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.
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.
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.
* * * * * *
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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....
* * * * * *