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. Moving between bright, flaring bonfires, the stock of her MP5 braced against her shoulder, she was 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.
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 a point somewhere to her right. Twisting, she realized the colonel and the others had followed close on her heals. Ergan indicated her superior and Teal'c, then pointed 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 at almost exactly the same instant, 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 a 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 his 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, 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, though oddly formal.
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 expression rigidly bland, every emotion hidden behind a wall.
"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 haven't 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. If he 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 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 likely choice to do 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 ignored 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 the things they care about 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. 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 could get clear.
"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. They hit bottom, and Sam got a foot between them, kicking hard hard. Taut thigh muscles compressed 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. Badly dazed, he got a hand behind himself and would have pushed upright, but Sam clubbed him again before he had a chance. This time, he 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 when 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 loose 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 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. In the background, 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 control.
"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."
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. She 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 blonde'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. She had to get him off that animal and away from Janet.
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. 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. "You can only surrender or die."
Sam shook her head, refusing to accept either option. There had to be a way. She just had to find it.
They were all caught by surprise by the sudden explosion of smoke and fire that erupted 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.
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 getting to 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, remembering the ugly threats, 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 that way."
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 kept repeating those faint reassurances, 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. Helpless to act, Sam 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," she 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 ... or been taken yourself ... 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 or become a prisoner yourself," 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 repeated.
"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. Of all people, he had to know what she was going through.
"Because I know the price if they discover this place. We already took 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.
"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 her.
"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, his men had even as they muttered about ghosts. At the same time an eerie sort of calm had descended on the battlefield. 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. Paulus had 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 that bound 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.
"She'll 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 was so close," 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."
* * * * * *