"Nothing," Sam muttered to herself, her voice little more than a tortured rasp as she tried not to think about the burned grass and scorched earth that surrounded the Stargate platform. She couldn't afford to consider what that might mean, not and maintain a hold on herself. Boone had held out the hope that Janet might have made it to cover, and she was clinging to that with every fiber of her being.
"It's over here," Jack said softly, his voice echoing oddly in the confines of the cave.
She turned, noting he was shining his flashlight along another edge of the slab, and flashed her beam across his face, noting the greenish tinge that had come over his complexion. "Sir?" she started his way, but he waved her to stay put.
"Somebody's picked up the pack and equipment Boone said was left behind...." He crouched down, picking up a discarded paper gauze wrapper. "All that's left is some of the packing materials...and...." He gestured toward the edge of the slab and paled another notch. "Um...."
Sam got the message without his having to explain. "Oh."
"Jack...Sam," Daniel called as he stepped into the chamber, "Teal'c thinks he's found something."
With nothing more for them to do there, the two officers followed Daniel back into the waning daylight.
It had been nearly six hours since the original team's panicked evacuation. Six hours that could have brought any number of terrors to the woman lost on the wrong side of the gate. Nails digging into her palms, Sam cut that train of thought off right there as she hurried after Daniel.
They quickly found the Jaffa where he was crouching at the center of a patch of blackened earth. He looked up as they drew close and held out a hand to reveal the coiled wire of an earpiece. "I found this," Teal'c said by way of explanation. "And boot prints that are most likely Doctor Fraiser's."
Sam leaned past him, staring at the disturbed soil. The prints were deep, turning up black ground and grass to reveal the undamaged soil underneath and showed the distinctive waffle pattern of a combat boot. They were also about half the size of the prints left by Teal'c's boots and even a little smaller than Sam's prints. Sam glanced at the other prints in the area, all considerably larger and made by smooth soled shoes.
The major felt her heart start to beat again as she recognized the import of what they were looking at. The prints had to be Janet's and they'd definitely been made after the fire. Which meant she'd at least survived the explosions Boone described.
Teal'c rose, pointing toward a cave entrance a short distance away. "I found more boot prints just inside that cave. I believe it is where Doctor Fraiser took shelter from the fire and explosions." He gestured to the other prints Sam had noticed. "I believe she came out of the cave and, after some kind of conflict, she was taken."
Sam's breath caught, her momentary joy at realizing that her lover might still be alive dampened by the harsh realities of the situation. If Janet had been captured, God only knew what was happening to her.
Teal'c indicated a set of large, smooth soled prints. "They scuffled...the earth is deeply disturbed by some kind of animal tracks....and then here...I believe he was carrying her. Her prints disappear and his deepen, indicating an increase in weight." He pointed back toward the road that lead past the gate. "The army Colonel Boone described would need to move by road through forest this thick...." He looked back, his expression serious, a subtle hint of worry gleaming deeply in his dark eyes. It wasn't the worst case scenario--that had involved finding the doctor's body--but it was far from the best.
"Okay," O'Neill muttered. "You go figure out which way they went. I'll check in with SG-2; let 'em know we're headed out." SG-2 had joined them on the mission and was standing guard over the gate. They would remain behind and continue that mission to make certain the path home was clear.
With some idea of their course of action, Sam was anxious to be moving, certain that every second they delayed decreased their chances of finding Janet. As they hiked the short distance to the road, Daniel was almost jogging to keep up and even Teal'c had to noticeably lengthen his strides.
"We will retrieve Doctor Fraiser," Teal'c said softly, his voice determined. She was his teammate's mate, and more than that, he owed her a debt of honor for saving his life when O'Neill and the others were taken by Hathor. He took neither responsibility lightly. The fact that he genuinely liked and respected the woman only deepened his commitment to her rescue.
"We'll do everything possible, Sam," Daniel added quietly, and reached out to give her shoulder a comforting squeeze.
She nodded without speaking and hurried her stride.
By the time O'Neill joined them, they had concluded that the army phalanx they were pursuing had headed West. It was impossible to tell how many men might have marched past, though it was apparent that they'd been in tight formation, the lines four men wide. There were also signs of several draft animals and fresh ruts in the road indicating at least one wagon had taken up the rear. Combined with what they knew from Boone, it seemed apparent they were pursuing a sizable contingent of armed men.
"All right, gang," O'Neill said when it was time. "SG-2 has our backs...and they'll check in with General Hammond at the arranged time...let him know what's up." He nodded in the direction they needed to go. "Let's get her back."
Sam was already moving, boots scuffing up dust with every long stride, her every thought with the woman somewhere on the road ahead of them. She barely even noticed as the men caught up with her and fell into line with her long paces. She had other things on her mind.
* * * * * *
Janet came awake to the sense of lurching movement and nausea. "More fun than a body can shake a stick at," she mumbled weakly, thinking that maybe next time she wanted to be heroic, she'd just leap off the nearest building instead. As far as she could tell, it would probably hurt less. Something sharp edged was pressing uncomfortably into her calf, and she concentrated on that small pain to focus past the larger ones threatening to overwhelm her. Finally, convinced that just lying there wasn't going to help get out of the mess she'd found herself in, she struggled to open her eyes, relieved to find the light had dimmed. Then it occurred to her that she probably shouldn't be so pleased to find it getting darker. That meant that hours had passed since she'd originally been captured; hours that had taken her farther and farther from the Stargate. She glanced toward the back of the wagon, noting that Leilla lay asleep with the girls from her tribe, her side pressed up against the rear rails.
Determined to just suck it up and move, she pushed up on one hand with a low groan, breathing deeply to control the pain that simple movement sent rattling through her battered frame. Needing to distract herself, she ran a hand down her calf, easily finding the lump that had been pressing into her leg while she slept. After fumbling to find the zipper pull, she tugged it down, easily opening the cargo pocket that ran about halfway down her calf, starting a couple of inches below the knee. A smile touched the doctor's mouth as she retrieved the cause of her discomfort. It was a survival kit. Designed to give a downed pilot the basics of survival in a package weighing only a few ounces, it contained a mylar survival blanket, small knife, matches, a compass, a signal mirror, a tiny mechanical pencil, a couple of small folded sheets of graph paper...and a wire saw with ridged teeth tough enough to cut through hard wood...or soft metal. Like the iron manacles wrapped around her wrists and ankles. Her captors had obviously missed the tiny package when they'd stolen the rest of her gear.
It was wrapped in a small, airtight, zippered bag which she quickly opened, slipping out the saw, one of the sheets of graph paper, the pencil, and the small knife before resealing the package and tucking it back into the pocket on her calf. Palming the items, she lifted her head, silently calculating her chances for actually escaping. She could see outriders now, ranging back and forth alongside the phalanx of soldiers. Even under the best of circumstances that would make escape difficult.
The wagon hit a deep rut, jarring her badly and leaving her clinging to the rails around the edge of the wagon for balance while her stomach pitched and rolled and the world tilted violently on its axis.
Oh, this was not good; not even remotely the best of circumstances. Janet's hand fisted around the saw and the small knife, not feeling the pain as ridged metal wire pressed into her flesh. With an army of men chasing her, she probably wouldn't make it more than ten feet. Hell, as well as she was doing, she'd probably fall and break her neck trying to get out of the wagon. She gritted her teeth against the sudden, almost overwhelming need to give way to tears of hopelessness and frustration. "Oh no, you don't," she chastised herself. "Need to keep a clear head if you're going to get yourself out of this." And she had too many reasons to get out alive to start giving up already. It was just a matter of centering herself and figuring a way through the problem.
She took a moment, writing down what little she could remember about the route they must have taken and her best guesses about how much time had passed. She wasn't sure how much help the notes might be if she found herself trying to get back to the Stargate, but it was a start and it helped her focus her thoughts and clear her head. She could do this; just take it a step at a time.
Okay, so she wasn't at her strongest, but night was coming. If she could just get free and slip away under the cover of darkness, they might not even notice she was gone for hours. As little respect as they had for women, they might not even bother to send anyone in pursuit.
Which was probably her best hope for escaping. Her only real hope if she was honest about it.
No, no thinking like that. Janet ducked her head, studying how the leg irons were locked to her ankles. A thin staple held the hinge side closed. Clearly, it was the narrowest stretch of metal. Saw through that and the chains were history. After tucking the tiny knife in her from pants pocket, she looped the wire saw around the bent edge of the staple where it fastened the hinge pin and began slowly dragging it back and forth, grating it against the metal and slowly grinding dust sized particles up around the wire.
* * * * * *
Sam could barely resist the urge to pace as she watched Teal'c carefully survey the multiples paths the road ahead of them took, but a single look from O'Neill where he stood talking to the Jaffa quelled her urge to let off tension that way. He was worried about how well she was holding it together, and the last thing she wanted to do was give him any cause to try and send her back. Besides, she needed to conserve her energy. Exhausting herself pointlessly wouldn't help anyone.
"She'll be okay," Daniel said softly as he settled a hand on Carter's shoulder, hoping to ease some of the awful terror he knew she was feeling.
A muscle pulsed in her jaw. "You don't know that," she exhaled, her voice tight with stress. Her mind was alive with possible scenarios, each one worse than the last, until all she could try and do was concentrate past them.
"But I do know that she's smart ... that she's got everything to come home to ... everything to fight for." He swallowed hard against his own emotions, surprised by how the situation had brought up his own nightmare with Sha're. "And I know that we are going to do everything possible to get her back." He needed to believe that almost as much as Sam did. "And she knows that too. Wherever she is," he reiterated that point, "she knows you're looking for her."
"Thanks." Sam managed a watery smile and reached back, blindly catching hold of Daniel's hand in a tight grip.
Finally, Jack jogged back several feet, hooking his thumb over his shoulder. "Teal'c says they went that way," he called out to the other two. He looked worried. "He thinks men and wagons have been turning from the other roads onto this one ... and it looks to me like he's right." Jack didn't have as much experience tracking people as Teal'c, but he'd had enough special forces training to do a pretty fair job.
"Which means we may be up against one hell of an army," Daniel correctly interpreted.
Jack nodded. "Yeah." His eyes touched on Sam who was standing stiffly. She absorbed the news without comment.
"Let's get moving," Carter growled after a beat. "They're getting farther ahead of us with every passing minute." She resettled her pack, and started moving, forcing the pace, knowing her teammates would fall in line and keep up. If nothing else, she'd become convinced that they were every bit as determined as she was to bring her lover back.
* * * * * * *
Janet growled a soft curse under her breath as the saw slipped again, the wire blade slicing another gash in her already bloody hands. The only light came from the double moons high overhead, but the task was simple enough to do by feel even though her hands were getting stiff with cold and injury. With nightfall, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and while her uniform warded off the worst of the chill, her hands were completely unprotected.
The good news was she'd gotten the ankle manacles off and was well on the way to freeing the left handcuff. Despite the physical pain, she was feeling almost lighthearted. She'd made a few more notes that might help her get back and she was almost through the hinge pin on the left cuff. Even the worst of the dizziness and nausea seemed to be letting up.
She was so focused on what she was doing that she didn't realize she had company until a light hand landed on her shoulder. "You are...awake...again," the soft voice with its lilting accent and halting cadence reached her ears.
Janet turned her head to peer up at the young woman who crouched down beside her, her expression worried. "Leilla." She swallowed, moistening her lips when her voice came out dry and raspy as it occurred to her that she was thirsty as hell. She'd earlier considered drinking from the water-skin the centurion had tossed them, but was afraid it was swimming with enough bacteria to make her situation her whole lot worse. Dysentery or its local equivalent would leave her dehydrated a whole lot faster than simply not drinking. "The last time I looked you were asleep."
The younger woman nodded toward the rear of the wagon. "I fell ... asleep after ... after talking to my ... my protector ... Calloran...."
Janet frowned, struggling to bring the world into focus as she followed the line of Leilla's gaze, easily spotting the tall, well-built young man following behind the wagon, his dark eyes locked on her, his expression full of suspicious frustration. "Your protector?" she repeated, then clarified, "your guard?"
The blond nodded. "He was taking me to my ... my husband."
Janet didn't know what to say to that as she was reminded that she wasn't the only one trapped in hell. Her eyes slid past the younger woman again as she debated what to do. It wasn't even a long debate. "Your protector ... Calloran ... could he get you and those girls somewhere safe?"
Leilla frowned in confusion as though she suspected Janet had slipped a few key cogs. "We are ... prisoners," she said cautiously.
Janet offered a small, reassuring smile. "If you could get loose though?"
"Yes ... if even he just he could get ... free ... he would ... find a-a way ... to get ... help."
Janet yanked sharply on the tiny saw, the gesture drawing the younger woman's attention, as she snapped the head on the hinge pin, then began working the pin free from the manacle.
"What is that?"
Janet held up the wire. "It's a saw. It can cut through the metal." She held up the cuff, showing the young woman the weak point. "Drag it back and forth right here and you can free yourself."
Blue eyes lifted and the young woman's face was oddly luminous in the thin moonlight. "How...it's so ... so small."
"But it's strong," Janet told her, then handed the saw over to the young woman. "We've all got a better chance of escaping if we work together." She forced down any eagerness. "If we could get back to the Stargate ... the circle with water ... my people would help us. You've seen their weapons; you know they can fight the Romani." That was assuming they didn't think she was already dead. She forced that thought down as Leilla questioned.
"They would ... help ... us?" The young woman's hand tightened on the saw as she stared at Janet in awe.
Fraiser nodded. "If humanly possible." She glanced back the way they'd come over her shoulders. "It's only a few hours back ... maybe faster if someone knows these woods--"
"Calloran does," the younger woman breathed and then suddenly she looked up, losing all color, her pale blue eyes going wide. She exhaled something incomprehensible under her breath, pushing to her feet as she stared at something in shock.
"What?" Janet whispered, using her grip on the rail to haul herself to her feet as she twisted in the direction the younger woman was staring.
And then she nearly went down again she found herself faced with a black valley that glittered with campfires scattered across the length and breadth of the land. The sounds of men and animals reached her ears and she could see flickers of fire glinting off armor. "Dear God," Janet exhaled heavily. There had to be hundreds of small campfires ... maybe even thousands. And God only knew how many men to go with them. She felt her heart sink and had to bite back on a sob. Sam would never find her in the middle of all that.
She was still standing there like that, staring out at the sight with raw horror when she heard the clumping rhythm of one of local version of a horse drawing near. She spun to find Imperator Severidus riding down on the wagon, his gold armor glittering in the moonlight and torchlight, his face cast in perversely regal shadows. Four foot soldiers, their uniforms decorated in gold trim and apparently under his command, trotted behind his mount and he waved them forward as he reined in the animal. Eyes gleaming with bitter lights, he pointed at Fraiser. "Bring her...."
* * * * * *
Luckily, the members of SG-1 heard the oncoming army headed their way long before even their outriders would have been a danger to the team. Even as O'Neill ordered the team to ground, it occurred to Carter that the soldiers were making no effort to be quiet; anyone for miles around could have heard the rhythmic thud of marching feet, the sound of men's voices giving orders ringing across the air, and the steady creak of wagon wheels deepening the ruts in the road. They were moving like men with nothing to fear from their surroundings. That meant they weren't expecting any trouble, so they probably wouldn't be watching for it. Palms sweating where she gripped her MP5, she pressed deeper into the thick overgrowth, heart roaring in her chest as they waited. She glanced sideways, just barely able to make out O'Neill where he was hidden a short distance away, while Teal'c and Daniel were completely out of her view. Like her, the colonel was watching carefully, hunting for any details that might aid them in their hunt to retrieve their colleague.
The first thing they saw was a pair of outriders, riding mounts similar to horses, their leather armor and bright crimson chitons looking like something straight out of a 1950's widescreen epic, except Charlton Heston's version of Ben Hur hadn't carried a blunderbuss or ball and powder pistol. It was definitely a Roman style culture, but with more modern weapons – just as Boone had described. She did a rough count as the brigade continued on past their hiding place, coming up with a guesstimate of five to six hundred men, then her hands tightened on the stock of her weapon as the tail end of the line came into sight. A pair of heavy wagons pulled by soft footed draft animals of some kind rolled slowly down the road, the first loaded with what looked to the be supplies, the second weighted down with human prisoners; women in rough woven clothes, their wrists and ankles chained, while half naked men, their bodies hard and brown from the sun were chained to some kind of yoke dragging along behind the wagon. Sam had to fight an instinctive desire to lunge forward and do something even as she searched their faces desperately. Logically, she knew there was no way that Janet could be among the prisoners since the army they were looking at had come from the direction of the gate and the evidence indicated that Janet's kidnappers were ahead of them, not behind, but that didn't stop her from hunting for familiar features, while she gripped her weapon so tightly her knuckles were stark white with stress. She flicked a gaze sideways, catching a glimpse of O'Neill where he crouched at the edge of her vision, his own eyes searching the passing prisoners, hands tight on his weapon. His determination was a curious comfort, reminding her that she wasn't the only one who cared. Her teammates would also do anything in their power to bring Janet back, just as she would.
Several minutes passed while SG-1 waited until the alien military party had moved on past, then another few while they made sure that any outriders had also passed them by, until finally, O'Neill pushed to his feet, waving his team out of hiding. He glanced at Teal'c noting the Jaffa's grim expression. "Recognize 'em?" he questioned. Having served as the First Prime of Apophis, Teal'c often had inside knowledge of the worlds they visited.
The Jaffa shook his head. "This is not a world I have ever been to before," he murmured, still staring in the direction the militia had been headed, "but I do remember hearing of a world where some Goa'uld went that matched this one in many ways."
"You think this is it?" Sam questioned, desperate for any kind of information.
A massive shoulder dipped in a hint of a shrug. "There are many similarities to what was described to me. It was where some went for ... entertainment."
"What kind of entertainment?" Sam demanded instantly, her voice raw with dread. In her experience, the Goa'uld version of entertainment was never a good thing. Their idea of fun usually included blood, brutality, and ugliest aspects of life.
Teal'c glanced back then, a flicker of a worried frown creasing his forehead. "Games," he said very softly, his low voice rumbling gently, far from eager to say what little he knew. The knowledge could only cause pain for his teammate, and he still held out some hope he was wrong.
"I'm betting you don't mean killer rounds of tiddly winks," O'Neill growled.
Teal'c looked blank, but didn't pursue his lack of knowledge, merely stored it away for later as he quietly explained, "Combat games ... to the death ... they supposedly capture men and women from local tribes for this purpose."
Sam swallowed hard, hands fisting helplessly at her sides, but didn't speak. In truth, she didn't trust herself to maintain even the illusion of calm at that point and she was painfully aware of how carefully O'Neill was tracking her reactions.
Daniel's lips pursed. "Like the Roman games." He sighed softly. "That would explain the prisoners."
"And it would mean they'd be likely to keep her alive," Jack pointed out as he felt frustration and fear settling over his team. "In my book, that's good news. Now, we just have to get her out of there as fast as we can." He didn't mention the size of the army they'd have to retrieve her from. They already knew that. He resettled his backpack. "So, let's get moving. We aren't doing anybody any good standing here."
No one had anything further to say and within moments, the small team was moving again, their strides long as they silently pursued their prey, each one lost in their own thoughts and fears.
* * * * * *
Janet cursed under her breath as she was manhandled over rough ground, the hands on her body so harsh that she barely managed to stay on her feet as the world spun dizzily around her. Two of Imperator Severidus' personal guardsmen dragged her along by her arms, while another two went ahead, forging a path through the thick forest. Their superior had ridden ahead, the clumping rhythm of his mount's strides lost now, but she had no doubt he would be waiting whenever they got where they were going. She stumbled on the unfamiliar ground, but a hand dug into her upper arm, hauling her upright and drawing a pained grunt. She instinctively tried again to pull free, but never had a chance and her efforts only made them that much rougher as they hauled her along, the heavy chains from the wrist cuffs clattering against each other. Thankfully, the chain was long enough to give her reasonable freedom of movement, while the loose manacle still appeared to be locked in place though she'd managed to remove the hinge pin before they'd grabbed her. That and the small knife still tucked in her pocket were the only minor surprises she might be able to take advantage of if she had an opportunity.
She lost track of how far they went or what direction they took as she stumbled along, her eyes locked on her feet in an effort to avoid falling on the unfamiliar ground. As a result, she didn't realize they'd entered the small clearing until she was pulled up short. Her head came up sharply, eyes locking with the gaze of the man standing a short distance away, his expression glinting with a cruel kind of joy. A wicked smile curved his perfect mouth.
"I tolerate defiance from no man," the imperator snarled, gesturing sharply for his men to bring her forward, "much less a woman." He reached out when she was standing in front of him, running his thumb along the curve of the jaw and refusing to pull back when she would have twitched away from his touch.
His soft laughter ringing in her ears, Janet couldn't hold back a small cry as her head was yanked back by a rough grip on her hair. She had embarrassed him when she was captured and he fully intended to make her pay for that sin.
The imperator leaned close, his hot breath playing over her face. "Under that grime, you're actually quite comely ... for the moment." He twisted his hand tighter in her hair, smiling as the pain drew unwilling tears. "Perhaps this won't be such a chore after all."
Fraiser glared up at her captor, unwilling to let him see her break, her teeth clenched against the agony he took pleasure in inflicting.
"Beg," he hissed the single word, eyes glinting with barely controlled rage.
Janet could see from the look in his eyes that begging wouldn't save her. She shook her head and instinctively tried to twist and claw her way free, but with two men holding her, there was no way she could get the kind of leverage needed. "Go to hell," she snarled furiously. She was well past any normal kind of fear, pushed to the limit and well aware that she was probably going to die soon.
Her hair was suddenly released from the punishing grip, but she didn't have time to enjoy the relief as he backhanded her with his other hand, the force behind the blow rocking her head to the side and splitting her mouth open against the sharp edge of her own teeth. Janet heard her own dull cry as if from a distance and she was suddenly hanging from the hands gripping her arms on either side as her knees buckled. Tasting blood, she staggered to take her own weight and brought her head back up.
The imperator backed up a step, his head canting to one side while he took a moment to study her. "And still you fight," he growled. "I wonder if you'll be so defiant when every man in this camp has had his chance."
Dark eyes locked on him with cold-blooded rage. "You're a fool," she breathed, and had the pleasure of seeing him flush angrily. Janet laughed very softly. "My people will be coming for me. You only saw what the lightest of their weapons can do ... they will destroy you."
He shook his head, but she caught a glimpse of uncertainty in his eyes. "No army would fight for a woman."
Her answering smile had the kind of triumph available only to someone with nothing left to lose. "Trust me, my people would ... they don't take losing anyone lightly. Let me go and they might let you live ... go ahead with your plans and you'll die." For a moment, she almost had him as fear glinted in his eyes. Then he shook it off, backing up a step, grabbing for an innate arrogance and well-trained overconfidence that came from a lifetime of having anything he wanted.
"No woman is worth any man's life."
No talking him out of anything now ... which left her only one option. "And yet you're afraid of me ... quaking in your boots in front of a woman--" Her lip curled with disdain as she spat the words at him.
He fell back another half step, perfect features made ugly by hate. "I fear no one ... man or woman--"
"Then why do you need four soldiers to protect you?" Janet challenged, and felt the slight shift of the men holding her as they looked to their superior, clearly wondering about that as well.
"I'll let every man who passes by have his fill of you. With every one you'll die inside ... and then you'll die for real," he shot back, trying to inflict the same kind of terror he'd made others feel in the past. His tone made it clear she wasn't the first captive he'd treated that way.
Janet couldn't contain the smallest of laughs as she saw the panic in him. "And you'll still be a coward," she taunted. She saw his fist lift to strike and her lips turned up, dark eyes mocking him. "Big man ... imagine how many men you'd need if I wasn't already chained and bloodied."
The blow never fell. "Release her," Severidus gritted tightly, without looking at his men.
"My Lord Imperator--" one of the soldiers began uncertainly, only to be cut off by a sharp command from his superior.
"I said, release her!" The imperator turned a hard glare on the man. "Or do you think I can't handle one woman?"
Janet felt a tremor move through the man who'd spoken and flashed a sideways glance at him, easily seeing the fear etched into his profile.
"Of course not, my lord. I only meant that--"
"Release the stupid bitch," Severidus snarled, waving his men aside, his entire focus on his prisoner. He would show her she was nothing, break her, then watch every man who wanted to have a turn, and leave the remains for the saraqs to feed on.
Janet caught the worried look the two men holding her traded between them, but nonetheless found her arms freed. She twisted her left hand, feeling the loosened cuff start to shift, the only thing keeping it in place the stiffness of the hinge. Severidus gestured for them to back off, while Janet concentrated on staying on her feet, though she made no effort to hide her weakness. Better he think she was no threat. The small serrated, folding knife from her survival kit was a light, but distinctive lump in her pocket, and she barely resisted the urge to grab for it as the imperator stalked forward, his gold armor glittering brightly in the same moonlight that cut Machiavellian shadows across his too perfect features. She needed to wait until he was close enough that he wouldn't see the gesture. In close, guided by a hand that knew where and how to slice into human flesh, she knew she could do a lot of damage in the second or two she was likely to have.
Severidus paused for a long moment, studying her from where he stood, his eyes running disdainfully over her battered frame. His lip curled and for a moment, she thought he was going to turn away and leave her to his men. Since any chance for freedom, or if it came to it, a quick death, lay in doing her best to take him down, she needed him in close proximity. She sharpened her glare, putting every bit of challenge she could muster into the look she flashed his way. "Afraid, Lord Imperator?" she questioned acidly and was relieved when he took a step toward her. He was close to a head taller than she was, but not a big man by any means, the impression of heavy muscles created more by the facsimile of sinew molded into his armor than the actual shape of his body, she realized as he drew near. They were standing almost toe to toe when she finally risked reaching for the knife, camouflaging the move as she turned away from him in genuine revulsion.
He grabbed for her hair, yanking hard enough to draw a dull cry of pain as he hauled her close, her body molded against the artificial muscles of his cuirass, while the sharp edged bronze greaves that protected his knees and lower legs threatened to slice through the rough canvas of her pants. She gasped, gagging in disgust as his mouth came down on hers, but didn't panic, getting her fingers on the knife and flicking it open as she reached for the bottom edge of his armor with her left hand. Finding the chestplate loose at the waist to allow for a degree of mobility, she pulled the molded metal back and slashed with the serrated edge of the blade. From that moment, it seemed like a hundred different things happened at once; the knife bit deep, guided by unerring knowledge and experience of the amount of force needed, tearing through abdominal muscles with surprising ferocity for something so small. Startled and confused by the sudden blaze of agony through his midsection, Severidus let out a cry of startled agony. Knowing she had to do as much damage as quickly as possible, Janet bit down hard on his tongue, punishing him for the brutal rape of her mouth and drove her knee hard into his groin, pain making him rock forward and drive the knife deeper into his abdomen.
She left the short blade and part of the handle embedded in her attacker's midsection as she stumbled back a pace, wrenching the loose metal manacle off of her left wrist and gripping it tightly in her right hand to use it like an impromptu brass knuckle. She crashed her fist into the side of Severidus' face, toppling him into his men, the sharp edged metal tearing flesh and drawing a scream of agony and rage. Shaking free of their momentary paralysis, the four soldiers suddenly started forward, only to stumble over the writhing figure of their superior as though temporarily taken over by the spirit of the keystone cops.
Grateful for the slim chance, time seeming to slow with every passing heartbeat, Janet spun and broke into a run with no real plan in mind; she hadn't expected to escape or survive this long. Surrounded by black trees, on unfamiliar ground, with no sense of time or direction, it was like trying to make a mad dash through cold tar. Like some kind of bad dream, it left Janet with the sense that she was running but not moving anywhere. At the same time, the only thought in her head was to keep moving. If she could just get far enough away ... lose herself in the thick forest--
And then a hand clamped down on the back of her collar, yanking so hard she gagged as she was thrown against the front of her uniform, momentarily strangling on the fabric at her throat. She scrambled quickly and somehow managed not to go down, instead getting her feet back under her and twisting like a cat with its scruff clamped in a dog's teeth, striking out blindly at her attacker, once again using the manacle like brass knuckle. He grunted in pain, but didn't go down the way his commander had -- she could still hear him roaring for her head somewhere in the distance -- though he did lose his grip on her collar. He made up for the momentary slip with a hard cuff that knocked Janet off her feet and back several paces. She tumbled and rolled down a short incline, her body surprisingly padded against more damage by the thick layer of damp leaves coating the forest floor. As she skidded to a halt, she scrambled for her feet, desperation adding strength and speed to her movements, but her boots slipped in the leaves and she went down again, momentarily losing all sense of up and down. She heard the soldier who'd been chasing her call to someone, terror bolting through her at the thought that more men would know which direction she'd gone. Desperate for her freedom, she would have leapt at the soldier in an attempt to silence him and escape, but a hard voice cut through the night to the rhythmic accompaniment of the heavy clumping of a draft animal.
Janet's attacker froze and even fell back a pace, while the doctor did likewise, her gaze swinging around as the centurion who'd captured her rode onto the scene, controlling his mount with a tight hand when the animal got dancy.
"Centurion," the soldier exhaled uneasily, while the officer glared down at him.
"I was just informed that you were a part of removing a female prisoner from the wagons," Paulus accused the guardsman angrily.
With the two men focused on each other, Janet had some small hope that maybe she could slip away unnoticed and she started to edge back to her feet, only to be speared in place by a sharp gaze as the centurion's gaze swung her way. "Move another step, and I'll let him have you," he barked.
She froze, a part of her almost desperate enough to make a run for it anyway.
Paulus saw the temptation in her eyes and shook his head. "You wouldn't make it more than a few steps ... and those few seconds of freedom wouldn't be worth what it cost you." His tone made it clear that he would turn her over to Severidus if she defied his will.
Sinking back down to one knee, Fraiser barely resisted the urge to scream in frustration.
Paulus' attention returned to the soldier. "I asked you a question."
"We removed the woman on orders of Imperator Severidus," the other man stammered uncertainly.
"You're aware of the emperor's edict regarding prisoners?" Paulus bit out.
The soldier didn't have a chance to answer before the imperator's shrill voice echoed close by. "By the gods, Refus, where are you? Where is that bitch? I want her head!"
Paulus brought his mount around, holding a hand out to Janet as his foot cleared the stirrup on her side. "You want to live?" he said simply, making the choice clear. She could trust him or deal with Imperator Severidus and his men.
It wasn't much of a choice. Janet pushed to her feet and reached back. His large hand wrapped around hers, lifting her even as she scrambled to get her foot into the stirrup. A moment later, she was on the nervous animal behind the armored centurion, her cheek pressed against his heavy cloak. She'd just barely gotten settled when Severidus broke through the trees, staggering badly, his gashed cheek running with blood, his armor loose and hanging on one side, one hand thrust underneath and clutching his midsection where she'd sliced him. He was wheezing badly and nearly doubled over. Probably operating mostly on anger and adrenaline, she diagnosed, knowing how much damage she'd done in those few seconds. Considering the likely level of local medical care, he could well die of blood loss or infection. She was a little surprised by how little the idea bothered her.
"Paulus," the imperator growled, his eyes widening in surprise as they fell on the slender figure seated behind the other man. His lip curled with dislike. "I see you caught the little whore," he said in a mockery of comradeship. The other three guardsmen stumbled onto the scene only a beat behind their master.
"I recaptured the emperor's property that you allowed to escape, yes," Paulus allowed, his eyes raking over his superior with a look of disdain.
Severidus pulled up short, hearing the note of disapproval in the other man's voice. "Hand her over," he growled, challenging Paulus to defy his will.
"All things considered, I'm surprised you're in such a hurry to deal with the female," the centurion shot back. "However, in light of the emperor's edicts regarding the distribution of his property ... including female prisoners, I think not."
"You dare!" the imperator hissed. "Need I remind you that I am emperor's cousin--"
"But not a favored one," Paulus pointed out practically. "And one who already cost too much in slave profits when you had oversight of the Tuscan maniple. I was warned that such behavior was not to be allowed again--"
"You defy my orders for one stupid whore.... Giving up those dreams of joining the Praetorian guard, are you--"
Janet felt her latest captor stiffen, his hands tightening on the reins as his tension was communicated to his mount.
"If I'm denied a position on my emperor's guards, no one will be able to claim it was for disobeying his commands." His hand dropped to the pommel of his sword as he saw Severidus contemplate taking action against him in his desperate quest for revenge against the woman.
Janet found herself wondering if her rescuer of sorts was up to fighting off four men; would he even bother to try in defense of a female prisoner? She was under no illusions that this was about her in any way. It was about a power battle between these two men and she was simply the bone they were fighting over. She'd chosen the way she had simply because it bought her a little more time, and Paulus seemed disinclined to cruelty for its own sake. She didn't fool herself that he was on her side though.
"You think the emperor will trust a man who threatens his superior over a woman?" Severidus sneered, though Janet noticed he was starting to stagger badly, blood loss and pain weakening him drastically.
"I think my emperor will sooner trust a man who follows his laws than one who doesn't."
The imperator flinched as though struck, his expression twisting with barely controlled fury. "The bitch cut me."
"Please do tell the emperor that," Paulus taunted. "I'm sure he'll be most eager to hand more power over to a man," he put extra emphasis on the last word, "who can't even control one small, chained, beaten female."
"Get the woman, Refus," Severidus ordered abruptly, his tone making it clear that he didn't care how the young guardsman did it.
The man who'd caught up with Janet glanced back at his superior, his expression uncertain, while the other three guardsmen all stood staring from one to the other. Where they'd seemed hopelessly large when she'd been facing them alone, they suddenly seemed quite young and rather scrawny compared to the man facing them down.
"My Lord?" Refus croaked, clearly caught between a rock and a hard place.
"Try it and you're committing treason, boy," Paulus said softly, though Janet felt him start to draw his weapon.
"You're the traitor ... defying an order from a superior," Severidus accused, but it was obvious from his tone that he knew he was on shaky ground.
"Be a smart boy," Paulus advised Refus quietly, "and get your master," his lip curled with disdain, "to a healer before he bleeds to death on you."
The young soldier glanced back at the imperator, who had slipped to one knee and was pressing his hand ever more tightly against the wound in his belly. "Don't listen to him."
"Hey, Paulus, you about done catching that runaway?" a voice called, the tone light and accompanied by the sudden heavy tromping of men's boots nearby. Janet glanced back, ears pricking as she picked out several figures coming their way. She frowned, judging that they were making the noise intentionally, since she hadn't heard them coming until they were so close. She doubted Severidus or his men were in any condition to notice that fact though.
"Just about," the centurion called back, then added more quietly. "You're outnumbered here ... we both know my men can take your guard if they have to and I promise you, no one will ever find the bodies ... not that they'll look very hard." He looked back down at Refus. "Now, take you master to the healer," he commanded quietly.
The young guardsman apparently decided that discretion was the better part of valor because he pulled his hand away from his sword and strode back to the failing figure of the imperator, signaling for another man to help him as they lifted their superior's arms over their shoulders and hauled him off, groaning and spitting epithets all the way.
It wasn't until after the five men had disappeared into the night that a broad figure melted from the cover of a nearby tree, leaving Janet fairly certain he'd been there during most, if not all of the confrontation. "You've made an enemy," he said quietly.
"It was unavoidable," Paulus said with a faint dip of one broad shoulder.
Several more men melded from the darkness, dark cloaks and leather armor blending with the surrounding forest far more effectively than she would have guessed possible.
"Doesn't look like any of them are trying to double back," someone commented from the darkness, his voice pitched low so as not to carry.
Paulus nodded, his mouth twisting in a wry smile. "I think they'll be busy listening to Severidus scream like a babe in arms for the rest of the night. It looked like she cut him pretty good."
Janet felt the men's gazes turn her way.
"She seems to have a knack for beating the imperator," the man who'd appeared first murmured dryly. "Maybe we should put her in command and sell him at the slave markets."
"He's probably prettier," another man added in a tone of disgust, the insult clearly aimed at the imperator, not Janet.
"And better trained for it," another added with a sneering laugh.
"What now?" the soldier who'd first spoken questioned.
Paulus considered a moment, then quietly ordered, "Levarin, see to the pickets and double the guard ... particularly on the women. He's been beaten tonight and if he tries anything, he's most likely to take it out on them." He snorted softly, the sound grim and humorless. "And I'll not see our shares cut because he can't control himself."
"Understood. I'll see to it. On your camp too, sir."
The centurion paused for a long moment, then nodded. "Aye. No sense tempting fate." Then he looked down at the man who'd been hiding in the shadows -- Levarin apparently, Janet realized. "Walk the borders and check the pickets six times tonight--"
"Sir?" Levarin sounded startled, making it obvious that wasn't the normal procedure. "Considering that our men have control of the valley, is that really necessary?"
Janet tensed, listening carefully as she struggled to understand this new world. Unlike Severidus, these men acted like professional soldiers, which meant they most likely had a set of normal protocols. Instinct told her that the better she understood, the better her chance of surviving and escaping.
"Maybe, maybe not," Paulus answered without explaining his reasoning. "And take Amovar with you. No single man pickets or guard positions."
"Is there a specific reason, sir?"
"Just call it a hunch," Paulus responded, again without further explanation.
"Yes, sir," the other man said quietly. Moments later, the small group of soldiers melted back into the cover of the forest, while Paulus turned his mount, reigning the animal in firmly to keep it from trotting over the uneven ground, while Janet was left clinging to his heavy cloak and tightening her knees in hopes of gaining some measure of stability.
As they rode, he unfrogged the chin strap on his plumed helmet and pried it off, hooking it over the saddlehorn as he glanced back at his prisoner. "How badly did you cut Severidus?"
Janet blinked free of a loose plan she'd been formulating for heaving him out of the saddle and escaping on his mount once they were far enough from his men to offer a decent chance at escape.
As if sensing the thought, Paulus shook his head. "You'd never make it. Delphus is trained only to my hand. Even if you could get me off, he'd throw before he went a step ... most likely hard enough to break your neck." He smiled, showing white teeth in the darkness. "He has a foul temper and would have been put down had I not tamed him. He still doesn't tolerate any hand but my own on the reins." His gaze sharpened and Janet resisted the urge to curse. "Now, how badly did you cut him?"
She considered giving an answer so technically complex that he'd never understand it, then decided against such blatant defiance when it wouldn't buy her anything. Better to bide her time and take this man's measure; save her efforts for where they might gain something. "Badly," she said softly. "I cut muscle ... maybe even did some internal damage," she added, thinking of that last moment when the blade was embedded deep.
"Enough to possibly kill him?"
She shrugged. "Depending on the treatment ... and how deep the final thrust went ... yes." If she'd managed to nick an intestine, peritonitis wasn't out of the question. "Unless the care is particularly poor, he won't bleed to death ... but he could die from infection."
Paulus absorbed the quietly offered answer without comment and they rode on in silence. Exhausted and hurting, Janet leaned her forehead against her captor's broad back, the rough fabric of his cloak scratchy against her skin, accepting that she'd lost for the moment and knowing she needed to conserve any remaining strength. She was half asleep when she felt the animal pull to a halt, and Paulus swung a leg over his mount's broad neck before dropping to the ground, tossing his helmet onto a nearby pile of gear before reaching back up to clamp hard hands on her waist and lift her down with ease.
The world spun dizzily and Janet would have gone down had he not kept an arm around her waist. Realizing how bad off she was he shook his head. "Severidus is lucky you're so badly injured," he observed dryly. "Imagine what you could have done if you were healthy."
Janet noted they were in a small clearing and that her gear as well as what must be his were stacked against a nearby tree. "I got lucky," she muttered, letting her voice trail off. This man wouldn't be cowed into releasing her or making mistakes. Better he underestimate her mental abilities, since she doubted that underestimating her physical ones was even possible at that moment.
"I doubt that," he disagreed. "Severidus is a fool, but he has a brutal streak. He would have killed you if he could ... and caused as much pain as possible in the doing."
Janet shrugged. That was pretty much her take on the situation. "What I don't understand is why you care." Without the adrenaline rush to run on, she sank down into a sitting position the moment he released his hold on her waist, leaning against a convenient tree as she let her head rock forward into one hand, suddenly aware of every ache and pain vibrating through her body.
"He was attempting to break the law. You're the property of my emperor ... and as such, your fate is his to decide." Oddly, he reminded her of Teal'c at that point, calm and cold-blooded about a matter of life and death in a way she'd never quite been able to understand. Except with Teal'c, that total objectivity was tempered by a morality that she could relate to. She wondered if this man had any of that morality hidden under his absolute adherence to his emperor's laws.
Janet peered up at the tall soldier, her neck protesting the angle. "You said that before. What does it mean?" she asked without thinking.
His eyes narrowed, a frown drawing his brows together. "You're here to answer questions, not ask them," he reminded her.
Unable to contain a dark laugh, Janet shook her head slowly. "I'd think you wouldn't care what answers a woman might give."
"I'm not Severidus," he informed her. "Nor am I so blind as to assume you have no knowledge or value because of your sex." He knelt down, reaching for the loose manacle and chain hanging from the cuff still latched around her wrist. "How did this come loose?"
She shrugged, lying surprisingly easily considering she could barely think straight. "I don't know. It happened during the struggle." She looked up under the cover of her hand, watching him study the hinge, but the cut hinge pin had fallen away so there was nothing to prove it hadn't snapped due to age or shoddy workmanship.
He didn't argue, but she sensed his doubt as he perused her carefully. "Did you drink the water I left for you?"
Remembering the smell rising from the animal skin of water, and probable bacteria swarming inside, she shook her head. "As much fun as I'm sure the trip would be, I opted to avoid the dysentery express."
His head canted to one side and he mouth the word, "Dysentery," soundlessly. "Without water, you'll only grow weaker," he pointed out logically.
"And if I drink the local water, it's likely to make sick ... or rather sicker." She massaged her temple, every movement making her battered muscles protest. Now that he'd reminded her that she'd neither drunk nor eaten in hours, she was both starving and desperately thirsty. Her eyes fell on her pack where it was leaned against a nearby tree with other gear. She gestured loosely in that direction. "Look, there's water in my pack ... also food and medicine that I could use."
He studied her for a moment, then nodded though he drew the ball and powder pistol from his belt and checked it. "Go on," he allowed and hooked a hand in the metal frame of the backpack, slinging it over to her. "But if you make any attempt to escape, I will shoot you dead."
Janet nodded her understanding, not that she had much left for offering any resistance, even if there'd been anything in her pack that might have offered a chance at taking him down. She quickly began digging out what she needed, taking a long drink from the water bottle inside before she set to work, injecting one of the premade syringes. Hopefully, the antibiotic would help stave off any serious infection from the myriad of small injuries she sported. It wouldn't work any miracles, but might help a little. She considered a painkiller, but opted not to go that route. She needed to be as clear-headed as possible to have any chance of survival. She took another long swallow of water, noting the container of water purification tablets in the pack. They'd do the job once the bottle was empty. The water might not taste or smell any better, but it wouldn't kill her. Chewing on an energy bar, she dug out more supplies and began the slow process of cleaning and treating her cuts and bruises. She glanced up at the noise of leather creaking in time to see the centurion loosen the buckles on his armor and peel it off one handed.
Janet froze, muscles pulling taut as she wondered if she'd merely traded one rapist for another.
But Paulus only tossed his cloak onto the ground, using it like a blanket before sitting down on it, his movements surprisingly graceful for such a large man. "You're a healer," he observed and made no further movement toward her, though he watched with sharp eyes.
"I'm a doctor, yes," Janet murmured, concentrating on looking as calm as possible as she went back to cleaning her cuts and bruises, noting that he again mouthed the apparently unfamiliar word.
"Tell me about your people. Are they a threat to the empire? The gods have warned us about men who might use their roads to try and conquer our world."
"We didn't come here to attack ... only explore and make contact. If your people hadn't fired on us--"
He frowned grimly. "You trespassed in the temples and were using the roads of the gods. What else could we do? They've warned us of the destruction they'll wreak if we fail to protect their property."
Janet's mouth twisted in a smirk. Trust the Goa'uld to scare the locals into guarding their backs. She made a small disgusted sound in the back of her throat. "They're not gods, you know," she muttered, wincing as she washed the gash at her hairline. It had bled heavily, but wasn't actually very large. "Just living creatures with superior technology and a knack for destruction."
He shrugged, his tone practical. "Whether or not they're gods, their punishments are real enough. Had we ignored you and they discovered it, they'd have rained fire down on our heads."
Janet looked up from what she was doing. "Have they done that before?"
He nodded. "During my grandfather's time. To this day, nothing grows on the ground where the city Coruscanin once sat ... and any man or woman who goes there soon sickens and dies."
Full lips pursed with unconcealed anger. They'd probably seeded the ground with something viral or radioactive. The local populace was lucky the aliens had only left a little object lesson, considering what they'd done to her adopted daughter's world. She supposed she couldn't blame the locals for doing whatever the Goa'uld wanted.
"Besides, we owe the gods our loyalty--"
That caught Janet by surprise. "After they destroyed one of your cities?" she demanded, her tone thick with disbelief.
He shrugged again, clearly not all that upset by the past actions. "Men live and men die. Had they dealt honestly with the gods, it wouldn't have happened. We venerate them and treat them as they wish and in return, receive their gifts ... knowledge and weapons."
Janet snorted softly, wondering what the man in front of her would think if he learned that the gods he worshiped had offered nothing but the lowest form of technology, that they were probably doing nothing on this world but causing trouble, like a small child stirring an anthill simply for the joy of watching the resulting fight. Obviously, they'd made this place in their image; brutal, harsh, and uncaring -- life and death as cheap as copper pennies.
Tell me how your weapons work," he interrupted her grim line of thought, apparently not caring for that line of discussion. He retrieved her equipment belt, drawing her sidearm from its holster. Obviously, they'd found it after she was unconscious. "Where does the flint go and how do you load the ball and powder?"
"Tell me where we're going and what to expect," she countered.
"You're in no position to bargain," he pointed out, clearly startled by her audacity.
Janet shrugged. "I don't really have much left to lose ... I'd say that gives me quite a bit to bargain with." She nodded toward the gun, calculating how best to offer up a bunch of technical B.S. that would have absolutely no meaning to him. "Since you want knowledge ... like how that gun works." She'd heard the exchange over his joining the guard. "Or perhaps you're not interested in impressing your emperor in order to enter the ranks of his personal guard?"
He nodded ever so slightly, correctly reading the offer to trade information. "It's possible I am," he allowed. A beat passed while they stared at each other, each one trying to take the measure of the other. Finally Paulus nodded in silent acceptance of their unspoken pact. "You'll be taken to the emperor's court at Helios ... he'll decide your ultimate fate."
"Most likely result?" she demanded, making it clear that wasn't enough to earn any answers.
"You're too old for his tastes, so you won't be kept in the harems ... and he'll never give you any standing as a prisoner the way he might if you were a man taken under similar circumstances. Under the law, you're chattel ... that means no ransom or trade--"
He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "You'll be treated like any other female prisoner taken in the outlands...." He seemed unhappy with that idea though she was certain it had more to do with his apparent belief that she had valuable knowledge than with any sense that what was happening to her was wrong. He peered at her closely, taking in her features and body. "You're pretty enough and still young enough to give a man children ... he won't sell you at the slave markets ... they're top heavy with young savages right now -- they're an effort to tame, but many rich men like that -- so you probably wouldn't fetch much of a price."
Janet shivered in revulsion at his matter of fact analysis of her value.
"Most likely he'll offer you as a prize to a freeman at the games ... ticket sales are always better when the prize is a pretty woman ... and your hair color is unusual enough to make them take notice."
"Don't you have games?" he questioned, surprised by her ignorance.
"None where human beings are the prize."
"Combat ... the savages go as gladiators -- slaves -- but a freeman can also enter ... win land ... a woman ... even a military commission. It's a way out of the slums for those born poor."
"Wonderful," she groaned in disbelief. "The NBA Meets Gladiator ... where's Michael Jordan when you need him?" Janet shook her head slowly, wondering if she'd stepped through the looking glass while she wasn't looking. She half expected a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat to run by at any moment.
He held up the pistol. "Now explain how your weapons work."
Janet sighed softly, struggling to clear her head to come up with a clever and confusing enough lie. Could be fun, considering her knowledge was generally limited to load a clip, pull the slide, safety off, and pull the trigger. "The first thing you need to understand is caliber and how many grains go into the bullet...."
* * * * * *