Ronon led the way out of the clearing following the group with Sheppard and Teyla. McKay's trail started out close to the same path, but after a quarter of a mile, it wandered deeper into the trees and away from the main track.
Ronon turned to Lorne behind him. "McKay didn't stay on the trail," he said and pointed to the tracks leading away from the main path. "Which one do you want to follow?"
"You're sure he went in a different direction?" Lorne asked as he stopped next to Ronon.
"Didn't say that. He's still going in the same direction. The main trail goes straight toward those low hills. McKay went that way," Ronon pointed slightly to the left of the track they'd been following for the past ten minutes.
"Was he following someone or was someone following him?"
Ronon knelt and searched the ground for several seconds. "Doesn't look like it. McKay's prints are the only ones that leave the main track."
Lorne rubbed his forehead. "You're sure you know where the locals are taking Colonel Sheppard and Teyla?" he asked with a glance at Ronon.
Ronon stood. "I'm sure."
Lorne looked down the clear track in front of them, then in the direction McKay had gone. "Follow Doctor McKay for now."
Ronon nodded and led the way deeper into the woods.
McKay was heading toward the hills where Ronon knew the village lay, but he found McKay's actions more than a little confusing. It was obvious he had no skills as a tracker. He would follow the main trail for an indeterminate distance and then he would inexplicably veer off into the woods again, only to wander back to the trail at some point. He wasn't following the track, but McKay was still somehow heading in the right direction.
"Looks like McKay found the trail again," Ronon said nearly an hour later, and pointed out the barefoot prints in front of them. That made the third time McKay's trail had converged with the one left by the people who'd ambushed Sheppard and Teyla.
Ronon knelt and studied the ground for several seconds. He estimated close to two dozen of the natives were with Sheppard and Teyla. He saw a few of Teyla's boot prints, but he still hadn't found any of Sheppard's. He looked closer at the ground, touched one of the barefooted prints, and growled low in his throat.
"What?" Lorne asked.
"Someone was still carrying Sheppard," Ronon replied, and pointed out a set of prints much deeper than the others. "And he was still bleeding," Ronon added as he touched a dark spot on the trail then wiped his fingers on his trousers, leaving a brownish-red stain.
Lorne pursed his lips and looked in the direction they were walking. "If Colonel Sheppard is seriously hurt, that's going to make any rescue attempt problematic."
That was an understatement as far as Ronon was concerned.
Ronon stood and followed the churned track for almost half a mile before McKay's prints meandered off in a different, though still roughly parallel, direction again.
"I'm telling you, McKay is lost," Ronon heard one of the men behind him say as McKay's trail wandered away from the barefooted track and into the deeper woods. "Why don't we just follow the other trail? That has to lead us to this village and Colonel Sheppard."
Ronon stopped and turned around with a glare. He had no idea what McKay was doing, either, but as long as both tracks went in the same direction, he'd follow McKay's. He did not want to find Sheppard only to have to explain how he'd left McKay lost in an unknown forest.
Ronon started to give the Marine a piece of his mind, but Lorne held up a hand.
"Reed, do you think you can follow the trail left by the hostiles?" Lorne asked.
Reed studied the ground for a moment, then nodded. "These people aren't doing anything to hide their tracks. I can follow them, sir."
Lorne nodded. "You take Walker and Coughlin, and stick to the main trail. Ronon and I will follow Doctor McKay. Do not engage with any of the hostiles," he ordered. "If you find their village, fall back to cover, and wait for me."
"What if their ritual has already started?"
"It won't," Ronon told him with a glance at the late afternoon sun. "The killing isn't done until after sunset."
"We hope," someone mumbled, but Ronon wasn't sure who it was.
"You have your orders," Lorne said. "Watch yourselves."
"Yes, sir," Reed replied, and turned to Walker and Coughlin. "Let's go."
Ronon watched Reed and the two Marines head deeper into the woods. Once they were out of sight, he picked up McKay's trail and led Lorne in the slightly different, but still parallel direction.
"You think Doctor McKay is really following them or is he just lost like Walker said?" Lorne asked after they'd been walking for several minutes.
"Not sure," Ronon replied. "He's not tracking them. But he finds the other trail often enough it can't be luck."
Lorne snorted and muttered, "And I thought Doctor Jackson was bad."
"Who's Doctor Jackson?" Ronon asked. He bent down and studied McKay's trail. The tracks were getting deeper on McKay's right side, and Ronon saw a new impression, something small with an irregular shape, next to McKay's right boot print.
"What is it?" Lorne asked as he knelt next to Ronon.
"McKay's leg is getting worse. He's putting more and more weight on his right side." Ronon pointed out the clearly defined right boot print. "He's using a branch or stick as a crutch," he added and pointed out the irregular shape.
Lorne stood and looked toward the low hills. "If we need to make a fast getaway, will Doctor McKay be able to run?"
Ronon shook his head and started walking again. "Probably not."
"Yeah, I thought that's what you'd say. And we have no idea how badly Colonel Sheppard or Teyla may be injured." Lorne glanced around the woods. "So far, this rescue is going really well." Lorne shook his head. "We're going to need a fallback position in case we can't get them back to the 'gate."
McKay's path wandered through the woods, never more than half a mile off from the line where the village sat nestled near the hills. His track had turned toward the village itself again when Ronon spotted a new set of prints. He held up his hand to stop Lorne and motioned him to be quiet.
"What's wrong?" Lorne asked in a whisper.
Ronon pointed to a bare footprint inside the lighter tread of McKay's left boot. "Someone is following him."
Lorne glanced down at the clear impression of toes and heel inside the boot print and grimaced. "Any way to know how long ago this was?"
Ronon touched the print and noted how the dirt crumbled. "Not long. Five, maybe ten minutes."
Lorne pursed his lips. "We need to pick up the pace."
A few minutes later, Ronon heard a voice ahead of them. He crouched down behind a thicket of thin trees and waved Lorne down beside him.
"This was a dumb idea," the voice muttered from the clearing ahead of them, and Ronon shook his head. One of these days he was going to talk to Sheppard about McKay's need to continually be talking. "You should have gone back to the 'gate and called Elizabeth."
Ronon pushed aside the low branches of a tree and saw McKay sitting on a stump rubbing his leg. He heard a slight rustle of the branches nearby, glanced over, and saw one of the natives slowly raise a bow and point an arrow at McKay's exposed back.
"We have company," Ronon growled and pulled his weapon out of its holster. "Fifty paces." He pointed off to their right. "Get McKay clear."
He could tell Lorne didn't like the idea of taking orders, but Ronon was already running, low and silent, toward the threat.
His plan was a simple one, sneak up behind the man, and kill him before he had a chance to shoot McKay in the back. He had to hope he'd be in time. Otherwise, he'd have to explain to Sheppard how he wasn't able to keep McKay alive.
It took only a few seconds to reach the area where he'd seen the man with the bow. However, in the time it took for Ronon to reach him, the man had the bowstring drawn back ready to shoot.
Ronon didn't waste any more time. He made sure the particle weapon was set to kill, not stun, and fired.
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Rodney sat on the stump rubbing his aching leg, chastising himself for his stupidity. "If you'd gone back to the 'gate, there would be people much more qualified than you to lead this rescue operation. People who could walk on two legs for a start."
He wasn't sure what he'd tripped over, but he'd stumbled hard and felt something in his lower leg twinge as his ankle turned under him. He'd managed to catch himself on a nearby tree, but putting much weight on his left side sent waves of pain up his leg, reminding him he'd left his backpack and Beckett's pain pills in the archive. The branch he'd found to use as a walking stick helped, but all he wanted to do was find Sheppard and Teyla and go home.
He stopped rubbing his sore leg and looked around. Which direction should he go next? he wondered.
The tingling at the back of his head had faded again. Did that mean John was doing better or had he lost the trail again? he thought with a frown.
He'd nearly lost the trail completely a few times since he'd decided to follow the mental link. Every now and then, he'd find a track, churned by many footprints, but the link would eventually drift in a different direction. Every time the physical path diverged from his mental one, Rodney considered whether or not he should follow the trail or the tingling at the back of his head.
So far, the mental link had won, but the link had become harder to follow as the afternoon progressed. Rodney was afraid he was now lost with no idea how to find the trail left by the locals, or Sheppard, or the stargate.
He glanced at his watch then up at the sky as the sun started to set. "Great," he muttered, "You're lost, and it's going to be night soon. You're supposed to be the smart one in the group. You have an hour, maybe two, before it's completely dark. Better make use of it and not sit here."
He bent down for the small branch he'd been using as a walking stick and froze when he heard a rustling noise in the trees to his left.
He glanced down at the P-90 on the ground next to the branch and reached for it instead. His hand had barely closed around the grip of the weapon when several things happened at once.
A blur of motion wearing dark clothing, burst out of the trees a few paces to his left.
"Get down!" a voice yelled just before he was tackled to the ground.
Rodney fought against the hold of whoever it was who had attacked him. He groaned when his left heel dug into the ground as he and his attacker squirmed on the ground next to the tree stump. He heard the whine of what sounded like a Wraith stun weapon, and instinctively ducked away, giving his attacker the few seconds needed to pin his arms.
"Doctor McKay!" a voice said close to his ear. "Stop! It's me. Major Lorne."
Rodney stopped struggling when he heard his name. He turned enough to see Major Lorne behind him, his arms wrapped around Rodney's middle, pinning his arms to his sides.
"Major? How did …?" he started to ask before he remembered the sound of the Wraith stunner. "We need to get out of here. There's a Wraith nearby."
"No," Lorne replied. He let go of Rodney and sat up slowly. "That was Ronon."
"Dex? He's here, too? Why?" Rodney slumped with his back against the tree stump as the pain in his leg flared, reminding him once again of the abandoned backpack and the pain medication he'd left in the archive building. He noticed Lorne was rubbing his jaw and was about to apologise when Dex came out of the trees to his right looking oddly pleased with himself.
"He's dead," Dex announced and gave both Rodney and Lorne a quick look. "You two okay?"
"Yeah," Lorne replied as he stood. "We're fine."
Rodney wasn't so sure about that but didn't say anything. Instead, he looked up at Dex standing next to him and then back at the trees. "Wait. If the sound I heard was you shooting something, what were you shooting at? Who's dead?"
Dex looked around and pulled an arrow out of the ground near the P-90. "The guy about to shoot you in the back."
Rodney swallowed and stared at the arrow in Dex's hand.
"Why are you out here, Doctor McKay?" Lorne asked.
"I had to find Sheppard and Teyla." He noticed the odd look Dex gave him and ignored him. "They were attacked near the archive building, and now they're missing. I think they were captured."
"You should have gone back to the stargate and alerted Doctor Weir," Lorne told him with a frown.
Rodney scowled up at Lorne. He knew Lorne was right, he'd been saying the exact same thing only a few minutes ago, but he was not going to allow Lorne to treat him like some raw recruit.
He picked up the P-90 with his left hand, grabbed the stick he'd been using as a crutch with his right and pulled himself to his feet. The tingling sensation from the link was almost gone, but Rodney wasn't going to let that stop him. He took a stumbling step in the last direction where he felt the link pulling him.
"My team was in trouble, Major," he told Lorne. Rodney glanced at Dex and added, "We don't leave people behind."
Rodney was aware of both Dex's intense look at that comment and Lorne shaking his head in disbelief. He took an awkward step toward them and was prepared to give both of them a piece of his mind when Lorne turned away and tapped his earpiece.
"Lorne here." The Major listened for a few seconds, then said. "Pull back, make sure you aren't seen, and wait. We'll be there as fast as we can." He tapped the earpiece again and turned around. "Reed found the village. Colonel Sheppard and Teyla are still alive. They're being held in some sort of cage suspended in a tree."
"What do you mean 'still alive'?" Rodney asked, suspicion clear in his tone. "Why wouldn't they be alive? Why are you here, Major?"
Dex and Lorne exchanged a look and Rodney's worry for John and Teyla morphed into impatience. "What? What aren't you two telling me?"
Dex quirked an eyebrow at Lorne who nodded and turned to survey the surrounding trees.
"I've been to this planet before," Dex said.
"Good for you," Rodney replied sarcastically.
Dex glared down at him.
Rodney quelled his impatience when he saw the look of Dex's face.
"When you were a Runner, I presume," Rodney said, his tone as neutral as he could make it.
Dex nodded. "The last time I was here, a Wraith came through the ring less than an hour after I did."
"They must have had a ship nearby to pick up the tracking signal so fast." Rodney glanced up at the sky, his mind shifting for a moment from the immediate problem of Sheppard and Teyla missing to working out where the Wraith ship would have been to pick up the signal from the tracker. "You know, I took a look at the device Carson removed. The ship couldn't have been more than --"
Dex growled, and Rodney stopped speaking. He glanced up at Dex and pulled his mind back to the present. "You said a Wraith followed you. What happened?"
"The people here were near the ring when it came through. They captured it."
"These people?" Rodney didn't try to hide his skepticism. "They're armed with bows." He pointed to the arrow Dex had tossed aside. "How could they capture --" He stopped when Dex glared at him.
"They captured it, and a few hours later, they killed it. Cut its heart out of its chest."
Rodney stared up at Dex as he wrapped his head around what Dex was telling him. "They removed the heart?" he asked in a near whisper.
Dex nodded. "And burned it."
Rodney felt the blood drain from his face and plopped down on the stump. He'd heard of some ancient cultures on Earth performing a similar sort of rite. "Maybe they only do that to Wraith," he offered in a near whisper.
Dex shook his head. "There are stories about this world. People who come here and are never heard from again."
"Ancients keeping secrets make me nervous," he remembered John saying only a few hours ago.
Rodney had assumed the fragmented information in the database about the planet was because the Ancients had wanted to keep the archive a secret. Was it more than that? he wondered. Had the ancestors of the people who had captured Sheppard and Teyla lived here at the same time as the Ancients? Were the people living here already practising their sacrifices and Kadmos had encouraged them to adapt it to anyone who came through the 'gate?
Rodney shook his head, climbed to his feet, and forced himself to focus. John and Teyla had disappeared hours ago. He needed to find them. Before it was too late.
"Well? What are we waiting for?" Rodney demanded and took a limping step toward the hills, ignoring the pain that shot up his leg. "We need to go."
"I think --" Lorne started to say with a glance at Dex, but Rodney interrupted.
"I know exactly what you think of me, Major," Rodney replied, his expression hard. "And I don't really care at the moment. Sheppard and Teyla are somewhere that way." He used the P-90 to point toward the hills. He caught Dex's surprised look from the corner of his eye but now was not the time to explain the link. "That's where I'm going. Are you coming or not?"
"Sheppard is going to kill both of us," Lorne grumbled as he walked over to Rodney, took the P-90 from Rodney's hand, and clipped it to a loop on the front of his tac-vest. "You do know how to use that, right?" Lorne asked as he stepped back.
Rodney glanced down at the P-90. "Technically? Yes."
"Technically. Great," Lorne drawled, and shook his head as Dex moved to take the lead.
Rodney did his best to not slow down their progress, John and Teyla were in worse trouble than he thought. They needed to hurry. Dex seemed to know where he was going, and Rodney hobbled after him as fast as he could while Major Lorne brought up the rear.
The sun wasn't far from the horizon when three Marines came out of the trees toward them, and Dex stopped.
"Report, Lieutenant," Lorne ordered in a low voice as he stepped around Rodney.
Rodney only listened with half an ear as he looked around for somewhere he could sit down before his leg gave out entirely. Lorne already thought he was useless, he told himself. No need to fall on his face and prove him right.
"The village is just through those trees," Reed was saying. "The Colonel and Teyla are in a cage hanging from a large tree at the far end of the village. It's a good thing you got here when you did, Major. The villagers lit some sort of bonfire a few minutes ago. I think they're getting ready to … You know." He glanced over at Rodney.
Rodney sank down with his back against a tree and tried to stretch his left leg out in front of him. His boot felt tight against his ankle. He knew he'd done something Carson wouldn't be happy about, but Rodney was afraid he wouldn't get his boot back on again if he took it off and confirmed his hypothesis.
Not the day he'd hoped for, Rodney thought as he watched Lorne's team talking a few paces away. He was tired, he hurt, he was worried about Sheppard and Teyla. He felt his stomach rumble. And he was hungry, he realised. He patted his vest, looking for an energy bar and found the pocket empty.
"Great," he muttered and closed his eyes. "What else could go wrong?"
Rodney felt something tap his shoulder. He opened his eyes and found Dex standing next to him, holding out a power bar.
"Thanks," Rodney said as he opened the wrapper.
Instead of moving away, Dex stayed beside him, his shoulder leant against the same tree Rodney sat against, eating another energy bar.
Rodney finished eating, stuffed the empty wrapper in his pocket, and turned to ask Dex what else he knew about the planet.
"When you … What's wrong?" he asked instead when he saw Dex staring at the half-eaten power bar in his hand.
"You like these?" Dex asked, holding up the rest of the energy bar.
Rodney glanced at the power bar in Dex's hand. "They aren't that bad. It depends on the flavor, some are better than others." He shrugged. "Sometimes you just need the calories," he added, not wanting to try to explain hypoglycaemia to Dex.
Dex shrugged, finished the rest of the energy bar, and watched Lorne and his team discuss how to rescue Sheppard.
"You going to be able to do this?" Dex asked quietly as Reed described the layout of the village.
Rodney glared up at Dex. He had a sarcastic reply ready when he noticed the expression on Dex's face wasn't condescension, but concern. He fought against the urge to rub his leg and looked through the trees at a faint red glow that must have been from the fire Reed had mentioned.
"It's my fault they're in this mess," Rodney replied softly. He didn't see the puzzled look on Dex's face as he stared at fire flickering through the trees. "I'll be fine."
Lorne turned around a few minutes later. "Okay, I think we have a plan," he said, and stepped over to where Rodney sat. "Reed says there's some sort of pyramid or temple at the opposite end of the village from the cage where they are holding Colonel Sheppard and Teyla. Reed and Walker will head for that side of the village and create a distraction. That should get everyone looking the other way while Coughlin and I get the Colonel and Teyla out of the cage."
Rodney pulled himself to his feet, only slightly aware of the helping hand from Dex on the back of his jacket. "What about us?" he asked with a glance over at Dex.
Lorne gave him an appraising look then shook his head. "I get that you want to help, Doctor, but you can barely stand. We need to move fast. Get in and get out before anyone's the wiser."
Rodney pursed his lips and looked away. Lorne was right. If they wanted to free Sheppard and Teyla, he was little more than a liability.
He felt more than saw Dex move behind him. "McKay and I will take care of getting Sheppard and Teyla. You just worry about the diversion."
"That's not a good idea," Lorne argued.
"Maybe not," Dex replied, "But you need more than two people near the temple if you want to get your men out of there alive."
Rodney watched Dex and Lorne stare at each other. Lorne must have realised Dex was right and looked away first.
"Fine," Lorne said. "We'll create some noise and cover your exit." He looked up at Dex. "Your radio is still set to our channel. Radio when you're in position. Once you have them, head for the stargate. We'll cover you as best we can."
Dex nodded and checked the weapon strapped to his hip.
Lorne glanced at Rodney and added, "If you can't make it back to the 'gate, try for that building we found. It will give you some cover at least."
"We'll be fine," Dex told him.
Lorne gave them a last look and shook his head. "Let's go," he told his team.
Once Lorne was out of sight, Rodney turned to Dex. "Thank you."
Dex grunted. "Lorne's right. You should stay here. I can go get Sheppard alone."
Rodney turned toward the trees where he could see the red glow from the fire and checked first the P-90, then the Beretta. His leg ached when he took a step, but he left his makeshift crutch behind as he headed into the trees. If he needed to use either of the weapons, he was going to need two hands.
"I can take care of myself," Rodney said shortly.
Dex snorted and pulled Rodney behind him as he moved into the lead. "You better. Not going to carry you out of here."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
John slowly stood and grabbed for the wooden bars as the cage swung wildly under him when he moved. His leg pounded when he tried to put any weight on it, and his shoulder throbbed when he tightened his grip on the bars to keep himself from falling. He shifted until he could brace his left side against the cage, taking the weight off his leg and taking better hold of the side of the cage with his left hand.
"Colonel, be careful," Teyla admonished, and John felt her hand under his arm helping to keep him upright as the cage swung back and forth.
Between his precarious balance and his tenuous hold on the bars, it took several seconds before he could look up and see how the cage was attached to the tree. A thick rope, woven through the bars at the top of the cage, did double duty as both the anchor tying the cage to the tree and keeping them trapped inside the cage. The rope was then wrapped around another branch and tied off near the ground. The only way to get out was if the cage was on the ground and the rope was untied or cut.
John had to admit it was an effective prison. The only way they escaped safely was if someone lowered the cage. Since the people nearby seemed determined to kill them, he wasn't expecting much help from the locals.
John eased himself back down until he sat with his back against the bars again, rubbing his aching head. Teyla sat beside him, and he watched as the sun slowly sank in front of them. A part of him idly wondered if the villagers had set the cage in a position to watch the sun set on purpose, or if it was luck.
The sun slowly dipped below the horizon, and the chanting around the fire changed. John saw four of the villagers leave the fire and head in their direction.
This must be it, John thought and looked around for any way Teyla, at least, could get away. He groaned when he spotted two more men watching the cage from deeper in the trees behind the village. The villagers had anticipated him, he realised, cutting off any escape route back into the forest.
Nine men. There was no way he and Teyla would be able to fight off that many without alerting the rest of the village. John pulled himself to his feet, keeping one hand on the bars as his leg spasmed.
He glanced over at Teyla. She returned his look, and John could see her face was set. Whatever happened, she wasn't going to run, and they weren't going to go along peacefully.
"I count nine hostiles," he whispered as he checked the ground below them again. "Did the men who searched you leave anything we could use as a weapon?"
Teyla shook her head. "I have a few medical supplies left and the radio. The villagers did not seem to know what it was."
John felt for his earpiece. "Must have lost my radio during the fight earlier," he said as he checked the pockets of his vest. He found an emergency blanket, a few antiseptic wipes, and his stash of power bars.
"All right, this is what we're going to do," he said with a glance at Teyla. He frowned when she took off her earpiece and studied the small device. "What's wrong?"
Teyla shook her head. "It is nothing. I fear my radio must have been damaged at some point as well. It has been silent for most of the day, however, for the last several minutes, I have heard a strange interference, almost like a strange buzzing noise. It is difficult to listen to for very long."
John stared at her for a moment and felt a stab of hope in his chest. He'd been ignoring the low-grade headache, assuming it was from the blow he'd taken earlier, but now that he was paying attention, he was aware the itch was back as well.
Could it be … he wondered and glanced down into the deepening gloom under the trees.
"Let me hear it," he said and held out his hand for her earpiece.
She handed over the radio. "There is no discernible pattern," she told John as he tucked the receiver in his ear. "It sounds like random noise."
John listened to the radio for several seconds then felt a wide grin spread across his face when he figured out what he was hearing.
"Colonel?" Teyla asked as Sheppard peered down into the gloom.
"It's Morse Code," he told her as he tried to spot how many Atlantis personnel were nearby.
If Rodney was close by, that meant he'd managed to get back to the 'gate and call for help. John was relieved not only to know he and Teyla would soon be rescued, but that McKay hadn't been captured or killed.
"You remember the telegraph Rodney showed Jinto and some of his friends to make last year?"
"Yes. You said you and your brother had made similar devices when you were children."
"Right. Morse Code was the language we used to talk to each other." He listened again. "That weird buzzing sound you heard was the same code."
"It is a message."
John smiled. "Yep. A name. McKay. Give me your radio. I need to send a message back."
She handed him the transceiver, and he quickly tapped out the dots and dashes that spelt 'John' and waited.
"Oh, thank god," he heard Rodney mutter over the radio a few seconds later. "Morse was the only thing I could think of to make sure you still had your radio. If you hadn't answered when you did, Dex was going to take extreme measures."
"You convinced Elizabeth to let you bring Ronon back with you?" John asked. "Good thinking."
"Not exactly. It's a long story, and we don't have much time."
John glanced down at their guards and the chanting and dancing villagers. No one seemed to know McKay and Dex were nearby, but there was no sense in pushing their luck.
"Good point. I take it you have a plan?" John asked. He saw someone moving through the trees behind the village where he'd spotted the two men earlier and hoped it was McKay and the Atlantis rescue team.
"A very simple one," Rodney replied. "Major Lorne is almost ready with the distraction. When it starts, Dex lowers the cage, we get you out, and we all run for the 'gate as fast as we can. I assume you've figured out what the locals do with visitors to this planet."
"Yeah, I have a few ideas."
"Good. Then I don't need to explain why we need to get out of here sooner rather than later."
John heard Ronon say something off-mic that he couldn't catch and saw the four villagers were nearly to their tree. They stopped long enough to say something to their guards, then one of the men untied the rope at the bottom of the tree, rocking the cage as it slipped slightly once the tension on the rope was gone.
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said, presumably to Dex. John assumed Ronon had seen the men, too. "Tell Lorne we're ready."
The cage rocked again, and John winced as his injured shoulder banged into the wooden bars. He grabbed for one of the bars to keep himself steady.
Before he could ask what Lorne was going to use for a distraction, John heard two loud bangs echo from the other end of the village, along with a bright flash of light.
The villagers near the fire stopped dancing and started shouting and pointing toward the pyramid. Several of the men ran toward the temple, waving their arms as they yelled or picking up lengths of wood. The women ran into one of the low buildings, only to come back out armed with bows and followed the men.
The men near the cage looked back at the village as another flashbang went off. The three men guarding the tree ran back toward the village, yelling what sounded to John like orders. The four villagers, including the one holding the rope attached to the cage, joined the three guards and all of them ran toward the noise and lights created by Lorne.
John's relief at Rodney's timely rescue was short-lived as the cage plunged toward the ground. They were more than twenty feet in the air and the only thing under them was the stone pedestal. In the few seconds he had before the cage crashed to the ground, John realised how much the landing was going to hurt, groaned as Teyla was thrown against him, jarring his leg, and closed his eyes, bracing himself as best he could for the impact.
"The rope!" he heard Rodney shout from below them.
At the same time, two more flashbangs went off at the other end of the village, John heard more shouting from the villagers, and the cage juddered to a stop, slowly rocked back and forth in the air instead of slamming into the stone pedestal.
John opened his eyes and saw the cage two or three feet off the ground. He looked around and found Ronon standing beside the tree, a length of rope wrapped over his shoulder and around his back. He had his feet braced against the base of another tree as he used his own body to counter the weight of the cage.
"Okay, lower it the rest of the way," Rodney ordered as he slowly climbed the steps of the pedestal. He reached the top and braced the bottom of the cage with one hand.
John heard Ronon grunt in response as he fought to counter the weight of the cage. The rope jerked a few more times as Ronon lowered the cage to the ground next to the pedestal, the top of the cage now within easy reach of Rodney standing on the plinth.
Once the cage was on the ground, Ronon dropped the rope and disappeared into the surrounding gloom while Rodney started cutting the rope binding the top of the cage closed. John couldn't see any of the villagers, but he heard the distinct sound of several P-90s firing behind and to his left.
John heard Rodney muttering under his breath as he cut the first section of rope tying the top of the cage closed.
"Where did Ronon go?" John glanced around, searching for Dex as Rodney worked. The P-90 fire in the near distance was more sporadic and moving farther away from the village. John hoped that meant Lorne's team had the villagers on the run.
"Watching for any angry natives," Rodney replied with a grunt as he cut through the rope on one section of the cage and moved to the next.
"Hurry it up, McKay," Ronon growled as he stalked out of the gloom a few seconds later and stood at the base of the pedestal. "Lorne isn't going to hold them off much longer."
"I'm going," Rodney told him, and staggered as he cut free another section of the rope, upsetting his balance, "as fast as I can."
"Work faster, he says," Rodney muttered under his breath as he started sawing through the last section of rope.
A few seconds later, he had the last of the rope cut from the top of the cage. "Done," he said. He dropped the knife and pulled the top of the cage off. "Let Lorne know we'll be ready to leave in a minute."
John heard Ronon talking, but couldn't hear anything over the radio. Different channel, he reminded himself as he watched Teyla climb up the inside of the cage. Rodney offered her a hand once she was balanced on the top, and she landed lightly on the stone pedestal beside him.
John wasn't sure how he was going to get out of the cage. The villagers must have had some way to get their prisoners free, another length of rope or maybe a ladder lowered down into the cage. Whatever it was, they didn't have it now, and his leg wouldn't hold if he tried to climb. The rim of the cage was only a few feet over his head, and he decided to try jumping. If he could reach the edge, Rodney and Teyla should be able to pull him out.
He didn't want to think about how much his leg would hurt if he missed his hold and fell back into the cage, but he didn't see any other options. He saw Rodney watching him from the top of the cage. McKay's grim expression told John he didn't have any better ideas.
John balanced as best he could, focused on the rim of the cage, and jumped. His fingers gripped the edge for a split second, but his shoulder twinged and he couldn't hold on.
John felt his grip slip and took a deep breath in anticipation of the agony that would shoot up his leg when he hit the bottom of the cage. Just as he lost his hold, he felt a pair of hands grab his arm, looked up, and saw Rodney, his body leaning over the top of the cage, holding onto him.
"A little help," Rodney ground out, and John saw his face turning red with the strain of supporting his weight.
John wasn't sure if he meant Teyla or Ronon, but Dex took the short stairs in two steps, reached down, grabbed the back of John's uniform jacket, and together they pulled him out of the cage.
Ronon let go of the jacket and turned back to the trees. The sound of P-90 fire had stopped, and John hoped that meant Lorne's team had escaped back into the forest. Of course, that also meant the villagers were going to come back soon and discover their birds had flown their cage.
"We need to go," Ronon said as if reading John's mind, and pushed Rodney toward the steps, Teyla was already at the bottom of the pedestal, watching the nearby trees.
John's leg wouldn't support much of his weight, and he held on to Rodney's shoulder as they made their careful way down the steps and followed Teyla as she led the way out of the small clearing. Ronon had disappeared again once John was out of the cage.
"Thanks for the rescue," John said once they reached the trees.
"Must have been my turn," Rodney replied but refused to meet John's eyes.
John frowned. Something was wrong. Rodney usually felt he wasn't given enough praise for his feats, now he acted as though he'd rather not be reminded.
Now was not the time, John reminded himself. Whatever was bothering McKay would have to wait until they were safely back in Atlantis.
The sun had set entirely while he and Teyla were getting out of the cage, leaving only a dim afterglow. The dim light made it difficult to see more than a short distance in any direction, and John knew they didn't have much time before they lost even that. Twenty minutes, thirty at best, and they would be stumbling through the unfamiliar woods in the dark.
John stopped at the edge of the trees and looked around for Teyla and Ronon. "What weapons do you have?" he asked Rodney.
"Umm, my Beretta and I found a P-90 in the clearing where you were presumably attacked." Rodney held up the rifle still clipped to his tac-vest as Ronon came out from behind one of the trees.
"We need to move," Dex said shortly. "The villagers are coming back. We need to get as much distance as we can between them and us."
John nodded. He was already exhausted, and his leg ached if he tried to put much weight on it. One look at Rodney and John knew he wasn't in much better shape. But Dex was right. They were out of the cage, but they weren't safe yet.
"They have lit torches and are following us," Teyla said and pointed back toward the village.
Ronon snorted. "Torches just makes them better targets."
"That may be true. However, they know these woods, we do not," Teyla pointed out.
John grimaced. "Ronon, take point. Get us back to the 'gate."
Ronon nodded and gave the area around the clearing another wary look. So far the only pinpricks of light were behind them, but John knew their luck wasn't going to hold for much longer. Teyla was right, the locals knew the terrain. It wouldn't be long before they had John's team surrounded.
"Rodney, give Teyla the P-90," John added.
Rodney unclipped the rifle and handed it over.
"Teyla, you've got our six. Shoot anything that isn't wearing Atlantis black."
Teyla took the weapon, checked it over, and nodded.
John glanced around, adjusted his hold around Rodney's shoulders and felt Rodney wrap an arm around his waist. "Time to get out of here."
~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~
Ronon pursed his lips and worked to hide his growing impatience at how slow they were moving. He knew Sheppard was injured and that he and McKay were doing the best they could, but if they didn't pick up the pace, the villagers were going to catch them, and this time Ronon didn't think they would bother with any of their usual ritual or ceremony before killing them.
If he left Sheppard, left Atlantis, he wouldn't have to deal with this sort of thing, he knew. Alone, he would already be back through the ring and on another planet. If he'd left the city weeks ago, he never would have known Sheppard and his people had come here, and he never would have come back to this planet just to be hunted again. Of course, that also meant no one in Atlantis would have known about the danger, and Sheppard, Teyla, and McKay would all be dead now.
Ronon growled under his breath. The problem was, Beckett was right. He didn't want to leave. The debt he owed Sheppard and Beckett aside, he liked Atlantis. He respected Sheppard. He was even developing a grudging respect for McKay. He'd come to realise in the last few weeks that if anyone had a chance of destroying the Wraith once and for all, it was Sheppard and his people.
"My team was in trouble, Major," McKay had said. "We don't leave people behind."
Ronon knew more than one soldier, more than one leader, who would have done precisely that. Without a second thought. He glanced back at Sheppard and McKay, stumbling along behind him and waited for them to catch up.
Ronon may not have said anything officially to Sheppard, yet, but he wasn't going to leave them behind, either. He wanted to be a part of this team. A part of what they were fighting for. Which meant having other people to worry about besides himself on hostile planets. Other people who would also worry about him and not leave him behind.
He heard a soft grunt of pain behind him and turned to see McKay and Sheppard stopped again. McKay said something Ronon couldn't understand and rubbed his head. Sheppard shook his head and adjusted his hold on McKay's shoulders. Teyla stopped next to Sheppard, a worried expression on her face in the fading light.
Ronon watched as she checked the bandage on Sheppard's leg.
"The wound has started bleeding again," she told Sheppard softly.
"I know," Sheppard replied, his voice tight. "Nothing we can do about it. It's not like we can stop. Make the bandage as tight as you can. We'll have to hope that's enough to get back to the 'gate."
Teyla frowned but tied the bandage again.
Ronon saw Sheppard grimace and clutch at McKay's shoulder as Teyla tightened the bandage around his leg. McKay winced and closed his eyes. Teyla kept one hand on McKay's shoulder until he opened his eyes again and nodded. Teyla smiled at him, gave Sheppard another concerned look, and stepped back.
Ronon frowned as he watched the exchange. This wasn't the first time he'd seen the odd behavior between McKay and Sheppard. In the days after their rescue from the tower, Ronon had watched Sheppard seemingly wince in pain several times for no apparent reason.
Something was going on, he just wasn't sure what it could be. A rustling in the trees nearby reminded him now was not the time to worry about it, however. He waited for the rustling noise to stop, then quickly searched the area where he'd heard the noise.
"Just an animal," Ronon muttered to himself and started walking again.
They were barely half the distance back to the ring when he sensed more movement in the nearby trees. This time he knew it wasn't some sort of night creature hunting or being hunted. The villagers were getting closer. They weren't surrounded yet, but Ronon knew it was only a matter of time.
They know where we're going, Ronon thought as he paused again and waited for the others to catch up.
He glanced behind him at McKay walking with his head down as he limped slowly along, balancing himself on another stick he'd found to use as a crutch while keeping his other arm wrapped around Sheppard's waist. Sheppard, for his part, had his arm draped over McKay's shoulder as he tried to direct McKay along the trail, avoiding roots or other obstacles that would likely send one or both of them falling to the ground.
The bandage on Sheppard's leg was bloody, and his face was a stoic mask. He said little, only the occasional word to McKay, pointing out a hole or trail of vine in their path. The injury was getting worse, and Ronon was impressed Sheppard was still able to move at all.
"What's the problem?" John asked as they caught up.
Ronon heard the exhaustion and pain in his tone. They couldn't keep going, he knew. They needed another plan.
"Villagers," Dex replied as Teyla joined them. "They know we're trying to get back to the ring."
"There are several behind us as well," Teyla added. "I have heard them moving through the trees, following us."
Sheppard pursed his lips and looked around. Ronon could tell he was weighing their options. They weren't in a clearing as much as an area with fewer trees. It wasn't an ideal defensive position, but it could be worse. None of the trees were big enough for someone to climb and they were on a slight rise, but it was now dark, two of them were injured, and they only had three weapons.
Ronon checked the charge on his blaster and made sure it was set to kill.
"How far is the archive from here?" Sheppard asked after a moment as he adjusted his hold on McKay.
"You mean the Ancestor's building?" Ronon replied. "Half a mile in that direction." Ronon pointed to his right.
"How many of the hostiles are between us and it?"
Ronon studied the trees for a few seconds. "Probably not many. They aren't expecting us to go in that direction."
Sheppard nodded. "Okay. We make for the building. It will give us cover, and with the archive backed against the edge of a cliff, they can only come at us from one direction."
Ronon shook his head. "We'll be cut off from the ring."
Sheppard smiled slightly. "Not for long. Somehow I doubt these people are used to flying ships."
McKay looked up. "The jumpers don't have weapons."
"They have drones," Sheppard replied. "And we have a city full of Marines. Lorne should be back to the 'gate by now. He can bring back a squad. That should give us enough cover to get from the building to the jumper. Then it's just a matter of flying home."
Sheppard took the earpiece out of his ear, made an adjustment, and said, "Sheppard to Lorne."
There was a pause, and then Ronon heard heavy breathing and the sound of someone running in his ear.
"Lorne here, sir. We're almost back to the 'gate. We had a group on our tail, but I think we lost them. Where are you?"
"We're about halfway to the 'gate, Major. But we've got a problem. Looks like the villagers found us."
"Tell me where you are, sir, and we'll come back for you."
"Negative, Major. Get to the 'gate and get back to Atlantis."
"But, sir --"
"No but's, Major. Get back to the city. Tell Weir what's going on, then get back here with a jumper, Thompson, and a squad of Marines. We're going to try to get back to the archive building. There won't be enough room for you to land, but you can drop the rear hatch on the edge of the cliff. Hopefully, the sight of the jumper and a squad of Marines will scare off the villagers long enough for us to make a run for it."
There was a long pause over the radio. "I'm not sure I'm that good of a pilot, sir."
"You'll do fine, Major. You have your orders."
"Yes, sir. Lorne out."
"You sure you want to do this?" Ronon asked as he studied the trees.
"Do you have any better ideas?" Sheppard asked. "We aren't going to make it back to the 'gate," he added with a glance at McKay beside him. "The building is defensible. We can hole up there until Lorne gets back."
Ronon checked his weapon and stared in the direction of the ring. He didn't like the idea of hiding and waiting for rescue. He turned around and found Sheppard watching him.
"I assume Elizabeth gave you a GDO," Sheppard said softly. "You can head for the 'gate without us. Meet up with Lorne and come back with him in the jumper. Teyla and I can find the archive."
Ronon glared at Sheppard, angry as much for Sheppard reading his mind as the implication that he would leave them.
"We don't leave people behind."
He stalked over and pulled Sheppard out of McKay's tenuous hold.
"Hey!" McKay protested. He caught himself on the trunk of a tree, and tried to find his balance on just the branch and his right leg.
"We need to move. Fast," Ronon growled as he adjusted his hold on Sheppard, and set a slightly quicker pace as he led the way back to the building by the cliff.
By the time they found the building, it was fully dark, and Sheppard was barely able to stand. He looked up when Ronon stopped then glanced behind them where Dex could hear McKay stumbling through the last of the trees, and Teyla's quiet murmurs as she tried to help him.
"We're here," Ronon said. "Now what."
"Need to get inside," Sheppard replied softly. "Where's the door?"
Ronon manoeuvred them over to the door with a glance behind him to see where Teyla and McKay were. He waited as Sheppard tapped the control and the door slid open, then pulled Sheppard inside. He was startled when the lights in the room glowed to life as soon as they entered.
He eased Sheppard to the floor, turned to check McKay and Teyla's progress, and frowned when he saw them coming out of the trees. They weren't much more than shapes moving against the deeper gloom, but he could tell Teyla was beside McKay, one arm wrapped around his waist, helping him as best she could. Ronon heard voices calling and caught glimpses of movement in the trees behind them.
The villagers had caught up.
He saw Teyla glance behind her and suspected she had heard the voices as well.
"We are almost back to the archive," Ronon heard her say to McKay, her tone calm, if a bit strained.
"Sheppard and Dex?"
"They are already inside. You can see the lights through the windows."
Ronon saw one of the shapes stumble and heard McKay moan as he fell. At the same time, he heard Sheppard mutter under his breath and Ronon saw him twitch slightly. He glanced from Sheppard sitting against the wall with his eyes closed, to the two shapes he could see at the edge of the clearing, and then at the trees. He knew the villagers had to be close enough to see McKay was down.
He ran out of the building and back across the clearing where Teyla was trying to help McKay back to his feet.
"I've got him," he said to Teyla as he took McKay's weight from her. "Get inside."
Teyla nodded and ran for the door.
McKay looked up as Ronon wrapped an arm around his waist. "Thought you weren't going to help," McKay muttered as Ronon propelled them both back to the building.
"Said I wouldn't carry you, McKay. Never said I wouldn't help."
"Oh. Well, that's different then, I guess."
Ronon ducked as an arrow missed his ear by inches. "Come on!" he growled, and half-carried McKay across the clearing.
Arrows hit the ground near their heels as they ran. Ronon heard answering fire from the building and looked up to see Teyla standing in the doorway shooting at the men coming out of the trees.
Teyla stepped clear of the door as Ronon pulled McKay inside. She fired more rounds at the men running toward the building until the rifle clicked when it ran out of ammunition, then ducked back inside and let the door slide closed behind her.
Ronon sat McKay on the floor next to Sheppard. "Your plan better work, Sheppard," Ronon growled as he looked out one of the small windows. "The villagers have caught up. We aren't getting out of here without help."
He glanced down at Sheppard, his eyes still closed, with McKay slumped beside him.
Ronon looked over at Teyla watching the clearing from the other window.
"Major Lorne will come," she assured him. "You will see."
Ronon grunted and turned back to the windows as the villagers entered the clearing. Some of the men carried torches and all of them were armed with bows. All Ronon could think was that Teyla had better be right.