Prompt "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done." (Dickens)
Word Count: 5400 wds
Warnings: non-graphic mention of various horrors (childhood prostitution, slavery, poverty)
Summary: Young Lona and her sisters are orphans and charnel pickers, making their living by stripping dead bodies. But one day they find a woman who is not yet dead ... a woman from another world.
Each day at dawn, spies and captives, enemies of the Priest-King, and broken mine-slaves too useless to work were lined up in the Grand Plaza and shot. The bodies were flung over the bluffs onto the shores of the Great River.
At dusk, the charnel pickers came: the poor and the lame, the widows and orphans, those who could not support themselves any other way. Among them were Lona and her sisters.
The best takings from the corpses (money, weapons, jewelry, good boots, valuables of any sort) had already been looted by the soldiers before tossing the bodies, but there was still much for the pickers to take. Clothing that had not been too badly damaged could be worn; that which was ragged or soaked in blood would be washed in the river and sold to ragmen. Buttons and beads and buckles could be sold or bartered. Sometimes the soldiers missed things; Lona's best knife, a pretty little thing with an ivory handle, had been found some days back, tucked into a leather band around a dead woman's thigh. Lona used it now to slash clothing from the corpses, adding to her bundle of rags, while her youngest sister Sera carried a torch for her.
She did not look at their faces if she could help it -- she'd all too often seen features that she recognized. The darkness made it easier not to look, but harder to see the little treasures she sought. A glimmer on one dead man's face caught her eye, reflected in the light of another picker's torch; she prized a jeweled stud from his lip, trying not to think about the cold waxy feeling of his dead flesh. The soldiers must have missed this.
The bodies were old and new, in various stages of decomposition. Some lay half in, half out of the water. Each night when the pickers came, some of the old ones had been carried away by the river or torn up by scavengers, but new ones fell to take their place.
"Lona!" her sister whispered. "This one's alive."
It wasn't terribly unusual, even after the bodies had lain all day in the sun at the bottom of the cliff. The soldiers were lazy and didn't aim properly, and sometimes they tried to save bullets by lining people up so that one bullet could kill two or three, or by bashing skulls with the butts of their gun. This one was a woman, an offworlder, like so many people the soldiers pressed into their work gangs; she wore a plain dark uniform that had already been stripped of anything valuable or identifying. She stirred and struggled, moaning, as Lona bent over her. The woman's hair was sodden with blood and Lona lifted it to look. A flap of scalp had been peeled loose from the back of the woman's skull -- an ugly wound, and Lona could see the glimmer of bone in the torchlight. But the bullet had caromed off the skull without penetrating.
"You're lucky," she murmured, letting the hair fall back to cover the wound.
"What should we do?" Sera asked softly, looking up at her big sister with trusting eyes.
What they really should do was leave the woman there. Usually the survivors were hurt too badly to be helped, and Lona would force herself to keep walking, ignoring their piteous moans. It was worse to find someone who could probably survive, given water and shelter, because that meant getting involved with someone else's problems -- and anyone who had been shot by the soldiers had problems aplenty. Lona knew that she ought to leave the stranger to die.
But she couldn't do it, couldn't walk away and leave an injured woman to die among the corpses, even though she knew that, for her own sake and her sisters', she should.
"Help me," Lona ordered Sera, and she called their other sister Kim to carry the torches and Lona's picking-bag, while she slid an arm around the woman's shoulders and tried to help her to her feet.
The woman was not particularly large -- Lona herself was about as tall -- but she was very solid; she felt like she was made of nothing but wiry muscle. Her legs melted under her, bending like water-weeds, and Lona staggered under her weight. Kim had to move in on the other side, supporting the offworlder by bracing herself against the woman's waist.
It was early to give up on the night's work, but Lona and her sisters doused their torches and sought the secret path to the city -- not so secret, really, since the bare feet of the charnel pickers had worn deep the muddy track to the outskirts of the slums. But the soldiers turned a blind eye; as with many of the not-so-legal activities in the city, it was was easier for them to ignore it and occasionally shake down a random picker than to waste manpower trying to stop people from doing something they'd probably do anyway.
The offworld woman was dazed and incoherent, one minute sagging against Lona, the next struggling and speaking strange words that might be names or places or some other language entirely. "John," she said, "Ronon, no --" and she was weeping when she said, "Torren, Torren, I am sorry ..." Eventually she subsided into silence, to Lona's relief; as her strength flagged, the sick woman's entire being was taken up with the effort of putting one foot in front of another.
Lona's current home was a shack by the river in the newer part of the city, where refugees from the Priest-King's wars had built a great and sprawling shantytown. People came and went all the time; this shack had been home to many others, and currently Lona and her sisters shared it with several other orphans or runaways, all of them girls. Life in the slums was cruel for anyone, but particularly for a young girl; they banded together for protection and comfort. Lona knew that she was lucky; so far she'd been able to keep her little family together and avoid the predators on the streets, mostly by moving around and seeking safety in numbers. Several of the girls currently sharing her home had not been so fortunate.
The front of the shack had burned at some point in the past. The girls had encouraged its desolate look, piling stones and pulling down pieces of the roof so that it was impossible to enter through the door. The real entrance was in the back; Lona knocked to alert the others and then supported the offworld woman while Sera pulled back a loose board.
Inside, the single, smoky room was partitioned with crude curtains made of dead men's clothes, giving some of the children a certain amount of privacy. The older girls liked to have a little space of their own, though the younger ones often slept heaped together for warmth. The stinking coals of a trash-fueled fire lay in a shallow pit in the middle of the hut; the whole structure was a firetrap, but in the slums it was just another of many hazards of life, and you couldn't forego the warmth and comfort of a fire in the fear that you'd burn your home down around your ears. Sections of the shantytown burned down frequently because of such fires.
"What's that?" one of the other girls demanded as Lona and her sisters helped the woman lie down on their sleeping pallet.
"We found her in the charnel heap," Lona said. "Kim, go fetch water, please."
Her sister ran off and the other girl, a lean and hollow-eyed child who had run away from her pimp before hooking up with Lona's group, squatted next to them. "I don't like it, bringing her here."
"She's hurt," Lona said.
"She's a stranger," the other girl argued. "And a grown-up."
Their argument had drawn the attention of the handful of other girls who weren't out on the streets, picking pockets or turning tricks or doing whatever else they did to survive. To Lona's surprise, the only one of them to speak up took her side. "All of us were strangers when we came here, too, Gena."
"Don't blame me if the soldiers come," Gena said coldly, and retreated to her own sleeping area.
Kim came back with a dented metal pan full of murky river water, and some scraps of wood for the fire. By its dim light, Lona stripped off the woman's clothes -- nice clothes, a jacket and man's pants of good material, not even patched. If the woman died, Lona could always sell them.
The woman was not fat, but she was well-fed and healthy. She had some bruises, and one of her arms was swollen and hot to the touch, probably damaged when she'd fallen from the cliff. The worst injury, though, was the bullet wound on her scalp. The woman twisted and moaned while Lona washed the blood out of her hair. Her lips were cracked and dry; she accepted small sips of water, and cried out softly in her delirium.
Lona dressed the woman again, noticing in passing that her stomach bore the stretch marks of pregnancy; she was, or had been, a mother. Her feet were bare -- the soldiers had taken her boots -- but they were soft and uncallused, not the feet of someone who was used to going barefoot.
"Think she'll die?" Sera asked quietly.
"I don't know," Lona said.
She did not die, though for the rest of the night, she tossed and turned in the grip of fevers.
In the morning, Lona bartered with an old woman down the street for a pot of soup and some soft bread. It wasn't just for the sick woman, of course; she and her sisters could share it, too. But sick people needed decent food.
The streets were tense and full of news about the Priest-King's soldiers. Apparently there had been some kind of attack or riot or assassination attempt -- details were sketchy and everyone told a different story. Lona hardly cared about the cause, only the possible effects; she knew that her own life would not be improved no matter who was in charge of the city, but it could still get worse. Rioting, she knew from past experience, meant fires and looting and then soldiers running around beating people up and shooting them. There had been food riots last year, and the soldiers had swept through part of the shantytown, rounding up everyone and hauling them up to the mines. "You want food, you'll have to work for it," they had been heard to say.
There was certainly something going on. She heard explosions during the day, and as night fell, there was an angry red glow in the direction of the Priest-King's citadel. That night, Lona and her sisters didn't go out to pick over dead bodies as usual. They huddled in their shack, and Lona bathed the sick woman's face and fed her bits of bread soaked in soup.
The next day, things had quieted down, though stories and rumors still circulated. Lona heard from the other girls that the slaves in the mines had tried to rebel, and there had been a lot of fighting around the citadel.
That night, Lona and her sisters went back to the charnel heaps despite the pall of uncertainty hanging over the streets. They couldn't stay inside forever; they had to work. There were a lot of bodies, but few of them had anything useful. Lona ended up with a huge heap of rags that she sold to a rag-picker for a few brass coins, which she used to buy meat pies for herself and her sisters, and an extra one for their guest.
"We can't keep feeding her, Lona," Kim said as they walked barefoot through the streets, back to the hut. "She might have even died while we were gone."
But the woman had not died; she still lay where they had left her. The other girls were back for the day, sleeping off their night's work or lying awake, talking or passing around bottles of cheap wine. Lona sat down beside the stranger and lightly touched the woman's tangled brown hair.
She did not expect the stranger to move, one hand whipping up to seize Lona's wrist. The woman's eyes snapped open, glossy with fever.
The low murmur of conversation around them had stopped. Kim picked up a stick of wood from the fire and held it menacingly. But the woman didn't move, didn't threaten them further. She just blinked at Lona with sleepy, confused eyes. Lona tried to tug her hand free, but the woman's grip was like iron. Finally she relaxed her fingers and Lona's wrist slid out of their grasp.
"You are just a child," the woman said, her voice a soft rasp, sounding baffled. "Who are you?"
The thought occurred to Lona that perhaps she ought to give a fake name, but it hardly mattered; in this big city, there were probably hundreds of Lonas. "I'm Lona; these are my sisters. We found you."
"Found me?" the woman whispered, squinting as if the daylight filtering through the cracks in the hut's walls hurt her eyes.
"In the charnel heaps," Lona said. "They thought you were dead and threw you away."
The woman made a soft breathy sound and raised her hand to touch her forehead. Lona reached to stop her and then, remembering the crushing strength in those callused fingers, drew back instead; the woman's hand brushed the injury and her face went gray with pain and, perhaps, memory.
"Uh, you're hurt. In the head."
"So I see," the woman agreed in a faint, thready whisper. "Do you have any water?"
Lona held the woman's head while she drank. "I am Teyla," the woman said when she was done. "Tell me, when you found me, was there anyone else ..."
"Alive?" Lona asked, trying to guess. "No, just you."
"I see," the woman said quietly.
She fell asleep before she could eat her meat pie, so Lona and her sisters split it. Extra food was never a bad thing.
Over the next three days, Teyla slept a lot and occasionally woke up to eat a little something or to be helped outside for necessaries.
Things in the city grew tenser. There were tighter curfews and more soldiers roaming the streets, and rumors flew -- the Priest-King had been assassinated by invaders using magic; the Priest-King had been attacked and had used his own magic to fend them off; the Priest-King had fled the city and the different factions of soldiers were fighting each other. No one really seemed to know for sure.
Teyla slowly regained her strength. When Lona came back in the mornings, she often found Teyla doing slow stretching exercises despite being gray-faced from exhaustion and obviously in pain. The first question she always asked Lona was whether any more people like her had been found at the bottom of the cliff -- people wearing the same sort of clothes.
"No," Lona said, as always. "Just you." Eventually she got up the courage to ask, "Are your people in the mines?" Sometimes the Priest-King's soldiers brought back whole villages from beyond the Ring, to work in the mines or haul rocks to build the citadel and the city wall higher.
Teyla thought about that for a minute. "I am not sure," she said finally. "I came here with people who are close to me as blood kin, but we were separated and I do not know what happened to them. I have a son who's far away and safe, and I'd like to return to him."
"You can't go through the Ring without dealing with the Priest-King's guards," Lona said.
Teyla's face, drawn and pale as it was, hardened; for a moment Lona was afraid of her. "I will find a way," she said.
Lona fell asleep thinking about that absolute determination. She couldn't remember the last time that she herself had wanted anything at all. The struggle for survival, for herself and her sisters, took up so much of her time and energy that she'd never bothered to plan for the future.
But Teyla knew what she wanted, where she was going. She did not plan to stay here, in the shantytown. She was going to find a way out of the city and back to her people and her son. That kind of ambition frightened Lona, but she found herself wondering if Teyla could succeed. It was the first time in years that she'd thought of a future farther away than tomorrow.
A commotion woke her from her usual light sleep. She sat bolt upright, half-convinced for a moment that the shoddy house was coming down around her ears. The other girls were sitting up, too, looking around, with a murmur of low voices.
Teyla was awake, too, sitting up, her eyes glittering in the dim light filtering in from outside.
"Is it Wraith?" Sera whispered loudly, clinging to Lona. Lona didn't know how to answer; it had been years since the city had been culled, and even then it had just been a few darts. She barely remembered it.
"No," Teyla said softly. "It is not Wraith." She sounded very certain of this.
Lona peeked out of the hut. The streets were full of panicked people, and she could see smoke. "Fire," she said, gathering up her sisters. "We gotta get out of here."
They all went out the back. Lona thought that Teyla would probably need to be helped, but she shrugged off an offer of assistance, though she stumbled and kept putting a hand to her forehead; her head obviously pained her and she was still dizzy from her injury.
The reek of smoke was thick in the streets. Lona stood frozen, trying to think what to do. Fires were always a time of uncertainty; you could never tell which way they were coming from or which way they would go, and if you chose wrongly you could be burned to death or trampled by a mob.
"Which way?" Teyla asked her urgently.
"The river," Lona said. Her mother, now dead, had taught her that: when there is a fire and you don't know where to go, the river is the safest place.
The river's banks were crowded with refugees under the pitiless midday sun. Lona expected to see soldiers trying to keep order (and taking advantage of the confusion to rob people, as they often did; the Priest-King's soldiers were desperately underpaid and supplemented their meager income however they could), but there were none. Whatever had happened must have drawn them away.
Once there had been a wooded strip along the edge of the water; Lona could vaguely remember it from her childhood. But the shantytown had engulfed it and the trees had been decimated for firewood by the poor. Now there was nothing but rocks. Lona looked up and down the bank, wondering where they could possibly go if the fire came here. Some people had waded in the water up to their chests, risking being swept away. No one that Lona knew could swim, including Lona herself.
Teyla, however, was looking farther -- back towards the city, and then across the river to the thin white strand of the far bank. "Can we cross?"
"What?" Lona said in surprise. The thought had not even occurred to her.
Teyla nodded back towards the shantytown, then winced as the movement hurt her head. "There are many things that would float. We should make a raft, and cross the river. The gate -- the Ring of the Ancestors is on the other side."
Lona hadn't even known that, although now that she thought about it, she knew that goods (and slaves) from the Ring came into the city across the River Bridge, which was visible downstream. "But ..." she said, and then trailed off. She was so used to the opposite bank being impossibly far that she couldn't even think of walking on it. The idea was incredible, like taking a journey to the afterlife and then coming back.
But in a sense, this woman had done that. The soldiers thought she was dead, yet here she was, still breathing and talking.
"All right," Lona said. The other girls looked at her in shock. "What would work best?"
Teyla helped them find dry planks, doors, pieces of roofs. No one tried to stop them; smoke was a heavy haze in the air now, and people had more important things to worry about than having bits torn off the houses in which they were only squatters anyway.
They found some rope and lashed the pieces together into a rough flotilla. The smallest girls climbed on, and the others, including Teyla, pushed it out into the river. Somewhat to Lona's shock, it floated.
"Do any of you know how to swim?" Teyla asked.
They all shook their heads.
Teyla's face flickered with disappointment, but she drew a deep breath. "All right -- each of you, tie yourself onto the raft, like this." Using her one good arm, she quickly lashed a length of rope around Lona's forearm, before Lona could protest. "As long as you hold onto the raft, you will not be swept away and or drown." Some of the girls were starting to look faintly green with terror. "Kick your feet, as if you are running, and with all of us together, we can move it across the river."
"I think I'd rather stay here," one of the girls said.
"Me too," whimpered one of the little ones.
"If you stay," Teyla said, "you will probably die," and she began pushing the raft out into the current.
Around them, some of the other displaced townspeople saw what they were doing and began to copy them, picking up pieces of wood of their own.
Lona sucked in her breath and threw herself into pushing the raft. Sera clung to the top of it; Kim was pushing beside her. "Is this going to work?" Kim whispered to her in a voice that shook with terror.
"It can't be worse than staying here," Lona whispered back, with a bravado she did not feel.
Afterwards, she barely remembered that long, terrible river crossing. The river dragged them some ways downstream before they finally staggered out onto the hot dry sand of the opposite bank, trembling with exhaustion. Teyla stumbled a few steps away from the water and then collapsed like a dead woman. She'd been pushing harder than anyone, and all the way across had encouraged the girls by calling to them, driving them onward with her voice.
Lona struggled upright and untied herself from the raft, then, with her sisters, hauled Teyla into the shade. They hadn't lost anyone; around her, she saw all of her little gang from the hut, moaning and crawling away from the water. On the way over, they had seen other rafts go under, seen people lose their grip and slip beneath the river's ruffled brown surface. But Teyla's raft, makeshift though it was, had worked much better than the single boards that other people had been using, and all of them working together had been able to defeat the current.
It worked, Lona thought in surprise dulled by fatigue. Rolling onto her back, she looked up and realized that the thing casting shade onto them was, in fact, one soaring pillar of the great River Bridge. High above her, it arced across the river, a ribbon of stone from one bank to the other. They'd been swept under it.
On the far bank, plumes of smoke rose from various parts of the city, and most particularly from the citadel, perched on its hill at the heart of the city.
"Riots," Lona whispered. She had never seen it so bad. It looked as if the whole city was coming undone.
"This has been coming for a long time, Lona," said a low hoarse voice, and Lona looked over to see Teyla propped up on one elbow, watching her. "Your city has chafed under an unjust and tyrannical ruler. Now your people are demanding justice." She smiled a weak shadow of a smile. "I would not be surprised if my friends have something to do with all of this happening now."
"Lona." The other girls gathered around them, turning to her as if she were some kind of leader and not as lost and scared as all of them. "Lona, what do we do?"
"We ..." Lona floundered. She had never thought so far ahead. What could they do? They'd starve on this side of the river. Should they go back to the city?
"We go to the Ring of the Ancestors," Teyla said quietly.
"But --" Lona clapped her mouth shut: But the soldiers will kill us. They'd already done the impossible once; why not again?
"Do any of you have family back in the city?" Teyla asked.
One by one, the girls shook their heads, including Lona. If any of their family lived, they did not know of it.
"Then ..." Teyla looked at the low red sun, sinking behind the city in a haze of smoke. "When night falls, we will go to the Ring."
No one argued with her.
Nightfall found them still exhausted and bedraggled, but they pulled themselves upright, the bigger helping the smaller. Teyla was shaking and looked as if she could barely stand, but she waved Lona away, indicating that Lona should help her sisters.
The road to the Ring was streaming with refugees from the city, and the girls merged into the press of humanity. All three moons rode the sky high above them when they reached the Ring with the defensive wall around it and guard towers at every corner. Lona had heard about it, but never thought to see it.
But there weren't any soldiers in the guard towers. Instead, people flowed through the gate in the wall, unchecked. Lona and the rest joined them, and found themselves in a large plaza, lit with bright white light, where the refugees had been arranged into ragged lines.
Beside Lona, Teyla stiffened and gasped, and began looking around frantically. Lona drew back towards the wall, putting an arm around each of her sisters; she was not sure what new horror Teyla had seen, but by now she trusted her like a lifeline -- there was nothing else to cling to.
"No, it is all right." Teyla put her good hand on Lona's arm; she was smiling, her eyes bright and a new energy infusing her battered body. "My friends are here somewhere. Come here."
She led Lona and the others away from the lines and along the wall. Lona saw sconces for torches, but the torches were not lit; instead the light came from odd, hissing white lights in cages, with cables snaking away from them. Lona wondered nervously if they were alive.
The cables led back to a boxy structure or maybe a vehicle, with two men guarding it, holding odd-looking guns very different from the ones the Priest-King's soldiers carried. Lona just had time to register the fact that the soldiers' clothing was very much like Teyla's before Teyla left her side and started towards them at a quick, hobbling trot -- the fastest pace she could manage.
"Holy shit," one of the men said, and he broke into a wide grin. "The Colonel said -- that is, we all thought you'd been killed back in the city, Miss Emmagan."
"I am fine. Well ..." She staggered and he moved to catch her elbow -- unfortunately the elbow of her injured arm; she gasped in pain and pulled away. "Not entirely fine, perhaps," she admitted, but she was still smiling. "Is John here?"
"The Colonel is around here somewhere." The man tapped his ear and muttered something that Lona, hovering nervously behind Teyla, could not quite hear.
The bellow came out of nowhere; Lona clutched her sisters against her body as a huge man in a long coat appeared from the crowd, and caught Teyla up in a powerful hug, lifting her right off the ground.
"Ow," Teyla said.
His hug eased immediately and he set her down very gently, as if she was made of fine and breakable glass. He cupped her face in one big hand, and Lona wondered if he was the father of the son that she had mentioned. "How?" he said, one word, soft and wondering.
"Luck," Teyla said, "a lot of luck, and the help of some new friends." She indicated the girls. "Are all of you well, Ronon? How did you escape?"
"We're fine. Well, better than you, anyway." Ronon grinned, a quick flash that faded. "Sheppard's gonna kill you, by the way, once he gets over being glad you're alive."
"I had to do it," Teyla said. "They meant to kill all of us."
"You coulda told us what you --"
Teyla laughed, a lighter sound than Lona had ever heard from her. "John would have stopped me."
"Giving yourself up for the rest of us? Yeah, he would have stopped you!"
Lona didn't hear the rest of the argument, because the man with the gun who had been talking to Teyla stepped up and held out a hand to her. "You kids look like you've had a rough time. Need a safe place to go?"
Anywhere! Lona wanted to wail. "Yes, please, sir."
"Right now, we got a camp set up for you people at the Beta Site. Uh, that probably doesn't mean a whole lot, but there's blankets and food. Can I get your names?"
He wrote down their names, puzzling over the spelling, and then Lona found herself and her sisters being led towards the Ring itself, the shimmering pool of light casting a blue reflection over the ragged crowds huddled in front of it. Lona looked desperately around for Teyla, but then the blue light closed over her -- a moment of cold, and then she was stepping, barefoot, onto the grass of a strange green world like nothing she'd ever seen before.
They stayed in the refugee camp for a week. It was not awful; actually, compared to what Lona was used to, it was very comfortable. They had a place to sleep and soup and bread twice a day -- oddly spiced soup, and strange flat bread, but it was filling and they were given as much as they wanted.
The population of the camp swelled and then began to recede. Lona flinched every time the foreign soldiers in their strange uniforms came around, but they didn't show any signs that they wanted to hurt her. She was told that people were being resettled to other worlds; a civil war was still raging on their own world, and she could go back if she wanted, but if not, Teyla's people were looking for worlds who could take the survivors.
Again, she had to decide her future, but she did not know how. "I'd like to stay here," Lona said -- the only choice that she knew how to make.
After about a week, to Lona's great surprise, Teyla came. She looked very different now; she was wearing a clean gray uniform, with her arm in a sling, and a bandage around her head, with her coppery hair neatly brushed beneath it. The man in the long coat was with her, and other soldiers as well. "Lona," Teyla said, and embraced her. "How are you?"
"I am well," Lona said politely, feeling very shy. The men with Teyla were looking at her curiously.
"I came to thank you for saving my life," Teyla said, "and I would like to offer you a place to live. My people suffered great losses not too long ago. We are rebuilding our village, and we are in great need of extra hands to help us. You and your sisters would be very welcome, as well as any of your friends who want to come."
The future. It kept haunting her, teasing her, dancing in front of her. Did you think you would live in the shantytown forever? Lona accused herself, but yes, yes she had.
But she had crossed the river, and survived. She had traveled through the Ring, and survived. Now here she was, on another world, and the future waited in front of her. Lona reached out a hand, and grasped Teyla's boldly.
"Yes," she said. "Yes. I would like to come and live with your people."