Rodney McKay snapped his fingers imperiously at a servant carrying aloft a tray of brimming champagne flutes, and relieved him of a glass. Dutch courage, of a sort, as God knew he was singularly ill-equipped for the task ahead and if his state of nervous tension were not alleviated by liquor—lacking privacy and the quiet comfort of a library in which to browse Newton’s Principia—he might yet be felled by an apoplectic fit before ever capturing his prey.
He glanced around at the grand ballroom in which a multitude of beribboned maidens and their silk-pantalooned suitors twirled and bobbed. Doubtless they were the cream of New York society, but Rodney had no interest in frivolous nonsense such as ‘the season’ or the latest fashions in gowns or waistcoats. He was on a mission, he reminded himself, his eye momentarily captured by a young female with gold ringlets, whose flushed bosom was heaving most attractively as her beau led her from the dance floor. A tempting armful, but Rodney averted his gaze and took another swallow of champagne. He must be vigilant; his quarry was of an altogether different type and was proving damned elusive.
He jumped and emitted a startled squeak when Ronon elbowed him in the ribs, having crept up on him noiselessly, as ever. Ronon was annoyingly adept at sneaking and it was a trial for Rodney’s already overwrought nerves. He was dressed in a plain but well-cut dark woolen suit, and playing the part of Rodney’s servant for this escapade. Rodney envied him the simpler costume—he himself had been forced to wear buckled shoes which pinched his feet abysmally, silk hose, black velvet breeches of an obscenely close fit, a stiff, embroidered waistcoat and a high-collared silver and blue striped taffeta jacket which snugged his shoulders so tightly it could only be donned with Ronon’s assistance and a great deal of wrestling. With the heavily ruffled white lawn shirt and silk neck cloth choking him, he was positively sweltering, it being a warmer than average late-spring night.
“Will you kindly desist!” he hissed angrily at Ronon.
“He’s outside,” Ronon muttered, unmoved by the state of Rodney’s nerves. In truth, Ronon was more suited to these underhand goings-on than he, but Ronon was a man of color, which in the so-called United—some would say benighted—States of America, imposed upon him the role of Rodney’s manservant and bodyguard. Rodney was a scholar, and yet, for this venture, he must act the seducer. His father, Professor of Theology at the newly founded King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would have an apoplexy, had he any inkling. He had never accepted Rodney choosing natural philosophy over religion, apprenticing himself to Benjamin Franklin until the great man’s death. Well, Rodney reflected, he was his own man, not his father’s lackey. He had chosen his own field of study and now followed his own conscience in the political arena.
“Outside?” Rodney had not been aware that there was any way to get outside. The crush of revelers in the great rooms had overwhelmed him—every inch of the mansion he had ventured into had seemed full of people, all talking, laughing and generally being abominably sociable in a loud and high-pitched manner, with no dark-haired scion of the house of Sheppard anywhere to be seen.
Rodney had never met Sheppard, of course, but he had an engraving, notable largely for the mess of dark, spiky hair—doubtless thick with pomade—crowning his smirking, handsome face. A rake indeed, and if his reputation was to be believed he had bedded quite a few of the so-called maidens at tonight’s festivities, no small number of their mothers and—although this last was not common knowledge—a great many of their brothers. Not that Rodney believed all the stories, but he and Ronon had verified Sheppard’s preference for male bedfellows, despite his outer show of seducing the fair sex at public occasions such as tonight’s ball. Therein lay their plan.
“Come on,” Ronon said, jerking his head toward the wall of thick damask curtains behind him.
“Watch my–” Rodney yelped, sneezing as Ronon pulled him summarily back through the dusty folds, spilling his champagne. Ronon relieved him of the glass, and Rodney licked the spilled wine from his hand, noticing that they now faced a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows in which a glass door stood ajar, darkness beyond it. A deliciously cool breeze brought some relief to his flushed face.
“He’s out in the garden,” Ronon said quietly. “In a little round wooden house.”
“It’s called a gazebo, you plebeian,” Rodney muttered. He swallowed, his mouth dry now they had tracked Sheppard to his lair. Oh God, he was utterly unsuited to this plan, but everything rested on it.
“Don’t care.” Ronon pushed him through the open door in the glass wall, and Rodney emerged onto a flagstone terrace with an arc of curving steps leading down into the shadowed garden. He could hear rustling noises and the screech of a night-bird. Rodney reassured himself that the estate must surely be walled, and being within the confines of the city was unlikely to contain dangerous wildlife such as wolves or bears.
“It’s very . . . dark,” he whispered nervously.
“Just a big garden,” Ronon said. He grinned. “Want me to go on ahead and check it’s safe?”
“Oh, would you?” Ronon snorted, but loped off into the shadows.
Rodney was about to make his way across the broad terrace when boot heels sounded on the stone behind him. He jumped, turning to see a formidably tall man stepping out of house through the door he and Ronon had left ajar. The man was dressed in a militia uniform and had a grim, cheerless face, pockmarked cheeks and a prominent nose. He stared at Rodney, curling his lip in a most unpleasant manner.
“Off to a tryst, sir?”
“Th-that’s none of your damned business,” Rodney spluttered. Really, even for an American, this was gross rudeness, and the man’s accuracy added salt to the wound. Rodney narrowed his eyes and put his chin up. “I’ll thank you to keep your excessively large nose out of my affairs.”
The man sneered, then stepped forward and seized Rodney’s arm in a bruising grip, leaning in and speaking in a low, fierce voice.
“If it’s Sheppard you’re tupping, tell him I want the five hundred dollars he owes. I’ll be waiting right here for him to pay up.”
Rodney cursed and struggled, but his assailant’s hold was like iron. The man snorted, then cast Rodney aside contemptuously. “Get off with you, and tell Sheppard Kolya’s waiting, and I care not if he’s purse-pinched, I’ll have what’s mine.”
Rodney staggered back then half fell down the steps, his vision still filled with the man’s menacing form, dark against the bright windows. He scrambled some way down the gravel path into the concealment of a large rosebush before pausing, heart racing. After a moment his eyes adjusted somewhat to the darkness and he was able to proceed.
“Ronon?” he whispered. There was no reply and Rodney did not dare speak up lest he give himself away. He continued on down the path, fear-sweat cooling on his brow, rueing the high-minded ideals that had led him on this foolhardy adventure. It was bad enough having to importune Sheppard like this, let alone fend off the man’s fearsome creditors. His feet crunched on the raked gravel of the path, over-loud to his straining ears, and he tried to walk more softly. Wherever he was, Ronon was making no sound at all and had proved entirely ineffective at protecting Rodney’s person. Rodney vowed to take him to task when they were safely back at the inn.
As he neared a large fountain infested with stone nymphs and satyrs—a moon waxing toward the full having risen and his night vision now being fully adjusted—he saw, to the left, the silhouette of a gazebo against the moonlit clouds, and heard voices within. How best to approach? The fountain was ringed by pathways in two concentric circles, intersected by a cross of paths. Best to edge closer to the man, not march up in full view. He patted his pockets and took out the miniature portrait, peering at it. The image was clear even by moonlight, the woman’s long dark hair framing a lovely face. If need be he would accost Sheppard here in the garden, should he refuse to accompany Rodney somewhere better-lit.
Clutching the small gilt frame in his hand like a talisman, Rodney turned into the outer circle and made his way around to the gazebo’s entrance as quietly as he could. As he approached, the voices clarified into a male drawl intercut with giggling female responses.
“C’mon, Emmeline, just a little kiss.”
The woman’s voice had the usual high-pitched edge of flirtatious banter that so grated on Rodney’s nerves. “You are a rogue, Mr. Sheppard, and I cannot kiss you—my reputation would be forever ruined.”
“Why’d you agree to meet me in the garden, then, milady? You weren’t this coy last week at Bannister’s.” There was an edge in Sheppard’s drawling voice. He was from Virginia, and Rodney fancied he could hear it in his vowels.
“Did you not know, Mr. Sheppard, that we of the fair sex need not explain our changeable natures, for we are mere flibbertigibbets. In any event, one likes a little . . . frisson, once in a while.” Another false, bell-like laugh. “But you must take me back to mama, now.”
“And if I won’t? Until I’ve claimed that kiss?”
The girl sounded entirely cool and sure of herself. “Then, sir, I shall scream and claim you have molested me, and as my father owns this property I shall be believed. You, on the other hand, are a well-known rake and will be arrested for assault.”
“I see you have it all worked out very prettily. What makes you think they could catch me?” Sheppard’s voice was angry.
Rodney paused just outside the gazebo. Should he intervene? The lady seemed well able to handle herself, but Sheppard was a risky character with whom to trifle, from all Rodney and Ronon had learned. Assaults on females had not, however, been in his repertoire, despite the stories of his drinking, gambling and disreputable ways. Rodney paused, irresolute, then recalled that Sheppard was rumored to have killed a man in a duel, so he took a deep breath and burst into the gazebo.
“Unhand her, sirrah!” he cried, but it was even darker inside and his feet tangled in the gown’s train, satin and lace tripping him so that he fell forward onto Sheppard, one flailing arm knocking his female companion off the bench onto the ground. There was a sound of ripping fabric, the lady cursed in a most unseemly fashion and Sheppard gave a startled shout, lashing out at Rodney and catching him a glancing blow to the jaw. “Ouch, damn it!” Rodney yelped, grabbing Sheppard’s arm for balance as he fell. They teetered for an instant, then collapsed in a tangled heap on the turf underfoot.
“Devil take you!” Sheppard’s erstwhile companion spat. “My dress is ruined, and be assured, Mr. Sheppard, you shall bear the cost of its replacement.”
“Me?” Sheppard said plaintively, half muffled beneath Rodney. “ ’tis this lunatic who assaulted you and tore your skirts with his ill-timed—and entirely unnecessary—rescue. It was none of my doing.”
The lady snorted angrily, gathered up her tattered dress, and stamped off toward the house without another word.
“Who in Hell are you, sir, to interrupt my dalliance so inopportunely?” Sheppard pushed Rodney off him and rolled fluidly to his feet. It was undoubtedly the man he and Ronon sought—Rodney could see the wild spikes of his hair, dark against the gibbous moon.
“Oh for mercy’s sake; she was never going to let you anywhere near her,” Rodney muttered as he peered up at Sheppard, rubbing his bruised jaw. What an ill-fated night; first to be assaulted by that odious creditor, and now by Sheppard himself.
The moon was bright now, and a shaft pinned Rodney where he had fallen. Sheppard appeared to be studying him. “I ask again, who in God’s name are you, sir? I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“No, indeed,” Rodney said, disgruntled, hauling himself up by means of the bench and brushing off his breeches and coat. The night was a loss; there was no way he’d be able to persuade Sheppard to accompany him now. “My name is McKay, and we do not move in the same circles, in that I am a scholar of limited means.” This was not entirely true, as a favorite aunt had left him a comfortable annuity quite sufficient for a scholar and scientist. He was not, however, in the league of a man such as Sheppard. “Even did I live in this city, you would not have encountered me. Given that you are a well-known wealthy seducer and rogue.” He glared at Sheppard. “Although apparently, not a very successful one.”
“That fault rests largely at your door, Mr. McKay.” Sheppard turned to face Rodney, the moonlight catching his face. He raised an eyebrow and grinned sardonically. “But perhaps I was not so very interested in the quarry. Perhaps I was merely passing the time until prey more to my liking happened by.”
“Yes, yes, a likely story,” Rodney said distractedly, bending over with an arm braced on the bench seat to grope for the miniature, which had been knocked from his hand in the scuffle. “I had something. I must have dropped–”
“Must you? I feel I may lay some claim to your attention since you have chased away my evening’s entertainment. It falls to you to take her place, d’you not agree?” Sheppard had moved a great deal closer to him, Rodney realised, indeed, he could feel the man’s warmth against the backs of his thighs. Rodney had a sudden, worried recollection of how very tight the damn breeches were. Worse, he was bent over in a somewhat suggestive manner, and he could not now straighten up with Sheppard so close behind him lest they be pressed tight together, Sheppard’s privates in intimate contact with Rodney’s velvet-covered posterior.
Rodney’s fingers brushed the portrait, and he snatched it up and stuffed in his waistcoat pocket, but, that accomplished, his situation remained . . . indelicate. He swallowed. Seducing Sheppard had been the plan, but he had envisioned it playing out in the well-lit ballroom with much witty banter, the mutual admiration of a well-turned leg, Sheppard being struck by the fine figure Rodney cut in his waistcoat, and an altogether more elegant and leisurely flirtation. Also, he would have preferred a great deal more drink, and a soft bed. He had not intended to barrel into Sheppard like a wild man and then be taken from behind in a gazebo with Ronon, and possibly that scoundrel Kolya, lurking outside in the rose garden. “I, I . . .” he stuttered, at a loss.
Sheppard’s hands slid up underneath his coat and cupped the curve of his arse, then flipped up his coat-tails before resuming their caresses. Rodney made a strangled noise. “Mmm,” Sheppard said, his voice a husky purr. “If I am a well-known seducer I’d best maintain my reputation, had I not?” He gripped Rodney’s hips and pulled him back and oh dear Christ, Sheppard’s desire was all too obvious, a hard, hot brand between Rodney’s arse-cheeks as Sheppard rocked against him.
Sheppard’s hand slid around to the front of Rodney’s breeches where to his dismay, it encountered incontrovertible evidence of Rodney’s own interest. He began to stroke Rodney’s stiffening cock through the ridiculously thin velvet, which offered no barrier at all. Rodney groaned, his cheeks hot with shame and arousal.
“Yes,” Sheppard said hoarsely. “By God, McKay, your arse is–”
Rodney twisted back to look somewhat wildly over his shoulder. “Not here, we can’t–” he said, interrupted by Sheppard leaning forward and stopping his mouth with a clumsy kiss. The angle was all wrong, but Sheppard’s tongue licked along Rodney’s lips and slid inside and his thumb rubbed across the head of Rodney’s cock, the damned velvet pants moist under Sheppard’s touch from Rodney’s state of excitement. Rodney’s head swam and he arched his neck, panting, as Sheppard sucked on his ear and mouthed the side of his throat. His legs slid apart of their own volition and Sheppard growled, pulling Rodney back harder, his hand pressed deliciously against Rodney’s cock.
Sheppard was fumbling with the fastenings of Rodney’s breeches when a great hubbub arose from the direction of the house. There was wailing and shouting, and a few moments later Ronon stuck his head in the door.
“Trouble. We should leg it.”
Sheppard had not let go of Rodney, if anything he’d clutched him tighter, protectively. “Who are you, sir, to disturb me?” he snapped.
“Ronon. My . . . my servant,” Rodney panted, writhing a little in Sheppard’s arms, only partly to get free. Sheppard’s possessive grip on him was, if anything, driving his arousal higher. “But where–” he gasped.
“I scouted the estate. There’s a tree we can use to scale the wall—down the back.”
Sheppard blew out a frustrated breath, then released Rodney reluctantly. “Damn and blast. I’ll warrant it’s that foolish minx whose dress you damaged, making a great nonsense of a trifle.”
“I heard them talking—she’s crying rape,” Ronon said. “C’mon, they’ve called a militia.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, stuffing his shirt back into his breeches and hoping the darkness would conceal how much he’d been enjoying Sheppard’s attentions, “there was a great uniformed brute looking for you, Sheppard. He accosted me on the terrace. Name of Koller or something.”
“No time,” Ronon said, grabbing Rodney’s arm and pulling him deeper into the foliage, Sheppard following.
“Kolya,” Sheppard panted as they ran. “If poor Emmeline encountered him in the garden,” –he ducked to avoid a low branch– “her accusations may not be fancies. He is indeed a brute.”
“She named you,” Ronon said curtly, and then there was no more talk as they stumbled on as fast as they dared, through ever less-tamed undergrowth, tripping on tree roots. Finally, Ronon paused at the base of a large tree. Rodney bent over thankfully, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. At length, when he felt he might not expire momentarily, he straightened. There was a tall brick wall beyond the tree and he peered up doubtfully. Above the distant-seeming top, moonlit clouds scudded by. It seemed very high.
Sheppard had recovered his breath more rapidly and was pacing to and fro, cursing softly. “McKay can attest I had neither the opportunity nor inclination to harm Emmeline. Kolya has either committed the crime himself, or intimidated her into lying.”
“True, we were . . . otherwise engaged,” Rodney said, not meeting anyone’s eye. He looked up at the tree again and cleared his throat. “Still, we had best make ourselves scarce. That Kolya individual was an unpleasant rogue and I have no doubt he will suborn justice for his own ends.”
Ronon nodded, then leaped and caught a low-hanging branch, swinging up to get his knee over it and then pulling himself up to lie along it, reaching down a long arm. “I’ll give you a hoist, McKay.”
“I am a man of learning,” Rodney protested. “Not given to outdoor athletics.”
“Come, step up here,” Sheppard said, kneeling and cupping his hands. Rodney grasped Ronon’s dangling arm, put his foot in Sheppard’s hands, and was half-dragged, half-lifted aloft. He struggled onto the branch and Ronon helped him stand, braced by the trunk, and to stretch himself over to sit on the wall. It was not spiked, but that good fortune did not prevent Rodney from peering anxiously down. The ground seemed very far below.
Ronon helped Sheppard clamber up as well, then leaped nimbly onto the wall and down to the darkened ground beyond. “I’ll catch you,” he called up, and Rodney took a deep breath and jumped. Well, mostly fell, but Ronon was as good as his word and broke his fall, and soon Sheppard joined them, almost as agile as Ronon, coat-tails flying against the moon.
“Will the inn be safe?” Rodney asked, relieved to be on solid ground again. “Kolya doesn’t know who I am—well, no one here does, since we are,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “secret agents.” Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
Ronon grunted agreement. “Should be safe enough. Long as we quit this town soon.” He glanced at Sheppard. “You’d best come with us tonight and lie low.”
Sheppard gave a wry grin. “I’d be most obliged, ah, Ronon, is it?” He made an overly showy leg. “It’s been quite the night for daring rescues, has it not, McKay?”
It was a long walk back to their lodgings, and Rodney was glad they had had the foresight to lay in bread, cheese and ale, as there was no hope of rousing the innkeeper or any of the servants at that hour to bring them supper. Sheppard professed himself lacking in appetite and Ronon said goodnight and took himself off with a knowing glance at Rodney and an insincere admonishment to get some sleep.
“I fancy the pot is calling the kettle black,” Rodney said, snorting. Sheppard cocked a questioning eyebrow. “Ronon has a dalliance with one of the maids,” Rodney explained, hefting the flagon and pouring two tankards of ale, passing one to Sheppard. The bread had been a little dry.
“Indeed,” Sheppard said, smiling into his tankard. “Then he will not be returning to share your bed?”
“Well, no,” Rodney said. He flushed and broke a crumb off the chunk of cheese, fidgeting with it. “Not that we were . . . that is to say, it was merely to save my purse, the shared room. Not . . .”
“Be at ease, McKay. You’d not be the first to require other duties of a servant, beyond the usual call. And he’s very pleasing to the eye.”
“It is not like that,” Rodney said angrily. “Ronon is no slave, nor even really–” He broke off. Sheppard was damnably easy to confide in, and Rodney disliked the necessity of pretending that Ronon served him, when they were, in truth, equal partners in this endeavor. Rodney sighed—he was a poor liar at the best of times, being given to the pursuit of truth and reason and impatient with the niceties of polite conversation.
“My apologies. I did not mean to imply he was a slave—I could see from your manner, and his, that that was not so.” Sheppard sighed. “You must forgive me, McKay. I was raised on a plantation among slaves and counted many of them my dear friends as a child. As I grew older I saw the iniquities to which they were subjected, and confess to loathing the institution of slavery. My father does not agree—one of many issues on which we are violently at odds.”
Rodney nodded, then bit his lip, undecided. It was in many ways the perfect opening to broach the proposal to which end he had engineered meeting Sheppard. Rodney was however unsure whether Sheppard was sufficiently engaged. The man still seemed elusive, like a trout only partly hooked and liable to slip the line and vanish into the green depths of a river. He shook off the fanciful image—clearly he had spent too much time in his youth around Carson Beckett and his tedious passion for angling.
Sheppard took the decision from him, swallowing the last of his ale and setting it aside, then reaching across the table to lace his fingers with Rodney’s. “So, shall we consummate what we started in the garden? It seems a pity to waste the privacy your man’s dalliance has afforded us.”
“I fear I am unable to get out of this coat without assistance,” blurted Rodney. He colored—Sheppard would think him bacon-brained.
Sheppard drew him to his feet. “Oh, I think we can negotiate that obstacle with ease,” he murmured, smiling in a way that made Rodney’s heart beat faster. “But first, I must have a proper kiss.”
It was, in truth, a most improper kiss. Rodney had one last coherent notion—that it should not be so easy to go into a near-stranger’s arms—then he thought no more for quite some time. Sheppard held him close and took possession of his mouth with soft lips and insistent tongue until gentleness gave way to passion, Sheppard seeming bent on devouring him whole. Rodney moaned and arched his neck so Sheppard could use his mouth on Rodney’s throat, teeth and all. There would be bruises and Ronon would mock him, but he cared not.
After some time Rodney surfaced, quite winded, to feel Sheppard’s cock, as erect and insistent as it had been in the garden, pressed into the crease of Rodney’s hip. Rodney’s own cock was snugged into Sheppard’s ballocks and, by its hardness, delighted to be so situated. Sheppard’s hands were on his arse again, squeezing in a manner that made his breath hitch.
“My, my coat?” he managed hoarsely, although it was again the damnable breeches causing his worst discomfort.
“God, yes, take it off,” growled Sheppard, biting the curve of Rodney’s jaw, both hands cupping Rodney’s arse.
“Can’t. You . . . oh, please. You must pull . . . the sleeves.”
Sheppard released him reluctantly and pushed the too-tight coat off his shoulders, then turned him and pulled it off by the cuffs with few sharp tugs. “Oh, thank Christ,” Rodney said fervently. Sheppard was on him in an instant, pressed up against his back.
“I like this aspect of you, McKay,” he murmured, running his hands along Rodney’s shoulders and down his biceps. “Good broad shoulders, and your arse, mmm.” He punctuated this by getting one hand up Rodney’s shirt and the other around his belly, pulling him back to grind against.
Rodney whimpered as Sheppard found a nipple and tormented it most pleasantly. He let his head fall back on Sheppard’s shoulder. “Breeches . . . too tight,” he gasped, lost to all propriety.
“Easily remedied,” whispered Sheppard huskily in his ear, going at the fastenings with hasty fingers. He achieved his aim, and Rodney gasped in relief as Sheppard opened the flap and freed his cock, taking it in hand and stroking from root to tip. Rodney’s hips moved in counterpoint to Sheppard’s strokes, rubbing his arse on Sheppard’s cock. Sheppard liked that excessively, groaning and rutting back against him in equal measure.
“Devil take it,” gasped Sheppard, pushing Rodney down on the bed. “Get those breeches off, for I must have you instantly else I blow my cork entirely and disgrace myself.”
Rodney set to with alacrity, struggling out of his breeches and hose and kicking the uncomfortable shoes off with a whimper of relief. Sheppard had shucked out of his coat, pantaloons and hose and was down to his shirt as well. The act of undressing had set them both back from the edge a little, and Sheppard now drew Rodney’s shirt up his body and flung it aside, then pulled off his own impatiently and pushed Rodney back on the bed, crawling on top of him.
Rodney lay back on his elbows, his fevered gaze flicking between Sheppard’s swollen lips and the tumescent cock thrusting up between his legs. Rodney’s own cock was no less excited, flush against his belly and darkly colored.
“I have not–”Rodney said breathlessly, then saw that Sheppard had frozen, mistaking his meaning. “No, no, I did not mean I have never, only that it has been some time since I last–”
Sheppard relaxed somewhat, then dropped his head to look down, moving his hips lasciviously so their cocks slid against one another. Rodney groaned and thrust up into the delicious friction. “Oh, God. It . . . it is not that I do not desire . . . for I do, oh, I do.”
Wrapping a hand around both their members, Sheppard grinned up at him. “What, McKay? Tell me what you desire, for I will have it all.” He began to stroke them in tandem, leaning forward to take Rodney’s nipple into his mouth and suck on it.
Rodney writhed, panting. “Oh, oh, I want . . .”
Sheppard released his nipple and looked up, his face flushed. “What? Tell me instantly,” he commanded, then put his mouth back on Rodney’s nipple, using his teeth so that Rodney cried out.
“You. In me,” Rodney sobbed. “Fuck me.” Sheppard covered him at that, the hot, hard length of him pressed to Rodney as he ground down and kissed him passionately. He was much hairier than Rodney, and his smell, of male animal, sweat and sex, filled Rodney’s senses.
“Over,” grunted Sheppard, raising up and pushing at him.
Rodney rolled over and got up on all fours. He regained his wits for a brief moment, peering back over his shoulder. “Pomade, use–”
With a snarl, Sheppard scrambled back and snatched up his coat from the floor, searching the pockets frantically until he found a flat tin of scented hair dressing. He wrested the lid off and dug out a two finger gobbet of the oily stuff, then clambered back on the bed, kneeing Rodney’s legs apart and pressing him down so his arse was raised up. It was a gross invitation and the picture he must make, open and wanting, fair begging Sheppard to fuck him, made Rodney moan and move his hips. His cock was leaking, dampening the sheets.
He fisted his hands in the bedclothes as Sheppard worked a greasy finger into him, and then another. It burned a little, but he readily relaxed against the intrusion, for although it was true that he had not been fucked for several years, Rodney had brought himself off with one hand on his cock and a finger in his arse many a time, and often, of late, with Sheppard’s image in his thoughts.
He pushed back against Sheppard’s fingers, muttering, “Yes, now, damn you!”
Sheppard wasted no time, fitting his cock to Rodney’s hole and pressing in with a groan. He worked his way in by increments, Rodney panting at the heat and sheer size. This was nothing like a finger or two; he had forgotten how large a man’s member felt, and how it split him open, making him feel he was but a glove, a receptacle for this thick brand that owned him utterly. Sheppard moved Rodney on the bed like a toy, and Rodney clutched at the mattress, and sobbed, and gasped, and took it.
“Christ, McKay, Christ, I . . .” moaned Sheppard, fucking into him forcibly, control slipping as he gripped Rodney’s hips in iron fingers. Rodney’s knees were splayed apart, frog-like, as Sheppard bore him down into the bed, Rodney bracing himself on his forearms. He cried out, then bit down on the bedclothes to muffle his noises as Sheppard thrust home.
Rodney could not get a hand on his cock for Sheppard held him pinned and helpless, but that very helplessness, and Sheppard’s desperate lust, his strength and the rasp of coarse hair, the slap of his ballocks as he slammed against the soft skin of Rodney’s arse and thighs, was enough to drive him to the edge, every touch ratcheting up Rodney’s pleasure until it crested, cock spurting under him and his arse tightening around Sheppard until he was spent, loose and pliant.
Sheppard grunted, his rhythm gone erratic as he clutched Rodney to him, hips hammering out short, jerky thrusts until he stiffened for a long moment and then stilled, subsiding with a sigh and resting his brow between Rodney’s shoulder blades, catching his breath.
Rodney was about to remark that Sheppard was intolerably heavy and that if he wished Rodney to survive the night he’d be obliged if Sheppard got off him, when Sheppard, recollecting himself, pulled out, causing Rodney to wince, and collapsed to one side. Rodney lay where he was, too well-fucked and indolent to move, but he turned his head to regard Sheppard. The man was flat on his back with his eyes shut, mouth curled in a smile.
“You are amused?” Rodney asked, frowning.
Sheppard turned his head toward Rodney, looking . . . well, fond was all Rodney could find to describe it. “Not at your expense, McKay, although very much of your doing. You’re a delicious fuck and I am most thoroughly content.” He stretched out a hand and ran a finger gently over Rodney’s arse.
“Oh, well, in that case,” Rodney said, mollified, “I must say that I greatly enjoyed . . . ah . . .”
“Being fucked?” Sheppard suggested, his eyes twinkling.
“Yes, that,” muttered Rodney, and assuredly he should be beyond all sensibility, but he felt his cheeks color. He scowled at Sheppard. “You must think me a right greenhorn.”
Sheppard rolled onto his side and took Rodney’s hands in his. “Indeed I do not. I think you very fine, McKay.” His eyes were still creased with amusement, but not in mockery.
Rodney snorted. “Flatterer. You do but angle for more debauchery.”
Sheppard grinned “You see through me entirely. But let us sleep first, for I’ll wager we’re both knocked-up after the day’s exertions.”
He yawned, which set Rodney off as well, so they wiped themselves down and crawled under the covers, curling together comfortably.
The night passed most pleasantly, first in sleep, and when they woke before dawn, Rodney took Sheppard’s cock into his mouth and sucked him. Sheppard panted and writhed and gasped out incoherent praise of Rodney’s tongue. He seemed to care little that Rodney was somewhat unpractised, for indeed Rodney had never before put his book-learning to the test, having researched this particular vice from an ancient French text called The School of Venus, which aimed to elucidate “this mysterie of fucking”, and achieved its goal tolerably well. It was written for females, which rendered it useful in teaching sexual exploits to please gentlemen, and Rodney, ever open to the acquisition of knowledge, had practised on the knob of a malacca cane.
After Sheppard had arched and clutched the sheets and come in Rodney’s mouth, he hauled Rodney up and kissed him at great length, seeming not in the least off-put by the use to which Rodney had recently put his mouth. He stroked Rodney’s cock, smothering his cries with kisses, whispering encouragement in Rodney’s ear and pressing him close until Rodney, undone with pleasure, spent in his hand.
They slept again, and were awakened by Ronon’s knock at first light. Ronon stuck his head through the door causing Rodney to sit bolt upright, pink with mortification and clutching the sheet to his chest. Sheppard was still asleep or feigning it, his hair a mess of dark spikes on the pillow. Rodney imagined he looked equally debauched.
“I’ll see to the horses and eat downstairs,” Ronon said, grinning and ignoring Rodney’s discomfort and frantic shooing gestures. He nodded at Sheppard. “Asked him yet?” Rodney made more flapping motions and Ronon shrugged. “Best do it now—we must leave by noon.” The door was pulled shut, to Rodney’s intense relief.
“Ask me what?” Sheppard stirred and rolled over, rubbing his eyes.
“It will wait until we have breakfasted,” Rodney said firmly. “Although I imagine a poor hostelry such as this will have naught but ale or tea, damn it.”
“You would have wine at this hour?” Sheppard enquired, brows raised.
“Heavens, no, but I have taken a liking to coffee—have you tried it? ’tis an excellent beverage with which to start the day. Most refreshing.”
Sheppard snorted. “Aye, I have had it pressed on me in fashionable salons, but I confess to preferring a good stout tea.” He pulled on his breeches, went to the door and called for a maid, ordering tea, buttered bread and a mess of eggs.
Once they had dressed and eaten, Rodney could no longer defer his task. “I, I have something to confess to you,” he began, “and something to ask.”
Sheppard eyed him quizzically. “I confess to some curiosity. Is this to do with you and your man Ronon being ‘secret agents?’”
Rodney grimaced. “I was indiscreet to mention it, but . . . yes. We are engaged on a mission of liberation, Mr. Sheppard, and we need your assistance.”
“And thought to procure that through my seduction?” Sheppard’s voice was cool.
Rodney swallowed. “I think, sir, if you consider, you will recall that you seduced me, rather than–”
Sheppard made an impatient gesture. “No matter. So your motives in . . . acceding to my advances were . . . political?” His face was unreadable.
“I, er . . .” Rodney swallowed. “Well, I confess, partly, yes.” Seeing Sheppard’s face, he continued hurriedly. “But only hear me out, Sheppard, and you will see it for a most worthy–”
Sheppard had risen and turned away, staring out the window, his hands clasped behind him, shoulders stiff. “If you hope to exert political influence through me, McKay, you are sadly mistaken. My father is wealthy but he has cast me off, and I will have none of him.” He turned, glaring at Rodney. “Is that it? Is it my name and family connections you seek to use?”
Rodney rose also, hands outstretched. “No, or rather, yes, in a fashion, but not–”
Sheppard’s face went blank. He strode to the door and wrenched it open. “Then we have no further commerce together, Mr. McKay,” he said harshly, not meeting Rodney’s eyes. “Goodbye. I’ll not trouble you further.”
“No, wait! I beg you, allow me to–”
But it was too late. Sheppard had swept out the door, slamming it behind him.
Rodney was still sitting at the table, head in hands, when Ronon returned some minutes later. “I have made a right cake of it,” Rodney confessed miserably. “It could hardly have gone more abysmally.”
“Told you just to ask him,” Ronon said unsympathetically. “You’ve been mooning over him ever since you saw his portrait.”
“He is a well known rake!” Rodney protested indignantly. “I thought that type of approach would win him over.”
Ronon frowned at him. “You ain’t very good with people, are you, McKay?”
Rodney threw up his hands, lurching to his feet and pacing about agitatedly. “My father was a prattling theological bore, ever arguing with my mother who had ten times his ability but was forced to waste her life doing embroidery and raising children—and very poor at both she was, I can tell you. My younger sister Jeannie has been married off to a cork-brained poetical essayist and I have been forced to educate myself, as my father was too mean to hire tutors and too rigid in his views to countenance my studying natural philosophy. So no, I am not good with people, for my intellect outstrips the common herd and I lack social graces with which to ingratiate myself.”
Ronon just looked at him. “We’ll have to do it without Sheppard.”
“I fail to see how,” Rodney said bitterly. “He was integral to the plan.”
“Probably too complex, like all your plans, McKay,” Ronon said. “Come on—the horses are saddled.”
Rodney sighed, and followed him.
They turned south out of the inn-yard, and had not gone far, the streets being crowded with all manner of conveyances, hawkers, idlers and idiots, when they came upon a disturbance.
“More gawkers,” Rodney snapped, glaring at the crowd blocking their way. “I warrant they would turn out to stare at any trifle; they have windmills in the head!”
Ronon, who in any event sat taller on his horse, raised up in his stirrups. “It’s a militia band. They’ve stopped someone.”
“A runaway?” Rodney asked, heart in mouth.
“No, wait, it’s–” Ronon sank back on his horse and cursed.
“What? What is it?”
“Sheppard. They have Sheppard.”
“Oh, for–” Rodney tried to balance on his horse and peer over the crowd of rattle-pated fools blocking his view. He was not as steady a horseman as Ronon, however, so fell back, frustrated. “The man cannot stay out of trouble above a minute!”
“There’s a big cove in charge, all nose,” Ronon reported. “The one from the mansion, who cried rape.”
Rodney frowned. “Collier, or some such, Sheppard called him. He accosted me before I went down into the garden,”—he shot Ronon a dark look, which Ronon ignored—“after you abandoned me to do your ‘scouting’. He claimed Sheppard owed him five hundred dollars. Gambling debts, I’ll be bound.” Rodney shook his head. “Trouble sticks to Sheppard as iron filings to a magnet.”
“You think we’re well rid of him?” Ronon asked, eyeing him.
“What? No!” Rodney was aghast. “Of course we must rescue Sheppard. We cannot leave him in that brute’s hands. He’ll trump up a charge of molestation, of which matter, at least, Sheppard is quite innocent.”
Ronon smirked at him. “Glad to hear it.” He narrowed his eyes at the street and the people, then checked his pistols. “Listen now, McKay. You’ll go rail at Collier, act the uppity gent, got it?”
Rodney paled, then screwed up his courage—they had to save Sheppard. “What shall I rail about?”
Ronon shook his head impatiently. “Any moonshine, it matters not. While you have him occupied I will ride in and snatch Sheppard. We’ll get away by any means we may and meet again on the road to Philadelphia. You have the map?” Rodney swallowed, but nodded, and Ronon went on. “The road crosses a river just south of the city. Meet us there at the bridge.”
Ronon wheeled his horse around and cut left, vanishing behind the crowd. Rodney began shouting. “Make way, robbery! Make way, I say! I have been set upon!” He struck about with his whip and the crowd parted, Rodney urging his horse forward until it reared up at a cluster of uniformed men.
Two of them were binding Sheppard’s hands, while Sheppard cursed and struggled fiercely. The odious Collier stood to one side, having evidently dismounted from an equally great brute of a black stallion to supervise Sheppard’s arrest. Rodney turned on him, ignoring Sheppard, and began shouting about being attacked by a cutpurse and robbed, and how the streets were filled with footpads and unsafe for people of quality because rascals like Collier were not doing a damned thing to make them so. He was already enraged, so was able to carry this off with a fair degree of verisimilitude, his color high as he waved his arms in a parody of hysteria.
Collier had stepped back a little for it was evident Rodney was not a crack horseman and his mount was jittery, unaccustomed to the bustle of a metropolis. Seeing this, a plan came to Rodney’s mind and he allowed his bay to snort and sidestep some more, edging between Collier and his view of Sheppard, while Rodney ranted on about the decay of society, the appalling state of public morals and how ill he could afford the loss of his purse, for he was not swimming in lard, as a gentleman scholar, unlike the swells of New York.
Eventually, Collier recollected himself and stemmed Rodney’s tirade, or at least tried to shout him down. “Be silent, sir! By God, you are that fool from the ball, are you not? Are you in league wi–”
“Do not deflect me you scurrilous rogue, for I will not be budged!” cried Rodney, waving his whip. “I have been most grievously used and now you dare falsely accuse m–”
“Devil take you, desist from this prattle!” shouted Collier, his face dark, “I’ll have you taken in as well, sir, for disturbing the peace!”
Rodney allowed this to set him off on a tirade about there being no peace in this hell-hole of a city, and Collier snarled and raised his pistol. That would never do, and, now fully seized of his high-handed role, and hearing a fresh ruckus behind him—hopefully Ronon—Rodney struck the weapon from Collier’s hand with his whip and then spurred his horse at Collier so the man was knocked aside and let slip his horse’s reins. Rodney snatched them, near falling from his saddle to do so, and, with the startled stallion in tow, galloped off down the street. Well, galloped was hardly accurate, as there was a loud report from Ronon’s direction and Rodney’s mare bolted—Rodney had never trained her to be sanguine around firearms.
The stallion caught her frenzy and bolted as well, and they charged off south through the streets as though pursued by the hounds of Hell, scattering errand boys and pie-men and near striking a dozen carriages, but, by some miracle afforded only to fools such as Rodney, finally breaking free of the congested inner city streets with no major injuries. All of this Rodney only pieced together much later. At the time, he was too busy clinging to the saddle, trying not to be thrown as his horse veered around wagons and hod-carriers. He had long since lost the stallion’s reins but that spirited animal seemed infected by Rodney’s mare’s hysteria, or perhaps by a love of racing, and kept pace, indeed outstripping Rodney’s horse who then followed in his wake.
They all fetched up, Rodney a wrung-out heap of nerves and sweat and the horses blowing and lathered, in a park—in truth, a stretch of waste ground—at the city’s edge. There was a horse trough there by the main road, so Rodney wearily gathered up both sets of reins, thankful the horses were too winded to balk, and led them over to slake their thirst. He splashed his own face but did not like the greenish look of the water, so determined to drink from the river Ronon had mentioned. He had, after all, read the works of van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope, who’d found such water teeming with animalcules. Unlike many of the idiots with whom the field of natural philosophy was encumbered, Rodney did not believe such microscopic creatures to be spontaneously generated and preferred not to drink them in great numbers. Van Leeuwenhoek had killed the things with hot coffee—another excellent reason to drink that useful beverage—but Rodney had no immediate access to potable water, or coffee, so deferred his thirst.
He reached the bridge—hopefully the right one, for he was too tired to press on further—and led the horses off the road into the lee of the stonework, hobbled them and set them to drink and graze. After drinking his own fill, he settled his back against the wall of the bridge and closed his eyes, only to be startled awake a good two hours later by the sound of an approaching rider.
It was Ronon, Sheppard seated behind him on the dappled gray, his arms around Ronon’s waist occasioning Rodney a brief pang of jealousy. Ronon walked the horse down to the river, sliding off and assisting Sheppard, who moved stiffly, and grimaced.
“Are you injured?” Rodney blurted, reaching to steady Sheppard while Ronon took the horse to drink.
“Kolya’s men,” Sheppard grated, his mouth bruised. “They got a few kicks and blows in, on his orders. There were too many, I could not–”
“No indeed,” Rodney said. “Come, you must be parched.” He helped Sheppard down to the water and Sheppard lay down and immersed his whole head, emerging looking refreshed but with his hair once more quite impossible.
Ronon peered back up the road. “Need to get off the highway. They’ll follow.” He turned and smirked at Rodney. “Nice work there, with Collier’s horse.”
“It’s a fierce-spirited brute,” Rodney said, watching it worriedly although it was grazing placidly enough with his bay. “We may have to abandon it.”
“Hey, no,” Sheppard said. “So fine a beast? Only let me gentle him a little and he’ll be sweet as a plum.”
“You are a horseman?” Rodney asked, surprised. He had been used to thinking of Sheppard only as a sensualist—albeit a very dashing one.
“I was raised on an estate, McKay,” Sheppard replied, raising a brow. This pulled on his bruises, and he winced. “My father keeps horses and I rode almost before I walked.”
Sheppard drifted over to the black stallion, Ronon watching with interest. He spoke softly, touching the horse confidently but with great care, finally inducing it to let him inspect its mouth. The stallion snorted, but allowed Sheppard to stroke its neck.
He rejoined Rodney and Ronon. “Kolya has used him ill—his mouth’s in a bad state. He’s a good horse, though, and I’ll wager he’ll let me ride him.”
“He’s fast,” Rodney said. “A racer, I think, from the way he led our escape.”
“Aye,” Sheppard said, admiring the stallion. “He’s got bottom, and the look of a jumper, what’s more.” He slapped Rodney on the back. “A good place to start, McKay, in your horse stealing career.”
“Dear God,” Rodney said faintly. “I am a horse thief! I shall be transported to Botany Bay!”
“Not if we get off this road,” Ronon said, then looked over at Sheppard. “Are you with us?”
“It seems I am,” Sheppard said. “For I am a wanted man and have you to thank for my rescue. Both of you,” he added, casting a smile at Rodney that warmed some mawkish organ in Rodney’s chest.
Sheppard cast a searching gaze about him. “I know where we are, having ridden this way more than once to and from my father’s estate in Virginia. If we go south a mile there’s a cross-road will take us to the old road south, which is little used and not well maintained. It will serve us, though, and is far less travelled.”
Ronon nodded and they mounted, Sheppard having only a little trouble persuading his animal to let him take his seat and controlling the stallion with an easy hand, once in the saddle.
As they picked their way back up the slope to the highway, Sheppard looked across at Rodney. “And while we travel, you may tell me what manner of scrape you have kidnapped me into.”
“We go to free a queen!” Rodney said, suddenly mischievous.
“Very droll.” Sheppard smirked. “Well, I will have the truth out of you . . . and more.” He raked Rodney with an appreciative glance, licked his bruised lips, and rode off after Ronon.
Flushed, and with stirrings in places unsuited to the proximity of a saddle, Rodney trotted after him.
Rodney and Ronon had come provisioned for a journey, so the party rode until they were well rid of the main road, following Ronon until he turned off into a grove of trees when the sun was at its zenith, setting the horses to rest and graze by a small stream. Rodney broke out bread, cheese and dried meat for a primitive luncheon, and Ronon built a fire and set a pot of water to boil, in due course making tea, which, once it had cooled, they passed around to quench their thirst.
Rodney had never traveled so far on horseback before, and feared he would be saddle-sore by the end of the day and in a sorry state indeed, after several days riding. “How long will it take us?” he asked Ronon, who shrugged and lay down with his hat over his face, intent on a nap.
Sheppard, lounging back on one elbow by the fire, looked up, frowning. “I know this area tolerably well but am languishing in ignorance. It is high time, I warrant, that you divulged our destination, and the purpose of this adventure.”
At that, Rodney bridled. “Indeed, I had every intention of doing so, but this is the first opportunity that has arisen since you stormed off intemperately.”
“I am all ears,” Sheppard said dryly, causing Rodney to notice that, while his ears were not over-large, they were in fact very oddly shaped, almost fey.
“McKay?” Sheppard glared at him, and Rodney shook himself out of his fascinated inspection of Sheppard’s ears, which had taken on a pinkish hue.
“Yes, yes, quite so.” He cleared his throat. “Ronon and I are, as I said, secret agents. Abolitionists, in fact, riding on a mission of mercy.”
Ronon, ostensibly asleep, lifted one hand in a circling ‘get on with it’ motion. Sheppard smirked to see it and Rodney glared at the miscreant. He turned back to Sheppard. “We ride, in fact, to the Sheppard estates in Virginia,” he admitted, watching him warily.
Sheppard sat up abruptly, casting off all pretence of languid ease. “My father’s plantation? Why?”
“You will not be aware of the Abolitionist movement in any detail, but as in so many walks of life, leadership is key. Why, I myself–”
Ronon made a rude noise under his hat, derailing Rodney from his discourse. “I could wish for fewer interruptions,” Rodney said with some asperity. Really, was he never to be left unmolested to apprise Sheppard of their task?
“Pray, do continue,” Sheppard said, all attention.
“Well, and so I am attempting.” Rodney shot Ronon’s recumbent figure an irritated look. “There is a mulatto woman, born a slave but to her own people more like a queen, who won her way to freedom some years ago and rose to become a leader in our movement. She was with us in Nova Scotia, but she came south again to arrange the secret means by which slaves are aided to reach safety in Canada. She is a skilled diplomat and organizer, and without her we are at a loss.” Rodney began fumbling in his pockets. “She was re-taken by slave-catchers and returned to the plantation where she had long been in bondage. The Sheppard estate. She is your father’s . . . property.” He said the last word bitterly.
Sheppard leaned forward, intent. “Her name, McKay?”
“Wait, wait, I have it,” Rodney said, producing the miniature triumphantly. “This is her likeness.” He passed Sheppard the small gold-framed portrait.
“Teyla,” Sheppard breathed, staring down at it. He rubbed a thumb gently across the glass. “Dear God, I would not have been carousing in New York, had I known she was in jeopardy. I had thought her safe and free.”
“You knew her?” Rodney asked, a little startled. Teyla had mentioned Sheppard in passing, as the son of her former persecutor who was cut from a different cloth than his father. She had hated Patrick Sheppard, and Rodney had not thought his son would have known her well. In enlisting Sheppard, they had planned to trade more on his well known estrangement from his father than any prior acquaintance with Teyla.
“We were good friends,” Sheppard said heavily. “This is ill news. Had I known, I . . .” He shook his head, looking grim, and passed the miniature back to Rodney, staring into the fire. “We are near the same age, and I was raised by my nurse Charin, who was in some wise related to Teyla—not her grandmother, but like to that. As children, we were much together. They are from Athos, on the Western shores of Africa, but their village was captured into slavery. Many of her people were workers on my father’s land, where he grows tobacco.”
There was a long pause. Sheppard seemed to find talking taxing—he was not a prosy fellow like Rodney, who could regale any listener on fascinating and varied topics for hours on end. At length, Sheppard rubbed his face. “It was often thus, a whole village taken by slavers, transported across the Atlantic to the Indies, and up the coast, where those that survived the voyages were sold in one lot to a wealthy landowner—men, women and children.”
That seemed to exhaust Sheppard’s conversational abilities. Instead, he kicked Ronon’s booted foot, clearly having discerned the true leader of the expedition. “We must ride without delay, for I will not leave Teyla in my father’s clutches.”
Ronon pushed his hat aside and narrowed his eyes at Sheppard. “Journey’ll take us a week and three days. Minimum. The black’s a strong horse, but you’ll kill him if you push harder.”
Rodney chimed in. “Aye, and my mare cannot go above ten hours a day—well, nor can any of the beasts, not and be of any use once we’re arrived. We’ll need living horses to carry Teyla to safety.” Sheppard made an angry noise and Rodney raised a warning finger. “Nor can we take the straightest roads, and should you press on alone I’ll lay you a sou to a Spanish dollar you’ll fall into that brute’s clutches in no time. Coller, or whatever he goes by.”
“Kolya,” Sheppard said heavily. “K-O-L-Y-A.” He blew out a frustrated breath and sank his head into his hands for the remainder of the noon-break, leaping up in relief when Ronon gave the signal to re-mount.
They rode in this fashion—several hours and then a rest break—for the rest of that day and the next, sleeping rolled in blankets on the hard ground—for no matter what drivel idiot poets might scribble, beds of leaves were not soft. Rodney’s discomfort made his temper short—his muscles ached pitifully, and the rations from their saddlebags were meager and unappetizing.
At their campsite on the second night, Ronon returned from an excursion up a stream with an armful of bark strips and dropped these in Rodney’s lap.
“What?” Rodney spluttered, brushing himself off. “I’ll thank you not to cover me with firewood. In any event, this is of no use—it is fresh cut.”
“Willow bark,” Ronon grunted.
“Oh, is it?” Rodney said, eyeing the bark with renewed interest. “ ’tis a remedy for agues and swamp fevers—I have read Edward Stone’s letter of 1763 to the Royal Society.” He cast an anxious look up at Ronon and put a palm to his brow. “Am I unwell? I do not feel feverish.” He turned to Sheppard. “Do I look unwell to you?”
Sheppard regarded him with raised brows. “Over-fond of talking and in want of a bath, but not unwell.”
“ ’s good for aches as well,” Ronon said. “Boil it as a tea.”
“Truly?” Rodney scrambled to experiment with this new substance, and although the resulting liquid was astringent and foul-tasting, he found it brought enough relief to ease the worst of his suffering. Sheppard tried some as well, but Ronon said he had no need of it. Rodney drifted off in relative comfort, drowsily planning the Royal Society paper he would write, after several more trials to perfect the brew.
Sheppard warned them when Philadelphia was nigh, and they skirted wide to the east around it, Ronon vanishing while Rodney rested his weary limbs in the shade during an afternoon break, returning some hours later with a brace of chickens, their necks wrung.
That night they ate well, and Rodney was moaning, licking the last of the chicken-fat from his fingers, when he caught Sheppard watching him. “What,” he demanded. “Have I a feather on my nose?”
Sheppard shook his head, grinning, but later, when Ronon was snoring, he grabbed Rodney and hauled him off into the woods, out of earshot.
“Dear God, is there danger?” yelped Rodney when he had his breath back.
“Only to your virtue, McKay,” Sheppard said, pressing Rodney against a tree and ravishing his mouth.
“I ache all over from the damned horse, even with willow-bark to aid me,” Rodney moaned, when Sheppard released his mouth to nose behind his ear. “I can barely remain standing, let alone–”
His legs were swept from under him, and Sheppard lowered him precipitously to the ground. He held Rodney down, stealing quick kisses until Rodney yearned up, following his mouth in a daze.
Sheppard stared down, his eyes burning. “Do you have any notion of the sounds you were making over that chicken? It was positively immoral.”
“Sounds?” Rodney said vaguely, and then “Oh, oh, yes,” as Sheppard opened the flap of his pants and got a hand on his cock, urging Rodney do the same for him in turn.
When he had made Rodney forget his aches and pains most thoroughly, Sheppard turned himself about like a dog and lay down beside him. Rodney craned down at him, puzzled. “What in God’s name are you–”
“I’ll warrant ’tis more in the Devil’s name,” Sheppard said with dark amusement, curling himself so as to take Rodney’s cock into his mouth.
Rodney cried out and would have bucked forward into Sheppard’s throat, save that Sheppard had strong hands on his hips, pinning him. After another few moments of glorious heat and wetness, Sheppard pulled back, his voice hoarse. “Come now, McKay, I had not thought you ungenerous. You must reciprocate.”
“I, I must? But, how do I . . . oh,” Rodney said, as Sheppard’s cock slapped him gently on the cheek like an importunate puppy, already wet and eager. With only a little maneuvering he was able to fit his mouth to it, causing Sheppard to moan around his own member, and dear God, it was Newton’s third law made flesh, action and reaction in a delicious cycle of pleasure. “. . . æquales et in . . . in partes contrarias diri . . . dirigi . . . nngh,” he groaned around the slick cock in his mouth and then, lost to language, gave himself over to sucking and being sucked until Sheppard flooded his mouth, and, once he had recovered, brought Rodney in turn to a shuddering climax.
They were thoroughly besmirched and decked with leaves, but since they had no recourse to laundresses or hot baths on their travels, Rodney doubted Ronon would notice, after a brush-down. In that he was wrong, for Ronon had preternaturally acute senses and smirked at him from his blanket nest as Rodney, red-faced, settled back into his own lumpy bed. He slept well that night, oblivious to the hard ground, waking the next day restored and with fewer aches. Sheppard also looked well-rested, indeed, positively smug.
That night Ronon killed a good-sized hare, and they sat about the fire watching it roast. “I had not realized you knew Teyla as a friend,” Rodney said to distract his growling stomach, taking a stick and poking the embers. “That cannot be common, for a landowner’s son.”
Sheppard shrugged. “Teyla and the other slave children were my playmates, for my younger brother Davey was a sickly child and was kept much indoors—we were never very close. Teyla was my best friend and confidante.” He flicked a leaf into the flames and watched it burn. “At that time my father was indulgent, and had a fondness for Teyla.” He pulled a rueful face and sighed. “Less so for me, for I was always wild, and disinclined to do his bidding.” He was silent for a while. “My mother was unwell, and she died when I was little more than ten. My father changed after that, becoming cold and harsh. He beat me more often and ordered his overseer to use the workers cruelly, losing interest in Teyla. Only Davey retained his favor, being compliant by nature.”
“Teyla worked the tobacco?” Ronon asked, turning a makeshift spit.
“Aye,” Sheppard said, nodding. “They all did. “Charin had died by then, worn out and beaten one time too many. Teyla’s mother had been carried off by a fever when she was young, and her father—well, we never knew. Rumor had it he was a white man, an overseer, but none ever admitted to siring her.” He grimaced. “Merely to ask was to court a brutal beating.”
He gazed into the fire, remembering. “Charin had been revered, and Teyla took her place as a leader when she grew older, resolving disputes and dispensing hope. When she was no more than fifteen she arranged a means for slaves to escape to the Great Dismal Swamp which is but twenty miles from my father’s lands. It is a haven for maroons.”
Rodney nodded, knowing this term for escaped slaves. “The ‘Great Dismal Swamp’? It sounds a fearsome place.”
Sheppard snorted. “I should not myself choose to live there, and the inhabitants have hard lives, but they are free and they make do, felling trees in the depths of the swamp and trading the lumber to nearby hamlets for food and supplies. There is little the authorities or landowners like my father can do, for the swamp is vast and its denizens melt away into the interior where they cannot be tracked.”
He accepted a piece of cooked hare from Ronon on a curl of birch bark, and set it down to cool. “It was there, in the end, that I helped Teyla hide, when her activities organizing the escaped-slave routes and havens were discovered. She did not wish to leave her remaining people behind but I prevailed upon her to save herself so as to continue the work elsewhere. We disguised her as a lady of quality and traveled north together, for I was then one and twenty, sickened by what I had seen of slavery, and determined to slip my father’s grasp. I stole a hundred Spanish dollars from his safe box when I left, and have not returned since.” Sheppard shrugged. “I knew he would be too shamed to press charges against me, and so it proved.”
“But,” said Rodney, puzzled and blowing on his own hunk of roast hare impatiently. “If you felt so, why did you not remain with her and join our movement?”
Sheppard cut a sliver off his hare with a small, sharp knife drawn from his boot, and impaled the morsel, staring at it. “I took her to Nova Scotia and left her in Halifax, where she had friends. But, you’ll recall, there was the small matter of the war against Britain across the intervening years, which resulted in the birth of this fine nation.” His tone was sardonic. “As a rustic Canadian, you may not have kept up with developments.”
Rodney ceased chewing his own hare—tasty, but rather tough—to glare at him. “We in the border provinces were acutely aware of the American Revolution, sir, given that we were at war with you, and were grievously harried by armies on land and American privateers by sea.”
“I collect Canada did much harrying herself, on Britain’s behalf, but no matter,” Sheppard said dryly. “I joined the Revolutionary forces and was not deployed at the border, but was swept up in conflicts further south, at sea as well as on land. I was not released from service until the war ended in 1783.” He finished his supper and threw the bones of the hare into the fire, staring as it flared up. “I saw and did things in that war . . . well, suffice to say I was changed, afterward, and no longer any species of idealist. I was happy to have seen Teyla safely to Halifax before the fighting, but have not felt able to seek her out subsequently. I set about . . . pursuing distractions, shall we say, and made a tolerable living at the card tables, trading on my family name and staying one step ahead of my creditors.” He caught Rodney’s eye. “That is to say, other than Kolya.”
There was a prolonged silence, then Sheppard glanced up at Rodney and Ronon, his face closed. “Enough, I am weary. ‘tis a common enough tale, and tedious. Wars leave many such as me in their wake.”
“And yet,” Rodney said quietly, after another pause, “I think you are not lost to all sensibility. You ride with us to aid Teyla, after all.”
Sheppard did not meet his eyes. “She is all the family I have.” He made a vague gesture. “All the family I want, in any event.”
From Philadelphia they continued south-west to the outskirts of Baltimore, keeping to the smaller roads and trails. There, Ronon raided a smokehouse and procured a well-cured ham, also two fresh loaves of bread he had found cooling outside a farm’s kitchen window. Rodney felt a pang of guilt at the iniquities circumstances forced them into, but he and Sheppard were known to Kolya’s men by sight and Ronon, as a man of color and a stranger, would be assumed a runaway slave should he be seen. As Ronon carried no papers attesting his free status, that was a risk not to be borne, and all this precluded them from entering villages openly to purchase provisions. Rodney reassured himself that the farms Ronon stole from were prosperous, thus no real harm was done, and that their cause was noble and outweighed such minor sins.
Not, of course, that Rodney believed in such nonsense as sin, and over an excellent ham sandwich supper he engaged in a bracing discussion about the idiocy of religion with Sheppard, who had a remarkably lively mind under all that hair.
This became the pattern of their days: riding for hours on end; mid-day rest periods when Rodney napped, exhausted, Sheppard kept watch and Ronon, annoyingly indefatigable, hunted or foraged for food; and evenings by the campfire when they consumed whatever Ronon had gleaned, drank tea, and Sheppard and Rodney argued about all manner of things, Ronon occasionally snorting from under his hat or making impolite gestures as commentary.
Rodney found it remarkably pleasant, other than the riding part, for his legs still ached abominably at the end of each day and only willow-bark tea and discourse with Sheppard served to allay this. Ronon was a stalwart fellow and a true friend, but he was not a conversationalist, and Rodney found he had missed intellectual debate since leaving Halifax for parts south. Sheppard, if not forced to divulge his personal history, was quite ready to debate with Rodney on a variety of topics.
Many of the byways into which their discourse wandered were sheer fustian nonsense but somehow Sheppard had a way of drawing Rodney in, despite himself. In this fashion they explored Newton, Hooke and Bradley’s evidence that the Earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa, as too many ignorant fools still believed. Sheppard at first goaded Rodney into tirades by pretending to espouse geocentric notions, then admitted that in his time on a fast clipper defending the coast from British incursions, he had observed for himself that the horizon was curved like a great ball, and that modern sailors held no fear of someday dropping into nothingness in a fantastical oceanic waterfall off the edge of the planet.
That led them into foolish debate about exactly how many turtles the world’s disc rested on, and whether they were tortoises or sea-turtles (as Sheppard maintained, arguing that the animals would be forever awash from the seas coursing over the world’s edge and that tortoises would never stand for such treatment but would wander off in a sulk.)
“Although,” Sheppard mused somewhat wistfully, lying back on his blanket, arms under his head, gazing up at the stars, “I should like, I think, to sail that far, out to the unknown corners of the globe. My time as a sailor was the only enjoyable interval in the whole damned war. There is something restful about the ocean’s vastness, and to stand on a high spar with the wind whipping past is as close to flying as I am ever like to come.”
Rodney, propped up on one elbow poking the fire with a twig while Ronon snored in his blanket-roll, snorted. “I fancy you would change yourself into a seagull could you but manage that feat, given how fast you make us ride. You are quite wedded to speed, as my aching bones attest.”
Sheppard rolled his head. “Have you had your willow-tea, McKay? I cut you fresh bark only yesterday.”
“Yes, yes,” Rodney said. “Do not fuss. It will take effect shortly, let us hope.”
“I could make you forget your trials,” Sheppard said with a sidelong leer, glancing furtively at their sleeping companion.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “I thank you for the kind offer but Ronon has ears like a bat, and I am too weary to consider moving at all, let alone undertaking anything more vigorous.”
Sheppard huffed out a laugh and stretched out, gazing up again. “You have the right of it, in any event—I should like to be a bird. A gull, or an albatross, for despite their undeserved reputation with mariners they are formidable gliders. But best of all, a hawk, to catch the air and ride it to the heavens, then plummet from on high in a breathless fall.” He sighed happily. “That would be fine, indeed.”
“I am convinced we will achieve true flight some day,” Rodney said thoughtfully. “Leonardo da Vinci designed wings a man could wear all of three centuries ago, although his designs were not practical. The modern way, however, as you will have heard, is to go aloft in balloons filled with heated air, although none have yet achieved that feat on this continent, isolated as we are.”
Sheppard’s eyes shone, “I should very much like to ride in a balloon such as the Montgolfier brothers constructed.”
Rodney raised a finger. “The technology advances apace in Europe, unlike this benighted backwater, for a gas called hydrogen has been manufactured by Cavendish and is an excellent means to lift large balloons. Mark my words: the skies will be filled with balloon-travelers afore long, so you will get your wish, unless I am much mistaken—and I am never mistaken.”
“No, perish the thought,” Sheppard said, grinning broadly, and so another evening passed in pleasant conversation.
It was not all so easy. Several times they were forced to take cover in the forest when bands of approaching riders were spotted by Ronon’s eagle eyes. It rained for two days, leaving them sodden and miserable, hunched into their coats like drowned rats. They were forced to break their journey for half a day to dry their clothes and possessions, once the sun emerged.
A week into their travels, Ronon was set upon by mastiffs at a farmhouse, and bitten in the calf. The wounds were deep, and Sheppard frowned at the injury and said dogs’ mouths were notoriously foul and he liked it not, insisting Ronon let him play surgeon for he had learned something of injuries in the war. Ronon had some knowledge also, having seen combat with the Nova Scotian militia, but he was in no state to tend to himself so acquiesced to Sheppard’s ministrations.
Once apprised of Sheppard’s plan, Rodney near passed out, and ejaculated that surely such violence was ill-advised, earning identical glares from Ronon and Sheppard and an admonition to hold his tongue and make himself useful, causing him to comply meekly, sick with apprehension though he was.
Sheppard had Rodney hold Ronon down—a feat only possible with Ronon’s consent, even injured—and sprinkled gunpowder into the wound from Ronon’s flintlock pistol—weapons both he and Sheppard possessed, having stolen them from British soldiers in the war. He then then set fire to the gunpowder.
Rodney could not bring himself to watch, and came close to disgracing himself. Ronon screamed and bit through a leather strap Sheppard had given him, thereafter requiring several doses of willow-bark tea until the blackened wound improved in subsequent days. It healed well enough, though, without festering, so despite the extremity of the remedy, Sheppard’s treatment was deemed a success.
Ronon was not well enough in the day or so thereafter to raid outlying farms for food supplies. They engaged in heated debate, Sheppard asserting he could play the thief as readily as Ronon, and Rodney arguing that Sheppard had far too many charges already laid at his door, and that he himself was unfit for larceny, lacking the necessary sneakiness. Finally, Rodney determined to buy provisions at a small nearby hamlet, reasoning that even if Kolya's militia were tracking them to the Sheppard plantation, it was Sheppard whose face was better known and they were, in any event, not on the main road.
As luck would have it, Kolya proved more cunning than they had thought, having divided his forces to search for them. Rodney purchased bread and cheese but was seen by one of the men who had restrained Sheppard in the city, and had to ride as though pursued by the fiends of Hell to escape capture. Chastened, they pressed on, Sheppard on sentry duty at the front, hustling them off the track and into cover at any approaching riders.
They had by now reached the environs of Richmond, cutting inland around it to the west to avoid the headwaters of the James river. Sheppard said his family plantation was south-side of the James another two days’ journey away, so Sheppard and Rodney made an early morning sortie and appropriated two chickens and clutch of eggs, hoping a fox would be blamed as the culprit. Supplies replenished, they left Richmond behind and rode south-east, along the lower bank of the river.
They were unable to reach the plantation by nightfall of the second day, and the sky being overcast, Ronon refused to risk their tired horses on the pothole-filled road so they were forced to camp until the first tinge of gray in the east. It was not much further, and eleven days after fleeing New York and before the sun was up, they sat on horseback at the crest of a small hill, looking down into a valley filled with tobacco fields. The plantation house loomed at the center, surrounded by the dark shapes of sundry warehouses, curing sheds and outbuildings. Sheppard pointed out the slave quarters, which he said appeared unaltered.
“Which is to be expected,” he said grimly, “as my father would never waste money on improvements for mere slaves.”
He pointed out a glint of water beyond trees on the horizon, saying it was the river, five miles north, where ships put in to load hogsheads—barrels of tobacco for transport to cities up the coast.
Now that they had arrived, Rodney found himself tense and uncertain, for who knew what they would face in attempting Teyla’s rescue? In a well-regulated company he supposed they would have planned their approach to the rescue in detail, but this affair was far more in Sheppard’s and Ronon’s line than his own, requiring strategy—or was it tactics? Rodney had never been quite sure of the difference. Some quasi-military skill, in any event, and Ronon had not been well enough to sit up at day’s end and debate plans of attack with Sheppard, instead drinking his willow tea and wrapping himself in a blanket as soon as they had eaten, thereafter falling into a restless sleep.
Perhaps driven by the uncertainty of their fate after arrival, given that the journey, although arduous, had been an oddly companionable interlude, Sheppard had capitalized on Ronon’s need for rest by dragging Rodney off every night into the woods and having his way with him. Sheppard’s cock in his mouth or in his arse had driven all thoughts of forward planning from Rodney’s addled brain, so that he now found himself cursing their unprepared state.
“Shall we make our assault now, before dawn?” he asked, biting his lip.
“Sooner the better,” Ronon said. “Not many will be awake yet. Sneak in, not fight ’em.” He looked across at Sheppard. “They have firearms?”
“Some few, I’ll warrant,” Sheppard said. “The overseers, to control the slaves. And my father had a rifle for hunting.” He frowned down at the valley. “I agree, this is better done by stealth.” He cast a sardonic glance at Rodney. “ ’tis why you seduced me into your gang of rogues, after all.”
“Well, I . . .” prevaricated Rodney, flushing, “that is to say–”
“Aye, it is,” Ronon said.
Sheppard smirked, then turned back to stare down at the slave quarters, his face hardening. “You must pray that my father has not had whipped to death all the workers I once counted friends. There are some I believe will assist us, if they can do so without too much peril. You two are strangers—and white men, to boot—but Teyla they will aid, if they know of her whereabouts.”
“Why would they not? Where would she be?” Rodney asked, baffled.
“She is a runaway so he will not let her roam free,” Sheppard said, frowning. “He’ll have her locked up somewhere, or in chains, at the least.”
“Chains?” Rodney was aghast. “But we are not blacksmiths, to strike off metal shackles.”
Sheppard glanced at him with a wry grin. “I did not grow up here without learning how to pick a padlock and free my friends when they had erred, McKay, believe me.”
With that Rodney had to content himself, for Sheppard and Ronon urged their horses forward down the slope, and he was forced to follow.
Leaving their mounts tethered in the darkness of the trees, they crept up to the row of shadowed slave quarters, Rodney and Ronon lurking behind a nearby shed while Sheppard went carefully over to the nearest entrance, which he had said was the likeliest option, as it usually housed male slaves.
He was about to scratch on the door when a further entrance opened and an older man stepped out, shutting the door behind him. Sheppard froze, but there was no concealment as they were mere feet apart.
“What the devil!” the older man said, rearing up angrily, “Wh–”
Sheppard was on him in an instant, pinning him back against the rough wooden wall, one hand clamped over his mouth. He jerked his head at them and Ronon slipped over, silent as a cat, and frisked the man, murmuring that he had no pistol, and helping Sheppard restrain him. Rodney ventured out of hiding the better to grasp the scope of this calamity. Could the man be an overseer? He had thought them unlettered brutes, but this man looked gently born, albeit rustic and old-fashioned in dress.
“So, father. Up to your old tricks in the women’s quarters?” Sheppard hissed. The man tried to wrestle himself free, but was held in place effortlessly by Ronon, his expletives muffled by Sheppard’s hand.
Rodney realized his mouth was hanging open, and shut it. Patrick Sheppard.
“Where is she?” Sheppard ground out, leaning in. “Where is Teyla? Tell me, or by God I’ll do what I ought to have done years ago.”
He released the hand over Patrick Sheppard’s mouth a little, but only curses poured forth, so he clamped it back again. He looked up at Ronon. “He’s stubborn as a mule; I fear he’ll tell us nothing.”
“Can’t let him raise the alarm,” Ronon said, staring down at Sheppard père with dislike.
“Christ,” Sheppard muttered with feeling, then he hauled back and struck his father with an uppercut that lifted him up and laid him out cold, at their feet.
“Drew his cork very neatly,” Ronon said approvingly, admiring the trickle of blood running from Patrick Sheppard’s nose.
“Bastard had it coming,” Sheppard whispered angrily, nursing his knuckles.
The door Sheppard’s father had emerged from opened a crack, then there was a muffled exclamation and an elderly black woman pushed through and closed it firmly behind her. “Master John! But what–” She caught sight of Sheppard’s father lying unconscious on the ground and gasped, looking about fearfully. “Oh, Lord, what’s happened?”
“I laid him out to stop him raising the roof, but pay that no mind, Della. And call me Johnny, as you used to,” Sheppard stepped forward to embrace her in an awkward hug. She patted his back, then pulled away, wiping her eye. “We didn’ know an’ you were alive nor dead, Master Johnny. Tis good to see you.” She peered about again, anxiously. “But tisn’t safe. Overseer Kenmore, he was at the Goodman place last night playin’ cards, but he’ll be back at sun-up, and Todd with him, like as not.” She peered up at him. “And not all o’ them in the big house can be trusted.”
Sheppard grimaced. “Kenmore and Todd still here? I’d hoped them dead, or gone.” He took her by the shoulders. “What was my father doing in the women’s quarters, Della? Was he–”
She hushed him consolingly. “There’s a new girl he’s after, but we told him a tale of her moon-time being on her and fed him liquor ’til he drowsed.” She tapped her nose cunningly. “He’s no match for ol’ Della as raised him.”
Sheppard glared at his fallen father. “I think he was not raised, but spawned in the bowels of Hell.” He stiffened. “Wait—you said a new girl. Is Teyla in the women’s quarters?”
“Not her.” The old woman looked at him sadly. “She be in the cellar, Master Johnny, in irons. We been afear’d for her but he won’t let us nigh, not us as knows her.”
“She’s alive, then?” Sheppard asked, relaxing a little when she nodded. “Would any in the big house who still know me lend us aid? For I mean to free her, Della, and take her away again.”
“Aye, I reckoned such,” Della said, patting his cheek. She glanced down philosophically at Patrick Sheppard. “You’re a poor son but a good man, Johnny, God rest your spirit. ’course you must save Miss Teyla, an’ her bein’ your sister.”
“I . . .” Sheppard said, at a loss. “Truly? I had suspected, but . . .”
Della nodded. “As you said, it’s been his way these many years. Teyla knew but she din’ want to fret you. Afear’d you’d lay him out. Well, now it’s done and no mending.” She sighed, then pointed to a low wall. “Put him there and we’ll douse him with more liquor. Like as not he’ll think he passed out again, drunk. Happens often enough.”
Sheppard and Ronon carried his father over and propped him against the wall. Della scratched quietly on the door they had surmised was the men’s quarters, and after much whispering a slender young black man slipped out and she brought him over. “My grandson, Aiden.”
Rodney took his hand and shook it vigorously. “My apologies to you both, for we should have introduced ourselves. Our other companion is Ronon Dex of Halifax, and I am Rodney McKay. We are abolitionists.” Della and her grandson regarded him with raised brows, and Rodney was unsure how to follow this conversational gambit, although it had seemed important to establish their credentials from the outset. It was, however, a relief when Sheppard and Ronon rejoined them.
Sheppard stopped short, seeing the youth. “Aiden? Can you be grown already?”
The young man beamed, stepping forward eagerly to clasp Sheppard’s hand. “Six an’ twenty years, Master John. I was but twelve when you left with Miss Teyla.”
“I am an Ancient Mariner indeed,” Sheppard said ruefully.
“More like the Prodigal, Master John,” Aiden rejoined, flashing a grin.
Sheppard’s face tightened, and he glanced to where Della was now pouring strong spirits from a dark glass bottle over his father’s neck cloth and waistcoat. “Not as welcome as in scripture, I fear, Aiden, but no matter.” He turned back. “We are come for Teyla. Can you help us?”
“Aye, on one condition,” Sheppard raised a brow. “Take me with you,” Aiden said.
Della had returned and was nodding, patting Aiden’s arm. Sheppard looked between them, frowning. “I would take you all, had we the means to escape, but we’ve only three horses, and very far to travel.”
Della clutched Sheppard’s arm. “You must rescue Aiden as well, Master Johnny, for Mr. Kenmore has taken against him, and he was always . . . peculiar about Teyla. I’m afear’d what will become of ’em both. Aiden’s already had a whipping—show him boy, show him!” She made Aiden turn and raised his shirt. Rodney sucked in a shocked breath. The young man’s back was criss-crossed with deep scars. They were new-healed but in truth, he was lucky to have survived.
Aiden twisted around to peer over his shoulder, then winced as the scarring pulled. He dropped his shirt and turned back. “If’n Grandma hadn’t doctored me with her potions I’d be in the ground, most like.”
Sheppard’s face was bleak. He looked up at Ronon, but Ronon shook his head, almost imperceptibly. Rodney felt sick, but he could see no way to make this right. Their horses would be taxed even with Teyla’s weight shared out among the riders over another lengthy journey, and if they stole horses from the plantation their chances of reaching Halifax without arrest were slim indeed.
“There’s the clipper,” Aiden said doubtfully. “Well, she’s a schooner really, a Baltimore clipper. But I ain’t a sailor and the crew are Master Davy’s. Even if we could take the ship from them, which I doubt, we’d not be able to sail her.”
“A clipper?” Sheppard’s ears had pricked up like a coursing hound. “Down at the wharf?”
“Aye,” Aiden said, “called the Apollo. ’tis a new venture of Master Davey’s. The old man thinks it foolish but the young Master says we are losing too much money in shipping costs.”
“It is a chance,” Sheppard said to Ronon, almost pleading, “and a better way to reach Halifax by far, than on horseback with Kolya dogging our heels.”
Ronon looked dubious—Rodney knew he hated sailing. Rodney himself was no lover of the ocean, where terrible creatures like whales lay in wait. He had seen their huge, stinking carcasses in Halifax, a whaling center.
“Would your brother aid us?” Rodney asked, for he misliked their ability to wrest a ship from an entire crew, nor did he wish to add piracy to their growing list of felonies.
Sheppard’s face hardened. “I doubt it. We were never the best of friends, and he was my father’s favorite.”
“He’s not so bad, is Master Davey,” Aiden said, and Della nodded. “Things are not quite as they were in your day, Master John, now the old man is dying and the young Master mostly has the upper hand.” He made a face. “Other than Kenmore, who’s still a bastard.”
“My father is dying?” Sheppard looked shocked, which made little sense. But people were rarely rational about fathers, in Rodney’s experience. He himself was a case in point.
Della nodded. “ ’tis his liver, after years of hard drinking. The doctor from Richmond,” she turned her head to one side and spat in contempt, “gave him a six month, at best.”
“We plan to stand here jawing all day?” Ronon broke in.
“No,” Sheppard said. “Once we free Teyla we’ll decide about this clipper.” He turned to Aiden. “We’ll need to ride fast for the wharf once we have her. Can we get the horses tended while we’re up at the house?”
“Aye, Bates still runs the stables,” Aiden said. He grinned. “You and he were always thick as thieves, Master John. He’s still abed but I’ll wake him. Go on, you’ll find Tom, the stable boy, there.”
They retrieved their horses and found Tom asleep in the straw, but he readily enough did what Sheppard instructed. Bates, a close-cropped mulatto man, arrived and greeted Sheppard with a shoulder clap, helping Tom give their weary animals hay and buckets of water.
Ronon and Sheppard checked their pistols. Rodney had no firearm, nor could he have hit the broadside of a barn, if given one. He eyed a rusty scythe propped in a corner, but decided against it—most likely he’d trip on it and impale himself.
Sheppard peered out the stable door. “No sign of Kenmore or Todd.” He cast a worried glance back at the horses. “Bates will have them ready, and if matters do not go as we hope with Teyla’s rescue they’ll be well cared for.” Rodney swallowed and tried to calm himself.
The boy looked up from where he was helping Bates rub down Rodney’s mare with a handful of straw. “Miss Teyla? She ain’t here, Master.”
“No, Tom, we know she is up at the big house,” Sheppard said, glancing down at him.
“Not there neither,” the boy said, shaking his head. “Master Davey took her.”
“Took her?” Sheppard crouched down and grasped Tom’s arm, Bates also pausing in his work to frown down at them. “What is this?”
“I saw him in the night, a while after sunset. He had a lamp. Put Miss Teyla up behind him on the bay gelding an’ rode off to the wharf.”
“What the devil?” Sheppard rose, perplexed.
“She was bruised up an’ bloody,” the boy said. He raised up both wrists. “From the irons.”
“Curse him!” Sheppard said, his face dark. “What is my fool brother up to?” He turned back to their barely-rested horses. “Ronon! Help Bates and the boy saddle up again. She’s been taken to the wharf.”
“Not me doing all the jawing,” Ronon muttered, but he saw to his gray while Bates helped Rodney ready the mare once again. Teyla was in jeopardy, and they must ride to save her.
The compound was quiet as they rode north on the track to the wharf. Ronon looked suspiciously about. “Too quiet,” he said, turning in the saddle to stare behind as they trotted. He was in the lead, Rodney following and Sheppard in the rear, Aiden Ford behind him, his arms clasped tight about Sheppard’s waist.
“ ’tis but early,” Rodney said breathlessly, jolted by his horse’s gait.
“Not for a plantation,” Sheppard said. “Ronon’s right.”
A sudden deafening report punctuated this remark, and Aiden screamed. Then another gunshot, and Rodney felt something whistle past his ear.
Ronon yelled, “Ride! Ambush!” and Rodney’s horse needed no urging, bolting forward down the road in pursuit of Ronon’s gray. Behind, Sheppard was cursing but sounded close on their heels.
No further shots rang out, and after a breathless, terrifying gallop, his back crawling as though it were a giant target, Rodney found Ronon halted and facing back the way they’d come, pistol raised and teeth bared, narrowed eyes searching the countryside for their assailants. Rodney just managed to rein his mare in without taking a tumble, and Sheppard, riding awkwardly with an arm behind him clutched about Ford, pulled up in a cloud of dust.
“Kenmore and Todd, lurking in the trees with rifles,” Sheppard called as he approached. “They’ll reload and go for horses, to follow us.”
Ronon cursed. “Knew it was too quiet.”
“Help me with him,” Sheppard said, jerking his head over one shoulder at Ford who was slumped, seemingly lifeless against his back.
“Can’t stop to tend him if he ain’t dead,” Ronon said, but he and Rodney dismounted and eased Ford down, Sheppard sliding off his saddle as soon as he could, to crouch over the youth. Rodney stepped back and took all three horses’ reins, sickened by the blood drenching the side of Ford’s shirt.
“He’s alive,” Sheppard said. “It’s a flesh wound under his ribs, but he needs doctoring, and soon.”
Ronon swung up on his horse again. “Pass him up here and I’ll put him before me on the saddle. He’s in no state to cling on.” They did this, and set off again at a fast pace, but even pushing the horses as much as they dared, it seemed an age before Rodney saw the wharf in the distance. There was as yet no pursuit, so he dared to hope the overseers had thought better of following them, or that Bates had somehow delayed them.
The clipper was not clearly visible as they drew near, only its two tall, raked masts showing above the cluster of warehouses at the water’s edge. The sun had just cleared the horizon and the land was flat here with sparse clusters of trees, the river a broad expanse, glittering in the morning light. They took a side track around the buildings and thundered to a dusty, sweaty halt on the wharfside where a number of men rolling large iron-bound barrels toward a wooden gangplank stopped what they were doing, staring at them wide-eyed.
On the clipper, now revealed as a sleek vessel with neatly furled sails, two tall backward-raked masts and a long bowsprit, several sailors, both black and white-skinned, stopped manhandling more barrels and came to the rail to gape at them. One vanished from sight and Rodney heard the slap of running feet and a call of “Cap’n! Cap’n!”
“We need help. Aiden Ford’s been shot!” Sheppard shouted, helping Rodney lift Ford down from Ronon’s horse and lay him on the hard-packed ground. Ford groaned, his eyelids flickering. Ronon dismounted as well and got a canteen from his saddle-bag, passing it to Sheppard, who held it to Ford’s lips. Ronon stood guard over them, pistol drawn, gazing fiercely about, although it was a scene of industry they had interrupted, not one of strife.
“John?” said an incredulous voice from above them on the clipper, and Rodney looked up to see a man with brown hair and a jacket and neck cloth that marked him a landowner, staring down, hands on the rail.
“Davey,” Sheppard said warily, rising to his feet and drawing his pistol as well, holding it loosely at his side. “What have you done with her?”
“Done with who?” the man who must be Sheppard’s younger brother said, frowning.
“Teyla, damn it!” Sheppard snapped. “You’ll not get away with it, for we’re here to rescue her.”
A woman a head shorter than David Sheppard appeared alongside him at the rail, her russet hair pulled back into a plait. One side of her face was dark with bruising and her wrists, on the rail, were bound with strips of cloth. She regarded them with clear, amused eyes. “My thanks, John, but I am not in need of rescuing at this moment.” Her lips curled in a smile. “It is very good to see you, nonetheless.”
“Teyla!” Rodney said, taking an involuntary step forward. Ronon lowered his gun a little, but remained vigilant.
“Rodney, and Ronon,” Teyla said, her smile broadening. “You have come all this way from Halifax?”
“To save you!” blurted Rodney. “It has been a most arduous and, and dangerous adventure!”
Teyla’s face assumed a fondly serious expression. “I can well believe it, and am heartily grateful. I would have needed your assistance most grievously, my dear friends, had Mr. Sheppard here not taken my rescue upon himself.”
Rodney glanced at his own Sheppard—this was confusing. He might be forced to call him John and his brother David or he would never keep them straight in his mind. Not that they looked alike, for they did not. John’s brother was, Rodney fancied, shorter and more square-faced, with mid-brown hair. His own Sheppard, he felt, was the superior in looks, and doubtless in all else.
Beside him, John muttered, “Davey? . . . your rescue?” and shook his head as though to clear it. “I . . . we have need of a surgeon. Have you a ship’s doctor?” He holstered his pistol, and Ronon somewhat reluctantly followed suit.
“Oh," Teyla said, noticing Aiden lying in the dust, his shirt bloody. "Who–?”
“Aiden Ford,” John said. “Is there no–”
“Aiden!” Teyla exclaimed, hastening down the gangplank, limping a little but with most of her usual grace.
A tall man, dark skinned and with a neat mustache, appeared at the rail and stared down with an air of command. “He is injured?”
“Shot by my father’s overseer, Kenmore. Or by Todd. They ambushed us.”
The tall man turned and bellowed “Fetch Beckett—we’ve an injured man!” Sailors ran to do his bidding, and he and David Sheppard followed Teyla down the gangplank.
Teyla knelt, cradling Ford’s head in her lap, stroking his face and murmuring to him, and John rose to his feet, frowning at his brother and the tall man, who, Rodney saw, wore a Captain's uniform. He must be from the North, Rodney surmised, for although black sailors were not uncommon it was exceedingly rare for one to be an officer, and only possible in the Northern states. Possibly he'd been a mate on a Maine whaler, and had risen to command a vessel due to the exigencies of wartime.
John nodded politely. “Captain Ellis, sir. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Ellis nodded curtly. “You have the advantage of me, sir.”
A sardonic look on his face—oh, and now Rodney could see the resemblance between the brothers—David Sheppard gestured an introduction. “My brother, Major John Sheppard, late of the Revolutionary forces. Captain Abraham Ellis, of the Apollo.” He glanced at John. “Good of you to drop by, Johnny. We had given you up for dead, or perhaps hoped you were, given the tales of your rake’s progress that reached us even from New York.”
Ellis eyed John narrowly. “So this is the famous elder brother. Have we met?”
Sheppard, whose jaw had tightened at his brother’s words, shook his head. “No, sir. But I served on a clipper from 1781 to the war’s end. The Orion. Your fame precedes you.” He made a bow, and Ellis inclined his head in return.
“As does yours,” he said. Sheppard flushed darkly and drew in an angry breath. Ellis raised a placating hand. “No, no, I meant only that any officer capable of winning Dillon Everett over must have some skills other than at cards and petticoats. Captain Everett said you were as natural a sailor as ever he’d seen, and he wasn’t a man to bandy compliments lightly.”
“I . . . Captain Everett?” Sheppard seemed more confounded by the praise than he had been by his brother’s jibes. “We did not at first . . .”
Ellis barked out a laugh. “No, indeed. He said you were a damned disobedient cub, but that he never saw anyone sail a ship off a dock sweet as you, and you were a good man to have at one’s back in a fight.”
Sheppard appeared dumbstruck by this, coloring and rubbing the back of his neck. His brother David watched him thoughtfully, arms crossed.
“Make way, make way, damn ye!” shouted a flushed, dark-haired man, rushing down the gangplank clutching a leather surgeon’s bag. “Where’s the poor lad?”
He dropped to his knees and examined Ford’s wound, taking a pad of cotton cloth from the bag and pressing it to Ford’s bloody side while exchanging low-voiced comments with Teyla. She twisted around and gestured to two of the dock workers. “Toran, Ishan. There is an old door propped at the back of the shed. Bring it to carry Aiden on board.” The men ran off into the warehouse.
“Carson?” Rodney asked, surprised. “Carson Beckett? I have not seen you since . . . I know not, but it must be many years. Why are you in Virginia?”
Beckett peered up at him. “Rodney McKay! ’tis indeed many a year since we were in Halifax together. For my part, the war is to blame, and a damn fool wish for adventure. But I see you have strayed far from home as well.”
Rodney went to reply, but Beckett held up a hand. “Rodney, hold up, for I well recall your ability to talk the hind legs off several donkeys and I must extract a bullet from this unfortunate lad before it festers. I’ll catch up with you as soon as may be.”
Before long, Beckett had supervised the carrying of his patient up the gangplank and onto the clipper. Teyla squeezed Rodney’s arm. “I too will be delighted to hear your account a little later, but I must go and assist Dr. Beckett.” She rested her head against his for a moment, then took Ronon’s hand. “Dear Rodney and Ronon, it is so good to be reunited.” Turning, she clasped John’s arms and gazed up at him. “I have missed you, dear Johnny, and you shall tell me all that has happened, as soon as we have made Aiden comfortable.” John bent and kissed the top of her head, and she smiled up at him then ran up the gangplank and vanished.
“Your pardon, but I must see to the loading, for we have much to do,” Ellis said, nodding curtly to them and striding off, shouting to the gawkers to look lively and shift their stumps.
“Anywhere I can see to the horses?” Ronon asked David Sheppard.
“Oh. Aye, in that last warehouse there are stalls with what you’ll need.” Ronon nodded and led their horses away, shooting John a meaningful look as he left.
John grimaced. “Look, Davey, I’m sorry if I jumped to conclusions about you carrying Teyla off, but she’s clearly been ill-used, and the old man–”
David Sheppard set his jaw. “Father wanted her back, of course, but it was not he who put her in irons or beat her. That bastard Kenmore took advantage of my being away in Richmond for a week on business.”
“For Christ’s sake, Davey, why do you keep him on?”
“Father won’t be rid of him, and he is still master here, John, for some small while longer. This may serve to persuade father to turn him off, and Todd as well, but we must have overseers. We must keep order among the slaves somehow, you know.”
“Aye,” John said bitterly. “With whippings and cruelty. ’tis an evil business and you know I’ll have none of it.”
“You’ve always set yourself up against tradition and been damned insolent to father, John, but things here will change when I am master, depend upon it. Our workers have nowhere else to go, in any event. This is their home, and I take my responsibilities seriously. Someone must keep the plantation going, since you will not do your part.”
“Do not try me, brother, for you seek only to inherit our father’s wealth and his lands. Well, you’re welcome to it all. I want nothing earned from the sweat and blood of human suffering.”
They glared at each other. Rodney cleared his throat, causing John to turn and glare at him in turn. Rodney raised a brow.
“Jesus,” John said, clearly in no mood for social niceties. “Rodney, this is my brother, David Sheppard. Davey, this is Rodney McKay, late of Halifax.”
Rodney extended a hand. “We are abolitionists,” he informed David Sheppard, holding himself as tall as he could, chin raised pugnaciously. “Come to free Teyla, who is a jewel among women and no man’s property.”
John snorted, eyeing him with amused annoyance. “No, indeed. She would hit you with a stick should you make that grave error.”
Rodney held up a finger. “Yet she was taken, and harshly used,” He fixed David Sheppard with a steely gaze. “Me, she would indeed hit with a stick and deservedly, but against brutish slave-catchers she had no defence, nor against this Kenmore creature. And it is this damnable institution of slavery you espouse that allowed her to be so abused.”
David Sheppard had the grace to look discomforted. “Teyla is . . . a different case. It is more complex than you know, Mr. McKay. You intellectuals from the North understand nothing of our ways in the South, of the financial complexities, the patriarchal obligations–”
Rodney stepped in and poked David Sheppard in the chest, flushed with anger. “Oh, spare me. I understand that slavery is iniquitous and a blight upon the land. If the Southern states cling to this moronic practice it will tear your young nation apart.” He cut his gaze between the two men. “Brother against brother. Father against son.”
John rolled his eyes and grabbed the back of Rodney’s jacket, pulling him off David Sheppard, whose face was grim and flushed dark. “I see now that you did indeed have a preacher for a father, McKay. Very Old Testament.” He turned back to his brother. “He’s right, though. What happened to Teyla was unconscionable, and she cannot remain here.”
David Sheppard shook himself and shot his cuffs, brushing the front of his waistcoat as though removing all trace of Rodney’s intrusive finger. “Nor shall she. The Orion sails north as soon as she’s loaded, and Teyla will sail with her.”
“As will Aiden,” John said, “for I’ll not let him remain here after being whipped nigh to death.”
David Sheppard sighed. “Aye, Aiden as well. And you, brother? Have you thrown your lot in with the Abolitionists now?”
“It seems I have,” John said, flashing Rodney a wicked glance. “For they are devilish persuasive and have wonderfully clever tongues.” Rodney flushed red, and had to turn away and pretend to a coughing fit.
“If Ellis will carry us,” John continued, ignoring Rodney, “we’ll all take passage north. You’ll care for our horses?”
“Naturally,” David Sheppard said, a trifle stiffly. “They seemed excellent animals.” He eyed John cautiously. “Then you are not looking for . . . a remittance? To inherit?”
“God, no,” John said, scowling. He stared his brother in the eye. “Not one penny, and damn you for asking. I have made myself clear.”
David Sheppard raised a warding hand. “Let us not talk of it again, lest your terrifying friend bite my head off. I see rumors of Canadian over-civility are ill-founded.”
“Very droll,” Rodney snapped. “At least we do not–”
“Riders!” came a cry from the top of the mast, where the ship’s boy clung, peering inland toward the plantation house through a spyglass. “A large party, with the overseers and a big-nosed dark man out in front o’ them.”
“Hell and damnation,” Sheppard cursed. “ ’tis Kolya’s militia, come to arrest us.”
“Have they cause?” David Sheppard’s brows were raised.
John rocked his hand and shrugged. “One of our horses is Kolya’s, the black stallion. And I stand falsely accused of rape, a charge he trumped up to disguise his own crime. Also I owe him 500 dollars from the faro tables.” He grimaced. “That last is the only accusation with any merit to it, for the horse was ill-used and deserves a better master.”
His brother blew out an angry breath. “Damn it, John, I see the tales of your exploits were not wholly exaggerated.” He craned back and called up to the boy in the rigging. “How far off?”
The boy peered through his spyglass again and shrugged. “Mebbe ’alf an hour, sir?”
“Can she finish loading in that time?” John asked, frowning at the dock workers who did not appear to have shifted many more barrels.
David Sheppard shook his head. “No. It will take an hour more, and we cannot let the militia search her.”
“Aye,” John agreed, “Teyla and Aiden.”
“Can you not free them?” Rodney asked urgently.
“They are not yet my . . .” David Sheppard pulled an awkward face, “property. And my father will not do it.” John and Rodney shared a guilty look, united in thinking his father in no state to conduct any manner of business.
“Nor will that solve our problems with this Kolya brute,” Rodney said, turning to stare at the busy wharf and the warehouse filled with barrels. “What is in those?” He demanded, pointing.
“The hogsheads?” David Sheppard shrugged. “Tobacco, of course. They have loaded the provisions already. This is cargo.”
“Well,” snapped Rodney, “if you love your brother at all, you must forgo some profit from this voyage, for I have another use for several of your hogsheads. We must stall Kolya and his party and I can see only one means to do so.”
John’s eyes gleamed. “You have a plan?”
“Indeed I do.” Rodney rubbed his hands together. “The very devil of a plan.”
“I always wanted a trebuchet, as a boy,” John said, grinning as Ronon and two burly dock workers roped down the long curving plank which formed the engine for Rodney’s makeshift contraption.
“For the last time, it is not a trebuchet, but a catapult!”
“Same thing,” John said airily.
“It is most definitely not the same thing at all,” Rodney snapped. “The forces and mechanics involved are vastly different. But we have no time to argue about primitive siege machinery.” He stepped forward. “Another coil of rope, I think?” Ronon looked up and nodded. “You can sever them in an instant?” Ronon grinned and pulled a long, wickedly sharp knife from his boot, brandished it briefly then re-sheathed it.
Rodney nodded. “Very well. It is wasteful of rope, but we have no other means and Captain Ellis has been generous. Ships are notoriously over-filled with ropes, in any event. One is forever tripping over them.”
The catapult was extraordinarily simple, but all had hinged on finding the right type of plank. In the end, the wharf foreman recalled some planks stored in the rafters of the warehouse, and these proved to be suitable—long enough to serve, strong yet flexible.
Rodney had ordered it built so as to point toward the road and the barely-visible, distant cluster of horsemen. They had tied down a giant hogshead barrel as a fulcrum, using copious rope and many long iron spikes hammered into the hard-packed ground. Over it Rodney had balanced the plank, tied down at each end in a similar fashion, although much more securely at the far end, closer to their target. The top plank was thus unnaturally restrained and curved in a tight arc, its tensile strength waiting to be released.
On the end nearest the warehouse they would place another hogshead filled with tobacco, and when the ropes tethering the upper plank at that end were severed by Ronon, the plank would spring up, flinging the barrel, Rodney believed, quite some distance to wreak havoc on the approaching militia. This would be repeated as many times as they could manage, until Kolya’s men and the overseers were, Rodney devoutly hoped, brought down by the bombardment and forced to lie low.
The main problems were the delay between missiles which rested on how rapidly the sprung plank could be tied down again and another hogshead wrestled onto it. That, and range-finding, but they had willing hands aplenty, and Rodney had a natural feel for mechanics. With the ship’s boy on high reporting the result of each shot, he felt he could make the necessary adjustments quite rapidly. It was crude, but the exact positioning of the hogshead on the plank offered some calibration. The rest relied on his instinctive grasp of geometry, and in timing when to commence the barrage. Too soon and Kolya’s party would be warned and unharmed. Too late and the hogsheads would fall uselessly to their rear.
David Sheppard had looked pained at the use to be made of his barrels of tobacco, but had not objected. John had rapidly grasped the mathematics, indeed, had embraced the catapult delightedly, which Rodney ascribed to a boyhood wasted in martial games, resulting in a childish delight in anything warlike. Captain Ellis had considered the plan thoughtfully and reminded Rodney to factor in the wind, which was an excellent point for there was a light breeze from the west—annoying for precision with the catapult, but essential once the clipper needed to fill her sails and make for the river mouth. Rodney had aligned his machine accordingly.
Other than offering technical advice, Ellis had devoted himself to urging on his men and the plantation workers to load the ship with all speed. David Sheppard would nonetheless have to accept them sailing with a hold only two-thirds full, for there was only so long they could hold off the militia. At the last, they would lock all the plantation staff and David Sheppard in a warehouse and put to sea. John’s brother had looked sour at this ignominious end, but some ruse was necessary to protect him both from his father’s censure and from Kolya’s wrath at their escape.
John had returned from farewelling the black stallion, and was squinting at the dust cloud that marked the militia. “You know,” he said consideringly, “the thing about tobacco is that it can be smoked.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “You have a talent for the obvious.” He had a fine pipe back in Halifax, although when he would next have the leisure to sit with a book, puffing peacefully, was anyone’s guess. Not with a sea voyage in his future, doubtless beset by mal de mer and fearsome monsters.
“I was referring to its flammable qualities, McKay. It burns.”
Rodney frowned at him. “Not very well. It smoulders, rather.”
“A little lamp oil would feed the flames—I’ll bet Davey has a barrel or two tucked away here. If we clear some tobacco from each hogshead and pour in the oil, then light it and close the lid just before Ronon cuts the ropes it would burn well enough. The lids do not need to be perfectly tight, do they?”
“No, indeed they must not be, for your scheme. The fire will need air to remain alight en route.”
“Like flaming arrows!” John said, beaming. Really, he had been allowed to read highly inaccurate literature as a boy.
“Yes, except our scheme may work, whereas flaming arrows extinguish themselves in flight,” Rodney said caustically. “Enough gabbing—get the oil from your brother, and a lamp. There is little time left before we must start our assault.”
In retrospect, it was lucky their first attempt overshot, landing behind the oncoming militia. That merely spurred the last horses and gave Kolya no real warning. The second barrel struck just before the frontrunners, to the left—damn that westerly—and took down the overseer Kenmore and several other riders. Furiously calculating, Rodney had them fire again, and this hogshead smashed directly before Kolya’s horse, spraying him and his men with burning tobacco. There were screams, and the onward movement ceased, which was what Rodney had been counting on. He had them send two more missiles into the chaos, with deadly effect.
Judging their opponents to be sufficiently cast into confusion, they left men on guard and withdrew to the dock beside the gangplank, where David Sheppard was supervising the loading, his men and the Apollo’s crew sweating and cursing as they drove to load as much of the cargo as possible.
In the end, when the alarm went up and the lookouts came running to join their fellows, Rodney judged only a fourth of the cargo to be left on the wharf. David Sheppard herded his people into the warehouse then pushed the thick iron padlock hasp home until it clicked and turned, looking defiant.
“Wait,” Rodney said. “This is not the plan. Unlock it and join them.”
“I will not,” He glared at John. “I’ll not cower under cover while a pack of rogues ride in to take my people and my brother.” He glanced at Rodney, his mouth tight. “Even if my brother’s associates are . . . Canadians.”
“There’s no time for this. You cannot fight them!” John said furiously.
“Then lay me out and have done with it!” His brother cried. “So long as it seems I made some attempt.”
“Davey, I cannot!”—John cast a desperate glance at Rodney, who thought of Patrick Sheppard lying still and bloody-nosed. It was too much to expect John to plant facers on both father and brother in one day.
Ronon’s fist shot out and sent David Sheppard flying. He lay still where he fell, and John cursed and knelt by him, then looked up. “He’s alive.”
“ ’course he is,” Ronon grunted. “Be right as rain, after a little tap like that.”
“If you’ve finished your games, gentlemen, we must be under way,” Ellis called from the clipper. John looked back at his fallen brother, but Rodney and Ronon hustled him away and up the gangplank. Behind them, the gangplank was drawn up and thick mooring hawsers were cast off.
“The crew stand ready, Sheppard,” Ellis said. “Will you sail her off the dock for us?”
John looked startled, but recovered on an instant. “I . . . yes, I should be honored, sir.” He began barking orders in a baffling nautical lingo, setting men scurrying in the rigging and on deck as the westerly filled the clipper’s sails and she moved, achingly slowly, out from the wharf and toward the channel.
Too slowly. Kolya clattered to a stop on the dock, his horse’s eyes wild and its mouth bloody. He himself had scorched patches on his uniform and had lost some hair. There was a stretch of water between the Apollo and the wharf, but only the width of a drawing room. Too far to leap, Rodney thought, peering anxiously over the rail, and widening every second. He looked back at John, who cried out as a loud report sounded. Rodney felt a stabbing pain in his arm and looked down in shock. A bullet had grazed him, slicing open his coat sleeve which was wet with blood. On the dock, Kolya was raising a second pistol.
Another crack, this time from John’s gun, and Kolya clutched his shoulder and dropped his weapon. The horse wheeled and reared, and Kolya fell backward into the water, vanishing with a splash. Ronon, now also at the rail, fired into the river where Kolya had disappeared, causing John to shoot him a look.
Ronon shrugged. “Better safe than sorry. Bastard’s got nine lives.”
“Stop blathering clichés you great lout and help me before I pass out!” Rodney snapped. He clutched his forearm, but the blood seeping through his fingers made him queasy. He turned to John. “And you, sail the damned boat!”
“She’s a ship, Rodney, not a boat,” John said with a worried frown. He shot Ronon a look, at which Ronon nodded, stepping forward to let Rodney slump against him.
As Ronon swept Rodney up to carry him down for Beckett to examine, John turned back to his task and the Apollo picked up speed, moving east toward the ocean, her sails belling out with the westerly wind.
Their less than fully laden state occasioned much discussion, Teyla being insistent that they anchor where the Great Dismal Swamp had a jetty, to take with them as many runaway slaves as wanted passage to Halifax—or as many as the ship could accommodate.
Ellis was against it, saying he might be captaining a clipper but she was no slave-transport, and Teyla arguing that any maroons they took on board would not be treated as slaves, so there was no comparison. Teyla won, of course. Rodney could have told Ellis to save his breath, for when Teyla was set on a course of action, no man could gainsay her.
Despite his forebodings, Rodney largely escaped seasickness and had his sea-legs by the second day. Ronon was not so fortunate, and languished, tended by Teyla and Beckett, for much of a week. He then emerged, pale and taciturn, and sat on the deck in sunny corners, whittling or playing with his knives, which earned him a good deal of elbow room. Rodney’s wound healed well and he enjoyed sitting with Ronon, carrying on a one-sided discourse about diverse natural philosophy topics. John would join them when not on shift as second mate, for they were short-handed and Ellis meant to enlist crew in Halifax.
The small vessel was crowded and Rodney might have felt guilty about occupying a passenger cabin—as opposed to a bedroll in the hold—had Teyla not appropriated the next cabin along for herself. Also, the crowding was an excellent and ostensibly noble reason to share a cabin with John.
This resulted in many happy hours in their bunk with John teasing him mercilessly during long, drawn-out sessions pressed close, John exploiting the ship’s rolling movement to rock into Rodney until he was driven half mad, begging and sobbing until John too lost all control and fucked him until they were gasping and sated. Teyla occasionally banged on the cabin wall if they were noisier than she thought prudent, but in general contented herself with eyerolls and knowing glances, or kicks under the table when they were called to dine with Ellis.
No whales menaced the ship, and Rodney was able to talk at length with Beckett and exchange stories of their adventures in the intervening years. John, for his part, spent peaceful hours with Teyla, chatting quietly or just sitting with her and mending sails while Ronon whittled. Chess was a pastime only John and Rodney shared, the others preferring faro, which John had sworn off. After choppy seas sent a half-played chess game tumbling into disarray, Rodney, in high dudgeon, conceived a notion to glue magnets to the underside of the pieces and construct a board from painted sheet-iron. Designing this project occupied him for several days and he determined to make such a set on arrival.
Their arrival troubled him. As they neared Halifax, Rodney found his queasiness returning. Finally, recognising it for fear rather than mal de mer, he found opportunity to talk with John one evening when they were watching the sun set off the port rail.
“Shall you stay in Halifax?”
John glanced at him. “Aye—best to lie low for some time. And I must find work, although other than soldiering I have few skills.”
“You’re a fine sailor, Ellis says.”
“You think I should sign onto a whaler?” John looked out across the gold-shimmering water and sighed. “I am weary of killing.”
“God no, never that!” Rodney exclaimed. “Why would you seek out behemoths deliberately?”
John smiled at him fondly. “Whales are but huge fish, Rodney. Most do not even eat smaller fish in turn, but live on seaweed or some such.”
“They are not fish, but are warm-blooded,” Rodney protested, shuddering. “Which makes it worse, somehow, although I do not understand why.”
“And you a man of science.” John grinned at him sidelong. “On this topic you are sadly irrational.”
“The exception proves the rule,” Rodney muttered, lifting his chin. “Do not derail me from my porpoise with talk of whales.”
John fell against the rail, snorting his ridiculous laugh.
“What did I say?” Rodney pummeled his arm, incensed.
“P-porpoise!” spluttered John, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Oh, you are impossible. It is your fault, in any event, confusing me with this nonsense about whales.” Rodney huffed out a breath. “I do not know why I love you.”
There was a hush, and Rodney cursed the unguarded tongue which had betrayed him into honesty. Then John sidled closer and bumped shoulders with him.
“Likewise,” he muttered, his ears flushing pink.
“Oh, in truth?” John nodded, coloring further.
“Well, then,” Rodney said in a determined tone, “If Ellis keeps you on in Halifax we shall aid Ronon and Teyla and restore our fortunes, and perhaps run away to sea and have adventures.”
“Explore the globe?” John’s voice was hopeful.
“Most definitely. I will make discoveries and you will keep me safe from monsters.” Rodney glanced around, but people had gone to their suppers and they had this part of the deck to themselves. He pulled John’s head down and kissed him tenderly. “Well, even if our dashing rescue of Teyla proved unnecessary, this expedition has had one excellent result.”
“It was a most necessary rescue, Rodney,” John said quietly, kissing him again. “For I was a lost lamb when you found me.” He took Rodney’s hand and led him back toward their cabin.
“Do not go scriptural on me, Sheppard,” Rodney said with a snort, as John maneuvered him through the door, kicked it shut behind him and contrived to unbutton Rodney’s shirt while pressing him up against the cabin wall. “Anyone less like a lost lamb would be hard to . . . ngh . . . oh, do that again . . .”
“What am I, Rodney?” John whispered in his ear.
“Impossible . . . and very good with your . . .”
“Mmm?” John enquired in an interested tone, pushing him face down over their table so the chess board, with another unfinished game, fell and scattered.
“Oh!” groaned Rodney. “The sooner I construct that magnetic set the better!”
“Later,” John growled, pulling Rodney’s breeches down and reaching for the lamp oil.
That night, Teyla was forced to bang on the wall most vigorously.
- fin -