"Lords and lady." The voice of a young boy brought Jack back and he realized he had almost fallen asleep in the grass. He glanced at Sam when he sat up but neither she nor Teal'c made a sign of having noticed his laps in attention.
"It is time for the celebration," the boy continued, motioning for them to come with him. He led them through the palace and out towards the temple. At the foot of the stairs he stopped for a moment to make a reverent gesture, before leading them up to the landing. The fires had burned down to smoldering ash piles that radiated their heat several feet away. At the centre of the landing a baldachin offered its shadow to four wooden armchairs facing the top of the pyramid. The boy bowed and left them; hurrying down the steep stairs at a neck-break speed that lived up to his title as runner-boy.
The view from the landing was breathtaking. Right beneath the temple was the plaza where just as Jack had suspected, the entire population of the city was assembled to partake in the celebration.
"There must be tens of thousands of people down there," he heard Sam say under her breath. He nodded and lifted his gaze to take in the rest of the panorama before him. They were higher up than he had thought. The city itself was built on a hill and the temple sat at the apex of it. The vantage point gave an almost birds-eye view of the city, confirming Jack's suspicion of its maze layout. Beyond the city walls the forest stretched out like a thick green carpet. A barely noticeable gap in the foliage marked the spot where Jack knew the Stargate stood, a good three hours walk from the city. The thought of it gave him a strange feeling that in lack of a better word he would have to refer to as homesickness. For a moment he could barely suppress the urge to grab his team and head for the hills – or rather off the hill.
"Are you okay, sir?" Sam lightly touched his shoulder and he realized he had spaced out. He shrugged and turned away from the view.
"Just got an uneasy feeling. It's probably nothing, but I hope Daniel shows up soon."
At that moment there was a commotion on the plaza. The crowd shifted with a wave of anticipation as a procession appeared from the palace. The queen walked first. She wore an even more extravagant feather headdress than when she had greeted them at the city gates. Daniel walked a step behind, flanked by four Otomi soldiers. Even from their high place on the pyramid Jack could see he wasn't wearing his uniform but some kind of garishly colored cloak. The procession ended with a large group of young men dressed in nothing but loincloths to cover their sunburned skin.
The procession made its way to the foot of the temple and started up the stairs. When they passed by the baldachin Daniel smiled widely and waved to his teammates. Jack caught a glimpse of a black T-shirt and green BDU-pants under the cloak, but to his annoyance Daniel wasn't wearing any shoes. Of course, none of the locals wore shoes – not even the queen – but Jack had told Daniel repeatedly that there were limits to how far he should go to blend in. Daniel's 'anthropologic methods' had almost lost them Sam on that planet with the Mongolians.
Jack, Sam and Teal'c took their seats while the procession continued their climb to the top of the pyramid. Half way up to it Jack could see the shrine clearer than he had from the ground. From this angel he could see that the dark opening in the arch was in fact barred with a metal gate, and on the landing in front of it he could make out a six feet high wooden pole. I wonder why I didn't notice those things before. The feeling he'd gotten when taking in the view returned and his fingers subconsciously wandered to his weapon. The familiarity of the stock in his hand calmed him a little.
Upon reaching the shrine the young men stepped inside and the gate was locked behind them. Jack thought he could almost see the crease between Daniel's eyes and could imagine his thoughts. The proceedings were at least making Jack feel more and more uneasy. He cast a glance in Sam's direction and noticed her hands had also found their way to ready position on her gun. On her other side Jack could detect the barely noticeable tension in Teal'c's grip on his staff weapon that said he was also on edge and watchful.
The queen's voice brought Jack's attention back to the top of the temple. She was standing on the edge facing her people and speaking in a loud voice that carried surprisingly well through the clear air.
"People of Mixcoatco! Mixcoatl has honored us with a visit. Today we celebrate and honor Daniel Jackson of Earth."
The crowd exploded in cheers and even from his seat Jack could see that Daniel was blushing. He smirked. I bet you've realized they think you're some kind of king by now.
Suddenly the Otomi grabbed Daniel and dragged him towards the wooden pole. A rope was tied around his hands and hoisted him up until his feet lost contact with the ground. A row of archers appeared from behind the shrine and with a sinking feeling in his stomach Jack made the horrifying connections.
Unhooking the safety on his weapon he stormed up the stairs, contently noting that Sam and Teal'c were right on his heels. He still had a few steps left when the archers put their arrows to the bows and the queen lifted her hand to give the signal. With a last push he threw himself onto the landing, diving towards the archers in the same moment as they let the arrows fly.
His football tackle toppled the entire row over like a set of dominoes, sending the arrows every which way. Getting to his feet Jack leveled his gun on the downed archers.
"Stay down," he hissed between his teeth before swinging round to check on their intended victim.
Sam was already at Daniel's side – attempting to stem the bleeding from a wound in his side. Damn it! Jack knew he should be glad only one of the arrows had found its target but to him it was one too many.
While Sam steadied the already weakening archaeologist Teal'c cut the rope holding him up. Then, with a gentleness that spoke of his affection for the young man, he picked Daniel up in his arms and gave Jack a sign that he was ready to go. Without a word the team had agreed their visit to this planet had abruptly come to its end.
Jack looked down to the plaza and felt panic claw its way to his heart. There was no way they'd get out that way. Sensing a movement in the corner of his eye he spun around and caught one of the Otomi soldiers under the chin with the butt of his gun. He fired his weapon into the air and locked his eyes on the queen.
"Keep your soldiers back, or I start shooting at people."
The queen made an acquiescing gesture and the remaining Otomi backed away.
"Now – is there a back exit to this place?"
She nodded and pointed mutely in the direction the archers had appeared from. Jack waved for Sam to take point and waited for her and Teal'c to disappear behind the corner before he hurried after them. He was more than convinced the queen would be sending her soldiers after them as soon as the immediate danger was over. As far too often, their escape depended on speed.
The back of the temple was pretty much the same as the front, except that the steep staircase led down to a narrow alley instead of a vast open plaza. At least its empty, Jack thought as he navigated the descent at as high a pace as he dared. The others were still a distance ahead of him and he was satisfied to see Teal'c barely slowed by his burden. Taking the last steps in a jump Jack ordered his team to take a right. As they rushed between the stone walls he went through his mental map of the city. I guess this is why they built it like a labyrinth. So their sacrifice victims won't be able to get away. The thought filled him with bitterness. I knew smooth was going to bite us in the ass.
"We have to get around the plaza!" he yelled to Sam up ahead and got a hand signal that she had understood.
As soon as possible they turned right again but the new road led to a dead end and forced them to backtrack. There was no sound of pursuers yet, but Jack kept a watchful eye behind them as they tried another path.
After several dead ends and paths that took them nowhere nearer the city gates Jack was becoming irritated. They had sighted the Otomi looking for them a couple of times, but had so far avoided detection. That would not last indefinitely. They were on the enemies' home turf; their only chance was to get out of the city. In the forest they would be on better footing – not to mention reaching the Stargate and getting off the planet entirely. Jack made the decision.
"Wait up," he called and pressed himself to catch up with Teal'c. "Is he awake?"
"He is," Daniel answered from his perch in the Jaffa's arms. He sounded a bit annoyed and in his next breath Jack was informed of the reason. "And I can walk on my own. Tell him, Jack."
"Save your strength, Danny. I need your brain trust. Do you know the way out of this city? Maybe some 'PhD in archaeology'-knowledge of Aztec street-labyrinths?"
Daniel shook his head. "No. This isn't a typical Aztec city plan. There seems to be several differences between this people and the Aztec of Earth. If it was intentionally built to misguide there must be some way to navigate it though. The people who live here seem to have no problems getting around. There has to be some kind of system…" He silenced but Jack could see the wheels beginning to turn in his genius friend's head.
"Alright! You keep figuring that system out and let us know when you've got it. Meanwhile we've got to keep moving."
Daniel paid close attention to the twists and turns as they continued, and suddenly he gave a loud shout.
"That's it! Jack! I've got it."
Jack rushed to Teal'c's side.
"Can you get us to the city gates?"
"I think so. We're nearly at the base of the hill, I think. The city wall shouldn't be much further that way," he pointed the way they had been going, "but we shouldn't head that way. If I'm right it will be impossible to follow it to the gates."
"But you know how to get us there?"
"Yeah, sure. We need to head back and take a right."
"A right? Won't that take us back behind the temple? That's the opposite direction, Daniel."
"I know. That's the system. A fugitive would look for the shortest way to the gates, but the quickest way goes in the direction perpendicular to the place you want to go. Plus," He smiled a little smugly, "there are well hidden street markings that say that is the way to the city gates." Jack didn't know if he should be happy or angry.
"If you weren't wounded I would smack you over the head," he said but led the way in the direction Daniel had indicated.
Their counter-intuitive path led them in meandering twists but finally they could make out the city gates at the end of their current street. Jack signed for the others to take up cover and slowly approached the open space in front of their exit. As expected a troupe of soldiers were posted with view of all approach paths and the gates were barred with heavy log bars. He withdrew to his waiting team.
"It's pretty thick. The gate's locked and there's a bunch of soldiers guarding it. We could shoot our way out, I guess…"
"No, Jack!" Daniel interrupted. "We can't just kill them. There has to be another way out."
"I was going to say 'but I prefer not to'," Jack responded pointedly. "I'm gonna see if there's a way up to the rooftops and get an overview of the area."
Jack left the hideout again and checked out the nearby buildings. Finally he found one with a staircase leading to a roof terrace about five houses down from the gates. It was on the right side; the house's back wall came right up against the city wall. There was still a half-dozen feet to the top of the wall, though. He searched the terrace and wished they hadn't left their packs in their chambers. In his he always kept a length of climbing rope for situations just like this. His eyes fell on the sunscreen stretched over one half of the roof and he smiled.
He hurried back to fetch the others and filled them in on his plan. Back up on the roof Teal'c put Daniel down and helped Jack dismantle the sunscreen. Sam took the time to redress Daniel's wound. It was still bleeding a little but it looked better than it had at first. Once they got over the wall he might be able to continue on his own to the Stargate.
While Sam tended her patient the men had refashioned the sunscreen into a long rope and devised a grappling hook out of a couple of metal tools. Jack was sure Daniel would be able to tell him later what the strange curved knives were actually for – and chastise me for ruining the brand new archaeological finds.
Teal'c got the grappling hook caught on the edge of the wall on the first attempt, but Jack insisted to be the first to try climbing it. He scaled the wall without difficulty; its rough surface provided plenty of footholds. At the top he settled himself with one leg on each side of the surprisingly thin wall, and signaled the others to follow. Sam helped Daniel to the rope. Jack could see him grit his teeth as he began climbing. Must hurt like hell to do that with a wound in his side. Not that Daniel would ever complain. He would keep going until he literally dropped dead if necessary.
Having gotten their wounded team member up safely Sam and Teal'c followed. Once they were all perched astride the wall they pulled up the rope and moved the grappling hook to the inside of the wall, hoping that the rope would be long enough to get them down safely on the outside. There was no going back now. They slid down in the same order they'd climbed; luckily only dropping the last three feet onto the soft ground.
Just as Teal'c lowered himself below the edge he heard a shout. They had been spotted. When he landed they could hear the commotion of the logs being lifted from the gates and officers barking orders. Without looking back the team hurried into the forest.