Into the Breach
by Pink Rabbit Productions

Disclaimer: This includes all female type prurient (yes, that means sex) stuff, and should not be read by those of a youthful (I.E. underage) nature, those who might find themselves in jail for the perusal of the contents (my weekends are already booked visiting family, thank you very much--and, yes, that *is* a joke), or who consider Jerry Fallwell to be anything but a great big doofus (I mean, come on Tinky Winky doesn't even *have* any sexual parts)

 

Chapter Four

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 Fraiser 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.

"HALT SOLDIER!"

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 and 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 throbbing 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. Though, she reminded herself, he'd spent years doing Apophis dirty work and had probably contained prisoners in even more dire straights than she, simply doing his duty until one day he'd had enough. She wondered if this man had any of that morality hidden under his absolute adherence to his emperor's laws. Was there anything that would draw him out the way Jack O'Neill had managed to do with Teal'c.

She 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. Having been reminded 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--"

"Then what?"

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."

"The games?"

"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...."

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter Five

Sam Carter reached up to adjust the position of her backpack strap where it was starting to bite into her left shoulder, trying not to think about anything beyond the steady plod of her own boots as she followed behind Jack O'Neill. They were hiking as quickly as possible on uneven ground full of rocks and chuckholes, and the last thing she could afford was a twisted ankle or a bad fall. They could have covered more ground on the main road, but a small group of mounted soldiers had nearly surprised them roughly an hour before, and O'Neill had deemed the more hidden path a necessity for their safety, even if it did slow their progress. For her part, she was trying desperately not to let her mind drift to anything beyond the need to keep moving. If she thought about things too much, she was going to lose it. Her lover was somewhere in this dark, cruel world, suffering god only knew what torments, and she was helpless to do anything but hope they could find her in time. If Janet went through this much agony every time SG-1 was in danger or went missing, it was a wonder she hadn't run screaming from the relationship a week into things. Sam didn't think she could have stood it.

"Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c's voice, low with an unusual note of something akin to urgency, broke in on her dark thoughts.

"Yeah, Teal'c?" O'Neill responded instantly, his own voice tense. Hardly surprising, considering the numbers of armed men they'd seen already. Their weapons had been primitive, but not so much so that they couldn't overcome the small team if they attacked en masse. Superior weaponry could only do so much against vastly superior numbers. And in any event, it was a conflict that would most likely end any hope of retrieving their colleague.

"I believe we are being followed. I thought I heard something some minutes ago, but decided it was likely an animal of some kind. However, I have now heard it again ... several times ... and the timing was too regular for a wild creature."

Knowing it might give away their suspicions, Sam resisted the urge to crane her neck in search of any signs of pursuit, and subtly readjusted her MP5 so it was more easily accessible.

"Which direction?" the colonel questioned, keeping his voice low so it wouldn't carry beyond their small group.

"Directly behind and to the left ... perhaps twenty yards back."

"Our friends from the road?"

Sam risked a glance at her teammate in time to see him shake his head, his broad frame little more than a massive shadow. Branches overhead blocked what little light rained down from the stars and half moon far overhead. Reminded of their vulnerability, a shiver of apprehensions slid down her spine. The thick forest was an inky back shadow beyond a few feet and it suddenly threatened to collapse inward on the small band of soldiers, a leafy black hole from which they might never escape. She shook her head sharply to throw off the dark musings, instead concentrating on Teal'c's answer.

"Unlikely, but possible. They are moving quietly ... like scouts or hunters. I believe they are trailing us."

Sharp ears pricked for even the tiniest crack of a twig or rustle of leaf beyond the muted rhythm of the team's movements. Nothing, not even a trace of sound, leaving Sam to wonder what Teal'c had heard that the rest of them had missed.

"Any idea how long?" O'Neill sounded as uneasy as she felt and she could sense his barely restrained desire to act.

"I am uncertain. Several minutes at least, but possibly longer." It was one of the few times she'd ever heard the Jaffa so uncertain about anything. If they were being followed, their pursuers knew what they were doing. Which begged the question, why hadn't they attacked? According to Boone, the army that had attacked them had done so with little or no provocation and had wasted no time on planning, simply opened fire, counting on superior numbers to overwhelm the Stargate team. Though it was doubtful they'd had any idea of the disparity in their weapons when they did so. It seemed unlikely that the soldiers they'd seen would have the skills to track the team without being quickly spotted. On the other hand--

"It occurs to me that we've seen a lot of prisoners ... they had to come from somewhere...." Daniel suggested quietly, voicing the same thought running through Sam's brain.

"And maybe we're not the only one's trying to get someone back," Sam finished the thought, surprised by the odd burst of hope that flowered in her chest at the thought. Maybe they weren't as alone as she felt at that moment. They'd seen hundreds of men, poorly armed by Air Force standards it was true, but still too many to make retrieving a prisoner by brute force a consideration. If they couldn't find a way to either negotiate for Janet's freedom or steal her back, they would need reinforcements or allies of some kind, and Sam feared that Hammond would be very hesitant to send any more troops after one person. "Which means they might be open to--"

O'Neill shook his head. "We can't take the chance," he vetoed the idea before it even had a chance to fully form.

"I concur," Teal'c's voice rumbled ever so slightly.

"Jack, if I could talk to them ... we could use the allies," Daniel hissed.

"Negative," O'Neill bit out. "It's too risky."

"But if we attack, we're guaranteed an enemy ... whether or not they started out that way," Daniel pointed out, clearly disagreeing with Jack's strategy.

"He has a point, sir," Sam added her voice to her teammate's argument. The last thing they needed was more enemies.

"It's a chance we'll have to take," Jack dismissed before continuing, "I'm not suggesting we just open fire, but we're not staying out here like sitting ducks either. Carter, there's a drop off ahead, you and Teal'c fan left. Daniel and I'll take the right.... Time to find out what we're dealing with."

Even knowing he was probably right, Sam had to tamp down on her own impulse to try and find common ground. "Yes, sir," she signaled her understanding. Experience had taught her that even if their pursuers had similar interests, there was no guarantee they could work together.

A few more strides and the game trail they were on cut down a sharp embankment. Sam felt her boots hit thick dirt, the momentary slide of loose sand giving way as she automatically rebalanced herself, then she dropped the short distance to the bottom of a sandy, dry stream bottom, landing in a half crouch. She heard the soft thud a beat later as Teal'c hit the ground behind her, his landing every bit as light as her own despite the fact that he weighed at least half again as much. No longer desperate to hide their awareness from watching eyes, she scanned the surrounding forest on all side, hunting for any sign of movement that might signal an enemy's position.

O'Neill hit the bottom of the arroyo a beat or two after Teal'c, his landing slightly noisier, but still controlled. She had taken another few steps before it occurred to her that she never heard the fourth landing and she twisted, eyes going wide at the same moment she heard Jack curse, the sound undoubtedly louder than the colonel intended.

Not only had Daniel not climbed down into the arroyo, he'd turned back the way they'd come, throwing his arms wide as he called out, repeating a simple welcome that basically amounted to, "We come in peace," in several languages, some of which she vaguely recognized from past missions while others sounded totally alien to her ears. She was already lifting the MP5 to her shoulder and taking a shooter's stance against the edge of the embankment in order to cover her teammate when she heard O'Neill's hissed order. Next to her, Teal'c lifted his staff over the edge of the embankment, hands braced to fire if anything or anyone threatened the Egyptologist.

"Dammit, Daniel, get back here," the colonel ordered sharply, his own weapon up and ready, his fear expressed as anger.

He flashed a glance over his shoulder. "I know what I'm doing, Jack," he lied none too believably. If he lived through this little stunt, Sam suspected Jack might just kill him. Considering the way her own pulse was hammering in her chest, she might just help.

"Daniel, getting yourself killed isn't going to help anyone," she reminded him as she hunted for any sign of movement in the darkness beyond the edges of her vision. As desperate as she was to return her lover, sacrificing a friend wasn't part of the plan.

Ignoring his teammates, he called out again, trying a new combination of languages in hopes of making some kind of contact. He even got a short burst of English in there somewhere before moving on to something else, the syllables sounding rough and guttural to her ears until they ended in an almost girlish shriek. It took Carter a moment to spot the single arrow where it was dug into the dirt between Daniel's feet. She led the barrel of her weapon in a wide arc, hunting for the shooter, while she heard Jack angrily order their colleague, "Dammit, get down."

Daniel only shook his head and shouted out something else, albeit less confidently this time.

A moment passed, and then another and, finally, a lean figure stepped from the cover of the forest, a longbow easily six feet in length clutched in powerful hands, an arrow with a wicked looking double curved metal arrowhead nocked and pulled, perfectly arrayed feathers resting near his cheek. The arrow was clearly pointed at Daniel Jackson.

"Hold your fire," the Egyptologist snapped at his teammates, praying as he did so that the fact that he was still alive was a good sign.

The others could only pray he was right as they waited, muscles taut, their weapons tightly gripped, needing nothing more than the tiniest increase in pressure to open fire. Daniel Jackson couldn't help but wonder at his own sanity as it occurred to him that almost the exact opposite was true of the alien aiming at him. Even a moment's relaxation could send that arrow into flight ... and right through his chest. He swallowed hard, knowing that his teammates were aware of exactly the same problem. They couldn't really cover him because if they fired, he was very likely dead. Swallowing hard and trying hard not to think about his own very real hatred of pain he spoke quietly, hoping to draw out some kind of response that might give him a clue as to the best way to communicate. In the meantime, he kept his palms out and his arms well away from his body. He didn't want anyone to think he was making an aggressive motion.

A moment passed while they all stood poised to move but perfectly still, the feral instinct to assess a new threat in full command of their senses. Finally, the newcomer edged forward, moonlight illuminating a sinewy frame criss-crossed in painted or tattooed designs of some kind. He wore high leather boots and a long breechclout as well as a loose sleeveless shirt belted at the waist. The arrow still trained on Daniel, he spoke quickly, his voice low, the words simple. It took the Egyptologist a moment to decode the unfamiliar accent and find meaning in the language, but after a beat, he managed a roughly worded reply, struggling to explain who they were to the other man in terms he thought might make some sense.

Sam shared a look with O'Neill, shaking her head to signal she had no idea what they were saying. Exposure and a quick mind had allowed her to pick up a few words of things here and there, but she didn't recognize the language in use this time.

Daniel finally fell silent and a moment passed while they all stood frozen and assessing once again.

"Help us here, Daniel," O'Neill called out at last, wanting to know whether they should be shooting, running, or offering to shake hands. "What's up?"

The Egyptologist made a small shushing gesture with one hand as the newcomer began speaking again, his tone more conciliatory this time, though the arrow remained pulled to its full length. In another time, the English longbow, a weapon of a similar size and draw, had been capable of putting an arrow through armor. Daniel didn't want to think of what the local equivalent could probably do to human flesh. "His name's Ergan ... he's speaking what sounds like a very ancient version of Celtic and says he's from the Western Icenei ... the Icenei were a Celtic tribe before the Romans arrived--"

"That's nice. What's he want?" Jack demanded, cutting straight to the chase.

"I think he's some kind of tribal chieftain ... he's says the Romani -- that's the army we've been seeing -- apparently they hit a caravan ... took his wife and a number of other people. He saw Teal'c's staff weapon and thinks we're demons ... I think he's talking about the Goa'uld."

Sam cursed under her breath. The last damn thing she needed to hear was that they might have not one but two enemies to contend with, whether they wanted them or not. "Tell him we're not," she called up, desperation tinging her voice. "Tell him one of our people was taken and we're just trying to get her back ... that Teal'c no longer serves the Goa'uld ... the demons--"

"I'm trying," Daniel insisted between comments to the Icenei leader in his language. "But I don't think he believes me ... I think he's hoping that he can trade us for his wife--"

Sam distantly registered O'Neill's angrily muttered, "Oh, that's just great," and the sound of his fist hitting the dirt. She knew he was furious at Daniel and probably none too thrilled with her for speaking out of turn at that point. Unfortunately, his day was about to get even worse. The situation couldn't continue as it was and if they found themselves at war with these people too, the delay could cost her everything. On the other hand, it was obvious they were superb trackers and desperate for the return of their own people. Daniel had made the choice for all of them, and having done so, it was unacceptable for that plan to fail. The alternative was too dangerous to contemplate.

Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Sam tossed her own weapon aside and vaulted up the edge of the embankment, scrambling for purchase in the loose, loamy earth as she held her hands out to show she was unarmed.

The archer tensed, swinging the point of his weapon back and forth between the two people, but didn't fire.

"Dammit, Carter...." the colonel snarled behind her, but her entire concentration was on Ergan, praying that he could see the sincerity in Daniel's words.

"Tell them we're just as desperate as he is," she half commanded, half pleaded. "That someone we all care for very much has been taken ... and we just want to get her back." Her voice threatened to crack, but she kept moving, willing the Icenei leader to see the truth. "Please," she added on begging note as his shadowed gaze swung her way and a hint of a frown creased his brow.

Fumbling with the right words, Daniel did his best to translate, while Sam stood behind him, every muscle tense, her desperation plainly visible to anyone who cared to look. A moment passed after he'd finished, then Ergan spoke softly, the expression in his eyes a mirror of her own. He paused after a moment, apparently understanding that she needed Daniel to translate. "He asked if it was your mate who was taken," Daniel said at last.

Sam nodded, sharing a look with the man standing a few short feet away that none of the others could understand, no matter how much they cared. "Tell him yes," she instructed quietly, waiting while Daniel answered.

A moment passed while Ergan spoke, and then Daniel translated, his voice soft and a little uncertain. "He asked what you'd do to get her back?"

Sam swallowed her, forcing the words past the tightness in her throat. "Anything," she breathed, her tone and expression pleading for understanding.

Ergan was already releasing the tension on the bow and replacing the arrow in the quiver at his hip when Daniel spoke, sounding profoundly relieved, "I think that means he believes you."

"He believes me," Sam confirmed without having to understand the exact words. She stepped past her teammate, holding out a hand in greeting to the Icenei tribesman. The man and woman caught each other's forearms in a firm grip, their mutual pain a deep tie between them. He said something softly and Sam simply nodded in understanding.

"Oh joy, a bonding moment," O'Neill muttered and staggered to his feet, still gripping his weapon tightly in case something went wrong as he peered over the edge of the embankment, ready to dive for cover. He signaled for Teal'c to stay where he was, wanting the jaffa where he could back them up if necessary. He was never going to understand Jackson and Carter's tendency to make friends with every passing alien they came across. Not that he hadn't learned that maybe shoot first and ask questions later wasn't necessarily always the best response, but then again singing the Barney song and making pals didn't seem quite right either.

Ergan waved a hand, whistling like some kind of nightbird and a moment later five men and three women, all lean and hard, their hair long, their bodies painted like their leader, melted out of the trees. Two of the men and two of the women carried long bows as well as short swords strapped across their backs. The remaining Icenei had long swords similar to a Scottish claymore strapped across their backs, and one of the men as well as the remaining woman carried some kind of double bladed ax. He said something to his people, who appeared to accept his words with stoic blandness.

"Looks like they were expecting a fight," O'Neill murmured under his breath as he watched events carefully.

"Indeed," Teal'c agreed. "Clearly, they intended to retrieve their people--"

"Or die trying," O'Neill exhaled heavily. Now, there was an option he preferred to avoid.

"Indeed."

Jack sighed softly and flashed a glance at Teal'c as the Jaffa rose gracefully, his staff tipped up, signaling that he'd concluded they had nothing to fear from the newcomers. Apparently, he'd been outvoted -- and exactly when did SG-1 turn into a democracy, he wondered as he climbed back up the steep bank behind Teal'c.

The Icenei leader was just trailing to a halt as O'Neill joined the small knot of people. The tribesman looked to Daniel, waiting for him to translate.

Daniel glanced back, frowning as he explained to his teammates, "He says there are two scouts behind us ... that they'll send up a warning if any more soldiers are seen....." He paused momentarily, visibly working to dissect what he'd been told. "But he doesn't think there's much chance of it ... apparently the ... the Romani don't move at night--"

"That's good," Sam said instantly. "Means we have a chance of catching up to them." The news offered a grain of hope and she grabbed for it with both hands, desperate for any chance to return her lover as quickly as possible.

Ergan glanced at her, apparently recognizing her desperation for what it was. He spoke quietly, repeating part of what he'd said when Daniel asked an uncertain question.

"He says they always camp once it's dark ... any armies in the area coming together ... and that now that we're in their territory, they're likely to be careless. They've apparently rescued people that way before. It won't be easy--"

"Is it ever?" Jack murmured wryly.

"But he thinks it can be done if we move fast ... find them before they get into more populated areas--"

"Then we'd better move," Sam exhaled, her gaze swinging around in the direction they were headed. Instinct told her that everything depended on speed. If they missed their window of opportunity, it might be impossible to even find her lover, since large armies seldom came from small societies. Once lost in a large population, she could disappear forever.

"Now, just hold on a minute," Jack interrupted sharply as his team began readjusting their packs to continue the trek. "Nothing against these guys. They're probably very good ... uh ...tribesmen or whatever, but I'm not sure throwing in with them is the answer--"

"They know the lay of the land and they want to get their people back--" Daniel pointed out.

"Yeah, and according to you they wanted to trade us for 'em," Jack pointed out, sarcasm edging his words.

"I'm not sure about that ... some of what he said was a little confusing. It's just a possibility--"

"Kind of a dangerous one, don't you think?"

"But he wants to work with us now that they know we're on the same side."

The alien tribesmen were already starting to melt back into the forest, their attitude making it plain that SG-1 could join them or not but they weren't going to slow their pursuit any longer.

"Dammit, Daniel--"

It was Sam who interrupted, too tired and stressed to listen to the two men argue their respective ideological positions. She'd heard it all before and sometimes thought they argued simply for the sake of arguing. "They're going ... and if they get there ahead of us and all hell breaks loose, the situation's going to be even worse." She had a nightmare vision of stumbling into a burned out camp, her lover's body lying amid the corpses. She couldn't let that happen. Sam resettled her backpack with grim determination. "You two can fight about it now or you can fight about it later, but I'm going with them." She glanced at Teal'c where he stood silently to one side. "Teal'c?"

He inclined his head ever so slightly. "As am I, Major Carter."

Without waiting for Jack or Daniel to respond, the two turned and hurried after the swiftly moving Icenei leader.

"Me too," Daniel informed Jack and trotted after them, effectively ending the argument.

"Dammit," O'Neill hissed, thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of working with anyone, especially a local culture that they knew almost nothing about. Carter's sympathies aside, the whole idea was far too risky for his tastes. He shook his head as he glared after his teammates. Unfortunately, they'd left him little choice in the matter. Grumbling under his breath, Jack hurried to catch up with them. Daniel was already doing his best to quiz the Icenei leader, though the other man signaled for quiet every time his voice rose above a low whisper. Should make for an interesting hike if nothing else, O'Neill concluded with grim humor.

* * * * * *

Janet Fraiser groaned low in her throat as a wave of dizziness left her on the verge of toppling to the dirt. Kidnaped, exhausted, beat to hell, and now she was stuck trying to come up with a line of reasonable sounding silliness to explain how a modern, automatic pistol worked to a man looking for where to put the flint. Even without a concussion, she'd have been sporting a headache. She risked a glance at Paulus, who was sitting cross legged on the other side of the small fire he'd built, both for warmth and to ward off some of the darkness. He'd eaten what looked to be the local equivalent of hard tack and beef jerky while she spoke, taking long drafts from a water skin between bites and quizzing her about the weapon. Occasionally, he'd picked up the stolen nine millimeter, turning it over in heavy hands as though trying to assess the truth or falsity of her explanations. She suspected that if he'd had any idea exactly how little truth there was in her words, he'd probably have picked up his own weapon and shot her right then and there. Her explanation of blowback alone had created an all new definition for the word fictional. The only reason she could see that he hadn't called her on her story was pure masculine pride and refusal to admit that he had no idea what she was talking about. He'd just nodded and told her to go on every time she'd asked if he understood.

At least he hadn't done anything to prevent her from eating and drinking from the food and water in her own backpack. That and a handful of Ibuprofen, on top of treating her injuries had left her feeling more human at least. She sighed softly, leaning into the support of the tree at her back as she tried to coil into a more comfortable position, only to have the manacle still wrapped around her wrist pull her up short. He'd wrapped the other end of the chain around a heavy branch before fastening the manacle around the chain ... replacing the missing hinge pin with something from his saddlebag. Janet had watched for a chance to see if she could loosen the replacement pin somehow, but he'd been watching her every since.

Paulus' gaze sharpened as he heard the soft clank of metal links and his eyes flicked over to check that the chain was still securely fastened. "Continue," he commanded without further comment.

She couldn't do it; couldn't come up with another warped explanation of real physics and weaponry. "That's all I know. Weapons aren't really my specialty." She closed her eyes, sinking even deeper into the protection of the tree, the bark rough against her uniform, but warmer than the cold ground where she sat. She folded her hands under her armpits, warming them against her body as best she could.

A long moment of silence passed before he mused out loud, "I wonder if you've told me even one word of truth."

"I told you everything I could think of." Literally. She'd told him about a cross section of more or less unrelated weapons from an M16 to a Stinger, as well as the outdated card punch machine that had been part of her first computer experience in high school, cold fusion, superconductors, and possibly warp drive. If there was anything she'd left out, it was purely an oversight. Of course, none of it was likely to help him figure out how to build a working automatic, but that really wasn't her problem. "But if you need me to go through it again because you didn't understand...."

His brows drew together in a frown and she wondered if she'd pushed the manipulation too far, but he simply nodded. "Sleep then ... tomorrow will be a long day." Then he leaned back on his cloak, folding the heavy fabric around his body as he folded an arm under his head.

Apparently dismissed for the moment, Janet let out a low, relieved sigh and drew her legs up, curling into a ball in an effort to conserve body heat. The temperature was dropping and she was feeling the cold. As weak as she was, hypothermia could be a real threat if she wasn't careful. She glanced at the branch where the other end of the manacle was attached, then over at the centurion, watching closely under the cover of thick lashes. Once he was asleep, maybe--

"Sleep," he interrupted the thought, his tone ironic. "Even if you could get the chain free, you'd never get past the guards."

Resisting the urge to curse, Janet slid a hand up, tucking it inside her uniform to press it against the delicate relief of Sam's ring where it was nestled against her chest. That small bit of contact with her home and love offering much needed comfort, she closed her eyes, determined to make him think she was sleeping until she could come up with some means of escape. In moments, her breathing was slow and even, her body limp in slumber.

* * * * * *

Chapter Six

Sam Carter was breathing hard, sweat soaking into her uniform, her muscles aching with the effort required to keep up with the Icenei tribepeople. She was in good shape and used to lugging a heavy pack long distances, often at pressing speeds, but the half jog they effected had her struggling. She glanced back at her teammates, noting that they were working just as hard as she was. Even Teal'c appeared more winded than she could recall seeing him before, while Daniel had long since given up any efforts to interrogate the Icenei leader, instead concentrating on not stumbling over his own feet in the dark.

They were moving single file on an even narrower game trail than the one they'd been using before, following Ergan, who somehow kept the same pace whether heading uphill or down. The rest of the Icenei were somewhere off in the thicker parts of the forest, fanned out and moving impossibly easily through the thick growth. Sam had glanced around occasionally, hunting for some indication of where they might be, but there was no sign, neither sound nor movement, though she had no doubt they were there somewhere.

In the far distance, something that sounded vaguely like a coyote howl echoed across the night, but Sam paid little attention. She'd already heard dozens of distant growls, howls, shrieks and other sounds from the local wildlife and discarded them as unimportant, convinced that if there was anything out there determined to eat them, the locals would be aware of it. She was still moving at that punishing pace, her concentration reserved primarily for the ground immediately beneath her boots, when Ergan suddenly pulled up short, nearly going down when she didn't manage to stop in time and ploughed into his shoulder. He muttered something Sam had no way of comprehending, but didn't turn back, just stood perfectly still, his muscles taut as though carved from granite.

An apology on the tip of her tongue, she looked past his shoulder and saw what had brought him up to such a sudden halt. "Oh god," Sam breathed, the sound little more than the faintest of exhalations.

They were standing on a low ridge that hung over a narrow valley, the india ink blackness of the expanse broken by the glittering lights of several hundred campfires. She didn't event want to think about how many men and arms that might represent. The Icenei leader mumbled something very softly, his breath so low she wasn't entirely certain whether he actually formed words or simply let out a small, feral sound of. Someone spoke, the language sounding harsh and alien to her ears. It took her a moment to realize that it was Jack.

"Jesus."

Daniel caught up with them and started to speak only to have the words die unspoken as he saw what they did. He stared at the valley far below, mouth hanging agape and shook his head slowly. How the hell were they supposed to find anyone in the middle of that?

Teal'c's expression was unreadable as he brought up the rear, coming to a halt beside them with controlled grace. If any emotion escaped the tight rein he routinely kept on his feelings, it was nothing more than a subtle flicker of sadness in his eyes.

Ergan waved a hand and a woman slipped out of the shadows. Roughly Sam's height, her long dark hair caught back in a braid that hung down her back, a longbow gripped in one hand, she moved so silently it was as though she'd simply ghosted into existence. Her leader spoke softly as she joined him, her gaze sweeping across the vista before them all with a horrified look of realization. He spoke again and she nodded, then disappeared back into the darkness, moving down the steep ridge and angling away from them.

"Colonel?" Sam's voice held a note of dread that didn't even come close to expressing what she was feeling.

He shook his head, his voice a tight rasp when he answered. "I don't know."

"Maybe we can negotiate with them," Daniel offered the only thread of hope he could see in the face of what lay before them.

Jack shook his head again. "They opened fire on Boone's team with no warning. Outnumbered like that we'd be sitting ducks with no leverage for negotiation." He glanced at Carter, his expression apologetic, knowing how the news had to hurt. "Chances are we'd all wind up prisoners or dead."

"I know, sir," she admitted, her mind spinning as she hunted for an answer to their problem. "We've got to figure out a way to find her ... assuming she's down there." She gnawed on her lower lip, searching the darkness as though she could somehow see her lover if she just stared hard enough. Her head snapped up, eyes wide as she suddenly heard another coyote-like howl, but far closer than the previous ones, and ending in a series of yips before it finally trailed off. Sam was about to say something to O'Neill when a second howl echoed through the night, further away this time, but definitely on the same hillside where they stood.

Ergan tensed and hissed something under his breath, then suddenly tipped back his head and nearly sent the entire SG team scrambling as he let out an eerie, ululating howl that ended in a series of sharp barks.

The more distant howl sounded again, this time ending in similar yips.

"The sound is a signal," Teal'c observed suspiciously.

"Yeah, I got that," O'Neill agreed tersely while he scanned the surrounding forest for any kind of threat, terrified they'd been led into some kind of trap. "Daniel, ask him what's going on," he ordered the younger man.

Daniel stepped forward and began speaking to Ergan, who ignored him in favor of staring out at the valley below.

Carter checked her MP5 without O'Neill having to say a word, while Teal'c shifted his staff to a two handed grip, ready for combat. They both dropped back a half step, glancing around and spotting cover they could use if needed.

"Daniel," Jack prompted again.

"I'm trying--"

Before he could say anymore, Ergan spoke sharply without looking over, his full attention focused on whatever he was looking for.

Even knowing she should stay back, Sam couldn't resist the urge to edge forward, searching the darkness for some sign of what had the alien leader so tense, but as far as she could see, there was nothing moving nearby. Of course, the forest below them was so thick that someone would have to either be very close or very noisy to be spotted.

"Wha'd he say?" the colonel demanded of Daniel.

Daniel shook his head uncertainly, struggling to untangle the short answer. Despite knowing the ancient form of Celtic the Icenei were speaking, the language had evolved hundreds of years past where his knowledge stopped, making translation slow at times, though he was learning quickly. Given another day or two, he'd probably be relatively fluent in the language. "Someone's coming."

"Great," O'Neill exhaled darkly. If someone had gotten free, they probably had the enemy on their tail and might be leading them right to the company on the hill. They were likely to wind up in a fight whether they wanted it or not. "So, what happens now?"

Ergan spoke before Daniel had a chance to ask the question, his comments quick and clearly to the point, leaving the Egyptologist to explain as he went back to staring at the hillside below.

"Daniel?"

"I think it's one of their people ... but I'm not sure."

Sam tracked their conversation with one ear and their surroundings with the other, wishing she had a pair of night vision goggles as she hunted for some sign of movement. Then suddenly, she spotted something, no more than a fluttery few leaves, but definitely something. "Sir," she called out softly to let him know, and nodded toward the faint movement.

"Yeah, I see," O'Neill shot back, regripping his rifle, while Teal'c took up a position behind a nearby tree, covering them from the more protected position. "Daniel, Carter, pull back."

Knowing he'd be little if any use in a direct conflict, Daniel fell back a short distance, while Sam simply found cover behind a nearby tree. The concept of time quickly became skewed as they waited; measured in breaths, heartbeats, and stress induced fears instead of hours, minutes, and seconds. Then something broke cover a short distance below them. Sam braced the stock of her weapon against her shoulder, finger resting on the trigger preparatory to firing. Heart in her throat, her breathing perfectly controlled, she stared down at the figure advancing their way, silently willing it to be someone or something that might give them a much needed way of finding her lover.

And then suddenly, Ergan was moving, easily bounding down the steep incline, the only clue to his reasons, a single, softly uttered word. "Calloran."

A man broke from cover then, managing a stumbling run, muscles working hard on the steep incline. He threw his arms around Ergan as the two men met a few yards below O'Neill's position on the bluff. As they pulled apart, the words flowed fast and furious between them, voices breathless, speaking far too quickly for Daniel to have any hope of translating, even though he hurried closer to their position in hopes of hearing better.

"Well, at least it doesn't seem to be the enemy ... yet," O'Neill said, his voice pitched low.

Sam only nodded, still watching the scene closely. Her hands tightened on the stock of her rifle a beat later as the newcomer suddenly caught sight of Daniel. He pulled away from Ergan, darting past the taller man and lunging toward the Egyptologist. Sam and Jack both reacted instantly, sighting their weapons on the man, but in the dark, at a steep angle, couldn't fire without risking hitting their colleague. Sam was closer to their position and reacted first, swinging her weapon back as she bounded down the steep incline, hand darting for her sidearm as she moved. She got a hand between them, braced on the newcomer's upper chest to give him a solid shove back from Daniel even as she drew the Zat. She heard the sound of boots skidding on thick dirt as Jack hurried down on the Egyptologist's other side.

"Sam, no," Daniel's voice held a note of panic, visions of getting caught in the middle of a fight dancing in his head. "He's not threatening me."

It took Carter a moment to realize that the man wasn't holding onto Daniel per se, but clutching his sleeve and staring at the fabric. She dropped the zat to her side, but didn't holster it. The newcomer looked at her then, eyes skating from the top of her head, down to the tip of her boots, then up again before whispering something under his breath. His head swung around and he spoke to Ergan quickly, his questioning tone receiving a nod and a single word in reply. He was gripping Daniel's sleeve with one hand, but the other was free and, as his head came back around, the young man lifted it, thrusting it at Sam. It took her a moment to realize that he was trying to give her something small and white that fluttered between his fingers.

"Carter?" O'Neill sounded very uncertain, and she suspected that if she looked his way, she'd find he had his weapon up and ready to use.

Sam ignored him in favor of accepting the alien's offering, frowning as she realized it was a small sheet of paper. Then she saw the rows of small handwriting, shakier than normal but still distinctive enough to make her breath catch.

"Carter, what is it?" Jack's voice again, but she paid him scant mind as she stared at the paper with a kind of desperation and relief that she couldn't even begin to explain.

"Janet's," Sam finally got out past the tightness in her throat. "The handwriting, it's Janet's." She turned the paper over, studying it more closely in the thin moonlight. "It's the graph paper from her survival kit ... and there are notes ... guesstimates on travel times, distances, directions." She grabbed Daniel's other sleeve, eyes alight with desperation. "Ask him what he knows about the woman who wrote this, where she is, is she alive, anything."

The Egyptologist nodded and started to launch into the questions, struggling for vocabulary as he spoke, but the newcomer seemed to understand what they wanted to know and began speaking, slowing deliberately after Ergan inserted a comment.

Sam's fingers curled tightly into the rough fabric of Daniel's sleeve, time stretching to painful lengths as she waited for her teammate to come up with some kind of translation. She felt her muscles threaten to cramp as his expression darkened.

"Oh god."

The words had barely escaped the Egyptologist's lips when Sam demanded, "What? What is it?"

Daniel swallowed hard, pale with stress as he turned to face Carter. "She was a prisoner ... taken about a half a day after Calloran and his people. He said they heard a battle, and she was brought back unconscious, but she woke up later." He paused to take a breath and gather himself together. "Apparently, Ergan's wife was also one of the prisoners. She and Doctor Fraiser spoke, and Janet was using what must have been the saw in her survival kit to free her chains--"

"Then she's down there," Sam exhaled, her voice raw with equal measures of hope and desperation. "We just have to get her back--"

"Sam, it's not that simple." He curved a supportive hand to her forearm, his grip tight. "He saw her taken away by soldiers commanded by one of the Romani leaders. She was scared and the Romani was angry--"

"No," Sam whispered, eyes sliding closed as though she could stop him from speaking the words she knew were coming.

"He thinks she's dead--"

"No," Carter said again. She swallowed hard, fingers clenching so tightly on her teammate's arm that there would be bruises later, and struggled to fight off a whirling kind of dizziness. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real. "Did he see her die?" she demanded after a beat.

"No, but--"

Sam look up, eyes blazing. "Then he doesn't know." It was all she had and she held on to that small bit of hope fiercely. "We can't give up now. Not when we're this close."

Daniel looked back at O'Neill where the colonel was standing a couple of feet away. "Carter's right," the older man said after a beat, his expression giving no cues to his thoughts. "Fraiser's smart. Nobody's counting her out until we know something for certain." The look Carter flashed him was painfully grateful, reminding him for a brief moment of the thoughts and fantasies he'd once entertained. It was never going to happen, but that didn't change his emotions. The only thing he could do for her now was everything in his ability to bring back the woman she loved. He waved Teal'c forward with a sharp gesture. "We're gonna go down there and find her."

"Agreed," Teal'c said, his low voice broadcasting a comforting level of determination to Sam. He checked his grip on his staff as he strode forward, clearly ready for a fight.

All eyes swung back to Daniel who sighed softly and nodded. "Agreed." They'd all faced odds just as bad. It wouldn't be right to give up on the doctor when they didn't know anything for sure.

"All right," Jack said quickly, his tone all business now. He nodded to Daniel. "Find out what you can about where she might be down there ... and the best path to get there without being seen." The decision made, he was already focused on finding the best plan.

While Daniel focused on getting as much information as possible from the aliens, Jack nodded to Teal'c and Sam, as he stripped off his pack. They quickly did likewise, removing anything in the way of necessary materiel and attaching it to their vests as they could, but dumping the weight of the backpack. They were probably walking into a combat situation and any additional weight that might slow them down was a luxury they couldn't afford. Jack looked over as the conversation between Daniel and the two alien men became more intense. The colonel rose easily. "Daniel?" He spoke sharply, the question implicit in his tone.

"In a minute," the younger man clipped without looking back, his total attention focused on the conversation at hand, far too unfamiliar with the language to spare any concentration on anything else if he was to have a hope of doing what he needed to.

Finished retrieving what she needed from her pack, Sam rose, her attention bouncing from speaker to speaker, trying to decode the meaning behind their expressions and tonal shifts. All three men were tense, but not angry ... at least she didn't think any of them were angry, though there was an edge of frustration to Daniel's tone and expression and Calloran kept shaking his head, his look bordering on desperate. Finally, Ergan raised one hand in a pointed gesture, his tone sharp in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way as he spoke, his gaze diamond hard where it was locked on Daniel.

The Egyptologist nodded and spoke briefly, then turned to face his teammates.

O'Neill's expression was hard and expectant. "All right," he clipped impatiently, "would you care to tell us what the hell you just agreed to?" since it was apparent to everyone watching that there'd been some kind of quid pro quo.

Daniel had the good graces to flinch. Making a deal without Jack's approval wasn't exactly his proscribed protocol, but he'd seen no other choice in the matter. He took a deep breath before continuing. "Calloran will show us the camp where Janet was taken," he nodded toward the young man who'd come staggering up the hill. "He's sure we can get there without being discovered." He gestured to the myriad of fires glittering in the valley below. "Apparently a lot of the campfires are either untended or only have one soldier at them. They're trying to fool any pursuers into believing they have a larger force than they do. He knows how to get down without being spotted, and knows where the camp we need is."

Jack's eyes narrowed, tension rippling through his muscles. "And the price of his ... help?"

Sam's eyes swung back to Daniel, taking in his uneasiness with a frown. O'Neill was right. He'd made some kind of deal.

"We rescue their people as well. He heard the battle when Janet was taken and knows we have superior weapons to the Romani--"

Jack hissed through tightly clenched teeth. "I see ... meanwhile, they sit up here safely and watch from a distance?" he demanded, his tone icy.

Blue eyes swung to touch on Ergan where he stood stiffly, his expression unreadable. Sam shook her head imperceptibly. No, that didn't sound right. He didn't look like a man who wanted to be on the sidelines. Her gaze flicked back to Daniel as he began to answer, his head shaking back and forth in emphatic disagreement.

"No," Daniel insisted, while Jack's brows rose in silent demand for an explanation. "They'll be down there too ... to create a diversion and draw any pursuit off of us if we're discovered."

Looking out at the fires below, Sam's brow creased in a frown. No matter how many of them were unattended, there were more than enough men down below to slaughter the small group of natives and still have more than enough left over to deal with SG-1 as well.

Jack glanced at the valley, pointing at the profusion of flickering lights with a loose gesture. "If that army finds out we're down there, there isn't a diversion in existence that's going to keep them off of us before we can escape. It's too far to get away."

Daniel shook his head. "Except we won't have to get away." At his teammate's frowns, he explained quickly. "According to both men, there are underground caverns under the entire valley. Ergan knows how to get into them without being seen; once we're there all we have to do is sit tight. If we're spotted before that, the Icenei will create a diversion and that will give us time get in and hidden."

Pressing her own turbulent emotions back down -- she couldn't think about what Daniel had said, or she was going to lose it -- Sam considered the plan. If the Icenei were right, it might work. At least it was more hope than she'd had only moments before. Her hands tightened on her weapon, her expression frozen as she struggled against the instinctive desire to just go.

Jack glanced at her, his expression indicating he understood something of her desperation before he schooled it into a look of professional detachment. "And how will they know soon enough to do any good?" he demanded. No matter how much he sympathized with his teammate, he couldn't just blindly agree to a plan that might well leave all of them prisoners instead of just the doctor.

"They'll go as far as the unattended fires ... and Calloran and Ergan will go all of the way with us ... to show us where the camp is and how to get into the caves ... and to draw the soldiers off of us if necessary." As he spoke, Daniel slung his pack off, following his teammates' example as he quickly began retrieving what he might need.

"That would be suicide," Sam whispered, realizing as she spoke what the three men had most likely been arguing over. She looked at the Icenei man again, seeing his determination with a degree of understanding. He'd concluded SG-1 was more able to get his wife and the others to safety than he was and was willing to sacrifice his own life to see it happen.

Jack considered the plan for a moment. "Is there way into those caverns from here?"

The Egyptologist shook his head. "I asked and they say no."

Jack's eyes slid from one member of his team to another, easily reading Sam's desperate hope and Daniel's nervousness before finally winding up on Teal'c.

"If they are correct about the caves, then the plan is sound," the Jaffa said simply, his expression determined. One of their own had been taken. He would never support leaving her behind. He was aware of Carter's grateful look, but it had little effect on his decision one way or the other. Fraiser had earned his respect on her own. Her tie to his teammate only firmed his resolve.

Jack sighed softly, pointing out practically, "And if they aren't, we won't know until it's too late."

Another mild nod from the Jaffa.

Sam took a deep breath, putting her personal feelings under tight lock and key in the effort to look at the situation as logically as possible. "I realize I'm not the most objective person here, sir, but everything else aside, Janet's still a member of the SGC. We can't leave her behind anymore than we would anyone else."

"They say it's worked before," Daniel added as he finished with his backpack and straightened, "that they've rescued others."

A beat passed, then finally Jack nodded, not exactly satisfied, but certain they were both right. He'd expressed his concerns, but in the end, there was really only one decision he could make. "Okay. Let's do this thing ... before I regain my sanity and change my mind."

* * * * * *

Sudden awareness came as the world spun end over end, brief glimpses of a dark forest nearly as disorienting as the sensation of being airborne that ended with a hard collision with something rough and solid. Janet let out a dull cry as the fist curled into the front of her uniform impacted with her sternum driving the air from her lungs. She instinctively kicked her feet in search of a purchase, but they only scrabbled against rough bark, knocking it away in huge chunks without gaining any real leverage.

"How did you do it?" The voice deep and angry came at her with a hot blast of bad breath in the face.

Instinct still driving her more than conscious thought, she struck out at her attacker, shoving hard with her free hand, her other one trapped uselessly at her side by the manacle, only to find herself slammed backwards again, the fist curled into her shirtfront hammering the air from her lungs a second time as it collided with her chest.

"How?!" The angry growl sent a bolt of terror through her.

"What?" She barely got the single word out before she was thrust back against the tree and shaken, though not so brutally as the first time.

Paulus leaned down into her line of sight, the fingers of his other hand wrapping around her throat, their blunt strength pressing against the underside of her jaw and threatening to compress on her larynx. "The savage ... how did you free him?"

Janet frowned in genuine confusion, forgetting everything but the immediate threat in that moment. "Savage?" She glanced around herself, seeing the unfamiliar territory, her vision slightly blurred by the concussion. It wasn't a nightmare. Oh god, it was all real. The man gripping her shirt tightened his hold on her throat, his fingers threatening to clamp down hard enough to cut off her air. She was still half panicked, everything but the immediate threat forgotten. "I haven't freed anyone."

He shook her again, his eyes blazing. "Don't lie? We found his chains, the hinge pins missing on the manacles ... just like yours." Another rough shake, like a hunting dog with a rabbit, the rough handling making the world spin dizzily around Fraiser. She would have gone down if not for his tight hold pinning her against the tree and well off her feet. "Now, how did you do it?"

She shook her head as much as she could within the confines of his tight grasp, her mind fighting to work. The wire-saw from her emergency kit; Leilla or one of her people must have used it to escape, she realized in a blink. "Sounds like you got a defective batch of manacles." She knew the sarcasm was a bad idea even as the words left her mouth, but she'd always had a bad tendency toward dark humor whenever she was overstressed. And this definitely qualified as overstressed..

A muscle pulsed in his jaw and for a moment she fully expected to feel the full weight of his displeasure as his thumb and fingers pressed harder into her throat, but he seemed to get marginal control over his temper in time, relaxing the punishing pressure just enough to let her breathe unrestricted. He leaned even closer, his breath hot on her face, her reflection visible in the firelight flicker of his eyes. "That savage was worth at least 50 gold lira ... far more than you could ever hope to bring, so make no mistake that if you do anything like that again, I will slit your throat and leave your body for the saraqs." He shook her to punctuate the point. "Do you understand?"

She had no doubt the threat was real enough. "Yes," she said through tightly gritted teeth.

"There may be value in your knowledge," he growled angrily, "though I have my doubts you'd ever share it, but I will not allow you to threaten our profits." He increased the pressure on her larynx, the unspoken threat obvious.

Janet swallowed hard, far past any desire to give a flip answer, well aware that she had one foot in the grave and the other on an icy patch. One bad move and she was dead. She simply nodded, her gaze sliding away from her captor in hopes he wouldn't see the rage and calculation in her eyes.

He did anyway, or maybe he sensed it. In any event, his voice was raw as he hissed, "By law, I can do with you as I wish if your actions cut into the Empire's profits." The message was clear and obvious. He'd stopped Severidus from killing her because it was against the law and financially advantageous, but he'd do the job himself if she cost him more than he thought she was worth.

A muscle pulsed in her jaw, but she didn't answer, only kept her face averted. A beat passed before she realized her captor wasn't paying attention to her any longer. She turned her head back, staring up at the big soldier.

He was tense, his head swinging back and forth, full attention focused on the surrounding landscape, searching for something.

Arched brows drew together in a frown as Janet hunted for some sign of what he was seeing or hearing, finally plucking a sound out of the faint cocktail-party-style chatter of the surrounding encampments; a distant animal howl reminiscent of a coyote. She knew she was right when she felt Paulus' grip on her shirtfront tighten perceptibly and saw the way his expression shifted from tension to something that bordered on fear. He breathed a word that she was certain was either a curse or some kind of plea to the gods, then looked back down at her with an assessing kind of malevolence.

Before the centurion could say anything, Levarin, the older corpsman who'd backed him up earlier hurried into the clearing, his boots rattling grass and brush as he moved, his breathing rough as though he'd run. "Porthos informed me when I returned from the outer pickets that we had an escape?"

Paulus nodded, releasing his punishing hold on Janet's throat as he pivoted toward his second in command. His eyes searched the inky silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. "And the savages ... they're calling to each other in the mountains. They must have a hunting party up there. He'll lead them straight to us if he can."

Levarin looked up, listening for what his superior had heard, but there was nothing now. That didn't stop the shiver of unease coursing down his spine. "If they're out there, the pickets won't keep them back ... goddamned ghosts--"

"They're not ghosts," Paulus insisted, though there a whistling in the graveyard quality to the denial. "Just men ... which means they can be killed like any other man."

"If you can find them or see them ... maybe." Levarin drew his cloak more tightly about his body as if to ward off the chill. "But they say they have a salve that allows them to appear and disappear like smoke."

"Those are campfire tales to scare men." Paulus gritted his teeth, fighting an instinctive level of terror, but he kept his tone businesslike. "But I want to move out as soon as possible with the full company and prisoners."

"Several of the men who weren't on watch left earlier ... probably drinking and dicing. They won't be in fighting shape and we'll be more vulnerable on the road."

"Fear should sober them up." Paulus shrugged. "And we're only vulnerable if they know where we are. Now, go. Get things ready and send runners for the men. We need to be on the road as quickly as quickly as possible."

"Aye, sir," Levarin said tersely, his tone making it clear he disagreed with the decision, then turned, his footsteps quieter as he hurried away, conscious now of the fact they might have hunters closing in on them.

After he had gone, Paulus turned back to face Janet again, his temper cooler now, though only slightly less dangerous. "If you made a deal or you think they'll save you, don't count on it." He released the front of her shirt, watching dispassionately as she stumbled and fell back, remaining upright only thanks to the tree at her back. "They'll just drag you back to some savage's kraal." The hand at her chest lifted, fingers lightly brushing the underside of her chin even as she yanked her head back. "Where you'll bear his brats and live like a gardeth in the mud and filth. At least with us, you'll belong to a Romani freeman and your children will be civilized."

Janet cocked an eyebrow as she stared up at the big man, trying to decide if he was taunting her or sincere. Finally, she shook her head, unable to hold back the quiet question, "Assuming you're right on all counts, why would you think one is better than the other? A rapist is a rapist. I doubt one is all that preferable to another for the victim."

He flushed, facial muscles tightening and yanked his hand back. "Repack your gear. We'll be leaving soon. Try to slow us down and you won't survive the experience." And then he was moving away from her grabbing for his discarded armor.

Her knees trembling, Janet slid down the tree trunk into a crouch, her eyes still on her captor as she reached for her backpack....

* * * * * *

Chapter Seven

Her heart hammering in her chest with such ferocity she was half afraid it might be heard by the enemy, senses alert to every tiny sound or movement, Sam Carter stalked perfectly silently through the shadows between bright, flaring bonfires, the stock of her MP5 braced against her shoulder, well aware that the slightest misstep could cost them all everything. She glanced over and saw O'Neill signal her along. A quick nod of confirmation and she was moving forward again. So far, things had gone smoothly, the bonfires they'd passed every bit as unattended as Calloran had claimed. The archers had seen the lone man who'd apparently been tending the fires, their arrows taking him out before he even looked up. He'd died so quickly, he'd remained slumped against a log, looking like he was simply napping to anyone who might chance a glance from the distance. Calloran and Ergan were fanned out and moving easily through the night well ahead of O'Neill, while Daniel was behind her and Teal'c had the rear. She could hear the sounds of men in the distance, their voices loud and raucous with drink and overconfidence. And stirred into that, an occasional voice that was distinctly female, usually crying out and thick with fear. She couldn't afford to consider the cause of those frightened voices and maintain her sanity, just like she couldn't afford to consider Calloran's beliefs about what had happened to Janet. She had to be alive, because Sam didn't know what she'd do if she wasn't. She forced that thought down, not letting herself think that way. It was too dangerous.

They skirted several more fires, slipping deeper into the enemy's camp, drawing closer to the sounds with every step.

Ergan suddenly signaled for them to halt, disappearing into the darkness for several long moments before returning, the blade of his knife running with blood. Moments later, they passed a body splayed out in the grass, the gash across his throat so deep he'd nearly been decapitated. Jack glanced back, his eyes meeting Carter's and they shared a worried look that lasted only beat. No time for doubts now.

Crouched low, the small group bypassed several sprawling camps where the men were obviously well into their cups and far too involved in gambling and taunting the prisoners to notice the silent shadows that slipped past just out of range of the light from their fires. The hardest part for the members of SG-1 was resisting the temptation to try and rescue every prisoner they saw. Leaving people behind went against the grain. Unfortunately, they had no other choice. They couldn't fight an entire army.

Twice more Ergan signaled for them to halt and disappeared ahead with Calloran in tow. The first time, the group passed a single guard, dead in the bushes when they started moving again, the second, there were two; all had had their throats slashed quickly and efficiently before they could raise an alarm.

They'd gone only a short distance farther when Calloran signaled a turn and led them into a thicker section of forest. Sam frowned slightly, peering through the deeply shadowed darkness, careful about where she placed her feet in the thickening vegetation lest she make some unwanted sound. She saw Calloran point sharply as they broke through a fresh layer of trees. Whoever had chosen this site had done so with more consideration for either privacy or security than the other camps they'd seen, protected as it was by thick stands of trees.

Suddenly, Calloran moved ahead quickly, moving more upright to gain speed, while Ergan frowned in confusion and broke into a jog after the other man.

O'Neill gestured sharply to his people, silently signaling them to spread out and be ready for anything.

Sam pointed at her own chest, then after the two Icenei and started to follow them, ignoring her superior's sharp head shake denying permission. She heard his sharp hiss as she took off after the two men, but was past caring. Instinct told her their target was close. Like the men, she moved faster now, adrenaline flooding her veins and adding speed and certainty to every movement. She bounded over a downed tree, ducking a low branch as she landed, then came up short. Crouched at the edge of a clearing she hadn't been aware of until that moment, she saw the two Icenei men ahead of her, bodies low to the earth as they gestured to one another. Beyond the men was a small clearing dominated by a single wagon guarded by a pair of lackluster looking Romani soldiers. A small fire burned near the center of the area, half shielded by large rocks and some kind of cooking pot. The wagon was rough hewn, with thick side rails. She could see chains bolted to the wagon and several figures inside, though it was impossible to make out any details about the prisoners. As she watched, she realized a second set of guards stood on the opposite side of the clearing, both carrying long barreled, ball and powder rifles. Sam was surprised by how half-hearted they looked about their task. She would have expected them to be alert after losing a prisoner earlier.

She caught a glimpse of Ergan as he crouched low and moved closer to the wagon, then heard a soft bird call and realized he was signaling his people. He twisted back, signaling to O'Neill, then pointing at two soldiers across from the wagon. Obviously, that was their job. Ergan pointed at himself and Calloran and indicated the men nearest the wagon, making the split in tasks obvious.

O'Neill nodded, then gestured to Teal'c as he drew his knife. Pointing to Sam, he mouthed, "Cover us." Though it would have been easier to open fire, there was too much chance of being seen or heard. He glanced down at the weapon in his hand and forced down an instinctive dislike. He had the training and had done the job before but it never got any easier. He would have preferred another strategy, but it was obvious the Icenei had chosen their course, leaving him with little choice in the matter.

Carter nodded, checking her grip on her weapon and tracking the two men as they edged around the perimeter of the camp, closing in on their prey.

Unaware of the figures silently stalking them, one of the two guards opposite the wagon scratched himself lazily, then reached up to adjust his loosely frogged helmet. "You really think the savages are stupid enough to try something in a camp this size?" he questioned the man standing nearest as he turned to peer at the prisoners, a frown etching a deep line between his brows.

His partner drew his cloak more tightly around himself and shrugged. "They did it just one cycle back ... I wouldn't want to make any bets. We already had one escape tonight. He could bring more back...."

The first shook his head then. "No, he ran out on the others ... didn't even try to free them. He's probably halfway home by now," he said firmly, buoying himself up with false confidence. "Paulus is just being paranoid--"

"Maybe," his partner cut him off, "but if I were you, I wouldn't let him hear me say that."

None of the guards noticed the danger until it was too late. The Icenei leapt first, falling on their victims with silent ferocity, every move perfectly calculated to end life. O'Neill and Teal'c moved only a heartbeat later, all of their skill and training going to the task of ending things quickly.

It was over in a matter of moments with no unneeded sound and no alarms raised.

Jack dragged the dead soldier's body back into the bushes, dumping it out of sight, comforting himself with a silent reminder of the prisoners these men had taken with no care, then waved to Teal'c and moved outward from the camp to make sure there was no one else close who might send up an alarm.

Sam stayed where she was long enough to be certain her people were in control of situation, the leapt forward, hurrying to the wagon where Calloran was working at freeing their own people, fumbling with a ring of keys stolen from one of the dead guards, while Ergan was in the wagon, his expression intent as he spoke with a young girl who looked no older than Cassie. Ignoring the men, she hopped into the back of the wagon, searching through the half a dozen girls chained there. Nothing. Uttering a low curse, she turned to climb back down, only to have her shirt sleeve grabbed. The major spun back around, bringing her MP5 to bear before she realized it was one of the prisoners, a pretty young blond who looked to be a year or two older than Cassie.

The Icenei woman flinched at the raw aggression momentarily directed her way by the major, but held her ground, speaking quickly in her own language.

Drawn by the desperate intensity of her tone, Sam stared at the girl helplessly, suddenly wishing she had Daniel's facility for language.

"She asks if you're from the circle with water," Ergan said suddenly, translating, his voice low and surprisingly unaccented.

Sam twisted to stare that Icenei leader with wide eyes. "Y-you speak our--"

He ignored her startled whisper, instead speaking to the girl in his own language. She answered quickly and he looked back up at Sam even as the blonde plucked a familiar name from the alien language. "She asks if you seek Janet Fraiser," he translated, his voice rough with emotion.

"Yes ... to both questions," Sam said instantly, no longer caring about Ergan's sudden facility for English, "does she know where she is?"

Ergan quickly translated, his tone brusque, and a frown creased the young woman's brow and Sam had to fight the urge to shake her as she stammered through an answer, clearly intimidated by the two adults waiting impatiently.

"She says the imperator took her when they first arrived." A muscle pulsed in his jaw while pure, frustrated rage glittered in his eyes. He seemed to catch himself. "But the Centurion ... Paulus ... brought her back. ... then took her to his camp."

Sam reached out, her desperation clear in her eyes and the way she gripped the woman's arm tightly. "Does she know where?"

She pointed opposite the direction the rescuers had come from, not needing a translation for Sam's question this time, and spoke.

Ergan relayed the message in harsh tones. "She says they could hear them talking ... shouting.... She doesn't think it's far."

Sam caught the woman's hand in her own, squeezing hard. "Thank you," she croaked, her voice rough with emotion. She looked at Ergan. "Why now?" she demanded and they both knew what she was asking. Why hide that he could speak their language? And why admit it now?

"Because there were two wagons. The other one's already left with the soldiers who were in camp and more valuable cargo ... our men ... and my wife. She made Rialla memorize everything so she could tell anyone who came for them." He nodded toward the other girls where Calloran was gently helping them out of the wagon one by one. "The centurion ... and your woman ... will meet up with them, if they aren't there already. I have to take these children back, so I have to hope you're who you say you are ... and that you'll bring them both back."

Sam suddenly understood what he was saying. What he was asking of her. She nodded. "If at all possible," she promised.

"Now, go," he hissed.

She didn't need to be told a second time. Sam spun, easily vaulting the rails that ran around all four sides of the wagon. She landed lightly, breaking into a run, her every thought for her lover now.

"Carter," O'Neill snapped when he saw her take off. He thumbed his two way radio on, knowing hers was set to receive and snapped, "Carter, get your ass back here. I don't want anyone out there alone."

"Sorry, sir. No can do. I've got a line on where Janet is," Carter responded. "And you oughta know that our host speaks pretty good English. Be careful."

Then he heard the dead air as she flipped her two-way off.

"Teal'c," Jack O'Neill snapped, pivoting to spot his teammate as she ran into the forest at top speed, "Go after her."

The Jaffa nodded and retrieved his staff before hurrying after Carter.

Sam ducked and dodged between heavy trees and brambly undergrowth, moving amazingly quietly considering her speed, operating more on some instinctive sense of her lover's nearness than any physical or visual cues.

The ground inclined beneath her feet, and she had to scramble, boots digging deeply into the loamy earth as she gained the top of the low rise. Eyes adjusted to near total darkness easily found the dull glow of a burned down fire a short distance down the other side of the hillock, nearly hidden by a thick stand of trees. Carter didn't slow her pace, instead pushing herself even harder. As she drew to within ten yards of the trees, she heard a man's voice.

"...no more delays ... and don't think you can escape once we're moving either."

"I'm chained to you. How far do you think I could go?"

Janet's voice. Sam lunged forward, hope surging in her breast as she heard absolute confirmation that her lover was still alive. She hit the edge of the clearing and had one brief moment to assess the situation.

A big man, armored, a heavy, dark cloak over his shoulders, sat astride one of the animals they'd seen pulling the wagons, one arm wrapped around the slender figure seated in front of him, the other clutching the reins. Sam experienced a momentary head rush as she laid eyes on her lover once again, relief surging through her, though her expression remained frozen in a battle-hardened mask.

The soldier -- Centurion Paulus she presumed -- tightened his grasp on his prisoner and Carter realized that what looked like a gauntlet on his wrist was actually a manacle, the chain dangling from it attached to its mate where it was wrapped around Janet's wrist. Then she saw him grip the reins more tightly, his knees flexing on his mount's flanks. He was about to leave and, if got the animal to a gallop before she could stop them, Sam would never be able to keep up. Shooting the centurion was out of the question -- too much risk of hitting Janet -- and shooting the animal was too likely to bring it down on her lover. She considered the zat, but was afraid that it would end up with her lover unconscious and trampled under the feet of the centurion's mount. No, her best chance was to intimidate the Romani into giving Janet up, and the MP5 -- the closest thing to a weapon he was capable of understanding -- seemed the best chance for that.

"Don't move!" Sam didn't shout, but her tone was sharp, her voice hard as she stepped into the clearing, the MP5 braced against her shoulder and cleanly sighted on the centurion.

The centurion twisted toward her, wheeling his mount around. Glimpsing the weapon in Carter's hand while the animal was still turning, he grabbed for the primitive rifle tucked into the saddle boot.

Sam's finger tightened on the trigger, but she didn't fire. "Do and I'll shoot," she snapped before the weapon cleared the boot.

He froze, then slowly released his grip on the rifle, though he retained a hard hold on his prisoner. He recognized her mode of dress as identical to the men they'd battled at the stargate, and was wise enough to realize her weapon was doubtless far more powerful than his own.

Janet's eyes locked on the blond, relief flooding her veins. "Sam," she exhaled in a voice full of love and hope.

Sam met her lover's gaze for the briefest of moments, offering as much reassurance as she could, then returned her gaze to the centurion, her expression hardening. "Let the woman go," she commanded, her tone brooking no argument.

Paulus frowned, but didn't move. "As a servant of the emperor, I have no right to surrender his property." He spared a glance at the surrounding forest. "Besides, if you shoot, you'll have an entire army on top of you in moments."

If she could have been certain of not hitting Janet, Sam would have shot him for his arrogance. Instead, she offered a tight smile. "But you'll be too dead to care," she snarled. "Now, let her go or I'll blow your head off." She was absolutely serious. Killing wasn't something that appealed to her at any level, but she had done so before when the situation demanded it. If that was what it took, she was willing.

He shook his head, calling her bluff. "If that was your plan, you'd already have done so."

Raw determination made Sam's eyes flinty. She could feel the hunger for freedom in Janet's every heartbeat, but she had to ignore the temptation to look away from her adversary. Right now, it was more a battle of wills than weapons, but that could change at any moment. "Understand something ... I'm not leaving without her. Whether you're dead or alive when I do so is your choice."

He shook his head, still studying her carefully. "You're no killer--"

"Anyone's a killer with the right motivation," Sam disagreed, wanting him to understand it was no idle threat. "Threaten what they love and you learn that the hard way." He stiffened suddenly, and Sam thought he whispered something, but she couldn't hear what. "You've only seen what the weakest of our weapons can do. If you force us, we'll annihilate your entire army." It was a baseless threat, but he had no way of knowing that.

His lip curled into a look of disgust that hadn't been there before. "Then we'll deserve our fate."

And then, as if summoned to end the stalemate, the faint sounds of gunfire and men's shouts echoed in the distance. Clearly the attack on the camp had been discovered. Sam could only hope the Icenei plan was working for her teammates because she was out of time. Her finger tightened fractionally on the trigger, but she still couldn't get a clear shot, and the centurion yanked on the reins with the hand still latched around Janet's waist, backing the dancy animal several paces and making any kind of shot even chancier.

Janet had remained silent during the confrontation, afraid of distracting Sam at an inopportune moment, but when she felt the animal dance and Paulus' free hand grab for the pistol tucked in his belt, she shouted, "Sam, look out!" She latched onto his wrist as he brought the weapon up, fighting his aim even as she heard the percussive blast of the weapon firing.

Carter saw the weapon and dove behind a nearby tree, narrowly avoiding taking the bullet, then stumbled momentarily as she hit a patch of damp leaves and her feet skidded out from under her. She scrambled and found her feet again, her efforts spurred by the sound the centurion made as he spurred his mount. He was moving before she even got clear of the tree.

"No," Sam gasped, catching a glimpse of the man bent low over the saddle, his hands rough on the woman struggling in his arms. And then Sam Carter ran, pouring on the speed with raw desperation, racing between the trees and running parallel to the centurion. At some point, she saw Teal'c in the distance, caught in a fight with several men, but didn't have the time to worry about it. Sounds of combat and confusion came at her from all sides now; men's shouts, the sound of panicked animals, women's screams, an explosion of some kind, and round upon round of gunfire. Still running parallel, her breath coming in harsh gasps, muscles burning with the effort required, she found a low rise and realized that she was pulling slightly ahead of the centurion, her way far more open than his. If she could just get a little ahead and above, she might have a chance to either get a clear shot or, if he was close enough to her position, take both riders off the animal in one mad leap. Neither choice was appealing, but she was out of options.

* * * * * *

Janet fought furiously with her captor, trying to slow his mount or get them both thrown off, no longer caring if they crashed into one of the trees passing by at a dizzying rate. Sam was down, maybe hurt, maybe dead. Past reason, Janet smashed her manacled wrist into Paulus' face, drawing blood and a grunt of pain, clawed at his forearms, then left teeth marks when he shifted his arm so it was braced across her shoulders. Still guiding the galloping animal between the closely spaced trees, he yanked hard on her chest, driving the air from her lungs, then knocked his forearm into the side of her head. Dazed, she half fell across the animal's broad neck only to feel her hair suddenly grabbed and her head hauled up with brutal strength as they cleared the trees. Brown eyes rose and she experienced a burst of raw relief as she saw her lover a short distance away, whole and uninjured. She was standing on an outcropping of rock, positioned slightly above the riders, MP5 braced against her shoulder. She saw Sam's eyes go wide, her expression a mask of horror. With Janet as an impromptu shield, she didn't dare fire, and she was too far away to do anything else. Then Janet realized that Paulus had released the reins and they were dangling loose around his mount's neck. His rifle cleared the boot, and she felt the flex of muscle as he brought it to bear, angling it across the animal's shoulders.

"SAM, GET DOWN!!" The warning came too late, and Janet's voice merged with the sound of gunfire only to be muted by the resulting cloud of smoke. "NO!!" In the haze and darkness, she caught a last glimpse of Sam -- one arm flung wide before she toppled out of view -- and went wild in Paulus' hold, kicking, hitting, scratching and biting. Anything that might gain her freedom. He yanked hard on her midsection, driving the air from her lungs, then grabbed her by the hair, using his full weight and strength to shove her face down into his mount's neck, his efforts controlling most of her struggles.

* * * * * * *

Sam twisted violently, kicking at the body that had crashed into hers from the side, tackling her down the shallow slope on the other side of the vantage point where she'd stood poised. She lost her grip on the MP5, but the shoulder strap kept it anchored to her body as they tumbled together. As they hit bottom, Sam got a foot between them and shoved hard, thigh muscles compressing tightly with the effort required to throw her compactly muscled attacker off. Leather armor protected him from the worst of the impact as he landed, and he moved incredibly quickly, rolling with the force of the blow and bounding to a half crouch. In such close quarters, Sam didn't have time to shift her grip on her MP5 as she came up gripping the stock well below the trigger guard. Grabbing the barrel, she swung the weapon around into her attacker's face, using it as an impromptu club. His head rocked back, jaw split open by the sharp edge of the stock, and he went over backward. He got a hand behind himself and would have tried to push upright, but Sam clubbed him again before he had a chance. This time, the soldier went down and stayed that way. She didn't spare him a second glance, just dug her boots in and ran, climbing back up the short rise with long strides.

"No," Sam hissed as she hit the vantage point and saw no sign of centurion or Janet. She toggled her two way on. "Colonel, I saw her. She's alive, but I lost her again." Breathless from exertion, her voice came out rough and gasping and she wondered if he'd heard her for a moment when the only response was silence.

Finally, O'Neill's voice sounded in her ear, sounding almost as out of breath as she was. "All hell's breaking out here, Carter." As if to punctuate the statement, she heard his rough grunt, then a rapid pulse of gunfire that echoed within and without the tiny speaker in her ear. "We're going to have to go to ground soon or die tryin'."

Sam fought the urge to scream, already moving again, trailing the track she was certain her quarry had taken. Thick smoke threaded through the trees and she caught glimpses of small fires burning just past the thickest part of the forest that she was certain hadn't been there before. "She was with a rider ... big man in a cloak and plumed helmet ... headed roughly 30 degrees west of true north." She broke from the cover of the trees, saw a half a dozen or so soldiers to her right and heard one of them shout a warning to the others. She raised the MP5 and fired three, three-shot bursts that took them all down before they even had a chance to prime their weapons. Sam never even looked back.

"Carter," O'Neill again, gasping, his voice ragged and scared -- not the thick cloying fear of a coward, but the realistic fear of a man who knows a situation is rapidly turning against him. "Get your ass back here. Now! We can't do her any good if we're dead!"

A soldier lunged out of the smoke and Sam spun, firing even as she dodged to avoid a wild swing from his short sword. The weapon just grazed her arm, slicing through her uniform and leaving a shallow cut before he tumbled on past, hitting the dirt in a sprawl, groaning softly, too badly wounded to offer any further threat. She did a slow turn back, staring out at the surrounding countryside in an effort to see something that might tell her which way to go, but there was a steadily thickening haze hanging low over the valley, that made it hard to see more than vague shadows moving in the distance. A flaming dart of an arrow arced neatly through the air, fired from a vantage point somewhere past the edge of the last encampment. It hit somewhere in the distance, the impact setting off a small crack before more smoke poured forth, filling the air with acrid fumes. In the confusion, the Romani soldiers were scrambling to cover their own camps and prisoners, firing randomly in the dark and smoke, caring only for their own interests and nothing for the neighboring troops. Hearing gunfire all around and knowing how few of her own people there were, she was certain most of the enemy casualties were being inflicted by their own side.

"Colonel O'Neil, I have lost all sight of Major Carter and am uncertain which direction she went." Even Teal'c was breathing hard as he came online, and she could hear the erratic sounds of gunfire countered by louder explosions from the Jaffa's staff weapon.

"Get back here, Teal'c. You too, Carter, that's an order." Then O'Neill sounded distracted, his attention elsewhere as he demanded, "Dammit, Daniel, where'd they go?"

"Took off a couple of minutes ago, I think." Daniel Jackson panted, sounding like he'd pay big money to be anywhere else. Combat was not his forté. He'd learned to deal with it, but he was never going to like it. "I'm not really sure."

"Get down with the women, Daniel." O'Neill's order was brisk and borderline angry, not at the Egyptologist, but at a situation which was rapidly sliding out of all control.

"Jack--"

"I know, now go! D'ya hear that, Carter? You've got to get back here and under cover." He was borderline to pleading now. "Getting yourself killed isn't going to do her any good."

Sam was only distantly listening, her attention focused instead on the surrounding landscape as she started moving again, cutting across the rise, moving parallel to the thick forest. The trees disappeared abruptly, the high ground turning into a gravelly ridge that stood above a steep incline. The smoke was all around her now, in thick, lung-choking clouds to the point where Sam wasn't sure she could have made her way back to the colonel's position if she wanted to. Everything was starting to meld into the smoke, the landscape changing like quicksilver depending on her viewpoint, her sense of direction and distance no longer reliable.

Then she heard a familiar voice -- the centurion who'd kidnapped Janet. "Helion!! Soldiers of Helion!!" Her head swung around and she tracked it until she saw a rider through the haze, the plume on his helm fluttering in the breeze, one hand pinning the slender figure in front of him face down, the other gripping the reins tightly as he wheeled his mount around, clearly trying to get his bearings in the confusion.

"Sorry, sir," Sam apologized and broke into a run. "Get to cover. I'll follow if and when I can."

"Carter--"

She toggled the radio off, knowing that his voice in her ear would only be a distraction she could ill afford.

"Maniple Helion to me!!" the centurion bellowed, powerful voice echoing through the trees.

Sam found her footing and reached a position less than ten yards away without being seen and rocked the MP5 to her shoulder, sighting it carefully before pulling the trigger. A single shot exploded from the chamber, and she saw the centurion's body jerk as it found a target, while blood flowered down his left arm. He let out a dull roar of rage and wheeled his mount around, yanking Janet back up as a shield before Sam could fire a second time. "You." His voice came out as little more than a low growl of disbelief.

Sam didn't bother with any kind of acknowledgment, simply snarled, "Let her go now!"

He shook his head. "Come take her," he challenged bitterly. It had gone well past his sense of duty to his emperor and become personal. He might have more respect for women than his men, but he had no intention of being beaten by one, particularly not one who was clearly a practitioner of savage perversion. He twisted Janet's hair hard, forcing her head up to bait the trap and saw the flicker of desperation in the blond's eyes.

"Sam ... don't," Janet gasped in warning, uncertain what the centurion intended, but knowing instinctively he had something planned.

"She can't resist," Paulus taunted, his lips curling with distaste. He nuzzled her cheek, his fingers still tight in her hair. "Come for me ... or I promise, I'll see every man in my command use her before she's sold at slave auction!"

Sam's finger tightened fractionally on the trigger, and she blinked to clear the sweat from her eyes as she tried to draw a bead for a head shot, but there was no way. Too much chance of hitting the doctor. "Why don't you come get me!" she shouted back at the enemy soldier. "Or maybe you're afraid of a woman!" She saw the tension ripple through him as well as the hate glittering in his eyes.

The centurion's hand tightened on the reins, knuckles whitening as he sawed the bit in his mount's mouth. The animal danced nervously, and Paulus shook his head. "I never fear the dead!" he snarled even as more soldiers began emerging from the floating smoke, their advance muffled until they began breaking from the thick mist. His men, coming from both sides of the man, and hopelessly outnumbering her. Their weapons were primitive, but if they began firing from that many different angles, superior weaponry wouldn't buy her enough time. She saw her lover glance sideways and realize the problem.

"Sam! Go!" Janet shouted. There was no purpose to her staying and dying when there was nothing she could do. Her weapons so outclassed the soldiers' that she could still escape. She just couldn't escape and save Janet too; not without a lot more firepower than an MP5 offered. She had to leave.

But Sam couldn't move, not when it meant leaving Janet behind, so she stood frozen, finger tight on the trigger, just barely holding off firing, hunting desperately for some means of saving the woman she loved without getting both of them killed.

The centurion's mouth twisted in a triumphant smile. "You cannot win," he taunted as men continued to gather on either side of him.

They were all caught by surprise by the sudden explosion of smoke and fire that erupted from a narrow crevasse in the space between Sam's position and the centurion's, the force of it nearly toppling the captain off her feet. She heard Janet's startled scream but could no longer see her lover for the thick haze billowing up from the crack in the earth. Sam started to lunge forward, but something suddenly tangled her feet and she toppled hard, swinging her weapon around even as she moved. Hands grabbed for her, dragging her downward, the body that wrapped around her own far larger and heavier than she was. She tried to shout, but a hand flattened over her mouth, and she was tumbled. A moment's freefall and then the air was knocked from her lungs as they hit a rock surface hard. She had a brief impression of a ceiling overhead, then her view was obscured by a muscular arm.

Janet.

Dear God, she was still up there ... on her own. The centurion's threats.... He intended to.... Thoughts ran fractured and panicked through her brain, driving her to struggle with wild strength until she was slammed hard into the rocks, a heavy body pinning her into place.

"They'll kill you, and you'll gain nothing." Ergan's voice she realized, and twisted violently in an effort to throw a punch, not caring who it was that was stopping her from helping her lover. The blow glanced off his shoulder and probably hurt by the way he grunted. "He won't hurt her--"

"Lying bastard," Sam hissed and fought to drive a knee into his groin. She knew she got in at least a glancing blow by the way he groaned and his grip momentarily weakened. She started to surge up, but his grip tightened and he hammered her back into the ground.

"He will not do what he threatens," the Icenei leader hissed and twisted, purposely hauling Sam back from the hidden crack in the rocks that he'd used to pull her underground. "She's worth nothing to him if he does that."

Smoke had already filled the small space, making Sam's eyes water and souring the air in her lungs, but she ignored the burn as she slung another punch at Ergan. He grunted as he absorbed the blow, then twisted, wrapping his arms around her from behind, and pinning her solidly against his chest.

"You must let her go for now," the Icenei hissed in her ear as he flattened a hand across her mouth and yanked his other arm hard into her midsection, driving the air from her lungs. "You can do her no good if you're dead."

Sam bit his hand hard enough to draw blood and drove her elbow back into his ribs, every instinct screaming to get free and get to her lover. She became aware of a second figure as she clawed and fought to regain her freedom without success. Calloran, she realized as he reached up, shoving something into place, and cutting off the faint hint of light that had fluttered in through the smoke. A tiny, feral cry escaped her lips and set off another round of struggles as their surroundings ceded into darkness and an eerie kind of quiet, the rock blocking out most of the sounds of battle on the earth above.

"He will not do it," Ergan hissed over and over, sorely pressed to keep her contained, letting the fury burn itself out. "She's valuable ... but not if she's been brutalized." His voice was ragged, thick with the same terrors she felt. "His only care is the money she'll bring ... anything else was to get his hands on you."

Minutes passed as he hissed those faint reassurances over and over, offering what little comfort he could.

Above them, the sounds died away, leaving nothing but dead silence in their place. Even the sounds of battle were better than the awful quiet, Sam thought as she fought the urge to dissolve into tears. She'd been so goddamned close. If she could have just--

"She still lives ... and he will keep her that way," Ergan hissed as though he sensed the direction of her thoughts.

"Damn you," Sam hissed, her anger so intense it bordered on hate.

"Perhaps I am damned," he allowed without relaxing his hold, "but that changes nothing. Had you stayed above, you would have died ... and there would have been no one to bring her back."

A muscle pulsed in Sam's jaw. Even knowing he was right, she hated his guts. "I might have been able to--"

"To die. That is all you could have done ... die," the Icenei cut her off harshly, his mastery of the language perversely formal under the circumstances. "Your weapons are impressive, but they would not have been sufficient to free her. At best you would have both died."

Managing to yank an arm free, Sam slammed a fist into the floor, using the pain to clear her head as best possible, wiping her cheek on her inner arm to rid herself of the sting of sweat and tears. "If he hurts her..." she said very softly, too ripped up to even finish the threat. She slung her arm and shoulder back, trying to throw Ergan off without success.

A moment passed before the Icenei chieftain responded, his tone that of a man struggling to maintain his own calm, "He will not. He does this for the money ... and she's worth nothing if he does as he threatened. He's already lost too much profit tonight. He cannot afford to risk more."

Sam forced down the turmoil, struggling to drag a professional wall into place to cut off the dangerous flow of dark emotions. She didn't have time to give way to the crushing sense of loss. She flicked a gaze upward, though their hiding place with absolutely pitch black, so she couldn't see a thing. Several minutes had passed; enough time that the Romani centurion had probably taken his men and moved on since they clearly hadn't found this hiding place. If they were looking, they weren't doing a very good job. "Get off me," she snarled at last.

He didn't move. "You must not try to go back up."

Sam bit back on an agonized cry. "Damn you," she whispered.

"They do not know about these caves," Ergan said urgently. "If they discover them, we are all lost ... and future efforts to rescue our people could be doomed."

Tears of frustrated anger leaking from her tightly closed eyes, Sam didn't move. "Damn you," she said again, her voice a tortured rasp. "How can you ask..." She didn't finish the question, the words as much an accusation as a question. He knew what she was going through.

"Because I know the price if they discover this place. We already too large a risk to save you ... and we're out of smoke bombs to hide our actions. Were it my own wife, it is a risk I would not take."

"Bastard," she hissed.

"More than you know," he said very quietly and was silent for a long moment. "I tell you again, he will not harm her. I know this centurion, and I know what he threatened, but he won't do it. It's not his way for pleasure ... and it would damage his profits."

"You didn't see how much he hated," Sam whispered, unable to get that look out of her mind. "He realized what she was to me ... and...." Her voice choked off and she couldn't finish.

A moment passed, then he pulled back faintly, shifting his weight from her, then reaching back and resting a hand lightly on her shoulder. "They consider your love a perversion of the worst kind," he admitted, sounding shaken to her ears.

A moment of silence followed. "What, no more assurances that he won't hurt her?" she demanded bitterly.

"It makes it less certain," Ergan admitted, "but far from hopeless." He sighed softly, sounding as tired, scared, and depressed as Sam felt if such a thing was possible. "Your woman ... according to Rialla, she is very beautiful," he said, making the words halfway between a statement and a question.

"Yes," Sam rasped.

"Then, he can ill afford to lose the profits she'll bring. You must believe that." He sounded far less certain than she would have liked, but not so bad as he had in those first moments. "She's not young enough for the slave markets, but still worth a fair price as a prize in the arena ... and smart enough to have already survived this far." He squeezed Sam's shoulder sympathetically. "You must have faith ... she will continue to do so."

With a measure of physical freedom, Sam pushed to a crouch, automatically stripping the clip from her MP5 and replacing it with a fresh one from the drop down strapped to her left thigh. "Can we get to the rest of my team from here?" she demanded without acknowledging his comments.

"Yes."

"Then let's get the hell out of here." As much as a part of her was screaming to go back up and chase after her lover, she couldn't risk all of their lives in what was probably a vain attempt to follow. It wasn't giving up, she told herself over and over. She was going to find her.

Ergan spoke softly to Calloran in his own language, and the other man responded with a single word. Sam had actually forgotten he was there while he'd sat silent, waiting for his leader's orders. "Come," the Icenei said a moment later, using his grip on Sam's shoulder to guide.

"Don't we need some kind of light?" Carter questioned.

"No ... and there's less chance of being caught without one." He spoke in his own language and Calloran slipped into position in from of Sam. "Keep your hand on his shoulder, and I'll keep mine on yours. Don't worry, we know these tunnels well."

Sam just wanted to be moving because if she stayed where she was, she wasn't sure she could resist the drive to go back up and hunt for her lover. "Just go."

* * * * * *

Janet hit the floor of the slave wagon and tumbled, her landing knocking the air from her lungs and sending tremors of sharp pain through already bruised flesh. She rolled onto her back quickly, elbows braced on the floor of the cart ... and froze.

Paulus towered above the wagon on his mount, his right arm outstretched, pistol pointed straight at her head. She was an inch from dying. She could see it by the fury in his eyes. After Sam disappeared, he'd checked the area briefly while his men muttered about ghosts and an eerie sort of calm descended on the battlefield save for the occasional bits of gunfire receding into the distance, and lacking the rapid fire stutter of SG-1's weapons. Most likely, it was the Romani scaring themselves and firing on each other in the darkness. He'd demanded to know where they'd gone, but she had no more idea than anyone else, and finally he'd ordered his men back to the wagons, unlatching the manacle wrapped around his wrist and binding her to him as they found it. Then he'd hurled her in with Leilla and a couple of other female prisoners.

"Latch the manacle to the railing," he said at last, visibly fighting the desire to just shoot her.

Moving stiffy, Janet did as ordered, keeping her eyes down and offering no defiance. Now wasn't the time to argue. She clicked the manacle into place on the rail, a muscle pulsing in her jaw as it locked.

"The bitch will never find you," he hissed, guiding his mount closer to the slow moving wagon and glaring at her as he easily kept pace. "You'll belong to a Romani man ... and if she hunts for you, she'll wind up dead or the same."

Janet didn't say a word, sensing that he was right at the edge of violence.

The moment stretched out while she waited to see if she lived or died.

Finally, he tipped the weapon up, slowly lowering the hammer. "One day, you'll be grateful to me for saving you," he said at last, shoving the weapon into his belt. "Grateful that we brought you the life you'll have." He wheeled his mount around before she had a chance to process the words.

Janet stared after him, no longer shielding her hate now that he was gone. "Fuck you," she said very softly.

* * * * * *

O'Neill ran his mini-mag over the returning Icenei, his hand loosening where it was braced on the grip of his MP5 when he recognized the two men and saw his missing officer between them. "Carter," he said simply, his tone grim. Seeing the look on her face, he held back the lashing she fully deserved. She'd disobeyed orders and under different circumstances, he had no problem with the idea of slamming an officer who'd stepped that thoroughly out of line right back in ... but not this time. Not when he'd have done exactly the same damn thing in her position.

The small group was pressed into a long, narrow chamber in the rocks, well below the hidden entrance Ergan and Calloran had shown them. One of the girls had led the way through the complex rabbit warren of natural caves, following a series of marks on the walls painted in some kind of substance that glowed in the dark.

Now it was just a waiting game.

He flicked the gaze to touch on Ergan's face, noting the way the warpaint had smeared, casting his face in demonic shadows. "Thanks for finding her," he said simply, grateful to the other man for doing what he couldn't have on such unfamiliar ground.

The Icenei leader nodded, waiting until Sam settled in next to O'Neill, then crouching down himself. "Calloran and I will go above to check the area shortly before dawn. Until then...." he trailed off into a shrug.

"We wait," Sam said in a dead voice.

O'Neill flicked off his light, settling in, well aware of Carter's body heat on his left side. "She's smart," he offered almost inaudibly. "She'll be okay."

"I saw her," Sam rasped, and he thought he heard tears in her voice, "but I couldn't get her back." She sniffed softly and exhaled a heavy gasp. Definitely tears. "And I may have made things worse for her."

Jack felt her pain more acutely than he would have thought possible. "God, Carter ... I'm sorry." He considered sliding an arm across her shoulders, then decided against it. Things were already confused enough in his head. Using Fraiser's possible loss as a means of pulling Carter closer at any level was just a bad idea for all involved.

"I just want her back," Sam said in a very small, very lost voice. He heard her shift and felt the hint of movement as she wrapped her arms tightly around her upthrust knees and drew into herself.

"This isn't the time to give up," Jack exhaled very softly. "We'll find her."

"If she's alive," Sam breathed, then added too softly for anyone else to hear, "Please God, let her be alive."

* * * * * *

 

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