When Rodney woke, his first thought was, thank God I’m not dead. Because when the dart had hit him in the leg as he attempted to reload his handgun, he’d been convinced that was going to be the end result of that little situation. But looking around the dimly lit grass and mud hut and only seeing one other form, he decided it might have been too early to be grateful.
Throwing back the thick furs that covered him, he sat up, instantly deciding that was a bad idea when a wave of nausea overcame him. Poisoned. He’d been poisoned. And he had a moment of panic as he feared the sedative had been venom-based and he was going to have an anaphylactic reaction. But then he realized the sun was rising which meant it had probably been at least eight hours since he was incapacitated and if he was going to have a reaction he would already be dead from it by now. And once again… not dead. Still, whatever they had used on him had been potent enough to have the room spinning and transitioning through a kaleidoscope of rainbow hues even after so many hours, not to mention a headache to beat any hangover he had ever had in his life.
Closing his eyes to stop the sickening motion of the hut, he swallowed down the urge to puke and staggered his way over to the cot on the opposite side of the room. “Teyla.” He gave a shake to the woman that he found there, because his hands were trembling to the point that there was no way he could check for a pulse. Taking another look around the room, he ascertained that they were truly the only two in the dwelling. Fuck. That confirmation, along with the desire to hurl the chicken and salsa he’d had for dinner the night before, had him sitting on the edge of the thin bed and trying to rouse his teammate once again.
Brown eyes opened then instantly closed again as Teyla clutched at her throbbing head. “Rodney?”
“In the flesh,” he confirmed, dropping his own head into his hands and taking a deep breath to still his rolling stomach.
“The darts… are you okay?” Her attempt to sit up was short lived and she fell back against the bed with a small groan.
“About as well as you.”
Her question had Rodney’s belly twisting, and the poison or MRE had little to do with it. “Not here.”
This time she kept her eyes open, and when Rodney lifted his head enough to look at her, she reached out a hand and rested it on his arm. “They did not kill us, even when they had the chance. There is no reason for us to believe they have killed him.”
No reason to believe, except that he wasn’t here. He wasn’t here and if he was okay, why the hell wasn’t he here?
McKay and Teyla had spent most of the day following Ronon’s departure trying to keep Sheppard lucid, which, quite frankly, was a losing proposition. Teyla read him articles from her Cosmo on dressing for your shape and then another on how to tell if your best friend forever was cheating with your boyfriend. Then Rodney had played hangman with him until Sheppard accused him of cheating by switching back and forth between Canadian and American spelling of words that ended in –or and –er (or, more correctly –our and –re). And what was Sheppard’s deal with accusing him of cheating all the time anyway? He was merely taking a tactical advantage. In the end they settled on playing battleship, then dots and squares, but after a while, even that couldn’t seem to keep the colonel alert. The short naps just kept getting longer until he stopped responding coherently all together.
Sheppard dreamed– sometimes flailing so violently that it took the two of them just to hold him down. He called names– some of them they knew, including their own, others they didn’t. And the moments that Sheppard would open his eyes and recognize the two people caring for him came fewer and further between. So that neither Rodney nor Teyla were asleep when the tribe attacked them long after the sun had gone down.
The first dart hit Teyla in the neck and the two looked at one another in horror at what that meant. The Athosian had yanked out the barb and grabbed the P90 by her side and sprayed blindly into the darkness before collapsing in an unmoving heap near the open hatch. Rodney felt a dart whiz by his ear the same time one lodged into Sheppard’s arm and he grabbed his sidearm and dove for the bathroom, snatching a piece of paper from the floor as he did. He frantically wrote a note to let Ronon know what had happened, even as he fired randomly through the small opening in the door, because Rodney knew no one was going to be around to inform the Satedan in person. Best to tell him in case Ronon couldn’t figure it out on his own. Doubtful, but you never knew what the natives would do once they had killed them all.
He stopped long enough to eject the spent clip before working to slam another home, and that’s when he felt the sting in his leg. The heat was spreading through his muscles even as he yanked it out and threw it aside, and as much as he had tried to aim at the shapes he could see moving in the moonlight through the sliver in the doorway, he couldn’t seem to get his arm to cooperate or his finger to squeeze the trigger because the room was circling around him and soon everything was blacker than it should have been, even given that it was nighttime outside.
And now, wonder of wonders, he was alive… although, at the moment, he kind of wished he was dead. But if he felt this horrible and had been okay before the attack, how would Sheppard, who was about as far from okay as a person could be before they were drugged, react to the dart? Even if he hadn’t been poisoned, what would they do to him? The trip to the village could have killed him. They could have decided he was too far gone to bother with. They could have left him to die in the Jumper, alone.
That thought did him in, and Rodney lunged for the bucket in the corner and emptied his stomach. Teyla’s hand landed on his back and rubbed sympathetically as he gulped air and turned his face to see one just as pale and worried as his own.
“We have to find him,” he told her with a shudder against the cold sweat beading on his skin.
“Ronon should reach the Jumper soon with reinforcements. They will find us.” But her reassurance held a slightly questioning tone.
“And what if they took out Ronon with a poison dart as soon as he was out of sight of the Jumper? For all we know he’s locked up somewhere around here, too. Or worse.”
Teyla’s hand slid up to clutch his shoulder, and the way she closed her eyes had Rodney wondering if she was going to contribute to the offering bucket between his knees, as well. After a few seconds and ragged breaths, she shook her head. “We must not allow ourselves to think that way.”
“We can’t delude ourselves either, Teyla.” The sound of footsteps outside the hut had him lowering his voice to a harried whisper. “Sheppard and Ronon could be dead.” When her fingers bit into tender muscle in the Athosian version of a Vulcan death grip, Rodney knew she was fighting to deny just that thought.
“You do not truly believe that, Rodney.”
He shrugged out of the painful hold and bobbled his head. “Well, I don’t really want to believe it.”
“Then do not,” she told him simply as she pushed herself to her feet, swaying drunkenly before squaring her shoulders and walking in an almost straight line for the door. She wrapped her hands around the wooden braces on the door, as if to hold herself up, and opened her mouth to call for a guard. But when she leaned against the entrance, it swung open a few inches.
“It’s not locked?” Rodney asked in amazement when she glanced back at him in confusion.
“No, it is not.”
“Are they idiots? Did they forget?” He snapped fingers excitedly as a thought hit him. “Oh, maybe we were able to metabolize the drug faster than the average person from around here and they weren’t expecting us to be awake yet.” Then his eyes widened in concern when another thought came. “Or maybe it’s booby trapped.”
“Rodney, you must calm down.”
McKay climbed to his feet, steadying himself against one of the beams that made up the frame of the hut. “We were ambushed in the Jumper, shot with poison darts, dragged back here, put in a booby trapped prison and Sheppard is nowhere to be seen. I’m about as calm as I can be given the situation.”
Pushing the door open a bit further, Teyla peeked out. “I do not see a guard.”
“Okay, that helps a little.” Rodney peered over her shoulder and could see that the hut they were in sat a little bit away from the main encampment, which made sense if this was a jail of sorts. Wouldn’t want the rabble-rousers intermingling with the common folk too much, now would they? “So what do you think?”
“I think neither one of us is up to a rescue mission. I also think that if Ronon finds the empty Jumper he will come looking for us with a team of marines from Atlantis. It would be prudent for us to see if we can slip into the woods where we can keep an eye on the village and await reinforcements.”
Rodney could tell that Teyla liked the idea of leaving Sheppard, wherever he was, in the hands of the villagers just about as much as he did… not at all. But he couldn’t disagree with her assessment of their physical condition. His legs were wobbling just from the effort of standing and the world still held a slightly Technicolor glow highlighting the edges of objects. Given the way Teyla clung to the doorjamb and blinked her eyes as if to clear them, he had a pretty good idea that she felt just as crappy as he did.
“Yeah, okay,” he sighed reluctantly, “you’re probably right.”
Teyla placed a finger to her lips to indicate he should remain silent, and McKay rolled his eyes (bad idea, by the way, seeing as he was tempted to run back to the bucket as a result) that she felt she had to tell him to be quiet during a prison break. Daring to open the door a little further, she took a tentative step forward. Still not seeing anyone, she took another, Rodney right behind her, so that he actually ran into her back when she came to a sudden stop.
The menacing growl kept him from asking what was wrong. The creature stood about as tall as a beagle, although it appeared more catlike than canine with fine sharp teeth in a triangular-shaped snout framed by whiskers. Wiry black fur stood out in thick tufts on its back and on the tip of the long tail it whipped threateningly, and the collar around its neck indicated that they had probably been wrong about there being no guards. There was a guard all right, it just didn’t happen to be human. In fact, there was more than one, McKay learned soon enough, as a second beast joined the one that was holding them at bay when they sidestepped cautiously to the right.
“What say we go back into the hut?”
Rodney’s nervous suggestion had Teyla nodding slowly in agreement. “I believe that would be a wise decision.”
Backing their way into their cell, Teyla quickly closed the door to keep the creature that had matched their steps from coming in. Once the door was shut, the animal seemed satisfied and they could see it licking contentedly on its paw as it sat blocking any chance of exit.
“Okay, now what?” Rodney sat heavily on his cot, at once relieved and disappointed.
Teyla took up a similar position on her own bed. “We wait. Ronon and the team from Atlantis should be here within a few hours. If they are not, hopefully, by then, the drugs will have left our system and we will be stronger and better able to protect ourselves against the animals guarding us.”
“Sure, we wait.” McKay finally gave in to the urge to lie down again, tilting sideways until his shoulder hit the mat and pulling his knees up and draping the furs over himself for a little more warmth. Wait. No problem. That’s all they had been doing for the past four days anyway. Why should this be any different? Because at least then, they had all been together.
Teyla lay back on her own bed, rubbing at her forehead before pulling the covers up over her shoulders to block the cold morning air. “I do not believe this is the same tribe that attacked us before.”
“Oh, really?” Rodney was doing his best to muster some sort of interest, because if he was honest with himself, he was on the verge of losing it completely. He’d spent four days holding it together… relatively speaking. But life seemed to have a way of yanking the rug out from under him at the last minute.
You were attacked by hostile aliens and your best friend was shot with an arrow but you made it to the Jumper so you should be home free. Oh, too bad, the aliens shot down your Jumper against a fucking tree. You finally figure out a way to get your team out of the Jumper just when Sheppard starts to take a turn for the worse. Oh, too bad, you’re drugged and captured by hostile aliens right when help was going to arrive. You think you’ve finally caught a break because the aliens left your cell unlocked. Oh, too bad, they left a mean ass tabby to guard you so all you can do is sit and wait some more, only this time you have no clue if Sheppard is alive, or Ronon for that matter.
So, yeah, interest in who exactly was holding them in said cell… not exactly at the top of his list right then.
“If they were the same people who attacked us earlier, why did they not simply kill us? Why did they take us captive?”
“Because that would have been too easy,” McKay responded despondently.
“I believe they have other plans for us that require us to be alive.”
“Like what? Because people that want to invite you to dinner don’t usually drug you to get you to come…” Rodney pushed up on his arm as another less than pleasant thought came to him. “Unless you’re the main course.”
“Rodney you must stop jumping to such drastic conclusions.”
“A human sacrifice.” With a shake of his head, he dropped back down to stare at the ceiling. “Great. I mean it’s a rather fitting end. Who better to send as an offering to the gods than the most brilliant mind in two galaxies?”
Ignoring the exasperation in Teyla’s voice, he continued. “Not that my brilliance is doing us one bit of good in a hovel that makes a third world country look like a five star resort.”
And that was the real crux of the matter. There were situations that even if he couldn’t do anything useful, Rodney at least had the potential to do something useful. But when it came to situations where the best he could offer was to duck and not get shot so that he didn’t slow the rest of the team down, even the potential for being needed was better than feeling like dead weight. And a mud hut where the most technologically advanced piece of hardware in sight was the hinge on the front door, definitely qualified as the latter.
Teyla’s heavy sigh was cut short but the sounds of the animals out front mewling and a human voice, a young male by the tenor, answering, “Down, get down.” There was then the sounds of the two animals fighting each other and the front door opened.
Outside, Rodney could just make out the two creatures fighting over a hunk of meat, similar to the one being carried on the tray by the teenage boy who entered their hut. Dressed in leathers similar to those worn by the hunting party the day before, he didn’t address them, just carried the food and a pot with a steaming liquid to the small table in the back and set them down.
When he turned and headed toward the door, Rodney called out a desperate, “Wait!” The boy stopped and regarded him impatiently, as though this task, not to mention Rodney, were below his station. “Who are you?” The boy simply snorted that someone being held prisoner would think he was entitled to such information and opened the door.
“No, stop!” Rodney jumped to his feet, putting out a hand blindly in search of something to steady himself when the spots started forming before his eyes, only to find nothing that could do that job and sat back down on the bed. “Our friend. He was hurt.” Oh, God, he so did not want to ask the next question, and he swallowed back on the threatening bile once again.
Teyla, thankfully, stepped in then. “Can you please tell us if he is all right?”
“He is alive, but he is very ill. Our healer is treating his wound with the alips now.”
“Alips?” Teyla asked in confusion.
“They are small worms that eat dead flesh to clean away infection.”
At the news Rodney groaned and dropped his head further to stare at the dirt floor in an attempt to keep from passing out at the image that came to mind. He did his best to block out the sounds of Teyla fighting her own gag reflex.
“May we see him? Please?”
Teyla’s pleas were met with a succinct, “No.”
“Look, just for a minute, just so we can see he’s okay.” And Rodney couldn’t believe he was begging to be witness to a medical procedure he had no doubt would empty what remained in his stomach of his last meal.
“You will see him during the exchange.”
“I am ransoming you to the Oraseeki tribe.”
Two things struck Rodney about that comment. One, the use of ‘I’, which suggested this kid had the authority to ransom someone to another tribe. And, two, the fact that they were valuable enough that someone was willing to pay a ransom for them.
Teyla evidently picked up on the ransom part, as well. “Why, exactly, would the Oraseeki tribe be willing to pay for us?”
“Because you desecrated their sacred burial grounds and by their law you must be put to death for such an act.”
Rodney and Teyla exchanged confused glances, both of them trying to figure out precisely when they had participated in this alleged defilement. And then it was all so clear. “The gardens.” Rodney pointed an animated finger at his teammate. “Where Sheppard was shot. That must have been the graveyard. That must have been why they shot him. He was the first one to step foot inside the perimeter.”
“But we did not know that was sacred ground,” Teyla informed their captor.
“And, might I point out, there were no markings of any kind to warn a person not to enter the area. It hardly seems fair to sentence a person to death for walking through an area with no restrictions whatsoever.”
“That,” the boy told them haughtily, “is not my concern. It was just the good fortune of my people that your flying machine landed in our territory and the Oraseeki had to approach us to offer a ransom if we could find you and turn you over to them.”
Teyla’s eyes narrowed in contemplation as she asked casually, “What are they giving you for trade?”
“You have no need to know that information.”
“Well, seeing as you’re trading our lives for it, I would think it is relevant information.”
The teen gave an aggrieved sigh. “If you must know, my people will receive four carts of gelbar root and twelve vats of mongat fat for heating oil and a cart of furs for clothing.”
“So food, fuel, and clothes?” Rodney shot a quick glance at Teyla before letting a scheming smile curve his lips. “How about if we could meet those requirements and throw in some medicine and other incidentals, as well?”
And that’s how Rodney and Teyla found themselves sitting around a table, drinking some rather strong beer-type beverage, laughing at the story Rendi was telling them and the members of his leadership council about the time he tried to ride a mongat when he was eight years old on a dare from his older cousin. God, Rodney thought as he wiped at his eyes, Ronon was going to be soooo jealous when he heard this kid got to ride one. That was also how they found themselves bursting into even stronger guffaws when envious man himself along with a military contingent from Atlantis stormed into the young Chieftain’s lodge with guns drawn and orders to disarm.
Ronon and Lorne blinked in confusion, and, Rodney was pretty sure, disappointment, when the only response they received was spewed alcohol and Teyla providing a drunken mock of, “Drop your weapons!” in a falsely deepened voice. Rodney quickly dropped the drumstick he was munching on in response to her command, which just earned a new round of belly laughs from the tribesmen in the room.
“Teyla? McKay? What’s going on?”
Ronon was answered by Rodney waving them over to the table. “Ronon! Good to see you! And you brought Lorne… and some other guys I have no idea what their names are.”
“Dr. McKay, are you two drunk?”
The major’s question had the scientist sitting a little straighter. “No, Major, we are not. I believe the technical term for what we are is shitfaced.” Teyla and Rodney sputtered and leaned against each other in a fit of giggles.
“Where’s Sheppard?” Ronon asked with a scowl.
“Oh, he is fine,” Teyla waved off his concern before reaching across and pouring more into her mug.
“Yeah,” Rodney confirmed, “we saw him. He has little worms crawling in his shoulder.” The physicist crinkled his nose in disgust and wiggled his fingers in demonstration over his own shoulder, before putting his mug out for Teyla to fill when she had finished with her own. “But his fever is already dropping.”
“Here, let me.” Rendi, the young man who had come to their hut and ended up being the chief of the Zarwabi tribe, stood and took the pitcher from Teyla and filled both mugs. “It is my duty, after all.”
Ends up the tribe had a tradition that those in succession for the throne had to serve their sixteenth year in a role of servitude as a way to prepare them for their pending leadership role. It was believed that by acting as a servant to the tribe members, they would better understand how to serve their people as a leader as opposed to ruling them as a dictator. Unfortunately for the boy, his father, the former Chief, had died about two months into Rendi’s term of slavery in a bizarre incident that involved a loom, a butter churn, and two young women just above the local age of consent. As a result, Rendi had found himself in the awkward position of being both the lowest- and highest-ranking person in the tribe. Given his situation, Rodney couldn’t really blame the kid for wanting to take advantage of the team dropping, literally, into the young leader’s lap as a way to develop a strong trade alliance with the neighboring tribe.
But at that point, Rodney couldn’t really find fault with anyone, especially the extremely talented brewmaster responsible for the fine beverage of which he was partaking… quite liberally. There was nothing like a little hair of the dog to take the edge off the slightly hallucinogenic sedatives that had been on the darts. Or, maybe hair of the wingat was the more appropriate term, Rodney decided, as that was the name of the animal that had been guarding them. The thought just made him laugh even harder.
“Come,” Rendi offered cheerfully to the newly arrived Atlanteans, “join us as we drink to the lucrative trade agreement we have crafted between our two tribes.”
“Trade agreement?” Lorne demanded. “You two are negotiating a trade agreement?”
McKay nodded proudly. “Uh huh. A really good one, too.”
“What exactly has Atlantis agreed to trade to them?” Ronon’s tone held more than a note of skepticism.
“Food, clothing, space heaters, desk lamps...”
Lorne cut off the list that Teyla was ticking off on her fingers. “But they don’t seem to have a power supply for those last two items.”
“Well, duh!” Rodney rolled his eyes and Teyla had to reach out and stabilize him before he rolled right off the bench they were sitting on. “That’s why we’re giving them naquadah generators to power them.”
“And what are we getting in return?”
Rodney beamed happily at Ronon in response as he motioned a finger between him and Teyla. “Us.”
“And John,” the Athosian added quickly.
“Of course, obviously, Sheppard, too,” McKay snorted. “Although we’re leaving the alip worms here.”
Rodney and Teyla descended into snickers again at the joke and Lorne leaned over and mumbled to Ronon, “I’m not sure that’s exactly a fair trade.”
“For a society that currently burns animal fat to heat their homes, I think that’s more than a fair trade for them,” the Satedan contradicted.
“I meant, I’m not sure it’s a fair trade for Atlantis.”
Ronon allowed a small smirk to cut through his beard. “Are you going to be the one to tell Weir her head of science, her ranking military officer, and her Athosian liaison weren’t worth a few heaters and lightbulbs?”
The major sighed and draped his arms across his P90. “I suppose you’re right.”
McKay and Teyla straightened and Rodney slapped his hand on the table. “Now then, Rendi, you drive a hard bargain, but I think we’ve met all your demands. So, if you don’t mind, our ride is here and I have a shower and a real bed with sheets that weren’t alive a few months ago waiting for me.”
“Actually, Rodney, there is one more thing that I would like to have in return for your release.” The boy blushed furiously and both Teyla and McKay furrowed their brow at his reaction.
“What is it?” Rodney was almost fearful to hear what would cause such a reaction in the young man. But his fear turned to amusement when he saw what the teen was sliding across the table. “I don’t think that should be a problem at all.”