Chapter 7: Closing In
Daniel had completely given up trying to keep track of time. This planet's 'day' felt as if it had lasted a week by the time Valton finally called a halt. Daniel was pretty sure it hadn't actually been that long, but it had definitely been way more than twenty-four Earth hours since they'd last stopped to 'rest' for the night.
Daniel couldn't bear the prospect of a repeat tomorrow. For the past hour or so, he'd been more or less asleep on his feet, trudging along on 'automatic pilot' without conscious thought beyond not falling over. His rain-soaked face felt chilled, but the rest of him was sweltering. He barely had the energy to eat his biscuits. He felt awful.
As with the previous night, Daniel was tied to the biggest tree in an upright position, having bound the princess first as lightly as he dare. This tree was not quite as wide in girth as the last one, but just as uncomfortable for all that. He was even more exhausted than before but sleep was every bit as elusive.
Being drenched to the bone, the nighttime drop in temperature was felt all the more keenly, though to her credit Ro'Pita had refused to let Daniel surrender his jacket to cushion her foot. Instead, she managed to wriggle out of one of her petticoats and had him bunch that up. The patch of moss she was sitting on, being sheltered under the trees, was considerably better than the muddy puddle they'd been expecting, but still damp enough to be far from comfortable. Daniel was surprised she wasn't complaining vociferously. In fact she was remarkably quiet and pensive.
An hour or so after the rain finally stopped, Daniel was roused by something touching him and a hissing noise. It turned out to be the princess whispering urgently as she nudged his leg with her elbow.
"Wha-?" Awareness returned suddenly and painfully.
"We heard you choking, Daniel," Ro'Pita explained.
Daniel could feel the noose had tightened around his neck. He must have dozed off and drooped down. His arms felt as if they were about to be ripped out of their sockets.
Fighting for breath, he forced himself to stand straighter against the trunk.
"Thank you, Highness," he croaked hoarsely. Had she not woken him...
Daniel blinked hard, not wanting to think about what had nearly happened.
"We have been contemplating at length about what you said to us. We are trying to think of others as well as ourselves. We have decided that we do still like Daniel after all and we do not want you to be hung. Besides, we are scared and lonely."
Daniel's mouth twisted between a grimace and a smile. She'd been doing so well until that last bit. Still, old habits die hard and all that. She'd come a long way and he had to give her credit for that. She had just saved his life, which was pretty amazing whatever her motivation.
The rope pressed against Daniel's Adam's apple and rubbed against his neck. He had to strain to stand as upright as possible to reduce the tension on the noose and on his arms. He winced as pains shot through the length of his body and down his legs.
"We know you are extremely tired, Daniel, but we shall talk to you to keep you awake. We fear that if you sleep you will die. We understand that it would cause you pain to answer us and will not take it as insolence."
Talking was just about possible but only in a wheezing whisper and with a great deal of discomfort. Both breathing and swallowing were difficult. Nodding was a no-no too. Even though the watery moon had risen, it was too dark for him to communicate effectively with blinks. He flexed his knee to show his acknowledgement of her offer.
Ro'Pita had what she liked best, a captive audience to whom she could talk at length, usually about herself. This time was different, however. Her monologue did not consist entirely of what she wanted, and how honored her listeners should be to provide it for her. Instead, she told Daniel how she had grown to respect him, even before the current disastrous turn of events, and how she had learned so much from him.
Her speech was peppered with yawns, and odd little whimpers as the discomfort of her confinement and her injuries caused her distress. For the most part, though, her concern was that Daniel kept moving his knee periodically to reassure her he was still awake and still breathing.
Daniel ached in every muscle. Even his eyelids hurt with the strain of staying open. He felt as if he had a really bad case of flu. Yet he concentrated on the sound of Ro'Pita's voice, and forced his leg to respond at intervals. Once or twice the exhaustion became so overwhelming, as did the dread of going through it all again come daylight, that he was tempted to give in and let the noose take his suffering away. Such morbid thoughts were fleeting. The princess' words reminded him that – subject or not – he had a responsibility to protect her. Besides, the rest of the team would be rescuing them any time now.
Jack acknowledged Carter's concerns about pushing the horses too hard. He was pretty saddle-sore himself and would have appreciated a couple of hours' shuteye without the constant movement of equine muscles beneath him.
But at dusk Teal'c had postulated that they were catching up and were now not far behind their quarry. A few more hours and they should be within weapons range.
Jack wasn't about to let them maintain that lead. He felt the reproach of every staggering footprint they found. He was determined to liberate Daniel and the princess as quickly as possible.
He ordered the others to keep going.
At long last, they saw the light of the Mendan campfire in the distance.
Sam was left to tie up the horses, so as not to alert the enemy with the sound of snorting, while Teal'c and Jack scouted ahead. They peered around the cover of a large tree, using their night-vision goggles to determine which of the bad guys were awake, and where they were in relation to the captives.
Jack honed in on the tree to which Daniel and Ro'Pita were bound. He adjusted the focus, wanting to be sure he didn't see what he was afraid he saw. His body tensed. He tapped Teal'c's shoulder and pointed.
"Those sonsofbitches have murdered Daniel," he growled lowly, cursing himself for having taken too long to get here. "They've hung him from that tree!"
Fearing that the colonel was about to charge in on a murderous rampage of revenge, Teal'c put a restraining hand on Jack's shoulder while he sought to test the assertion.
"Daniel Jackson lives," he declared softly after a moment. "He is moving his left knee."
Jack shucked off Teal'c's grip and looked again. He saw no such movement. "Ya sure?"
"Indeed. We must proceed with caution to ensure Daniel Jackson's survival is not compromised."
At that moment Captain Carter caught up with them, surprising Jack with her silent arrival.
"Good, Carter, you're here. Right, this is what we're gonna do..." decided Colonel O'Neill, gesturing to them to follow his example and shuck off their now redundant wet weather gear. They were going to need the added maneuverability.
Daniel's eyes were playing tricks on him. Dehydration, pain and weariness were making him hallucinate. He thought he caught a movement in the woods. It was probably just an animal of some sort. There had to be some local fauna; though he'd not been aware of any during their trek. Not that he'd been thinking about it, he'd had more pressing concerns. What made him doubt his sight and his sanity was that for a moment, a very brief moment, he'd thought he'd seen a glimmer of blond hair reflected in the pale moonlight. Specifically: Captain Samantha Carter's blond hair.
Could it really be his friend Sam? Could Jack and Teal'c be with her? Could his nightmare really be almost over? Problem was, he'd fancied he'd seen signs of them so many times during the endless hours of his ordeal that he didn't dare hope that this time it was for real. Wishful thinking only led to disappointment.
Daniel strained his eyes scanning around for another sighting. He tried not to be despondent that he saw nothing. If they were out there sneaking up on the bad guys, then the whole point was not to be seen. They were skilled at their craft. Jack may not want to signal their presence to Daniel, lest he inadvertently give them away with his reaction.
While Daniel was still trying to decide whether or not he'd been imagining the glimpse of Sam's hair, the slumbering campsite suddenly came alive with the sound of zat-guns.
Folcan, who'd been on guard duty, was zatted into unconsciousness, instantly followed by the two Mendans nearest to him. The noise woke the remaining marauders, but three were out before they'd had time to sit up. That only left Valton. He'd leapt to his feet and was heading toward the princess, a large dagger in his hand. He made it about halfway before he too was rendered senseless by a well-aimed zat.
Despite the painful restriction of the noose, Daniel almost cheered aloud. He managed a broad grin in appreciation of SG-1's masterful attack. The Mendans truly hadn't known what hit them. It was almost too easy.
Then he heard movement behind him. The need for stealth was past, replaced by the need for speed.
"Hold still, Daniel, we're gonna get you loose," Sam's voice sounded reassuringly in his ear.
Soon, Daniel and the princess had been divested of the ropes, which Teal'c was putting to good use to bind the kidnappers together back to back in a huddle.
Daniel instinctively moved to lift Ro'Pita up but pitched forwards with a rasping wheeze. He would have fallen over had Jack not caught him and put a supporting shoulder under his arm.