Crouched next to the half-rotted trunk of a long-dead tree, Ronon touched the tips of his fingers to the outline of a heavy boot print just visible in the muck beside the dead roots. Every village patrol he'd passed had been set in pairs or more, yet the trail he followed was singular.
While the marks were too big and deep-set to be Jennifer's, the puzzle of a lone man moving away from the village with obvious speed drew Ronon's full attention. Whoever he was, the man was moving with a solid stride—a purpose to his walk—not pausing to search crags and hollows as the village patrols were doing.
Ronon glanced over his shoulder to where the rocky ground hid any preceding footprints, then ahead to where they moved forward around the dead fall. He stood and stepped around the trunk, but after a few brief strides, the trail once again disappeared into nothingness.
He bit back a curse. The ground here was soft. Muddy. The boot marks should have continued without pausing, yet just as they had twice before, instead of moving forward with their steady pattern, there was nothing.
It was as though his prey had simply vanished.
Since he'd left the village he'd crossed back and forth—covering far more distance than he should have—wasting precious minutes trying to pick up a trail that should have been easy enough for McKay to follow. At the first gap in footprints he'd immediately suspected a trap, yet nothing had swung, sprung, or tried to kill him. He'd taken just as much care the second time he'd suddenly lost the trail, but found nothing there either.
He exhaled slowly, frustration and concern mixed with a nagging doubt. An explanation tickled the back of his mind, but he refused to give into it until he had proof.
He tuned into Cadman's voice on his com, but the signal was so broken, he could only recognize a few select words. He understood she was on her way back to Lorne, and she may have found Daro's sister, and then he heard his own name, but nothing more.
He waited, but no other chatter came through.
He looked to the ground, analyzing the trail once more. The footsteps were definitely leading away from the village. Added with the fact that McKay had seen the transponder in this area, he knew he was in the right spot but the geography was rocky at best. For all he knew it was just another farmer he was chasing.
He disregarded that though almost as quickly as he'd considered it.
The footwear was cut for terrain, not farming. The stride was wide and deep, but contained a steadiness to the spacing. No, whoever was leaving the trail was walking with purpose, not running in escape.
He turned a slow circle, straining to see past the trees, willing himself to catch sight of the familiar flash of blonde hair that was always a beacon to her position. Night. Day. It never mattered. Even from behind in a sea of like-colored hair he could have picked her out in an instant. Out here, in the wall of green that faced him from every side she would have shone like a golden torch, yet his eyes could find no trace of the woman he sought.
There was no doubt in his mind that she was here.
On this planet.
He could sense her presence as strongly as any emotion he'd caged in the past few days.
But knowing wasn't finding.
He moved forward, cautiously seeking signs of the continuation of the footprints. He considered two options. Either Jennifer was still in the village and he was chasing no one of importance—a doubtful choice judging by the level of searching that was going on back in the town—or she had escaped her captors and taken refuge somewhere in the forest.
Unassisted, he wouldn't have given her any chance of hiding from the men from the village. But with the help of a former runner with ancient tech that could allow him to teleport short distances without leaving trace or footprint in the muddy ground…
Ronon pushed the thoughts aside.
For Jennifer's sake, he couldn't afford to fall into any trap that hope might bring. He needed clear thinking if he was going to be of any use to her, and as many facts as he could gather.
Starting with why Cadman was trying to find him.
Sheltered in the shadows of a rocky outcropping, Sheppard held back on his questions until after Cadman and Ellis explained the addition to their party—a familiar looking redhead who was definitely oozing some Genii attitude, and a cute, blonde haired kid who was peeking at him from behind Ellis' back.
He winked at the kid, earning him a shy grin.
"Colonel Sheppard," Laura began, "I'd like you to meet Shaana, and Mina."
"Daro's sister," John said to the redhead.
The Genii woman nodded. "I am. Although I have to wonder at how well he described me, seeing as how everyone seems to know me before I know them."
Teyla extracted the photo Daro had given them before they'd left, and handed it over to the woman. "Your brother gave us this."
Shaana smiled sadly at the photo. She blinked furiously, forcing her eyes to clear before tucking the picture into the pocket of her skirt.
Rocks trickled down off the overhang above their heads.
John sighed, glaring up at the hulking silhouette that appeared on the ledge above.
Mina let out a squeak and twisted herself to hide behind Ellis as Ronon jumped off the ledge, landing fluidly beside them.
"It's okay," Ellis lowered his P90 and smiled at the young girl. "He's with us."
Without releasing her hold on Ellis waist, the child peered around Ellis to stare wide-eyed at Ronon.
Ronon slowly lowered himself into a squat next to the child. "Hi."
"Hi," she whispered.
She looked to Ellis for confirmation before answering. "I'm Mina."
"We're trying to find a friend of mine. She's pretty like you, with the same color hair only hers is straight."
Mina nodded solemnly. "Calara was here. But now she's not."
"Calara?" Ronon repeated.
"The name they gave her," Shaana clarified. "Your Doctor Keller.
"Do you know where she is?" John asked Daro's sister.
Shaana shook her head. "She disappeared during the night. At first, I thought perhaps you'd come and taken her back, but when I saw Thea take your people, I knew she'd left on her own. You wouldn't still be here otherwise."
"Take our people?" Evan repeated, his gaze snapping from Cadman to Ellis and back again.
Laura shrugged. "The Colonel said to find out where Jen was hiding…"
John sighed at her casual remark. "I'm not going to want to read that part of the mission report, am I?"
Ellis shook his head. "Probably not."
"We got the weapons back," Laura smiled. "No harm done. And now we know for sure Jen is here. Just not…here, here. Tell them about the soup," she urged Shaana.
"Soup?" Rodney chimed in, with interest.
"Trust me, McKay, this one you don't want to eat," Ellis answered.
"Lemons," Rodney sighed. "It's always lemons."
"Have you heard of regnig root?" Shaana asked the gathered group.
"I have," Teyla answered.
John's stomach rolled over as Shaana and Teyla discussed the power of the plant the old woman had been feeding the women of the village, and why.
"Thea and Tomas have been tearing the village apart looking for your Doctor," Shaana was saying.
"Tomas?" John asked.
"Thea's eldest, although she refuses to call him her son, everyone knows he is. Your Doctor was supposed to be his new wife."
John glanced at Ronon. The Satedan's posture hadn't changed, but John could feel his energy shifting into the red.
"How much of the root did she have?" Ronon growled.
Shaana shook her head. "That's the thing. She has only been here two days. I know Thea's schedule. Two days is long enough your Doctor will have no memory of anything before, yet she still had the foresight to escape a locked room and disappear."
"Locked room," Ronon repeated slowly.
The tone of the Satedan's question made John turn towards him. Ronon wasn't asking about the locked room so much as confirming. "Something you want to share?"
"How do you know it was locked?" Ronon asked Shaana.
"Thea does not allow any of her…acquisitions…free reign at night. All the rooms are well sealed. Heavy doors. Metal locks. Yet your Doctor managed to get through hers without opening it, unlocking it, or being seen by any of the guards. That's why Thea is in such a state. No one knows how much of a head start she has, or how she got out."
John swore Ronon almost flashed a smile. Suspicious, he turned more fully towards him. When Ronon laughed, he was pretty sure he wasn't the only one staring.
"Care to share with the rest of the class?" John asked.
"Kiryk," Ronon announced, slapping John on the shoulder as he sprinted past him and into the trees.
John blinked at the disappearing Satedan while his mind made the connection to the name. "Wait, what? Ronon!"
"Did he just say Kiryk?" Evan asked.
"I believe he did," Teyla answered.
"What's a Kiryk?" Shaana asked.
"An old friend," John answered, adding up the fact that Ronon had given up his search awfully quickly to return to see what Laura had to say. The big guy wouldn't have dropped Doc's trail so quickly if he'd had something to follow. The man was a bloodhound of Pegasus proportions. But if Ronon had found something else to go on…
And Kiryk would definitely explain Doc's miraculous escape from a locked room.
"If Kiryk is here, that's good then, right?" Evan asked.
"Unless he's been eating the soup," Laura muttered.
John flashed her a warning glare, then turned to Ellis. "Take McKay and the ladies back to the ridge. Zelenka should be there with the relay device by now." He looked at Rodney. "I need communication with Atlantis set up A'sap."
Rodney made a face.
John clamped him on the shoulder. "It's important Rodney. Once you can get through to Sanchez and Browne have them dial Atlantis. We need a medical team on standby and as much information as you can get on this regnig root."
Rodney looked ready to argue but he changed his mind. "Just…find her."
John nodded. "No one leaves the planet without her."
Shaana stopped to shake John's hand. "Thank you, Colonel. For myself and for Mina. I have a feeling Ladon is going to owe you another one for this."
"You know Ladon well enough to call in that kind of a favour?"
"It's nice having family in high places," she said with a smile. After thanking Laura, she followed Ellis and Mina through the trees.
John waved the others in the opposite direction. "Move out. We have a Satedan to find."