Where the White Lilies Grow (1/5)Author:
Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23
Clarke's Law (i.e. "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic")Word Count:
People tell stories about the wonders of the Time Before. They tell stories, too, about magical creatures with long, fair hair, who emerge from the hill and can turn you to dust in an instant. But John Sheppard has never been one to believe in stories...
] [Part Two
] [Part Three
] [Part Four
] [Part Five
___Have I ever told you about the Others?
Tall, they are, with hair like spun moonlight and skin as pale as snow. If the world beneath the sky is the world of men, theirs are all the dark places of the world. The river of time flows more swiftly in their domain, and a mortal who ventures there can turn to dust in the space of a single dance. They seldom venture out beneath the stars, but when they do... Ah, when they do...
But I am jumping ahead of myself, little one. Let us start not with the Others, but with a man.
Let us start with a man called John.
His life ended and began in the ocean. It was six months since the waves had hurled him onto this foreign shore. It was six months since he had crawled from the water, leaving a thick trail of blood and sand behind him. It was six months since--
"That's enough, John," he berated himself. His voice sounded rusty, as if he hadn't used it for days. Was that true? He frowned, trying to remember. He'd spoken in the ale-house the night before, hadn't he, his pint cradled in both hands, his knuckles white on the tankard? He'd nodded his goodbyes to people in the morning. Then he'd ridden until he was breathless, his muscles burning and his face scoured by the wind, and now he was here.
He knew they wondered where he went on those days when he wasn't required to work in the fields. No-one cared enough to ask, though, and he didn't care enough to answer. They probably expected him to disappear one day and never come back, leaving without a word, just as he had arrived without a word, blown into the village by the last snow flurries of winter.
Perhaps he would. He had lived in three villages since his old life had ended in the storm-tossed ocean. The faces of his neighbours seemed less real than the faces of the men who had died beside him in the waves, the men he had been unable to save.So where do you come when you want to forget them
? he thought. A graveyard. Nice one, John.
Of course, the whole world was a graveyard, if you wanted to look at things that way. It was less obvious back home. Home
? He pressed his lips together in something that might have been a grim smile. It had never seemed like home when he had lived there, which was why he had been so quick to sign up for leaving it. But now that he was away from it...
He shook his head sharply. No, John, it doesn't matter
. Back... there
had been a place of wide open spaces, where you could ride for miles without seeing any evidence that the world had once been different. This place was altogether smaller, the soft green landscape strewn with the ruins of deserted towns. Here, every journey you made reminded you that things hadn't always been the way they were now.
John looked up at tall ruin with its arched windows and crumbling stone crosses. The sun was sinking fast, and the shadows were long and dark, reaching across the graveyard to the overgrown streets beyond it. A straight avenue of grass marked what had once been a main street, and John walked slowly along it, heading away from the sunset.
Why had he come here? He didn't know. It wasn't the here
that mattered, perhaps, but the getting here. It was those long miles of reckless speed. It was riding somewhere, anywhere, and stopping wherever he happened to end up. It was being alone. It was...
"Stupid," he muttered, as something moved in the ruins, a dark flicker behind slender trunks of silver birch.
He stopped, let out a breath, and carried on. It was probably just an animal, he told himself. Most people in these parts were afraid of the old towns, and avoided them. Wild dogs were a problem, though, and he had often seen feral cats watching him from high places.
The movement came again. Something prickled on the back of his neck - the old battle-instinct that he was being watched. Caution won out over a different kind of caution, and he drew his knife. He wished he still had his rifle, but the rifle was long gone, lost in the shipwreck and in the whole... unpleasantness
that had followed it. People in these parts didn't know about rifles. They called them fire-sticks in their stories of the Time Before, and cast those who wielded them as warlocks and sorcerers.
Count that as just another secret that he had from his new friends and neighbours. Count that as one more of many. Not that it mattered. Not that any of it mattered.
A dark shape stepped out from the trees, glimpsed only in his peripheral vision. John turned towards it, but was temporarily dazzled by the low sun. "Uh... hi," he said, blinking as he struggled to see into the shadows cast by the ruined houses.
The figure started to move towards him. It was a man, he thought; of course it was a man, because what else could it be? He was tall, wearing a full-length black robe like priests wore in stories. His hair was long and white, and the poor guy had to be sick or maimed in some way, his face pale and strangely marked.
The white-haired man snarled, and hurled himself at John. "Whoa!" John brought the knife up, and dodged, old training kicking in. "I don't know what your problem is," he said, as he stood taut and ready to defend himself, "but I, uh, come in peace."
The man struck out with his fist. John lashed out with his knife, the blade scoring a line across the man's forearm, but the man didn't as much as flinch. His fist landed on John's chest, and John found himself flying backwards. He landed heavily, all the breath leaving his lungs. Gasping, his vision swimming, he rolled onto his front and pushed himself up again. His chest screamed with pain at every movement. Crap
, he thought, but he managed to smile, spreading his left hand placatingly.
"This your territory?" he asked. "Okay, I'll leave. But you could have asked nicely. Didn't your mother teach you that it's polite to say please?"
His attacker snarled. He really didn't look human at all, but there was nothing else that he could be, and John didn't believe in the crazy things the old folk put in their stories. Many of them swore blind that the tall stone ruins had been built by a long-lost race of giants, and that fire-breathing monsters used to roar through the countryside on iron rails. They believed in fairies who lived beneath the hill, with pale skin and long fair hair...
"You have got to be kidding me," he gasped, as the man circled him, hand outstretched.
It wasn't real. It wasn't happening. It was a sick joke. The white-haired man's hand slammed towards John's heaving chest, but John grabbed it by the wrist, pushing it away as hard as he could. He held it barely an inch off his heart, its nails - talons
, he thought, and almost laughed with the crazy wrongness
of it all - scraping across his chest. The man smashed his other hand into John's jaw, but John clung onto consciousness and pushed with all his strength, driving his knife into his attacker's hand. Dark blood stained the blade as he wrenched it free.
"There," John panted. "What d'you say we call it quits?"
His attacker took a step back and smiled, showing pointed, inhuman teeth. It raised its injured hand like a trophy, and as John watched, the wound closed up and healed.
John's mind reeled. This was... This was impossible
. This was contrary to everything
... No. No. He shook his throbbing head; tried to clear his thoughts. Survive first; think about things afterwards. Survive. Fight.
The next time his attacker came in for the kill, John feinted upwards, then drove the knife into the creature's side. He realised his mistake the moment he did it. It left him too close, forced to linger there for an instant too long as he wrenched the knife out.
This time, when the creature's hand slammed at his chest, he couldn't stop it. He felt a stab of fierce, excruciating pain like nothing he had ever felt before, but the pain that came afterwards was worse, far worse, as if something vital was being ripped from every fibre of his being.
He screamed; he couldn't help it. He lashed out desperately with the knife, thinking go away! go away! please just go away
! and the knife landed again and again, and the creature's grip on him weakened, and he pulled away, fell to the ground when his legs refused to support him, and then, sobbing, pushed himself to his feet again and started to run.
He knew he had no chance. The sun was just a strip of orange at the horizon, and the world was turning darker with every second that passed. Rooks were coming in to roost in the trees, a pall of black wings. He felt drained of strength, as if the marrow had gone from his bones. Then something struck his right arm in a ripple of blue light, and he lost all feeling in it, the knife slipping through his fingers to the ground. His knees gave way, and he fell onto his face; clawed at the grass to try to get up, but the numbness was spreading.
Then the creature was on him, flipping him bodily onto his back. Its eyes were slitted like a cat's, utterly inhuman. It grabbed him by the throat, cutting off his air supply, its talons digging into his skin. John could feel blood trickling down into his collar. He struggled for breath, but the only sound he could produce was a wheezing gasp.
Baring its teeth in a savage grin, the creature slammed its other hand onto John's chest.
The expected agony didn't come. Liquid blue fire struck the creature on the side. It reared up, roaring, but was struck again and again, but by then it was already crumpling to the ground. It landed heavily across John's body. He pushed it away, his hands feeling slippery and his arms like liquid, and dragged himself out from under it.
"Are you...?" a voice said. "You're not dead
, are you? You aren't a shrivelled husk, which is saying something. Did it feed on you? It did, didn't it, but only for a second, so we're only talking a matter of months, if that. I tried to stop it earlier, but I... well, I missed, okay? I'm not a very good shot, and I'd run a very long way." The voice stopped on a heaving gasp. "The ability to run long distances is over-rated, you know? There are other things, more important things..."
John found the strength to raise his head. He breathed in and out again, then found the strength to do even more, pushing himself up into a sitting position. He located his knife in the grass, and subtly reached out for it. The newcomer didn't seem to notice as John enfolded it in his palm, the blade hidden beneath his leg.
"Not talkative, I see." The man sounded irritated. "A 'thank you' would be nice, but, oh no. Of course, there's that whole 'almost killed by a Wraith' thing. Are you sure you're not going to die on me?"
He looked like a perfectly ordinary man, although his clothes were more finely-woven than any fabric John had ever seen, held together with incredible metal fastenings. He was holding some sort of a weapon in his right hand, but it looked almost like something grown, not made, with no visible screws or joins. John moistened his lips. "You..." His voice sounded bruised when he tried to speak. He swallowed, and nodded at the fallen creature. "You did that?"
"Wraith stunner." The man raised the weapon, then let it fall again. "I found out how to alter them so they work as well on Wraith as on humans. Felled by their own weapons... Ironic, huh?"
John swayed beneath a sudden wave of weakness. He brought his hand to his throat, feeling the blood there. Blue fire
, he thought. The man had felled his attacker with blue fire, like a warlock or sorcerer in the stories. No, no, the weapon
had produced blue fire. This was another thing like a rifle, that the common people misunderstood. Magic didn't exist. He didn't believe in magic.
"You know this guy?" he managed to ask. "This... Wraith?"
"Not this one personally." The man shook his head. "Others like him, yes."
John pressed his hand against his chest; it, too, was bleeding. "What was it going to do to me?"
"Steal away your life, year by year," the man said. "Make you old and shrivelled, and then you'd die."And if one of the Others takes you by the hand
... He remembered words told by an open fire, as he had sat by the window and looked up at the stars. If it takes you by the hand and leads you into its domain, a lifetime passes in the space of single hour, and as soon as your foot touches mortal soil again, you fade to dust and ashes.
, he thought, and he scraped his hand across his face, and saw that it was trembling. Then, because he couldn't just sit here, couldn't just do nothing, he crawled over to the Wraith's body, and parted the rents in its clothing. The skin beneath each one of them was unmarred. Crap
, he thought again, and then he found himself laughing, really laughing, at how inadequate, how stupid
his response was.
"Are you all right?" the man asked. "Because you're, uh, bleeding
, and feeding hurts like a bitch, even at the best of times - not that I know first-hand, of course, but I've seen it, and..." He broke off, biting his lip, then started to rummage in the pockets of his impossible clothes. "First aid kit. Bandages. Pain-killers." He held out two small white discs that looked like gaming tokens. John just stared at them. "You're supposed to swallow them?" the man said, looking at him as if he was an idiot. "For the pain?"And if you eat their bread or drink their wine, you will be trapped in their world for ever more.
John shook his head. "I'm good."
The man snorted in disbelief, but didn't fight. John looked at him more closely, assessing him for the first time as a man, and not as a possible threat. He looked exhausted, John thought, his eyes rimmed with red as if he had been crying. His breathing was fast and his hands were trembling as if he was barely keeping himself from full-blown panic.
It was that, if nothing else, that gave John the strength to stand. Yes, crazy, impossible things had happened, but sometimes you had to push these things away and focus on more immediate things, like... He sucked in a breath at the sudden stab of pain. Pressing his hand to his chest, he felt the racing of his own heart.
Darkness deepened around them, the blue of the sky turning darker, then fading to grey. The rooks had settled in their trees, and were shouting raucously at each other out of sight.
"You're leaving?" the man said, and John realised that he had taken a few steps away from the man, back towards a world in which crazy things like this didn't happen. "It's just..." The man flapped his hand. "You're the first person I've found. Everything's ruined. How did that happen? I..." He raked his hand across his face. "Why's everything in ruins?"
John's shoulders stiffened. "It's just the way things are."
A bat flittered out of the ruins and circled above them. He watched it, just as he watched all flying things.
"We went on vacation when I was a kid," the other man said. "London, Oxford, Stonehenge, the usual..." His voice came from the twilight, behind John's back. "What planet is this?"
John looked at sky. It was too early for stars, but a planet shone silver above the tower on the hill. "What planet?" he asked. "What sort of a crazy question is that?"
"Humour me." The man's voice was rising higher with every word. "What planet are we on?"
"Earth," John said, and the man let out a shuddering breath. John turned towards him. Somewhere, far away, a dog howled in the darkness
"What year is it?" the man asked. The approaching night took all nuances of expression from his face, turning it into the sort of mask that players wore.
"A hundred and forty-seven years since the first of the years with no summer," John answered, "which is, in the old way of counting..." He had to calculate it mentally, counting back to a dimly-understood millennium. "Two thousand and six," he said.
"God!" The man brought his hand to his face. "Two thousand and six on Earth, and it looks like this
. I am screwed. I am so screwed. And what were the years with no summer? No, you don't have to tell me. It's obvious, isn't it? An asteroid strike or a super-volcano, either of them enough to precipitate a nuclear winter, and Earth sent back to the Dark Ages, and I've stumbled on a stupid illiterate peasant who doubtless thinks that the Earth's flat and that the stars are painted on by angels every day..."They blind you with words, the Others do. If you let yourself listen to them too deeply or too long...
He didn't believe in such things - he couldn't
believe in such things - but he began to walk away, his body dragging with the pain of every breath. When he reached his horse, he untied it with trembling fingers, muttering nonsense to it, pressing his hand to the warmth of its flank. It took him three attempts to clamber into the saddle, but then he was riding, the air fresh and cold in his face, fast, fast... Away.
He didn't look back.
Rodney stumbled back towards the hill. A Wraith
... But he'd known there was a Wraith already, hadn't he? The desiccated bodies of the rest of his team had been the clue there. It must have come through the same way that he had come, and been trapped here, no going back, no going back at all.
"But the Wraith isn't really the issue here, is it?" he told himself. No, that would be the fact that he was trapped in some hellish alternate version of Earth, where civilisation had apparently fallen apart in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the human race almost going the way of the dinosaurs. And the Stargate was apparently in England, in Glastonbury
, for crying out loud, which was so totally New Age and happy-clappy mystic that he would have laughed, if he hadn't been so busy freaking out, because, hello, trapped
? No way home?
Things moved around him in the darkness. Was it...? No, the idiot peasant had long since gone home, back to his turnips and his fat peasant wife, so that meant... Gasping, Rodney brought up the Wraith stunner and shot the heaving shape in the undergrowth; muttered an apology when he saw that it was a fox, and then shouted at it for making him mistake it for a Wraith.
The stars came out one by one above him, and they were the stars of Earth, the stars of home, unmistakeable and real.
"I'm screwed," he gasped. "I am so screwed." He reached the lower slopes of the hill and climbed up to the first terrace. The entrance was a clawed-out tunnel through the earth, leading to the ornate metal doors that were now jammed permanently in the 'open to allow every bad guy in the country to come in and slaughter me in my sleep' position.
Rodney hadn't seen what had happened, but he had pieced it together afterwards. When they had emerged from the wormhole, he had stayed in the gate ship to run important tests, and because, well, you couldn't be too careful, and important tests
! The others had left the ship and ventured out to explore the rest of the underground complex. For a short while, it had been flooded with light. Sergeant Behr had possessed the Ancient Descendants' Gene, and the complex had responded to him, waking up wherever he walked.
The doors had responded, too. Rodney clearly remembered the last transmission. "Hey, doc, we've found the way out," Behr had said, and Rodney had snapped at him, telling him not to interrupt, and not to go opening strange doors until he'd ascertained that...
Then the trickling sound of soil falling in, a roar, the sound of gunfire, and screaming, just screaming.
Their shrivelled bodies still lay just inside the metal doors, already half buried under piled earth. Three of them. Three of them killed. "But there weren't any life-signs," he had protested into the silence that had followed their deaths. But a hibernating Wraith didn't show up on a life-signs detector. A Wraith who had been trapped here perhaps for centuries, unable to get out because of lack of the gene... A Wraith who was starving, burning up with hunger, who began to stir as the facility had woken up around him, and then had waited until somebody had opened the door...
Rodney couldn't look at the bodies. He heaved at the doors until his hands were raw and bleeding, but they wouldn't shut. Perhaps he could bury the doorway again, covering it over again with earth and grass, as it must have remained for thousands of years. But then he would be buried alive. He started to shiver, then couldn't stop shivering.
Trapped. It was all Sergeant Behr's fault, of course. For two years, they'd been stranded in the Pegasus Galaxy with no contact with Earth. When Rodney and the latest team he'd been assigned to - a team as idiotic and disagreeable as all the rest - had come across a Gate capable of dialling home, they should have reported back to Atlantis, of course they should have reported back to Atlantis, but Behr had freaked, powering up the gate ship and dialling the glyphs. Rodney had protested, of course, had tried to stop him, but the whole thing had taken only seconds, and now here he was: back on Earth, yes, but back on the right Earth...? That would be a very definite no.
And there was no way of getting back. Paranoid and controlling as they were, the Ancients had designed the facility to respond only to people with the gene. Without the gene, the facility was dead. Without the gene, the Stargate was dead.
Without the gene, Rodney was dead.
They were singing in the ale-house when John returned. He slowed to a trot and then to a walk, passing between the houses until he came to the stable. His legs buckled as he dismounted, and he grabbed at the saddle bow, and stood there, his face pressed against the animal's heaving neck.
"Are you sick, John?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, tightened his grip on the saddle, and then stepped away and began to busy himself with removing the tack. Things wanted to slip out of his hands, slithering in clumsy fingers. "I'm good," he said.
When he bent to stow the saddle, he saw the girl standing in a flickering pool of candlelight. Her name was... He struggled to remember it; even his brain seemed sluggish. Charlotte
, he thought. Young and pretty and seventeen, and dazzled by the mystery of the stranger who had ridden in from places unknown.
"Are you sure, John?" She moved closer to him. "There's blood on your shirt, John."
"An unfortunate encounter with a thorn bush." He wiped down the horse's flanks, then went to get it food and water. All the while she followed him. "It's nothing," he said. "I rode too far, that's all. Nothing a good night's sleep can't fix."
She wasn't yet old enough or confident enough to try to follow him all the way home. Outside was cold, with not enough buildings to stop the wind blowing from far away. Light and sound was bleeding from the windows of the ale-house, and he found himself stepping carefully, keeping to the shadows. He was fairly sure that she was still watching him.
Home for now was a loft above a communal barn, surrounded by the smell of old hay. The winter stores had almost been used up, and it would still be several months before the new year's crops became edible. Late spring was the cruellest season, harsher even than winter.
The ladder felt slippery, hard to grasp. He dragged himself up it, but almost fell several times. Once he was in the loft, he lay down stiffly on his back, staring up at the darkness above him. Dust fell on his face, and he wiped it away, tasting old blood from the heel of his hand.
A door clattered open, bringing a faint scent of wood-smoke and a burst of song. They were singing of the Others who lived beneath the hill, who enchanted young men and refused to let them go. And pleasant is the fairy land
For those that in it dwell,
But at the end of seven years
They pay a tithe to hell;
And I'm so fair and full of flesh
I fear 'twill be myself.
John laughed harshly, bitterly. It wasn't true. It couldn't be true.
"So denial's the name of the game then, John?" His voice sounded too loud in the watching darkness. Because it had happened; every painful, exhausted step reminded him that it had happened. But it wasn't what it seemed to be. It had a simple explanation; of course it did.
And it wasn't for him to think about it. If you thought too much about the things that happened to you...
Waves crashed over his head. He remembered laying down another lifeless crew-mate on the shore, and standing up to see...No
, he thought. This, too, would fade. Life was just about living, about getting from one day to the next. Life was about finding a way to carry on. He had tried to change the world, and this is what resulted. Just waves on the sand. Just dust and ashes in a pitch-black barn.
end of chapter one
******John was a man with secrets. He came from the sea, and the sea clung to him always. Where we saw green hills, he saw the crashing waves of the ocean. Where we shared songs by the firelight, he sat alone, seeing secrets in the mirrored surface of his drink.
When the Other first approached John, he told not a soul. When the Other first approached John, he turned his back and tried to forget it, but the damage was done.
"Will you dance?" the Other had asked him, and John had said no, but he had looked into eyes that no mortal was meant to see, and his doom was set.
Although he did not know it, he was not long for this world.
Two days afterwards, the dying started.
John was following the plough, gripping its handles with blistered hands, walking in endless straight lines. The oxen churned up the mud ahead of him, and a harsh drizzle was falling, turning his clothes into a sodden mass. Mud clung to his boots. It pulled his feet down, making each step heavy, as if his body wanted to stay rooted to the ground.
Other labourers sang to their oxen, chanting doggerel under their breath. Sometimes several voices joined together in a brief chorus, singing about spring and lost love, about knights and battles and the pleasures of drink. John preferred to keep silent. His oxen kept their heads down, trudging through the rain.
Work stopped at noon for bread and cheese, sliced off in segments with a knife. John remembered the Wraith's dark blood on the blade, paused for a moment, then started to eat. Weak ale from a leather bottle washed it down. They squatted on stones, backs against the wall, and for a while there was nothing but silence.
John still felt tired and heavy, aching with something that he couldn't identify. The red mark on his chest refused to heal properly, weeping small trickles of blood beneath his shirt.
"Pa! Pa!" A child came scampering up, bringing ale to a father who had forgotten it. "They found another one, pa," she said. "Quite dead, she was, all shrivelled away. There was a necklace of daisies around her neck, like a truelove would give. He's probably looking for her, looking and looking for her..."
"That's enough," her father snapped. "Little ears shouldn't flap when the elders are talking about such things."
"I haven't got little ears." The child tweaked her ears, making them stand out from her mass of dirty curls. "Look, pa."
Her father flapped his hand. "Away with you."
The quality of the silence changed after she had gone. The nearest ox shifted from hoof to hoof, its breathing moist and steaming. John stuffed the rest of his bread back into his pouch. He turned the knife round and round in his hand, looking at the dull reflections in the blade, at his own face distorted and inhuman.
"Another one?" He hadn't realised that he had meant to speak until he heard himself utter the words. The knife stilled.
"Aye," said the father; John thought his name was William. "If you'd come to the ale-house for the last two nights, John, you would know."
They used his name far too often; strange that it should make him feel so uneasy, as if they were trying to strip something away from him, to see into places he didn't want them to see. Stupid
, he thought, as he scraped rain off his face, his hand painting a mask on his face. "Hey, you know what they say about the demon drink."
"The first one was found yesterday, John," said a red-faced man called Thomas. "It was over Glaston way. Hugh the drover brought the news."
"What could have caused it?" he found himself asking. His knuckles were as white as the handle of the knife.
"Why, isn't it obvious, John?" William said. "We always knew that one day they would come out of the hill again, to walk beneath the stars and steal mortals for their dance." His voice was rhythmical, quoting stories.
"The Others," Thomas said with a shudder. He took a long swig of his drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and drank again.
William swirled his full bottle in his hand. "There is nothing we can do when the Others approach us but stop our ears and close our eyes, refuse their food and refuse to join their dance. We cannot be brought to ruin unless we consent to our doom."
John felt something stir within him. The wound on his chest was throbbing sharply. "So you're saying it's their own fault they're dead?"
"It isn't quite like that." Thomas spread a placating hand. "The Others are tricksy, masters of words. They entice people with cunning words and blind them with their glamour."
John's chest hurt like a knife twisting in it. "Can't you guys use your own words?" he said harshly. "This isn't a story. People are dead
"And you're not from round here, John," William said stiffly, "so you'll never understand." He shifted slightly, subtly consigning John to the outside of their circle.
After a few minutes, John got up and resumed his work. The plough had to be pushed down heavily into the thick soil, and soon the muscles of his back and shoulders were burning, and fresh blood mingled with rain at his chest. Life was about carrying on, he thought; about walking again and again that straight course behind the plough. It certainly wasn't--
He stopped; lost himself in the rhythms of his work. The rain gradually stopped. The ground started to steam with the first touch of weak sunshine. The other workers were singing songs about the burning of the cities. A child ran along the strip of uncultivated land at the edge of the field, perhaps bearing news. After that, the songs were louder, with a note of desperation about them.
The sun retreated, and the rain started again. Darkness came early on such a day, and John straightened up from another length to see Gaffer Hawkin watching him. "You've done enough, John." Hawkin was leaning heavily on a stick. His broken leg had healed wrong, and John was taking his place in the field, driving the oxen that were his darlings.
"No," John found himself saying, shaking his head.
Songs faded away behind him. Hawkin crooned the oxen's names, patting their shoulders, stroking their noses. "Enough for today," Hawkin said.
"No." John shook his head again. He could barely stand, his back bent from the plough, and when he turned his cramped hands over, he saw that the palms were streaked with the blood of burst blisters.
The other labourers trooped past him, deliberately silent.
"I haven't," John said, and he knew what he had decided, up there in the darkness of his loft, and he knew, too, that it was meaningless; that he could never be the sort of person who turned his back when people were at risk. He had seen the Wraith. He should have warned them. He should...
"John?" Hawkin said, his eyes bright in his seamed face.
"I saw it," John told him, "the thing that's killing these people." His hand rose to his chest. "It tried to kill me, but I got away."
Hawkin took a step back, his hand coming up in a warding gesture that John had never seen before. "You escaped from one of the Others when it had chosen you?"
John shook his head. "No, no. It wasn't like that - not like the stories. I saw it, but--"
"Don't say it." Hawkin grabbed him by the arm. "If you were any other stranger, John, I would walk away; walk away and leave you to the mercy of the Other that has placed its mark on you. But you've helped me with the ploughing when I couldn't do it myself, and I reckon that means I owe you a favour. Stay quiet, John. Tell no-one. They'll kill you if they think you've been enthralled."
John pulled his arm away, his hand rising instinctively to the wound on his chest. "But we can beat it. If we all go together--"
"No," Hawkin said, and his face turned cold. "Because I owe you a favour, I told you to keep this to yourself. But because these people here are mine, I ask you this, John: can you continue to live here when your presence might be the death of us all?"
John thought of bodies in the ocean, bodies on the shore. He curled his fingers into the flesh around his wound. "That's crazy," he said. "It isn't like that."
Hawkin shivered, tugging his coat tighter around his shoulders. "But can you take the risk, John? Can you be sure that you haven't brought death to us?"
Every day that passed only served to confirm just how comprehensively screwed he was. Rodney slumped down on the floor of the gate ship, blinking up at trailing wires and exposed crystals. His eyes were gritty from too little sleep, and he still hadn't found a way to get himself home.
"Of course I haven't," he said. "What part of 'impossible' am I failing to comprehend here?" The greatest minds on Earth had tried for years to find a way to bypass the need for the Ancient Descendants' Gene, and it just couldn't be done. Certain things required the gene; it was as simple as that. And because the Ancients in this godforsaken hellhole of an alternate Earth had apparently been even more secretive and paranoid than the regular kind, those 'certain things' included... oh yes, everything that Rodney needed to survive.
He ripped open another pack of military rations, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He still had enough for a week, or perhaps two, and then...
"Why haven't you come to rescue me?" he shouted, slamming his fist into the wall behind him. "Is it too much to ask?" He cradled his throbbing fist with his other hand. "After all, I've saved Atlantis at least a dozen times. You need
me. Genius? Brightest mind in two galaxies? You'll be lost without me."Not that they'll miss me for any other reason
, a small and stupid part of him whispered. He had been passed from team to team like a hot potato that nobody wanted to keep hold of, and now his latest team had gone and gotten themselves killed, and it wasn't his
fault, it wasn't his fault at all, but...
He stood up and walked to front of the craft, slumping down in the pilot's seat. His watch claimed that it was just after midday, but that was measuring the time back on an Atlantis in another universe. Outside the gate ship, all was dark, and inside was little better, lit only by the faint blue glow of exposed crystals. He groped for the P90 he had removed from Sergeant Behr's body and switched on the thin beam of light, but then the gate ship was the only thing illuminated in the entire dark complex, and anyone out there could see him, and he wouldn't be able to see them. It was like a beacon saying kill me! eat me!
He switched the light off, and sat hunched around himself in the darkness. His stomach felt hollow, even though he still had plenty of food. His chest hurt and his throat ached, and was that light-headedness the first signs of suffocation? Had he caught some vile plague from his trip outside? He scraped his hand across his brow. Was he too hot? Was his hand too cold?
Something struck the side of the gate ship. Rodney's head snapped up. "God!" he gasped "Is that--?"
The sound came again. In the faint light of the exposed crystals, Rodney saw a face at the window, ghostly white, with long pale hair. A hand smashed against the glass, then scraped its way down, nails screaming.
Rodney cradled the gun. "It's reinforced glass," he reminded himself, "and the hatch is locked. It can't get in. It can't get in. Go eat someone else." But perhaps it didn't want to eat him, just recognised his technological superiority and thought he knew the way home.
"But I don't know how to get home!" he screamed. "It's impossible, okay? It can't be done! I can't do it! I can't do it!"
The Wraith struck the glass with its fist, and then came a series of thuds as if it was kicking the gate ship in fury. The entire craft trembled. Rodney retreated backwards and sat in the rear hatch, knees pulled up to his chest.
Half an hour later, when he dared to peer out again, the Wraith was still there, its forehead pressed against the glass.
It was still there in his dreams.
******Can you take the risk, John?
The rain stopped during the evening. John clambered down the ladder and went out into the moonlight. The ploughed earth smelled damp and cold. The ghostly shape of a barn owl swooped down from behind him, then went ahead of him, as if heralding his way.
He could hear them talking in the ale-house. He could go right in, he thought, and tell them what he had seen. He could muster them and lead them out, forcing them to lay aside the certainties of their stories and to take a stand.
But how could he do that when everything he had ever believed had already died? How could he do that it there was a risk, any risk at all, that he would be leading them to their deaths?
The barn owl disappeared into the night. A cat ran past him, screeching. "Oh, it's you, John," he heard someone say. The man's face was less clear than the scythe that was thrust out in front of him. "Can't be too careful," the man said. "Dangerous things are abroad."
"Like wolves." John tipped his head in the direction of a distant howling.
"They say the wolves had been driven back before the years of dying," the man said, but then he shook his head, raising the scythe. "I'm talking about the Others, of course. Cold iron helps. Do you have cold iron, John?"
John nodded a lie. Moonlight was silver, and he thought of people hunted down by the Wraith, dying in agony from its hand on their chest. The dead woman had a true-love, the girl had said, who was probably looking for her, looking and looking for her.
John stopped walking, his hand on a withered tree. Six months ago, the waves had claimed him. Perhaps, perhaps, it was time to break free.
The Wraith was gone by morning. "But has it really gone," Rodney wondered out loud, "or is it just hiding, trying to draw me out into its trap?"
One hour passed, then two, then three.
The air grew thicker and thicker. He pressed his hand to his chest, and felt the racing of his heart. He was suffocating! He was going to--
He grabbed the gun and the Wraith stunner and held them ready, one in each hand, although the gun was too big to hold one-handed and kept wanting to slip out of his grip. He opened the hatch, then recoiled backwards, bringing the weapons up, but nothing happened. No-one roared or tried to slaughter him hideously, which was a definite plus.
He edged forward. He still hadn't buried his dead, and they lay dry and twisted on either side of the half-buried doorway. He looked straight ahead as he walked past them, his weapons shaking in his hands. His latest team, the latest of four. But it wasn't his
fault that everyone was too stupid to tolerate his genius. It wasn't his
fault that they couldn't play well with someone who didn't match their narrow ideas of how people should behave.
It must have rained during his days of incarceration in the gate ship, because the earth was wet and sticky, and streams of it had flowed over the threshold. There were... He frowned, peering sharply downwards. Yes! Wraith footprints, heading in, then heading out again.
"Thank God!" Rodney felt his shoulders slumping with relief. He squelched through the short tunnel and emerged on the hillside. The sun was shining, struggling through dark-edged clouds, and he turned his face to the light and inhaled great gasps of cool fresh air.
He didn't notice the hunters approach. When he saw them, he whirled round, firing off a blast of the Wraith stunner, but it was already too late. They wrestled him to the ground, and then something struck him hard on the back of his head, and then--
He should have left before dawn, but he was slow to awaken. Thoughts had kept him awake until late into the night, but his body felt the need for sleep. Ever since he had been attacked by the Wraith, he had felt sluggish and exhausted, as if the creature had drained something essential away from him. But his knife blade and puddled water showed that his appearance was unchanged, except for darker shadows beneath his eyes.
The place felt different when he emerged from the barn. It's because I've decided to leave it
, he thought. Everything always seemed different after you had decided to leave a place, the buildings and the people once again slipping into the role of strangers.
His horse was gone from the stables when he went for it.
Charlotte had followed him in, twirling a spindle in her hand. "They rode out, John," she said. "Took your horse."
He opened and closed his fists at his side. "Where did they go?"
"I don't know, John." She was close behind him, bringing the scent of tallow and wood-smoke. "They were planning it in the ale-house last night. Womenfolk weren't allowed. Weren't you there, John? I could have... If you were lonely, John, I could have..."
"Dammit." He walked past her, seeing her turn her face to follow him with her eyes. Outside, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the light winking out. The fields were almost empty, just a small group of older children removing stones. A woman looked out of a window, peering into the west with a worried frown. When a small child ran out from her door, she called him back, then dragged him in and shut the door.
"It's something about the Others, John," Charlotte said.
John nodded distractedly, and started to walk, leaving the village. She trotted behind him, spindle flying. "It's not the day of rest. Are you leaving us, John?"
Shapes crested the far horizon: at least a dozen men on horseback. John held up his hand, angled backwards, palm towards the girl. "Go back," he said. "Go somewhere safe, just in case." She hesitated, and he snapped it firmly. "Go back."
The horsemen drew closer, and John moved into the shadow of a tree to watch them. He was surprised by how quickly he was able to recognise them just by their outline and the way they sat, as if some dormant, tactical part of him had been noticing more about his current neighbours than he had ever realised. Hawkin had taken John's own horse. William and Thomas were there, and almost all the adult men folk of a village of barely sixty souls.
As they drew closer, John could hear the sound of quiet singing - someone humming a broken tune under their breath. He stepped forward, and the song stopped. Hawkin stopped, but the others carried on for a few more paces, until they ringed him in a semi-circle. "Pa's back!" a child cried from far behind, but was silenced with a hiss.
"Don't look like that, John," Hawkin said, although John hadn't been aware of his face showing anything at all. "I borrowed your lovely, that's all. She'll be all yours again in a minute."
"Where did you go?" He had no right to sound accusing, he knew, but he couldn't stop it from coming out that way.
"It was as you said, John." Hawkin's mouth smiled, although his eyes were wary. "You said we could confront the Other if we all went together."
"It is always the solitary ones who are taken," William said. "Nowhere in any of the stories do the Others come for someone who is not alone."
"Alone and wandering on green hills beneath the stars," said Thomas, "and lost in dreams."
"And the stories also tell of iron." Robert the smith raised a fist specked with scars from blazing embers. "Cold, hard iron makes them powerless."
"We were afraid," Hawkin said, "and we would have let our fear rule us, if you hadn't--"
"So the Wraith's dead?" John's voice sounded harsh. "Tall guy? Long white hair?"
"We went to the hill near Glaston, where the Others dwell in song." William was speaking too loudly, and John realised that he was addressing the women and children who were approaching from the village behind him, already telling stories. "We found the creature emerging from the hill itself. It tried to strike us with its magic, but we bound it with iron."
"Where is it, pa?" the little girl asked, reaching up to her father's knee.
"Foolish child." William stooped to ruffle her hair. "We couldn't bring it here in case that drew the eyes of its vengeful kin. We hid our faces..." He pulled up a knotted scarf from around his neck, dragging it over his face, covering everything except for thin slits for eyes and nose. The others did the same. Some of them had painted grotesque faces on their masks. The little girl screamed, snatching her hand back. "Nothing to be afraid of, little one." William's voice was muffled and less human than it had been. "It's so the Other wouldn't recognise us or know us or know how to find you all, dear hearts."
"And so we wouldn't be enchanted by its wiles," said Hawkin. His mask was the most hideous in a ring of creatures without human faces.
"So you killed it," John said, remembering how its wounds had healed. "Are you sure?"
"Oh no, John." Still masked, Hawkin shook his head. "You cannot kill one of the Others. Only weather and sunlight and time can do that."
"And cold, hard iron," said the smith.
The mask twisted into a grotesque smile. "And cold, hard iron."
"But it didn't look like the Others are supposed to look." Thomas pulled his mask down, and grimaced at the first few heavy drops of rain. "It had short hair and it wasn't beautiful. But it attacked us with magic - cold, blue flame. We found it by chance as it emerged from the hill, and struck it down before it could see us." He wiped rain from his face. "I need a drink. We all need a drink. We took on one of the Others, lads! Oh, there'll be songs about this in time."
"In time?" said another man, hidden by his mask. "I'll compose it by tonight and set it to a good old tune."
"And a chorus!" Thomas shouted, still the only one looking human. "We need a chorus!"
Hawkin dismounted and passed the reins to John. Their fingers touched for a moment, but Hawkin's eyes were just slits in the mask, and there was no message there.
John mounted without a word. He didn't even have to think about it at all; he just knew. He'd been lost for too many months, and this...? This was the right thing to do.
Charlotte, he thought, was the only one who watched him as he rode away.
Rodney woke up to pain. His head was throbbing and his vision swam, and he screwed his eyes shut with a groan, but when he tried to raise his hand to shield his eyes from the light, nothing happened. He tried again, and nothing... No, no, not nothing
; something far worse than nothing. What happened was that metal pulled hard and painfully at his wrists. What happened was that he heard the rattle of chains. What happened was that the muscles of his arms were screaming. What happened was...
"Oh," he rasped. "Oh, God, please no." He tugged again, pulling, pulling as hard as he could, but all that happened was agony at his wrists, as he tried to drag his hands through metal bands that were far too small for them. Muscles strained in his arms, shooting out lines of burning pain.
He looked around, head darting from side to side, his skull throbbing sickeningly, his stomach lurching. He was sitting on a stone slab in the middle of a large ruin, his legs stretched out in front of him. There was something hard against his back, and when he peered behind him, he saw that it was a stone pillar. Whenever he moved his screaming arms, he heard chains scraping against stone. His hands... Oh, God, his arms were stretched out behind him, one on either side, his wrists held tightly by a length of taut chain that passed behind the pillar. He couldn't move. Oh, God, he couldn't move. He couldn't...Green fields
, he thought. Calm. Stay calm
. But his head was throbbing in time with his racing heart. He'd been screwed anyway, and now this
. He had no memory of what had happened, except for a quick flash of a circle of creatures with dark slits for eyes.
"Help!" he screamed. "Help! Can anyone hear me? I need help!"
It left his throat feeling dry and scraped. Nobody came. A large black carrion bird landed on a headless statue nearby, eyeing him hungrily. "Go away," he told it, and he tried to flap his hand, earning a fresh stab of pain in his shoulder. "Shoo!" he pleaded "I'm not dead yet, and I... I have no intention of dying any time soon, so go. Go away. Shoo."
It flew away, wings flapping noisily. Tangled undergrowth quivered in the rain. Maybe they'd chained him up here as a sacrifice. Maybe hideous creatures were watching him, preparing to pounce. Maybe the Wraith... "Oh, please no," he gasped, "please, please, no," as red clouds of terror pulsed across his vision, and the rain seeped through his clothing, and he started to shiver, unable to stop, each tremor driving a spike of agony through his skull.
"Help!" he screamed again, when he had the strength to. "Let me go!" he demanded, a little while after that. "I demand it!" The sky grew darker, though the rain eased. "Why have you done this?" he shouted. "I haven't done anything. All I want to do is get home. Is that a crime now?"
Nothing. Nothing. He had been chained up and left to die.
end of chapter two
******The Others fear only one thing, and that is the touch of cold iron. When bound by iron, an Other is as weak as a child on a sick bed. The Others cannot die, not as men can die, but if forced to spend too long beneath the open skies, they fade as the autumn leaves do fade, and return to the earth a broken shadow, never again to leave it.
But you know that. Every child knows that.
But it is easy to forget, when fear is driving you. John, a stranger, reminded us, in that long-ago spring-time. John, a stranger, told us to take action, and not to lose ourselves in stories and in grief.
But John was wrong.
Continued in Part Two