Chapter 5: Lunch break
Deep in the woods
By mid-morning the rain was torrential and the seven Mendans were as soaked through as their two captives. The pace had slowed somewhat as their boots squelched in mud, making them feel as if they were wading through treacle. Valton continually berated them all for their tardiness, though he too was being more cautious as his horse struggled with the worsening conditions.
As before, Daniel was periodically permitted to adjust the position in which he carried the princess, but one way or another he was carrying her the whole time. As her thick winter clothing absorbed the deluge, she got heavier and heavier with each passing hour. So too did the rope around Daniel's neck.
Despite the absence of the blistering sun, Daniel was still sweating from the exertion. He had a tense; nagging headache that he was sure was due in part to dehydration.
From time to time he licked his lips, drinking greedily from the rainwater that dripped off his sodden hair and ran down his cheeks. It was slightly salty where it was mingled with his perspiration, but welcome nonetheless to slake his thirst a little. He encouraged the princess to do likewise.
Daniel's spirits were dampened even more than his clothes. He too knew that the weather would make it harder for Teal'c to track him. No matter how deep the footprints he made, they would likely be washed away before his friends caught up. He could only hope that they weren't too far behind, and do his best to leave clues in broken foliage and threads caught on rough bark wherever possible.
At first Ro'Pita complained vociferously as she'd done the previous day. She was wet, she was uncomfortable, her ankle hurt, her hair was a mess, her petticoats were torn etc etc etc. Daniel had found himself having to placate Folcan several times to keep him from striking her, or getting prodded or slapped himself for his trouble. As the day went on, Daniel's patience wore thin and he was defending her less and less. He knew she couldn't help having been raised to get her own way in everything, but surely even she could see by now that her expectations of privilege and pampering were not going to be met by these goons no matter how much she commanded them.
Finally, his tolerance was exhausted much like the rest of him, and when she whined that she was starving to death and demanded to be fed, he snapped.
"Sheesh you're the most self-centered person I've ever met! Reality check, Princess. These guys don't give a damn about your demands, your wants or your needs. You're nothing more than 'cargo' to them. So do us both a favor and knock off the bleating before Folcan here hits me so hard I drop you, okay?"
Ro'Pita squealed in indignation.
"We had thought you were different, Daniel," again she spat his name as if it were an insult, punching his arm in annoyance. "But you are just as mean and insensitive as these ruffians. We don't like you anymore and we want to go home!"
That makes three of us! Daniel thought wryly. She should try trading places with him – she wouldn't last five minutes.
"This isn't exactly a picnic for me you know, Princess, but you don't hear me complaining every five minutes. I know better than to waste my breath. You haven't the first idea what hardship is!"
"Silence! We will not tolerate such insolence. Do not address us again until you can be nice to us."
They trudged on in silence for a while, broken only by the occasional sob from a quietly weeping princess. If she was trying to make Daniel feel guilty for his outburst, she was succeeding. He had been rather harsh. She really couldn't help it. She'd never known anything but being treated as someone special and superior and was now way out of her comfort zone - as was he.
"Forgive me, Highness, for my insensitivity. I didn't sleep well and I get cranky when I'm tired."
Ro'Pita didn't respond, but she sniffed and stopped crying. She didn't speak again until they stopped for a brief lunch break many hours later. It seemed that, as on Salverit, a 'day' on this planet was much longer than twenty-four Earth hours.
The Mendans found what shelter they could from the incessant rain. There were no campfires this time, only hastily eaten cold rations.
Daniel was instructed to sit the princess on a fallen log and position himself behind her so that their backs provided some mutual support. Though this meant they were out in the open and still getting drenched, he was inordinately grateful to relinquish his burden for a while and get the weight off his weary feet. He rubbed his aching shoulders and neck, wishing he could shuck off the rope, even for a minute. It felt like a heavy yoke around his neck and was rubbing the flesh raw under his shaggy hair.
Folcan gave them both more dry biscuits and water, eating his own meal under cover of a tree at a slight distance but keeping them under armed guard. Not that Daniel had the energy to make a break for it – with or without the princess. Daniel was really glad that Ro'Pita didn't demand he give her his share. He'd have felt compelled to let her have it, but he was so darned hungry he'd have been less than gracious about it. Especially since he was the one doing all the work!
Daniel made sure that not a single crumb escaped his ravenous lips; afraid that even the little they were being fed might be withdrawn on a whim. He decided that he wouldn't be so quick to disparage MREs in future. At least they were reasonably sustaining. His stomach growled in disappointment at the inadequacy of his offering.
Ro'Pita's stomach gave an answering rumble.
Daniel twisted around to look at her, groaning softly at the strain on his back.
She had twisted too to look at him. She was smiling as their intestines gurgled again in perfect harmony.
Daniel smiled back. "You should smile more often, Highness," he told her. "It makes you look prettier."
She ducked her head and lowered her eyes shyly, tucking a stray lock of sopping wet blond hair behind her ear.
"We like your smile too," she told him softly, blushing.
Daniel was fidgeting with his hands. He felt himself color as well. He told himself it was the perspiration, but the way she was looking at him made him uncomfortable. He was technically old enough to be her father, but he was starting to think Jack's accusation had some foundation. The girl probably did have a slight crush on him. Oh, man, this could get awkward. He changed the subject.
"Does that mean I'm forgiven, Highness?"
Ro'Pita tilted her head to one side as she pretended to consider her answer. After a few moments' silence she declared, "We accept your apology."
Daniel figured that on past form, he was lucky to get that much of a concession.
"Thank you, Highness."
Valton strode over and nudged his brother to his feet. Then he turned to the prisoners, grabbing Daniel's rope.
"We don't have time for you two to indulge in cozy chats. On your feet, we're way behind schedule." He gave the rope a tug.
"Argh!" Daniel felt the pull on his sore neck and had to scramble to his feet to avoid being yanked to the ground. As he rose the muscles in his lower back twinged, protesting the awkward movement. "Oww, okay, I'm up." Daniel put a hand to his back, grimacing.
Ro'Pita watched as Daniel moved stiffly around to a position from which he could lift her up. He was frowning in discomfort. Instead of her usual indifference, she raised her arms and did what she could to make it easier for him.
Daniel smiled his gratitude. Perhaps his previous harsh words had struck a chord after all.
On the trail
"I believe this is where they rested for the night, O'Neill," Teal'c declared. He had dismounted and was examining the saturated remains of the campfire, which the Mendans had made no attempt to hide.
"So we're still more than a half-day behind them," Jack deduced. "We need to shorten their lead before nightfall."
"Seems like the days are longer here, sir," Sam pointed out, looking up for confirmation from a sign of the sun's passage across the sky, but finding only dark water-laden clouds in every direction. "I want to catch up with them and get Daniel back as much as anyone, but I think we should take a few minutes to rest the horses. We've been pushing them pretty hard."
Jack's chestnut mare tossed her head up and down as if in agreement.
"Fine, we'll take ten," Jack conceded, getting off his horse.
Valton would have approved of his commitment.
They didn't bother trying to light a fire, there wasn't a dry stick to be found anywhere and they were in too much of a hurry. Since they had their packs with them, they were better equipped than Daniel to cope with the inclement weather, and had all donned waterproof ponchos and headgear. Even so, the damp was seeping into places they would just as soon remain dry.
While Sam rustled up some instant rations, Teal'c fed all three horses with oats from his saddlebag, which Ruygan had carefully filled with provisions for his livestock.
Jack wandered around impatiently as he chewed on an energy bar. He found himself examining the area around a large-trunked tree.
"Carter, take a look at this!"
Sam hurried over and took some fibers from the colonel.
"There's more here, look." Jack reached up and picked a few threads from a branch.
"Hemp, from a rope," pronounced the captain looking miserable. "Looks like Daniel and Ro'Pita were tied to this tree overnight."
"While we were snug and cozy in our soft warm beds at the inn," Jack threw the strands of rope down in disgust, scowling. He marched back over to his horse and stroked her neck; trying to calm the rage he felt building up inside him.
Teal'c and Sam both recognized the body language. The bad guys had better watch out when Colonel O'Neill caught up with them. Jack might just as well have declared aloud, "This means war!"
Instead he said sharply, "We're done here. Mount up."