Chapter 4: On Mendan Hospitality
Nighttime in the woods
Daniel needn't have worried about going to sleep hungry. Every time weariness overwhelmed him and his head drooped in slumber, the awkwardness of his confinement, the tension on his arms and the rope about his neck stirred him back to wakefulness. As did the low grinding growls of Ro'Pita's snores so close beside him. He dozed on and off for all too brief periods, during which his mind replayed the events that had led him to this sorry state...
...They had finally reached the Gate, and Ro'Pita was dawdling over her good-byes with her father, who was fussing about her leaving. Daniel had promised to take good care of her and return her safely in one week's time as agreed. Jack had been tapping his watch impatiently, anxious for some action.
Unfortunately, he got his wish.
Just as Daniel moved to the DHD to dial home, the Gate had dialed in and everything happened in a flash. Daniel barely had time to make sure that nobody was standing in the radius of the 'kawoosh' when the marauders piled through. King Ha'Jen's personal guard had hastily surrounded him and raised their weapons, while Daniel and the rest of SG-1 had similarly formed a protective barrier around the princess. A brief exchange of weapons fire had ensued, in which the monarch and his men had been rendered unconscious by the energy weapons. Teal'c had taken out one of the attackers with his staff weapon, leaving him groaning weakly on the floor, while Jack had similarly incapacitated a second.
All would have been well if the Princess hadn't panicked, and barreled Sam to the ground – spoiling the Captain's aim at the heavy-set guy - in her determination to go to her stricken father's side. With the formation broken, one of the assailants had managed to grab Ro'Pita, and immediately put a hand over her mouth to silence her. Daniel had dashed after her, but found himself flattened by a vicious blow to his ribs that knocked the air from his lungs.
The kidnapper held the princess in front of himself: a human shield. Before Jack - who'd bent to help Carter back to her feet and make sure she was uninjured – could even try to take out any of the others, the villain pressed his weapon to Ro'Pita's neck in a clear challenge – make a move and she dies.
Teal'c was similarly distracted helping Daniel up, but even if he weren't Daniel knew Jack would have ordered him to hold his fire. They couldn't risk the princess being killed.
The bad guys dialed the Gate and made their escape – minus their injured colleagues - firing their energy weapons randomly as they went but thankfully failing to hit anyone.
Naturally, Colonel O'Neill had led his team through the event horizon in hot pursuit. Daniel had been last through, still wincing and clutching his ribs, only just making it before the Gate disconnected.
As they arrived on the new planet, the sight of the princess making a spirited bid for freedom greeted them. A struggle ensued during which she twisted from her captor's grasp, making him stumble. He snatched at her leg and she went down hard, her dainty foot twisting in his huge hand and making a sharp snapping sound. Her shriek of pain was cut short when her head struck a rock, and she was rendered unconscious.
While Jack and the others had engaged the hostiles, joined now by the guy on the horse who had obviously been awaiting their return, Daniel had rushed over to the princess. Thus Daniel had been out of range when Ratface had triggered the force field that encircled the others, effectively halting their resistance. Daniel barely had time to register their plight when Ratface lassoed him and declared that since the princess couldn't walk, Daniel's life would be spared in order to carry her...
...He'd been carrying her ever since, until the order had been given to stop and rest for the night. Rest. Ha! If only.
As Jack had predicted, the locals were pretty tight lipped when questioned, although the youth cleaning tables had let slip that there was a fortress on the far side of the Great Wood. Mention of the bastion caused a tense hush to fall on the tavern, and the colonel was unable to establish who lived there or what they might want with an alien Princess.
When pressed, the boy had asserted that there was no shortcut; the fortress could only be reached by traveling through the woodland.
'No chance of getting ahead and setting up a trap for the kidnappers,' thought Jack ruefully.
Nor would anyone give them an indication of how far away it was, or how quickly it could be reached. Daniel and the princess may already be locked inside its fortifications, or they could be days away, lost in the dense cover of the trees.
On the matter of the horses, however, they fared much better. A farrier had three fine steeds that he was willing to hire out to the newcomers. Since they had yet to find a planet that would accept US currency in payment, the team had taken to carrying odd trinkets that Daniel declared to be of no historical significance to use as barter. Thus far, they had found it worked remarkably well.
The matter of recompense for the use of the horses would be decided upon their return, depending on the time elapsed and the condition of said animals. Meantime, their owner accepted a gold signet ring as deposit.
Sam promised they would take good care of them.
In order to ensure she kept her word on that, the blacksmith, who introduced himself as Ruygan, insisted that the trio rest as his guests until morning.
In addition to feeling the urgency of their mission, Jack was convinced it was a trap - that Ruygan was in league with the kidnappers and they would be killed or captured if they stayed. Teal'c concurred, but Sam reasoned that the horses could get lost or injured in the dark, which would cost them time they were trying to save.
"Besides," she reminded them softly, "we'll be sleeping in shifts."
It was SOP when off world in potentially hostile territory to have someone remain on guard while the others rested.
"Assuming they haven't drugged the food," mumbled Jack, suddenly losing his appetite for the meal so generously provided by the innkeeper in exchange for only a simple necklace.
"Even if they had introduced a sleeping draft into the food, my symbiote should enable me to override any adverse effects," Teal'c assured the colonel.
Jack had to keep reminding himself that the Jaffa didn't sleep. He didn't even need to do his meditation thing, kel-no-dream or whatever-it-was, every night. Should his teammates be rendered senseless, the big guy was quite capable of standing watch all night.
Reluctantly, Jack agreed that they could use a nap after their exertions digging their way out of the force field, but insisted that they should get as early a start as possible. Colonel O'Neill did not take kindly to people hauling members of his team off with a rope around their necks, however loosely it hung there.
The woods at dawn
Daniel couldn't really claim to have slept at all. He didn't feel in the least rested when Valton declared at first light that it was time to break fast and head off once more.
"We all know what's at stake if we don't deliver our cargo on time," he reminded his troops.
Daniel mentally filed this piece of information away for future reference. These guys were working for somebody else – a big boss they were afraid to cross. Daniel wasn't looking forward to being delivered. Especially since it was obviously the princess they'd been contracted to procure. With hindsight, it was clear that the threat on Ro'Pita's life back on Salverit had been a bluff. On the other hand Daniel's presence was incidental, and his usefulness would expire once they arrived. He fully expected to be summarily executed at that point. Except that the others were bound to turn up and rescue them first. He was surprised they hadn't already done so, but it was just a matter of time.
The Mendans had taken turns on guard duty through the hours of darkness, but even so they had all slept better than Daniel. Though not keen to get up and resume the trek, none of them complained as they heated up more rations, and something that smelt tantalizingly akin to coffee.
Daniel would have been drooling if only his mouth wasn't so dry.
Breakfast for the captives was, predictably, a repeat of last night's supper. The only concession was that Folcan untied them first, so that they could feed themselves. At gunpoint, and with Folcan holding the end of the rope noose, Daniel slid down the tree to sit next to the princess, grateful beyond measure to get the weight off his feet for a few precious moments. He almost lost his meager repast when he was struck with a violent case of pins and needles in his arms and hands, the circulation having returned after hours of numbness. He ached all over, made worse by the fact that in stark contrast to the heat of the day, the night had been unpleasantly cold. He'd spent much of it shivering and wishing his jacket wasn't lying on the ground under the princess's injured ankle. He was chilled to the bone.
On the plus side, the morning didn't seem to hold the threat of such a hot day as the previous one. On the down side, the sky was overcast and there was already a light drizzle that could easily become a downpour.
All too soon Folcan forced Daniel to his feet, ordered him to put his jacket back on and pick up the princess, and the route march resumed.
True to his word, Jack rose even before the sun did. By the time there was sufficient light in the sky to see their way safely, the innkeeper had packed them up with fresh provisions for the journey and Ruygan had saddled the horses. They were ready and eager to be off.
Sam thanked Ruygan and the innkeeper for their help. Considering the hostility of the men who'd led them here, the folks at the inn had been extremely hospitable, if somewhat unforthcoming.
Fortunately, the village wasn't far from the Gate, and they made good time returning to the point where their quarry had entered the woods. Unfortunately, the fine rain that had begun almost as soon as they set out was already getting heavier. They all knew what that meant. Any tracks would soon get obliterated.
"Darn it. I knew we should have got right on their trail soon as we found it," grumbled the colonel, his concern for Daniel and the princess increasing by the moment.
"I believe the advantages of waiting until we had procured mounts still outweigh those of traveling through the night on foot, O'Neill." Teal'c leaned over the neck of his horse and studied the ground. "The trees may help to protect the signs of their passage for a while."
"Then let's get on it!" Jack squeezed his legs round his horse's flanks, urging it forward.