She awoke slowly, fighting to cling to the foggy remnants of her dreams. Dreams of warmth and safety. Of bright colours and smiles. Dreams of a city in the clouds, radiant and sparking with life and light. It was so clear, she could almost taste the salty air from the sea that surrounded the tall towers. So much water. Clear blue and perfect; it covered the horizon in every direction.
But the misty dream evaporated, leaving her to the cold and uncomfortable tilt of the crooked bed that was the here and now. Gone were the clouds and sunlight. And gone was the man with the dark eyes who reached for her. Called out to her using a name she couldn't remember... A name she couldn't hold on to.
She opened her eyes and looked around the small room. Bare walls and empty floors. The only furniture a bed and a chest of drawers holding a few items of clothing.
This was reality.
Not the dream.
Sighing, she sat up on the narrow cot. She stared at her hands, glowing in a narrow beam of sunlight arcing in from the window high above her head. The golden light made her desperate to hold on to the picture of the tall towers of her dream city, but the images were almost completely faded. All she had left was a feeling of loss and sadness. An urgency of something gone forever.
Squeezing her eyes closed, she willed the images to return. Nothing remained now but two strange shapes that meant nothing to her awake. They were important. She knew that. She just didn't know why.
She traced the patterns on her palm with her index finger, etching them into her memory, willing herself to remember even if she would forget the rest. An arched peak with a small circle hovering above it, and a darker symbol. Three dots. A single line. A winged line.
Sounds outside the door announced the arrival of a visitor. The metallic click of a key in the lock accompanied the twist of the handle and the door swung inward.
An older woman stepped inside, a scowl dominating her wrinkled face. She clomped a small bowl onto the dresser and huffed, “Get dressed. There is much work to do." Then she turned and left, closing the door with a forceful slam.
Alone once more, she rose from the bed, placing her palm on the wall to fight off the momentary dizziness. As room grudgingly settled its spinning, she stepped forward. Her bare feet protested the sting of the cold wooden floor.
She removed the smock she'd slept in, and dressed quickly in a simple skirt and sleeveless shirt. The material was rough and scratched her skin, but she knew she wasn't supposed to complain. She didn't know how she knew, but she did. So, she left it at that.
Next to the dresser sat a bucket of water. She lifted a folded cloth off the handle and dunked it in the water, using the cloth to wipe down her face and arms. It was chilling, but helped clear the fog from her mind.
The bowl on the dresser contained a thick slop of liquid. Soup or stew. It smelled horrible. Something in her mind screamed at her not to touch it, but her stomach pained with emptiness. She knew she needed to eat. Her body needed the fuel. That and the soup made the dizziness go away. A fact she remembered from the day before even though most of her memories from yesterday were foggy and distant.
A side affect of her condition—the injury that kept her from remembering.
They said she'd fallen in the woods during a rainstorm. She'd taken a tumble and hit her head. It had left her bedridden for many days.
Or so they told her.
It was only yesterday she had finally been able to get up and move about. That much she could remember. Starting in the morning, and at various points through the day, her memory was clear. A few places were distant and hazy, but for the most part she had a solid image of her passage through the day from the moment she'd awoken until she'd gone to bed last night.
It was the before that was blank.
Her life was a blackness. A complete blank. She remembered nothing of her self. Her home. Her family.
Not even her name.
They called her Calara. Whenever she tried to say it, her tongue would trip over the word and they would have to say it again. Repeatedly. It was as though her mind wasn't willing to help her either.
She touched her hand to her temple, feeling a pinch of pain as she prodded the scraped area along her hairline. She examined it beneath her fingers, lightly tracing over the scabbed skin to the bruised area under her hair. It was healing well. A fact she new from the touch of her own fingers. Yet she had no understanding of how she could know. Staring at the blank wall above the dresser she wished for a mirror so she could have a better look. Not that she would know what she was looking for. Or looking at.
Giving into the urge to be out of the claustrophobic little room, she lifted the bowl to her lips. The soup was barely warm. She closed her eyes and drank it quickly. A sharp bitter taste followed the bland mixture of root vegetables. It made her tongue tingle.
Her stomach protested as she set the empty bowl back down. She held her breath until the churning subsided.
Exhaling slowly, she slipped her feet into a pair of worn leather boots. They fit loosely, too big for her feet, yet she'd been told they were hers. She tightened them as best she could. Perhaps she preferred them this way? It wasn't as though she could remember if she didn’t.
After running her fingers through her hair to pull out the knots left from sleep, she opened the door.
The hallway outside was narrow, lined with a half a dozen closed doors. Rooms of the other members of the household. Rooms belonging to people she was supposed to have known her whole life. Rooms of her family.
Family whose names and faces were completely blank.
She walked down the hallway to the open area at the end—the kitchen, spacious and bright, lined with cupboards and shelves filled with cooking supplies and plates and utensils. A fire burned in the fireplace, heating a pot of the foul-tasting soup. She could smell it from across the room.
She stopped as soon as she realized she was not alone.
An older man, well dressed in a fitted dark jacket, was seated at the table, finishing a breakfast of cheese and bread. He looked up from his meal and pushed his still full plate aside. "Good morning, daughter," he greeted, his voice low and warm. "How are you feeling?"
Daughter. She studied the man who was her father, seeking recognition or any sense of family or connection, yet past a brief memory of him from the day before there was nothing but emptiness. His hair was short, silver at the top and temple, the colour matching the trimmed beard covering his jaw. His skin was dark from the sun, creased around his eyes which were watching her. Studying her.
She held her place, waiting for him to make the first move.
After a moment, he stood and smiled. The pleasant expression removed the harshness from his stare and allowed her to breathe once again.
"Do not worry yourself," he said with a nod, holding his arms wide and beckoning her closer. "Your memory will return. We just have to give it time."
Guilt washed over her. The man was her father yet she thought no more of him than a perfect stranger. She stepped forward and accepted his quick hug, but it felt awkward and wrong. A shudder shot down her spine and she tried to pull away.
He didn’t fully release her, choosing instead to hold her at arms length. "Now, I'm afraid I have a favour to ask of you, daughter."
"A favour," she whispered, fighting off a sense of dread.
When he frowned, she cleared her throat and tried to sound more cheerful. More agreeable. "Of course," she said with a little more bravado. "Father."
His smile returned. "Tomas needs your help in the store right away. Thea has gone to run some errands today."
He watched her expectantly, and she nodded, connecting the two names with people. "Thea," she repeated. The name of the grumpy old woman who'd brought her breakfast.
"Your grandmother," her father confirmed. "And you met Tomas yesterday. Do you remember?"
She nodded. She did remember Tomas, now that her father had mentioned the name. He was a heavy-set man with narrow eyes and a sharp nose. Clean shaven. Short dark hair. She didn't think he was much taller than she was, if she was indeed remembering the right man.
"He wears glasses?" she asked.
Her father smiled. "See? You're doing better already. But I'm afraid Tomas needs you to start right away."
"I don't know if I will be much help to him."
"Nonsense. You do it all the time. It will be second nature. Just like walking and talking." He placed his arm over her shoulder and guided her towards the side door. As they rounded the table he snagged a piece of the thick yellow cheese and handed it to her. "Here," he whispered conspiratorially. "This will help get rid of the taste of that horrible soup."
She smiled hesitantly and accepted the cheese. She chewed slowly, letting the sharp taste fill her mouth and cover up the acrid leftovers of her breakfast.
They stepped through the door and into a long hallway. There were no doors other than the ones at either end. Light streamed through a collection of glassed slits along the ceiling. She looked up, catching sight of the clear blue sky high above. Small fluffs of clouds floated aimlessly, making her yearn to be up there with them. Sailing about in the sky. She wanted to touch them, to float with them, not be stuck behind the weathered glass of the ceiling windows.
"Come." Her father tugged her arm, drawing her attention back to him.
She followed him to the door at the other end of the long hall. He held it for her and she stepped through, nearly bumping into the man on the other side.
Yes. Now that she was seeing his face she could remember meeting the man the day before. But aside from his name, anything else she knew about him was gone along with the rest. She felt a slight flicker of guilt and disappointment. Tomas had told her yesterday they'd been friends since childhood.
Tomas stepped back, giving her room to enter. "Good morning, Calara. Thank you for coming."
Her father gave her a quick pat on the shoulder and stepped back into the hallway. He turned away with a wave, closing the door behind him.
The click of the lock sounded drilled into her like a blade.
She turned back to face Tomas, but shied back when another man loomed out of her peripherals. He was big and bulky, wearing ill fitting trousers and a jacket that was stretched to near busting around his large girth. He cradled a black barrelled rifle in his meaty arms.
"This is Maron," Thomas said. He followed her gaze to the gun Maron carried. "Do not worry." Tomas reached for her wrist and pulled her towards the front of the store. "Maron is here for your protection."
"Protection?" she asked, worried about what she needed protecting from. Her father hadn't mentioned anything. Or perhaps he did and she didn't remember.
She rubbed her temple, wishing she could have her mind back.
Tomas lead her in behind a long counter, guiding her towards a locked box and a pad of paper. "I will assist the customers finding their items. I need you to keep track of their purchases."
He pointed to the paper.
"This is where you record everything that is purchased."
She nodded, willing to help, but not believing she would be able to.
Tomas showed her a sample of previous records, tabled with a neat description and the value beside it. Then lifted a key from the pocket of his coat and unlocked the small metal box. Inside was a collection of coins. He explained the values of the coins.
She repeated the values back to him.
He smiled. “See? You do remember.”
She almost told him that it wasn’t that she remembered, it was that the numbers were an easy to use base 10 system, but had no idea how she even knew it, much less what it meant.
Taking her silence as agreement, Tomas left her behind the counter and walked to the front of the store to open the door and let in the first customers.
John Sheppard tipped his head left then right, briefly enjoying the cracking and popping sound around the bones in his neck as he released part of the tension built up after three days of running blind.
He'd shuffled through a full deck of emotions the seventy-two hours—shock and disbelief, impatience and fear—and finally settled into a lethal dose of anger that was curling itself around his mind.
Someone had taken one of his people.
And that was not acceptable.
It had been thirty-six hours since Jennifer Keller had been taken. A wink in time to the ancients, an eternity to those she'd left behind. The city had been put on full lock down with all military teams recalled and reassigned to search for the missing CMO. Friends and allies were contacted. Enemies chased down and questioned. It was a well directed mess of controlled insanity as every lead, every sighting, every whisper was tracked down and followed.
Yet every clue dead ended into nothingness. They were no further ahead now than they were the moment they'd learned of her abduction. It was starting to take its toll.
John glanced over his shoulder at the hulking statue striding through the darkness on his right. John knew the big man was hurting, but any words of comfort would be empty and useless.
It hadn't taken a genius level IQ to note there was something connecting the Satedan and the young doctor. After everything he'd been through, Ronon deserved a taste of normalcy. The comforts of home. Real friends. A companion. A woman who wouldn't take his bullshit or his solitary defiance, and who would always keep him on his toes. A beauty to his beast.
He needed Jennifer.
And Jennifer? Well, Jennifer needed someone who wasn't jaded by Earth's unwritten rules of who she should be. That she was too young for her position. Too pretty to be taken seriously. And the wrong gender to be in charge. She needed a champion. A protector. Someone to keep the wolves at bay and let her do her job.
She needed Ronon.
And while neither one would have admitted it, John hadn't missed the way they acted around each other. The awkward touches. The sly looks when each thought the other wasn't paying attention. The random times Ronon would let John win a sparring match just so they could visit the Doc in the infirmary. The way the Jennifer seemed to lose all sense of concentration whenever Ronon was around. There were too many reasons to list, and too many to miss. John didn't know for sure how far the two had progressed in their relationship, if at all, but the thread had been sewn.
They were a pair whether they knew it or not.
And now Jennifer was missing. Dragged away from the home of a woman she'd been sent to help.
SGA4 had escorted her into the small cabin, but when too much time passed and she hadn't come back out, they'd rushed in to discover the cottage was empty. There was no trace of the older woman who'd taken ill...and no sign of the CMO.
Ronon had tracked the captors to the creek running through the woods behind the cottage. Four men and two women, one with a standard Atlantis boot tread.
Jennifer had been alive when she left the cottage through the back window.
Both good news, and bad, because she hadn't gone willingly. Her footsteps had been staggered and uneven, suggesting she was walking under duress, or injured.
Ronon managed to follow the tracks back to the gate, but the trail died amidst all the other impressions from the daily gate travellers. After that all trace of Jennifer had disappeared into the stars. It was there the search had begun, and hadn't stopped.
It was only because of the mandatory check in policy he himself had ordered that he’d even paused his own part in the search and was returning to the gate with Ronon and Teyla. He would have preferred to stay in the village, questioning the last of the locals with Major Teldy's team, but sometimes being the CO meant he couldn’t throw as many fists as he so desperately wanted to.
When they reached the clearing, the stargate loomed up out of the darkness, its silver arch sparkling in the light of the full moons overhead. Crossing the open field, John turned his head towards Teyla, walking silently on his other side.
They'd lost too many friends to this galaxy. Too many had been buried. To many gone. Ford. Elizabeth. Even Teyla.
John's heart cramped to think of the days and weeks he'd searched for this woman. Sleepless nights and lost thoughts, hours of grieving and fearing the worst. Every time he looked at her he thanked whoever was up there for giving her back.
As though she could hear his thoughts, which he often wondered if she could, Teyla reached out and gripped his fingers, applying a gentle pressure of warmth of skin before she let go.
They continued on in silence, their pace brisk and purposeful. Time was not something they had to waste.
As they neared the DHD, the first of the chevrons clanked, announcing an incoming wormhole. Without a word or needing to be ordered to, Ronon disappeared into the shadows, his blaster in his hand. John and Teyla stepped back, recent events leaving them unwilling to trust any newcomers to this planet.
As soon as the event horizon stabilized, a single man stepped through. The light from the moons above highlighted familiar military hardware as Evan Lorne jogged forward.
"Colonel," Lorne nodded, sliding to a stop in front of them. "We've got something."
By late morning, she was quite sure she'd had to have met most of the town in the few hours she'd been behind the counter. But despite the volume of newcomers, the sea of faces had blurred past in a stream of total strangers.
It would seem that everyone in the near vicinity knew she'd lost her mind.
With each chime of the door, she'd been introduced to yet another person she was supposed to have known since she was born. Each one addressed her as Calara, told her random stories of their week's activities, and commented on happenings she didn't understand. After a while she'd given up trying to remember anything out of the fog that was her past, and settled into studying the people.
Analyzing those who came into the store began as curiosity and a need to know, and ended with too many questions that were left unanswered... starting with why the only visitors to the shop, were men.
She could see the women through the window, dressed in their colourful skirts and blouses, smiling and chatting with each other on the sidewalk and across the central square. Some carried packages. One or two tugged small children about on their errands. It looked almost as busy outside on the street as it did inside the store. Yet only the men ventured inside to pick up supplies.
When she could stand it no longer, she asked Tomas. His response was to laugh and tell her the women should be happy the men were doing all the shopping for once.
She wasn't sure why it was so funny to him, so she let it drop.
During the quiet times, Tomas and Maron would retreat to the back, their whispered conversation too quiet to reach her ears. She had no doubts she was the topic of their conversation, but at the same time, she was probably the topic of conversation across the whole village. She distracted herself by drawing random sketches on a scrap of note paper while she tried to catch what they were saying. Whenever they returned to her she hid the paper under the sums pad. She had no idea why she wanted to keep it from Tomas, only that she must.
The brief chunks of quiet were quickly interrupted by the next wave of curious villagers. Introductions and explanations were once again given, and pleasantries exchanged. Her cheeks were stinging from forcing herself to smile. A few of the late morning customers actually made purchases, but she understood it was more for show. They were there as an excuse to check out the sideshow that was her inability to remember anything.
She'd done her best to record the purchases neatly in the journal as required, but Maron's overly watchful attention whenever she handled the money made her nervous. It hadn't taken her long to understand that despite Tomas' assurances that Maron was there for her protection, it wasn't the patrons he was watching, it was her. Every time she moved, he shifted his grip on his rifle as though he expected her to leap over the counter and take him down like some kind of warrior princess.
At the thought, an image danced across her mind.
A beautiful woman with long flowing hair, spinning gracefully around a soldier with dark hair, her bare feet connecting solidly to send him crashing to the floor. The warrior woman laughed at the victory and the soldier laughed at the loss.
The vision called to her with such force it gave her an instant headache. She dropped her head into her hands and rested her elbows on the counter.
A presence passed in front of her and she opened her eyes, looking up into Tomas face. "Are you unwell?" he asked, his eyes narrowed.
She nodded. Perhaps he would let her go lie down. The sooner she could avoid meeting any more people, the better.
Tomas turned to Maron. "Go get her another bowl of Thea's soup."
"What about her?" Maron questioned.
"I'm here," Tomas answered, withdrawing a small key from his pocket and unlocking the door that lead back down the hallway to the kitchen. "Just go get the soup."
She shook her head at the thought of another bowl of that disgusting slop. The vision had gone, the dizziness abated. She didn't need the bitter soup. "I'm fine," she lied, forcing herself to smile.
"It is not for you to choose," Tomas said firmly, closing the door behind the retreating Maron. "You will eat the soup."
A chime over the door announced the arrival of yet another customer. As she turned her attention to the front, her lungs froze at the sight of the man striding into the small shop.
In stature alone he managed to overpower the entire room. Taller than Tomas by a head. Taller than her by even more. But his size and mass was not wide and sloppy like Maron's. Oh no. Where Tomas and Maron were soft and bulky, this man was lean.
Headache forgotten, she couldn't stop staring at him.
He wore black leather pants tucked into worn black boots, and a black vest covering a black shirt. His muscular arms were bare, save for leather gauntlets he wore on each wrist, and a strange looking band circling one forearm. A long blade hung at his side, and the handles of several others extended from his belt and his boots. His hair was brown, short and finger combed, and his jaw was covered in several days worth of growth.
Tomas stepped forward. "Good morning, traveller. How can we help you today?"
The newcomer didn't answer. Instead he slowly shifted his attention away from Tomas, to her.
Trapped beneath his direct stare, she couldn't catch a full breath, and she couldn’t look away.
His eyes were such an amazing shade—a warring blue grey. For a moment, she thought she saw surprise in their depths, but whatever emotion had been there died, leaving her struggling to understand her reaction to the man. He continued to stare at her as though reading her broken mind.
When Tomas moved, she jumped, but the traveller didn’t even react. She had a sense that even though he looked only at her, he knew exactly what and who was in every inch of space around him.
“Is there something you need?” Tomas asked.
"Supplies," the traveller answered, his voice deep and his tone clipped.
"Of course," Tomas replied with a smile, but his eyes were wary. Tomas' attention shifted from the shelves, to the traveller, to her, then back to the traveller again. "We have many items. What exactly are you looking for?"
"Rope," the traveller said, still refusing to break eye contact with her.
Tomas stepped between them. "We have several different styles of rope."
She knew Tomas was trying to block her view of the newcomer, but the traveller was too tall. Yet she couldn’t stop herself from standing up from her stool just so she wouldn’t lose eye contact. She was hypnotized—trapped—and unwilling to accept Tomas’ attempts to get in the way.
"Woven thread," Tomas was saying. "Cawls-hide, light rope for mending packs, heavy rope for binding..."
"Heavy," the man answered, his gaze unwavering as he continued to study her over Tomas' head. "Six arms length."
When Tomas didn't move the traveller finally shifted his attention away from her. "That’s all,” he said, towering over the shopkeeper.
Without his gaze to hold her up, she felt as though a string had been cut, sending he dropping back down onto her stool.
Tomas slid out from beneath the man's shadow and hurried to the back of the room to collect the rope.
In a single stride the traveller closed the distance to the counter. Despite her earlier fascination, she couldn't stop herself from scrambling off the stool and backing away. The space behind the counter was narrow, so she barely made it a few inches before bumped into the shelves at her back.
Even with the width of the counter space separating them, she couldn't shake the feeling that this was a very, very dangerous man. Yet at the same time, the feeling also gave her pause. With every other man she met today she'd felt nothing. No emotion. No reaction. No fear.
But with this man…
She lifted her hand to the side of her neck. Beneath the press of her cool fingers, her own heart beat a hurried rhythm.
Whoever the traveller was, he was the first person she’d met who made her feel something.
His eyes lowered, and she followed the direction, catching sight of her doodles sticking out from beneath the edge of the sums pad. Repeated sketches of the pointed peak with the tiny circle floating above.
Panic jerked through her limbs to be caught with the picture. She snatched the small piece of paper and stuffed it quickly into a pocket in her skirt before he said something Tomas might overhear.
The traveller's expression remained closed off as though he wasn’t even bothered by her reaction.
When the door at the back of the room banged open, she wasn't sure who was more surprised. Tomas, who nearly dropped the rope he was bringing forward, she herself, who jerked with a gasp, or Maron, who wasn't sure why everyone was standing about staring at each other in shocked silence.
The traveller didn’t even flinch.
At the sight of the newcomer, Maron frowned, unsure of how to juggle the bowl of soup and his rifle. His arms bobbled and he looked to Tomas for instruction.
Tomas stepped forward and slapped a coil of corded yellow rope onto the counter. "Six arms length.”
The traveller didn’t answer.
“Will there be anything else?" Tomas asked, puffing out his chest. He clearly felt braver now that Maron had returned.
“No,” the traveller answered, watching as Maron wedged his heavy girth in behind the counter.
Maron sidestepped until he was standing at her side. He reached over and clunked the bowl of soup onto the counter in front of her. "Your soup, Calara" he announced then placed both his hands on the rifle and glared at the newcomer.
The scent of the soup assaulted her nose. She swallowed quickly, feeling her stomach turn at the thought of having to drink it once again.
The traveller's nostrils flared. He glanced down at the bowl, then back up to her face. This time his attention was centered on her temple.
She nervously touched her bruised forehead, fluffing her bangs down to cover the injured area.
After a tense pause, the traveller reached into his pocket.
Maron stiffened, and Tomas took a step back.
Without reacting to Maron's bluster, the man slapped several coins on the counter. She reached for them, but Thomas smacked his hand over them first. "Thank you," he said briskly, shoving the rope closer. "Have a good day."
Without a word, the traveller picked up the coil of rope and backed towards the door. He gave her one last glance, then disappeared into the street.
Watching the strength of his gait as he strode across the village square, she had a horrible feeling twisting through the pit of her stomach that she'd just missed something very, very important.
But she had no idea what it was.
Unwilling to give into false hope, but equally unwilling to let any potential lead slip away, John kept his silence as he ran up the stairs to Woolsey's office, followed by Ronon, Teyla, and Evan.
John’s attention skipped over the director to the two men with him. The first he recognized immediately—Ladon Radim—leader of the Genii. The second visitor was barely out of his teens, but also wearing a Genii uniform.
"Colonel," Ladon greeted with a wry smile. "Major, Ronon, Teyla."
"Ladon," Sheppard replied, ignoring his curiosity on the identity of the young man and getting right to the point. "I hear you have something for us."
"I believe I do." Ladon clamped his hand on the shoulder of the young man beside him. "This is Daro. Six months ago, Daro's sister was taken while helping an old woman who'd become sick. She was seen going into the old woman’s cottage through the front door, but never came back out.”
John glanced at the others. The similar circumstance was not missed by any of them.
Ladon nodded encouragement to the younger man. “Tell them.”
Daro cleared his throat. "Colonel," he began. "Shaana is...was...the only family I have. After she went missing, I was granted a leave from my duties to search for her. I have spent every waking hour trying to find her. To get her back."
"Did you find her?" John asked.
Daro shook his head. "No. Not yet. But in my travels, I came across several families with similar stories. Each had a daughter, a sister, a niece, who was taken while helping a sick old woman. Always in through the front door, and never to come back out. Upon searching the house would be empty."
Not liking the sound of this, John posed the question he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to. "How many?"
"Eighteen," Daro answered. "Nineteen, counting your Doctor."
"Nineteen," Telya repeated softly.
"Daro believes he has found the connection," Ladon said.
"The sick old woman is not the only similarity," Daro answered quickly. "Each woman was taken within the days following a travelling trade festival."
Teyla stepped closer to John. "Lorentia had a trade festival this week. Two days before Dr. Keller was taken."
"So, someone connected to the festival is behind the disappearances," Evan voiced. “Do we know where they are now?”
"There's more," Laton said, waving Evan off. "Daro was on Lorentia the night Doctor Keller went missing."
All eyes turned to the young man.
“What did you see?” Ronon demanded, stepping forward.
Daro shifted his weight nervously.
"It's all right," Ladon prompted the young man. "Tell them."
"I was in the tavern three nights back," the younger man began. "Two men in the corner were talking. Both had too much to drink so their words flowed a little too loudly. The stranger was talking about being paid to escort a family from the far side of the village where the creek narrowed, through the forest, to the gate."
"Where Jennifer was taken," Ronon confirmed.
"It sounded like it was not the first time he'd had to complete such a task,” Daro added.
"We've got to find him," Ronon looked directly at John.
"We already have him," Ladon said. "The problem is, he isn't talking."
"He’ll talk," Ronon growled.
Ladon shook his head. "While I don't doubt your abilities, Ronon, he isn't going to talk to you." Then he turned and looked directly at Teyla. "But he will talk to you."
"He cannot be Athosian!" Teyla shook her head vehemently. She turned to face John. "My people would never be involved in such a thing."
"He's not Athosian," Ladon said. "He's Ahmazos."
John didn't know who the Ahmazos were, but from Teyla's expression, she did.
"Who... or what… are the Ahmazos?" he asked, looking between Teyla and Ladon.
"Warrior tribe," Ronon answered first. "Lead by women."
"Women warriors?" John raised both eyebrows.
"Not...exactly..." Teyla tilted her head and turned more fully towards John. "The Ahmazos do not seek out battles, but they are indeed fierce fighters. They are a matriarchal tribe. As a ruling class, men have no power in their society. The men are considered... well... slaves. Non-people. Some are trained as soldiers, others serve which ever royal house they are born into. But they are never allowed into a position of power."
Richard Woolsey leaned his head to the side. "So, the Ahmazos have taken Dr. Keller?"
"I do not believe so," Teyla answered. "Their blood lines are very well protected. They would have no need for another woman. And it is not their... style."
"They tend to keep to themselves," Ronon added.
"So how are they involved?" John asked, confused as to what the connection could possibly be between a warrior tribe and their very non-warrior doctor.
"I don't believe he was acting as part of his tribe," Daro interjected. "He was not dressed in their traditional clothing. I only recognized him because of the clan markings on his arms."
“Tattoos,” Ronon said.
Teyla bobbed her head. "Ahmazos men have many tattoos identifying which royal house they belong to, and their status and rank within.”
"So, he's working solo." John surmised.
"Doubt it," Ronon growled. "If he's Ahmazos, he wouldn't make a move unless he was told to."
"Ronon is correct," Teyla said. "An Ahmazos man would not make such decisions on his own. But he would follow orders."
"The old woman?" Evan asked.
Teyla nodded to Daro. "It would seem that the old woman is consistent to the kidnappings."
John turned to Ladon. "Where is he now?"
"We have him locked up," Ladon answered.
"Then what are we waiting for?" John moved towards the door.
"Colonel," Teyla called him back. "If this man truly is Ahmazos, then he will eat his own tongue before he answers any of your questions."
"Eat his own tongue?" John's brow furrowed.
Ronon turned to stand beside Teyla. "Ahmazos men are raised from birth to believe no other man has power over them. It makes them formidable in battle because they have nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. Teyla is right. They won't talk for us. But they will talk for her."
"Why? Because she's a woman?" John glanced quickly at Telya. "Not that that's a bad thing... I mean... I just meant..."
"I understood.” Teyla flashed him a knowing smile. "And the answer is yes. He will talk to me. If he believes I am Ahmazos."
"Right." John glanced at the group then turned to face the Athosian. "So how do we make him think you're this… Ahmazos?"
"I believe I know a way. Ahmazos matriarchs travel with six royal guards. May I request the assistance of the Major's team?"
John tipped his head to Evan, who stepped into the hallway to contact his men.
Teyla turned back to John. "I must go change. Please have them gather in the gateroom in fifteen minutes. Ronon will explain."
"Done," John agreed.
"There is one other...thing," she asked with slight hesitance.
"Name it," he answered.
"If we are to make this work, we need one more person."
John nodded. "Who?"
Ronon paced a narrow path in front of the inactive stargate. He wanted to grasp onto the hope that the Ahmazos man would know where Jennifer was, but at the same time he was almost afraid to let it plant seed. He couldn't stop thinking of all the reasons someone would take her. There were too many... and they hurt too much to consider.
He glanced briefly at the gathered group standing in the middle of the gateroom. Lorne's team. Sheppard. He knew without doubt that each man would give their life to save Jennifer. As would he. But this time the battle would not involve weapons. Their ploy would be a dangerous one... but not in the sense that they themselves had anything to worry about. The Ahmazos man was locked up. He could do them no physical harm. No, it was the danger of time that was their enemy. The longer Jennifer was out there alone...the more chance there was...
No. He would not think that.
He gave his head a shake and continued his pacing. There was no doubt in his mind that with enough time, he could have the Ahmazos talking. But time was not their friend. Jennifer had already been gone too long. They needed answers, and they needed them quickly.
When Michael had taken Teyla, Ronon fought with all his being to find her. But in the back of his mind, he'd taken refuge in the fact that Teyla was a warrior; a woman who would look for escape in every opening. Every advantage. Jennifer wasn't trained to see the dangers in every situation. She wouldn't calculate escape. She wouldn't see the chances provided to her by a change in guard, by encroaching darkness, by violent weather.
Jennifer would only see captivity.
She was strong of heart. Of that he had no doubt. But courage to outlast would not help her in a physical situation. Ronon could only hope that her courage could hold long enough for him to find her. To bring her back home.
Back to him.
To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.
The saying was stuck in his head, bouncing back and forth around his worry for Jennifer. He'd had a world once. A world that had been centered around one person. The Wraith had stolen both his world, and the one person in it. The loss had left him with an emptiness he couldn't replace. Didn't want to replace. It fuelled him. Fed him. Kept him running. Kept him alive.
But all that changed the moment Beckett had freed him. Removed the tracker. Given him back his life. He'd taken the gift of a second chance and hadn't looked back. The road to his new life hadn't been easy. The journey was not smooth. But he'd arrived to find himself in a new world. With a new home. A new family of friends.
The quiet young woman with the light of innocence still shining in her eyes. When they'd first met he'd thought same as everyone else; that she shouldn't be here. That she was too weak to survive in such a dangerous place. Only Carson and Elizabeth had seen through Jennifer's hesitant smile and soft voice to the fighter locked inside. They alone believed.
But she'd fooled him. She'd fooled them all.
She belonged here. A part of this world. His world.
He would get her back.
Movement at the back of the gateroom caught his attention. Teyla had returned.
In her short absence, she had partially changed her uniform, settling on a combination of Earth and Pegasus. On the bottom, she still wore her BDU's and sidearm, but her vest and shirt had been replaced with a short, tightly fitted top that left both her arms and her midsection bare.
Ronon nodded his approval to Teyla. She'd done well to bridge the gap between how the Ahmazos tribes would dress, and the Earth military uniforms. The Ahmazos tribes didn't hold to one particular style of uniform, but they did demand conformity within each Royal house. If Teyla were to represent the 'Lantians as Ahmazos, she would need to match their attire to some extent, yet be different enough that she could stand out.
Behind Teyla, Laura Cadman followed. The Lieutenant was dressed in a similar fashion, however Laura's bare arms were now covered with an intricate design of circles and loops done in black ink.
"Nice tat's, Lieutenant," John commented upon seeing Cadman's markings.
"Glad you like them, Sir," she answered, turning her arm and looking down at the black loops and spirals that ran down from her shoulders to her wrists. "It's permanent marker so it's going to be there for a while."
"We did not have time to think of any other way," Telya explained, turning to John.
"If it gets Dr. Keller back," John began, then let the rest of the statement drop. He looked down at his own arms. “Is this something we should be worried about?"
Teyla shook her head. "The men’s markings are normally reserved for the upper arms, shoulders, and back. Your uniforms are covering enough."
"What about Ronon," John asked. "Shouldn't he be wearing BDU's like the rest of us?"
Teyla glanced at the Satedan, then shook her head. "No. It will be expected we an emissary to the Genii, which is how we know of the prisoner. Ronon will be fine if he places himself closer to Ladon than to you.”
Ronon nodded his agreement. He hated knowing that he wasn’t going to be the one to deliver the pain, but the look in Cadman’s eyes told him she wasn’t going to hold anything back.
Teyla glanced at the others who were standing behind John. "Ronon has explained how this must work?"
Evan moved closer. "We need to stay behind both of you at all times like a group of meek choir boys, yet still look pissed off and imposing. I think we've got it covered."
"Laura will be my...second in command," Teyla said, tipping her head to Laura. "She is the only person allowed to voice her concern for Dr. Keller, the only person allowed to command you on my behalf, and the only person allowed to move about freely in front of the prisoner. No matter what happens, you must remain behind us, and you must not speak or act unless I, or Laura, have ordered it. This is very important."
"Roger that," Evan nodded. He looked up to the control room on the second floor and tipped his index finger in the air.
As the gate began the dialing sequence, Woolsey, Ladon and Daro descended the stairs from Richard's office and joined them.
"Well done, Teyla," Ladon nodded approvingly.
"I only hope it works," she replied.
"It will work," Ronon answered.
It has to.
Her day ended as it had begun, locked once again in the small bedroom.
Too weary to bother changing out of her clothes, she sat on the edge of the narrow bed and placed her hand on her stomach. Her abdomen ached from her solitary diet of soup. Although, despite its horrid taste, her headache was finally gone. One bonus.
Now if she could just get the dizzy spells to go away.
At least she'd made a connection between the attacks and the random flicker of memories. The more she tried to collect the memories—keep them—the worse the dizziness became. She'd eventually had to give up trying to hold onto the mental pictures for fear that she'd be made to eat any more soup.
If she never saw another bowl of the horrible slop it would be too soon.
She flopped back onto the narrow bed and looked up at her only light source, the narrow window high above. Through the glass, a sliver of moon floated on a sea of sparkling stars, teasing her with tales of places far away. She lifted her hand and traced the outline of the hooked moon through the air with her index finger. After a moment, she let her arm drop back down. A small, hard lump pressed beneath her thumb as she rested her hand on her hip. Digging into her pocket, she removed a crumpled scrap of paper. Her sketches. Unfolding the page, she stared at the outlines she'd traced during her morning in the store. Holding it up, the light of the moon above shone through the thin paper, highlighting the repeated image; the pointed peak and the small circle floating above it. She'd drawn it over and over. Multiple copies of the same shape. Different sizes, different line thickness, but the same unusual shape.
It gave her a sense of calm to see it, yet she couldn't understand why. What did it mean? Why was it so important that despite all that she'd forgotten, this image refused to leave her alone? She hadn’t seen it anywhere within the house or store. Not on any books, or material, or signs. She’d thought to ask Tomas, or her father, but whenever the words touched her tongue, her throat would close up and her heart speed with a racing fury.
She couldn’t share it.
She couldn’t share it with anyone.
Blinking away the surging despair at her missing memories, she rubbed her eyes free of any wayward tears. It would do her no good to cry.
She crumpled the page and stuffed it back into her pocket.
With a weary sigh, she closed her eyes, letting the light of the silver moon lull her into the dreams.
The circle of blue was so beautiful... It looked like a curtain of sun kissed water; suspended in the center of the decorated sphere. A group of people stood in front of it. Smiling. Beckoning her. Calling her name. She walked towards them...but no matter how far she travelled, they remained the same distance away. She walked faster. Jogged. Then ran. The harder she fought to reach them, the farther away they drifted. Someone called her name. A name she almost recognized, but couldn’t catch hold of. At first it was a whisper. A soft word carried away by the wind. Then it grew louder. Forceful. It carried an urgency that made her heart speed up. She ran.
She opened her mouth to answer, to call out to them, to tell them to come back, but a hand pressed over her mouth kept her from getting the words out.
It took but a moment for her to realize the words were truly trapped because there really was a hand covering her mouth.
This was no dream!
Panic screamed through her limbs as she fought the shadow form, but it was like wrestling with a statue.
"Stop." The command came in a harsh whisper, blown warm against her ear. "I won’t hurt you.”
She froze. The voice did not belong to someone from her household. With the beat of her heart warring in her ears, opened her eyes.
A giant shadow loomed above her bed, blocking out even the moons high above.
"I’m going to move my hand,” he whispered harshly. "You will not scream."
Knowing she had little choice but to do as he said, she bobbed her head. She would not scream.
He lessened the pressure of his hand until it was gone completely. Then he rose to his full height next to the bed.
She scurried back against the headboard. With the distance, she could see him now.
His presence overpowered the tiny space of her small room. She should be screaming—crying out for help—but some how she felt a strange sense of security at his presence. The strength and calm that surrounded him, flowed from him, calmed her fear.
"Say something," he ordered.
She wasn't sure what she expected him to say—this strange man standing in her bedroom—but a demand for her to speak was not the first thing she would have considered.
"What...what do you want?" she whispered.
He dropped his chin and stared down at her. "It is you."
"I..." she blinked. "Yes? It is?"
He frowned, and leaned closer. "You don't remember me."
"You were in the store today.”
She took a moment to study him in the faint light of the moon above. He was dressed the same as he had been in the store. Black leather. Weapons. She remembered him from earlier in the day, but beyond that, there was nothing. "No," she answered honestly. "I don't remember you. Should...should I?"
He nodded. "You should."
"I'm sorry." The apology escaped before she could question why she felt the need to say it to him.
He shifted his weight, lowering his large frame until he was squatting next to the narrow bed. She held her breath as he reached towards her forehead. He pushed her bangs aside with his index finger.
"Who hit you?" he asked, his tone clipped.
She flinched when his finger prodded the bruise at her temple. "I fell."
He lowered his hand, but remained crouched next to the bed. His eyes narrowed. "Do you remember falling?"
She shook her head. "They said I was in the forest," she repeated what she'd been told. "I hit my head on a rock."
The directness of his gaze pinned her. "How long have you been here?"
"My whole life?" she ventured.
He snorted. "How long have you been here that you can remember..."
"Good?" she frowned. Why was that good?
"What do you remember before that? Do you remember anything of Atlantis?”
"Atlantis?" she repeated. "Who's Atlantis?"
"Not who. What. Atlantis is your home."
"My home?" She shook her head, her eyes taking in the tiny room before slipping back to the man before her. "This is my home."
"This is not your home," he scowled. "No more than it is mine."
"I don't understand..."
"The pictures you drew this morning," he prompted. "Do you remember them?"
Her hand automatically hovered over the small pocket at her waist. She hesitated only a moment before reaching into the pocket and withdrawing the crumpled piece of paper. She straightened it, pulling it taut between her fingers.
He leaned forward and pointed to one of the larger copies of the pointed shape with its floating circle. "This symbol is from the Ring of the Ancestors. What your people call a Star Gate."
"A Star Gate," she repeated as she stared at the repeated image drawn by her own hand. Star Gate. It sounded pretty. Magical.
"It's used to travel between worlds."
Travelling between worlds? Worlds? As in planets? Her heart quickened. She looked to the windows high above. Stars and moons. Hundreds. No, thousands. Millions. And a gate. A gate to the stars. She lowered her eyes to the designs she held in her hand. Stargate. The word whispered through her thoughts.
The travellers deep voice brought her back to her present situation. "Do you remember your name?"
She blinked at him, her tongue unable to form around the name they called her.
"Your name?" he repeated.
"I... it's... Cala..." She cleared her throat and tried again. "Calara."
No? What did he mean, no? No, that was not her name? Or no, she'd said it wrong? Calara. Yes, that was definitely the name they'd called her. Tomas. Maron. Her father. Everyone she'd met. Her name was Calara, and this was her home. So why was the is man, this stranger, so intent on telling her differently?
"Who...who are you?" she finally thought to ask.
He clamped his fingers over her mouth. "Someone’s coming."
She strained to hear over the sound of her own breathing. His tension translated straight through to her spine and she shivered. Outside in the hallway, a floorboard creaked.
"Tell them nothing," he whispered harshly, lifting his hand from her mouth. He wrapped her fingers around the paper she still clutched until it was well hidden within in her fist. "Do not trust anyone.”
He stepped away from the bed.
She scrambled to her feet. "But—”
"And don’t eat or drink anything they give you."
“I’ll come back for you.”
"Wait!" she hissed, but with a touch to the band across his forearm, he was gone.
He'd completely disappeared.
How was that even possible?
A metallic snap in the lock spun her towards the door as it swung inward. She gasped aloud to realize the traveller must have come into her room the same way he’d left because the door was still locked. From the outside.
"What are you doing?" Thea walked into the room, the flickering light of the lantern she held making her scowl seem dark and dangerous. "Who are you talking to?"
"I..." she stared at the empty space where the traveller had just stood. "I was just... talking to myself. I am sorry if I disturbed you."
The old woman lifted the lantern higher and glanced around the small room. Her arm shot out, jabbing a cup forward. "Drink!"
The scent of the evil soup reached her nostrils and she shuddered, remembering the traveller’s order not to eat or drink anything they gave her.
The old woman stepped closer, the lantern hovering beside her face, casting long shadows across her deep features. "Drink," she commanded, jabbing the cup even closer.
Thea wouldn’t care if Calara had to be force fed the soup, so long as her command was obeyed. So, she lifted the bowl to her mouth and gulped down the tepid liquid.
Thea snatched the empty cup away and stomped into the hallway. "Get to bed," she ordered. "You have much work to do tomorrow."
The door closed with a definitive bang and was instantly locked.
Muffled voices from hallway caught her attention. Suddenly worried Thea had just encountered her traveller, she rushed to the door, straining to hear. She pressed her ear to the wood, but the deeper voice on the other side was not the low, gravelly baritone of the Traveller.
It was Tomas who Thea was talking to.
Curious to know if they were talking about the traveller, she dropped to her knees and lay her ear against the keyhole.
"...the dizzy spells," Tomas was saying.
"We cannot give her any more of the soup," Thea answered. "One pot a day is all. Any more and the root will cause too much damage."
"You accepted her because she is intelligent," Thea snapped. "Unless you want to marry a simpering fool, you will do as I tell you. Now stop chattering and go to bed."
"Yes, Thea," Tomas replied, sounding chastised. "Good night."
The sound of a door closing accompanied a set of retreating footsteps until there was nothing left to hear but silence.
Thea's word sent her heart racing.
Dear God... she was Tomas’ wife?
She backed away from the door, her retreat stopping only once her knees connected against the back of the bed. Her mind repeated the old woman's words.
Thea said want to marry, which meant it hadn’t yet happened.
Relief sagged her spine and she sank onto the mattress.
She leaned back against the headboard, tipping her face to the moonlight high above and let herself drift with thoughts of a magical gate through the stars.
As the group followed Ladon through the trees towards the Genii encampment, Laura dropped back to walk beside Evan.
"Hey," he greeted softly.
"Hey," she repeated, drawing a calming strength from his presence. She hated feeling this off-kilter. She thought she was used to the stress and adrenaline of life in Pegasus, but this situation was yanking her emotions in too many directions.
She wasn't sure how to answer. Was she okay? No, and she wouldn't be until they had Jen back. Was she going to get Jen back? Oh yes. If it took her last breath.
She'd cycled through so many emotions since her best friend had been taken, but with Ladon's assurance that the man they held did indeed know something, the fear and worry had been pushed aside to make room for cold hard anger.
"If this guy knows where Jen is," she whispered, "then God help him. Because I won't."
"Easy, Red," Evan cautioned. "He's no good to us if you kill him before the first question."
Laura snorted. "Oh, I won't let him off that easy."
"Just be careful.”
Laura glanced sideways at the Major, not missing the worry in his eyes.
"I'm always careful.”
Evan flashed her a grin. "Careful is never a word I would associate with you."
"No?" She smiled, jumping into the lighthearted conversation he offered, letting it wash over her shattered nerves like a healing balm. She knew he was doing it on purpose, and almost hugged him for it. "What would you associate with me? Sexy? Gorgeous? Hot?"
"Plus dangerous, impulsive, uncontrollable, overbearing, rude-"
"Why Major, you sure know how to sweet talk a girl." She bumped him with her shoulder.
"Careful," he cautioned with a smirk. "We wouldn't want to wipe off your tattoos."
She showed off her marked arms. "I kind of like them. Makes me look dangerous."
"You don't need tats to make you look dangerous, Red."
"And that," she winked, "is exactly why I love you."
"And here I thought you were just after my body."
"That too," she added with a laugh.
Up ahead, the forward group exited the forest trail and moved out into an open field. Laura and Evan followed the others as they crossed the open space towards a large brick building set against the trees on the far side.
Tension lifted itself out of her abdomen and settled between her shoulder blades. She took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly, giving the anxiety time to settle itself out. Teyla said she needed the worry for Jen's safety to show, but she had to make sure it didn't rule her mind.
As they neared the building, the group stopped.
Laura shot a quick look to Evan, who nodded his reassurance. "Give him hell," he commanded softly.
Laura walked to the front to stand next to Teyla.
Ladon addressed John. "I will need a moment to get him out of the cell and into the holding area. I will send Daro to get you."
With the two Genii now inside, Teyla looked to the gathered group. "Remember what we have discussed. If this is to work, you may not speak. Only Laura or I are allowed to address this man." Then she turned to Laura. "He may see your emotion, but show him no weakness."
Laura welcomed the spike of adrenaline that coursed through her at Teyla's words. "He won't know what hit him.”
Teyla dipped her chin. "No, I don't believe he will."
The door behind them opened. Everyone turned as Daro leaned out. "We're ready.”
"Showtime," Laura said, taking her place directly behind Teyla.
Once inside, Daro pointed to an open doorway at the end of the long corridor. "Ladon waits for you there.”
Laura glanced at the others, watching each take position a few feet behind both herself and Teyla. She would have laughed at the situation of having superior officers standing behind her if it weren't so serious. With a nod from Teyla, they began to move, the heavy footfalls of their boots echoing off the stone walls.
They reached the open doorway and entered without stopping. The room was large and windowless, holding nothing except for a man with his hands and feet bound to a chair in the far corner, and Ladon, who stood off to the side.
The man in the chair was old for Pegasus standards, mid-thirties if Laura had to guess. She was surprised by his body shape. At Teyla's description of the men being slaves, she'd expected him to be dirty and malnourished, but this man was hard and angled, with the muscled body of a fighter. He stared at them with a hard expression. Despite being tied to the chair, his posture oozed confidence.
Laura almost smiled.
Breaking him into pieces was going to be fun.
Teyla had been very distinct in her instructions while she drew the Ahmazos designs down Laura's arms. Laura was to act as Teyla's second in command, taking orders only from Teyla. But Teyla had been very specific in what, exactly those orders would be.
It had been Teyla's final description that told Laura exactly how she was to handle herself.
Laura was to be as diplomatic as Ronon would be in getting Jennifer back.
With Teyla's words running through her mind, Laura marched directly up to the man in the chair and kicked him square in the chest.
Satisfaction tightened her heart as the man gasped in pain and surprise before smashing backwards onto the floor, chair and all.
"Pick him up," Teyla ordered, glancing over her shoulder at John, her voice commanding.
Laura stared at the man on the floor as John and Evan walked forward to flip the prisoner upright. Then they stepped back, joining Ronon where he stood next to Ladon in the corner.
The prisoner hunched over in the chair, coughing. After a deep breath he straightened, his eyes drilling directly into Laura. Wariness warred with anger as he fought to regain his composure.
"I am not pleased," Teyla announced. She walked slowly around the back of the chair. "And when I am not pleased..." she completed her circle walk and stopped beside Laura, "people die."
The prisoner snorted.
Laura jumped forward, smashing her knuckles into the man's face. She felt the satisfying snap and crumble of his nose as the cartilage gave way beneath the force of her fist. The prisoner's head snapped to the side and he sagged in the chair. He leaned further over the side and spat blood onto the floor. He straightened slowly, eyeing Laura warily before turning his attention to Teyla.
"Who the hell are you," he snarled.
Laura's foot caught him in the chest again, sending the man crashing violently to the floor. "You were not told to speak!" she hissed.
"Pick him up,” Teyla ordered.
John and Evan righted the chair once more. Teyla leaned down and tapped the man across his broken nose with her index finger. The man grunted in pain. "You have taken something that belongs to me," she said with a cold smile.
"I—" the man began, but his words were cut off with a yowl when Laura grabbed his nose and squeezed.
"He forgot again," Laura said, looking up at Teyla.
"He has been gone from home too long," Teyla shook her head with mock sadness.
"Perhaps we should give him a moment to remember where he came from?" Laura asked.
"Perhaps," Teyla looked as though she were considering the question, then shook her head.
Laura let go of the man's nose, but not without adding a painful twist. The man howled and bounced against his restraints. His glare was deadly as he stared up at Laura, but she could also see a slight hesitation. He looked at the marked designs on her arms, then snapped his eyes to something behind her. She didn't give in to the urge to look. Hopefully, he was starting to connect the dots.
The prisoner breathed sharply through his mouth, licking the blood as it dripped from his broken nose. He turned his head and spat another mouthful of blood onto the floor. Laura was mildly disappointed he chose the side away from Teyla.
Teyla stepped in front of the man once more. “You have taken something that is very important to me... and I want it back."
The man's mouth twitched, but this time he caught himself before he said anything.
"Speak," Teyla commanded forcefully, stepping back and waving her hand at the man as though the flick of her fingers would be enough to make him obey.
The man closed his mouth in defiance, but realized his folly when he couldn't breathe. Glaring at Teyla, he opened his mouth again, but said nothing.
Laura connected her fist with the side of the man's jaw. She ignored the stinging pain across her knuckles as her skin split open, and slugged him again.
The man's head wobbled as he tried to shake off the bell ringer she'd just delivered.
"I have taken nothing," he wheezed as blood dripped down his chin from his split lips.
This time Laura hit him so hard he toppled over sideways, chair and all. Blood dripped from her split fingers, forming a splatter pattern on the dusty floor.
Teyla waved her fingers to John and Evan. The two men hauled the chair back up and twisted it until the prisoner was facing Teyla once more.
"Three nights ago, you helped take one of my sisters from Laurentia,” Teyla said.
At the mention of Laurentia, the man blinked.
Laura's insides screamed with the victory. He knew. He knew about the planet. He knew about Jen!
"I don't know what you're talking about," the man sneered.
"Blonde hair," Teyla began. "Young. Pretty. Dressed as we are. She was there at the request of the old woman you are working for. We know this is not the first time you have stolen something that didn't belong to you. The old woman likes to pick and choose, doesn't she? The festival offers a nice cover for watching without being seen."
"I don't know what you are taking about," the man repeated.
"Where did you take her?" Teyla demanded.
"I didn't touch her," he stubbornly insisted.
After a few moments of the round about questioning, which left them with nothing other than his stubborn refusals, Laura turned to Teyla. "I need a pitcher of water."
Without taking her eyes from the prisoner, Teyla repeated the demand. "Fetch me a pitcher of water."
Ladon motioned towards the back of the room.
"Make sure it's full," Laura added, smirking at the confusion flashing across the prisoner's face.
Footsteps retreated down the hallway, but Laura refused to take her eyes of the man in the chair. A few moments later Daro appeared at her side with a large spouted jug overflowing with water. Laura turned towards Ronon, who was standing like an angry gargoyle in the shadows of the corner.
Time to share the fun.
She tipped her chin towards the man in the chair. "Hold his head back."
Ronon smile was cold as grabbed a handful of the man's hair. He yanked, hard. The prisoner twisted in the chair, but Ronon clamped his free hand down across the man's throat.
"Open his mouth," Laura ordered, stepping closer.
Ronon pinched the man's nose, stopping his breathing.
The prisoner screamed with the pain of having his broken nose abused.
"You look thirsty." Laura held the pitcher above the man's upturned face. "Who am I to prevent a dying man from his last drink?"
Mumbling curses, the man bobbled back and forth in the chair, but Ronon held firm.
Laura began pouring the water into the man's open mouth. It burbled and splattered, filling his mouth and sending streams of the liquid down his front and onto the floor. The chair rattled as the man fought to hold his breath, unable to breathe out of his broken nose, and unable to get air past the stream of water.
After dumping half the pitcher, she straightened and nodded to Ronon, who released his hold.
The prisoner flipped his head forward, choking and spitting up water.
"Where is she," Teyla demanded.
"I don't know," he coughed, shaking his head back and forth. "I didn't do anything!"
"Again," Laura turned to Ronon.
"No, wait!" the prisoner called out, but Laura refused to delay. This piece of garbage had taken Jen, and she wasn't going to quit until he was completely broken. She repeated the earlier procedure, stopping only because there was no more water.
Ronon released him and took a single step back.
The prisoner coughed up more water, spitting and wheezing as he sucked in air. This time, when he looked up, his eyes reflected worry, yet he was not far enough gone that he was going to give up.
“I didn’t take anyone!” he snarled.
Laura lifted her leg and the man jerked back. She slowly lowered her foot until it was pressed directly on top of his crotch, then leaned forward, pressing her weight down. He shifted with the pain and pressure, his breath coming in short gasps.
She reached into her boot and withdrew her knife, twisting it in the air in front of the man's face while she continued to lean her weight against her raised leg. "Where…is…she?”
"I wasn’t there," he gasped, hunching over. “It wasn’t me!”
"You were there." She scratched the blade across his cheek. “It was you.”
She sensed his indecision, his confusion as he struggled to keep his composure. But he still wasn’t talking.
She continued to scratch the tip of the blade across his check. Up one side, down the other, leaving a red trail in the skin. Deep enough to mark him, but not so far as to make him bleed. Yet.
"We know you were in the tavern. We know you drank. And we know you drank too much. You were quite happy to let everyone know how much you'd gotten paid to help an old woman and her people take a pretty healer through the forest to the gate."
She shook her head slowly, and trailed the tip of her knife beneath the man's bottom lip. "You chatter like an old crone when you're drunk." She tapped the knife across his mouth. "Perhaps I should help you with that little problem, hmmm? Remove your tongue? Then you can drink all you want..."
The man's eyes opened wide in fear and uncertainty. His bravado was failing, sliding away as easily as the blood that dripped from his face. His hands were now squeezing the ends of the chair, and he was sub-consciously pushing himself back, trying to create distance between them. His attention jerked from Laura, to the Lantian's behind her, to Teyla, and back again. Laura knew the moment he'd made the decision—he would no longer look her directly in the eye.
He may have escaped his own planet, but he couldn't escape his beliefs.
"Where did you take her?" Laura asked, her voice sickly sweet, firm with the knowledge she was mere moments away from pulling him completely apart.
He sucked in a breath. "I didn't take her anywhere," he insisted, his voice wavering, unsteady. "I don't know...don't...don't know what you are talking about."
She leaned back with an aching slowness, letting the man slump slightly into his now-free personal space. Once he was straight in the chair, she snapped her hand up and stabbed her knife down through the back of his hand, which was still strangling the edge of the armrest. The blade sliced through his flesh and embedded itself into wooden arm of the chair underneath with a thunk.
The man's screams would have cracked the plaster if there had been any.
"Oopsie," she blinked. "My bad. That isn't your knife hand." She withdrew the blade with a wiggle and twist, earning her another scream from the man in the chair. She leaned to the side, dangling it in the air over his non-injured hand. "This is your knife hand.”
She jerked her arm higher.
The man's scream paused the knife's descent.
"Denali!" he screeched. "Denali, all right? The old woman took her to Denali!"
Kiryk stood in the darkness on the edge of the forest, watching the still sleeping town with a new-found wariness.
He'd memorized the positions of the guards and their single shot rifles when he'd arrived on the planet early yesterday. Their presence didn't surprise him. The village was a good distance from the ring of the Ancestors, so watchfulness was wise.
But now, as he studied the buildings, the layout, and the circular paths of the pair of patrolling guards, he revised his initial assessment that the armed men were there to protect the village, because they weren't watching the surrounding forest for anyone approaching, they were watching the village for anyone leaving.
And he had a very good idea just who it was they were trying to keep inside.
The 'Lantean Doctor.
Not much surprised him about life any more. But seeing the blonde standing behind the counter of the supply store had definitely thrown him.
In the fraction of time it took him to analyze the interior of the storefront and note that none of her people were there with her, he'd all but convinced himself that it couldn't possibly be her.
Months ago, he'd spent hours with her in direct contact. Studied her. Watched her. Her mannerisms, movements and speech would be forever locked into his memory.
What he knew to be true was that Doctor Jennifer Keller could not hide her emotions. Her thoughts and feelings shone in her eyes. There was no way she could hide her memory of him—yet there was no mistaking the fact that when he stepped into the store, she showed no hint that she had ever seen him before. There was wariness, yes. But not recognition.
It was at that point he'd decided that despite the matching face this couldn't be the woman who'd saved his life...until he'd seen the drawings she was absently sketching on the small piece of paper...the gate symbol she'd hidden with a flash of embarrassment and fear.
The fear bit at him. He hadn't expected her to be afraid of him. Not after what they'd been through together.
But then her eyes betrayed her. It was the shopkeeper and heavy-set man who'd entered the store from the back that she shrank away from.
Kiryk had almost killed the two men on the spot.
Then he'd smelled the soup.
The sharp scent of the regnig root they'd cooked into the broth had been so strong, it stung his nostrils.
Sticking a tiny sliver of the meat of the root under your tongue for a few seconds was a wondrous cure for a headache. But too much too often left the user afflicted with a driving addiction; unable to kill the headache without the root, and unable to stop taking the root for fear of the horrible headache the addiction brought on. In high volumes, like the mass amounts that had been in the Doctor's soup, the regnig root would destroy the mind, starting with memories, and eventually leaving only a living, breathing shell, free to form into any personality.
Healers used it to wipe the memories of Wraith and war and death from those too mentally wounded to move on. Slavers used it to wipe the minds of their slaves. And criminals used it to wipe clean any witnesses and victims.
Kiryk didn't know what this peaceful looking village was hiding, but using the root on a woman who had no business being here was a clear sign there was evil within the walls.
The Doctor had saved both his life, and Celise's, without care to her own. Her people had accepted him instantly when they could very well have killed him for kidnapping her. She knew being a runner would put her directly in line with the Wraith, yet she'd taken the time to help him destroy the tracking device. It was too much for him to put aside. He would help her, whether she knew she needed his assistance or not.
So he’d remained close.
With darkness settled and the town asleep, he'd gone to see her. To confirm his suspicions. To find out how far gone she really was. Thankfully, Jennifer could at least remember it had only been a few days since she'd been eating the soup. Which he’d already concluded. If she’d been missing longer, word of the Lanteans searching for her would have reached him. And the Lanteans would be looking. Of that he had no doubt.
But Kiryk couldn’t wait for her people to find her. Jennifer was alone in the village, unarmed, and unprotected. He had no idea what the villagers were planning to do with her, to use her for. He had to get her out of there before they could give her any more of the root and her brilliant mind was lost forever. For now, she was not so far gone that she couldn't be brought back, but that could change with another bowl of that soup.
He needed to work fast, starting with getting her out of the village.
His first task should be to return her to her people. Their medical knowledge would far surpass his own, but making it to the gate before dawn was out of the question. The distance was too far and without more of the root, a headache would incapacitate her with a few hours. No, the only option would be to take her someplace quiet and distant to ride out the pains as the drug cleared her system. Then he could help her find her way home.
After he’d left her room, he'd scouted the deep forest, finding a long ridge of caves north of the village. The largest cavern was far from ideal. It was dark and damp, but deep enough under the rocky hillside to muffle any sounds. He had few supplies, but he would make it work. The cave was farther away from the Ring of the Ancestors than he liked, but it was also in the opposite direction the guards would be searching once they found her gone.
Hopefully it would buy him the time she needed.
She knew someone was trying to wake her, but she fought to remain warm in her dreams about the sparkling city towers. She mumbled a command for the person to leave her be, but her words were ignored. It wasn't until the annoying person was tugging at the bedding did she open her eyes.
In the faint light of the coming dawn, the hard, bulked shape of the traveller was outlined above her. Strangely, she wasn't afraid...or surprised to see him. It was almost as though she expected him to be in her room in the middle of the night, but she couldn't remember why.
She opened her mouth to question him about it but before the words could escape, he leaned forward, hooked his arms under her knees and shoulder and lifted her into the air, blankets and all. The move was so quick she had no time to register what he'd done until he'd wrapped his arms tightly around her and crushed her against him.
Fearing the sudden motion and the height, she threw her arms around his neck.
"Hush," he ordered, shifting her higher in his arms.
"What are you doing?" she whispered.
"It's time to go."
"Hold on," he commanded, and her vision filled with a flash of green light.
A wave of dizziness washed over her, turning her stomach and leaving her gasping for air. She felt as though she were splitting apart. Everything she saw around her flickered in and out of the green light-images that were lifelike and real, but not a single one belonged inside her tiny room. The outside of a wall. A narrow alley. A cluster of buildings. A village from a distance. Trees. Through each passing flash, he held her tightly against him, and moved as though walking, yet the distance travelled should not have been possible in a single step.
When the movement and momentum finally stopped, she peeked over his shoulder, shocked to realize she was no longer locked in her bedroom. Instead of four bare walls she was surrounded by the deep shadows of a massive forest. And even if her eyes were betraying her, her other senses were not. Gone were the musty odours of dust and still air. In its place was a heavy scent of pine and moss carried on the cold breeze that chilled her skin and pushed her hair around her face.
Her mind struggled to grasp what had just happened.
She looked up into the blurring face of the man who carried her...and fainted.
Laura walked through the gate room towards the large group waiting by the stargate.
Evan turned at her approach and met her halfway. "You cleared?"
Laura almost laughed. Hell yes, she was cleared. Not that it mattered either way. There wasn’t a single member of the medical team who would have been able to keep her from joining the rescue short of freezing her in a stasis chamber.
The look on Evan's face said he knew she wouldn't have let Carson give her any other status other than good-to-go, but he'd asked anyway. He reached for her hand, examining the gauze band wrapped tightly across her knuckles.
"Marie was just worried I'd get the stitches dirty," she told him.
"That was quite a job you pulled back there," he commented quietly.
"We didn't have time for Teyla to give me the full history on the cultural intricacies, but she did have time to tell me just how far I needed to go if I wanted to get his attention."
Evan scowled and glanced down at her hand again. "Yea, well, I think you got his attention."
"You know as well as I do, you would have done the same thing," she pointed out. "Or more."
Evan's jaw clenched, but he didn't question her further. Laura knew the discussion wasn't over, but for now he would consider it on hold. He shook his head dismissively. "Come on," he sighed. "We have a certain bad-luck blonde to go rescue."
"Hell yes," she nodded, and followed him to where both SGA1 and 2 were gathered, waiting.
Colonel Sheppard called up to Chuck to dial the gate.
"According to the Genii, the gate on the Denali side is heavily forested," Sheppard explained, as the dialing sequence initiated, "so we'll be covering the distance to the village on foot."
"Anything special in the database about Denali we should know about?" Evan asked, glancing past Sheppard's shoulder to Rodney.
The scientist shook his head. "Standard habitable planetary rotation around a singular sun. No mention of the people other than a note about a basic farming culture. But that information isn't exactly up to date..."
"Assume we'll be facing resistance," John interjected. He strode towards the stabilized wormhole, with Ronon a half-step ahead. The Satedan already had his blaster in hand.
"Keep your head up," John commanded, lifting his P90, "and watch your six."
The forest on Denali was thick and overgrown. Heavy branches held up webs of vines that spidered down around them. The darkness was heavy under the trees, but the sky above was lighter than the shadows. Night was still in their favour, but not for long.
Blaster raised, Ronon rotated, his eyes scanning the surrounding trees in the dull light from the stargate. He completed a full circle, satisfied there was no immediate threat.
The event horizon disappeared, plunging the group into the darkness.
“We should keep an eye on the gate,” Ronon said, not liking the cover that surrounded their only exit.
Sheppard turned towards Evan’s team. "Sanchez. Browne. Keep an eye on the gate. I want to know anyone coming or going.
The two men retreated into the trees without question.
Rodney looked up from the Ancient scanner in his hands. "I'm not getting anything."
Fighting off the first thought that launched itself into his head, Ronon demanded clarification. "No transmitter?"
McKay shook his head. "No, I mean I'm not getting anything." He shook his head and held the scanner up above his head, then turned around in a complete circle. "Something in the local geology must be emitting some kind of interference."
"Some kind of interference?" Sheppard repeated.
Rodney dropped the scanner back into the pocket of his vest. "Yes. Interference. The local topography is highly..."
"McKay," John warned.
Rodney sighed. "We're surrounded by an escarpment. The village is up there." He pointed to a spot over Sheppard's shoulder. "We're down here. I could waste time trying to figure out what's causing it, or you can get me up there where I can try again."
"Right," John nodded. He turned to the others. "You heard the man. Let's move."
The voice wiggled into her mind, pulling her back into consciousness. Her body bounced along with a strange rocking motion. She tried to straighten but her limbs were heavy. She blinked her eyes open, and slowly focused on the underside of a man’s stubbled jawline. A man who was currently carrying her through a heavy forest in the early light of dawn.
Over his head, the sky above was light, pushing the shadows back. Birds carried on loudly, diving and dipping through the branches.
She was really here. Outside. In the middle of a forest.
With a deep breath, her mind cleared and what little memories she had come flowing back. The past few days. The traveller. She lifted her sluggish arms and hooked them around his neck, digging her fingers into the cold leather across his wide shoulders.
He said he’d come to take her home.
But wasn't this her home?
"Welcome back." He glanced down at her, pinning her briefly with his blue-grey eyes before he turned his attention back on where he was walking.
Feeling slightly guilty that she'd obviously fainted on him, she pushed down on his shoulders, willing him to put her down. It was like trying to push rock. "You can let me go..." she mumbled. " I can walk."
"How's your head?" he asked, not releasing her, and not stopping his forward progress through the undergrowth.
She shook her head, feeling the tinges of the too-familiar headache pressing against her forehead. "I'm okay," she lied.
He snorted, but didn't comment further.
She tried to sit straighter, but it was almost impossible to move against his firm grip. "You... you can put me down now," she hinted.
He ducked under a low hanging branch. She braced for him to set her onto her feet, but he straightened up on the other side, bringing her back up with him.
"You can't keep carrying me—”
"You can't walk," he interrupted.
"I can so walk..."
He looked pointedly at her. "You have no shoes."
“What?” She lifted her head and looked down to where her bare feet dangled. The cool air stung her skin as her mind made the connection to having no footwear, and the goosebumps travelling up her bare legs. After a moment, she registered the fact that she was also feeling cold because she had nothing on but her nightgown...and the blanket from her bed he'd wrapped around her.
Heat climbed her cheeks, counteracting the shiver that ripped down her spine.
"You're safe now," he said firmly, misinterpreting her embarrassment for fear.
"Safe?" She bit her bottom lip, and stared up at him. "I wasn't before?"
A dozen questions whirled around her mind, but she couldn't stop one long enough to put it into words. She tried to concentrate on what she knew, what she felt, but couldn't get past the gaping disconnect. She could picture the village, her small room, the store. Tomas. Maron. Thea. Her father. None of them made her feel anything but tense and nervous. They repeatedly told her everything was going to be okay, that she was going to be okay, but never once did she believe them.
Yet here, now, with this traveller, she did feel safe. She did feel like everything was going to be okay.
The man had kidnapped her from her home, magically transferred them both from her locked room to the middle of the forest without getting caught. Heck, without even being seen. A feat in itself for such a large man.
She should be afraid.
Yet she wasn't.
"Who are you?" she finally asked, her voice cracking.
"What's your name?"
"Kiryk," she repeated, liking the strength of the name. It suited him. She hesitated to ask her next question. Fear for what he would say caused her heart to beat faster. "What's... What's my name?" she ventured, her voice almost a whisper.
He stopped walking. She felt his arms twitch slightly as he tightened his hold on her. For a moment, she was worried he wouldn't answer. That he would keep his secret.
He turned his head, his eyes inches from hers, his gaze direct and unblinking. "Jennifer. Your name is Jennifer."
"Jennifer..." she repeated, watching him carefully but seeing nothing but truth in his blue eyes.
He nodded. Once.
"Jennifer," she said again. She took a deep breath and let the name bounce around in her head. She gave up with a shrug. "It still sounds wrong. But I like it better than Calara."
He barked out a laugh, his smile shattering the tough aura that surrounded him. Then he masked his humor with a shake of his head. Straight faced once again, he turned his attention to the trees around them, warily studying their surroundings. He started forward again, choosing his path between the wide trunks. "Yes, Jennifer is a much better name."
After a few moments he glanced at the strange green band wrapped around his arm. “It should be charged again. Ready to do this the fast way?”
“Not really,” she mumbled, remembering the dizzying whirl of whatever magic he used to jump them forward without having to move.
“Close your eyes,” he ordered.
Tightening her grip around his neck, she laying her head on his shoulder and scrunched her eyes closed.
The strange sensation of being torn apart and put back together repeated a dozen times, each leaving her feeling more disconnected than the one before.
When it finally stopped, she sucked in a shaking breath, and opened her eyes. To their backs, the forest formed a wall of leaves, stopped by a rock walled monstrosity that climbed sharply up to the sky in front of them.
There was no where to go but up.
Kiryk carried her closer to the rocky wall and the heavy boulders that littered the base. He eased her down to her feet until she stood barefoot on the cold damp moss. “How do you feel?” he asked, arms up, ready to catch her if she couldn’t keep herself upright.
Her legs wobbled, but held. She was exhausted, hungry, and her entire body ached, but the man had just carried her who knew how far while she’d done nothing but faint on him. She wasn’t about to give him any excuses for her sorry state.
Kiryk snorted. “Good to see you still can’t tell a lie.”
She frowned, unsure of if he was suggesting it was a bad thing, or a good one.
“It is not bad thing,” he answered with a smile. “And you still speak your thoughts.”
Her face heated when the meaning behind his words registered. “I said that out loud?”
With a fluid motion, he hopped up onto the rock beside her. She was back in his arms before she could protest. He lifted her above him to the next rock and set her down. He quickly joined her then reached for her hand, guiding her up over several shorter rocks, using the boulders like giant stairs.
They continued forward and up for several minutes. She thought she should be better able to handle the exercise, but her limbs were starting to tremble, and a sheen of sweat was beading her skin.
After helping her up onto a flat-topped ledge, Kiryk told her to wait while he searched for an easier way for her to reach the next level that didn’t involve a straight climb. Making use of the free moment, she tipped her head back and tried to see to the top of the jagged wall. An outcropping towered above her, jagged and craggy, hiding the sunlight.
There was no clear path to the top, but she supposed even if there was, it was something she wouldn't recognize anyway. A fact she somehow knew even through the ache in her head.
Rubbing her forehead, she cursed her broken mind and the exponentially increasing headache. Jennifer. Calara. A village for one, a single man for the other. She'd lost the comfort of her village for moss, rocks and trees and she had nothing to show for it except the blanket around her shoulders.
Not that she could do anything about it now. Even if she could remember.
She shook off the sadness at her lost memories before it could take hold, and turned her attention to the rocky ground around her. Dampness and cold seeped up from the rocks, stinging her bare feet. Cracks and crags gaped around her, some narrow, others so deep she couldn't see the bottom. She walked to one of the edges, staring down past her bare toes into the light-less gap. The space was enough for a body to fall quite cleanly down... and wide enough for something to come back up. Her heart added a skip in beat as she thought about the kinds of creatures that could live in those dark shadows. Animals with big teeth and evil eyes. Animals that could eat a person whole.
She couldn't stop the screech from escaping when hands grabbed her waist. Jerking to the side, her feet slid on the moss and she tottered. With one arm still trapped in the blanket, she lost her balance and fell forward.
Kiryk grabbed her before she dropped off the rock into the dark crevice in front of her. He straightened her up, pulling her firmly against him. "You haven’t changed a bit," he smirked, hooking his arms under her knees and scooping her up.
"Sorry," she mumbled, feeling the fire burning in her cheeks. "I think." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and averted her face.
With a wide stride, he carried her back across the ledge, moving up across the rocks. From there, he lifted her up onto an even higher rock, supporting her while she scrambled up onto the pointy surface.
The higher they climbed, the more prominent her headache became until she was holding one hand on the blanket, and the other on her forehead.
"Headache?" he asked as they reached another flat surface.
She rubbed her temples. "I never thought I'd say this, but I could really use some of Thea's soup right now."
"No," he said, releasing her onto a rock. "No more soup."
As her feet touched the ground, a wave of dizziness sliced through her and her knees buckled. She grabbed for Kiryk, closing her eyes against the nausea when he lifted her up once again.
"We're almost there," he said. "You can rest soon."
"Rest?" she mumbled. "You're the one doing all the work."
He carried her over another series of narrow crevices until they were rubbing the rocks along the base of a tall flat section of the cliff face.
As they rounded a rock shelf, she caught sight of a narrow opening behind it. When the angle changed, she noted the crevice was actually an opening, half hidden beside a large boulder.
"Here?" she questioned when he stopped in front of the dark hole.
"For now." He set her onto her feet and waited for her to find her footing. She slumped against the rocky wall, feeling the bite of the cold rocks through the blanket. Once she was sure she wasn't going to fall over, she nodded. "I'm okay. I just... I think I need to lay down for a minute."
"I'll be right back." He took a step towards the opening. "Stay here."
She almost asked him where he thought she was going to go, but he hunched his shoulders and ducked through the opening before she could say anything. She tipped her head back against the rock and closed her eyes against the pounding in her skull. The thumping pressure was keeping time with her heartbeat, every beat adding a hammering crack beneath her scalp. She tried to control her breathing, but the concentration only made her feel it more.
He returned within moments. In too much pain now to question him, she held out her hand and allowed him to guide her forward, under the arched rock and into the darkness beyond.
A/N - sorry I double posted chapter 8 as 8 and 9 by mistake - if you haven't read the part where Kiryk takes Jen to the caves, go back and read the previous chapter!
Reaching the crest of a steep incline, Ronon held his hand up, stopping the group following him. He squatted behind an overgrown piece of dead-fall and surveyed the land opening up below. Down the hill behind him, the group held silent.
Dawn had come an hour before, spearing sunlight down through the trees and brightening the land around them. The light of morning had stolen their cover, but it had also opened up their vision. In front, the land sloped down into a shaded valley before rising to a taller, craggy hillside that was half rock, half scrub brush. The escarpment stretched out for miles in each direction, claiming the landscape like a large grey wall.
Repeated check-ins with Sanchez and Browne were proving more difficult the further they moved from the Stargate. The com's still worked, but they carried an unusual echo, repeating each person's words several times before fading.
The lack of clear communication concerned him, but since the men reported no change in activity at the gate-no visitors incoming or outgoing, Sheppard pushed them forward towards the village.
“What do you see, Chewy?” Sheppard knelt beside him.
Ronon pointed to a pair of shadow shapes cresting the top of a ridge on the far side of the valley.
The Colonel pulled a pair of binoculars from his vest. After a quick look, he handed them to Ronon. “Two. Armed. Coming this way."
Ronon confirmed Sheppard's assessment. Two men carrying rifles were heading in their direction. They wore common clothes, faded with use, and carried weapons that at the distance looked to be more for hunting game than soldering.
They could be villagers looking to kill dinner, or they could be a security patrol, looking to kill intruders.
Ronon bet on the second, and told Sheppard as much as handed back the binoculars.
John turned to the others, passing on the information. "Until we know what's going on, let's avoid an altercation," he said, ending with a pointed look at Ronon.
Ronon snorted. He would make no promises.
Sheppard gave Sanchez and Browne a heads up. If the two men did reach the gate, they were to be disarmed, questioned, and detained.
"Got something!" Rodney called out, drawing everyone's attention. The scientist lifted himself to his knees and held the scanner in the air. Then he shook his head and frowned. "Okay. Well, I had something."
"What did you see?" Sheppard asked.
"A transponder signal," Rodney replied. "But it's gone."
"The Doc?" Evan asked hopefully.
"She'd be the only one here besides us..." Rodney quipped.
"Are you sure?" Ronon questioned, burying his concern beneath the confirmation that she was here.
"I'm sure." Rodney held the scanner above his head, then lowered it when nothing changed. "I think."
"Is she in the village?" Evan asked.
Rodney shook his head. "The signal was somewhere to the north. Or...south." He held the scanner behind him, then moved it back to his front. After making an adjustment he pointed to the ridge across the valley. "According to this, there is a wide vein of xermalancite running just below the surface of that escarpment. It circles around to a point thirty-four kilometres directly behind us."
"Xermalancite?" Teyla asked, pronouncing the word delicately.
"Highly reflective metal compound," the scientist answered, lowering the scanner. "Explains why our coms are echoing. The signals are bouncing back and forth between them."
"So, once we get past it, the signal will clear up?" Lorne asked.
"Should," Rodney nodded. "Once we get to the top of that ridge..." He pointed to the barren rock face the two villagers were cresting, then looked at Sheppard.
"I sense a but coming..." John frowned.
"But," Rodney scratched the side of his neck. "It may also mean the radios won't work at all once we're on the other side."
"Because of the reflection?" Evan clarified.
Rodney nodded. "It's like a ball bouncing between two walls. There's no place for it to go except between the walls."
"We'll deal with it when we get there," John announced climbing to his feet. "But first we have to get there. Keep going," he ordered. He turned to Ronon. "Stay off the path."
Anxious to be moving, Ronon waited just long enough for the two men across the valley to descend as far as the treeline before continuing forward once again.
The sun was high above the trees when John halted the group just out of sight of the village. Keeping to the heavy shadows provided by the thick forest, he moved everyone in as close as he dared.
They'd avoided three more sets of patrols since the initial pair had passed them on the way to the gate. All three were armed, but instead of the direct, purposeful steps the first two had taken, these three pairs were moving randomly, poking through the underbrush while calling out for someone named Calara.
John would have liked to have warned Sanchez and Browne about the other villagers, but McKay had been right about the signal loss. As soon as they'd crossed the escarpment they'd completely lost contact with the two men at the gate. At Rodney's direction, they’d gone back far enough to reach Sanchez and give orders for Atlantis to have Zelenka jury-rig a signal relay which the Captain would then need to hike to the top of the ridgeline. Best guess they'd be out of communication for a good four hours.
Plenty of time to find the Doc.
John dropped to one knee and pulled out his binoculars. Whatever was going on around the village, was also going on in the village. Lids were being ripped off barrels and the contents searched. Two men overturned a cart filled with bushels of produce. Another stepped into a small shed then stepped out again, shaking his head. Several more were forcing their way in through the narrow doors of the homes, only to return again a few moments later empty handed.
"They're raiding their own town?" Rodney asked.
"They're searching for something." John responded.
"Someone," Evan corrected. He pointed to the left of the main square. “At your ten o’clock.”
John shifted focus. Through the rows of double storey dwellings, a group of men approached the square, each one forcefully escorting one or two of the village women.
John scanned the gathered females. All the right age, but none had the shock of blonde hair he hoped to see. He didn't comment on Evan's agreeing sigh, but continued to watch as the men half-dragged the women towards the elderly lady standing near the well in the middle of the square.
The old woman strode in front of the gathered housewives and townswomen like a general inspecting the troops. She waved her arms in anger, berating several of the women who looked confused, afraid, or near to tears. The old woman shook her head, shouted something intelligible at the men. The village men released their hold and ordered the women away.
The parade of women continued, each making the old woman angrier. From the opposite side of the square, another man approached the old woman, tugging a curly haired blonde girl with one hand, and a curvy, redheaded woman with the other.
Teyla placed a hand on John’s shoulder, drawing his attention. He lowered the binoculars. She handed him a dog-eared photograph with heavy lines creasing the center where it had been folded and re-folded multiple times. The image was a brown and white snapshot of a family of four-mother, father, and two siblings, all smiling for the camera.
The young man jumped out at John immediately. Daro. The Genii boy who'd lost his sister.
Teyla placed her index finger on the young girl in the photo, then pointed to the village. "The woman with the red hair."
John lifted the binoculars and concentrated on the young redhead who was comforting the child as they hurried away from the square.
"Daro's sister," he said, lowing the binoculars once the two women were out of sight behind a building.
Teyla tucked the photo back into the pocket of her vest. “Daro gave me this before we left. I made no promises but did tell him I would keep my eyes open for her.”
"Looks like you found her."
“It would seem so.”
John wasn’t sure which emotion was pulling him more—anger that she was being manhandled around by some dirty handed farmer, relieved for Daro that his sister had been found, or excitement that they were on the right track. If Daro’s sister was here, and she’d been taken by the same old woman—probably the one calling the shots—then there was a hell of a good chance that Jennifer was here, too.
But that still didn’t explain what was going on in the village.
He glanced up at Ronon, who was studying the scene in the village from the shadow of a wide tree trunk. Ronon turned before Sheppard to put words to the thoughts tumbling through his mind.
Men patrolling the woods looking for someone.
The old hag dragging the town's women out of their homes.
The village being torn apart to find something hidden.
And no transponder signal.
"You think?" John posed, asking Ronon the question without need for detail.
"Yep," Ronon answered.
"McKay, where did you see that transponder signal before it disappeared?"
Rodney glanced down at his scanner with a frown. He blinked, then tipped his head in acquisition. "That way," he answered, pointing to his left.
John gave Ronon the nod. The Satedan was off before Rodney finished arguing with himself about the affects of signal loss and planetary geology.
"Where's he going?" Rodney stopped mid-explanation.
"To find the Doc," Evan answered, tucking his binoculars into his vest and standing.
An excited energy began to flow through the group as the others came to the same conclusion. Jennifer was here, and she’d given her captors the slip.
Now all John had to do was find her before the crazy old woman and the shotgun farmers did.
Unwilling to open both eyes to the pain pounding in her head, she cracked one eyelid, winced, and squeezed it shut again. It wasn't working.
He slid his arm under her neck and lifted her upper body. The movement increased the pressure behind her skull and she whimpered.
"You need to drink this, Jennifer. It will help."
The word—the name—sounded so foreign. Yet she knew it to hear it from his lips, it was her name. Whenever he said it, called it, something about his voice made her want to hear him say it again because she recognized the sound despite the wailing drums clanging inside her skull.
She felt the smooth edge of a cup against her lower lip. Forcing her shaking arms to obey, she lifted her hands but could do little more than press them over his. She didn't have the coordination to take the cup from him, so she left her cold fingers against his warm skin and let him make the movements.
Gulping greedily, she coughed, surprised when a cold liquid filled her mouth.
It wasn't Thea's soup.
"Slowly," he ordered. She tried to push his hands away but only succeeded in dropping her own arms away from his.
She twisted her head away from the stone cup. "Soup," she managed to mumble around the sickly-sweet taste that tangled her tongue.
"That soup is what got you in this mess in the first place," he countered. "This will help."
She shook her head when he placed the cup against her mouth.
"I promise you this will take the headache away. You can drink it, or I can force you to drink it."
Through the pain she knew his words were a threat, but his tone carried no bite. He was big enough, strong enough he could very well force her to drink the liquid until she drowned... but he wouldn't. Of that she was certain.
Kiryk would never hurt her.
She chanced opening her eyes, wincing as she squinted up into his shadowed face. With his back to the fire she could see nothing of his expression other than a big, blurry shadow.
"I trusted you to save my life once," he said gruffly. "Trust me to save yours."
Gods, if only she could remember!
She wanted the pain gone. She wanted her mind back. But most of all she wanted to know that her heart was telling her the truth. Something was not right in this place. Her family. Her village. Everything felt so horribly wrong until the very second she'd seen this man. With everything so frighteningly disconnected, he was the one piece of the puzzle that made her want to believe.
Fighting against her aching head, she lifted her hands and placed her trembling fingers against his.
As soon as she finished drinking the sweet concoction, he helped her lay back down. When he moved aside, the light from the fire burned her sensitive eyes and she squeezed them closed.
Despite the warmth that should have been coming from the nearby flames, she started to shiver. Her skin felt sticky. Clammy. She was beneath a blanket yet she felt as though she were surrounded in ice. She tried to go back to sleep, but her mind wasn't willing to let go of the conscious existence just yet.
The cold was a bad sign. The cave was warm with the fire, but the rocks were damp. Damp was bad. Damp cold was bad. But why was damp cold bad?
A sold weight settled across her body. An immediate warmth seeped through the thin blanket she lay beneath. She peeked out through her eyelashes as Kiryk tucked his coat down around her. Her fingers gripped the edge of the new covering, the cool leather chilling her palms despite the heat that radiated from the inner lining of the heavy material.
She sighed and snuggled deeper into the protective layer. It smelled of leather and rainwater. As the shaking slowed the dreams came, and she drifted back into the city in the sky with the beautiful symbols and the strange people who knew her name.
The next time she woke her body was on fire.
She fought blindly to free herself from the tangled coverings that smothered her. Shoving the constrictive material away from her skin, she whimpered and rolled away from the fire that burned so closely. Her hair was damp and sticky, clinging to her cheeks and her neck. She shoved it away from her skin, pleading with the tangled mess to get away from her neck and shoulders.
An extra set of hands pushed her hair higher, brushing it off her forehead and away from her cheeks. Cool air reached the now uncovered skin of her face and neck, but it wasn't enough.
Icy cold clamped down across her forehead. She sighed at the welcome chill, clamping her hand down over a wet cloth, crushing it against her boiling skin. Beads of cold water ran down across her temples and dripped into her hairline. More. She wanted more. She dragged the cloth down over her face, then shoved it back to her forehead.
A second cloth landed gently across her neck. She whimpered and tried to grab it.
"Stop," a low voice commanded.
She opened her eyes and concentrated on the blurry face swimming above hers. Hazel eyes. Dark hair. She reached up, lifting her fingers to the side of his neck, tracing the tattoo of lines and dots... but before she could place her fingers on it it the image shifted and faded until the face above was transformed into that of the traveller.
But if he was here, then who was the other? The man with the dark hair and the tattoo she’d drawn over and over in her dreams? Before she could grab for the memory, it was gone.
Lost, like all the rest.
She whispered for Kiryk, letting her arm drop.
“I’m here.” He wrapped her wrist in a strip of wet material.
She sucked in a breath as the cold water ran down her arm to her elbow. Kiryk placed her arm at her side then repeated the procedure with her right hand.
"So hot," she whimpered, closing her eyes.
Kiryk removed the cloth from her forehead. She opened her mouth to protest, to demand it back, but a fresh stream of water was running into her hair and down her cheeks before she could get the words out. He repeated the process, swapping each with a fresher, cooler one. She lost count of the number of transfers, letting the repetitive motion and sound of dripping water in the bowl beside her head lull her into the dream world once more.
The fire cast long, dancing shadows across the ceiling of the cavern. She struggled to remember exactly why she was looking at a rocky outcropping instead of a formed ceiling, but the thoughts were a tumbled mess of images and memories bouncing around with each pounding bash of her heartbeat against the inside of her skull.
She knew she should have jumped. Screamed. Made a sound. The other her would have let out a howl to wake up in a cave with no recollection of how she got there. But she couldn't muster the energy to react with anything more than a whisper of confusion.
Closing her eyes, she wanted to go back to sleep but the thumping in her head would give her no peace. She tried to adjust her position but at best was only able to roll her head to the side. Brightness pulsed through her closed eyelids making her stomach lurch. She immediately rolled her head to the other side, sighing at the welcome darkness.
A scrape of sound made her want to open her eyes again. Before she could register the hulking shape as Kiryk, his hand slid beneath her head and down her back, prying her up off the floor.
"Drink," he commanded, lifting a cup to her lips.
She didn't argue. Couldn’t.
As soon as she finished drinking the syrupy sweet concoction, he lowered her gently down. She curled onto her side away from the fire.
"Hot or cold," he asked.
She didn't think she was neither hot, nor cold. She had only the pain in her head. Deciding she wanted a covering, she reached weakly behind her for her blanket. He pulled the blanket over her and tucked it around her.
"More?" he asked.
She rocked her head side to side.
She agreed. Sleep was good.
It was the waking up part that wasn't.
Tomas stood in the doorway of the shop, listening to Thea command the others. He bit back his own orders, defaulting to the old woman. Crossing her was not an option. Not if he wanted to remain in his commanding position within the village.
Patrols were being dispersed in wider circles around the village, each one seeking the blonde woman who'd so mysteriously disappeared from her locked room.
Two more women were brought forward for Thea to question, one of whom was crying openly at being subject to the Matriarch's harsh words.
Sappy useless female.
Tomas crossed his arms over his chest, his fists still clenched tightly. He'd wasted too many hours researching his perfect wife to lose her this easily. He'd passed off the other acquisitions to the men of the village, finding fault with each one in turn. Too skinny. To mousy. To quiet. To stupid. No, unlike the others who'd settled for someone to cook a passable meal and perform services in bed, Tomas' list of needs had been extensive. Beauty. Brains. Personality. But most of all he wanted a woman he could have a conversation with. One who wouldn't burst into tears at the first sign of discontent. A woman who, with the help of Thea's soup, he could mold into the perfect wife for a man in his position.
How could he lead his people as Thea's Primary with a simpering brainless gnat at his side?
And now, now that he'd finally found his prize after nearly exhausting his search from planet to planet, she'd run away.
He dropped his arms and reached for his rifle.
When he caught up to his Calara he was going to teach his future wife just what it meant to disobey him. It would mean he would need to give her more soup to make her forget his transgression, but that was the price that would have to be paid. After all the Village Primary couldn't very well be known to be hitting his wife.
He stepped off the porch and joined Thea.
"Get them out of here," the old woman ordered, flipping her hand dismissively at the two crying wives.
Their husbands dragged the two women away.
Before Tomas could speak his request to go and find his future wife, a group of men who'd been posted to the south river came up to Thea.
"Well?" Thea asked.
"Nothing," they reported. "There's no sign of her. We sent two men to watch the path to the ring."
"Good." Thea answered. "Now go help the others check the trails to the west. This one is smart, but she's no woodsman. She may have run into the trees, but she'll stick to hard packed trails as soon as she finds them."
The two men turned and hurried away.
Thea turned to Tomas, her disapproval evident in her scowl.
"Don't look at me," he countered. "You said the soup would work."
She walked past him and headed into the building. "The fault is not with the soup," she snapped. "Now make yourself useful. Take Maron and go get your wife. Do not return until you have found her, and this time, make sure she isn't able to leave."
Tomas nodded, pleased to have finally been given permission to do something other than stand around.
Cadman and Ellis ducked down behind a huge collection of grain and seed bags beside a small barn. A small patrol of armed village men stepped out of one of the outlying buildings and were soon joined by two more men. They stood in the middle of the road and had a lengthy debate over what to do next.
Laura blinked at Ellis when the description of their quarry was a petite woman with long blonde hair.
"I'd say we're getting our hopes up thinking that just because she's blonde, they're looking for the Doc," Ellis whispered. "But she's the only one I know who can cause this much of a commotion when she isn't even here."
Laura grinned. "That's our girl. One missing person away from a riot."
The villagers' argument circled around just which one of them was going to tell the old woman they hadn't had any luck finding the missing woman.
"That old biddy sure has them running scared," Ellis commented as the villagers headed back towards the center of town. "I'd say that'll be you at eighty, all psycho and crazy, but that's you now. I'm afraid to think of just how much crazy you're going to have tomorrow, much less in fifty years. Pretty sure you'll be laying a whole new meaning to 'hey kids get off my lawn'."
Laura grinned. "C4 goes a long way to stop trespassers."
After the village men were gone, Ellis inched closer to the edge of the grain bails. "They've done a pretty good job of ripping the town apart. There can't be many more places to look."
"Yeah, I was thinking the same." Laura followed him as they shifted position in behind a crooked shed.
"What do you think?" He pointed to building a couple over with a peaked roof and a set of gabled windows. "Get some height and have a look-see?"
Laura frowned at the building. "I don't know. Jen's more of a panic and craw into a hidey-hole than a take the stairs kind of gal. She'd have found a nice small spot to scurry into. Something these fatso's wouldn't be able to fit into."
"Turn around!" The shouted command came from directly behind them.
Ellis rolled his eyes at Laura as they turned to face a half-dozen rifles pointed directly at them. "Gentlemen," he said, flashing them a smile. "Lovely town you have here."
A tall skinny man with a fat, crooked nose took a hesitant step towards them. "Put your weapons on the ground."
Laura glanced at Ellis, who shrugged and set slowly his guns onto an empty farmers cart. "Well, you wanted to have a look around."
"True. Suppose this way we have a tour guide." She placed her P90 and sidearm next to Ellis'. She lifted her hands back into the air, taking a chance that the local yokels weren't going to expect them to have anything other than those 2 items. Most farmers seemed to be stuck on the bright shiny draw of the big weapons, and miss everything else.
She wasn't disappointed.
"Move," the hawk-nosed man ordered, hooking his boney hand around Laura's upper arm.
Laura let him spin her around and march her forward, further into the village. The level of frustration in the search crews they passed made her almost giggly. She had to bite her cheek to keep her taunting comments to herself.
A quick glance at Ellis told her he was facing just as much of a dilemma.
"Must have been one hell of a party," Ellis quipped, stepping around the trampled contents of an overturned crate of fruit.
Laura grinned as they passed a crying woman, her house being raided by a pair of villagers who were yanking her clean clothes off the drying line. She had no idea how they thought Jen could be hiding in a pair of hanging britches, but if they were this distracted by the stupid stuff, then they weren't spending their time looking for Jen.
"Guess she should have used Tide," she said to Ellis.
"I'm more of a Sunlight man myself," he answered, adding, "cold water wash only, of course," when one of the guards kicked over a nearby wash barrel, sending soapy water bubbling across the sandy dirt, turning it into a wide patch of mud.
Laura snorted. "As if you'd wash your own clothes."
"At least I know what a washing machine actually is," he retorted. "And a closet. And hangers. And drawers."
"Hey! I know exactly what's clean and what's dirty in every pile."
"I can't see how. You room looks like Carl's Dry Cleaning exploded."
"Would you two shut up!" One of the guards jabbed Ellis in the back with the barrel of his rifle.
"I'm just saying you could use some organizational skills."
"What's wrong with my organizational skills?" Laura demanded.
This time the guard jabbed her in the back with his rifle. "I said, shut up!"
"Face it, Cadman. You're a slob."
"Yeah, but I'm a happy slob."
"Enough!" The guard shouted. He turned and yanked Laura through the wide-open doors of a storage barn. The inside smelled of stale air, hay, and horses.
"Tie them up," hawk-nose ordered, as Ellis was shoved inside beside her.
Laura was trussed to a wooden post that ran two stories up into the rafters. The rough rope bit into her wrists. She pulled her arms apart, hoping to give herself some slack to work with later, but the farmers caught her hands and secured them tightly together.
Across the barn, Ellis was shackled with a chain that dangled down the wall from a beam high above.
Hawk nose ordered the men outside. The double doors were closed, but the men did not leave. Instead they stood next to the slatted wood and argued over which of them would search the woods for more outsiders, which would remain behind to guard the door, or which unlucky sap was the one who had to tell 'Thea' they'd captured some strangers.
Judging from the way none of them wanted to be elected to make the announcement, Laura figured Thea had to be the crazy old crone calling the shots.
"Aww, look. We're learning new things already," she commented.
"Right," Ellis nodded. "Be sure to tell the Colonel that when you try and explain the maniacal genius of your plan to get us tied up so we can eavesdrop through barn-board." He gripped the chains that kept his arms pinned high above his head. "For simple folk, they sure make strong iron," he muttered. "How come you get a measly piece of twine and I have chains?"
Laura wriggled against the course rope wrapped around her middle. "Obviously they think I'm harmless," she grinned.
Ellis tisked. "If only they knew the real truth."
"Can you reach your com?" she asked.
He blinked and made a face, waving at her with his hands that dangled from the shackled loops high above his head. "Seriously. You're really asking that?"
"Just a question."
"Why don't you ask Mr. Ed? Maybe he has a telephone?"
Laura glanced into the big brown eyes of the horse that was checking her out from over the back of the stall behind her. "Don't suppose you feel like chewing through these, do ya?" she asked, wriggling her wrists.
The horse nickered in her ear.
"Right. That's what I thought."
The barn doors swung wide.
The weathered, elderly woman from the village walked in, followed immediately by hawk-nose, and two other men. Despite her obvious age, the old woman moved quickly and with purpose, brushing over Ellis with a glance and stopping to stand directly in front of Laura.
"Hold her head," she ordered hawk-man.
Laura sucked in a breath when the man grabbed her face, forcing her head still while the crazy old woman pulled at the twisted braid in the back of Laura's hair. "What the hell!" she hissed, trying to twist her face free of hawk-nose's grasp.
"Hey!" Ellis shouted, straining against his chains. The other two men swung their rifles towards him.
The old woman pulled Laura's hair free and tugged it, yanking her head back roughly. She poked her fingers into Laura's mouth, checking her teeth.
"She'll do," the old woman announced, letting go. Hawk nose let go of his pinching grip on Laura's cheeks and stepped back.
Laura snapped her mouth closed. The old woman's fingers tasted like dirt and death. She licked her teeth and spat on the ground at the crone's feet.
Hawk nose raised his hand, fully prepared to backhand her, but the old woman stopped him. "No."
"But Thea," he whined, clearly disappointed.
Thea addressed the two men who were targeting Ellis. "Lock them in, then go find Codder. Help him get rid of this one. Some place dark and deep." She tipped her chin at Ellis.
"Yes, Thea," they answered, quickly leaving the barn.
"You," she turned on hawk-nose. "Go bring me Tomas and Maron. I'm going to make some more soup. As soon as it's done you'll bring it back and give it to her. Just the soup," she clarified.
Hawk-nose glared at Laura, but left to do the old woman's wishes with out argument.
The old woman sneered at Laura, then turned to follow hawk-nose.
Laura let out a curse. Finding Jen had almost taken a second seat to getting a piece of gum out of her pocket so she could get the taste of the old woman's dirty fingers out of her mouth.
Across the barn Ellis let out a dramatic sigh. "How come I get dead and you get soup?"
"The way she said 'soup' makes me wonder if dead might be the better option."
When the barn door cracked open, Laura tensed, working through a half-dozen options to take out hawk nose if he came near her. It would be difficult with only her legs free, but certainly not impossible. She cast a glance over at Ellis, who tensed and nodded. Whatever was about to happen, they weren't going to make it easy.
Instead of the returning village men, a cute young girl with curly blonde hair slipped in through the opening, letting the door swing closed behind her. She dashed into the center of the barn, her curls flying. She couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old, wearing a frilly smock and boots that were too big for her feet. She gawked wide-eyed at Laura, then Ellis, then turned and dashed back to the front.
"Wait!" Laura hissed. "Hey kid! Come back!"
The child ignored her. She pushed the door open, but instead of slipping through a crack, she shoved it wide and held it open for a redheaded woman who was dragging the unconscious body of one of the village men.
"Didn't see that coming," Ellis muttered.
As soon as they were inside, the girl dashed back out and returned in seconds, struggling with an armload of burlap which she carried into the middle of the barn. She lost her hold, spilling out a familiar set of weapons.
"Or that…" Ellis added.
"Careful Mina," the redhead hissed. She pulled the door closed and wedged a pitchfork through the handles. "Those are very dangerous."
"Sorry," the child answered, stooping to reach for one of the P90s which had slid under a barrel.
"Leave it!" the woman ordered. She threw a round ring of jingling keys at the blonde. "Unlock him."
While the girl sorted carefully through the keys to find the one that worked the locks around Ellis' wrists, the woman pulled a small knife from the pocket of her smock and sawed through the ropes binding Laura's wrists.
"We don't have much time," she announced, using a chunk of Laura's rope to bind the arms of the unconscious man on the floor. "Codder will be here any minute."
Retrieving her weapons, Laura headed to the front of the barn to check the street. The gravel lane was still empty, but she doubted it was going to last much longer.
A rattling clunk behind announced the release of Ellis's bindings. He grabbed his weapons and joined Laura at the door. "How's it look?"
"Clear," Laura answered. "For now."
The redhead removed the pitchfork from the handles and started to open the door but Laura grabbed her arm.
"Not that we're not grateful for the help, but what's in it for you?"
She had already decided the redhead had to be Daro's sister, but after being gone half a year without word to her brother or any of her people, Laura had to wonder at the state of the woman's captivity. She certainly seemed free enough to walk around bashing unsuspecting farmers over the head…so why was she still on the planet?
"Walk and talk," the redhead challenged. "Trust me when I say you don't want to be here when Codder arrives."
Laura blinked at the sass, but relented. The woman was Genii, an ally, and she had both set them free and returned their weapons. Technically that was worth some leeway. "Fine. Walk and talk."
The redhead inched the front door of the barn open. "There is an alley directly across the street, between the buildings, there. It follows the side of the barn to where it backs into the trees. Get across the street without being seen and we can go straight into the forest. Mina and I will go first. Wait for our signal, then follow. Quickly."
Without waiting for an answer, the woman tugged the child out the door and into the street.
Ellis bumped against Laura while they watched through the crack in the door. "Guess that answers that question," he mused, tugging on Laura's loose hair. "It's a redhead thing."
Stopping along the side of a creek bed, Tomas called out to a pair of men who were returning to the village. Even through the trees he instantly recognized the hulking shape of Codder. The oversized idiot might have had the thought process of a rock, but to his credit, he also had hands like one—the mountain could knock a man out with a flick of his wrist. Thankfully, his inability to think for himself made him the perfect muscle for Thea to use as she saw fit. Where Tomas had Maron to use for his dirty work, Thea had Codder.
"Has there been any sign of Calara?" Tomas asked Alaan, the skinny man walking with Codder.
"No," Alaan replied. "But we had to stop looking. Thea needs Codder to take care of some intruder she found."
"Intruder!" Tomas exclaimed. Thea had mentioned nothing of an intruder to him. He immediately thought of the traveller who'd come into the village yesterday and his keen interest in Calara. He described the man to Alaan.
"No, this man had black hair," Alaan answered. "And they were wearing uniforms, like soldiers. Blue. With dark vests. And a yellow crest on the shoulder."
"They?" Tomas clarified.
"He was with a woman. A redhead. Pretty. Thea said we could keep her, but Codder was supposed to take care of the man, first."
Tomas' eyes narrowed at the description of the uniforms the pair were wearing. Few planets had an organized military with enough presence to wear matching uniforms other than the Genii, but they wore a heavy green. Blue with a yellow crest could only mean one thing.
The 'Lanteans had come.
And if there were two in the village then there were more coming.
If they weren't here already.
He looked around, eyeing the trees with renewed wariness.
"Where have the teams been searching," he demanded of Alaan.
"We've covered the ground between here and the river," Alaan answered, pointing behind him in the rough direction of the gate. "No one has seen any trace of her."
Thea had most of the men searching the land on the gate side of the village. Without more of Thea's soup, his future wife would be feeling the effects of the root. Incapacitating pain. She would be in no condition to walk, run, or do anything other than lay in the dirt in a ball of agony. Not even Codder could miss her.
Tomas frowned. They'd all made the judgment that the woman had run for the gate…but what if they were wrong?
He turned to look back through the trees in the direction of the village. He had picked her for her smarts, after all. Perhaps more so than he'd first realized.
They were looking on the wrong side of the village.
"Go find the others," he commanded Alaan. "Tell them to keep watch for more soldiers. If they see any, they are to kill, without mercy."
Alaan blanched. "Kill?"
"You heard me," Tomas snapped. "Just do it. And be quick about it."
"But Thea wanted—"
"I'll take care of Thea," Tomas answered. "Now go. Codder, you come with us."
With Maron and Codder in tow, Tomas turned and headed back the way he'd come. If Calara wasn't in the valley around the village, or the forest on the way to the gate, then the only direction left was that of the rocky ridge.
Very good, Calara. Very good.
Knowing he'd figured out her trickery made him smile.
She was smart, yes. A worthy wife.
But it wouldn't do to have her thinking she was smarter than he.
A lesson he was going to be quite happy to teach her once he got her hands around her skinny little neck.
As soon as they reached the shelter of the trees, Laura demanded answers, but the redhead wasn't ready to share.
"Where are the rest of your people?" the woman demanded, looking around.
Ellis shook his head. "No people. Just the two of us."
"Unless things have changed that badly in my absence, the 'Lantean's still have a treaty with my people, the Genii. And knowing that, I also know very well your teams are of four. Not two." Without waiting for confirmation, the redhead pulled the child further into the trees, and away from the village.
"So, you are Daro's sister," Laura said.
The woman glanced at Laura in surprise. She blinked, then smiled. "I should have known my brother wouldn't have let me go that easily. Yes. I'm Shaana. And this is my friend, Mina. Although I have a feeling it was not me you came to find.”
Laura shook her head. "The old bat took one of our people." She quickly described Jen.
The little girl, Mina, bobbed her head eagerly. "That’s Calara. Shaana says that’s not her name, but we should call her that so Thea doesn’t get mad at us."
“Calara?” Ellis asked.
“Thea likes to give people new names,” Mina said, bobbing her head. “But I like my name, so Thea said I could keep it. Calara’s name sounds funny. What was her old name?”
“Jennifer,” Ellis said. “Jennifer Keller.”
“Jennifer,” Mina repeated slowly. She smiled. “Oh yes. I like that much better.”
“Me too,” Ellis said.
"I met your Doctor Keller several times before Thea's people brought me here," Shaana said. "I knew who she was the second I saw her."
“You saw her?” Laura exclaimed. “Jennifer. Here. In the village. You’re sure.”
Shaana nodded, then shook her head. "I am sorry. Your doctor was here. But she disappeared sometime during the night. No one knows why, or how. Or where she went. Thea is tearing the village apart looking for her."
Laura almost laughed. They'd been right! Jen had somehow managed to get away and disappear.
Eager to get the message to the others, Laura tried to contact John, but the Colonel didn’t answer. Evan replied, warning her that the radios were only working over short, direct distances. She quickly told him they had Daro’s sister and confirmation on Jen. She wanted to relay the news to Ronon, but Evan hadn’t heard from the Satedan either. Agreeing to relay her message to Sheppard, he described a rocky outcropping set between two streams with an overlook of the village and advised her to meet him there. Laura confirmed the location with Shaana, who agreed to lead them.
"No one has ever left the village before," Mina said, her face scrunched in seriousness. "It's too dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Laura looked at Shaana for explanation.
"Thea does not allow the women to leave the village. Consequences of such an indiscretion… can be… deadly."
Mina bobbed her head, her eyes wide with fear and worry. "They killed Arana. Poisoned her with that terrible soup."
"Soup?" Laura repeated, thinking of Thea's command to have hawk nose bring 'soup' back to the barn.
"Regnig root," Shaana answered.
"Poison?" Laura asked.
"It erases your mind," Mina answered, bobbing her head up and down furiously.
"Erases your mind?" Ellis repeated, stopping to lift the girl up onto a large piece of deadfall. He set her on top of the log, then hopped over it, reaching up to lift her back down.
"It makes you forget everything," Mina said to him, her eyes wide, her head nodding with the very stern and serious expression. She placed her small hands on his shoulders, inched up on her toes to whisper in his ear. "You forget forever."
In the silence of the forest, Laura heard the child’s warning clearly. The knot it her abdomen that had lessened at the news Jen was on the planet, tightened right back up again.
Ellis gently lifted Mina off the log and placed her on the ground beside him.
"Shanna says that is the only soup Thea feeds pretty girls," Mina said, reaching up and grasping Ellis hand, without care that they’d only just met. "I'm not old enough yet. But Shaana says I wouldn't like Thea's soup anyway. She says it tastes like mud."
"Quiet voice, Mina," Shaana cautioned.
"It tastes like mud," Mina repeated, her whisper nearly as loud as her regular voice.
"Regnig root grows on many planets, but it is rare to find," Shaana explained while they walked. "It has many medicinal uses, but it is also very deadly. Some planets use it freely, many others have laws against its use. In little doses it can be very helpful. Easing pain, especially around the head and shoulders. In larger does it can help people forget terrible actions or memories. It erases recent events. Wipes them clean. But too big a dose, and it isn't just what you have seen recently that you can forget."
"It forgets everything," Mina added. "Shaana said if you eat too much you can't remember who you are. Even your name. But I haven't had any soup so I still remember my name. Mina Chrissa Cait Drican, of the planet Syawa."
"Sounds like you're a long way from home," Ellis replied, smiling down at the girl.
“I miss my Papa,” she said sadly.
Mina’s sad sigh tore into Laura. What kind of evil would take such an adorable child away from her family? They had enough of those monsters on earth, she didn’t need to find them here in Pegasus, too. She locked eyes with Ellis, the hard anger in his eyes solidifying her own. Once this was all over, once Jen was back home and safe, Thea was going to face a world of hurt, and Mina was going to get home to her parents. Even if Laura had to cross the entire Pegasus galaxy to do it.
And she was pretty damn sure Ellis was going to be right there with her.
A noise through the trees to their right had them scrambling for cover. Ellis picked up the child and thrust her at Shaana, pushing them down behind the wide trunk of a tree, and blocking them in behind him.
When Mina started to ask what was wrong, Shaana shushed the child, begging her to keep as quiet as a mouse.
Mina’s eyes were wide with fright.
Ellis flashed Mina a quick wink and tapped her on the nose with his finger. “Mina the Mouse,” he whispered. “I like it.”
The little girl started to smile. She pursed her lips and scrunched herself in against Shaana.
Laura squatted beside them, tracking movement through the trees. Two armed villagers passed them by, unaware of how close they were coming to death. If Laura hadn’t been worried about making noise, she might take Shaana and Mina’s plight to heart and pick off a few of their captors.
Once the two men were out of sight, Ellis urged everyone to keep moving. Mina immediately reached up and placed her small hand in his. “Good job, Mina Mouse,” he said quietly, nodding down at her.
She smiled. “I am a good mouse, aren’t I!”
“You were the best mouse I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some pretty good mice. Even ones that can dance and drive a car.”
“What’s a car?” she asked, making Ellis laugh.
Shaana placed her hand on Laura’s arm, indicating with a tip of her head that she wanted to let Ellis and Mina get a little further ahead. She gave Ellis some pointed directions, then waited for him to get Mina out of earshot. Ellis walked ahead with Mina, distracting the child with tales of a mouse named Mickey.
When the distance was comfortable enough to speak without Mina overhearing, Shaana’s expression turned serious. “She may be free of the village, but your doctor is still in great danger.”
“From Thea?” Laura asked. “Or the soup?”
"Both. Thea hides the root in her soup. Then she forces it on the women she brings back. After the first bowl wears off, it causes a nice little headache. More soup makes the pain go away, but then it returns sooner, and stronger, making you want to keep eating the soup to stop the headache After a few days, you forget everything about yourself. Thea gives you a new name and a new life, and you never know what you’ve lost, or what you’ll never get back.”
“Then how do you still remember?”
“Luck. And family. My mother was a healer. That's how I met your Doctor. My mother worked with regnig root and taught me how to use it. Properly. I smelled the root in the soup right away and was able to hide the fact that I was not eating it. I know the symptoms. I knew how I was supposed to react."
"What about Mina?" Laura asked, her eyes on the funny yet touching image of Ellis, in all his battle gear, walking hand in hand beside a cute little kid with a bouncing mop of blonde curls.
"Thea is a monster, but even she wouldn't consider Mina old enough. No, it is those of us of age that Thea brought here to pair up with a husband."
"Husband?" Laura asked, making a troubled connection to a memory wipe and a village full of kidnapped women. Then she remembered Thea's hair and teeth examination in the barn. "Oh geeze," she muttered, renewing her resolve to find a pack of gum, a’sap.
"Thea's form of an arranged marriage," Shaana confirmed with an angry scowl. "Not all the women in the village are acquisitions. Some were born here. But Thea likes to pick proper wives for those in her favour."
"So, if you didn't have any of the soup…then you've been pretending to be someone's wife?"
"I pretended to be who they wanted me to be. I did what I had to do. I knew if I waited, if I had patience, I would find a way home."
"It’s been six months. Why haven’t you left?”
“It’s not for lack of trying. There are at least three men on watch for every woman in the village. That, and I was not conscious when I arrived. The only thing I know about the gate is it is nearly a day's hike from the village. I have a general idea of the direct, but I am not a skilled tracker. If I lost the trail, I could be wandering the hills for years. Then there are the patrols. Weapons here are not as advanced as ours, or yours. At the most I would have had one rifle against the entire village. I almost had the opportunity right after the harvest, but then that idiot Codder showed up with Mina in tow."
Laura's stomach dropped. She stared at the little girl who was now hopping on one foot down the trail, still holding firmly to Ellis' hand. "He wanted Mina…”
"I would have killed him for that."
The cold anger in Shaana’s voice left Laura with little doubt that if this Codder had tried anything, he would be dead, and it would likely have been very slow, and very painful.
"Codder's wife can't have any more children. The oaf thought Mina would make a pretty present. Once I saw her, I knew I couldn't just leave her here. But that also meant I couldn't leave as I'd originally planned. Not without making sure I could take her with me."
Laura understood the dilemma. With only a single shot weapon, and no clue as to direction, an untrained adult would have a difficult time making the trek against Thea's angry hoard. Add in the responsibility of having a child in tow…
She gave Shaana an appreciative nod. Not many women would have had the balls to do what she'd done and keep her wits about her and morals intact enough to want to help a stranger's child.
The desire to beat the shit out of the psychotic old woman jumped up several more notches. She then added Codder to the list.
"Did Thea give Jennifer any of the soup?" Laura asked, worried about how far Thea would have gone with Jen.
“Yes. But your friend has not been here long enough for the root to take full effect. She does not remember who she is, but if she does not take any more of it, her mind should come back to her as it was before."
"Should?" Laura honed in on the word.
"Playing with the mind is a dangerous game. I will tell you this. After the amount she has already had, stopping the soup so abruptly will leave your Doctor very sick. As I said, it makes Thea's job easier to keep giving more of the soup. It stops the hurt. Wherever she is, wherever she is hiding, I promise you, Doctor Keller is in an immense amount of pain. The kind that even the strongest of soldiers cannot manage alone. Unless she has found herself someplace where sound will not carry, Thea's men will find her. They will return her to Thea, and Thea will give her more soup. And when she does, there will be no going back. Your Doctor will be lost to you forever."
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."
Kiryk knelt next to Jennifer. He brushed away the damp clumps of hair that were stuck to her cheek and placed his palm to her forehead. He was relieved to feel no lingering trace of the fiery heat that had burned through her most of the night, yet she still did not open her eyes.
She worried him. He had no idea how much of the root the people of the village had given her, other than to know it had been two days' worth. When she'd taken ill much faster than he'd expected, he feared she may not survive the morning. She'd told him once that her people were not of this galaxy. It was a difficult concept to consider for some, but the ring of the Ancestors held many secrets. He'd seen too things over the years to discount her origin. And it was this that concerned him most. The root may take hold in her mind much differently that it would the people who lived with it. It had certainly taken her down much faster than it should have.
Yet, true to the stubborn nature he respected of her, she'd fought through the worst of the sickness, only the fight had left her weaker than he liked. She wasn't waking up, and her breathing was too slow and too shallow.
But she was alive. And that was what mattered.
He moved his hand to her wrist, wary of the clammy stickiness that covered her skin. The poison had escaped her pores, but it still clung to her in desperation. It matted her hair to her head and soaked her clothes.
Leaving it on her skin was dangerous. He needed to clean it off her, and quickly.
A wet cloth wouldn't do. He needed water. And lots of it.
He crossed over to the entrance of the cavern and squinted out through the shadows to the sunny afternoon beyond. The river that skirted the village flowed down from these hills. Along the way it bubbled and curled into wide pools. Once such area was close to the caves, sheltered in a heavy stand of trees. It was a short trip, but would involve travel across an unprotected open field. His armband could take them most of the way unseen, but the open elements concerned him. The village patrols were still circling the land on the far side of the village, but he couldn't be sure they wouldn't also be working their way towards the caves. Alone he'd have no worry, but carrying an unconscious woman...
He turned back to the darker recesses of the cave. He had no choice.
He gathered the last of the supplies and tucked them into a worn leather sack. Looping the strap over his shoulder he shoved the bulk around to his back. He kicked the remnants of the fire across the stone floor of the cave, spreading it wide to let the coals die off. Returning to the doctor, he rolled her into his coat and lifted her.
She didn't stir.
He sidestepped through the opening and into the sun.
By the time Tomas skirted around to the far side of the village, he'd collected another group of armed men to add to his group. While he had no issue believing Codder alone would easily dispatch any of the Lantean's they encountered, he wasn't a fool. Having both Maron and Codder to distract the Lanteans was a fine enough plan, but who would protect him while he escaped? Yes, having the extra weapons at his command was certainly in his best interest.
They followed an old hunting path that threaded along a low flowing creek bed towards the base of the hills. The trail was known only to the locals, used in the late summer season when the riverbed held only a trickle. In all other seasons, the trail was lost beneath the rush of water that flowed down from the mountains.
There was a wider, more direct path around the hills, but it offered less cover from possible Lantean patrols. This way, he had cover, and surprise. They'd never expect them to be sloshing through a riverbed. No. The Lantean's would think they were stupid farmers. Slow villagers. Men who would dumbly take the open road, and not be wise enough to hide in the trees. But Tomas was smart. He was wise. And he would prove that by finding Calara, and killing the Lanteans.
He smiled at his cleverness. The old woman would be pleased when he returned with Calara, especially when Thea herself had ordered everyone to search the side of the village that lead to the gate, and not the hills as Tomas was.
Their group reached a flattened section where the river split. Left, the river worked its way up a rocky incline towards the waterfall. Right, it took an easier path through the flat lands to the base of the rocky hills.
The others paused at the intersection and looked to Tomas for direction.
He took a moment to consider his options.
"How far do you think she made it?" Maron asked.
Tomas shushed him. "Speak quietly," he commanded, annoyed by the interruption.
"I thought you said the Lantean's wouldn't be over here?" Maron replied, his voice lowered.
"They aren't," Tomas snapped. "But that doesn't mean you should feel free to shout."
Maron frowned, and fell silent.
Tomas sighed, wondering if this was how Thea felt, constantly having to justify her actions to the men of the village. He rescinded his earlier assessment that they were smart. He was smart. The others, not so much.
"Calara hasn't had any of the soup since last night's meal," he explained. "By now she will be quite ill, and in great pain. We are sure to hear her whimpered cries...but only if we are quiet..."
No one spoke.
Satisfied he'd made his point, Tomas continued. "If she followed the river road, she may have managed to reach as far as the waterfall. If she took the path towards the hills, she could be anywhere along the base of the caverns..."
He squinted left, then right, trying to decipher which direction Calara would have chosen. The caves? Or the water? The village women were always afraid of the caves. They were dark. Damp. Full of unseen crawlies that made them cry. Fortunately, his Calara wasn't like the simpering village women. She was smarter then all of them.
No, his Calara would not be afraid of the caverns.
She would see them as a perfect spot to hide.
He took a step onto the path toward the hills. "This way," he commanded, feeling a rush of power when the others fell into step behind him without question.
Through the meadow to the caves it was.
It had taken much longer to reach the shallows of the river than Kiryk had initially intended, but he was unwilling to chance getting caught in the open with his precious package. They'd travelled under the cover of the forest as long as they could, and passing through the open spaces using his armband until it ran out.
Waiting for the Ancient stone to recharge was an exercise in patience he was unable to avoid.
He hated waiting.
The sun had crested its arc and was working its way down towards the end of day. Kiryk glared at the direction of the beams slicing through the branches high above. They had several hours yet until the sun set, but the distance to the gate was much farther than he could go before darkness fell.
He needed to find a safe place to take her for the night.
He squatted beside the woman sleeping in the rays of the sun. He'd washed the last traces of the poison from her skin and changed her into an oversized dress he'd liberated the night before. The dress drowned her, but it was clean and dry. Her skin lacked color, and she had barely reacted when he'd carried her into the cool water, but at least she breathed easier, and her heart was stronger than it had been earlier in the day.
He'd done all he could do to rid her of the regnig root.
The rest was up to her.
He dug a hole in the soft muck beneath the water's surface, and submerged her old clothes, weighing them down beneath a heavy collection of rocks until they were hidden beneath the water. Eventually they could work their way loose, but not before they were long gone from the planet.
While he worked, he planned out their next course of action. Staying close to the village was not an option, but heading directly to the gate would also be unwise. The villagers and the old woman were tearing the local area apart with their search. He had high doubts the village men would be of any consequence for him, but he was unwilling to chance walking into any kind of gunfire with Jennifer.
He'd not had proper time to study the people in the town, other than to discern that the old woman was Ahmazos. Why she was here, on this planet was a puzzle. The Ahmazos leaders rarely left their home world. Yet there was no mistaking the way the old one commanded. He'd overheard her words, and while the dialect was common enough, the accent she failed to hide when she'd angrily ordered the town searched was unmistakable. Yet, the other women in the village were nothing but farm wives, and those of the men he'd seen were most certainly not Ahmazos trained either.
Yet it was a fool who underestimated his enemy. The old woman was Ahmazos, so he couldn't chance there weren't others here somewhere. He would take Jennifer to the gate in as wide a path as possible, arcing away from the village and its occupants.
He wrapped her in his jacket and picked her up. She stirred in his arms, mumbling a weak protest. Relief lifted a heavy weight from his heart. Hearing her speak was a good sign, even if she wasn't truly awake now, she would be soon.
When they reached the edge of a rocky plateau, his senses overrode his intent to continue forward.
Frozen next to a heavy cluster of nut-trees, he stared across the open space, seeking any movement that was out of place.
Something wasn't right.
He took a step back and lowered Jennifer to the ground. He tucked her beneath the thick bushy branches of the trees. Placing the satchel with the last of their food in with her, he reached for his sword and returned to the edge of the plateau. His eyes saw nothing, but his senses screamed there was something there.
Using boulders and shrubs for cover, he crossed the expanse with the help of the armband, every nerve in his body on alert. With each pause he took cover, searching for signs of what he was sensing, but no one revealed themselves. After an eternity, he reached the last of the cover, ducking behind a heavy boulder a short distance from the trees. The armband was empty once again. He would have to cross the last of the distance without its help.
He inhaled, steadying himself for the run. He pushed himself upright but instead of moving forward to the trees, his mind shot out the command to turn. The air, the energy at his back had changed.
There was someone behind him!
Sword in hand he spun.
The cold metal of a gun barrel jammed into his jaw at the exact second the tip of his sword pressed to his opponent's throat.
Neither man moved.
Kiryk let the air out of his lungs, yet did not remove his sword from its point of death at the other man's throat. Ronon was an equal match, and their trust of each other was not earned from years of battle together, but only because of the blonde-haired doctor they both held in common. It was too thin a connection to underestimate the man with his finger on a very deadly trigger.
"Where is she?" Ronon demanded.
Ronon exhaled and lowered his blaster.
Kiryk dropped his sword back into its scabbard.
As they crossed the open ground, Kiryk quickly explained how he'd come to be in possession of Jennifer, her missing memory, and her fight to rid herself of the root. "I gave her as much thistle tea as I could find," he added. "But I don't know if it was enough. She's too weak."
He then demanded to know how Ronon and the Lanteans had lost someone so valued to begin with.
Ronon explained the old woman's evil game, and the village's connection to Jennifer's disappearance.
Digesting the details of what had been transpiring to the women in the village, and realizing the knowledge and healing power that could have been lost if Jennifer had been a victim to a full dose of the root, Kiryk turned on Ronon. "I would have thought your people would take better care of their own! She shouldn't have been there alone!"
"She wasn't alone!" Ronon snapped.
Kiryk shoved the Satedan, who grabbed his vest and yanked him forward.
Blaster to jaw and sword to throat, they stood in their deadly pose once again.
"She was alone enough to be kidnapped...again!" Kiryk pointed out, remembering how easy it had been when he'd removed the Doctor from the village to help Celise.
"For all we know you were in on it this time, too!" Ronon countered, his anger snapping his words.
"She saved my life," Kiryk countered. "And Celice's!"
"And mine," Ronon growled.
"Yes, well you have a strange way of repaying your debts!"
"What's that supposed to mean? Where the hell is she?" Ronon demanded. "Is she even here? Take me to her, now!"
Kiryk sensed more than just anger in his opponent. There was a desperation to the words. A fear that Ronon worked very hard to keep buried.
Kiryk let his anger slide away.
There had been enough energy between the Doctor and the Satedan the last time they'd met, even a blind man would have noticed. If Jennifer had gone missing this time, it had not been under Ronon's watch.
Kiryk sighed, choosing his words carefully, willing his explanation to hit home. He slowly lowered his blade. "The Lantean's may have weapons and skills, but this your home, and they're not you."
After a moment, the pressure of Ronon's blaster dropped away. "No," Ronon admitted. "They're not."
"Come on. Let's go get your Doctor." Kiryk led Ronon to the cluster of nut-tree trunks. He squatted down and pulled the lower branches aside.
In the leafy dirt lay his coat, and the satchel.
But Jennifer was gone.
She stumbled through the forest, fingers and palms stinging from the rough bark as she pushed herself from tree to tree. Pain rode through every inch of her body. Her bare feet stung, tiny cuts splitting open with every step across the sharp, rocky ground. She needed to stop, to breathe, to lay down, but fear drove her forward. Into the shelter of the trees. Away from the sounds of the angry voices. Of men shouting. Fighting. Coming for her.
Coming for her.
The swirling fuzz in her head twisted her thoughts, giving her little chance to think of anything other than the solitary need to run. To leave this place far behind. To go home.
If only she could remember where home was.
Her ankle cracked against the jagged edge of an uprooted stump, sending her sprawling. She landed hard, rolling with the sloped ground and smashing to an abrupt stop in the bottom of a shallow, rocky creek bed. She lay on her side, the trickle of icy water slowly soaking into her clothes. The chilly temperature soothed her heated skin. She rolled onto her back, hissing at the pain that settled into her bones.
High above, the blue sky winked at her from beyond the canopy of leaves. Flickers of sunlight slipped through, flashing on and off again as the breeze pushed the branches back and forth. She closed her eyes, lulled by the hypnotic sound of the water trickling over the rocks. Sleep would be wonderful. To to close off from the ache and pain. To let it all go and just drift with the water. To float away.
The word carried along the breeze, slipping through her exhaustion and into her soul. It brought a sense of urgency. A need. A desire to answer. To be heard.
She opened her eyes. High above, the trees still moved. The sun still shone. Nothing had changed, and yet... She strained to hear. To prove to herself it was there. But there was nothing but the sound of the wind in the leaves and the water over the rocks.
Rolling onto her side, she pushed through the pain and forced her aching body to move. She held her breath, willing the words to come again but the only sound to reach her was the shocking nearness of a happy growl.
"There you are, Calara."
Tomas wavered between pride that his soon-to-be wife had been strong enough to survive the painful weening from the soup, and anger that the simpering sop could barely keep to her feet. When she stumbled and fell yet again, he yanked on the bindings he'd tied around her wrists and shoved her at Maron.
Maron picked the gagged and bound woman up and flopped her over his shoulder like a sack of grain. She whimpered and struggled weakly, but Maron ignored her protests.
Alaan sprinted forward, splashing across the narrow creek towards them. "Two men," he exclaimed. "Coming across the riverbed."
Tomas made a face. "Just two?"
Alaan glanced over his shoulder. "That's all I saw. I didn't stick around to see if there were more. They were moving pretty fast."
The Lantean's travelled in groups of four. That much Tomas had learned from his research. So, if there were two coming, chances were there were two more not far behind. He glanced at the men he'd gathered. The Lantean's had weapons...well so did they. And Tomas now had twelve to their four.
And he had Maron and Codder.
They equalled two, if not three men on their own.
He wiggled his hand at Maron. "Put her down."
Maron dropped Calara to her feet. She immediately crumpled to her knees.
Tomas grabbed her arm and yanked her back up, turning to address the men. "I will take Calara back to the village. Find the strangers, and kill them."
Calara struggled weakly against him, her frantic cries muffled by the strip of cloth tied across her mouth. Tomas gave her a rough shake. "This is your doing," he growled. "Their blood is on your hands." Then he turned back to the men. "Don't return until they're dead, or Thea will have your heads instead."
Further instructions were not needed, only a mention of Thea's displeasure was a necessary. Every man, woman, and child in the village knew the penalty that came from disobeying Thea was death – and not always a quick one.
Codder was the only one who was pleased by the command. He grinned and pushed through the group, leading them back down the trail to where Alaan saw the strangers.
Maron paused before following, questioning Tomas with a glance.
"Go," he ordered Maron. "I'll take her to Thea."
Maron nodded, and turned to follow after Codder and the others.
Alone on the trail, Tomas grabbed Calara by the chin, forcing her to look at him. He squeezed roughly, pleased to see the pain tearing her eyes. "You shouldn't have run," he tisked. "There will be consequences, Calara." He let go of her neck and switched his hold to her upper arm, dragging her forward. "Starting with a nice big bowl of Thea's soup."
Ronon and Kiryk held their place behind a tight cluster of thick branched trees, watching the group of villagers heading towards them. They'd tracked Jennifer as far as the creek before catching sight of the oncoming mob, which now stood between them, and the woman they sought.
There was no mistaking the cocky stride of the village men, their over-confidence at their numbers leading them to think they were invincible. Ronon started to smile, catching Kiryk with an equally bemused expression. Finally—someone to exorcise the demons on. He clenched his hands into a fist, then released his fingers, relaxing them against his sides.
"Twelve against two?" Kiryk commented. "Hardly seems fair."
Ronon tipped his chin to a distant spot where two bulking men made joined at the rear. "Fourteen," he corrected. At least those two looked like they'd be able to put up some what of a fight.
Kiryk scowled. "The one in the green is mine."
Ronon glanced at his companion, but Kiryk offered no further explanation.
"Fine," Ronon agreed. "More for me."
Carson Beckett rubbed the back of his neck, digging at the tension locked around base of his skull. Balancing the tablet in his other hand, he walked and read, nearly colliding with Marie.
"I found it," she exclaimed, trading her tablet for his.
“A’acatin," he pronounced carefully, reading the description presented on the screen. "You're sure this is it?"
"The Genii sent over samples of the root," she confirmed. "I had Dr. Dayer run them against every plant in the database. This is it."
Skipping over the basics, Carson scrolled through the history and biology of the plant's root, confirmed the symptoms were the same as what he'd been told, then searched for any mentions of cures or counter actions.
"It says here the Ancients found the chemical compound in the plant's root was a fantastic holistic pain-killer," he summarized.
"In small doses," Marie confirmed. "In larger doses the chemical was found to alter short term memory, breaking the connection between the memory and recall. Patients are left with holes in their memories, stretching anywhere from a few hours to a few days."
Carson kept reading. The drawback to using the root was the length of time it took to clear the blood. A single use was harmless, perfect for emergency survival or if no other solution was available. But back to back use left a build up of the compound in the blood stream, turning the helpful painkiller into a poisonous toxin circulating through the body.
If the user didn't allow the proper length of time between uses it caused an overdose, starting with incapacitating headaches and peaking with permanent memory loss. The list of symptoms increased with every dose taken. Without the proper cleansing period between doses, the affects of toxin multiplied. The longer the use, the less chance there was to ever return from the abyss. The only constant throughout the Ancient’s research was the length of time the poison needed before it was irreversible.
Carson re-read the last paragraph of the database entry. The Ancients had created a compound that would counter-act the poison of the root—an antidote that would dilute and dissolve the toxic buildup—but it was only found to work if the patient hadn't crossed the seventy-two-hour deadline, and it had to be administered within twenty-four hours of the last dose. If they waited any longer, the antidote wouldn't work.
"Didn't Rodney say they believe Jennifer made it out of the village sometime last night?" he asked.
Marie nodded. "Only we don't know exactly when. Or how much she's even had to begin with."
There were too many unknowns! Jennifer had been gone longer than three days. If she'd been given the root since the start...
Marie's expression revealed the thought was also worrying her. "Dr. Dayer started working on the antidote, just in case.”
"Yes. Of course." Letting the unanswered questions fall aside, Carson concentrated on the details he could gather. "How much more time does he need?"
Fifteen minutes wasn't nearly enough time to plan for the what-ifs, but if it was all he had to work with, it would have to be enough. He stepped past the nurse and headed into the corridor. "Contact me the moment it's ready," he called over his shoulder.
"Where are you going," Marie asked.
"I need to make a phone call."
John walked into the open clearing and stopped dead. Evan, Teyla, and Laura paused beside him, all eyes on a long line of bodies strewn through the grassy field. Several lumps were unmoving, a few moaned, and one was unsuccessfully trying to drag himself into the foliage alongside the trail.
"Aww, isn’t that sweet? Ronon left us a bread-crumb trail," Laura said, gleefully.
John started forward, pausing to check the first body for a pulse. The man was breathing, but from the bloodied look of him, he was going to be in a hell of a lot of pain when he woke up. He stepped over the villager and continued forward.
Half way through the carnage they had to step around the hulking girth of a pair of very large men who were half lying on top of each other in a twisted mess of blood and broken body parts.
"Not much of a fair fight," Evan muttered.
"For them?" Laura asked, swinging her arm across the carnage. "Or Ronon?"
John moved further down the body-trail, making a beeline for the only villager who was physically moving. A dark-haired man wearing torn and bloody overalls was dragging himself beneath a cluster of leafy ferns.
John grabbed the man’s ankle and yanked him back onto the open.
"Please," the man begged, wheezing through the blood that trailed down his face from his broken nose and split forehead. He crawled backwards, dragging his broken leg until he was cowered up against the trunk of a tree. "It wasn't me. I didn't take her. It's Tomas you want. Tomas took her."
"Where?" John demanded.
"The village." The man pointed through the trees. "He took her back to the village."
"We'd better get a move on." John urged the others forward. "Before Ronon destroys the entire town."
Laura started to follow, paused, then turned back to the man on the ground. She leaned down and smashed her fist into his jaw. The man toppled over into the dirt and lay still.
John sighed. "Lieutenant..."
Laura hurried to catch up to them. "Didn't want him to sound the alarm?"
"More like you didn't want Ronon to have all the fun," Evan countered, grabbing her hand and double checking she didn’t re-injure it.
Laura grinned. "I admit nothing."
Tomas lifted his chin over the embarrassment of having to carry Calara into the village square and faced Thea's disapproval head on. After all, it wasn't entirely his fault his future wife fainted. Thea and her soup were at the top of the list of reasons. Not Tomas.
"Well it's about time," Thea called out, turning away from the group of men she was giving new orders to. "You have no idea the trouble this one has caused."
"I am well aware of the issue," Tomas argued.
Thea waved one of the men forward. "Jak, take Calara to the cellar," she ordered. "And make sure this time she is unable to leave."
Tomas almost argued with Thea about putting Calara in the windowless storage bunker below the store, but bit back his comment. Thea was angry enough. No need to make her more-so. Truth be told, the cellar was as close to a permanent lockup as they had in the village. There was absolutely no way Calara could disappear from a rock walled hole in the ground.
He handed Calara over to Jak, scowling when the farmer flopped Calara across his shoulder like a seed sack.
"Carefully," Tomas ordered.
Jak walked away without commenting. Tomas waited until he could no longer see his soon-to-be wife before turning back to the village leader.
"Two more have followed your wife's example and left," Thea snapped.
Tomas gaped at Thea. "What? Who!"
Thea tipped her head towards the man on her left. "Hick's wife is gone. She hasn't been seen since breakfast."
Tomas immediately pictured the headstrong redhead Thea had gifted to the young man. Hick's wife ruled his house with an iron fist, and Hick was perfectly happy to let her do so. It was no wonder the woman left. She probably tired of having a weak-minded husband.
"Who was the second," Tomas asked.
Hick stepped forward. "She took Mina with her."
Tomas felt the weight of the name bow his spine. Mina belonged to Codder, and Codder took his possessions very seriously. If Thea felt it necessary to place the blame for Mina's disappearance with someone, then that person was due an excruciating amount of pain. Since Thea was glaring directly at him, Tomas had a sickening feeling he was going to be the one Codder came after.
Unless he could find a reason to avoid it.
He puffed out his chest and turned on Hick. "What have you done to find your wife? My task has been completed. Why are you still here?"
Hick shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Thea needed us here."
Thea waved Hick away. "Go then. Find your wife. And you'd best be bringing the child back with you as well."
Hick didn't wait for any further instructions. He herded the other two men along with him across the square.
Thea turned on Tomas. "You're lucky you think well on your feet, Tomas. Codder is going to be very angry about Mina. You had better hope Hick finds them both. And quickly."
John spotted Ronon on the outskirts of the village, his position flanked by a man of equally imposing stature.
He joined the duo along the back side of a sheltered building.
"Nice of you to show up," Ronon grumped.
"Well, next time leave a better trail of bodies," John quipped. He turned to Kiryk, surprised and happy to see the former runner looked no worse for wear from whatever travels he'd accomplished since their CMO had removed his tracker. "Nice to see you're still in one piece."
"It is good to see you too, Sheppard."
"I'm beginning to wonder if kidnapping and the Doc are a thing with you," John said.
"Perhaps," Kiryk answered. "Although in this case I wish I had arrived sooner."
"You saw her?" John asked. He peered around the side of the building, listening while Kiryk described his encounter with the Doc and her detox from the mind-numbing root she'd been fed.
"How bad is she?" Laura asked.
"Very sick," Kiryk answered. "Very weak. She couldn't have come back her on her own."
"We need to get her to Beckett," Ronon said, looking directly at John.
John agreed with the Satedan's urgency. "We can't just go busting in there without a plan."
"Why not?" Ronon asked.
"Because we don't even know where she is," John told him.
Kiryk pointed out the peak of a red painted roof several buildings over. "That's where we start."
John pointed to Kiryk's arm-band. "Got a full charge on that thing?"
"If we get you close enough without draining the battery, can you get out her out of the village?"
John brushed past Ronon and headed towards the village. "All right Chewy, now we can go busting in."
Tomas retrieved the jar of regnig root from the pantry and was about to hand it to Thea when a chattering burst of popping sounds gave him pause. "What is that?"
Thea snatched the glass jar from his hands. "That is gunfire," she snapped. She dropped the canister on the counter and hurried to the window by the table, shoving aside the cloth coverings.
Tomas quickly joined her. At the end of the street, several of the men from the village rushed between the buildings, shouting and pointing at something across the square.
Tomas pressed his face closer to the glass. Another quick burst of the strange gunfire sounded, followed by a set of rifle fire. His blood burned both with anger and disappointment.
Maron and Codder had failed. The idiots had been bested by two men. It was a shame and an embarrassment. Tomas chastised himself for thinking Maron and Codder could have completed the task without having someone to watch over them every step of the way. He should have sent Calara back to the village with one of the others, and remained to take care of the two Lantean's himself.
Another succession of rifle fire made him feel a tiny bit better about his men. At least they were smart enough to shoot back.
"Well don't just stand there!" Thea gave him a shove. "Take your gun to the attic. The end window should give you enough of a vantage point to see over the buildings. Kill someone."
"What about you?" he demanded. The old woman was a better shot than most of the men of their village. If anyone was to be taking aim from above, it should be her. He was better suited for command. He should be out there giving orders. Organizing the men. Not hiding in the darkness shooting people like a coward. If he was ever going to prove himself as her replacement, this was the time. "I need to be out there," he argued.
Thea was having none of it. She lifted the rifle from behind the door and slapped it at his chest. "You will do as I say."
"And you?" he asked, refusing to move.
She twisted the top off the jar of the regnig root and dumped the contents of the container into the steaming pot on top of the stove. "I am going to clean up your mess."
Tomas stared at the pot, watching with dismay as the old woman stirred the liquid. That amount of root in one dose had only one purpose.
The cold glare in Thea's eyes left Tomas with little doubt that Calara's fate could be argued. He sighed. So much research gone. So much time wasted. She would have made such a pretty wife, too.
Dejected, Tomas hurried up the stairs to the second floor. Working out the basis of a plan to seek out the woman who'd been second on his list before Calara, he climbed the ladder to the attic. At least he could end the afternoon positively.
He smiled as he knelt in front of the tiny window at the end of the attic.
Calara's grave wouldn't be lonely.
A chunk of wood exploded next to John's head, forcing him to drop to his knees. He spun around, sighting the shooter behind a row of barrels. He fired, waited a beat to confirm the man was down, then rolled to the side behind a towering stack of bags of feed. They'd met very little resistance on their way to the center of the town, passing only screaming women and crying children who were running for the safety of the forest. It wasn't until his team reached the narrow streets leading to the middle that the firefight had become dodgy, with local farmers taking pot shots at them from all sides.
The locals had the advantage of numbers and knowledge of the location. John's best hope was in making as much of a scene as possible to draw the villagers out into the open, giving Ronon and Kiryk the opportunity to get to Jennifer unopposed. So far, the ‘drawing their fire’ part of the equation was most definitely working.
A blur of navy sprinted out of a doorway across the street. Evan darted across the open space, diving in beside John a second before a bullet shredded the corner off one of the grain bags, spewing a stream of corn kernels down across John's shoulder.
"Colonel," Evan greeted as he twisted and fired into the barn directly behind John. An armed villager tumbled out of the opening and fell into the dirt, face first.
"Major," John replied. He peered over the top of the slowly draining sack of grain. Between the buildings at the end of the street he watched the corner of their target—the house where Kiryk had first found Jennifer.
A massive explosion shook the ground. To their left, a thick plume of black smoke wafted up above the buildings, clouding the sky.
"Looks like Ronon found the flammables," Evan commented dryly.
"Or Cadman," John pointed out.
Evan grinned. "She does have that affect on people."
John leaned around the edge of their barrier. Movement up the street caught his attention. Teyla leaned out the doorway of a single storey building and waved him forward. He clasped Evan on the shoulder, confirmed there was no one coming up the lane in either direction, then bolted out from behind the seed bags.
Teyla ushered them into the building and closed the door. John and Evan followed her into the front room of a small storehouse where Laura was crouched beside a half-open window.
The booming crash of a second explosion vibrated through the building.
"Guess that answers that question," Evan said, squatting next to Laura at the window.
Laura wrinkled her nose. "Ronon’s having all the fun," she grumped.
John flattened himself against the wall next to Laura, keeping to the side of the window while he surveyed the central square. Directly across the open space sat a two-storey house with a peaked roof. It was attached to the storefront by a long covered walkway. The awkward shape of the two buildings was going to make it difficult to cover all the angles, not to mention the task of cross the wide-open space of the village square.
He counted two men on the roof of an adjacent building, another in the doorway of a shop past the corner, and three more in the windows and doors of the tavern.
"Don't forget the dude in the fruit stand," Laura said.
John glanced at the small wooden gazebo across the square, its counter covered in various fruits and vegetables. It took him a moment to spot the long barrel of a rifle poking out beside a pyramid of apples. "Good eye, Lieutenant."
"What's the plan?" Evan asked him.
“That depends on how much you like apples..."
Laura followed Evan down a narrow alley towards the village square. Beneath an arched opening they paused to wait for the Colonel’s signal. When John’s command to ‘go’ echoed through the coms, they took off at a full run, heading straight across the square at their target—the fruit vendor's gazebo. A burst of P90 fire chattered to their left as Sheppard and Teyla took care of the two men on the roof across the way. When the man in the gazebo stood up and swung the barrel of his rifle at Laura, Evan fired. The villager toppled over the display, sending the round fruit rolling across the street. Laura slid in behind the back half of the apple stand, shoulder to shoulder with Evan.
Evan moved to the far side and peered over the lip of their barricade towards the tavern. "Three down, four to go.”
A chatter of P90 fire was echoed by a cry of pain.
“Three down, three to go,” he corrected as Teyla took out the shooter in the shop up the street.
Laura shifted to her knees and peered through a crack in the wooden wall of the gazebo. The middle-aged man hiding in the doorway of the tavern was trying to keep his rifle aimed at their position, but his hands were shaking so badly the barrel was swinging back and forth like a metronome. "Dude in the doorway looks a little green..." she snickered, then ducked with a curse when the two villagers in the tavern were joined by four more, who all fired towards their position.
Apples and melons exploded, showering Laura and Evan in a chunky rain of fruit guts.
A long answering burst of a P90 echoed and the rifle fire stopped.
Laura exhaled a disgusted snort as sticky globs of fruit dripped down the side of her face. "Great. Now I'm going to smell like a giant strawberry."
Evan picked a chunk off her cheek, and popped it into his mouth. “Not bad. A little gunpowdery, but not bad."
“You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, but I’m your idiot.”
Laura laughed. “I’m not sure who that was insulting.”
“You. Definitely you.” He moved closer to the edge of the gazebo.
Laura hovered at his shoulder, eyeing their final destination—the storefront where Kiryk had first found Jen. They were so close! She almost felt sorry for anyone who was going to try standing between her and her best friend.
She checked her ammo. “You ready to run, fly-boy?”
He leaned over and kissed her hard and fast. “You know it.” He flashed her a wink then sprinted out into the open.
When he reached the mid-point of the open village square, a single shot rang out.
Laura could only watch in horror as Evan dropped into the dirt.
Her heart in her throat, Laura ran into the village square. She heard Sheppard's warning shout, but there was no force in the universe strong enough to stop her from getting to Evan. He was still alive, still moving, but too great a target. As she crossed the open ground she scanned the buildings for the shooter.
Damn it! She couldn't see who had fired the shot!
Evan rolled onto his back, clawing at his chest like he couldn't breathe. "Get...back!" he gasped, trying to wave her off.
Laura ignored him. With her P90 aimed to the rooftops, she hooked her free hand through the back of his TAC vest. She tugged, dragging him through the dirt back towards the gazebo, her eyes jumping from rooftop to rooftop, window to window.
Sheppard ran straight at her, pausing just long enough to get a healthy grip of Evan's vest and yank the Major to his feet.
Turning, they wedged Evan between them and hustled for the cover of the apple stand.
A second shot rang out.
Laura saw the ground coming up before she could register the sledge hammer force that smashed into her back. She hit the dirt hard, landing awkwardly on her P90 and knocking all the air from her lungs.
For a brief moment, she was transported back to her high-school softball team, with memories of the time she'd been drilled in the back by a line-drive, only this time it wasn't her Dad who was shouting her name, it was her commanding officer.
Ronon watched the back half of the house, mentally mapping out rooms to windows based on Kiryk's description. Kitchen on the left, bedrooms on the right. The second window from the back was Jennifer's room. He had half a mind to walk up, blast the glass out, and pull her out of there, but Kiryk's warning on her state of mind held him back. She was more likely to run from him than to him, especially if he smashed his way in.
He hated to admit it, but Kiryk was going to be the one who needed to get to her first.
Most of the locals were scrambling to contain the fire Ronon had happily started on the other side of the village. But there were still four men hiding in a barn between Ronon and his target.
When the bursting chatter of P90 fire echoed around them, the four villagers ran out the door and into the back of the tavern. Ronon nodded at Kiryk. Sheppard's distraction was working. They now had clear path through to the side of the house. The only question was—how many armed villagers would be waiting inside?
Ronon forced his breathing to calm. It wouldn't matter. He would destroy whoever stood in his way.
He glanced at Kiryk, who nodded.
Taking off at a full run, Ronon aimed his blaster at the back door and fired. The energy burst destroyed both the door and the frame. He hopped up onto the small porch and stepped into the back hallway.
The door to the second room swung open—Jennifer's room. He spun, praying to the gods Kiryk had her, but the former runner stepped out of the room, alone.
Before Ronon could react, chunks of wood and plaster exploded from the door frame to his right. He dove to the side and aimed for the kitchen area at the end of the hall. He fired. Dishes and glassware shattered into pieces as the cupboard nearest the entrance blew apart.
Kiryk pressed his armband and disappeared. A shrieking shout came from the kitchen.
Ronon ran into the room in time to see Kiryk disarm an old woman of her rifle. With a twist of her wrists, the crone drew a pair of daggers from her cloak. Despite her age she moved with the speed of a combat fighter, sending Kiryk back. Kiryk bent back over the table and rolled to the side a mere moment before one of the blades stabbed into the table top where his throat had just been.
Ronon thumbed his blaster to stun and fired, dropping the old woman to the floor.
Kiryk stepped over her and followed Ronon back into the hallway to check the rest of the rooms.
They were all empty.
Ronon cursed and returned to the kitchen. He stood in the middle of the room, staring at the old woman on the floor.
Kiryk leaned over a pot hanging over the stove. He inhaled, then snapped his head back. "Full of root. And freshly made."
Jennifer was here. She was near. Somewhere close. He could feel it. He sent up a prayer to the Ancients to keep her safe, and looked at the ceiling. "We go up."
They made their way to the bottom of the stairs. Ronon inched his way up first, pausing with each creak, crossing his feet and keeping his movement to a minimum, while Kiryk made sure they weren't attacked from behind.
The second-floor landing was empty.
With each empty room they passed, Ronon's frustration grew until he reached the end of the hall.
He spun in anger. "Where the hell is she?"
A gunshot sounded from somewhere close. Somewhere inside the house. Somewhere above. It was immediately followed by a shout from outside. He recognized the voice. Cadman. And it was Lorne's name the she was yelling.
Ronon ran to the closest window.
In the square below, Lorne was lying in the dirt. Cadman was running towards him from one side, and Sheppard from the other.
Lorne was alive.
But he was definitely hurt.
Before Sheppard and Cadman could drag Lorne to safety, second shot rang out, the echo coming from somewhere within the house itself.
Cadman slammed face first into the dirt.
Fury boiled Ronon's blood.
Kiryk slapped him on the shoulder. "The attic!"
Ronon ran with Kiryk back down the hallway to the ladder tacked to the side of the wall. In a flicker of green Kiryk disappeared, leaving Ronon to scramble up the rungs. "Gotta get me one of those," Ronon muttered as he shoved himself through the opening in the floor.
Tomas laughed as his shot met its mark, taking the second Lantean down. He felt no remorse on the fact that he'd just fired a bullet at a woman. She was one of them. She deserved her fate. He reloaded his rifle, gleefully going after the third man who was trying to help the other two to safety. Tomas leaned towards the opening. Taking a deep breath, he sighted down the barrel. He'd caught the other two mid body, but they still moved. Perhaps this one deserved a bullet to the head.
He twitched the barrel higher.
The second his finger slid towards the trigger, the rifle was out of his hands and he was lying flat on his back on the floor, his own weapon pointed back at him.
"Where is she?" the traveller demanded.
Tomas kept his mouth shut. While he had few reservations that this man would quite handily shoot him here and now, Tomas had no qualms about what Thea would to do if he cowered and gave away Calara's location.
It wouldn't be a quick death that's for certain.
Then a second man appeared.
By the gods he was even bigger than the first!
The cold fury in the newcomer's eyes left Tomas with no doubt he was now in deep trouble. Whereas the traveller looked ready to shoot, the other man looked ready to tear Tomas apart. Slowly. Painfully.
The traveller stepped aside, leaving Tomas to face the second man, unheeded. The giant hauled him to his feet with barely an effort. Tomas knew he was not a light-weighted man. The cold truth of death in the giant's eyes sent Tomas's heart racing. He caved before the question could even be asked. "The cellar! She's in the cellar. But you're too late!"
"What do you mean, too late," the man demanded, slamming Tomas into the wall. His head cracked against the wooden beam, leaving his ears ringing.
"Poison," Tomas answered. "She'll be dead within the hour. But I can help! I have the antidote."
When the giant didn't answer, Tomas harbored the hope that his lie was working. If he could buy himself some time, he might just get out of this after all.
Then the giant smiled.
Tomas knew his end had come.
Laura tried to help as Sheppard dragged her into the crumbling vegetable stand by the back of her vest, but the best she could do was a half-hearted crawl. As soon as they reached the safety of the wooden gazebo, she slipped in the squashed husks of melon and berries and dropped onto her side. She tried to roll away, to get to Evan, but Sheppard shoved her back down, sending a shock wave of pain straight up her spine and into the top of her head.
Then Evan's face appeared above hers, looking equally concerned, and equally pained.
Laura grabbed for his hands, so she could get a better look at where the bullet hit. There was no blood. No wound. Nothing but a silver nugget wedged in middle of his vest.
Thank the gods of Kevlar!
"You idiot," Evan wheezed, his breath sharp and pained. He helped John roll her onto her side. "I told you to get back."
Laura was having too hard a time sucking in air to argue that there was no way she would have left him to die in the middle of the street.
John tore at the straps of her vest, releasing the crushing pressure on her lungs. "Son of a bitch," she hissed, finally able to get a full breath.
"Easy," John ordered. "I think you broke a rib."
"Or twelve." She accepted their help and sat up. "It feels like twelve. Sweet baby Jesus, that hurt. What are these damn things made of, Kryptonite?" She reached out and dug the bullet fragment out of Evan's vest.
Evan winced and tried to wack her hand away. "Play with your own bullet, Superman."
John checked the back of Laura's vest, then handed her another clumped ball of metal. "Merry Christmas."
"Don't suppose you happen to know who my secret Santa was?" she asked, crushing the twisted lumps into her fist. She grabbed Evan's arm and crawled to her knees. She wasn't sure if she was helping him, or he was helping her, but together they made it over to where John was now watching the village from the corner of the gazebo.
"Attic window," John said, as the sound of breaking glass accompanied a terrified shout. "But I think Ronon just beat you to it."
Laura looked up just in time to watch a very fat man do a horrible impression of a flying turkey out an attic window. With a bellowing shout, the villager sailed through the air, arms flailing wildly. His short flight ended with a crashing halt into a stack of wooden crates.
He didn't get up.
For a brief second Laura caught a glimpse of Ronon in the shadow behind the broken frame.
"How come he gets to have all the fun," she whined.
"Because he isn't the one getting shot," John answered. "Now if you two are done field testing the ballistic capabilities of the village idiots, we have a Doctor to find."
Ronon ran back down to the kitchen.
The old woman was gone.
He cursed, but had no time to dwell on it. He needed to find Jennifer.
He scanned the floor, kicking aside furniture, looking for clues to a hatch or opening. Anything that would indicate the location of a cellar. Fear of the fat man's threats twisted in his gut. Jennifer had been poisoned. Time was running out.
"The store," Kiryk said, moving quickly to the closed door in the back corner of the kitchen.
Ronon took up a covered position on the opposite side and aimed at the door. Kiryk yanked the door open. Ronon sidestepped and sighted down the corridor, but the covered hallway adjoining house to the storefront was empty. He followed Kiryk to the other end, kicking open the second door, ready to kill whoever stood between them and Jennifer.
He slid to a stop in the opening, blaster raised on movement behind the counter, but the answering insult belonged to Sheppard.
"You know, door's have these things called handles." John lowered his P90 and eyeing the broken door now hanging on a single hinge.
Ronon was happy to see Cadman and Lorne on their feet, but his words of relief would come later. "We're looking for a cellar," he commanded, circling the small store area.
Everyone fanned out without questioning, shoving aside stock and toppling supplies in their search.
Teyla called out from the front. She dragged a rug away from the side of the counter. A perfect square was notched out in the wooden planks, accented by two hinges and a metal ring. She stepped behind the hinges and leaned forward to grab the ring, pausing to wait for the go ahead.
The others formed a circle around the hatch, weapons trained at the floor.
At a nod from Sheppard, Teyla yanked it open.
There was no sound, no movement, and no light.
Ronon leaned over the entrance to the underground cellar. The rungs of a narrow ladder dropped down into the darkness below, but the room beyond was too dark to make out any shapes.
With a wince of pain, Evan dug a set of glow sticks out of the pocket of his vest. He cracked them, shook them, then let them fall to the bottom. They landed in the dirt, highlighting the ladder and surrounding boxes with an eerie green glow.
Ronon sensed a shift in movement to his left.
Kiryk reached for his arm band. "Wait here." Then he disappeared. A second later he called out, his voice drifting up through the open hatch.