tie it well enough."

"True I knew it would not be as fine a veil as what ye owned and lost in the low desert."

As they walked, Daniel fished inside the bucca, shoving the veil back, trying to keep it centered on his head, while allowing himself to see. He finally tore it off in frustration.

"Sky," she said, cautiously, "them that see ye thus, they'll be not restrained."

"I figured that out last night, thanks," Daniel said sharply. He was hurting. His lacerated feet, despite the comfort of the boots, hurt. Each step was torture. His legs throbbed today from the effort of pushing on yesterday, driven by desperation. His back hurt from the strain of Jack's weight.

And alarmingly, he was bleeding faster. He felt a trickle of blood run down the inside of his left thigh. He should stop, take a short rest, and then catch up to the cart. But at the same time that thought formed he realized he was barely able to keep pace with the cart as it was. His breathing was harsh. He ignored the dizziness that lapped at his heels like starving coyotes.

Sipping water was hard to do. He wanted to gulp, wanted to rinse and spit the grit from his mouth, wanted to sink to his knees amid the numbing sameness of dune after dune and just drink water, and then sleep. He needed sleep. He needed to stop, to let the blood clot again as it had overnight, and then stay in one spot until he healed. It wouldn't take long. Maybe a day. But that was a day none of them had.

He paced by the wagon, head down, eyes fixed on the boots of the man in front of him. There was nothing to see, no variation in the rolling dunes around them. Occasional touches on the wagon side helped, helped keep him focused on the task of moving, of getting Jack to some place where he had a chance to survive the venom's damage. He pushed on, pushed through the shifting sand and freezing wind. The pain in his feet was building with each step, blocking out his thoughts. He began to count out ten breaths, then touch the cart that held his lover, count ten breaths, then touch the cart. Ten breaths, then touch.

By the time Lars called a halt for the mid-day meal, Daniel was in a blinding fog of pain. These big people had long legs, took long strides. Their pace was ground eating. As Lars tended to Jack, Daniel slumped to the sand and leaned against a wheel of the cart, trying to take comfort from touching the vehicle where Jack lay. He was gasping for breath, his throat raw again.

"Water, Sky," Lars' wife said as she held a flask for him to drink from. Then she left him to rest against the wheel. She came back later and held a cup of soup while he sipped from it. He heard a deep-voiced man gently urging Jack to drink soup too.

Daniel felt despair battering at his chest. He couldn't ask them to slow down. For Jack's sake alone, he couldn't ask them to go slower. Jack needed real shelter soon. For their own survival, a fast pace through the desert was vital to the band of traders. They'd given up a day on their trek yesterday to negotiate, and for the imparting. To slow down meant they might miss the rendezvous point with the other caravan that Lars was certain would take Jack and Daniel north.

As anguished thoughts chased each other in circles in his head, Daniel's stomach rebelled. He threw up the precious liquid. Staring at the mess as it sank into the parched sand, Daniel felt his mind go numb. The heaving had burned his throat and started his ass hurting again.

For days in the desert, desperate, but with a single-minded need to go east, Daniel had kept his mind calm. Now, slumped by the side of the cart, his body wracked with pain, he couldn't find any calmness. The fist of hopelessness squeezed tighter around his heart.

Now his weakness was what might lead to harm for Jack. Not the desert, not the venom burning through him, but Daniel's own body. Survival for Jack was within reach now, a real possibility. But Daniel had no strength left, no reserve. He was empty.

He couldn't find the anger that so often pushed him on in difficult times in his life. Daniel closed his eyes, feeling moisture form in the corners of them.

" . . . Sky," the woman said, "if ye don it. Please?" she implored.

"Wha . . . what?" Daniel asked, lifting his face to her. He realized he must have dozed off. The woman knelt in front of him, the men standing in a ring amid the blowing sand at her back. They stared down at him where he was slumped against the wheel. Daniel saw a lusty, almost blank stare on the face of one of the men. Not Lemmel, no. He couldn't remember the staring man's name. Daniel bowed his head to escape the look. He couldn't ignore the dizziness he felt.

"The veil, Sky. Ye've not lost this one too, have ye?"

"Veil?" he asked. "No. It's . . . " He pulled the cloth from the pocket of his robe and held it out to her, dropping it before she could take it.

"A coin too. There be a need."

What would she want with his coins? Did he need to buy some more water? Jack owned plenty. Days worth. Daniel couldn't get the robe open to reach the coins in the leg pocket of his BDUs. They'd be even more bloody by tonight. He'd clean his underwear in the sand tonight when they camped. But the pants, he'd just let the blood dry on them. Maybe not wear them tomorrow. Maybe.

She helped him lift the robe. "Thanks," Daniel said, realizing he'd spoken in English. He grinned at her, his light-headedness making him feel silly. He couldn't seem to remember how to speak her language. "You need the coins? Take them." It was time to go, he realized, time to walk on.

"One only, Sky," she said as she took a coin and handed it to Lemmel. "To pay for what our youngest will do for ye. And the veil on. Ye'll have no need to see," she said in a comforting voice. She tied the veil on his head, then pulled his bucca up and over, tucking it tight against the wind. "But, my son has a need to touch ye, and without the veil, it cannot happen."

Daniel's field of vision now consisted of a small horizontal slice of desert, with its rolling dunes and blowing sand. He could see someone in a robe bending over him. Then that someone lifted him, effortlessly lifted him in a cradling hold, and stood. The view he had now showed the hazy sky of the low desert, full of the ever-blowing sand, and the edge of someone's bucca. He could no longer see the cart where Jack rested.

"Got ye safe, Highborn," Lemmel said. "Ma says ye sleep now."

Tears washed grit from Daniel's eyes as Lemmel carried him through the stinging swirls of cold sand. The rocking gait of the big working caste man set the cadence for Daniel's despairing thoughts. He'd lost even the ability to walk at Jack's side, to reach out and touch the cart now and then, when he needed to reaffirm the connection.

His chest heaved as silent sobs overtook him.

"He weeps, Ma," Lemmel whispered, his voice sounding as if it were breaking too.

"Hush, son." Her voice was low, steady.

Daniel didn't know when they stopped walking. It was dark, and cold. "Jack?" he said, his voice grating and dry again.

Lemmel put him on something soft and Daniel tried to sit up. Lars' wife restrained him, held a water flask to his wind-chapped lips.

"There'll be soup for ye, and for Highborn Jack, soon. Fire being made. Rest here by him. He asks for ye." Then she left him.

Daniel reached to his side and found Jack's hand. He rolled toward him, wrapping his arm across Jack's chest. There was less wind than ever before. He realized the cart was beside them. The tarp had been stretched out by the wheel, not over them, as that would deflect the heat of the fire. But it formed a solid windbreak. Daniel molded his body to Jack's and closed his eyes.

" . . . never thought of a Sky being this strong, husband."

"Tales say they once rode the high seas and went a' Viking across the entire world. Take the other boot off him. More blood? Ye've got enough salve for both his feet?"

"Aye, husband. The socks be ruined. I swear, I never thought a Sky could be this strong. Never."

"He kept the water down?"

"Aye, as did the one he loves. Though, the soup, it be hard for Highborn Jack to swallow, seems. His sickness be a mystery to me."

"We'll give him more soup, anyway. The Sky would want it so, with meat thick in it. Ye'll have to help the Sky, woman. Tend to his personal needs. Ye youngest can take a turn at feeding Highborn Jack."

Daniel felt his stomach roll as her fingers gently tugged at the button on the waist of his filthy BDU pants. He groaned in protest at the slight movement. Nausea battered at him. He could smell food. Jack had eaten? That's what they'd said. And someone was on Jack's other side, talking to him about drinking more soup. Good. Good.

Jack needed protein. He had to have it. Had to. The venom was breaking down muscles in his body and would continue to do so. It would eventually destroy his heart muscle too, unless protein was packed into his system. Soup with meat, that's what Jack needed. He had what . . . twenty more days of this? Twenty more days of the venom burning through him, eating his body from the inside out. And his only hope of surviving it was protein, fat, as much as he could eat.

Lars' wife moved Daniel, rolling him from Jack. Yes. The man tending to Jack wouldn't want to touch Daniel. And he'd been half draped over Jack while his feet were doctored. He had the veil on, but even so, all of the men seemed afraid of contact with him.

A flask was pressed to Daniel's lips. He tried to bat it away. It smelled wrong. It wasn't water or soup. Some liquid was dumped into his mouth, and he swallowed in surprise. It burned down his throat, and then he tried to vomit. The world faded away.

" . . . Highborn Jack asleep, the Sky still fights the drink. See? He wakes again."

"Highborn, my woman says ye need to swallow this again. It be strong drink to ease ye, to help ye rest and heal."

"No," Daniel protested. "Don't. Don't put that in my mouth. Burns." Blindly, Daniel reached out for Jack, but couldn't feel him. His stomach didn't hurt as much, but he couldn't seem to get his eyes open. The veil brushed across his upper face.

"Aye. Burns, it does. And gives ye sleep. Morning comes in but a few hours."

Daniel realized he was breathing easier, his body was more relaxed. The woman had taken his pants off, as well as his tattered t-shirt. There was no pressure on his stomach from the waistband, no scratching of sand against his skin. He was in the flowing robes and loose underwear the natives wore.

"Don't need it. I'll sleep." Finally, he opened one eye and squinted up toward the direction of the voices over him. The veil covered his eyes. He couldn't see the people.

"Just so," Lars said. "His wish, woman. Leave him be. It be not for the likes of us to go against the will of a Sky."

Sleep did come to him then, even though he couldn't feel Jack against him. Daniel gave into the weariness and slept. Morning came before he was ready. He was awakened by Lemmel, gently touching his shoulder and saying it was time to relieve himself.

A blinding headache met his first attempt to sit up. Lemmel supported him, then lifted him to his feet. Daniel swayed. Lemmel's mother, the woman he'd called formidable, was there instantly, holding Daniel and shooing her son away to go pack up the bedroll.

A head taller than him, she stood at his back, easily holding him upright and ordered him to urinate. Daniel couldn't help laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Her own husband had fucked him the day before, had held his legs in the air and driven his hard, dripping cock into him, and now the woman was ordering him to pee in front of her.

"Crazy planet," he muttered. "Even for me to take," he said, continuing to mutter in English to the woman. He could feel her firm breasts at his neck. She was tall. "I've been to some crazy places, and fit in just fine. Just fine. Got painted with white stripes, kidnapped under an ocean, even got carried away by a hairy elephant once. But this, this is the one that trips my head. Close your eyes, at least," he said. Then Daniel repeated the request in her language.

A morning piss was sometimes a thing of beauty. But a piss hard-on could be too damned hard to piss through, Daniel thought as he looked down and pondered his own, protruding from a fold in the robes, shrinking already from the cold. "Morning piss hard-on," he muttered, having slipped back into English again. "Here it comes." The liquid arched out into the air, splashing down to the sand a couple of feet in front of him.

Daniel laughed, then continued speaking in English. "Least there's no need to try and bend it down, hit a toilet bowl. Anybody help Jack take a leak this morning?"

"Highborn Jack?" she asked, only understanding the one word. "He's got soup and water in his belly, pissed away what he had yesterday and already in the cart, Highborn. Time to travel. My Lemmel'll be doing the carrying again today. Strong boy, that one. Strong. Someday he'll have a caravan of his own. Trade the low desert trails, and meet a strong girl to marry."

Daniel's arch of amber liquid fizzled to a few drops at his feet. He realized his feet were wrapped in soft leather.

"You got your boots back on?" he asked her.

"Aye. Ye traded the use back to me last night, remember? For the salve on ye feet and the drink which burned ye throat. But ye slept well. And the boots go back to ye when ye walk again. But not today, Highborn."

"Name is Daniel. Call me Daniel."

"Aye. We know ye name. Highborn Jack, he said it plenty last night."

"Call me Daniel."

"Nay," she said cheerfully.

His silly smile faded then as he contemplated the fact that he'd lost his name.

Misery. Daniel renewed his acquaintance with the word, and with the state of being. Miserable. He was nauseated. His head pounded. His body ached with each step Lemmel took. Underneath it all he realized he must be healing, because he was alert enough today to really contemplate how miserable he was.

"How's Jack?" he asked Lemmel, trying to tilt his head back far enough to see under the edge of the veil. He caught sight of a slice of desert, rolling dunes, the same hue as yesterday, the same tan colored sand filling the air yesterday and a string of days before that.

"Highborn Jack, he be resting, my da says. Noon today ye sleep beside him, Ma says. Make him rest easier, ye by his side."

"Okay. I'll probably be ready to walk after that, walk this afternoon."

"Nay, Highborn. Do not say ye will or Ma will say it must be so. We cannot go against ye wishes."

"Like last night, when I said no more of that burning drink?"

"Aye. And what if ye need it to save ye life? We cannot go against ye wishes. They say the Highborn, they be smart. Smarter than a handful of men put together. If so, then ye know, don't say ye must walk, or Ma, she'll have to let ye, and certain ye are not ready."

Silently, Daniel brooded over the information Lemmel had given him about his religious, or more accurately, cultural restrictions. If Daniel became delirious and forbade them to care for him, or worse, told them to stop caring for Jack, they'd obey even if they knew he was out of his mind? He had to get back on his feet, be capable of taking care of Jack.

"I'll be ready to walk. I will."

"Highborn," Lemmel's voice dropped to a whisper as he slowed to a couple of steps behind the knot of traders moving the handcart along. "Take time and heal right, please. My da, the bargain, Highborn. If ye grow too ill to keep it . . . The next time ye bargained for imparting, my da, he won't . . . if ye can't, the bargain be broken then. My da, he'd . . . We follow the Nortvegr."

"What," Daniel said, demanding he finish what he had so much trouble saying.

"We follow the Nortvegr. A bargain with a Sky, broken? My da, most likely he'd die. But ye keep the goods, the coins, and we go to the rendezvous point. A Sky breaks the bargain, he keeps what's been offered, and what's already been given."

This was another decision, another freedom taken from Daniel, by his own body's weakness. Still, he hated being carried like an infant in this young man's arms. Lemmel was a head taller than his mother, almost up to Lars' eight feet. How old was he? What had Nirrti's meddling done to the way these people aged? Did they age faster or slower? What was the average lifespan of a worker caste? And the Highborn, did they still have the same lifespan as the humans of Earth they were taken from so long ago?

Too much to ponder.

But it meant these people must put a tremendous amount of trust in any Sky caste they bargain with. And their relationship with death, it seemed to be in continuity with the culture they'd been taken from on Earth. Daniel recalled an old Viking saying, something that had stuck in his mind when he'd translated it from a document written decades after the first telling, a parchment created to preserve what had been handed down generation after generation in a culture rich with oral traditions.

Hurry to meet death, before someone takes your place.

This philosophy explained a lot about Lars.

Daniel Jackson thought he woke when Lemmel's gait changed, but this didn't seem like being awake. The world seemed to fade a few feet from him, the sounds were muffled, dull, and the light, artificial. Daniel was lying on a pallet by a campfire. The world around him was flat, with no rolling sand dunes to be seen.

"Dreaming," Daniel said to himself. "Dreaming. Where's Jack?"

A man was over him, a man wearing a bucca folded closed, making him faceless. He lifted Daniel's legs, his nude legs. Daniel was naked. There was no wind, and the air wasn't cold, Daniel realized.

The faceless man's robe was open and his hard cock was protruding in the air, his groin hairless and smooth like Lars'. Daniel felt his legs being pulled higher, higher and pushed apart. The big man was suddenly against him, flesh on flesh.

Where was Jack? Oh, God! Was Jack watching this?

"Stop," Daniel tried to yell, but he couldn't make any sound come out of his mouth. "Stop!"

The faceless man lunged forward, driving his dick into Daniel.

"No! No!"

Thrashing under the weight of the big man, Daniel twisted his head around, trying to see if Jack was awake, if Jack was watching him be fucked by this stranger.

"Stop! He'll see!" he tried with all his might to shout. Still, no sound came out.

The man came in him. Daniel tried to raise his hands, to push at the man but his arms wouldn't respond. He felt another set of hands grab his ankles, taking him from the first man. Another hooded figure knelt at his ass and drove his slick cock into Daniel.

"Stop!" he tried to yell, and felt anguish when no sound came out. "Stop. Jack will see!"

This man faded away, but Daniel still felt hands on him, then saw another man kneeling, taking his ankles from someone unseen. A cock slammed into him, rocking him but there was no pain. Daniel realized he didn't feel any pain from the massive cock invading him.

"Stop . . . stop . . . " he worked hard at forming the words, at getting his mouth to move. He heaved air out, sucked it in, tried to form the words. Jack would see them! Jack would see the line of men fucking him!

His chest hurt with the effort to suck in enough air to scream. Daniel tried to roll away, but still another man took his ankles, held his legs up, fucked him. Then another man was fucking him, and after him another took his place.

Closing his eyes, Daniel used every muscle in his body to scream. "No!" he shouted out.

Long and guttural, but so very soft, the tiny sound barely reached Lemmel's ears.

"Ma, the Highborn be in trouble." The big youth stopped, waited as his mother pulled Daniel's bucca back.

"Highborn," she said. "Wake. Wake. He trembles in the dreamland. Lay him on the ground, son. We'll give him water."

Sweating and shaking, Daniel finally got his eyes to open. He was cradled in Lemmel's lap, sitting on the sand of the low desert. The sky overhead was dusky orange, the proper color, and the wind was bitingly cold, just as it should be. They were surrounded by sand dunes, though for the first time they seemed to be noticeably shorter than the dunes they'd trekked through since landing here.

Daniel looked up, his vision blurred by the bottom of the veil. Lemmel looked down at him, his dark eyes showing his worry.

"Highborn, drink," Lars' wife ordered him as she held a water skin to his lips. "Ye sleep too light. The stronger drink would help ye."

"No. Burns," Daniel said as he finished a gulp of water. "Oh, my stomach," he said, his breath hitching as he panted.

"Aye. The drink would help that too. Swallow the burning liquid fast, then sip water?"

He closed his eyes and panted for a bit. He was sweating, but it was so cold, even with Lemmel blocking the wind. "Okay. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to be such a burden. How's Jack?"

"Highborn Jack be just fine. He sleeps again. Drank water when I poured it. Then some soup that'd gone cold, but still, good for him."

"Yes. Good for him. Lots of soup. I had a nightmare."

"Aye. Scaring my poor son half to death. The strong drink, ye'll take it now?"

"Just a sip. Just a little. Jack's okay, right?"

"Ye poor thing. Worrying so much. Ye need to let the mind rest and the body will follow."

"Yeah," Daniel said, trying to relax and breathe slowly. "Yeah." He swallowed the bitter liquid, then a gulp of water.

He slept the rest of the daylight hours away, rocked by Lemmel's big, easy strides. For the second night in a row Daniel woke on a pallet next to Jack. The older man was trying to talk to Lars, asking him about the continent, the directions, extent of the desert. None of the distance measurements meant anything to him, though. Jack's voice sounded unbearably weak and his tone, full of frustration. It was obvious that he didn't know enough of the language to make himself understood and the effect of the venom on his jaws and throat were slurring his speech even more now.

"Jack?" Daniel said, then swallowed to ease the dryness in his throat. Lemmel was there holding out water, but careful now not to touch Daniel directly. He wondered why, then realized the veil must have fallen back off his head. He could see the people clearly.

"Danny."

Daniel closed his eyes and rolled into Jack's side, clutching at the man. "Sounds good to hear my name. Sounds even better to hear you talking."

"You hurt?"

"No. Just worn out. My feet are tired."

The wind seemed to fade a little during the dark hours. Daniel slept lightly, waking frequently to listen to Jack's breathing. It was harsh, and growing harsher. What if the venom was so strong that it took away his ability to breathe? The muscles that pulled his lungs open like the bellows of a blacksmith's fire, those muscles could grow so weak that Jack wouldn't be able to draw breath. And fighting against the desert wind, breathing the sand was making him worse. Daniel had to get Jack indoors.

But first he had to be able to take a man inside his body. He had to be well enough that Lars would keep to the bargain and meet the caravan going north so Daniel could find another man to take, and another. His nightmare stretched before him, leading a trail north to someplace where Jack had a chance of healing. Then? Then, they'd take the next step and find a way home.

For one more day Daniel rode in Lemmel's easy embrace, then walked half a day before he kept up with the caravan for a full day's march. During that day the land around them began to change. Sparse clumps of brown grass grew more plentiful. Daniel remembered pulling that type of grass to chew on days ago. That was so far behind them. He kept watching for any sign of animals and finally saw one of the hopping creatures Lars had traded to him. They passed several succulent plants, types of cactus that grew low to the ground, spreading out in little finger-size branches.

Nights were still bitterly cold and the fires they built now were smaller than they had been the last two nights. Lars was conserving fuel to make up for the extra fire the day of the bargaining. They would find nothing in the desert to burn. That night Daniel was exhausted but Lars said it was time for the second part of their bargain. Daniel had proven his readiness by walking at Jack's side the entire day.

With his mind clearer, Daniel was able to insist on more preparation, was more hydrated, and able to take Lars without tearing. Still, the pain was almost more than he could comprehend.

Weary days later, the landscape had flattened out considerably, with wide valleys which were easier to negotiate the hand cart through, but this only allowed the wind to strike the travelers stronger.

"How much longer until we reach the rendezvous point?" Daniel asked Lars' woman.

"One day, Highborn," she answered as she paced him by the cart.

"You sound very certain of that." He tilted his head back to see her clearly under the edge of the heavy veil.

"My husband, he knows the land well. Says he can smell his way there, that one does. Though I'm thinking more he be smelling his way to the ale run by Hulda's caravan. That one, she be a mean woman. Ye keep the veil on, Highborn, lest she run her own men through if they step wrong with ye. Ye keep that hair covered, those eyes covered, eh?"

"Sounds like good advice," Daniel answered. "She's an honest trader?"

"None more so. Except, of course, my husband!" she added with pride and certainty. "She'll trade honest with any who've a need for ale. She be one who runs the gold rock and glacier metal same as we."

"And ale," he said. "Well, I don't need to trade for ale."

"Passage, sure enough," she said. "Passage ye'll trade for. The coins in ye pocket for passage. Perhaps ye imparting for food?"

"With the caravan leader?" Daniel asked.

"Nay. Were ye not listening, Highborn? That one be a woman. Hulda. Imparting, ye'd best find good trade with her man, Skeld."

"Her husband?"

"Nay. Her man that does for her."

"Does what?" Daniel asked, completely confused now.

"Whatever needs doing."

Daniel raised his eyebrows behind the veil. "Of course. Whatever needs doing. What was I thinking?" he said with a smirk.

"The likes of ye? This one cannot possibly say, Highborn," she said with a wide grin. "None probably, on the whole of Nortvegr could say what ye think. Ye have a way of thinking that not many can follow, this one would wager large on that!"

Daniel matched her grin, and shook his head. "Jack would agree with you, you know."

"We will miss ye, Highborn. When ye go north to save the Highborn Jack. We will miss ye from our midst."

"I'll miss you. All of you," he said.

"So ye have it all in mind now, right? Lay the cloth out, keep the veil on until ye wish to bargain. Then the veil comes off. Do not give 'em the privilege of ye gaze until they show what they have to offer. Coin be always best, remember. Always go for a coin first. Lars, he knows, a coin be best. Nothing for free from ye, as nothing free be given. Nothing free for any man, ever."

"I'll remember," he said, smiling again.

"And the bucca may feel good to ye, Highborn. But it be the veil that protects the Sky caste from the lustful notices of all males who follow the Nortvegr.

The next day Lars called an abrupt halt. The dune he chose to stop by seemed no different than the endless line of identical dunes they'd passed that day. Daniel stared about, distracted from helping to break out supplies and set up the temporary campsite.

"This is the rendezvous point?" he asked Lemmel as he moved to help the young man stretch a tarp by the wagon for a windbreak.

"Just so," Lemmel assured him cheerfully.

"How do you know we're in the right spot? This place looks no different than any other spot we've camped at."

"Da says here, so here be where we will meet Hulda the quick."

Daniel regarded him for a moment, then realized he wasn't doing his share of the work. He tugged the tarp tight and fastened the lanyard around the corner, snugging it to match the tension Lemmel had set in the opposite side of the heavy cloth.

The tall son of Lars stood with his head bowed. "This one . . . Highborn, this one has no right to say, but . . . this one will miss ye company." Lemmel shifted his weight from foot to foot.

"Thank you, Lemmel. I'll miss your company too." Daniel reached out to touch the man's arm, but Lemmel shied back a step. Daniel smiled regretfully.

Within the hour the sight of a band of travelers solidified out of the blowing sand. They approached the encampment of Lars' group, setting beside them. No words of greeting were exchanged until the newcomers had settled and taken food. Daniel sat cross-legged by Jack's still figure, holding the sleeping man's hand as he watched the new people from behind his veil.

Lars stood at the edge of his encampment and was soon approached by a woman, Hulda, the quick, Daniel guessed. They spoke in low tones, and then Lars came to Daniel and squatted beside him.

"Five coins for passage, as this one suspected, Highborn. They will make good time to Thorbalstead with Highborn Jack in their cart. Ye'll walk by his side. Unless ye wish to negotiate with Hulda, maybe a better deal could come with ye treating directly with her?"

Daniel shook his head and glanced down at Jack's closed eyes. "You've undoubtedly stated my needs well, Lars. I don't think there's any room for improvement. Do I give the coins to her now?"

"Hulda comes for them with our leave. We've only to finish our bargain, Highborn."

"Finish?"

"The third imparting," Lars said softly. "Then me and mine will be on our way. The desert does not forgive laziness."

"No. No, it doesn't. Deserts never do, no matter what world they're on. The third imparting, then. I guess we need to do that now?"

"If ye wish to complete the bargain," Lars said calmly.

"I do," Daniel assured him. He had no intention of causing Lars' death.

The tarp he'd helped Lemmel stretch from the side of the cart was still taut, making mild popping sounds in the ever-present wind. Daniel tucked Jack's hand under his blanket and went with Lars into the small bit of privacy. Inside he squirmed around, shrugging out of his veil and robes as Lars' huge bulk moved beside him. The big man stripped off his outer robe, and pulled off his leggings and lower undergarment.

"We can't rush this," Daniel cautioned him. "Remember last time? How I need to get my body ready?"

"Aye," Lars assured him. "No rushing, little Sky. Just as ye say. Slow and easy so ye can walk after. Right?"

"Yes," Daniel said, fighting back an inappropriate chuckle. "So I can still walk when you're done using me." Daniel laid on his back, his knees bent, his legs slightly apart. With his eyes closed he worked to relax, to breathe deeply and evenly. His mind calmed, and then he asked for some of the oil from Lars' small flask. He rubbed around his opening, massaging the round muscle, working his fingertips and the oil inside. He probed two fingers in, then all four, up to the second knuckle. Then he withdrew his fingers and massaged the ring again.

"Okay," he said decisively, then opened his eyes. Lars was kneeling over him, and moved rapidly between his legs. Daniel let his knees fall apart further to accommodate the bulk of the big man.

Their gazes met, and Lars groaned, his voice thick with arousal.

"I'm ready," Daniel assured the big man and himself.

Like the first and the second time, Lars seemed a bit reluctant to touch him, but finally slid his hands under Daniel's knees and lifted him effortlessly. The man's cock, as thick as Daniel's forearm, was hot and slick with oil. Lars scooted forward and probed Daniel's opening.

"I can take it. I can take you," Daniel said, keeping his gaze locked with Lars' dark eyes. He couldn't help but gasp as Lars slowly leaned into him, the big cock right on target. As he was breached, Daniel caught his breath, and grimaced. Then he forced himself to breathe again, trying to make each breath deep and steady. Lars leaned into him harder, and the cock-head popped past Daniel's sphincter muscle.

Daniel was dismayed to hear a gasp of pain escape his lips. He panted and worked furiously to relax every muscle below his waist, an almost self-defeating effort. No strain! He admonished himself. No straining of any kind. Don't fight this. That's it. Take it like you really want it.

Did this amount to self-deception? Lying, especially to himself was never something Daniel did well. But he did have something to be grateful for. He was staying quiet. And the edges of the tarp were tight. They had total privacy. No one could see in. No one could see what was happening now. Daniel stared up at Lars through the entire imparting.

As suddenly as they'd appeared out of the swirl of blowing sand, Lars and his followers were swallowed up again as they left Jack and Daniel with the new caravan.

Daniel stood by the new cart in his billowing robe. He held onto Jack's limp hand as he stared behind them into the hazy distance, trying to catch one more glimpse of the people who'd saved their lives days ago. Around him the noises of Hulda and her people preparing to embark were softened by the sound of blowing sand. His vision was partially obscured by the veil tied tightly on his head. Jack was asleep.

"Walk on," Hulda called out, her voice harsh and commanding.

The cart lurched forward as four of the people pushed it along the trail north. Daniel lurched a step with it, his ass reminding him immediately to soften his footsteps as much as possible. Daniel settled into a steady pace at Jack's side.

Traveling with Hulda's caravan was very different than it had been with Lars and his people. There were no other women among the five who traveled under Hulda's command, and the members did not seem to be family. There was an air of cooperation among them, but not of welcome camaraderie.

From the moment Daniel had placed coins in Hulda's hand, she'd treated him as if he were an object, an incredibly rare and valuable one, but still, an object. She spoke at him, in brief, flat sentences, asking his and Jack's needs, explaining what had to be done to move Jack into or from the cart, to set up camp, or prepare to travel.

No one else in the caravan was willing to speak to Daniel unless he forced a point of contact. Hulda's second in command was a man named Skeld, who watched Daniel furtively, and constantly. It made him feel even more on display, like a relic in a museum, or perhaps, a crucifixion carving hanging in a cathedral. He quickly grew irritated with the man's behavior and had trouble ignoring it.

With Hulda, he was able to gain some information in short evening chats by the small campfire. He asked about the route ahead, and what to expect in the coming village, but it took him a while to figure out that Hulda's treating him like an object, being terse with him, wasn't because she disliked him. She followed the Nortvegr. He was Sky caste. For her, there was no other way to treat a being whose like she'd rarely even seen before. But that didn't make him feel any less frustrated.

He learned that it would be unlikely he'd see another Sky caste this far south. They rarely ventured below something called the great divide, which was, Daniel thought, a very tall mountain range. And he still had no clear idea of how many Sky caste or Highborn there were on the planet.

The mention of this mountain range was clear proof that this continent wasn't just one endless desert, as it seemed to be. That was merely Daniel's exhausted perception. He'd never longed to see the end of a desert so much in his life.

On their second day with Hulda's caravan, they were down to one water skin. Daniel asked her about buying extra water and she tersely turned him down, parroting the phrase about charity and not willingly hurting Highborn. He didn't have enough coins left to buy the amount of water and food he was asking for.

He laid the scrap of brown cloth out that evening, not knowing what to expect, and very apprehensive about making a mistake. Seconds after the cloth was spread Skeld dropped into a cross-legged seat across from Daniel. Then the man leaned close to the cloth, his hairless face in a heavy scowl. There was no blue on it. Daniel had to explain that he'd lost his imparting cloth in the desert but this one was a symbol, understood to be an imparting cloth of the Sky caste.

Their negotiation was long and Daniel ended up with everything of value that Skeld had, in exchange for one imparting. He faired well in the exchange, ending up with a bag of gold coins, almost all of Skeld's water, the man's entire personal share of food, a small tuc which held eating utensils, soap, a fine, sharp blade that Daniel could use as a razor, as well as costly drawing supplies. Daniel was very pleased with the writing implements and Skeld's sheaves of parchment. He could put them to use doing scribe work. He could earn some money!

The first real building they saw on Nortvegr seemed to slide into view, rose as if it was growing from the crest of a dune. That was an optical illusion, Daniel knew, a trick of desert terrain. It was mid-day when Hulda's caravan made their way up a small rise, and the building was on the other side. It was a slightly darker hue of beige than the endless rolling dunes they'd been plodding through.

Daniel studied the low structure as they approached it, and then saw another just like it, and another. They had reached Thorbalstead. There were no more than a dozen flat topped buildings, their windows shuttered with wooden planks, their doors closed tightly. People were in view, moving around in the same billowing brown robes the desert traders wore, the same robes Daniel and Jack wore. He plodded along beside the cart that Jack slept in, his hand protectively on the side of it as Hulda led her people through to the heart of Thorbalstead.

The wind changed slightly, blocked and slowed by the buildings more than it ever had been by the sand dunes. The sound of the wind changed too. It whistled now as it cut around the edges of man-made structures, shifted through hanging wash and racks of tools and supplies.

There were no animals and only a few children. All were working under the supervision of the tall working caste villagers, men and women who were intent on their labor. Most seemed to be working with the gold rock Lars and Hulda traded. Most of the villagers called a friendly greeting to the caravaners, shouting names, asking about possible trades.

Hulda waved short salutes and exchanged terse greetings, but kept the group walking at their usual steady pace. "The inn, Highborn," Hulda announced in her usual brisk way. She called for the cart to halt at a building, seemingly no different on the outside than any of the others.

Even riding in the cart exhausted Jack so much he seldom managed to wake up. Daniel pulled the blanket back and gently shook Jack's shoulder. The man didn't wake. He was either deeply asleep or unconscious from exhaustion. Skeld easily picked him up. Daniel followed as Jack was carried inside, and propped into the only chair in the room. It was at the end of one of two long tables in the main room, benches on the other sides. The other table was full of drunken men who Hulda glowered at. They scrambled up from the long benches, grabbed their steins and fled to the far wall, crowding there to finish their drinks and whisper frantically to each other. The room was gloomy, with a very low ceiling. A stone fireplace at one side of the room provided the only light.

Daniel pushed his bucca back, but kept the veil firmly in place. He tried to squeeze by Hulda, to get to Jack's side, but the inn's front room was very small, with barely enough room for the two tables and their rough-hewn benches. Add in the bulky worker caste, and Daniel felt there was barely room to breathe. The top of Hulda's bucca was mere inches from the dark ceiling beams.

"Innkeeper!" Hulda shouted as she pushed back her bucca. Instantly a plump, balding man hurried from the kitchen, his belly barely contained under a greasy leather apron. "Got ye Highborn here," she said, indicating Jack's semi-conscious form, as Skeld continued to attempt to make him comfortable in the wide chair. "Needs a bed."

"Highborn!" the balding man bellowed in delight. "Hulda, ye bring me a rare boon! Never had a Highborn here before. Got a bed for 'em, we do. Surely. Got a bed for a Highborn, but none for his servants. They best sleep at the forge as do ye and ye men when ye come a trading. Be good to see ye as always, Hulda. Take his servants to the forge. But here, for a Highborn we have bed, a fine pillow even for a Highborn. Him too drunk to walk?"

"Nay," Hulda said. "Sick, he be." She stepped aside, her big bulk having hidden Daniel from sight until now. "His companion'll do for him. Say what he needs. Pay too. No servants."

The innkeeper's jaw dropped open as he stared at Daniel's veiled face. "Nay. Can not be real."

"Real," Hulda said.

The drunken group across the small room grew instantly silent. They held their steins and gaped at Daniel, as stunned as the sober innkeeper. The balding man shook his head, still silent.

"Does be real!" Hulda said, her ire sharpening her tone. "Daft old fool."

"Where's the room?" Daniel asked. "You said you have a room available? For the Highborn?" he added, trying to dampen his feelings of frustration and also to coax a response from the shocked innkeeper.

"Room?" The man shook his head. "Room? A whole room? Of course. Of course. A whole room for the . . . For him," the man finished as he tore his gaze from Daniel and looked at Jack.

"Highborn, want ye a room? Just so," he continued hurriedly, almost shouting now to Jack's unconscious form. "As Hulda said. A room. Highborn's be rich enough. They buy a whole room. A room with a bed for the Highborn. Aye. One moment, Highborn. One moment. Rest here. The room. We get it ready for ye!"

It didn't seem to matter to the man that Jack didn't respond, didn't shift from being half propped against the chair back, and half in Skeld's arms. The innkeeper ran back through the kitchen door, calling for his helper as he fled Daniel's presence. Daniel turned his attention to Jack.

"A room!" the man's voice shrieked from somewhere back in the dingy building. The sound of a solid wooden door slamming, and then slamming again, jarred Daniel from focusing on getting Jack into a more comfortable position. His irritation at the big bellied innkeeper grew.

"A room!" the innkeeper called as he reappeared, his dark face flushed to a dusky rose hue. "A whole room just for ye, Highborn. And a pillow. This way, Highborn," he said to Jack. "This way. Where are his servants?" he demanded. "Hulda, send them in to carry the Highborn! He should have them about him. Least, until the Highborn be settled."

Standing there, Daniel realized the man was looking everywhere but at him. It was as if he'd ceased to exist for the innkeeper the moment the man accepted him as real. But he had the veil on. Didn't that mean the men of Nortvegr could talk directly to him?

"Daft old fool. No servants!" Hulda shouted. "Him!" she declared, hitching a thumb at Daniel.

The innkeeper turned his head toward Daniel, but it took several moments for his eyes to follow. As he looked at Daniel, he moaned, a panicked sound.

"Where is the room?" Daniel asked forcefully. He got no answer. "Skeld, if you'll watch Jack for a moment I'll go find the room and be right back." It was time to take matters into his own hands. Jack needed to be in a bed.

"This! This way!" the innkeeper shouted, then scurried backwards through a dark doorway near the one to the kitchen. He banged into the door jamb, righted himself and continued his backward crabbing, swinging his arm to indicate Daniel should follow. Skeld effortlessly lifted Jack's unconscious form and followed Daniel through the dark inn.

The room was tiny. Daniel was surprised at how big the bed was. He moved aside to let Skeld lay Jack on it, then realized it had to be big to accommodate a grown working caste man. It was easily big enough for Jack and Daniel to sleep side by side, but would be a very tight fit for two of the working caste.

The innkeeper's boisterous rattling continued to pelt in from the open door as Daniel set his tuc on the sand-strewn floor by the bed. After Skeld backed out of the small room Daniel arranged Jack's limp body in what he hoped was a comfortable position. The bed was nothing more than a layer of very little padding on a high wooden platform.

The absence of wind was amazing! He pushed Jack's bucca off, then loosened his robe. The room was warm, warm because of the insulation of the thick walls, and because of the absence of wind. He could barely hear it howling through the thick walls. This would be so much better for Jack's breathing. They were finally, truly out of the blowing sand.

Daniel wanted to sit down on the bed and take a moment to appreciate the motionless air, but the innkeeper was still at the doorway, calling for servants. None would be appearing. The man seemed to find it impossible to accept that Jack was traveling without servants.

"Time to go pay for the room, Jack," he said to the unconscious man. "You rest here, and I'll be back in a minute. Then we'll get some soup, okay?" He nodded decisively and went to talk to the innkeeper.

Later that afternoon, with their possessions crammed into the tiny room, the door shut, Daniel pulled the veil off and threw it in the corner farthest from the bed. He stripped out of his robes and snuggled under their own large blanket with Jack. He studied the older man's profile, his lashes heavy on his cheeks, his face slack in deep sleep.

"Hulda's already left, Jack. She had some place to be by nightfall I guess. Not very talkative, was she?" he said with a chuckle, reflecting over the stark sense of isolation he felt when traveling with her caravan. "I've paid for our room for a few days. Didn't want to pay too far in advance. I don't know when we'll catch another caravan out of here. And it might be best to just stay here. Stay out of the wind until you . . . your breathing . . . The wind is really hard on your lungs, Jack."

He snuggled down lower in the bed and put his ear against Jack's chest. There were rasping noises with each breath drawn in, and wheezing noises with each breath out.

"Yeah, I think I'll pay for the room for a few weeks, or a month or so. Keep you out of the wind. Feels good to stop breathing sand, doesn't it? Yeah. It feels good."

During the night, Daniel used the small coal basket to light a candle he'd gotten in his trade with Skeld. The glowing coals kept the room slightly less frigid, and he used them to heat up some soup for Jack. Getting the liquid down was becoming a very time-consuming task. It would be impossible to travel in a caravan and make any progress if he had to spend so much time feeding Jack.

"Can you wake up enough to swallow this chunk of meat?" Daniel asked. "No? Can you open your eyes?" He held the wide spoon near his companion's placid face and waited. "Jack?" Daniel asked, his voice soft in the silence of the tiny room.

After a moment, Daniel reached out and stroked Jack's cheek. Then he pulled his bottom lip down. "I need you to swallow this." He put the spoon in Jack's mouth, and smiled when the man reflexively swallowed. The meat went down and Daniel followed that with several spoonfuls of broth. "Slow and steady. We'll get this in you. In a few days, I think we'll be skipping the meat chunks. I know it's hard for you to swallow. Does it hurt? I could try to cut them smaller. That'll help."

His own stomach growled, so Daniel took a few bites, pushing Jack to take broth between each one. "That's better. You're getting pretty full now, aren't you?"

Daniel tucked the metal lid back on the coal basket, set it under the bed, where its warmth was intended to rise up and warm the sleeping platform. Then he laid down to sleep, with one arm over Jack's hips. Jack hadn't roused to full consciousness in at least two days before they reached Thorbalstead. Getting out of the wind, into a warm bed wasn't going to be enough to rally his health. The poison was still burning through him, eating away at his body from the inside. Daniel closed his eyes and tried not to squeeze Jack too hard. Fear kept him awake for way too long.

Two days passed as Daniel settled into a routine of feeding and caring for Jack, while spending a little time under the veil, out in the inn's main room gathering what information he could. Commerce in Thorbalstead was centered in this building. Any food purchased in this village came from the inn. Any ale bought, came from this inn. It was a great place for Daniel to gather information, and to figure out how to use the scribing supplies to earn money. But at mealtime the main room was stifling with the press of bodies, and everyone trying so hard to not look at him, or dare risk accidentally touching him.

The second day at the time for the mid-day meal, Daniel was seated in the main room, his back to the door. It opened, ushering in boisterous men and women, and a generous draft of sand. The room went quickly from slightly crowded to stifling, with the press of large bodies around him. And all were deathly quiet, standing in a pressed knot between his table and the door. More entered and there was some shifting and jostling, as a few women pushed past the men and claimed seats at the other table. Daniel peered under the edge of the heavy veil at the new arrivals. None met his gaze. He picked up his thick, metal tankard, then slowly rose and with a quiet rustle of his robes, withdrew through the inky-black doorway to the back hall.

Behind him the room slowly filled with raised voices. He ignored them and went to his room.

"Jack," he called as he came in the tiny, dimly lit room. He expected and got no answer. Jack had lost the strength to speak days ago. The heavy door swung shut behind him, almost blowing out the single candle. He never left Jack in complete darkness, though candle wax was a pretty expensive commodity in Thorbalstead, and Jack didn't open his eyes any longer unless Daniel pushed his lids up.

"I brought some thicker broth. This has some kind of vegetable mashed up in it," Daniel explained as he set the tankard on the little bedside stool. Then he tore off the veil and gave his scalp a vigorous, two-handed scratch. "Let's get you elevated a bit, okay?" Daniel asked as he pulled the bedcovers back.

"Oh," Daniel said softly. "First things first." He knelt on the edge of the bed and rolled Jack away from the thick hide that was under his hips. The improvised bedpan had been a good idea, but wasn't helpful now. Maybe it would be once Jack started growing stronger again.

And he would grow stronger.

They had three hides for this purpose, for use as bed pads. Cleaning them was a pretty arduous task, involving scrubbing them in a pit of sand behind the inn. The smell that had permeated the little room the first two days was pretty reminiscent of an outhouse until Daniel bargained for a strong smelling block of wood which, when rubbed on the pads, masked absolutely the strongest odor. These people were used to living without wash water. He just had to find out what adaptations they'd devised, and make use of them.

"I did some more scribe work, Jack. A family tree. Wasted a parchment doing it, though. I should have sketched the whole thing out in charcoal on a stone first. I will next time. I got in a bit of a hurry. Got a couple of the names in the wrong places. But the bargain for that work was a great piece of cloth. It'll make a much better veil. Better to see under the edge of it maybe. And I got another skin of water and three more parchments in a scribing job after that one."

He spread out the new pad and rolled Jack back onto it, situating him with his upper torso elevated. "When you're through eating I'm going to leave you on your left side. We did right side this morning. Can't lose track of that, you know. Then this evening, we'll do some stretching. Now, don't start whining. Just a little stretching. Just enough to keep your tendons flexible, okay?"

Daniel pulled the blanket up and began to spoon broth into Jack's mouth. "You're losing more weight," he said softly. "I've got to boil the broth down more, get a higher protein content. I'll see if I can't get a bigger coal basket. Or maybe some kind of kettle would work. Pile the coals in it on a grate of some kind. Keep this room warmer, and at the same time, keep some broth always simmering right here in the room. That'd be better, wouldn't it, Jack?"

Some broth ran down Jack's chin and Daniel hastily wiped it up. "There's a kettle the right size out by the main fireplace. I'll see about trading for it-- Hey, Jack. How about some ale tonight? Would you like to try the local beverage? I'm sure it's not as good as that German import you prefer, but . . . it might be good for your digestive system. I bought some more meat, by the way. They have lamb on this planet. Herds of them north of here. Use the wool for clothing. And that pillow you're on, too, I guess. But I don't think they have chickens anywhere. The eggs I saw today were definitely not chicken eggs."

Getting what Daniel judged to be a sufficient amount of broth into Jack took well over an hour of constant work. He'd be back in here in a couple of hours, repeating the process. "Might be good, the local ale. And I'll get that big kettle from the innkeeper."

Daniel could spare coins for the much-needed kettle. When he'd decided to keep Jack here for a couple of months, he'd paid the loud innkeeper for their room through an imparting. The bargain had specified lodging and use of the kitchen for two months.

The imparting had been conducted in a back room on a bed the pot-bellied man normally shared with an odd assortment of helpers. There was no door on the opening to the room, only a curtain held up by two nails. Through the whole experience Daniel kept wanting to glance at the curtain to make sure it was closed. But no one would dare come in, would dare even risk an accidental peek at what was happening. The odd thought Daniel had so long ago of imparting out in the open with Lars in the middle of his camp was very far from the reality. These people saw impartings as deeply personal exchanges, as holy acts that required a certain amount of solitude. Daniel was very grateful for that. Still, the slim curtain seemed so much more vulnerable than the heavy tarp blowing in the desert wind of the caravans they'd traveled with on their way to Thorbalstead. And everyone on the other side of that thin curtain surely knew exactly what was taking place in the innkeeper's bed.

Washing himself after the encounter had been hard. He'd shaved his own groin, ending up as smooth as the innkeeper, as Lars and Skeld. It was easier to keep himself clean.

Shaking himself out of a daze, Daniel gave Jack some water from an animal bladder. The spout was easy to get between Jack's lips, and he still had the strength to suck out what water he needed. "Anyway, the guy I got the white cloth from has a daughter who's a seamstress. She's going to come by this evening and do some work on the cloth, help me get it, I guess, fitted. Make it into a proper veil, the guy said. Something that will sit better and stay in place, with little seams or some tucks or something. Maybe it'll be easier to see through, huh? That'd be nice," Daniel added under his breath.

What he didn't tell Jack was that the girl was also bringing an imparting cloth. Her father had included in the bargain a description of something she could make for Daniel. He'd sketched it out in the drifts of sand on the inn floor. It was a bleached white square with a stylized sun in the center and the man said that would be stitched in blue thread. Daniel pursed his lips, then shook his head to clear away thoughts of that cloth and what it symbolized.

Buying the cloth meant Daniel was accepting the fact that he'd be imparting enough times before they got off this planet to make the purchase worth while.

Up until now he'd used the brown cloth he'd gotten from Lars' wife, labeled one side with the sun symbol and the other with a series of runes to indicate he was offering scribing services. But having two different cloths would be not only correct, but would help him feel safer when he was offering scribing services, safer in the belief there would be no misunderstandings. People would be able to see the color of the scribing cloth from far across the room, a rust brown with inked runes around the border.

And he'd completed an imparting for a large supply of meat and precious eggs that morning, but Jack didn't need to hear about that.

"Okay, now, right side. Is that what I said, Jack? Or was it your left side? I should come up with a system to note these things, keep track of how much broth you get too. I don't want to lose count. I don't want to lose . . . Jack?" Daniel said softly as he brushed Jack's sunken cheek.

Endless, dark days in the tiny room passed. The routine Daniel set up to see to Jack's needs varied only as Jack's condition worsened. He could take no solid food of any kind, even if Daniel chewed the meat first. The air that had seemed so gloriously peaceful became stifling to Daniel. The sameness of it all was mind-numbing. And Jack's breathing grew so labored Daniel could do hardly more than hold his hand and stare at him in cold dread. Jack's skin looked tissue-thin, like pale paper stretched over bones. Boiling the broth down to concentrate the protein used up a lot of their water, but it was absolutely necessary for Jack's survival.

He wasn't able to bargain his scribing services when Jack grew worse. He didn't have enough time to spare out of the room earning food, water and coal that way. Impartings earned so much more, and took less time away from caring for Jack. The new scribing cloth stayed rolled up in the tuc, along with sheaves of parchment, ink and quills. Daniel hated not being able to put them to use.

He remembered being so pleased when he'd traded for the scribing supplies. Now they sat there unused, mocking him. He felt bitter, angry at times and almost traded them for water one day but then opted for an imparting instead. Eventually Jack would get better, Daniel would be able to go back to earning money with the ink and quills. He clung to that truth and berated himself for his moment of weakness.

When the inn quieted down at night, Daniel would check the tally marks he was keeping to show how much broth Jack had, what position he should be laid in next, and counted the days they'd been in the little village of Thorbalstead.

One evening Daniel realized there were enough marks to account for almost a month. Then he turned Jack to rest on his side and found that the noisy wheezing seemed quieter. He checked with his ear to Jack's bare back, and then his chest. He repeated this several times. Jack was breathing easier. It was definitely a sign of improvement. The poison had burned through him for thirty days, just as the bounty hunter had threatened, and then he'd started to heal. But the recovery process was so slow that this was the first time Daniel had been able to detect any improvement.

Daniel studied Jack's still features. Yes. He hadn't grown any worse in days, and now, now, he was breathing deeper. Daniel closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Jack's temple, shaking with something that felt more like a sudden absence of terror, than real happiness.

The poison had done its worst. Jack had survived the bounty hunter's final act of destruction. It was time for Jack to start the long road back to Daniel. And that road was going to be incredibly hard for both of them.

They would need to leave this stark, little village of Thorbalstead soon. Daniel had depleted more than the expendable wealth of every man in it. He'd taken coins, any spare meat, and water for Jack's broth, taken every bit he could wrest from anyone who had anything to spare, and then some. He would have to use those hard-won coins to buy passage north to take Jack to better, more plentiful sources of food and water.

Lost in the vast universe, lost from friends and allies, Jack and Daniel would survive together.

End

INDEX
Bucca - detachable hood
Hulda - caravan leader
Landvaettir - an authentic Icelandic term meaning land demons Lars - Low Desert caravan leader
Lemmel - Low Desert caravaner, Lars' son Nortvegr - an authentic Icelandic term meaning the northern way, used in the story to mean a religious way of life, and the name of the continent or world. Odin - Father of all gods, the allfather Rimthurses - an authentic Icelandic term meaning ice demons Skeld - caravan worker
Thorbalstead - most southern village on continent. Tuc - a shoulder bag


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