We live in a shadowed world. All who are born into it know well the taste of tears. All who live know what it is to be hungry, what it is to mourn, what it is to weep in the darkest hours of the longest night. All know the bitter touch of winter. All know loss. All know pain.
And so it is that stories should be of the light, alive with hope and happy endings. We have more than enough shadows in life, and so they have no place in stories. In life, we walk the narrow path all set about with thorns, and so in stories we dally on the broad road of shining flowers.
We are a petty people, and necessity drives us. If we are to survive, we cannot raise our eyes overmuch from the stones. Our lives are made of needful things, of bitter things, of small things. But some there are, on other worlds, at other times, who through greatness are able to stand tall. Some there are who look to the stars, when all around them look only to the ground. Some there are who think of others, when all around them think only of themselves.
It is of heroes that I speak. And so it is that my story, told around the first fires of winter, tells of the greatest heroes known to our people in these latter days.
I tell of the heirs of Atlantis.
You want me to tell you a story? Yes? Yes?
Just as long as you know what to expect. Don't come to me for formal phrasings. Don't come to me for once upon a time and a happy ending. Don't come to me for a tale wrapped in honeyed words, because the only purpose of such words is to conceal the truth that lies within them, a shrivelled nut inside a gaudy shell.
And still you ask; still you grab my arm.
You won't get heroes with me, because in life there are no heroes. Scratch a gilded statue, and inside you find just paste. The louder a voice is, the more likely it is to tell lies. Tales are told by those who win. Those who die, those who are lost and defeated, never get to tell their tale.
And still you ask; still you pull me.
Mine is a tale of monsters. Yes, you've heard other tales of monsters, haven't you? Every story has its villain, after all. Every hero needs his monstrous twin, and every warrior needs an enemy. But my story is different. In my story, the monsters win.
Have I ever told you about the monsters of Atlantis?
The heirs of Atlantis. Ah, the heirs of Atlantis!
Chosen by the Ancestors, they were, and marked as their heirs and their children-across-the-years. They had lives of their own, these heirs, but when the call come upon them, they laid down their spindles and their pots, they put aside their swords and their arrows, they embraced their parents and their brothers and their children, and they travelled across the stars to come to our aid.
They were tall, these heirs, and each one was as beautiful as the sun. They rode through the stars in chariots of gleaming silver, and their cunning hands crafted weapons and fire-sticks the like of which will never be seen again. Their clothes were more rich and fine than any loom can produce, and their minds were as swift as darting flame.
Many were the worlds that were saved by these great ones, but they did not do so without loss, or so the stories say. They, too, lost loved ones to the scourge of the Wraith, but they did not falter in their resolve. They spread through the known worlds, and in each world their coming was like the first rains of autumn, and the hope they left behind them was a flowing stream.
It is many winters since they came to us. Children who were not yet born are now just dust and ashes, and even their children's children are old and grey. Much has been forgotten, but much has been remembered.
They have been remembered.
How should I know where the monsters of Atlantis came from? Far away, people said. Far, far away.
They should have stayed there.
The city of the Ancestors had slumbered for many lifetimes, but these creatures broke down its doors. They plundered its riches and took them for their own. From the start, they lorded themselves over everybody else. Their weapons were far more powerful than anything we could muster. They came in peace, they said, but you never saw them go anywhere without being laden down with weapons.
Worse, though, was the way they clothed themselves in righteousness. They were absolutely sure that they were right. Have you ever tried to argue with someone twice as big as you, when he has a revolver and you have nothing? The reckless argue anyway, and lose. The cowards say nothing, bow their heads, and let the bullies win.
You will hear about these creatures in other tales, and these tales will tell you that they helped people. Yes, yes, they did, but only in the way that a master might graciously consent to give a scrap of clothing to a starving slave. You would hesitate before arguing with someone with a powerful weapon. How much more would you hesitate before arguing with someone who held your salvation in the palm of their hand, to give or snatch away as they pleased? Using their stolen technology and their stolen knowledge, they bound people to them with bonds of gratitude and dependency.
They will never be forgotten.
One there was who came alone, as harbinger to those who would follow, and Beckett was his name.
This was at the time of the Great Dying, but that is a tale too dark for these times, for we tell stories to bring light, not to dwell on the sorrows of the past. When the skeletal hand of death at length withdrew from our people, the few survivors, those grieving few, left the ruins of their homes, and sought refuge on other worlds.
A village took us in, but its name has been written in smoke and in fast-flowing water. Its people feigned welcome, but plotted ruin, with sharp blades beneath their smiles.
And then Beckett came. When he heard our need, he left his home and his friends, and he came down from the stars to walk amongst us, and there was healing in his hands. Not even the heirs of Atlantis could cure the Great Dying, but he eased the lesser sicknesses of those troubled times, and the hope that he brought eased our grief-torn hearts.
Beckett paved the way, and then came the four that walked it. Their leader was called Sheppard, and he was a clear winter morning, cold and hard and beautiful. McKay was their wise man, as quick and brilliant as summer lightning. Teyla was an autumn stream, bringing life and hope to parched places, and Ronon was the fierce, inviolate shoots of spring, too strong to be killed by any winter.
But they were not the only ones to come to the village that day.
This isn't one of those stories in which the storyteller tells the cherished history of our people. There is no 'us' in this tale. This tale was told to me by one who had heard it from one who had heard it from a man who had seen it with his own eyes. That boy was my great-grandfather, but so what? He means nothing to me. I'm only telling you this tale because I have an attachment to the truth.
Enough with the introductions, you say. Right, then. Once – not 'once upon a time', but just 'once' – there was a village. This village did well enough, thank you very much. It wasn't the richest of villages, and it didn't have fancy weapons or shining machines to help it travel across the stars in the blinking of an eye, but its people endured. Being a small village, nothing particularly special, it hadn't been bothered much by the Wraith. Imagine small people, living their small lives…
Small people, did I say? No, real people. They might not have had shining machines, but they had families and children. They had homes and fields to protect, and children to die for. They loved and they wept and they feared and they grieved, just like anyone alive.
But one day some outsiders came to the village. They came in great need, they said, for they were the only survivors of a deadly sickness that had struck their world, and the villagers opened their arms to them…
And they were betrayed.
Hot on the heels of these outsiders, like flies after rotting meat, came the creatures of Atlantis. The first to come was a so-called healer who went by the name of Beckett, and then came a band of four, strutting proudly through the village, basking in the awed gasps that followed in their wake. Their leader was called Sheppard, a lordly villain with eyes like ice, and he was flanked always by a silent assassin and a woman whose deadly beauty cut like a blade. Lastly came McKay, a cunning thief, whose tongue dripped with the stolen knowledge of the Ancestors.
They were the flies that followed the meat, but what follows flies?
The Wraith had come.
My tale is one of heroes, and not a tale of woe, so I will not say overmuch about the Wraith who came that day. No, I will speak instead of the mien of the heirs of Atlantis as the Wraith sowed their seeds of evil. They wanted us dead, the Wraith said, as the one called Sheppard looked them unflinchingly in the eye. The villagers were to hand us over, the Wraith said, as Ronon swore to protect us with his life. If they did not, the Wraith said, as Teyla took a weeping child to her breast, they would wipe out every living thing in the village.
The heirs of Atlantis swore that no harm would come to anyone, but there were those in the village who were weak. There were those in the village, treacherous beneath their smiles, who wanted to hand us over to the Wraith. But Sheppard stood up, strong and tall, and swore on his life that this evil would not be allowed to come to pass, and many there were in the village who were swayed by the majesty of his voice.
But not all. Not all. Wherever men are gathered together, some there will be who let darkness into their hearts. When great ones walk amongst us, some there are who are jealous of their light. Some stop their ears and refuse to listen. Some are blinkered by foolishness, and some are twisted with evil.
And so it came to pass that some within the village tried to treat with the Wraith, and led them to our hiding places and refuges. Some of our number were captured and enslaved, and were taken into the darkness, never to be seen again.
But the heirs of Atlantis took those that remained under their aegis, and led them through the wilderness, even unto a place where the very rocks opened to their command, revealing a hidden cave deep within the earth.
"Do not be afraid," Sheppard said, "for you are innocent of all wrong-doing, and the heirs of Atlantis will die rather than let the innocent suffer. We will lead you to the safety of a new home: this I swear."
But treachery awaited there in the dark, and not even the heirs of Atlantis are immune to sorrow and woe.
The Wraith had come.
And what a tale they had to tell! These outsiders – these people the villagers had taken into their homes – were poison to the Wraith, and the Wraith were determined to hunt them to the very ends of the universe. The villagers were to hand them over, the Wraith said, or every man, woman and child would be killed.
How did the creatures of Atlantis react to this? But before I tell you that, I'll tell you another choice little fragment of the tale. Why were these outsiders poison to the Wraith? Because they had survived a terrible sickness that had swept many worlds. The creatures of Atlantis themselves had created that sickness! And even that is not the end of their wrongdoing. So puffed up were they, so convinced that they had the powers of a god, that they had created a monster, half in their own image, and half in the image of a Wraith, and then had let him loose upon the known worlds, where he had spread this sickness deliberately, and had laughed to see so many die.
Did the creatures of Atlantis wail aloud in shame at their guilt? Of course not! They were mired around with culpability, but still they pointed the finger of blame at others. A group of villagers wanted to hand these outsiders over to the Wraith. It was not an easy decision for them to make, but it was a very human choice. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The safety of people you love means more to you than the safety of strangers. Before you condemn it, ask yourself what you would do.
The creatures of Atlantis didn't try to understand, of course, but sided instantly with these outsiders. They didn't care if the village was razed to the ground, as long as their precious chosen ones were safe. They waved their weapons around and they spouted their eloquent lies, and they cowed the elders of the village until they bowed to their will.
But a brave few remained who refused to be browbeaten. Although they knew that they might suffer for it, they took up arms and they went against their puppet leaders, and rounded up as many of these outsiders as they could find. But Sheppard and his accomplices were cunning, and took the rest of the outsiders to a hidden place, known only to themselves. "We will keep them here," they said, "even though the women and children of the village will die because of it. We will keep them here, because we can."
The children of the village wept in fear, and trembled, but the creatures of Atlantis did not care. Some say that they laughed. They laughed.
The heirs of Atlantis had brought us to the caves, but our travails were not yet over. The evil ones in the village had another blow to strike, and this time they struck at the very heart of those who had risked their all to save us.
Through treachery, Beckett and McKay were sold to the Wraith. As their companions watched in horror, these two were stolen away in a beam of white light. Nothing remained where once they stood, except for air and dust and emptiness.
If the heirs of Atlantis had been like lesser men, this would have been the end of our people and the end of all tales. If they had been lesser men, Sheppard and Ronon and Teyla would have abandoned our people and gone to save their own lost friends. It is a brave and dreadful thing to put strangers before those you love, but Sheppard and his companions did so without demur. They stayed with us in the caves; they protected us; they swore to die for us. We may not know, and never will, how much they grieved and mourned in their hidden hearts, even as they spread themselves above us like a sheltering tree.
While we cowered and wept, they took action. The evil ones in the village were brought to justice, and the Wraith were lured away. And there, at the very end of it all, Beckett and McKay returned to us, back from the dead. All who are taken by the Wraith are gone for ever, but not even the Wraith can hold the heirs of Atlantis. Not even death can hold them.
And so our people were led to safety by the heirs of Atlantis. Their weapons protected our flight, and their wisdom helped us found a new home, and here we stay, alive because of them.
We owe them everything that we are.
Are you sure you want me to finish this sorry tale? Evil goes unpunished, and as for the good…
Let's hurry on, shall we? Get it over with. Finish the tale, and go and have a stiff drink.
Their hopes turned to dust, the brave villagers were confined behind bars by the command of leaders in thrall to Sheppard and his cronies. In prison, all they could do was sit and wait for the Wraith to wipe out everyone they held dear.
But then came hope. The village leader came to them with every show of secrecy, and said that he had finally broken free from the hold that Sheppard and his gang had on him. He gave them a key, and told them where they could find the rest of the outsiders.
It was a lie. It was all a lie. His words were not his own, but Sheppard's. Trusting, believing, the brave villagers went where he had told them to go…
…and died. My great-grandfather saw it all, a young man hiding in the undergrowth. He saw Sheppard stand there, his face as cold as ice and as hard as stone. He saw him press a button with his hand. He saw the explosion. He saw the moment that so many brave men died.
The monsters of Atlantis had killed them all, using weapons that none of the dead men would even have recognised, let alone possessed. They had killed them with lies and treachery. They had killed them at distance, too cowardly even to look into their eyes as they died.
They had killed them, and then they walked away.
And so ends my tale of the heroes of Atlantis.
We saw them but seldom after they led us to our new home, and after two summers had passed, we saw them not at all. Their wise words and their gifts allowed us to live a quiet life, and although we must keep our heads turned down towards the earth, the Wraith do not come. Life is full of shadows and hardship, but at least we live. We live because of them.
Bet you wish you hadn't asked now, huh? I never claimed to tell a good story, just to tell it how it was.
The little people who make a stand are crushed beneath the boots of those who tell the stories. The once upon a times and the happy endings are lies created by those who win. Behind every hero lies the corpses of a hundred small folk who refused to bow down and let him get his own way.
What about my great-grandfather, you ask? What of him? He's dead now – dead and forgotten. But if you insist… How could he continue to live with people who had colluded in their murder of their own? He moved away, tried to make a home in another world, fathered a son, drank too much, and went to an early grave. End of story. Now go away, and let me have a drink.
Perhaps this time it will allow me to forget.
Every time a tale is passed on, it changes. Tales grow in the telling, and sometimes truth can be lost under the accumulation of myth. None remain who saw the heirs of Atlantis with their own eyes, and even their children's children are fading. Is this story true? Some say that they were not great ones, akin to gods, but ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things. But does it matter? It is by your deeds that you are judged, and by their deeds, the heirs of Atlantis showed themselves great.
We live because of them. Whether they be gods or men, we remember them.