STRANGE DOINGS - by NotTasha
PART 3: STRANGE LUCK
The people of the planet Waleska had lived long without an appearance of the Wraith, and they had prospered in those years, spreading out their villages. Times were good and they lived in plenty.
As their people multiplied, they grew almost lazy with their good fortune, expecting only sunny days ahead.
Then an illness had run through the towns, weakening many, killing some. It was a wretched time of suffering from which they were only beginning to emerge. And then came the Wraith, screeching out of the sky, scooping up many that the illness had spared. The culling was horrible. Entire towns were obliterated -- others were half emptied.
Ghosts wandered everywhere.
Then the heavy freeze came while the inhabitants were still reeling. There had not been enough people to go into the fields to salvage the crops. The cold weather crept in, spreading its deadly fingers, ruining everything.
Where their lives had once been sweet and good – now only bleakness and poverty remained. How could their fortune turn sour so quickly? Something must have happened to change things so completely. It was so strange. Something must have been at fault. Someone would be blamed.
One town had escaped the worst of the horror – one town came through the illness unscathed, had lost no souls to the Wraith. Only one town had enough people to harvest their fields, had enough stores of grain to see them through the horrible freeze. Only Latham avoided the pains.
Obviously, the people of that town had done something – something strange – something abnormal. Strange luck.
Townspeople came from other villages to Latham on the pretense that they were asking questions, trying to figure out how one hamlet remained lucky while the others suffered. Waleskans, smarting from their grief, desperate with their hunger, descended on the town.
But there was little food to be had. How did the people of Latham hide so much? The ominous expressions of their countrymen grew darker. They asked questions. They demanded answers.
"How did we manage this?" Kennesaw had cried out after their interrogation. "We are simple people, just as you! We did not guide the Wraith. We did not create the sickness. We did not bring the cold! How could we? We're the same as you! It would take some horrible magic to do all this."
She didn't realize the reaction her words would bring, but as soon as she had spoken, their fate was sealed.
"Witches!" someone shouted, and out of the crowd, a rumble, as terrible as storm, as menacing as lightning, as thick as thunder. "Witches!" the cry repeated. "They harbor witches!"
The day grew darker. The cold, sharper.
The people of Latham were dragged to the center of town. The Waleskans, their countrymen, searched each person – looking for a sign, any flaw on the bodies of the townspeople that might prove their pact with evil. Those that were 'clean' were released, shoved into the wood, forced away. Anyone with a 'mark' – a mole, a birthmark, a deformity, a mere wart – were shoved into their homes, the doors barred, and the places were set ablaze.
Latham was a small town, little more than a collection of homes and little shops. Their surviving population had no chance against the mob. Anyone who tried to help was beaten back. Those that survived needed to protect their fellow survivors.
So, the Lathams ran into the night, families finding families, friends linking up with friends, disappearing, trying to find a little hideout as their own mothers and brothers, sisters and children were consumed in the flame.
Somehow Kennesaw and her family had escaped the conflagration. They held some respect among the people of Waleska. Kennesaw had managed to hide the 'blot' that would have spelled her doom, and had hidden the blemished granddaughter. They'd escaped to build what little comfort they could, hidden in the woods. They would wait it out, wait until the weather broke, until the gentle autumn returned as it should. Then they could rebuild, start anew.
But the bad weather held, and they knew that the other Waleskans would return to find them, to rout the evil out, and the marks would be discovered.
The family was desperate, so when the sons of Kennesaw saw strangers in their burnt out town, when the boys heard the title "doctor" bandied about, they sent word back to the matriarch. They'd heard of 'doctors', the men of science that came from other worlds. Such men would not be swayed by cries of 'witch'.
The family of Kennesaw did what they thought was necessary to remove the 'flaws', to ensure that they didn't meet the same fate as their brethren. They meant no harm to the visitors, only wanting to borrow the skills of the doctors and release them. They only meant to save themselves.
This is how the story was related to people from Atlantis. Kennesaw told the tale as Beckett performed the simple procedure on her finger, burning off the wart that might have spelled her doom. She spoke as he worked under the strange lights of the visitors. And when his work was done, she held the finger tightly in her other hand and watched Beckett examine the large birthmark on her granddaughter's arm.
"It's a port wine stain birthmark. It'll be a little tricky to remove. I'll need surgery," Beckett said dolefully, not liking the idea of doing unnecessary work on the child. The birthmark was deep. "And it'll leave a scar most likely."
"Can the scar be hidden?" Kennesaw asked. When Beckett looked dubious, she asked, "Can the scar be hidden better than the mark?"
"Why didn't you just use the Gate to leave?" Beckett asked instead. "You all could have just gone elsewhere, found someplace new."
Kennesaw said nothing, looking at the whitened patch on her finger where her 'mark of the witch' had once been. "It is easy to ask that question," she responded softly.
"They probably don't know any addresses," Ronon explained, nodding to the woman. "If you haven't been anywhere, how are you supposed to know what to do?"
He lifted his head and asked, "Someone did dial it when you were off playing Wraith, leading our people away."
"And even so," Kennesaw stated. "To leave is so strange. I have lived here all my life. My parents lived here, and their parents too. Their ghosts walk these forests. The ghosts of those who burned walk, too. These are my people. How could I leave Waleska?" She sighed, rubbing the spot. "The people of Waleska are our people. How could they do this to us?"
"They were afraid," Teyla tried to console.
"Needed someone to blame," Ronon added.
McKay snorted from where he sat, keeping his skinned knee elevated. "Superstition," he muttered. "People getting killed for nothing. Pure ignorance."
But Kennesaw looked beyond them, out toward the darkness and the frost that surrounded them. "Yes, ignorance. They killed men and women who had never done them any harm. They killed children, mere babes." And her voice caught for a moment. She ran one hand along her dress, smoothing away the creases.
"We'll find you a new home," Beckett insisted. "Away from them."
She winced at this thought, "I don't want to be away from my home, my people, my ghosts."
"Wait a minute," McKay cut in. "After what they did to you and your towns people?" He jerked his head in the direction of Latham. "You deserve better that that, you know?"
Kennesaw looked uncertain.
Beckett went on, "If you leave, we won't even need to do a procedure on your granddaughter. I mean, the birthmark really isn't much of anythin', is it? So there's no sense in takin' it off if you don't need to."
Kennesaw pulled at her long sleeves, bringing them down to cover her hands. "It would be best for her future if it is done."
"Hey," McKay groused. "You know, I don't care if you go or if you stay, but I'm done. Are we getting out of here any time soon? It's damn cold here." He crossed his arms over his chest and clenched them tightly to himself. "I'm just sayin', we can have this conversation back home where it's… warm? I mean, you all can come, right?"
Sheppard, leaning against a tree, commented, "Sure, we can get moving any time you feel up to it. Gonna be a hike… on that horribly mutilated leg of yours."
McKay grimaced, glaring at the lump beneath his pant leg where Beckett had applied a bandage. "Sure you can't get a jumper in here? We passed some fields. Bet you could bring it down into one of them."
Sheppard shrugged, "Yeah," he said, "But it'll take us a good hour to get back to the Gate, then I'll have to explain to Elizabeth why we need a jumper. I mean, skinned-knee-rescue probably isn't on the top of her list of emergency uses. Probably would take us a couple hours before we could get back here to pick you up, and by then you'd probably be frozen solid."
Ronon grinned like a lion as Sheppard spoke, and Teyla shook her head. Beckett just watched, smiling slightly.
"Fine," McKay shot back. "Wouldn't want to put you out or anything. Let's get moving."
Sheppard went on, "We'll come back for the kid tomorrow if you want. We should probably check on Lorne and Acworth, and the fellas I left to watch them. See if our guys have gotten beyond the glassy-eyed stare phase yet."
"Aye," Beckett replied. "They should be comin' around by now. Poor lads."
The colonel's jovial expression fell a bit as he continued, "Going to have a bit of a talk with Lorne about this. He shouldn't have let those villagers get so close." He glanced to Kennesaw. "Brave men," he commented. "They might have been killed if they hadn't been so 'lucky'."
She raised her chin a fraction. "They're my boys," she stated.
Sheppard went on, "How did they ended up with those stunners?"
"They cost us nearly all our stores," Kennesaw returned. "A trader came, only days ago. How he managed to get his hands on such weapons, I do not know. He wanted food stuffs." Her eyes took on a distant look as she said, "We might not have traded our grain if all was normal, but we had suffered through strange doings and needed to protect ourselves." She smiled slightly, ironically. "After the illness, the Wraith, the coming of the freeze, we had hidden our grain stores, and foolishly kept this fact from our people when they came. Sometimes I think if we'd only shared what we had, they may have left us be. But we were frightened. Our people diminished, and us without homes, we no longer had need for so much grain."
It was a bad situation for the people of Latham, there was no doubting that. There was no easy way to fix it, but Beckett wished he had something he could say to soothe the woman, to help.
Before he could speak, Sheppard stood, declaring, "Well, we better get going. Got a bit of a hike ahead of us. You like hiking, don't you, McKay?"
To that, McKay groaned but he managed to stagger to his feet. "Love it," he grumbled. "Great." And he let out a painful "Ow…" as he stood.
"Buck up, Rodney," Sheppard told him, giving him a slap on the shoulder. "Come on, Mr. Stumbles."
To that, Rodney replied smartly, "I'll have you know, I did this on purpose. Tore up my own flesh in hopes that you would catch up to us."
"Fell on your ass?" Ronon clarified with a chuckle.
"No!" McKay retorted as he gestured to his covered knee. "Does this look like an ass?"
Sheppard and Ronon exchanged a look, grinned, but said nothing.
"Aye," Beckett interjected helpfully. "I didn't figure it out at the time, but he was doin' his level best to slow us down and to make sure our trail was well marked." He regarded the scientist for a moment, unable to hide a smirk at McKay's miserable countenance as Rodney gingerly stepped about, trying out the injured limb.
Sheppard had no response; he continued to watch McKay's movements, then glancing to Beckett. Ronon looked mildly impressed. Teyla smiled warmly at McKay and offered him her arm as he struggled around the area. He looked at it in surprise, as if she'd just offered him a snake. Suddenly his stride became less labored and he waved her away.
Smiling to himself, Sheppard turned away, and radioed back to to check on the progress of Lorne and Acworth, finding that they were doing as well as could be expected.
Since the others were preparing to leave, Beckett turned to Kennesaw and told her, "You and your family may come with us. We'll find a new home for you." He glanced toward Sheppard, looking for confirmation.
The colonel nodded in response. But Kennesaw remained still, her head down. Behind her, the family waited.
"This planet is our home," she said softly, even as her eyes darted to the poor substitutes for houses, under the blanket of frost. "This is all that we have. How could we leave our ghosts?"
"But how can you live here?" Beckett persisted.
Kennesaw didn't respond, her eyes still gazing beyond them. "But we must. We must be with them. They are our people."
With a sigh, Beckett commented, "They'll be with you wherever you travel as long as you keep them in your hearts."
And Kennesaw looked at him with something resembling hope. "Do you believe this?" she asked him.
Beckett smiled, saying, "I've traveled an awful long way from my family and they're with me all the time."
Kennesaw said nothing, weighing his response.
"How 'bout this, we'll come back in the morning," Sheppard suggested. "You can tell us what you want to do then. We can either get that arm fixed up for your granddaughter, or we'll find you a new home – whatever you decide."
"Thank you," Kennesaw responded. "We will have an answer."
So, they moved out, Ronon in the lead to blaze the trail with Sheppard behind. McKay fell in after them and Beckett stayed with him. Teyla followed, with the rest of the Marines covering the rear.
Carson noted that Rodney's limp seemed to have disappeared for the most part, and he walked without any of the clumsiness that had augmented their journey into the woods. With no need to 'mark the trail', their trek back toward the town was much faster than their journey out. Little was said.
They hadn't gone far when Sgt. Wilmington hissed a warning. Everyone stopped. Beckett caught a glimpse of Sheppard's face. The colonel's easygoing manner was gone as he herded McKay and him into the center of the group. McKay had his 9mm in hand.
The quiet crunch of footsteps came from behind them, feet stepping over frozen ground. The glare of torches illuminated the woods, casting strange shadows. Faces seemed to glow in that light, coming out of the gloomy cold darkness.
Beckett recognized Kennesaw at the head of the group, her family. She looked hopefully, first to Carson, then to Sheppard, checking to see if their presence was acceptable.
"So, you're coming?" Sheppard asked, holstering his weapon.
Kennesaw paid the action no mind. "We have nothing left here," she explained. "They have killed my own townspeople." She glanced to McKay, stating, "We deserve better than that from our people." And she turned toward Beckett, saying, "Our ghosts will go with us. They are with us, in our hearts."
Little more was said. Kennesaw's family folded themselves into the bunch, and the enlarged procession moved onward, through the darkened, frozen woods and back toward the Gate.
It was strange doings, a procession through the night, through the frost blasted wood. Their illuminations threw up odd shadows in the frost. Here and there a leaf, dead before its time, broke from its branch, unseen, to fall with a quiet sound in the frozen night.
And the group continued onward. The family was solemn, anticipating whatever new life awaited them.
THE END - by NotTasha
Listen . . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisped, break from the trees