Sheppard didn't lift his head, but his gaze slid toward McKay. He mouthed, 'Don't talk,' but it was already too late. The biggest guard's whip snapped out, laying another stripe over McKay's back. They were already kneeling on in the dirt and the blow made McKay fall forward onto his hands.
McKay screamed just once, just enough to satisfy the guard.
The slave factor in charge of their group grunted, stopping the guard before he could swing the lash again. No use marking up the merchandise too much.
Sheppard curled his fingers into tight fists, resisting the urge to leap up and wrap his chains around the guard's neck and strangle him. Ronon had already been clubbed into unconsciousness for losing his temper. He didn't know where Ronon was now—he had been dragged off like so much offal—anymore than he knew where Teyla had been taken after she was sold. She could be on another world by now, taken through the stargate again, while Ronon's body rotted in a pit.
He couldn't really accept the idea these people thought they could make him and his team into slaves, but it was happening.
They'd walked right into it. Rather, they'd walked through the stargate right into an ambush, been stunned and dropped before they even had time to look around, and woke stripped of everything, even their clothes, and in chains. Several brutal lessons later, they'd been loaded into a cart and brought through the stargate to market like so many cabbages. They didn't even know the gate address of this world. The slave trade in Pegasus flourished underground, the markets springing up on deserted worlds according to some whispered schedule, before disappearing again to reappear months later somewhere else. There were always buyers, worlds where the Wraith had culled and laborers were needed or skilled workers or breeders to re-establish the population, and the remaining powers weren't too picky how they obtained the people they needed.
They were already three days overdue to check in, but Sheppard worried that any rescue would walk into the same roach trap his team had. If they didn't, they would have no chance of tracking them through the stargates. The slavers knew what they were doing.
Meanwhile, all he could do was stay quiet and hope he and Rodney were kept together until one of them could think of some way to escape.
He gritted his teeth while two more potential buyers looked at both of them. One fingered a raw red welt on his shoulder, sending a spike of pain through him.
"New or just incorrigible?"
"Both," the factor replied.
"They're old to be cut."
Sheppard hid a flinch.
"No use as breeding stock then," the factor replied.
Sheppard knew he did not want to be put out to stud, fathering kids who would be raised in slavery, but if the alternative was being gelded….
"Too much trouble," the man said and moved on.
"They are," McKay hissed. "Oh, God, they are."
Sheppard knew the guard was watching, just waiting for him to answer McKay. He already had a feel for the way the bastard thought: this guard enjoyed making them suffer and set up opportunities to punish them for transgressions. The factor didn't care enough to stop him, unless it appeared it would cost him. The guard was letting McKay get away with talking this time to tempt Sheppard into doing the same. Then it would be the lash again.
Instead of answering, Sheppard shifted on his knees until his bare calf brushed against McKay's. He didn't know what he could say anyway.
The market, what Sheppard had glimpsed from the cart before they were off-loaded, had the feel of a feedlot crossed with a traveling carnival. Most of the slaves were in temporary pens, but a few sellers had tents and displayed the goods where buyers could examine them closely.
A line of sweat trickled down his back, stinging the welts. He tried to shut everything out but the feel of the sun burning his shoulders and the back of his bowed head, the feel of McKay's hairy leg against his own, and the sound of him breathing.
The soft swish of skirts almost made him look up when they paused in front of him. He managed to keep his eyes down, taking in the sandaled feet peeking from beneath a turquoise skirt before him. Gold rings glinted on neat toes with nails painted a deep cobalt blue.
"Hara?" the factor asked, sounding smarmy and uncertain at the same time. The guard echoed him, rusty and slow, forcing respect into his voice. "Hara."
Sheppard held still as the woman walked around him, so close the silk skirt wisped against his elbow once.
A hand, also be-ringed, and painted with patterns, lifted Sheppard's chin, so that he blinked into the sun-backed silhouette of this potential purchaser. As his eyes cleared, he saw liquid black eyes outlined in red, an elegant roman nose and lips stained burgundy. Her fingers balanced his chin, shifting once to assess the roughness of his beard.
"This one," she said.
"Hara, these are untrained slaves—" the factor protested.
"And unbroken," she interrupted. "I have need of such."
"Very well," the factor said. "The price—"
Another woman, rounder and shorter than the first, stepped forward, green skirts whispering as she moved. She shoved a bag of coins into the factor's hands. When he opened his mouth to say something else, one of the four armed men accompanying the women, obviously bodyguards, shook his head and grinned ferally. The factor subsided.
Sheppard's new—Jesus!—owner lifted her hand, bringing his chin up further. "Up," she said, addressing him for the first time.
Taking a chance, he tipped his head toward McKay and said—begged, "Please."
McKay still had his head down. His hands were clenched on his thighs. The pink flush of a sunburn colored the back of his neck and his otherwise pale shoulders. Where the whip marks didn't line the skin in angry, infected-looking red.
She—Sheppard thought Hara must be a title—paused. Sheppard saw her gaze take in the way his leg pressed against McKay's.
"This one, too," she declared. "The price is enough for both of them."
Sheppard grabbed McKay's arm and drew him unsteadily to his feet as he rose himself.
Their chains clinked as they followed the woman and her retinue through the market to the stargate and through the wormhole into a busy , seemingly pre-industrial city of sienna and rose stone. Pale dust coated their bare feet and ankles. Sheppard limped next to Rodney, taking quick looks around. The stargate here opened on a plaza surrounded by market stalls. It reminded him of a souk, the air filled with calls from merchants, the bleating of animals, music, and bells from the towers of the palace that dominated the city. The people wore colorful, loose robes and had dark hair. A depressing number of them were followed by barefoot slaves who obviously weren't native. A thousand smells warred and mixed in the air, manure and spices and sweat, dust, wool, smoke, perfume, rotting fruit and fresh flowers, one second sickening, the next vibrant with life as the wind shifted.
Their path took them to the high, red, fortress walls of the palace that dominated the city and inside, voices calling that the Haralim returned, gates and doors opening before them.