Chapter 1: Chapter 1
A dark room in a high tower, a gloved hand, a soft, sibilant voice: "You have them?" A listening pause. "Yes, bring them here." Another pause. "I will deal with that." Conversation concluded.
He rose from the marble-topped desk, opened the door of a heavily carved wooden cupboard, placed the communicator inside and carefully closed the door. It locked with a satisfying 'snick' and the key went back round his neck, hidden beneath layers of dark fabric. A beautiful, elegantly simple plan, he thought and his thin lips curled into a slight smile of unnerving subtlety.
Tal's problem wasn't silence, at least not outward silence; he found that quite easy. It was his inward silence that was lacking, the stillness of mind that would allow the Grace of the Ancients to come to him, apparently. Vanity too, thought Tal, forgetting once more to still his thoughts. When he'd learned that his head would be shaved if he committed to the Order and became a novice, he had to admit to a kind of panic at the thought of losing his dark, unruly mop of hair. But hair was one of the things that marked you as an individual, so, according to the Rule, it would have to go.
Tal's eyes were caught by movement; Merren rose, having gained his allotted two spoonfuls of soup, moved along the line and knelt again to silently beg the next monk in the row. He worked his way along until he came to Tal and set his bowl down. Tal, carefully donating two spoonfuls of his soup, caught a glimpse of Brother Merren's eyes, their blue depths a complex mix of anger, desolation and confusion; they determinedly lowered to stare at the floor but Tal could see the flare of humiliation and the thin, downturned mouth as Brother Merren gritted his teeth. For some reason, Tal suddenly wanted to grab his hand and run; he felt that if he did, there was nothing and no-one that could stop him. Instead, he let Merren pass on down the line and, having filled his bowl, stand at the end of the table to consume his cold, unpleasant meal.
The bell rang and the brothers filed out, some to their work, some, like the postulants, to a rare moment of leisure. The recreation took place in the cloister garden, weather permitting, and was their only time for free speech, although even this freedom was limited and controlled by Brother Lensel, the Master of Postulants.
Brother Lensel looked around the seated circle of his charges. Tal felt as if the monk's sharp brown eyes could see all the stains on his soul, or at least that he knew which sins each postulant was most likely to have recorded in the notebook given to them for that purpose. He addressed Brother Merren first.
"Brother, tell me of your progress in obedience to the Ancients' Rule."
"I don't think I'm making any progress," replied Brother Merren shortly. He folded his arms defensively. "What it comes down to is this: I don't know why I'm here. I don't think I'm supposed to be here and I'm pretty sure I can't live according to a set of rules geared toward total self-abnegation. I mean, do I seem like the kind of man who would've committed to that? I don't think so!"
"You cannot know what sequence of thoughts or actions led you to us, Brother," said Brother Lensel, gently. "That is the purpose of the memory block. It gives you a chance to approach the religious life without prejudice or bias and then, when your period of postulancy is over, the block will be released and you can make your decision with full knowledge of your previous life."
Brother Merren rubbed his eyes tiredly and slumped in his chair. "I think I must've been pretty desperate even to try this, if I knew anything at all about what it would involve," he said, which Tal thought was pretty rude considering it was a life to which Brother Lensel was obviously wholly committed.
All Brother Lensel said was, "Perhaps you were desperate." He turned to Tal next. "How are you progressing in your religious journey, Brother Tal?"
Tal tried to sit up straight and not shrug his shoulders. "Some of it feels... sorta right." He absently rubbed the back of his neck and then, realising, tried to force his hands to stay relaxed in his lap. "In the Temple, when everyone's all in line, all wearing mostly the same thing, that feels familiar, like I'm in the right place. And," he paused, trying to find the words, "um... it feels right that there should be rules to follow and I think if I decided to be here I should do my best to stick it out. Like, if it was my choice, I kind of have a duty to give it a go, yeah?"
Tal noticed Brother Merren raising his eyebrows and shaking his head, but ignored him.
"What do you struggle with most?" asked Brother Lensel.
"Um..." Tal felt his face heat and he looked at the ground, seeing the circle of toes poking out of sandals beneath the plain brown robes of the postulants and the richer black of Brother Lensel's. "Lotsa things," he mumbled. Brother Lensel waited. "Okay, so, if I have to do a penance I do it and think 'fair enough, do the crime, do the time. ' But if I have to watch someone else do it," his eyes flicked to Brother Merren, "I get pretty angry. Like I'd rather do it for them or I'd fight for their right not to do it at all."
"A transgression in thought is still a failure in obedience to the Rule," said Brother Lensel. Brother Tal couldn't suppress a shrug this time.
"I don't think I'm normally an obedient kinda guy."
Brother Lensel smiled and moved onto the next postulant.
"Hey! Whatever-your-name-is! Brother Tal!"
Tal mimed a zip closing his mouth.
"Hey, c'mon, talk to me!"
Tal frowned, annoyed that Merren was trying to tempt him to disobey the Rule of Silence. A crude epithet sprang to mind; he felt his cheeks redden and he cringed inwardly. This would all have to go down in his notebook and it was Tal's turn for the public Telling the following day, where he'd have to read it all out. Now he'd have to declaim before everyone the word with which he'd bad-temperedly labelled Brother Merren, never mind that it was only in his head.
"What?" he hissed angrily, mentally reminding himself to write down 'broke Rule of Silence'.
"You looked at me, just now, in the rec."
"So, did you mean me? You get angry when I do a penance?"
"Yeah, okay, I meant you. Now leave me alone!" Brother Tal quickened his pace toward the Temple, unwilling to add 'late to prayers' to today's long list of wrongdoing. And it's always when Brother Merren's around, he thought grumpily. What is it with that guy?
Data, he thought. Or lack thereof. All he knew was the cloistered life, the monastery and the feeling that he did not belong. And one more thing: he knew Brother Tal, and Brother Tal, despite his attempts to fit into this world, knew him. Brother Merren reluctantly turned toward the Temple and braced himself for the feel of the cold stone floor against his body; he was always late.
"Major Lorne's IDC! Lowering the shield."
Woolsey stared intently at the figures emerging from the Gate: Lorne's team, Lorne himself and finally, Teyla and Ronon, shoulder-to-shoulder. He knew before Lorne looked up and shook his head; he could tell by the blank faces of the Marines, by the set of Lorne's jaw, but most of all from Teyla and Ronon, dejection in their every movement, commiseration in their mutual glance and in their fleeting touch of hands. They would debrief, but Woolsey needed no formal mission report to know the stark fact: Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay had disappeared and left no trace, no clue, and their desperate search had gained them precisely nothing.
The jarring clamour of the bell woke Tal and he stumbled from his cot, eyes still closed, and groped for his undershift and robe, hearing the groans and fumblings of other monks all around him through the thin curtains which were the only boundaries of their cubicles. Having dressed, Tal joined the line of monks shuffling in single-file in the bitter pre-dawn chill. He took his place at the back of the Temple with the other postulants, noting that, for a change, Brother Merren was here before him. The cold marble was punishing on Tal's knees but he tried his best to maintain an upright posture knowing that, in the kneeling ranks around him there were many older and much less able than he and all remained ramrod straight.
The Father Abbot was absent for some reason, so the address was given by Brother Keltiar, the Precentor, his fingertips blackened from years of supervising the scriptorium. He was short of stature but loud of voice and as he spoke Tal noticed a line of light begin to show at the lower edge of the great stained-glass window that filled the wall behind the altar. Brother Keltiar spoke of lives lived 'in joyous solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance'* and the light rose, a golden glow silhouetting the half-size replica of the Ancients' Gate which hung from the ceiling.
Tal forgot about the chill rising from the cold marble beneath him; something stirred in his mind, a fleeting image that he couldn't quite grasp, an idea, a memory so important that he knew he would never have let it go voluntarily: the Gate, the light shining through the yellow and orange glass, the ranks of identical figures in dark clothes. Even the lofty space of the Temple itself seemed desperately significant as if someone far away were calling out to him urgently to remember what it all meant. A wash of nausea swept over Tal and cold sweat broke out on his forehead as more images danced before his eyes: a woman, beautiful but lethal, a fierce fighter and a fierce friend; a man, tall and wild, with few words but rock-like loyalty. Tal's vision swam and pain stabbed the back of his skull. He saw more faces, their voices ringing in his head with, confusingly, the quick, bright jab of Brother Merren's voice mixed in. He struggled to remain kneeling upright and felt Brother Merren stir next to him.
As the sun burst forth fully over the horizon a beam of light shot through the suspended Gate and the Temple was bathed in rippling brightness. The clear, pure tones of the choir rose to greet the dawn and, in his mind's eye, Tal saw another Gate, edged in blue, a fountain of energy erupting toward him, boiling and churning and then snapping back to an undulating silver. The images merged and then blurred and Tal blinked, trying to clear his vision, but his head throbbed and spun, his ears filled with a muffled hissing and the ranks of Brothers surrounding him lurched and dissolved into grey and then, abruptly, into black.
Merren was glad it wasn't the Abbot addressing them this morning; his constant reiteration of the necessity for unceasing vigilance and bitter striving was depressing. 'A life against nature', he had said in his last address, and, while Merren agreed wholeheartedly, that didn't mean he wanted to hear it put like that. It was depressing enough as it was.
Merren was trying hard to suppress an urge to cough that was developing in his tickly throat when a barely suppressed gasp and an audible swallow alerted him to the fact that Tal was in trouble. He shot a swift sideways glance at his neighbour and his eyes widened; Tal's face was a nasty shade of grey and his eyes were half-closed, unfocussed, his head tipped slightly back. The Precentor's voice reverberated his joy in the new day around the echoing hall but Merren's eyes were fixed on Brother Tal so that when Tal's eyes slid shut and he collapsed into a slumped heap of coarse brown fabric, Merren was there to catch him.
"Give him some space, Brother!" came a peremptory command and the tall, gaunt infirmarer, Brother Vesh, replaced Merren, peering into Tal's face and taking his wrist. "Hmm... pulse back to normal. You are still a little warm. How do you feel?"
The infirmarer took the cloth from Tal's forehead and dipped it into a bowl of water, wrung it out and replaced it. Then he reached for a cup of water and helped Tal to take a sip while continuing his hawk-like scrutiny. "I would put your fainting down to hunger or thirst, or simply the rigours of postulancy - this life comes as a shock to some - but you were hot as a furnace when we carried you in, and that is... puzzling. We will rule out hunger, first, though. Brother Merren, fetch three bowls of gruel from the kitchens!"
Tal heard Merren's swiftly suppressed complaint and closed his eyes. Brother Vesh moved away and various gentle stirring and grinding sounds could be heard as he prepared his remedies. Tal tried to relax; the infirmary was peaceful, the well-stocked wooden shelves exuding a distinct astringency mixed with the sweeter richness of exotic spices that promised to soothe and comfort.
He couldn't relax. His thoughts were in turmoil. The visions he had seen in the Temple were memories, he was sure; memories of a real place where he had a home and responsibilities. Tal pressed his eyes even more tightly together and worried his lower lip between his teeth. He had been so sure that this life was what he had chosen, this hard, fault-finding life of self-denial and detachment from pride and individuality. Now he doubted. Doubted and questioned and wondered, which was exactly the kind of thing the memory block was designed to prevent. The block must be failing somehow and now Tal was left with a longing for a place he could barely remember and a looming, shadowy question: was he here voluntarily? If he was, what catastrophe had occured to tear him away from his home and a life that called to him so strongly? If he wasn't... No, that would be ridiculous. What purpose could his admittance to the Order possibly serve? Who would gain from that? Brother Tal pushed his doubts firmly aside and tried to empty his mind as he had been taught.
He felt his headache lessen and he dozed until he was startled awake by the sound of a tray being set down heavily and the scrape as Brother Merren pushed aside a stool that was in his way. This was followed by a series of spluttering coughs and sneezes.
"You have a quick mind, Brother Merren and a fine hand and eye for the precision needed to make a remedy, but you have a long road to travel toward the softness of movement required in an infirmarer! I will make you some sage tea after I have broken my fast - I do not want my assistant out of action!"
Tal opened his eyes to see Merren's face contort into what desperately wanted to be a scowl, no doubt accompanied by a needle-sharp rejoinder. It was fascinating to watch the expression rearrange itself into a passable semblance of humility. Tal hauled himself upright, wincing at the brief renewal of his headache. He took the bowl of thin, mealy gruel that Merren held out to him and began to sip it. Brother Merren perched on the stool and, putting the bowl to his lips, gulped his portion swiftly down with every appearance of relish.
Brother Vesh sat down to eat his own breakfast, slowly and deliberately, using one of the spoons he'd been using to measure ingredients. "What work do you do, Brother Tal?"
"I work in the pottery."
"Ah, yes, bashing the air out of raw clay, no doubt. Not, today, I think. Brother Merren, please inform the Master Potter of Brother Tal's absence today."
Merren's face took on the appearance of a stuffed fish which, Tal guessed, was a result of the effort it cost him not to descend into a ranting tirade at the casual disposal of his time.
"Yes, Brother Vesh," he uttered, with a really very creditable lack of inflection. Tal, feeling better from the comfortingly bland breakfast, shot him a chirpy grin and a thumbs up behind Vesh's back and then swiftly dropped his hand, the grin sliding from his face with almost audible dismay. Gloating at a Brother's struggles to obey the Rule must count as a sin. He'd have to write it down. Brother Merren, in his turn, gave Tal a look of triumph and then he too realised his mistake, turned crossly on his heel and left, his coughs and sneezes receding into the distance as he no doubt similarly tried to categorise the sin of gloating.
Tal sipped the remainder of his gruel, pensively. He made a decision; he would continue to give this life his best shot, on the assumption that, despite his strangely compelling memories, the most likely scenario was that he had chosen to be here. Short of breaking out of the monastery, what else could he do?
He set down his bowl and searched in the pocket of his robes. Taking out the pencil and by now well-filled notebook, he wrote: Gloated over Brother Merren's struggles with the Rule of Obedience. Tal's eyes ran up and down the long list of his self-accusations; it was a hard way to live and now, planted within him was a seed of doubt, which would make the bearing of it that much harder.
It was possible that they had missed something; some whisper, some gossip, some random trembling of the grapevine of contacts that spread and branched through the myriad settled planets of the Pegasus galaxy. They had sent out messages to the Genii, to the Travelers and to the Coalition; they had enlisted Todd's more than slightly dubious help; Woolsey had even set a few contacts back on Earth to sniffing around, with the possibility in mind that the IOA might be involved.
All their intelligence-gathering had yielded nothing. The Colonel and Dr McKay had been separated from their team, apparently by the press of the crowd, on the interplanetary market on M4Z 993 and from that moment forward there had been not a shred of evidence of their continuing existence. And that was over three weeks ago.
Woolsey shut the laptop, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It was late. He should go to bed. The Gate activated. Woolsey put his glasses back on along with his sense of duty.
"Ronon's IDC, Sir. Lowering the shield."
Ronon and Teyla stepped through the Gate and immediately looked up. Woolsey caught a sense of purpose; not necessarily optimism, though. They met at the top of the stairs and Teyla thrust a sheet of strangely oily, transparent paper toward him. An unfamiliar script in smudged ink crossed the sheet in three rows. He looked questioningly at Ronon and Teyla.
"It's in Satedan," said Ronon. "It says: we have them."
"Is that all? Who has them? That makes no sense!"
"This," Teyla pointed at a row of symbols, "is a Gate address, a date and time and a sum of money."
"Ransom!" Woolsey exclaimed. "Ransom? After all this time?" He made a rough calculation of the currency exchange in his head. "And even if we were inclined to negotiate, this is... ridiculous!" He took a deep, steadying breath. "You said this is Satedan?"
"We believe that is probably designed to mislead," said Teyla. "Similarly, this type of paper we know to be of Genii make. And the date is written according to the Athosian calendar."
Woolsey shook his head and stared at the demand. He was about to dismiss Ronon and Teyla for the night when the Gate activated once more, yielding Major Teldy and her team. The three met Major Teldy at the foot of the stairs.
"Word from Ladon Radim, Sir," reported Teldy. "They've been offered the Colonel and Dr McKay in exchange for a large sum of money."
Woolsey gritted his teeth in anger, while Teyla breathed a long, barely-controlled sigh. The noise emitted from deep within Ronon's chest could only be described as a growl.
* This beautiful phrase is taken from the website of The Monastery of Christ in the Desert
The old monk pulled himself upright gradually, straightening shoulders stooped by age and forcing his back into a line as unbending as the Rule to which he had vowed to adhere untold years ago. He licked his cracked lips and his jaw champed once or twice before he began.
"I declare Brother Tal, for charity's sake," he said, using the customary formula, "for constantly and repeatedly breaking the Rule of Humility!"
Oh, come on! Tal thought, having just forced from his unwilling lips his own long list of transgressions. Give a guy a break, here!
"Brother Tal does not put his trust in the Ancients to safeguard his person and, moreover, takes it upon himself to watch over any others in his presence."
There was an indefinable stirring amongst the assembled spectators, senior monks sitting on the stone benches running around the four sides of the Chapter House and the small group of postulants scheduled for the Telling that day kneeling on the floor. Tal felt speculative glances fall upon him and his fists clenched in the rough fabric of his robe.
The monk continued, his quavering voice carrying clearly, echoing off the ancient stone walls and rising toward the vaulted ceiling.
"Brother Tal enters a room (and if he can he enters first) and his eyes mark the exits as if escape may be needed. He notes the position of any brothers and constantly adjusts his own position as if he may be called upon to mount a defence at any moment!" Tal felt the old man's gimlet eyes boring into him while his accusation continued inexorably. "His vigilance is ceaseless and thus he demonstrates his lack of trust in the Ancients' great plan for their faithful and breaks their Holy Rule." The monk nodded as if to put a period to his words and then slowly and deliberately lowered himself to the cold stone seat.
Tal lowered his eyes and tried to stop himself chewing his lip, his mind a confused tangle of humiliation, surprise and undeniable anger. Was it true? Tal realised, with shock, that it was. If he closed his eyes right now he could point unerringly to all of the exits, obvious and less likely (there was a narrow window set high on one wall that he could make use of in a pinch) and he had unconsciously marked the positions of his brothers and categorised them according to degree of fitness or vulnerability due to age and/or infirmity. He would undoubtedly have flung his accuser across his shoulder and brought him to safety, were it to prove necessary. But it wasn't necessary and a good monk simply put his trust in the Ancients and didn't assume he knew better.
Tal drew himself up and prepared for the inevitable penance.
"Wait!" He waved a hand as he noticed Merren's approach, his eyes not leaving his work. "I think..." He ran a finger back over the lines of text, muttering to himself and then shook his head, sitting upright with a wince and a hand on his lower back.
"My eyedrops? Thank you, Brother. We will have to hope my eyes will catch the meaning of this text when I have used them."
Merren glanced casually at the text. "The bit about 'shining even through the impenetrable darkness of the unknown'? Or this bit with the alternative form of the verb 'to effloresce'? What is this, a religious treatise? Or scientific? Oh, look, it's both! With pictures! Is that a dragon?"
The scratching of quills halted. There was a palpable silence. Merren looked around and smiled nervously as he realised all eyes had turned toward him.
"Um... Was that wrong? Because I know effloresce is similar to deliquesce in Ancient, but... pretty sure I'm right about this!"
He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Brother Keltiar regarding him with a mixture of excitement and what looked a little bit like fear. "You can read this text?"
"Well, yes, you know, there's the whole memory block thing, but this?" He shrugged. "This I can do."
The Precentor shook his head. "This is the Ancients' language!" he said, with slow reverence. "It is sacred! It is only when a novice takes his vows that he is permitted to learn the sacred tongue."
"Oh." Brother Merren's mouth felt dry and he swallowed awkwardly. For some reason this situation felt familiar.
"Can you understand the choir when they sing in the Temple?"
"Well... yes?" Merren answered hesitantly. "Can't everyone?"
"No," Keltiar replied flatly. "They can't." He looked around and clapped his hands sharply. "Back to work, Brothers! And you will speak of this to no-one!" The scratching quills resumed and Keltiar regarded Merren with concern. "This is a matter for the Abbot, Brother Merren. Some may regard this as a miracle, others may see it as heresy. I would be inclined to take it as a gift from the Ancients, but it is not my decision to make. Go back to your work in the infirmary for now."
"Would that the Abbot were here!" worried Brother Keltiar.
"But he is not and these matters must be dealt with!" said Brother Vesh sharply.
"I have penanced Brother Tal to beg his meals for three days, surely that is enough?" asked Brother Lensel.
Vesh snorted. "The man was plainly a soldier of some type. It'll take more than that to break him of ingrained habits!"
"But what of Brother Merren? How could he possibly understand the sacred tongue?"
Brother Vesh regarded his colleagues. "The Abbot will return soon. In the meantime we will have the postulants pray for guidance. The discipline of a night-long vigil will do them good in any case! I am sure postulants nowadays have it much easier than we ever did!"
The monks nodded in agreement and went back to their work, satisfied with their means of delaying any decision.
After evensong, he and Brother Merren had been informed that they were to kneel in a night-long vigil to pray for guidance in their religious lives. Tal wasn't surprised for himself, but he wondered what Merren had done. He heard another cough. They had been placed at either end of the altar but made to face away from each other. Tal had tried praying but guidance wasn't noticeably forthcoming and his knees hurt and his back ached. It was cold and getting colder. There was an icy draught coming from behind the altar and Tal began to shiver. His fingers and toes were numb. He was thankful he didn't still have a headache and glanced up at the suspended Ancients' Gate that had seemed so significant in the dawn light. He could barely see it now, lost in the gloom and the shadows cast by the solitary candle in the centre of the altar.
The coughing began again and this time it didn't stop. Tal's numb hands twitched with a desire to help. The coughing became punctuated with wheezes and Tal heard the slap of a hand on the cold stone. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Merren was hunched forward, one hand on the floor the other grasping his throat, his face pale. Tal wasn't aware that he'd moved but suddenly found himself at Merren's side, supporting him.
"Nice and slow, c'mon, buddy, just breathe!"
Merren leant against Tal, shuddering with cold, the breath rasping in his throat. Tal put his arms around Merren to try to warm him up and the gasping breaths gradually slowed. Merren rubbed tears from his eyes with a shaking hand.
"So c-c-cold! C-couldn't stop!" he stuttered.
"Yeah, well, I think we'll call it quits for tonight!" Tal saw Merren's eyes roll toward him doubtfully and he wondered why he felt that this man was somehow more important than the monastic life. He remembered how Brother Merren's voice had been mixed up in his visions that morning. Whatever! Sick of internal debate, Tal decided his priority was to help Merren and he'd worry about the consequences later.
"C'mon, up you get!"
Merren started coughing again as he rose and he coughed and spluttered his way to the infirmary so that Brother Vesh was already alert and lighting a lamp when they arrived. He grunted in disapproval when he saw them but, taking a look at Merren, grudgingly gestured toward the row of cots and Tal lowered Merren to sit.
"Keep him upright! Lying down won't help his cough!" Vesh scanned the row of shelves, taking down various jars and bottles. "Honey to soothe and cleanse," he said, taking down a pot. "Cloves for pain," his long, boney fingers took down a small jar and then resumed tapping their way along the row. "Ah, yes, expensive, but they won't keep forever!" He took down a large covered bowl, set it on the work surface and began to grind and mix.
"Set some water on to boil!" he directed Tal. Tal picked up the kettle, felt it heavy and full in his hand and put it on the stove top. Merren was still coughing sporadically and his breath wheezed in and out. He drooped miserably. Brother Vesh spooned some of his dry mixture into a beaker, then he took a knife and cut something Tal couldn't see, squeezed it into the remedy and stirred it again.
"That'll be hot enough, pour some water in here!"
Tal did as he was directed, curiously looking at the ingredients that Vesh had used. Honey. He hadn't had anything sweet in... well, he couldn't remember. Little brown cloves, ground to a powder. Some kind of fruit, wizened and dry-looking, but originally yellow and shaped like pointed ovals. His eyes fixed on the fruit, one of them cut in half, its juice squeezed into the remedy. Tal felt his heart speed up and, without knowing why, fear gripped him and his head began to throb sharply. He looked at Merren and back at the fruit and the feeling intensified. Vesh held out the beaker and Merren reached out his hand. Pain flooded Tal's mind and an image of a fresh, bright fruit appeared to him; juicy and sharp and... lethal! He dived forward and knocked the beaker out of Merren's hand. The contents flew out, the beaker hit the ground and smashed and Tal fell to his knees, crying out in agony, his fingers threading through his hair as if he could draw out the pain.
Again, he was assailed by confusing images, the woman and the man he had seen last time and now Merren too, but dressed differently and he knew Merren was not his name. Then the images sped up and flashed past: stars and planets seen from space, a city on an ocean, towers gleaming in the sun, then a horror of darkness and fear and pain with sharp teeth and death in its grasp.
The visions faded. He knelt, shuddering on the floor of the infirmary and someone was next to him, their arm around his shoulders, their breath wheezing in his ear. He looked round and his trembling lips formed the name of their own accord: "Rodney."
"All of the above have been offered the Colonel and Dr McKay for a price: a very large price. Logic, correct procedure, not to mention good economics, dictate that at this point we should give up and let this matter go."
The reactions of outrage were predictable, from Lorne's barely restrained, "Sir!" to Ronon's fist smashing down on the tabletop.
"I said we should, not that we would." He looked round the assembled faces once more. "I think we need to try a fresh approach. Now, in my limited experience of warzones, which, I think under the circumstances we must consider any area under threat from the Wraith to be..." (Ronon rumbled impatiently and Teyla gave him a quelling glare), "there is always a certain element that takes advantage of the chaos. I speak, of course, of the criminal element, even, dare I say it, organised crime..."
Woolsey watched Ronon and Teyla in particular as his words hung in the air. Teyla looked troubled.
"There is a group," she said hesitantly. "I do not know if they still exist."
"They do," said Ronon shortly.
Teyla looked troubled. "They have no name, but where there is confict or disaster, they are there to take advantage. They scavenge where there has been culling, they monopolise trade routes, they demand payment for 'protection' against the Wraith; they are everywhere and nowhere." She shook her head. "I would not know where to start looking."
The plan took shape, like a picture slowly appearing on a tapestry, the addition of each new thread altering and adding to the whole. Already they were weakened, these interlopers in their Ancient city, the two key members of their expedition plucked from their midst with a delicacy and precision which almost made the exercise worthwhile without any further gain at all; he certainly did not need the money.
It remained now to decide how to proceed, what new thread to introduce to the pattern, to set the players against each other in the way that would prove the most amusing. And as for the two hostages... They were safely contained, to be sold or kept or possibly played with as one's mood dictated; really, it was all most satisfactory.
Two days had passed since he and Merren had stayed the night in the infirmary. Brother Vesh's initial anger and bewilderment had settled into a conviction that, although unheard of, Tal's memory block really was breaking down and that only the Abbot would be able to fix the problem. Tal's thoughts wandered toward the likely outcome if he hadn't remembered Rodney's citrus allergy in time. Rodney. He felt his lips form an irrepressible smile; finally a known fact. Merren's name was Rodney and Rodney was his friend. And they had worked together in that place with the shining towers and its own Stargate. Had they come here because the place was lost? If so, they'd made the wrong choice. They would stay here until the memory block could be lifted properly and then, if they had nowhere else to go they would make a new life. Tal was pretty sure he'd make money as a mercenary; the monastic life wasn't suiting either of them, that was for sure.
Tal picked up the lump of clay and fed it through the rollers, turning the stiff handles to slowly flatten it out. His stomach rumbled. He and Rodney had agreed to play along with the whole postulant thing so as not to upset the others. "You must not divert any of the brothers who might have a true calling!" Brother Vesh had directed, and initially Tal had rebelled, knowing it would mean completing his penance, but when the stoic Brother Lensel and the scholarly Brother Keltiar had added their pleas, he had relented and agreed and begged a nauseating breakfast down the line of the refectory table, as he had begged every meal since. He'd had to tie his rope belt even tighter than usual this morning.
He took the clay to the taciturn Brother Jahd, who simply nodded and jerked his head toward a tray of freshly-formed clay jars. Tal picked up the heavy tray and carried it to the store room, slotting it into place on one of the purpose-built racks which stood, rank upon rank, shelf upon shelf, filling the draughty stone-walled room with unfired pottery. The annual firing would take place in a few days’ time, the kiln, outside the monastery walls and so beyond the limits of Tal's knowledge, needing constant stoking with wood over a period of several days. The resulting pottery would provide the monastery's main source of income for the year ahead.
Tal washed the drying clay from his hands in a bucket of water and then returned to the main room of the pottery to receive another minimalist direction from Brother Jahd. "Beakers for the village," he said, nodding at a tray of what must be some of the tail end of last year's firing: straight sided beakers, cream with splashes of brown and flecks of black from the burning ash. There was straw; there were crates. Tal began packing.
They stopped, both breathing heavily, both smiling again through the failing light.
"Another rest!" grumbled Brother Vesh. Rodney felt his throat tighten painfully once more and, coughed, feeling his breath wheezing in and out of his lungs. He glared at Vesh, pointedly. "Yes, yes and a timely one, no doubt," said the infirmarer, holding out a flask to Rodney. It contained a simple mixture of honey and a herbal infusion and Rodney sipped it gratefully, feeling his breathing ease.
The surroundings of the monastery had been a revelation; the forest to landward, stretching endlessly toward distant snow-capped mountains, and on the other side, the cliffs and the steep, narrow path leading down to a fishing village of small, slate cottages, a sturdy wooden jetty and a solitary inn, where they had left the crates of beakers and received a purse of coins in return. Brother Vesh had set them to scrambling about amongst the rocks to find a particular type of seaweed and then higher, above the tideline where several useful herbs grew. Rodney and Tal had revelled in the relative freedom and had enjoyed themselves, plopping stones into rock pools, splashing each other and throwing pieces of slimy seaweed. Rodney had even caught Vesh's severe countenance cracking into a smile once or twice and suspected it made a pleasant change for him, not having to deal out penances left, right and centre. Rodney frowned as he recalled the tiny scar, twin to Rodney's own, that he had noticed on Tal's upper arm when he had rolled up his sleeve to reach into a rockpool. Were the scars significant?
Handing the flask back to Brother Vesh, Rodney became aware of Tal's sudden stillness and tension. Tal looked up and down the rocky track through the falling dusk and peered intently into the scrubby growth to either side. He stooped, knees bending but head remaining erect, glanced down briefly and picked up a rock. Rodney copied him, trusting his friend's instincts. Tal pushed Brother Vesh behind him, against the cart and the confused monk had barely had time to utter a bark of protest before figures were rising out of the darkness around them.
Rodney saw Tal's rock fly and hit its target, the man dropping to the ground without a sound. The others rushed forward, Rodney couldn't tell how many there were in the dark, and Tal was standing in front of him and Vesh, kicking, twisting, punching in lightning fast moves. Rodney threw his rock and picked up another and Tal was fighting two at once, driving them back down the track; a glint in the hand of one showed he had a knife. A third picked himself up off the ground, rubbing his head and then made a lunge for Vesh and the purse at his belt. Rodney, not realising he knew how, curled his fist round the rock and slammed it into the side of the man's head. He went down, but rose again and Rodney did his best to beat the man off, sidestepping up the slope to try to gain the higher ground. He could see Tal further down the slope, fighting with just one robber now and then Rodney saw his chance; his man was unbalanced. He pushed with both hands in the centre of his chest and sent him crashing down the slope. Tal had knocked his man down again and jumped to the side out of the path of Rodney's tumbling human missile. He looked back up the slope and gave Rodney a tired thumbs up. Then a black shape seemed to rear up out of the ground behind him and suddenly, with a flare of white pain behind his eyes, a name was on Rodney's lips and ringing out into the still night air: "John!"
John spun round, dodged the blow from a rock that would have cracked his skull, chopped down on the man's wrist so that the rock dropped and clattered away and slammed the heel of his hand up under the man's jaw resulting in a loud click of his teeth. John snatched another rock up from the ground and dashed it into the side of the man's head, once, twice and a third time. It was over. The rock dropped from John's hands. He turned to Rodney once more, lifted one hand in a tired effort at a wave, staggered a couple of steps up the slope and fell to his knees.
"John!" Rodney's voice. "Are you hurt? Can you walk?"
"Yeah, just give me a hand up."
"We must not linger here! They may come back!" Brother Vesh stood a little way up the slope, looking worriedly around in the moonlight.
"What about the cart?" John asked, staggering to his feet, leaning against his friend.
"Leave it! Come, quickly!" Vesh set off, clattering over the rocks and John and Rodney set off after him.
"You remembered my name," John said. He winced as he stumbled and Rodney supported him.
"Yes, it just came to me. You're not okay, are you?"
"Well, you know, I am a little beat up." His breath hitched as he stumbled again.
"More than a little. Hey, what's this? Is this blood? Did you get cut?"
"It's fine, it'll wait. Vesh is right, they might come back."
Rodney fumbled in a pocket and drew out a large handkerchief. "Don't worry, it's clean," he said as he wrapped it tightly round John's forearm.
They continued their halting progress, labouring up the winding path until the lights of the monastery were in sight. John looked up at the black looming silhouette and was glad that he would soon be back within its protecting walls, although he was even more glad that he knew he didn't belong there. He blinked and the torchlight seemed to brighten and flare; the windows shone with yellow light and, rounding the curtain wall John could see that the massive wooden gates stood open. In the central courtyard stood a large carriage, its four sturdy horses steaming and blowing in the crisp cold air. Ten white-robed monks were moving into a flanking formation around the door of the carriage. The door opened. A black-robed, hooded figure descended with smooth grace, just the tip of a hooked nose and the sharpness of a black beard picked out by the torchlight. The hooded figure surveyed the courtyard and John couldn't tell if they had been observed, standing in the shadows by the gate.
Brother Keltiar greeted the new arrival and they walked together into the refectory, the large, silent figures of the white-robed monks following behind.
"The Abbot has returned," said Brother Vesh.
"I am afraid not, Mr Woolsey. I am also known in association with Atlantis and my people all frequently trade on other worlds."
Woolsey tapped a finger against the table and pursed his lips in thought.
"What we need is someone who lives on the fringes of civilised society. Someone who might conceivably show an interest in organised crime. Perhaps someone who might have something to offer such an organisation."
"That woman," said Ronon. "The one who beat up Sheppard." He smirked reminiscently.
"Larrin, of the Travelers," said Teyla.
Woolsey nodded. "We will contact Larrin in the hopes that she can help us infiltrate the organisation or find information that will give us some kind of a lead."
"What do we do about the ransom demand, Sir?" asked Lorne.
"Two jumpers, cloaked," said Woolsey, decisively. "Your team and Major Teldy's team." He paused. "Six hours before the appointed time. Observe, but do not engage other possible recipients of offers. Any suspected associates of the criminal gang, if they turn up, to be allowed to depart and followed." He nodded, determination in the set of his jaw. "Dismissed."
Rodney wanted to follow the Abbot straight away, to be first in line of the no doubt many issues and disputes needing his urgent attention. Brother Vesh counselled caution, however.
"He has had a long journey and will not take kindly to being set upon before the monastery fires have driven the chill from his bones. Besides which, he was ever a man in need of careful handling."
John wasn't sure what Vesh meant by that having only seen the Abbot from a distance when he was addressing the assembled monks from the pulpit. An instinct flickered at the edges of his awareness, similar to the rising of his hackles before they had been attacked on the path.
"Who were the other guys?" he asked, shivering. He could feel his body stiffening up in the freezing air and gritted his teeth.
Brother Vesh looked uneasy. "Monastic Inquisitors. I do not know what need there would be for them to come here..." He looked back toward the refectory, then shook his head briskly. "Standing around in the cold won't help! Come! We are all in need of a warm fire!"
Ignoring John's protests and accompanied by Vesh's grumbling ("Such damage to a Holy Vestment!"), they removed John's robe and linen undershift, both bloodstained and with a long slash down the underside of one sleeve. John sat, shivering in just his long, drawstring shorts and Rodney had to bite his own lip to contain his anger. Not only was his friend's torso covered in developing bruises and scrapes but Rodney could see his ribs and the full extent of his weight loss due to the past few days' penancing combined with hard physical work. Rodney, conscious that his anger with others was liable to burst out into cutting comments to John himself, snatched up a blanket and, flinging it round his friend's shoulders, spat out the words, "Going to the kitchens!" and abruptly departed.
"You should lie down while I clean and stitch this." John lay down, wincing. Vesh took his arm and, sitting on a low stool, laid it across his knees and began to clean out the cut. John held himself rigid, his breath quick and shallow at the burn of the strong-smelling liquid and Vesh's thorough technique. A log cracked and shifted in the fire.
"He is not angry with you," commented Vesh, as he threaded an alarmingly large needle.
"No?" John gasped as Vesh began to stitch.
"He is angry that you have been hurt and..." Vesh smiled, grimly, "this is not a kind life."
"Huh. No." John suppressed a sarcastic comment and tried to count the bottles and jars on the shelves to distract himself from the feel of the thread drawing his skin tightly together.
Vesh wrapped his arm in a linen bandage. "We must take care of this; that knife would not have been clean!" He began pressing along John's ribs to check for breaks and John squirmed and jerked with pain. "I think just bruises. You were protected by the Ancients' grace!"
John suspected that there were a lot of things locked up in his head that would contradict Vesh's words, but remained silent.
Rodney returned, his face beaming.
"Chaos in there!" he exclaimed, with satisfaction. "They're all so busy preparing food for the Abbot that nobody noticed me! So," he said, setting down a tray, "I have bread and meat and the remains of a pie and..." he fished around in his pockets, "fruit!"
John soon found himself the recipient of a huge sandwich, determinedly thrust at him by Rodney, with a challenging light in his eye. He dutifully ate.
"When can we see the Abbot?" said Rodney indistinctly, his mouth full of pie.
"I will go tomorrow morning together with Brothers Lensel and Keltiar," said Vesh. "As senior monks, the Abbot will summon us anyway." He nodded as if to himself. "That would be the best time to petition for your release."
"You make it sound like we're going before a parole board!" said Rodney. "We're not in prison!"
"He won't try to keep us here, will he?" John asked worriedly.
Vesh looked away, rubbing his stubbled chin. "Such a case has never arisen before," he admitted.
John and Rodney looked at each other and each saw their resolve reflected in the other's eyes. One way or another, they were leaving.
"Let go, you son-of-a..." A fist impacted with his stomach and he was dropped to the floor shuddering and gasping.
"Please!" Brother Vesh's voice. "This man is under my care! And Brother Merren is my assistant!"
John looked up to see Rodney's struggling form, a white-robed arm around his throat.
"The Abbot says these two have been singularizing themselves! Claiming visions and miracles and trying to set themselves apart from the other postulants!"
"No, we..." Rodney cried, but his voice was cut short by the cruel choke-hold.
John felt himself hauled to his feet and was dragged out and along the covered walkway, trying to get a purchase on the cold flagstones with his bare feet. The freezing morning air took his breath away and the warmth of the infirmary was whipped away from his body, the linen shirt he'd been given no protection against the bitter chill. They left the walkway and crossed the open courtyard, white with a hard frost. John got his feet under him but they rapidly became numb on the iron-hard ground and the air was like a knife in his lungs. Even inside the Temple their breath plumed about them; they were forced to their knees facing the altar.
"You'll stay there until the Abbot's ready to see you," the white-robed monk said. John tried to concentrate, tried to think. He was shivering hard, his muscles jerking and spasming, the pain of his beating from the day before fully reawakened. His arm burned and he realised he could feel the extra chill of wet cloth; the stitches had torn. He risked a sideways glance at Rodney and caught a glimpse of his pale, shocked face before his head was pushed roughly back to face the altar.
"Eyes front!" John was reminded of military hazing and thought, These guys are no monks...
He knelt, the hard marble floor numbing his knees, the chill seeping deep into his bones, making his joints ache. John felt his mind grow sluggish and he sagged, only to be dragged upright again by the back of his shirt. He tried to focus on the candle on the altar with its perpetually burning flame flickering in the draught and succeeded in taking his mind away from his bodily hurts for a while, drifting in a daze while his eyes gazed at the halo of light around the candle. His joints folded without him being aware and he found his forehead pressed to the icy stone floor. He let his eyes close and drifted once more.
"You can't leave him there, he's hypothermic!" Rodney earned himself a blow to the back of his head for his outburst, but, at a sharp call from a narrow door in one of the side aisles John was hauled up by his arms and dragged away and Rodney was encouraged, by a kick, to follow. They climbed up a narrow spiral staircase set within the thick wall of the temple, then along a corridor, breaks in the stonework to one side looking down over the cloister far below. Then up another spiral stair until Rodney felt sick and dizzy and his heart ached for the further injuries done to his friend as he was hauled up the hard-edged stairway.
Voices murmured above him, a thump onto a wooden floor and Rodney was pushed forward into a room hung with thick, dark-coloured tapestries, warm from a blazing log fire and luxurious with heavy wooden furniture, dark with age and polish. A desk faced the room, the man behind it, hooded, bent over his work. John lay in a crumpled heap on the floor; Rodney couldn't tell if he was breathing.
The Abbot set down his quill and pushed back the hood with one hand, revealing a sharp, angular face, his mouth outlined by the precise design of a thin, dark brown moustache and pointed beard. His age was indeterminate and Rodney wondered if the beard and moustache were dyed. Any hair was hidden by a black skull cap. He regarded Rodney with hard, intelligent eyes and then raised himself slightly from his chair to look over the edge of the desk at John. One eyebrow lifted and he spoke, softly, his thin lips barely articulating the words.
"Your zeal is, no doubt, commendable, Brother Dakan, but it would be more conducive to useful discourse were this man actually conscious. Why is he not properly clothed?"
"He was in the infirmary, Father Abbot."
"Hmm... Injured or sick?" he inquired. As if he were asking 'tea or coffee?' thought Rodney, who could contain himself no longer.
"He was injured yesterday defending me and Brother Vesh from robbers! And these thugs have made sure he gets hypothermia on top of that!" Rodney felt a heavy hand gripping his shoulder but stood, without flinching, his head up, his eyes locked with the Abbot's. The Abbot held his gaze for a moment then flicked a casual hand and Rodney felt his shoulder released.
"Pick him up. Put him next to the fire. No! Not that chair, he might soil the upholstery! The settle."
Brother Dakan set John down on the wooden bench seat. His eyes fluttered slightly but he would have slithered off if Rodney hadn't knelt down and supported him. A goblet appeared at Rodney's shoulder and he took it and held it to John's lips, tipping it slightly so that some of the liquid ran into his mouth. John swallowed, coughed and murmured, "W's happenin'? Rodney?"
Behind him, Rodney felt a subtle shift in the Abbot's stance.
"That'll do! Move away now!" Rodney was once more pulled away from his friend. The Abbot glared at John and John glared back, pushing himself more upright on the hard seat. He had begun shivering again, but his eyes showed full awareness of his surroundings.
"You know we don't belong here, don't you?" John's voice shook, but his words were resolute.
"I know nothing of the sort!" the Abbot replied, with a dangerous smile. "Postulants with delusions of mysticism! Nothing more! I wonder at the senior monks, to have let discipline grow so lax in my absence."
"Look, you just need to take away our memory blocks and let us go!" Rodney interrupted. "We won't cause any trouble, but, seriously, our memories are coming back anyway and I can read and speak Ancient because I've learned it! There's no 'mysticism' involved!"
The Abbot looked at Brother Dakan and then back at Rodney and John.
"No," he said simply.
"What do you mean, no? You have no right to keep us here!"
"He has no right!"
The Abbot gave an impatient jerk of his head and Rodney found himself once again gripped in a painful choke-hold, Brother Dakan's arm pressing into his throat. The Abbot brought his face close to Rodney's.
"Right? Rights mean nothing here and, perhaps, if your memory blocks are failing, they should be reinforced."
Behind the Abbot, Rodney saw John draw himself painfully to his feet, leaning heavily on the tall back of the seat. His face was still ghost-white, his breath still shuddering, his shirt filthy and bloodstained. The Abbot dismissively flicked his fingers and moved back to his desk, once more taking up his quill. The other two white-robed monks moved forward to take John's arms.
"You know who we are, don't you?"
John's words hung in the air and the Abbot set down his quill carefully and looked up. His lips formed a very slight, subtle smile, but he did not speak.
"I'm sorry for your loss..." Woolsey began.
"'Sorry' doesn't cut it, Woolsey! I'm 'sorry' you've lost Sheppard and that scientist guy, but enough's enough!"
"Did your contacts find out nothing at all?" he said.
An angry huff of breath and then: "Just some kind of code name."
"It's probably useless. Just that someone said the boss, the big mythical 'bad guy'..."
"Yes, go on."
"They call him 'The Abbot'"
There were two Inquisitors standing before the great gate of the monastery, their hard faces turned blankly out into the courtyard, their wide-legged stance more soldierly than spiritual. The gate was locked; barred and bolted, which would not have been unusual at night, but was unheard-of during the day, the monastery being welcoming to all, although not many travellers passed this remote spot. In any case, to Brother Vesh it appeared that the Inquisitors were not there to stop possible marauders entering, but to prevent anyone from leaving.
Vesh had carried out his duties as normal, treating several monks for the cough that was spreading through their ranks and one postulant who worked in the kitchens and had burnt his hand. Brothers Merren and Tal had not returned and Vesh had come out into the courtyard on the pretext of drawing water from the well. He watched three brothers leave the bath-house and head to the chapter house, heads down, their gait nervous and hurried; the monastery seemed to be infected with an atmosphere of dread.
Brother Vesh drew his full bucket up from the well and was about to turn back toward his infirmary when the sound of heavy footfalls came from the Temple: three Inquisitors, one with a firm grip around Brother Merren's arm, towing him along and the other two manhandling Brother Tal's limp form between them. They dragged him across the frosty courtyard and dumped him at Vesh's feet.
"Do your job, Brother," one of them sneered nastily, jabbing John's body with the toe of his boot. They left, muttering amongst themselves.
"By the Ancients!" exclaimed Brother Vesh, kneeling down beside John. "They are no men of the Holy Rule!" He laid his hand on John's cheek. "He is freezing! The bath-house! Quick!"
Vesh and Rodney carried John to the bath-house where rows of metal tubs stood, each in a curtained cubicle. They lowered John into one of the tubs of lukewarm water not even stopping to remove his shirt.
"Go to the copper and get some hot," Vesh directed, referring to the great copper pan that stood above an oven-like fire at the far end of the room. Rodney soon returned and tipped in the water while Vesh kept his arm under John's shoulders to stop him slipping beneath the surface. Vesh looked up at Rodney, seeing his pale, shocked face, his mouth an unhappy, drooping line, his body trembling with occasional shivers. All these weeks, thought Vesh, I've been trying get him to obey in silence and without question and this is what it takes. Aloud, he said, "Go to the Brother vestiare and get some new robes for Brother Tal. And a woollen undershirt. And some hose. Two pairs." His assistant nodded tightly and turned to hurry off, still silent. "Stay!" Vesh halted him. "When you return, add some more hot to one of the other tubs and get in." The blue eyes widened. Rodney nodded again and hurried off.
Brother Vesh regarded John whose skin was beginning to turn a more healthy shade of pink. Two narrow bands of hazel were drowsily regarding him.
"What is happening here, Brother Tal? John?" There was an almost imperceptible shrug of one shoulder. "The Ancients are testing us, I think." Brother Vesh nodded to himself, but John just closed his eyes.
Atlantis! He scowled. The thorn in his side, standing up for what passed for law and order, fighting the wraith, indeed! It would be amusing to get a little revenge. But not too soon. He was a man who understood the value of savouring one's pleasures. He would allow the two Atlanteans to live as postulants for now and insist on their obedience to the Rule. He could reapply the memory blocks, but that would make their suffering so much less agreeable, so much less torturous. He steepled his fingers and his eyes narrowed in thought, no longer seeing the view but looking inward, into the depths of his convoluted mind.
"Yes, Sir," replied Lorne. "Destroyed the whole area and took out the two Wraith factions and whoever the others were."
"Let me get this straight: all of these parties had been given the same drop off point and time?"
Lorne shook his head. "They all came through the Gate at different times, and went to different co-ordinates. Didn't make any difference. The blast radius of that thing was huge."
"And you avoided it how?"
"Dr Porter, Sir. She picked up some strange readings coming from an area near the Gate, so I decided observing from geo-synch orbit might be safer."
"Good call," said Woolsey. "And good work, Dr Porter," he said, turning to Teldy's team. Alison Porter nodded and smiled acknowledgement.
"We're no closer to finding Sheppard and McKay," said Ronon, bluntly, his voice louder than his usual taciturn rumble. "I can't sit round doing nothing any more!"
"I don't see..." began Woolsey, but Teyla interrupted.
"I have been thinking that this codename may be of more significance than it would appear," she said. "An Abbot is the leader of a religious house, is he not?"
"Yes," agreed Woolsey. "Go on."
"I have heard it said that some things are best hidden 'in plain sight' and I propose that Ronon and myself investigate any religious orders where criminal activities might be concealed."
Woolsey sucked his teeth, doubtfully. "There could be hundreds of religious institutions in the entire Galaxy! Thousands! Surely it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack!"
Teyla smiled, coolly. "I do not believe there are many that the Wraith have permitted to survive. The Brotherhood on Dagan were culled long ago. Also, it is possible that the Colonel and Dr McKay may have, by now, caused a certain amount of disruption that may help us."
"Huh, yeah," Ronon agreed. "They won't just sit and wait!"
"Brother Merren, please assist me!"
"Yes, Brother Vesh!" called Rodney and, while he raised himself dripping from the bath and reached for a towel his thoughts immediately set off in four directions at once: firstly, that he was concerned for his friend and hoped John would be alright, secondly, that there must be people searching for them if they were that important, thirdly, that his thoughts and ideas would soon come to a grinding halt if he didn't obtain some more data and fourthly: "Yes, Brother Vesh?" What was that all about? Since when did he, Rodney Somebody-or-other, VIP, come running all meek and mild when called? Since you thought you were a postulant in a strict religious order, he replied to himself. "Huh, yeah," he acknowledged aloud, pulling his robe over his head.
"I may not understand what has afflicted the Father Abbot to behave thus," said Vesh, refilling John's bowl of broth, "or what part you two have to play in the matter. I can at least, however, protect you from the rigours of the winter!"
"Mmm... Yes, thanks!" said Rodney, slurping his broth. John noticed his woollen-clad toes wriggling appreciatively. They were both wearing long woollen hose, which were like thick socks that came most of the way up to the top of their thighs. John also had a woollen tunic under his robes. And a blanket on top. He felt his eyelids droop and someone took his bowl away.
"Hey! Wake up!" A snap in front of his face and his eyes flew open to see Rodney's fingers about to snap again.
"Get lost, McKay!" he growled, without thinking.
"No, we need to... What did you call me?"
"Rodney McKay! That's me! Mr Rodney McKay!" He frowned. "That's not quite right yet, is it? Anyway! We need to talk."
"Need to sleep," said John slumping down onto the cot and closing his eyes. He felt like he'd gone ten rounds with... the faces of the woman and the man in his vision popped into his head, but their names still eluded him. And why would they be beating me if they're my friends? he thought in confusion.
"No, not yet. Listen!" John felt a sharp prod on his shoulder and grimaced. "This might be the only chance we get. The Abbot wants us back with the rest of the Brothers."
"I'm hurt... 'm staying here." John yawned.
"No, listen. We need data, intel, we need to find out..." (a movement of air and a rustle of fabric spoke of hands waving enthusiastically), "who we are, where we belong!"
John, eyes still closed, said simply, "How?"
The sound was of excited hand-rubbing this time and John knew Rodney's eyes would be shining. "By carrying out a night-time raid on the scriptorium!"
Some small area of John's personality pricked up its ears and he wondered what had happened to Brother Tal who analysed every last thought and action, his mind a place of guilt and forced humility. John felt a familiar crooked smirk grow and he opened one eye to see Rodney's face, a picture of impatience, excitement and a subtle hint of self-doubt.
"I'm in," said John.
John had slept most of the afternoon and had woken stiff and in a lot of pain, if Rodney was any judge, and he knew himself to be one of the best interpreters of John Whoever-he-was and his various non-verbal cues; probably the best, in fact, as Rodney suspected, smugly, that there were a lot of things he was the best at. Those things definitely didn't include spending hours on his knees praying, however, or accepting the humiliation of begging for his evening meal, especially under the Abbot's subtly challenging eye. Rodney distracted himself with thoughts of what information might be hidden within the books and scrolls of the scriptorium and how he and John would find out tonight, but, glancing sidelong at John during the late evening prayers, he realised that wasn't going to be possible. John appeared to be struggling to stay upright and when it was time to rise and leave the Temple he looked at Rodney in mute appeal, apparently too stiff to move at all. Rodney and one of the other postulants hauled him to his feet, eliciting slight whimpers of pain as bruises and strains protested, and they half-carried him back to the dormitory. Tomorrow night, then, Rodney promised himself.
John was working out in the open, cutting up huge logs, whereas Rodney was chopping up the fallen wood a couple of hundred yards away, under the eaves of the forest. John swung a huge axe with easy grace, splitting a log, kicking the halves to one side and reaching for another log; he turned to grin at Rodney. Like a dog that's just fetched a stick, Rodney thought, wishing he could remember his friend's full name. Rodney threw another split log into a barrow, his mind running on dogs and John and, for some reason, sheep. Sheepdogs, he thought, the impact of the hatchet jarring his arm again. Sheep... shepherds... "Sheppard!" he cried out suddenly, startling the monks working around him. He took a lungful of air to yell out John's name to him, but then felt the glare of one of the overseeing Inquisitors and deflated, returning to his work. Stupid logs.
John turned round and grinned at Rodney, pleased with the sound of his name even when it was hissed into the darkness of the night-chilled cloister.
"Sheppard, did you get any of that pie?"
"No, just bread."
Rodney had insisted on raiding the kitchens before anything else, having endured another day of begged meals at the Abbot's insistence. A novice, left to tend the softly glowing fire, had been asleep on the hearth, but they had managed to filch a couple of items without waking him. John was glad he no longer felt obliged to keep his list of transgressions against the Rule up to date; he would have had to ask for a new notebook by now and 'Stole food from the kitchens' wouldn't have gone down well at all.
Stepping as softly as he could on the hard, slate flagstones, John listened out for any movement in the halls and corridors around them. He heard Rodney chew and swallow noisily then take another bite of his pie.
"Hope you're not leaving a trail of crumbs, Rodney!" he whispered.
"M'not dropping crumbs! Too good to waste!"
"C'mon, it seems quiet."
They crept along the side of the cloister, and then through to a small room with a spiral staircase in one corner. John held up a hand, and they both stopped; there were footsteps in the cloister and the light from a lantern flickered on and off as it passed between the supporting columns. John waved Rodney toward the stairs and backed toward them himself. He watched as the light passed around the cloister and then flickered out as its carrier entered the Temple.
They climbed the stairs in darkness, feeling their way up the steep spiral almost as if they were climbing a ladder. At the top the scriptorium was comparatively light, moonlight filtering through the glassed-in windows and reflecting off the mirror-lined walls. Rodney had frozen and John could hear his breath, fast and shallow and frightened.
"Something moved! Over there!" He whispered, pointing. "There it is again!"
"Mirrors, McKay," drawled John.
"Oh! Huh! Yes, of course!"
"D'you know where to look?"
"I've only been in here a couple of times. Give me a minute, I think there're candles here somewhere." The scrape of a flint, a couple of curses and yellow, flickering light bloomed. "Here - take it."
John took the candle in its holder and began moving slowly round the unfamiliar room. It was cold, the fire put out to avoid risk to the precious manuscripts. John was glad of his extra clothes, although the hose did itch quite a bit in strategic places. The soft light of another candle came to life behind him and the wavering shadows reflected in the mirrors created an unsettling, disorienting effect. The room contained high clerks' desks, half-finished manuscripts resting open on each, the coloured inks of illuminated letters left to dry overnight. Gold leaf glinted in the candlelight.
John joined Rodney by a wall lined with shelves, stacked with scrolls and leather-bound volumes of all shapes and sizes. Rodney's eyes flicked here and there, taking in the various subject areas written on the edge of each shelf in a spindly hand-written form of Ancient.
"Here! Local geography and history! Let's find out where we are!" He took down several volumes, set them on a desk, and began to leaf hastily through, muttering words in Ancient and grumbling to himself about the books' haphazard presentation of information.
John's Ancient was very limited; Rodney had taught him various words that meant 'Danger' and 'Do not touch!' but they weren't much help. He glanced at a shelf stacked solidly with scrolls, their ends facing him like the inside of a giant wasps' nest. He shuddered at the imagery, idly pulled one of the scrolls out a little and angled his candle so that it illuminated the centre of the rolled tube; it was dense with miniscule text, so he pushed it back.
"Index? Contents page? Anyone with a use for systematic organisation? No?" John smirked, enjoying Rodney's frustration.
He pulled out another scroll, shone his candle down the centre and was rewarded with a broad stroke of colour and some bold lines: a picture. Ancient comic book? he thought hopefully, brightly coloured, lively images appearing in his mind. He started to pull out the scroll, then paused, pondering experimentally.
"Spiderman," he said.
"What? What did you say?"
"Nothing." John shook his head, wondering at his brain's priorities for memory retrieval. He pulled out the scroll, set his candle down and spread it out, pushing it flat with his hands to reveal the image. Then he let go as if he'd been burned and the scroll snapped back, fell off the desk and rolled away. John felt his heart racing and his throat constrict. His head spun and he gripped the edge of the desk with both hands, leaning heavily.
"John? What? What's wrong?"
He shook his head slightly, eyes scrunched shut, jaw clamped. He forced himself to breath slowly and steadily, feeling Rodney's hand on his arm.
"John? Are you sick?"
"No," he whispered. He opened his eyes, reached out an unsteady hand for his candle and used it to locate the scroll, the flame wavering wildly as he shook with emotion. He picked it up, set down the candle and once more spread out the parchment.
Only two colours had been used, in varying shades: a deep blue for the ocean, a paler blue for the sky, and in shades of silver grey from the softest dove to the deepest slate, the towers and spires and wonderful, glorious familiarity of Atlantis; and as John recalled the name, he also knew that he had approached the City from exactly this angle, far out over the ocean, but level with the topmost tower.
John remembered the joy of flight, and, with bitter anger, he realised more than ever what had been taken from him and from Rodney.
"More than I did," said John huskily. He moved a finger in a broad arc over the ocean, swirled it round the central tower once, then stopped on the very top. "I know if I flew there, this is where I'd go in, but... there's still a lot missing." He was about to roll up the scroll when Rodney stopped him.
"Look, here, a row of symbols!"
"Gate address!" they said at the same time and looked at each other, grinning.
"Did you find anything?" John asked.
"Yes. This planet is referred to by the natives as Peringia, which doesn't mean anything to me, but look." He showed John a page of a large volume. "This is us and there is the Gate! We can go home!"
John peered at the beautifully drawn map. "There's no scale and it all looks bit... hand drawn. Could be a long way. And we're prisoners here."
"Oh, well, maybe I remembered your name wrong, Mr Pessimist, first name Picky! It's a lot more than we had five minutes ago!" Rodney opened his mouth to continue, but suddenly John held up a hand. There were voices coming from below and a faint light came from the stairwell. John pinched out his candle and then Rodney's. For a moment Rodney could see nothing, then his eyes adjusted to the silvery moonlight and he could see the glow in the stairwell growing and hear the uncompromising voice of Brother Dakan.
Rodney realised he was alone and turned round wildly until he felt a tug on his robe and allowed himself to be pulled over to the window. A freezing blast of air hit him and he flinched at the cold and the realisation: this was their escape route.
John perched on the window ledge and, following a swift assessment of the drop, turned and let himself down. He landed, as lightly as he could, on the steep, tiled roof of the Chapter House. He looked up, to see Rodney, still straddling the ledge, looking down at him. Rodney pointed to the casement window.
"Just leave it!" hissed John. "Jump!"
Rodney drew his leg over the ledge, squirmed awkwardly so that he lay across it and slithered down until he hung by his hands. John saw light beginning to glow from the windows of the scriptorium and a sharp voice as the open window was spotted.
"Let go, Rodney!"
He dropped and landed with a crash onto the tiles and John immediately grabbed his robes, hauled him up and they made the best speed they could skirting the edge of the roof, between the steep tiles and guttering. Around the corner of the roof there was a low parapet over which they hopped and scrambled onto the top of the cloister. A light shone out of the window behind them and suddenly a blue flash flew over their heads as they slid down the steeply pitched roof. They were brought up short by the stone coping.
"Wraith stunner!" Rodney exclaimed, his voice high-pitched with shock.
"Keep moving," John urged. "Over the edge!"
"I can't it's too high!"
"It's not, move!"
John climbed over the coping and dropped down onto the soft grass of the cloister garden, feeling a rush of adrenaline which made him wonder if he did this kind of thing often. He could hear someone coming back down the spiral stairs and was about to urge Rodney to hurry, when Rodney landed on top of him and they both crashed to the ground.
"Up! C'mon!" John dragged Rodney to his feet once more and they pelted down the covered walkway to the Temple intending to go diagonally through and lose their pursuers in the warren of buildings around the stables, pottery and kitchens. But as they entered the echoing space, a lantern was held up in the main entrance. John turned and pulled Rodney into the shadows: footsteps behind them, the main entrance blocked. John thought. Twice he'd spent time kneeling close to the altar where there were no exits to other rooms or to the outside; and yet there was always a draught. He gestured Rodney to follow and they tiptoed from pillar to pillar, losing themselves in the thick, black shadows. They hugged the wall until they came to the altar and slid behind it.
"They're in here!" came Dakan's voice. "I'm going to stun the pair of them!"
"You shouldn't have that thing, Dakan," came another voice. "The Abbot said no high tech! This lot are primitives!"
"These two aren't. And they're here somewhere.
Rodney looked at John, his eyes wide with fear. "We're trapped!" he whispered.
"No, there's something here! Try the stonework." John began pushing here and there at the stones. They looked like they'd been quarried to fit tightly together. Rodney stared at the wall. Then he took a loose thread and pulled it out of his robe and waved it around the joins between the stones.
The footfalls crept nearer. John turned, his back to the wall, crouching, ready to spring, his hands twitching for want of a weapon. The candlestick on the altar: it was solid enough to make a good club. The two gold chargers, one each side: could he fling them like frisbees? Knock the Wraith stunner out of the man's hand?
A small "Ha!" from Rodney and John saw the thread fluttering, Rodney looking at the stone behind it intently. He grinned as he pushed at the stone around the join and it swung back smoothly and silently leaving a black hole.
"A counterweight system!" chirped Rodney audibly, too pleased with his discovery to be careful.
"Behind the altar!"
John gave Rodney a hearty shove between his shoulder blades, pushing him headfirst through the hole, then followed himself, the stone dropping back in place behind him.
He felt his robe catch on rough stonework, scraped his hands on something and then landed on Rodney, with an 'Oof!' from both of them.
"You okay?" asked John.
"Yr lgs'n m'face!"
"Sorry!" said John, trying to untangle himself. Something pushed at his legs and he tried to move away but was brought up short by a rough stone wall.
"Get off!" Rodney cried, shoving him again.
"Can't! I'm against a wall!" Another push and a scrambling sound and he couldn't feel Rodney any more but could hear his rapid breathing and a litany of complaints.
"Head first? Was that necessary? Ow!"
"You alright, McKay?"
"I think my head's cut, maybe because I landed on it? And again I say, headfirst?"
"They'd made our position, Rodney!"
John could hear Rodney's muttered complaints continuing, but he could see nothing; it was utterly black. He felt the rough stone wall sharp at his back and, reaching forward, found a similar wall, barely three feet away. Stretching out his arms to either side yielded nothing apart from Rodney's yell when John poked him in the ear.
"I think this is some kind of passageway," said John.
"It's a secret passage, so obviously."
John ignored him and tentatively got to his feet, one hand above his head to feel for a ceiling. He felt damp stone before he was able to straighten up.
"Watch you head when you stand. Ceiling's low."
Stooped over, the adrenaline of the chase wearing off, John felt his body begin to tell him that it wasn't happy with his recent activities; he had enjoyed chopping the wood that day, the pull and stretch as he swung the axe, the blood zinging round his veins, and he'd been able to ignore his pain and stiffness in the excitement of raiding the kitchens, their discoveries in the scriptorium and, obviously a rooftop chase was always distracting. Now, however, he was cooling off rapidly with the subterranean chill and everything seemed to hurt.
"Um... Are we going that way? Or am I supposed to be leading, or what?"
"Just taking a breather, Rodney."
"You don't take breathers, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, I'm good." John began to move forward, slowly, one hand following the wall, one arm outstretched in front of him. The floor was uneven and he had to take small shuffling steps.
"Good?" questioned Rodney sceptically, following behind him. "You'd tell me if you'd broken something or if you were bleeding out, right?"
"Drop it, McKay, I'm fine."
"Oh, God, now I know you're dying!"
"Not dying, Rodney." John concentrated on feeling his way, still touching the wall to his right and occasionally reaching to the left in case there were any side branches.
"Oh. Good." A pause, with just the sound of scraping, shuffling footsteps. "Do you have any food left?"
John stopped, reached into a pocket and held a chunk of bread behind him, waiting until he felt Rodney's fingers grasp it before letting go.
"What? Why've you stopped?"
"It's a dead end. Wait a second. Passage at nine o'clock."
"A ninety-degree turn? We're following the line of the Temple walls, then."
"Seems that way. I think this passage is actually built into the foundation wall. Hmm..."
"Just wondering if it's meant to go anywhere or if it's just a place to hide."
"What, with only one entrance? That'd be a waste of a secret passage. And also somewhat disturbing."
Rodney continued to follow John, keeping him within reach by the sound of his shuffling, stumbling progress and after a while, Rodney gave in to an urge and grabbed a handful of John's robe.
"You're not gonna get lost down here, Rodney, there's only one way to go."
"I know that, it's just dark and cold and... small."
"Yeah, it'd be good to straighten up." John stopped again. "Huh!"
"Now what? Another turn?"
Rodney could hear John's hands patting and tapping at the rocks around him.
"Sheppard? What's happening?" Rodney yanked on John's robe.
"Quit it, McKay! Let go for a minute!" Rodney let go and heard a rattling, clattering sound ahead and to his right, then a muffled curse and more rattling. He felt something grasping his sleeve and jumped.
"It's just me. I thought we'd hit a dead end, but there's a passage off to the right. It's partly blocked, but I think we can climb over."
"You think?" Rodney could feel panic rising in his chest. "Or maybe we'll be trapped down here, alone in the dark!"
"You're not alone, you're with me! C'mon Rodney. Follow me - you'll have to crawl."
Rodney heard the rattling of loose rocks once more and groped his way forward, turning to his right and feeling the pile of stone and earth in front of him. He eased forward and down onto his hands and knees and tentatively began to crawl, wincing at the sharp edges cutting into his skin and shuddering at the soft clamminess of the dirt.
"Wait there, Rodney, it gets narrow here."
Rodney waited in the dark, trying not to think about the closeness of the space around him, the earth above his head and the fact that it had already collapsed and could collapse more on top of him at any moment, burying him alive down here away from the light and the sky. His thoughts sped faster as his heart rate picked up and he began to scramble forward, desperate to be free. He felt something move in front of him and grabbed hold of it but it pulled suddenly away from him.
"I'm through, Rodney! Come on, it's wider here!"
Rodney stopped thinking and forced himself forward, banging his head, scraping his elbows, rocks digging into him everywhere; he didn't care as long as he got out. He felt the roof of the passage on his back, flailed desperately and felt a hand clasp one of his and pull hard and he was through, where it was still dark but it was wider and he could breathe and there was a warm hand grasping his. His breathing slowed, he gulped and shook himself.
"Okay? We're through now."
"Yeah, okay," Rodney said huskily.
"Yeah, um... Don't let go... yet."
John's hand gave his an extra squeeze and led him forward through the dark.
"Sheppard? What're you doing?"
"It's a ladder. Bottom rung's pretty high. I'll climb up a way and then give you a hand."
John gripped the rung with both hands, pulled himself up and caught a higher rung, then the next. Then he got his feet under him and pushed up. He felt the narrowness of the walls around him and scrambled up the ladder a bit further.
"Sheppard?" came Rodney's worried voice from below.
"I'm just going to see how high it goes." John ascended a few more rungs, reckoning he'd climbed about twelve feet and then he reached up and felt wood above his head. He pushed, but nothing happened. John felt around what was presumably a trap door, trying to find a latch, but there was nothing. He hooked his legs around the ladder, let go with both hands and pushed as hard as he could with his arms and shoulders. There was the sound of something falling above him and the trapdoor gave way to slam back against a wall. There was light, just barely, dimly noticeable, but it was there and John could make out shapes; boxes and barrels and piles of things he couldn't identify. A storeroom. Next to the stables, he thought.
"John?" Rodney's voice came from below, sounding small and worried.
John climbed back down and with much stretching, pulling and encouragement, helped Rodney climb the ladder and out of the trapdoor.
"Hey, I can see! Where are we?"
"Storeroom, near the stables," said John, lowering the trapdoor and sliding some crates back over it.
"D'you think they're still looking for us?"
"Maybe. We have to assume they are." John leant against a barrel, wishing he could just crawl into bed and sleep. He rubbed his eyes.
"What's the plan? Through the pottery? Kitchen garden, past the infirmary? Then a dash across the courtyard and home?"
John shook his head, tiredly. "I don't think we can do that, Rodney. They'll know it's us, they're probably waiting. I think we have to run."
"Run? Where to? How?"
"Over the wall, down to the village, find a boat."
John pushed away from the barrel. "I'm going to have a recce out there, see if we can get onto the roof. Wait here."
John eased open the door of the storeroom, surprised by how much effort it took to shift. The door had been blocked by snow and as he looked out he could see it still falling.
"Snowing?" said Rodney, peering out.
"Yeah, hope it keeps going. It'll cover our tracks."
John slid round the side of the storeroom and looked up at the roof where it met the curtain wall of the Abbey. The construction was of natural stone with wide gaps providing plenty of foot and handholds. Loose rocks could be a problem, though, John thought, looking at the crumbling mortar. He went back inside. Rodney was sitting on a crate, looking tired and dejected.
"C'mon, Rodney, we'll use this," he kicked the side of the barrel, "to get up on the roof."
They rolled the barrel outside, slid it through the snow and shoved it in the corner between the storeroom and the wall. John looked at Rodney, seeing the weary slump in his shoulders. He felt the tiredness drag at his own limbs and thought about the climb, a long walk through the snow, then an attempt to steal or stow away on a boat. We've been through worse; just get on with it, John!
"I'll go first, check the roof's safe." He climbed up on to the barrel, then up onto the roof, his bruised ribs flaring as he pulled himself over the guttering. He tested the roof, reaching out carefully with sandalled feet, then looked up at the wall: about ten feet to climb. Not too bad, but the other side could be a problem. Then he froze, his instincts sparking. Had that been a movement, out in the courtyard? He waited, tense, hoping he merged into the dark stonework of the wall. He saw nothing.
John crouched down and motioned to Rodney to start climbing. Rodney scrambled onto the barrel. John reached his hand downward. Rodney began to stand.
A blue flash, the whining sound of a stunner discharge and Rodney was falling, away from John's outstretched hand, which strained futilely to catch him. Rodney fell, landed on his back in the snow and was still.
"Better come down or I'll shoot him again."
John still crouched, seething with anger at his enemies and at himself for failing to protect Rodney. His head dropped, defeated. He turned and began to lower himself down, saw a blue flash, felt his body arc convulsively and fell.
Richard Woolsey scanned Teyla's report. She, Ronon, Major Teldy and her team sat round the table.
"The Monastery of Terno?" Woolsey queried.
Teyla nodded. "The monks utilise a complex of caverns and so have avoided culling. Also, their singing is very beautiful in such a setting."
"No signs of illicit activity?"
"None that we observed. Similarly, the monastery at Yreski, which is set in a very deep, narrow canyon."
"Tricky to manoeuvre a Dart in there," interjected Major Teldy.
"And this one, the Abbey of Casca?"
"Sadly, recently culled."
Woolsey continued to stare at the report. "You've listed a few more here to try."
"Ronon and I have been able to work with Major Teldy and her team most efficiently. We will find the Colonel and Dr McKay if we are allowed to continue."
"We take the Jumper through, cloaked, Sir," explained Major Teldy. "Then we drop off Ronon and Teyla so they can check out the locals, Dr Porter scans for sub-cue transponders, any unusual energy readings and so on while we do a quick fly-by. In and out in an hour or so, usually," she said persuasively.
"Yes, very efficient," said Woolsey, thinking that surely the IOA couldn't argue with his use of resources. "Do we know anything about these next few on your list?"
"My people have traded with the Peringians," replied Teyla. "The monastery there is isolated but they make very fine pottery which is sold there and exported off-world."
"Hmm... Isolated. Not the kind of place from which it would be easy to carry out criminal activities."
"Or it could be just the place for the big boss Abbot to hole up in safety while his minions do the dirty work, Sir!" interrupted Sergeant Mehra, with enthusiasm. Ronon smirked.
"Er, yes, quite so, Sergeant," Woolsey agreed uncertainly. He looked at Teyla. "You have permission to continue."
Rodney tried to push himself up and realised his wrists were tightly bound in front of him with rope and the rope was fastened to a metal ring set into the back wall. He raised himself awkwardly, wincing, his head stabbing and numerous cuts and scrapes burning. A heap of brown fabric with some dark hair at one end lay motionless beneath the metal manger in the corner of the stall. The heap was John and rope ran from the manger presumably to his wrists.
"Sheppard!" Rodney reached out with one foot and nudged at the still form. "Sheppard?" John twitched, winced and moved slightly. "John!" Rodney nudged him again, eliciting an incoherent grunt, then a deep sigh. John pushed himself up, straw-covered head hanging, and manoeuvred himself to lean against the wall painfully, regarding Rodney through heavy-lidded eyes.
"That didn't go too well," he croaked.
"No," replied Rodney. They looked at each other with mixed reassurance and apprehension. "What do you think they'll do with us?"
John shrugged. "I dunno." He grimaced and rubbed his bound hands through his hair, dislodging a few strands of straw. "Who knows what this guy's agenda is?"
A soft laugh came from the stable entrance and the Abbot stepped into view.
"My agenda? I have no agenda as such!" He tapped his beard with one carefully manicured finger as if in thought. "Your capture was, shall we say, an amusement? A passing fancy?"
"You must put a lot of planning into your amusements!" said Rodney, annoyed at the man's whimsical attitude.
"Rodney," John said warningly and shuffled on his knees as far as he could into the centre of the stall, in front of his friend. Brother Dakan, his Wraith stunner now held openly, joined the Abbot in the cobbled aisle together with another of the white-robed monks carrying in one hand what looked alarmingly like a horsewhip. Rodney's eyes flicked between the Abbot's face and the whip. He licked his dry lips and swallowed nervously.
"Planning?" the Abbot said gently. "Yes, I suppose so. But some of it was luck. Luck that my Commander, Dakan here, observed a particular energy signature emitting from Atlantis personnel whenever we happened to run across your teams. And only a little more planning to isolate your particular signatures and have you beamed aboard."
"Commander? You have a ship?"
"Yes, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, I have a ship."
"With beaming technology?"
The Abbot laughed openly. "I am an extremely wealthy man, Dr McKay! The... astronomical sum of money necessary to purchase such technology..." He snapped his fingers. "A mere nothing to one such as I!"
Rodney snorted derisively and was about to share his opinion of egotistical poseurs when John headed him off.
"You won't get away with this!"
"Go with the classics, why not, Sheppard?"
"Shut up, McKay!"
The Abbot laughed again. "Of course I will 'get away with it'," he mocked. "I can do precisely as I like. Especially as," he gave a mock sigh, "I believe the monastery is coming to the end of its useful life." He looked around as if surveying his domain with wistful nostalgia. "A pity how, at this time of year, freak lightning strikes are wont to occur, and even more of a pity that all of the so-dedicated brothers will die trying to save their beloved temple." His feigned wistfulness dissolved into another mocking smile. "And thus, my tracks will be completely covered; as completely as the prints of a predator in fresh snowfall!" He waved a hand artistically.
"You can't do that!" John ground out.
"Can't I? Do you mean that I lack the immoral imperative or the means, because I can assure you, neither apply. Myself and my crew will beam up to my ship; I will have no more need of a horse and carriage to maintain my identity as the Holy Abbot. And, no doubt, our weaponry will take care of the rest?" He looked questioningly at Dakan, who nodded grimly.
Rodney staggered to his feet, hampered by his bound hands and pulled forward as far as he could, twisting his body to confront the Abbot eye-to-eye.
"You... you... How dare you?" he spluttered. "You preening, psychotic, sociopath, you're not fit to clean the sandals of the least of the brothers!"
Rodney could hear John trying to stop him but he was boiling with rage and felt he could have happily murdered the Abbot with his bare hands. The Abbot merely gave a casual gesture and the man with the whip came forward. Dakan intercepted him, snatching the whip from his hand and, with a practised swing of his well-muscled arm, hit out at Rodney. Rodney was unable to bring up his hands to defend himself and the long leather thong hit the side of his shoulder and curled round his back with a resounding crack. Rodney gasped with pain and crouched down, flinging his arms up over his head. The whip cracked again, but Rodney felt himself being pushed down further into the straw and he knew that John was shielding him.
He cried out and struggled as the whip thudded down again and again, "No, stop!" and his cries were at least as much to John to stop taking the blows himself as they were for the thug wielding the whip.
Eventually the awful cracking thuds ceased. Rodney felt the weight go off him and all he could hear was straw rustling as John moved away. He sat up, taking his trembling hands down from the back of his head. The Abbot and his men were gone. Rodney felt a stinging ache around his shoulder and down his back. His stomach churned with a burning mixture of anger and shock and humiliation. John had returned to the corner near the manger and was facing away from Rodney, kneeling, bent over, tremors running through his body, the fabric of his robes cut in places.
"John?" Rodney shuffled over to his friend as far as his rope would allow.
"Just... just give me a minute," John said tightly.
Rodney sat in the straw, feeling helpless and awkward. He couldn't be angry with John; he was more angry with himself for letting his rage get the better of him and provoking the Abbot. He wished John wouldn't always take on all the burden of protection for himself, but then he remembered the Abbot's words.
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," he said and John raised his head. "That's who you are," continued Rodney. "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
John turned, slowly, painfully and faced his friend. His skin was pale and streaked with dirt and sweat. His wrists were raw where he had pulled hard at the rope so that he could cover Rodney's body.
"Dr Rodney McKay," he said, his voice shaking.
Rodney's throat tightened and his breath hitched. "Pleased to meet you," he whispered and felt one corner of his mouth twitch into a desperate little smile.
"What is it, Brother?" Vesh said, coming forward, his hands held out.
"The stables... the Abbot was there. And our assistants, Tal and Merren!" Jahd looked stricken. "Brother, the Abbot is not the Holy man we have thought him, all these years!"
Vesh sat Jahd down on a stool and questioned him closely, then, suppressing his anger, began to plan.
"We must rescue John and Rodney," he said. "That is, Brothers Tal and Merren. Then we must stop this man, this imposter! You say they are guarded?"
"I can easily dispose of one man," said Vesh, eyeing his shelves of remedies, consideringly.
"I will set light to the woodpile!" burst out Brother Jahd, suddenly. "It will create a diversion!"
Vesh nodded. "May the Ancients watch over us, Brother!"
"A warm drink for a cold day, Brother," he said, smiling guilelessly.
The man took it without thanks and sipped, then drained the cup. Vesh was glad he'd put plenty of honey in to make it palatable.
"Do you think we will have more snow?" Vesh said, pleasantly.
"Um..." The man looked at Vesh blankly and then up at the sky. He put out a hand for balance, staggered, and then collapsed onto the icy ground. Brother Jahd put his head out of the pottery, smiled grimly and joined Vesh in dragging the man into the stables.
"Take the rest of the sleeping draught and give it to as many of the Abbot's men as you can!"
Jahd nodded. "Then the woodpile," he said, actually looking pleased at the thought of creating a massive conflagration.
Jahd left and Vesh entered the stables. The horses stood placidly in the first four stalls. A whip lay discarded on the cobbled floor. In the fourth stall, leaning against the back wall, his hands tied, was Brother Vesh's assistant, his friend, Tal, slumped sideways against him, apparently asleep.
"Wha's happened to your face, Rodney?"
"What? What about my face?"
"S'all dirt 'n' blood 'n'... stuff!"
"Yes, yes, never mind that! Come on, Colonel, up you get! Time to go!"
John felt support under his arms and did his best to get his legs underneath him. He couldn't suppress a groan of pain as he came upright and almost let his legs sag again; the straw bed seemed very appealing. Rodney's face was looking into his again and, once more, John stared at the blood that seemed to have come from above his hairline and had been smeared across his forehead. He remembered Rodney complaining about being pushed headfirst and then he remembered their long, eventful night and some of the haze of exhaustion fell away. They had work to do; rest would have to wait.
"It's okay, you can let go, now," he said as Rodney and Brother Vesh supported him on either side, out of the stable and across the courtyard.
"And have you fall down face-first in the snow? I don't think so, Sheppard!"
John literally dug in his heels. "Let go of me!" He felt the support disappear from beneath his shoulders and stood, swaying, taking stock. The freezing air galvanized his senses and suddenly everything came into sharp focus: Rodney's and Vesh's concerned faces, the darkening sky and slowly drifting flakes of snow, the orange glow from beyond the monastery gates, the cries of alarm and the figures rushing to and from the well. John felt his resolve harden; he was exhausted and in pain, his back a rigid, throbbing heat of bruised and cut flesh, but if he remembered little else, he remembered his duty to protect. He would protect these monks, these brothers and their monastery, not because of the Ancients that they worshipped, but because of the strength of their dedication to an entirely selfless way of life. John set his pain and exhaustion aside and locked them in a distant section of his mind.
"Let's go," he said firmly, striding forward over the snow. "Do we know where the Abbot is?"
"He would have been in the chapter house with the rest of the brothers when Brother Jahd set the fire," Vesh said.
John tried to pick out individuals in the melee near the gates. Sparks could now be seen rising beyond the monastery wall and the crackle and roar of the flames was audible. They had come up alongside the well where Brother Lensel was organising a bucket chain, the orange light glowing on the frightened but determined faces of the monks, the various tools of their work scattered in the muddy, trodden snow.
"There!" Rodney pointed and John saw two silhouetted figures close together, moving swiftly away from the chaos, heading toward the Temple: the Abbot and Dakan. Dakan's arm flew up. He was holding the Wraith stunner. Rodney pulled Brother Vesh behind him while John leapt forward to intercept Dakan. He saw the flash and felt the static charge as the blast skimmed the sleeve of his robe. He spun round to see Rodney fall with a cry and then the world seemed to slow around him; his eyes locked on a glint of curved metal half-buried in the snow, his body curled and dipped toward it as he spun, his hand closed around the handle and, in one continuous arc, he raised the hatchet over his head and flung it, spinning end over end with beautiful, deadly accuracy. It hit its mark with a sickening thud. Dakan fell.
Soft, white flakes continued to drift down as the sparks from the burning woodpile flew up into the night sky. Dakan lay where he fell, the snow around his head stained dark.
Rodney struggled on the ground, one leg dragging as he tried to stand.
The Abbot's tall, angular figure whisked along the front of the chapter house and in through the entrance of the Temple. John followed, hitching up his robe to run through the soft snow. He came to the door and was about to enter unwarily when his instincts kicked in and he paused, listening, then crouched and slid swiftly round the threshold. There was a loud report, which echoed thunderously in the huge chamber. A chunk of stone flew out of the wall where John's head would have been. John hugged the shadows along the side aisle and set each footfall carefully, his breath shallow and quick; he distantly registered the burn of his back as he pressed himself close to the wall, but ignored it.
Then there was a quick pattering of sandaled feet, receding swiftly and John discarded caution and burst from the shadows, running up the aisle and through the side door. The footsteps were above him; John sped as fast as he could up the stone spiral, a quick pause at the top to hear the footsteps still retreating, then out along the open passage overlooking the cloister and into the Abbot's tower beyond, his breath rasping in his lungs, his ears singing with adrenaline.
John's feet pounded a counterpoint to the echoing tread above him. He didn't know what he'd do when he reached the top but he had to keep going; the Abbot had to be stopped. The feet above him rang on a hollow wooden floor and John hurled himself up the last few steps and dived, rolling into the room, hoping that the suddenness of his entrance and the dim glow from the fire would spoil the Abbot's aim. The weapon fired, the sound deafening and stone chips flew. John skidded to a halt up against the front of the desk, hoping its marble top might protect him.
"What exactly do you propose to do now, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard?"
Shimmering into existence in front of his desperate, startled eyes, a strangely familiar truncated cylinder seeming huge and unbelievable in the monastery courtyard that had become so familiar. The brothers around him halted in their tracks and cried out in fear and horror.
"No!" Rodney shouted. "No, don't be scared, it's a... a... Well, it's a thing not to be scared of!"
John said nothing. He could see the Abbot's sandaled feet beneath the desk and wondered if he could dive under and grab the man's ankles.
"You may as well come out, you know. I can either simply reach down and shoot you through the desk or press a little button on my device here and be whisked away. I'm in no danger. You, however will, sadly, not see the dawn. Come on, out!"
John rose shakily to his feet and confronted the Abbot across the marble-topped desk; he leant on the cool stone and glared, feeling a trickle of sweat run down the side of his face. The Abbot kept well out of range; there would be no swift gambling swipe to snatch his weapon from his hand. He held his gun casually but steadily; there was no way he would miss. In his other hand was a small cylinder with a button on the top, very simple, like a clicker for an old-fashioned slide projector, and on a finger of that hand a ring set with a large blue stone.
"Yes, it's just my leg... But I know you! I know you, don't I?" he said with conviction in his voice, but also a desperate plea.
"Yes, Rodney!" Her voice was smooth and sure, a calm oasis amid chaos and her brown eyes were full of concern. "Of course you know me. I am Teyla! And here is Ronon."
"Someone bash you on the head, McKay?" The tall man spoke in a gruff, teasing way.
"Well as a matter of fact I have had a rather severe blow to the head recently, but my memory loss isn't because of that! Sheppard and I..." He broke off, his exhausted mind snapping back to the situation at hand. "John! The Abbot! You have to stop him... He has a ship in orbit and he's going to beam up! He's probably targeting us right now!"
John's heart pounded in his chest and his brain whirled in circles trying to think of a solution. Would the desk move if he shoved it hard? Could he stop the Abbot beaming himself up if he simply leapt across the desk? John was quite prepared to sacrifice himself, but one twitch of the man's finger and he'd be gone.
The Abbot scanned the room with a vaguely dissatisfied air and a sneering curl of his lip. "Enough of this pointless colloquy. I depart!" And with a theatrical flourish of his arm, he pressed the button.
"Rodney." Teyla laid a hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off and tried to stand, an agonizing fizz erupting in his leg. "Rodney, we are safe!"
"Came through the Gate early morning," said Ronon. "Ship in orbit, called the Daedalus to check it out, took a coupla hours to get here."
Rodney shook his head, confused.
"The Daedalus is ours, Rodney," explained Teyla. "It has seized control of the other ship. We are in no danger."
"Oh. Well. That's ... a relief." Rodney sagged, then jerked up again. "What about Sheppard?"
John froze in shock. He had failed. He sagged to the floor, his head in his hands and as he shook with exhaustion and despair the ring lit with an inner fire and John's memories returned.
He heard a small creak and a sniff and followed them to their source. Behind the desk a figure huddled on the floor: a tattered brown robe, a shock of filthy dark hair, one hand, palm up, loosely holding a ring with a dark blue stone. The figure looked up and straightened stiffly, the head turned toward Ronon. John's pale, unshaven, battered features reflected pain and confusion and just the tiniest flicker of hope.
"I'm here, buddy. Come to take you home." Ronon crouched down next to John and tried to put an arm around him to help him to his feet. John pulled away, wincing.
"But... No, we have to get out, he's going to destroy..."
"It's finished." Ronon looked at John, his gaze conveying solid reassurance.
"He has a ship! He beamed up!"
"It's done, Sheppard. Finished. They beamed him up to the Daedalus or to empty space - who cares? He's gone."
The tension went out of John's body and he began to tremble again. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head and took several deep shuddering breaths.
"Rodney! Is Rodney okay?"
"He's fine. C'mon, let's get out of here'n go home." Ronon reached out to support John again, but John flinched away.
"No! Don't touch me! Please." Ronon watched, his fists clenching with anger and concern as John took hold of the marble top of the desk and slowly, sharp hisses escaping his gritted teeth, pulled himself up.
"Adrenaline wearing off, Sheppard?"
"Huh, yeah," said John huskily.
"C'n you make it?" Ronon jerked his head toward the steep spiral stairs and detected a hint of panic in John's eyes. "Jumper's outside."
John nodded and a tired smile crossed his lips. "Yeah, I can make it that far."
"There! They're coming!"
Teyla looked up and saw Ronon, treading slowly across the snow toward them, his arms held out in readiness but not touching the man next to him; the man who was hunched and halting, in tattered brown robes, weary and dirty and unmistakably John. His eyes were fixed on Rodney and as he staggered closer, she saw him raise his hand and hold something out. He stopped in front of Rodney and Teyla realised he held a ring. He touched the ring to his friend's forehead; a blue light flared out and it was as if, just for an instant, John, standing, and Rodney, slumped on the ground looking up at him, were the only two people in the world and all else was darkness. Then the light died and Rodney looked around him in wonder, the dying firelight highlighting his features which shone with uncomplicated joy.
"I'm... me!" he said. "A- and you're you! And, and, we're all... Wow! We're all pretty amazing, aren't we? And, I have to say, especially me, I'm just... just brilliant!"
"Welcome back, Rodney," said Teyla.
Brother Vesh was bemused by the night's events, but his years of living according to the strict Rule of the Ancients stood him in good stead. He remained a calm and steady presence and he took a quiet pleasure in his brothers' acceptance of the drama unfolding around them and their faith that the Ancients would protect them.
The soldiers seemed to be mostly women, which Vesh found strange, although he had to admit they were very efficient. They had taken charge of the Abbot's men, who were lying here and there as if discarded, still heavily drugged apart from two who had escaped into the forest. The Major had assured him, briskly, that they would be captured and dealt with. Another woman, who had introduced herself as Teyla, appeared to be very close to Brothers Merren and Tal, herding them into the strange flying ship with the tranquil insistence of a woman of vast experience and compassion. She noticed Vesh watching her and smiled at him.
"We are ready to depart," she said. "Major Teldy and her team will stay. They would like to help you cut more wood for your kiln-firing."
"We would be very grateful to accept such help! But what will become of the Abbot's men? And where is the Abbot?"
"They will be tried before a council of the interplanetary Coalition," replied Teyla, with what Vesh believed was a flicker of evasion. He chose to ignore it.
"That seems appropriate," Vesh said, solemnly. "May I say farewell to Brother Merren and Brother Tal?" He gestured toward the open hatch of the ship.
"Yes, of course."
Entering the craft, Vesh saw that his erstwhile assistant was dozing, on his back on one bench seat, while Brother Tal was lying on his front on the other. The tall, wild-looking man, Ronon, lounged casually in one of the seats in the front part of the ship. Merren, who he must learn to call Rodney, sat up blearily, rubbing his eyes.
"Your leg is recovering?" asked Vesh.
"Um, yes, you know, still a bit tingly, but it'll be fine."
"That is well. And it is well that you are returning to your rightful homes."
"Yes, it certainly is! And you'll be able to get an assistant who does as he's told!"
"You were... a challenge," said Vesh, smiling. An amused snort came from the cockpit and Tal (John, Vesh reminded himself) smiled, sleepily. Vesh saw the smile fade from his face.
"I'm sorry," John said. "I mean, about Dakan. "You shouldn't have had to see that."
Vesh sighed. "To have a man's life taken in the monastery grounds is disturbing," he said. He looked intently at John. "You were penanced for not putting your trust in the Ancients, for taking it upon yourself to protect others. I have decided that we were wrong in this matter; I believe now that the Ancients sent you to us as their instrument, as our protector."
"Oh, yeah, maybe."
"Sounds about right, Sheppard," said Ronon.
"Hey! Who's flying this thing?"
Teyla's voice replied, "Lieutenant Arthurs beamed down from the Daedalus."
"Oh. Hope they've got the Abbot in chains by now." There was a loaded silence. John opened his eyes to see Teyla looking slightly troubled.
"As I understand it," she said. "The Deadalus’ beaming technology did not interface with the Abbot's device correctly."
"What does that mean?"
"Oh! Ha! It means his atoms were dispersed over a wider area than is generally considered compatible with life, am I right? Of course I'm right, I'm always right!"
More Rodneyish than ever, thought John.
"I believe that..." Teyla squirmed where she sat on the floor of the Jumper. "A clean-up team was required."
"Ew!" Rodney exclaimed. A deep chortle came from Ronon's direction.
"Huh! Fair enough," said John. As far as he was concerned, justice had been done.
Teyla observed John and Rodney closely as she approached their table. They both looked better than they had two days ago when they had arrived back on Atlantis, although Teyla could tell by the tense set of John's shoulders and the way that he wasn't touching the back of his seat at any point that he was still in considerable discomfort. The two men both had room to spare in their uniforms; Teyla noted, with affection, that Rodney was doing his best to fill his out as soon as possible. His tray was empty and he was running his finger round the inside of his dessert bowl and then licking off the chocolate sauce with the seriousness of a man who thought he had a large dessert deficit to make up.
Teyla sat down next to John, who was slowly working his way through his meatloaf. He looked up briefly and smiled but said nothing. Teyla thought that life in the monastery had not been an easy place for either of her teammates; although they seemed generally to be in good spirits, they were both subject to odd fits of abstraction. She thought once again how glad she was that they had been found and were back where they belonged; she hoped their true natures would not be suppressed for long.
Rodney had exhausted the possibilities of his dessert bowl. His eyes slid toward John's piece of chocolate fudge cake, swimming in a bowl almost full to the brim with chocolate sauce. Teyla enjoyed the familiar gleam in Rodney's eyes, composed of both the anticipation of another helping of the delicious treat and the extra thrill of its theft. Then the gleam faded and Rodney viewed the dessert with a troubled frown, his mouth falling open slightly in an expression of regret. Further to Teyla's confusion he then smiled very briefly and shook his head, a terse, minute shake of bitter self-mockery.
"Rodney?" Teyla caught his attention and he regarded her, his face bleak. "Are you well?"
John looked up from his meatloaf, his eyes travelling knowingly from Rodney's face to his own dessert and back.
"Covetousness? Better write that down, Brother Rodney!" he drawled.
"Oh, right, yes, Colonel 'Don't talk to me I'm oh-so-angelically observing the Rule of Silence'!" Rodney shot back, his voice rising. "How many notebooks did you get through?"
John's brows drew together and his mouth set in a grim line. Rodney ignored the warning signs and continued, his tone mocking.
"I just wiggled my eyebrows sarcastically, better write that down!"
"At least I could stop talking for more than three seconds together!"
"Yes, because even less verbal communication was just what you needed!"
They glared at each other across the table, eyes full of resentment and suppressed hurt. Teyla sighed inwardly, wishing her friends could find a healthier way of dealing with their trauma than attacking each other.
Then Rodney's expression changed minutely, one eyebrow lifting as if he'd just thought of a way to score the winning point. John's eyes narrowed suspiciously. With a smoothly innocent blankness, Rodney picked up his empty bowl in both hands and very slowly and deliberately set it down beside John's plate. Then he lowered his gaze and his head and folded his hands in his lap, the picture of perfect humility. John's eyes widened and he swallowed, his expression becoming shadowed with memory.
"Just have the damn dessert, McKay," he said roughly, pushing the bowl toward Rodney. Rodney's head shot up and he reached for his spoon, his eyes gleaming once more, a wicked little grin playing on his lips. He pulled the bowl toward him and, his spoon poised, glanced up at John. John, unsmiling, rubbed one hand around the back of his neck and looked at the floor. The smile dropped from Rodney's face, his eyes fixed on his friend.
Rodney slowly pushed the bowl into the centre of the table, caught John's eye and gave a tiny jerk of his head toward John's spoon. John picked it up. They sat, looking at each other. Rodney smiled, hopefully. John let out a little huff of a laugh. They shared.
Teyla shook her head in exasperation and began to eat her salad.