Chapter 6: Marking time
Deeper in the woods
Mid-afternoon and the pace was still brutal, the deluge relentless. Daniel ached from head to toe and his shoulders burned with the strain of carrying the princess. Despite the soggy mud that squelched underfoot and clung to his boots, every step felt to Daniel like he was treading on hot coals. His socks felt as if they were rubbing his skin raw with friction.
As Daniel shifted the Princess yet again to another position, the muscles in his back went into spasm.
"Aah! Grab my neck, Highness!" Daniel warned as he struggled to keep to his feet. Fortunately she was still in a helpful frame of mind, and instead of shrieking at him for almost dropping her, Ro'Pita did her best to distribute her weight evenly for him.
"Hurry up!" ordered Valton crossly.
Daniel staggered drunkenly for a few paces, but somehow managed to keep both the Princess and himself upright. After a moment or two the spasm ceased, leaving him with a bone deep ache across his lumbar region, but there was absolutely no chance of relief. The march resumed.
"We are grateful you did not drop us, Daniel," Ro'Pita acknowledged. "Especially as it seems you are exhausted and in considerable pain, are you not?"
"I am, Highness." Thank you for noticing at last!
"We do not understand. You are not one of our subjects and therefore are not bound by oath to our service. Why then do you continue to carry us?"
"That's easy, Highness. These guys have made it quite clear my only function is to help them get you to their boss. If I say I can't carry you any more, they'll kill me on the spot. So, arh... if it's all the same to you, Highness, I'd rather be dead tired than just plain dead."
"It would not please us if Daniel were to die," Ro'Pita declared emphatically. He noticed she was saying his name normally now.
"No, I'm sure it wouldn't. Your Highness would have to walk then." Daniel grimaced. In fact, it was more likely that Valton would throw her over his saddle for speed. He wouldn't have the patience to wait while she hobbled along on a broken ankle, maybe falling over every few paces, or sitting down and refusing to budge. In fact - now he thought about it - that was probably Valton's original plan, to have her ride up with him, since Daniel's involvement had been incidental. Even uninjured, she would be easier to control that way.
"We will overlook your rudeness, this time, since we can see you are suffering. But we are actually not as selfish as Daniel accuses. Were it not for our injured ankle, we would offer to walk a little to spare you the burden of constantly carrying us."
Hitherto, she had acted as if he should feel privileged to be carrying her. Daniel looked at her in surprise and was amazed to see sincerity in her eyes. Maybe she was starting to learn a little.
"My apologies, Highness. I spoke out of frustration and pain. I truly appreciate the sentiment behind your generous offer, even if it isn't possible to take advantage of it."
"Perhaps it is just as well," the princess conceded. "If we were able to walk for ourselves, these ruffians would no doubt dispense with Daniel. That would make us sad."
"I wouldn't be too happy about it myself!"
Elsewhere in the woods
It had been hours since SG-1 – minus one - had come upon the fallen log where Daniel had hastily managed to carve his initials using the edge of a cent, which he'd dropped as he'd been pulled roughly to his feet. Teal'c theorized that this had been where their prey stopped for a quick lunch. For evidence he cited odd fragments of a waxy paper, which from the smell had presumably been used as a food wrapping.
Though the trail held further such subtle clues, still they were no nearer to finding the hostages or their kidnappers.
"You were right about the length of the day, Carter," Jack looked at his watch, which was set to Earth time. "It should be well and truly dark by now, but there's no more sign of night than there is of this damned rain letting up."
They dismounted again to rest the horses for a few moments while Teal'c studied the vanishing trail.
For the most part, their quarry seemed to be following a narrow pathway through the woods. It was obviously a route that had been carved out by frequent passage, rather than deliberate construction, but it was a recognizable – if somewhat waterlogged - track nonetheless. However, from time to time the group veered off the beaten path and disappeared further into the dense forest. Teal'c didn't think it was a deliberate attempt to hide their passing. They seemed confident that they wouldn't be followed judging by the carelessness with which they broke camp.
"They're probably just trying to get a bit of shelter from this torrential rain," commented Sam.
Leading their mounts, they picked their way through the trees, Teal'c out front as he studied the ground and the foliage for signs of recent activity. Before long, the clues let them back out onto the main path.
"The leader does not dismount, so they can make better time out in the open," Teal'c declared.
"We need to make better time too," Jack insisted, climbing back into the saddle.
It was taking far too long to hunt these guys down. There were seven of them, plus their two prisoners, and all but one were on foot. Daniel was still carrying the princess, a fact confirmed at intervals by Teal'c when he found a deep imprint of SGC issue boot. They should be moving far slower than their pursuers. Jack didn't understand why they hadn't yet sighted the group.
"They must be marching at a heck of a pace," Jack observed. "I don't know how much longer this day's gonna last, but surely they can't keep going at this rate indefinitely?"
"Daniel Jackson most certainly cannot," Teal'c confirmed. "See here," he leaned down over the neck of his horse and pointed. "The footprints are haphazard, as if he stumbled."
Sam gasped. "Do you think he's okay?"
"There are no indications that he fell, Captain Carter," the Jaffa reassured her.
They urged their weary steeds onwards.