Sorry for the long wait but far too much has happened since the last chapter for me to list it all so I shan't even attempt to. We're about to have two Vals which may get a little confusing, but hopefully it's obvious from context which is which.
Cogito Ergo Sum, Part Four: Cal Meh
The stars in the dark sky above her, familiar after only one night spent under them, were a welcome relief to Faith. She sighed happily, her shoulders slumping as one small worry was appeased. They were back. Behind her, the Stargate shut off with an electronic hiss and she smiled as she picked Jem out of the crowd around the Stargate platform. He was definitely handy to have around, she thought. Whatever sort of voodoo the Powers were using to mess with the 'Gate system whenever she or one of her girls dialled sure as hell wasn't affecting him. He was a loophole in their mojo, and Faith had a feeling that they were gonna need all the loopholes she could find. Would Hal work just as well, she wondered, catching sight of him in the crowd milling around the Stargate with Nya following in his shadow, her dark eyes wary and suspicious. Might be a good idea to test it... if she could get Nya to agree to let him off-world.
Enough standing and thinking for one day, she decided with a typical burst of energy. They couldn't hang round the 'Gate all night. They had to get the animals herded into the village, settle the Lost Boys of Camelot in for the night, introduce Mama T to her patients, check in with Brock...
Her mind preoccupied with the growing list of things to do before she could sleep, Faith's eyes automatically sought out the distant lights of the village on the horizon as she descended the stone stairs. The village with the ominous red glow hanging in the sky above it...
Pushing her way through the crowd, Faith began to run.
The survivors of Cimmeria had gathered in the main square of their new home, around the carefully built funeral pyre they had erected to appease the spirits of those who had left the village behind. Having already overseen the lighting of the blaze, Vealdr hiked up the robe he wore so that he could once more step up onto the rickety platform that had been hastily constructed of wooden packing cases. Having suffered that indignity, he fussily smoothed out imaginary wrinkles before bowing his head for silence. The crowd, already muted, obeyed him. Vealdr allowed himself a secretive smile, pleased with himself and the power he wielded over his neighbours. He raised his head and arms, opening his mouth to speak.
"What the hell is going on?"
Vealdr gaped as Faith's angry voice rang out in the small stone square. The dark-haired slayer needed no stage as she strode into the light, her sister slayers ranged behind her. The crowd stared, agog.
"We saw the fire from the 'Gate," she continued, her hands on her hips. "Are you trying to announce that you're here?" She caught sight of something flapping in the fire and frowned, "Why are you burning clothes?"
"Faith," Brock was the first to recover, shouldering his way through the crowd to greet her and clasp her forearm with a welcoming grin. "I knew you would return."
"It's good to be back," Faith told him honestly, as her sensitive ears detected the distant rumble of boots running on cobblestones. "Wha'd we miss? Apart from the bonfire..."
Her gaze took in the whole scene, and Vealdr bristled as it flickered over him. Dismissed him, as he believed. It was one insult too many.
"How dare you interrupt the sacred naming?" he blustered.
"Sorry, V," Faith shrugged, "Didn't realise you'd started without us."
"What other choice did we have?" Vealdr asked acidly. "The death rites must be performed as the sun sets. Even a fool knows that."
Brock wasn't the only one gathered there who sucked in a breath as Vealdr threw the underhanded slur on Faith's capabilities as Valkyrie in the dark-haired woman's face. Faith on the other hand refused to bat an eyelid, maintaining a carefully neutral expression even as her eyebrows slowly rose.
"Besides," Vealdr continued, oblivious to the mutters from the crowd and the dark glances in his direction. "You were not here. I was under the impression that you had gone to procure aid." His pointed sneer at the slayers' empty hands spoke volumes about what he thought of their efforts.
Jem skidded into the square and Faith grinned as the crowd finally registered the sound of running men.
"Oh, we procured alright," she said, her grin spreading as the Knights of Camelot arrived at full pelt, a red-faced Hal bringing up the rear. "Easy boys," she purred, waving them back. "Weapons down. These are the good guys."
"More mouths to feed?" Vealdr jibed.
In addition to bidding farewell to family, friends and everything familiar, each man from Camelot had pledged food and animals to the fledging community in return for his passage through the Stargate and into the unknown, so it was entirely understandable that they bridled at Vealdr's remark. Valencia glared at Vealdr as Faith glanced uneasily over her shoulder at the potential mob from Camelot.
"More arms to bear, uh, arms in defence of this world," Faith retorted, faltering slightly as she mangled the Constitution to fit. "They paid their way."
She left unsaid the inference that he hadn't and on cue, a clattering heralded the arrival of the carts, Val's family leading the way with Mama T at the reins. The healer assessed the situation with one look and handed the reins to her husband.
"Valencia!" she called to her daughter as she shuffled to the edge of the narrow driver's bench and prepared to clamber down. "Take me to my patients." Catching Faith's eye, she added almost as an afterthought, "And someone needs to tell these boys where to offload the livestock."
"You were successful?" Brock grinned at Faith.
"Better believe it," she grinned back.
"May I go with them?" Elifa asked Faith, eager to see her father once more. It seemed like days since she had left him here, but in reality it was mere hours.
Faith nodded and Elle took off like a shot as one of the knights stepped forward, taking off his steel helm to reveal his youthful face.
"Greetings..." he began confidently, and tailed off awkwardly when he realised that he had no idea what his new home was called.
"Cal Meh," Kay hurriedly supplied from the corner of her mouth.
"Cal Meh?" Faith demanded in an undertone.
The Knight beamed at Kay and began again as, on the stage, Vealdr sputtered incoherently. "Greetings Cal Meh, from Camelot, home of the once and future King..."
"It means sanctuary," Kay whispered back to Faith.
"Good name," Faith commented quietly, one ear on the Knight's speech. Something about bonds of trust... She wondered how long the speech Meurik had clearly had him memorise was.
"Thanks," Kay actually smirked, an expression Faith had never seen her wear before.
"... hand of friendship..." Uh oh. Looked like Vealdr was working his way up to a righteous rage. Faith was definitely getting the 'preacher interrupted mid-sermon' vibe from the stage, forcibly reminding her of Caleb.
"Valhalla!" Vealdr spat the word out, cutting across the Knight. "This is Valhalla!"
"Actually," said Faith, and the word seemed to hang in the air for a moment before it was fully processed by the Cimmerians gathered there. "It's not."
While Vealdr finally became so incandescent with rage that he actually held his breath, Faith continued speaking as she moved though the crowd towards him, "I guess it's a good thing we turned up when we did, 'cause there's something I need to clear up..." she said, closely flanked by the four remaining slayers as she hopped up onto the platform and turned her back on a red-faced Vealdr to face the crowd. "This is not Valhalla."
"How do you know that?" an anonymous voice called out from the back of the crowd as the Knights infiltrated the front.
"Because I'm not dead yet," Faith quickly replied, pinpointing the heckler and committing his face to memory. She flashed him a disarming wink, "And neither are you!
"This is not heaven," she told the crowd. "This is Cal Meh... a sanctuary. I won't lie to you – life here won't be easy, but that's because it's life. Just 'cause this is a refuge, doesn't mean that we can afford to relax our guard. There's a war on out there, and there's no Hammer here to protect you." Somehow Faith managed to resist the urge to slip in a crack about no more hammer-time, knowing that it would go over the heads of her audience and not wanting to lose them. "The Knights of Camelot have come to help us, and their home world has sent us food, but it's not enough. Not if we can't work together to put food on our tables and to protect our new world. Our home. Our sanctuary."
"Cal Meh!" hollered the Knight who had spoken earlier, and the other knights hastily followed his example.
"Cal Meh!" yelled the Cimmerians, not to be outdone.
Faith grinned at them all. "Cal Meh!" she shouted, driving her fist into the air.
"Cal Meh!" the crowd roared back.
As they cheered, Faith stepped back to clap a very purple Vealdr on the back. The little air still remaining in his lungs was violently expelled on a soft bark, and he staggered forward.
"Got 'em all warmed up for ya," she told him as he sucked in a deep breath of smoky hot air. "Do your thing."
As she jumped off the stage the Cimmerians surged forward to meet her, but the knights bore the worst of the brunt, clearing a path for Faith and the others. The Knight who'd led the cheering fell in at the back of the group as Faith stepped into the midst of the Cimmerians, slowly sobering now that Vealdr was alone on the stage.
She refused to acknowledge anyone, keeping her gaze fixed on where she was going. She hated making speeches, but she'd needed to make sure the Cimmerians knew that this wouldn't be an easy ride. They seemed to have taken it well but it was probably a good thing that she had a long list of stuff to do. She was almost out of the square when a frail hand curled around her forearm, stopping her in her tracks.
"Leaving so soon?" a wan-faced Hildar asked with a gentle smile, her husband hovering in the background with their two children.
"Yeah," Faith shrugged ruefully. "Gotta ton of stuff to take care of. You know how it is."
"Might not be the best idea," Gunnarr suggested, pointedly tilting his head towards the crowd and Vealdr, rapidly regaining his composure on the stage.
"He means folks would take it better if you stayed," Hildar added more diplomatically, with a reproving glance at her husband.
"Would if I could guys," Faith told them ruefully, not regretting it one bit. "But someone's gotta offload the carts."
"I'll do it," volunteered Kay. Faith stared at her and she shrugged diffidently, explaining, "I know where it's all supposed to go. I'll start dinner too."
"There is a feast planned afterwards," Hildar told them all.
"Then another dish or two won't go amiss," Kay said with a quick grin.
"Yeah, but we gotta settle the knights in," Faith hurriedly seized on another excuse.
"Actually," the knights' spokesman spoke up, and Faith wished that she could remember his name as he glanced back at his fellow knights. "With your permission, we would prefer to stay."
"Uh..." Faith blinked rapidly at him, flailing to find one more reason why she couldn't stay, aware that she was protesting too much. "Sure. Someone's gonna have keep watch though. I wanna know the second the 'Gate opens. I mean, we strolled right into town without anyone realising we were here. What if we'd been a buncha Ori?"
"Tristan, Melwas, you heard the Lady Faith," said the knight, turning to his men as two of them exchanged glances.
"Yes, Garth," they agreed, reluctant to miss the feast.
"Okay..." sighed Faith, giving up. "I guess we're staying."
l DAY 1 l
"Good morning, Sal!"
The chirpy greeting was enough to make Sal groan as he pushed open the door to the diner. He wasn't a morning person at the best of times, and after a night spent on the couch once Teresa found out about his latest employee coupled with this morning's discovery that Fifi's bowels had gotten the better of her again, he really wasn't equipped to deal with the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed woman quivering in front of him.
Grunting a reply, he shuffled behind the counter to fire up the coffee machine. While it bubbled away he busied himself with the morning start-up routine. She followed him closely, her sharp eyes taking in everything he did. By the time everything was running and the grill was heating up the coffeepot was full enough for him to pour himself his first cup. He took it with him as he started pulling chairs down from tables and setting them up. She helped him.
When they'd finished he poured himself another cup and took a seat at the counter with the morning papers he'd picked up on the way to work. She sat next to him and her knees jigged impatiently up and down as she waited for the coffee to make him more sociable. She couldn't explain how she knew it would, but she did.
The bell over the door jangled, making her jump. Sal looked at her then, his eyes screwed up like he was thinking hard. She wondered if he was about to tell her that he'd made a mistake and she couldn't work for him today, and had to swallow down the panic that rose in her throat like bile. Where would she go?
"Morning, Sal," said the blonde woman who'd arrived, taking off her coat to reveal the Sol's Diner uniform she was wearing.
"Morning, Blanche," replied Sal, still staring at her.
She swallowed again, her knees slowing to a halt. He was going to tell her to leave... she just knew it!
"You hungry?" he asked instead, and she nodded vigorously in reply, unable to speak around the relief.
"I already ate," said the blonde waitress as she started to wipe down tables.
"Pancakes sound good?" Sal asked.
"Oh, yes!" she told him enthusiastically. Pancakes sounded great!
"Right," said Sal, heaving himself off of the stool and taking his coffee with him into the kitchen. "Breakfast! Then we'll see about gettin' you a uniform..."
"Uniform?" she asked, her fingers plucking self-consciously at the fabric of the deep blue top she'd worn, well, ever since she could remember.
"Yeah," Sal grinned at her as he started measuring out ingredients. "You gotta have a uniform if you're gonna work here."
Cam hesitated in the doorway of Jackson's office, noting the stained mugs littering the room and the dark shadows beneath his team-mate's eyes. He wondered if Daniel had slept at all since Vala had been kidnapped and made a mental note to mention it to Doctor Lam. Right now the SGC veteran was poring over one of his many leather bound notebooks, his chin propped in the palm of his hand. Cam was loathe to disturb him, knowing the news he carried would not be welcomed. But it was that same information that compelled him to knock lightly on the doorjamb, knowing that he himself would prefer to hear similar news direct.
Jackson must not have been too deep in his research because he looked up with a slight frown at Cam's knock. He blinked up at Cam and wiped the frown away with a hand across his face.
"Jackson," Cam greeted him as he strolled inside the cluttered office. "How's it going?"
"Well..." sighed Daniel as he stood, closed his journal on his account of his first meeting with Vala aboard the ill-fated Prometheus and moved across the room to draw Mitchell's attention to his crowded desk. "From what we learned from the Trust operative, and the information provided to us from the Jaffa and the Tok'ra, this is what I've been able to piece together so far.
"Athena, Greek goddess of war, a.k.a. Charlotte Mayfield, a.k.a. the Goa'uld responsible for kidnapping Vala. Now, according to what I've learned, she was a minor player who rose to mid-tier status by pursuing alliances with more powerful rivals: Cronos, Camulus, Svarog, and even Anubis when he was first on the outs with the System Lords," Daniel told Mitchell, pulling out the relevant texts to show him as he spoke.
"So, her partnering up with Ba'al is just her latest power play?" asked Mitchell, squinting at the small text surrounding a line drawing of Athena. He was pretty sure it was written in Latin.
"No," Daniel contradicted him, delving back into the pile of books littering his desk. "It's more than that. See, we know Athena was once allied with Qetesh, the Goa'uld that formerly inhabited Vala. See, apparently, Qetesh double-crossed her when they partnered up to search for the Clava Thessara Infinitas," with the air of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Daniel laid an open book in front of Cam. "The Key to Infinite Treasure," he translated. "Now, according to legend, it would allow he who possesses it entry to a vast storehouse of riches hidden away by the Ancients prior to their ascension."
"Wow, that's big," Cam said absently, his eyes on the book but his mind preoccupied with his recent phone call with Jool. He'd already heard the Cliffs Notes version of all this from Sam, who'd checked in on Jackson earlier.
"Yeah, and by all indications nothing but an elaborate hoax," Jackson informed him.
"So they didn't find it?"
"No, but for some reason Qetesh wanted Athena to think she had. Athena believed her, which is why she went after Vala. And she used Ba'al's resources here on Earth to get her." Daniel finished bitterly. "Which reminds me," he realised. "I'm supposed to check in with Major Harper. He's got people querying hospitals in the area where Vala disappeared," he explained to Mitchell as he picked up the phone. "It's possible she may have been injured and has been unable to contact us."
"Hey, listen," Mitchell said awkwardly, shuffling his feet. "I, um… I spoke with Jool at the Medical Examiner's office. They're doing DNA testing on the remains recovered at the blast site. But it's gonna take a while."
Daniel hung the telephone receiver back in its cradle, looking worried. Then his lips firmed and his jaw set into a stubborn position. "You know," he said contemplatively, staring at the heap of books on his desk rather than at Mitchell. "When Vala first disappeared, when the Ori gate was destroyed, I refused to write her off. Although the odds were against it, I believed somehow she'd found a way to survive. And it turned out I was right." He looked at Mitchell then. "I wanna be right again."
"Sure," Mitchell said with a sympathetic nod. "I get it." He shrugged, "I just figured it's better to know."
"Yeah," said Daniel, not entirely sure he agreed. If they found Vala's DNA... "Thank you."
He picked up the phone again, an obvious dismissal, and started to dial the number he needed. He saw Mitchell nod again and turn to leave from the corner of his eye.
The phone was ringing in his ear and Mitchell was almost out of the door when Daniel suddenly remembered. He wasn't the only person in the room who'd had someone go missing. Faith and Mitchell's experience with the Mind-Melder had forged a close bond between the two in a remarkably short period of time. Mitchell tended to downplay the effect leaving her onboard an Ori mothership had had on him, but it was difficult to miss his reaction whenever information about her trickled into the SGC. Faith had been missing for months now but Mitchell still scanned every report from Earth's allies as soon as they received it, despite knowing better than most just how capable of looking after herself Faith Lehane was.
"Hey, Mitchell," he called, stopping the other man in his tracks. Typically, his phone call was answered before Daniel could say any more. He held up a finger to indicate to Mitchell that he should wait while Daniel spoke to the functionary on the other end of the line, "Uh, yes, Major Harper, please." Covering up the mouthpiece, Daniel spoke to Mitchell, "Thanks."
Cam shrugged. "No problem," he told Jackson before he left the room, heading back to his office. He'd rather have had better news for him but if there was one thing he'd learnt in his time at the SGC, you took what you got and rolled with it.
Dawn was starting to get the hang of this reality-hopping thing, or whatever it was. She'd arrive in a blaze of bright green light, hang around long enough to maybe make a friend or two, and then the nocturnal glowing would start to set in which was usually her cue to get ready for the next place. She'd picked up a small backpack along the way, filled it with essentials like deodorant and spare panties in case she found herself on another dino-world where things like basic hygiene hadn't been invented yet, and made sure she carried it everywhere when she started glowing in the dark.
Today's arrival seemed normal enough. Right up until the point when she opened her eyes to find four very green creatures staring at her, several boxes of forgotten pizza lying discarded at their three-toed feet. Going by the nunchaku one of them was holding in a semi-threatening way and the shells on their backs, Dawn guessed that she'd stumbled on a universe peopled by ninja turtles.
Okay... She'd come across weirder. Hadn't she?
"Dudes!" lamented the turtle in the orange mask, "She totally trashed the pizza!"
Maybe she hadn't.
If Faith had to solve one more problem, she was going to scream. She'd barely had time to wake up before Val had barged into her room with the news that her mom wasn't planning on sticking around chez slayer, that she wanted a place of her own. Faith had snatched a hasty breakfast in a kitchen crowded with slayers and men, listening to Mama T's version, before setting out to find Brock and confirm that the village had a forge. If they did, she was hoping it was empty.
Brock had been nowhere to be found. In fact, apart from the Knights milling around slayer central, nursing their hangovers, the entire village had been conspicuously short on men. Hildar had told her where they were, rounding up the loose animals in the Stargate clearing, the ones Faith and the others had brought through the night before.
Faith had completely forgotten about them. She'd returned to Slayer Central, intending to grab the others and go help out, but Kay had reminded her that the Knights couldn't keep living in the stables across from their house. So instead she'd ordered everyone who hadn't already found something to do to go help the Cimmerians, and gone house-hunting for the Knights. She was still looking when they got back, although she'd found a deserted blacksmith with a house next doors that she thought Mama T would like.
Even once she'd earmarked enough houses, it took a while to settle in all of the Knights. The problem was that, with the exception of the temple, there wasn't a big enough building to hold them all and Vealdr was firmly installed in the temple. A couple of the houses Faith had planned to put them in turned out to already have occupants and the Knights decided that they wanted to stick together. In the end, they took up most of the houses down the narrow lane that held the forge and a sprinkling of others nearby. Garth, their leader, had opted for a house almost exactly halfway between the road and Slayer Central.
Once she'd found the last Knight a home, she'd made her way back to the slayer house for a late lunch of leftovers, only to find herself pulled into a discussion between Kay and Brock about supplies. She was still trying to convince them to hold off on an off-world trading run, at least for today, when Mallie had shown up, flushed with the news that the scouts Brock had sent out had discovered farms not too far from the village.
Farms that Faith was expected to go out and inspect with Brock, despite not knowing the slightest thing about farming. She took Mallie with her, and slipped away as soon as she could, leaving Mallie enthusiastically discussing grain yield with Gunnarr, Brock and a bunch of other Cimmerians.
She'd made her own way back to the village and now she was loitering in the main square, enjoying a few precious moments of peace and quiet as the evening gloom gathered near. A large scorched mark in the centre of the square was the only sign of last night's raging inferno, and even that was vanishing under the onslaught of Cimmerian women armed with scrubbing brushes and buckets of soapy water. Just now though, the square was deserted and Faith could finally savour the feeling of being in a bad mood, without having to worry about taking it out on someone.
She didn't want to be here. Didn't want to have to be the one to deal with the challenges they were facing. She'd had enough of people constantly surrounding her. Even prison hadn't been this claustrophobic, and the Summers house during the final days of their showdown with the First hadn't felt so crowded.
Under normal circumstances Faith guarded her precious independence with a fierce pride. She'd fought hard enough to get it, after all. She lived footloose and fancy-free, responsible for only herself, and that was the way she liked it. She'd refused to let even Robin get too close, and he'd been her first steady boyfriend in, well, ever. She was used to going where she wanted, when she wanted, flying down black tarmac highways on her bike, alone with her thoughts. It had taken a prison sentence, but Faith had finally learnt to be comfortable with her own company.
Here, she didn't have that luxury. Every second of the day was filled with problems, people and, in some cases, problem people. Here, there was always someone watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake. She felt claustrophobic, and penned in. Memories of the black expanse of tarmac stretching into the horizon and the thrill of her bike thrumming beneath her filled Faith with a yearning so intense that it almost hurt.
A scrap of tattered and scorched cloth blew across the square, plastering itself across her boot in a desperate attempt to keep from being held at the wind's mercy any longer. Faith bent and picked it up, smoothing her thumb over the singed fabric. She still didn't get why the Cimmerians had burnt all of the clothes they'd found...
"Stop fretting." The voice at Faith's elbow made her jump, and she turned to face Ursula. The old woman smiled warmly at her as she continued, "I stopped them from burning all of them. Just the clothes people were wearing before they... left. I made sure the rest were put in your attics."
"Thanks," Faith said gratefully, a rare real smile springing to her lips.
"Folks will find they are not so squeamish come winter," Ursula assured her practically.
"When it comes..." sighed Faith, her mind leaping into the long list of things that needed doing before winter hit. Like figure out how long they had before it hit... Gradually she became aware that Ursula was still standing next to her, waiting for her attention to drift back to their conversation.
"Sorry," she apologised. "What's up?" As Ursula frowned in confusion, Faith elaborated, "What did ya want?"
"Do I need a reason to speak to you?" Ursula asked in return, her grizzled eyebrows rising as a smile lurked in the corners of her mouth.
"No," Faith admitted with a shrug. "But most people've got one."
"Ah, but I am not most people," remarked Ursula, her eyes twinkling as she shot her a conspiratorial grin.
Faith burst out laughing, the last of her bad mood finally banished. "True," she said as soon as she had composed herself. "And I guess I'm glad you're not."
"As am I," Ursula agreed placidly. "Really, life would be very dull if everyone was alike. Can you imagine a world peopled with Vealdrs?"
Faith could. She shuddered slightly as a chill ran down her spine at the thought.
"Exactly," said Ursula, nodding her head. "And speaking of different people, I like the new healer. She and I will get on well."
"Good," Faith smiled at her as her stomach rumbled, loudly reminding her that it really didn't want to skip another meal. The slayer began subtly steering Ursula in the direction of the slayer house. Kay was already cooking enough to feed an army, one more mouth wouldn't matter.
"And those men!" Ursula rhapsodised. "Oh, if only I were ten years younger...!"
Chaia heard the outside doors to her room open and quickly closed her eyes. Maybe, if she pretended she was asleep, the Prior would go away.
In the endless days since Tomin had left, Chaia had learnt a lot. She had learnt that the Bad Men were called Priors, and the Mean Lady was The Orici. She hadn't seen the Mean Lady again, but she'd seen a lot of Priors and she knew now that they all smelled. They didn't like it when she tried to talk to them. They wanted to talk to her about the Mean Lady and something called Origin, and she was s'posed to listen to them and be quiet. They 'specially didn't like it when she asked about her mother. One of them had smacked her across the face, knocking her to the floor, because Chaia asked when she was going to see her.
She had learnt to hate the four metal walls surrounding her, and the shining world that hung outside her window. The world had taken Tomin from her, and the walls kept her trapped inside. But she had also learnt that if she could get the grill off the small hole in the wall that brought air to her room, she would probably fit in the tunnel that lay beyond.
Right now though, as the inner doors to her room slid open and a solid bar of light fell across her bed, Chaia cleared the turbulent thoughts from her young mind and concentrated on breathing evenly. In... and out. In... and out...
A shadow fell across her face and she had to fight not to flinch. Just breathe... she told herself.
The soft mattress sagged as someone sat on the edge of the bed and Chaia's body rolled slightly towards them. Her breath caught in her throat for a moment before she could force it out of her body and she forced herself to relax. In... and out...
"This cannot be the little girl I left behind," a familiar and well-loved voice said in a low, amused tone that shattered the silence. Chaia's eyes flew open to see Tomin's smile as he looked down at her. "My girl lies curled up on her side, not stretched out on her back," he continued.
"Tomin!" Chaia cried happily, launching herself into his arms and snuggling close into his chest. "You came back!"
"Of course I did," he told her gently, frowning as he felt her ribs sticking through her thin nightgown. Had she lost weight? "I promised that I would, did I not?"
"Yes..." Chaia reluctantly admitted, surreptitiously pinching herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
"But?" asked Tomin when she refused to elaborate.
"The Priors said that it was up to the Ori," Chaia told him, settling herself into a more comfortable position in his lap and pressing one ear to his chest so that she could hear the reassuring rhythm of his heart. "And the Ori are mean!"
"The Ori want only what is best for us," Tomin softly chided the young girl. "Sometimes what is best for us is not what we would wish for ourselves, but we must always remember that the Ori know in a way that we cannot, that through suffering comes a greater understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe."
Tomin would never forget the years he had spent crippled by his lame foot. It had taken the will of the Ori to straighten it and every step he had taken since was a reminder of their power. They had judged him worthy to fight in their name, an honour he had not looked for, and so they had stretched forth their hands and healed him. At their command he had travelled across galaxies and seen strange alien worlds that lived in ignorance of Origin. The Orici was the child of his wife, and She in return had given him the care of this precious child. Chaia... daughter of a Clava gone rogue. Chaia... who clearly was not getting enough to eat. Well, he would change that.
"I s'pose," Chaia absently agreed, fighting a yawn and losing.
"We must remember too that those who follow the path of Origin and obey the will of the Ori never die. Instead they ascend to take their place with the Ori, so it is easy to see why They love us so. They are merely those who have gone before us. As, one day, I will go before you." Tomin felt the thin body tense, heard the sharp little intake of breath and tightened his arms around Chaia as he continued, "But I promise you this, ascended or not, I will always watch over you."
Chaia seemed to accept this and a comfortable silence fell over the pair, content to simply hold one another. Gradually Tomin became aware that he had come directly from the final victory over the natives of the backward planet the ship orbited, and that he was giving off a distinct odour. Fortunately Chaia didn't seem to mind the stench of battle.
Finally, just when Tomin thought she had fallen asleep, a small voice piped up, "Tomin?"
"Yes?" he replied.
"Is my mother dead?"
She might just have well been asking why the world in her window didn't fall, so matter-of-fact was her tone. Tomin recoiled mentally and physically from the question.
"No!" he reassured her immediately, and then found himself hoping he had told the truth. He would surely be told if Chaia's mother were dead. But what would happen to Chaia if her mother were to die?
Tomin didn't want to think about that. Instead he told himself that the renegade Clava would soon realise the futility of their actions and surrender to Ori and Origin. Chaia would be reunited with her mother and he would see her between battles.
He didn't much like that plan either, but it was better than the alternative.
Chaia was still asking questions. "Then why does she no longer love me?" she wanted to know, her voice plaintive now.
"She still loves you," he comforted her. "Very much. But you were separated, remember?"
"By the Bad Man," Chaia agreed, nodding. "He wouldn't let me go through the water."
Tomin frowned. He had not heard Chaia's account of her parting with her mother before and it troubled him that it did not match the tale told to him by the Orici and Praemas. They had informed him that Chaia's mother had been convinced to turn her back on Origin by a fellow Clava, and had left her young daughter behind. Now he began to wonder... But he had a young girl's fears to calm before he could begin to dwell further on the matter.
"Your mother would be with you if she could," he told Chaia, tucking her into bed. "And because she cannot the Orici has given you me to love you in her stead." Leaning forward, he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Now go to sleep, and I shall be here in the morning."
"Promise?" Chaia sleepily demanded.
"I promise," vowed Tomin, patting her hand as he stood.
"Night," Chaia said around a yawn.
"Sleep well," Tomin told her, waiting until she had rolled onto her side before he left the room.
Dog-tired from battle he slowly walked back to his quarters, barely aware of his surroundings. He stripped off his armour without activating the lights and crawled between the sheets, too tired to take his turn in the bathing rooms. He'd go in the morning.
But instead Tomin lay awake for most of the night, worrying about Chaia.
l DAY 2 l
This time Sal was better prepared for the chirpy greeting that assaulted his ears as soon as he had the diner door unlocked. Teresa had forgiven him and allowed him back into their bed, Fifi was doing much better, and he was already operating on an extra cup of coffee. What he wasn't prepared for was the cup of coffee that was thrust into his hand. That didn't mean he wasn't grateful for it.
"Thanks," he said in some surprise, automatically taking a sip.
He froze as his eyes travelled across his pristine diner. The chairs were down, the tables were wiped and it looked like he'd interrupted her while she was setting out the napkin holders and menus. Sal hastily swallowed his mouthful of coffee, made just the way he liked it.
"Would you look at this place!" he exclaimed approvingly. "You keep this up, I'm gonna hafta give you a raise."
She radiated happiness like a small sun, beaming at him.
"Good job I brought you something instead, hey?" Sal told her.
"A present?" she clapped her hands together excitedly. Sal dug in his coat pocket for the book he'd picked up on his way out of the house and handed it over.
"One Thousand and One Baby Names?" she read the title dubiously.
"I think it's Teresa's way of telling me she wants to try for a girl again," Sal explained. "Figured you might wanna take a look, see if there's anything you like. I can't keep calling you kid, can I?"
"I-I suppose not," she agreed, clutching the book to her chest. "Thank you, Sal."
"No problem, kid," he told her with a grin. "Pancakes?"
"Yay!" she replied enthusiastically, clapping her hands.
Faith stepped back as the wagon rumbled forwards under Mallie's expert guidance, unable to do anything other than watch Flash ascend the stone steps to the open Stargate, dragging the wagon behind him. Jem dashed from the dialling console to pull himself aboard, waving happily to Faith once he had got himself comfortably settled. She couldn't help but grin back at him and the incongruous sight of the horse and wagon, surrounded by armed men, disappearing through the Stargate. But a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach made her wonder if splitting up was really such a good idea.
Logically she knew that they needed to restock the animal population, and as quickly as possible. According to Liss the days were getting shorter, which meant that winter would be coming sooner rather than later. Liss was staying behind to work on the damaged ship. Elle was nursing her father. Hal was safely tucked up in his library, ready to be used as a back-up dialler if they needed him, and Nya...? Nya was standing guard over him of course.
Mallie knew what the farms needed to get them running again, and was the only one of them who could coax a horse and cart through the Stargate, so she had to go. So did Kay, who knew what the settlement needed, what it had, and where to find the best prices for both. Val had opted to go with them, leading the six Knights who went with them while Garth and the rest of the Knights worked in the fields of the farms with the Cimmerian men.
Which left Faith. She could've chosen to go with the trading party but she'd known she wasn't really needed, no matter what Mallie said. Besides, she'd have spent the whole time worrying about the others left on Cal Meh. This way she could do something useful while she worried about the traders instead. Not grubbing on the farms though... Faith shifted the long and bulky package she carried from one shoulder to the other and started walking, her back to the village. She had a theory she wanted to test before the others got back.
Jool was wearing flannel and jeans. Not exactly her normal everyday style, which tended more towards the classic and elegant, but at least she wasn't sticking out like a sore thumb in her surroundings. The locals were barely giving the Captain or her a second glance, which was the intended point of the exercise. Normally Jool would have had to be paid to wear flannel but in order to look like she belonged in the small town of Montrose she had volunteered.
Montrose was where Vala had been held captive, and the arrival of armed soldiers would have alarmed the locals. Instead, SG-13 and Doctor Jackson were maintaining a low profile while they searched for the missing member of StarGate Command. In order to cover more ground, they had split up. Daniel and Oz were mobile, driving around town in a rented SUV, while Jool and Captain O'Neil sauntered up and down the main street, trying to pick up a clue that might lead them to Vala.
At least it wasn't raining.
"This is pointless," Jool eventually declared, breaking into Jon's long-winded ramble about a girl called Cassie and a dog. She hadn't been listening anyway. "Vala's not here."
"Then where, oh wise one, should we look?" Jon snarked back at her. It had been a good story.
"Anywhere but here?" suggested Jool, her waving arm encompassing Murdoch's Ranch & Home Supply as it swept in an arc that covered most of the street. "I mean, there isn't even a mall! It's hardly Vala's style."
"We already checked with the bus company," Jon reminded her. "She didn't leave town."
"Maybe she hitchhiked?" Jool was clutching at straws now. As much as she desperately wanted to find her best friend, she couldn't shake the feeling that they were looking in the wrong place. If Vala wanted to hide, she wouldn't stick around here. She'd be far too conspicuous. No, she'd head for a city and lose herself in the crowds.
"You wanna be the one to tell Danny we should give up?" Jon asked baldly, cutting to the heart of the matter.
"No..." Jool reluctantly admitted, shifting her weight from one foot to another.
"Then we keep looking," ordered Jon.
"Yes, sir," Jool muttered sarcastically, falling in just behind him as he strode up the street. She had to fight the urge to let her eyes drop to his jean-clad butt.
"I heard that."
"You were supposed to."
Faith had had no real destination in mind when she set out; she just wanted to get as far away from the village and the farmland to the south of the village as possible. So she headed east, ignoring a rough track that snaked up the side of the hill in favour of blazing her own trail. Brock's scouts hadn't had the chance to go beyond the rise of the hill in this direction yet, and Faith had made sure that they were all off exploring other areas today. She didn't want anyone getting hurt. Not that she'd told anyone that that was her real reason for suggesting Brock sent his men in different directions. In fact she'd carefully orchestrated things so that only Nya and Liss knew where she was going and neither of them knew exactly why. They were under strict instructions to cover for her while she was gone.
It didn't take too long for her to reach the top of the hill and once there her keen eyesight detected something that the scouts had missed. The track that she'd ignored continued to cut a winding path through the forested valley that lay in front of her, a path that led to a small huddle of buildings that blended into the steep cliffs of the opposite side of the valley. Curious, Faith started walking towards it.
She could almost have been walking through a forest on Earth. It was only the small things that she'd taken for granted back home that marked this out as an alien world. Things like birdsong, trails of airplanes cutting through the sky, and the small rustling noise of animals scuttling through the undergrowth were all missing. She could almost be the only living creature on this planet, and this far away from the village and the burdens of leadership she finally started to relax, shedding some of the tension that had knotted her shoulders and forehead. Almost inevitably, Faith's thoughts turned to Earth.
She had no way of knowing what time, or even what day it was there. Her splash-proof watch had been ruined early on when Mallie, Kay and she had emerged from a 'Gate that was underwater, and she'd lost track of the days back in Anise's crystal dungeon. Cal Meh's twenty-six and a half hour day wasn't helping either; it was screwing with everyone's body clock, even the slayers were affected. But no matter what time it was on Earth she was bound to know someone who was up, so she pleased herself by picturing everyone in the middle of their day.
B was bound to be at her castle, with Xander, D and her acolytes. Not that Faith could tease her about the slayers who followed her anymore, not with the size of her own entourage. If there was an apocalypse (was it apocalypse season yet?) B and the Xan-man could be anywhere in the world, but D would definitely be at the castle, same as Giles would definitely be in London. There was an unwritten rule amongst the survivors of Sunnydale that the Head Watcher wasn't allowed to directly participate in apocalypses anymore. The Scooby Gang were too fond of him to let him continue risking his life. Faith had gone along with them, expecting the G-man to break the rule within months, and been surprised when he hadn't. Maybe he was feeling his age, because he'd just settled into his new life of looking after slayers, and sending them to every demonic hotspot on Earth.
Someone else who had settled down easily was Robin. He'd still be teaching in Cleveland when the youngest slayer was all grown up. Idly, Faith wondered if he'd found someone else yet. Had C–?
No! Not going there. Think of someone else...
Red. Red was harder to pin down. She could be in Rio, she could be in England. She could be off on some spiritual journey. Sometimes it was hard to believe that the kickass lesbian witch was once the shy hacker Faith had known way back when. And if someone had told her back then that of all the Scoobies, she'd end up closest to Willow, she woulda laughed in their face. Mind you, she hadn't known that Angel would save her back then, or that she'd fail to return the favour.
No regrets, Faith, she firmly told herself. What's done is done and there's no use cryin' about it. At least he went down fighting, and you were there at the end. Would've been there 'til the end if it hadn't been for Teal'c...
Thoughts of Teal'c led inevitably to the rest of SG-1, from SG-1 to Cam, and fuck it! Had Cam found someone else? She wouldn't blame him if he had; it wasn't like they'd ever said anything and it had to be months since they'd last seen each other. Since that short, searing kiss...
What would she do if she got back to Earth and he was with someone? Scratching the bitch's eyes out probably wasn't the best idea, no matter how much she liked the sound of it. Probably better to slay it out, and let whoever had taken over as SGC go-between carry on with the gig.
Why was she torturing herself like this? Better to worry about it when it happened. It wasn't like there was any way for her to know until she got back to Earth, and who knew when that would be. Anything could happen between now and then. She could find someone else. It wasn't like she hadn't had offers; that young Knight, Tristan had made it clear last night that he was hers if she wanted him. The problem was, Faith sighed, she was only interested in one man and he was literally light-years away. It was... irritating. Like having an itch she couldn't scratch. And, God did she have it bad if she was actually jonesing for a guy!
The worst part was there wasn't anything she could do about it. The Powers That Ruled Her Life had made it clear that they'd veto any attempt she made to get home before they were done with her, not that that was gonna stop her from trying. But in the end, her best shot at getting home was to do what They wanted. Faith just wished she knew what that was. There had to be more to it than rescuing slayers. What was their endgame?
Suddenly the trees began to clear in the distance, and the buildings appeared. Faith picked up her pace and quickly reached the edge of the forest and the start of a small mining town that huddled up to the steep rock face. She recognised the set from the years she'd spent watching movies. Plus, the pickaxe leaning against a cart loaded with rocks was a dead giveaway. So were the tunnels carved into the cliff.
Faith grinned, heading for the rickety scaffolding that clambered halfway up the precipice. She was more than far enough away from the village now, and she felt in need of some constructive destruction. It was the reason she was out here after all.
It didn't take long before she was inside the tunnel system, although she stopped at the first junction in. She wanted a clear route of escape in case she was wrong and it blew up in her face. Which, considering what she was dealing with, could actually happen.
She was careful as she unwrapped the bundle she'd carried on her back, and her hands were almost shaking as she drew the cloth back to reveal the three Prior staffs they'd found discarded around the village's main square. Reluctant to even touch one, she used a scrap of the cloth she'd wrapped the staffs in to pick one up and prop it against the wall. Finally, Faith drew her sword, taking comfort from the cool steel and delicately-balanced weight. Weight that only a slayer could wield with one hand.
In a spaceship above another world, in another slayer's hands, this sword had sliced through a Prior's staff like butter. The hallway of the spaceship had failed to turn into the raging inferno that had devoured Duran. Was it a fluke? Was it the ship? Or was it the sword? Faith was determined to find out, and there was only one way to do that.
Bracing herself for the worst, Faith swung at the staff. Her sword cut through it easily and the staff fell to the ground in two roughly equal pieces. Faith waited. She waited a bit more, just to be sure. It was kinda disappointing really.
She lined up the next staff and let herself think of Cam's new lover. Take that, bitch!
Azure? Babette? Bambina? A definite no to all the above. Barbara? Ew, no! Barbie...? Maybe. Bebe? Belinda? Bella? Hmmm... Bel-la. She quite liked it, and scribbled it down at the bottom of the growing list she was compiling. Absently she took a bite of her hamburger, and flipped the page. Bellatrix! Ooh!
Someone collapsed in the chair opposite her, and she looked up in surprise. She'd chosen this table especially because of its isolation and the fact that it was right next to the kitchen and therefore Sal. A quick glance around the diner told her that there were still spare tables for the taking, although it was beginning to fill up with the lunchtime rush. So why had this dark-haired woman chosen to sit with her? And why was she staring at her as though she was a puzzle she longed to solve?
"Hiya," the woman said brightly, holding her right hand out vertically. "I'm Teri."
"Um..." she said dubiously, staring at Teri's outstretched hand. "Hi." Because the other woman seemed to expect some sort of returning gesture, she copied her. Teri reached forward and clasped her hand, shaking it up and down briefly before releasing it.
"Sal's wife...?" Teri prompted when her expression remained blank.
"Oh!" she exclaimed as understanding burst upon her. "Hello! Um... Sal!"
Teri winced at the volume of her yell and Sal stuck his head out of the kitchen. A brief frown crossed his face when he saw his wife sitting with the woman he had taken under his wing but he quickly wiped it away and shambled over to drop a kiss on Teri's upturned lips.
"Hey, baby," said Teri, smiling up at him.
"Hi, honey," replied Sal. "Marcus get off to kindergarten okay?"
"Sweet as a lamb," Teri told him, still smiling.
"Great," Sal said, nodding. He scratched his head. "So, uh... what're you doin' here?"
"What?" Teresa stared up at her husband, a wounded expression on her face. "A woman can't visit her husband at work now?"
"Now, I didn't say that," Sal protested.
"But you were thinking it," accused Teri, the twinkle in her eye a message for Sal alone.
She watched in horror as the married couple began bickering in front of her, wondering if their argument could possibly be her fault. Teri and Sal were oblivious to her distress, too intent on showing their affection for one another by taking pot shots at each other. Finally, just as she was convinced that they were about to start yelling, Teri smiled and reached up to cradle Sal's face in her hands.
"C'mere," she purred, pulling him down to plant a soft kiss on his lips. "Love you."
"Love you too, babe," Sal mumbled, dropping another kiss on the top of her head. "You want the usual?"
"Thanks, honey," Teri smiled gratefully, blowing Sal a kiss as he headed back to his kitchen.
As soon as her husband was safely out of sight, Teri turned all of her attention to his newest employee, regarding her with narrowed eyes as she made up her mind about the woman squirming in front of her. This wasn't the first time Sal had taken a stray under his wing, although it was definitely the first time any of them had claimed amnesia. Teri intended to make sure he didn't get burned again.
"So," Teri finally said. "I hear you lost your memory."
"Y-yes," she replied, not sure she liked Teri. She made it sound as though she'd carelessly left her memory behind on a bench somewhere. Behind her, Marcy called another order in and she half-turned in her seat, expecting Sal to holler that her break was up.
"Man," Teri marvelled, sitting back in her chair and regarding her with appraising eyes. "How much must that suck?"
Unbelievably, she could only read concern on Teri's face. The same sort of concern that had been written all over Sal's face the first time she'd met him. "A lot," she admitted, her voice cracking a little.
Teri spontaneously reached out and squeezed her hand, catching her eye with a sympathetic grimace. She shifted uncomfortably for a moment as something curled tight in the pit of her belly eased slightly and then returned a tentative smile to Teri. Teri beamed back at her.
She liked this woman, Teri decided, as her salad was delivered to the table and a cup of coffee poured for her. Now the only dilemma was, what to call her?
"So," she said casually as she speared several leaves of lettuce and a small tomato, "You thought of a name yet?"
"I quite like Barbie," she confided, eagerly picking up the book of names.
"Mmm-mmm," Teri vetoed around a mouthful of salad, emphatically waving her fork in the air.
"I don't like Barbie," she decided, flipping to the page she'd been reading before Teri had joined her. "Bellatrix?"
Teri swallowed. "Gimme that," she said wearily, holding her hand out. She began to flip through the book when she handed it to her, treating her to a shrewd stare. "Do you know," Teri said conversationally, "You jump every time someone calls Sal's name."
"I don't," she automatically denied.
"You do," Teri told her matter-of-factly, rapidly scanning the book's pages. "Ah, here," she pushed the book back over to her, pointing at an entry. "Valerie," she proclaimed. "We can call you Val for short."
"Valerie," she tested it. "Val..."
Somehow it felt right. "I like it!" Val decided with a smile.
"Yay!" Teri celebrated quietly, lifting her cup up into the air. Val copied her and Teri clinked her cup against hers. "To Val," she proposed.
"To Val," that woman echoed, leaning back in her chair and sipping her coffee. It was amazing how something as simple as a name could change your entire outlook on life, Val mused. Suddenly the day seemed brighter, despite the ominous clouds outside the diner.
Maybe it was because they'd just turned on the lights?
After checking in with Liss, Faith ran Val's dad down in a hayfield, pitchfork in hand as he tossed bundles up to a wagon already full to the brim. The three other men working with him spotted her as she approached them and gradually all four stopped working, waiting to see what she wanted.
"Gotta spare pitchfork?" she asked, and grinned as they fell over themselves to find one.
She worked alongside them until the field was empty and the wagon was stacked high, and when it rumbled out of the field she was perched on top of the hay, or whatever it was, with her legs dangling over the edge and Papa G sitting next to her while the two other guys crammed onto the driver's bench with the driver. Faith stretched, enjoying the feel of the sun against her skin and the swaying, scratchy ride. What she wouldn't give for a pair of jeans...
"'Bout my sword," she started, leaning back on her elbows and grabbing a long stem to stick between her teeth.
"Did it work alright?" Papa G asked anxiously, with a glance down at the scabbard hanging from Faith's belt.
"Better'n alright," Faith told him with a grin. "Way better. I was wondering," she switched her straw from one side of her mouth to the other, "If you could make some more?"
The large blacksmith frowned, mentally calculating, "How many?"
"Enough for the rest of the girls," said Faith, knowing that another six swords was a lot to ask.
"Maybe if I had the materials..." Gelath mused.
"Let Kay know what you need," Faith said, squinting at the sun and sitting up. "I'll tell her it's important. Listen, speakin' of Kay, I really gotta get to the 'Gate before the others get back."
"Might take a while," Gelath called after her as Faith slid off the wagon to stand on the dirt track.
"No problem!" Faith cried back as the mobile haystack continued to creak its way along the road. "You coming to dinner?"
"Aye!" Gelath bellowed as the cart rounded a corner and carried on its way. The top of the pile of hay, and the large man relaxing on it, were just visible over the hedge bordering the road and Faith took a moment to grin at the sight before she set off in a sprint towards the Stargate.
She knew she was cutting it fine as soon as she was past the village and in sight of the 'Gate. Brock and a buncha other men had already set up a makeshift paddock surrounding the Stargate, and were standing in twos and threes as they waited for the trading party to arrive. Brock's blonde head stuck out in the middle of about five others, and Faith had to push her way through them to reach him.
"Hey," she said as soon as she'd reached him. "Am I late?"
"No," Brock reassured her. "We finished early. They should be here soon."
"Cool," Faith shrugged nonchalantly, turning to make sure the Stargate was in her line of sight. She almost jumped out of her skin when she felt a hand gently stroke her hair, and spun round to direct a deadly glare at Brock.
"You," he gulped, "Had wheat in your hair." He brandished the offending stalk, "Sorry."
"Thanks," Faith said after a moment. She plucked the wheat from between his fingers and, setting the cut end of the stem at a jaunty angle between her teeth, casually strolled over to the fence ringing the 'Gate.
It took him a couple of minutes but eventually Brock joined her there. Faith kept her eyes on the 'Gate, her forearms resting on the top rail of the fence as she tried to figure out how to apologise.
"Do I make you uncomfortable?" Brock asked after a moment, and Faith turned to look at him
"God, no!" she told him. "Sorry 'bout that. I guess I'm kinda on edge, what with the girls off-world and everything."
"Good," said Brock, capturing her eyes with his, and holding contact meaningfully. "I am glad I do not make you uncomfortable."
"Uhh, yeah... Listen, Brock," Faith started, trying to work out how to explain to the tall blonde Viking in front of her that she wasn't interested.
Typically the Stargate chose that moment to flare into life, leaving Faith unsure if she was relieved or pissed off by the interruption.
"Positions!" Brock shouted to his men as the wormhole settled back down to ripple in the confines of the open 'Gate.
Men rushed to key points of the fence, ready to either help with the animals that the trading party were expected to bring with them, or defend their new home, whichever they were called on to do. Nerves jangled as the moment stretched and no-one appeared.
A fluffy white cloud streamed out of the rippling wormhole and down the stone steps of the Stargate platform. It wasn't until it began to spread out into the paddock that Faith realised that she was looking at a flock of sheep. She grinned, deactivating her zat, and leapt over the fence to stride towards the Stargate, pushing her way against the jostling tide of sheep to wait at one side of the steps. The last ewe skipped through the 'Gate and down the stairs past Faith and one by one, Knights of Camelot began to step out of the Stargate.
Faith took a moment to greet each of them by painstakingly remembered name as they passed her. Even though their satisfied smiles reassured her, she was on edge until Flash appeared, his head low as he pulled a laden cart through the Stargate.
Mallie waved enthusiastically from the driver's bench as soon as she spotted Faith. "We got sheep!" she yelled. Kay, who was sitting next to her, winced.
"We noticed!" Faith called back as the rest of the cart slid through the 'Gate and Flash began the descent from the platform.
Jem, who was sitting with his feet dangling over the end of the cart, twisted to see where they were as soon as he was through the Stargate. Catching sight of Faith, he grinned and waved wildly.
"Look what we got!" he called as a second, distinctly canine, head popped up next to his.
"What is that?" demanded Faith as the wagon drew level with her. She walked beside it as Mallie continued to guide the jolting vehicle down the stone stairs.
"It's a dog," Kay replied calmly as Mallie concentrated on wrestling against the forces of gravity.
"I see that," Faith told her. "What's it doing here? We've got enough mouths to feed as it is."
"It's a working dog," Mallie grunted as the rear wheels of the wagon slipped over the last step and hit the ground. "Beside, she's pregnant."
"Great," said Faith, meaning anything but. A whole litter of dogs to feed.
"About half of the sheep are too," Kay told her, jumping down from her perch next to Mallie as the farm-bred slayer reined Flash to a halt. "We got lucky. It was spring on Halosia."
"Any trouble?" Faith asked anxiously.
"None," Kay reassured her. "I don't think the Ori have reached that sector of the galaxy yet. The Halosians have only heard reports of them so far."
"That's good news at least," Faith said grimly. "Wonder how long it'll last."
"Another week at least, I hope," Mallie said from above them. "Halosia is holding a cattle market in five days and their cows are good milkers."
"It always comes back to food with you, doesn't it?" Kay asked Mallie with a laughing smile.
"A slayer needs her food!" Mallie agreed with an answering grin. "Speaking of which, we had better get this lot unpacked," she said, jerking her head back at the barrels and crates stacked high in the cart.
Faith had to take a step back, literally and figuratively, and let both the wagon and the dog go. Their first off-world trading run had been a success and one small dog wasn't such a disaster in the grand scheme of things. Besides, even Faith had to admit that the dog made it a lot easier to round up the sheep and get them moving towards the farms. The bitch might be worth her weight in meat after all.
In the meantime though, she really needed to check in with Slayer Central; she'd been gone for most of the day. God only knew what had happened while she was gone.
Reaching for the remote, Val hopped into her sleeping bag and quickly zipped up the side with the same hand. She wobbled a little. Sitting down on the cot that dominated the available floor space in the small storeroom, she turned the TV on. Val flicked through channels as she snuggled down, getting comfortable. A flash of rippling water made her hesitate and the last few seconds of the opening credits for a program called Wormhole X-Treme played out on the screen.
Val put down the remote.
Sam didn't bother to knock as she entered Jonas' room, not wanting to disturb him if he was asleep. She quickly realised that while Jonas was awake, he wasn't alone. Stumbling to a stop, she blinked rapidly as she took in the chessboard, camera and screen fixed above Jonas' bed. She should have thought of chess, Sam realised suddenly and fresh spears of guilt caused her to grimace. She'd already felt bad enough about neglecting Jonas of the past few days.
"Sorry," she said. "I can come back later."
"It's alright," Jool told her, rising from her chair in front of the chessboard. "Jonas was beating me anyway."
"Don't underrate yourself," Sam said grudgingly as she looked at the pieces left on the board.
"Want to finish the game?" offered Jool.
"Thanks," Sam accepted the offer. "But don't let me chase you away."
"I've got to go anyway," said Jool, glancing at her watch.
"Hot date?" asked Jonas.
"Something like that," Jool evaded, unable to tell him that SG-13 were patrolling Montrose's graveyard tonight. "And I'm late."
"Have fun," Jonas called after her as she slipped from the room.
Sam sat down in Jool's recently vacated seat, "How're you feeling?"
"Oh, can't feel my feet, searing pains in my chest whenever I breathe which, apparently, is a good sign..." Jonas told Sam, his tone light. "Same old, same old. How're you?"
"Busy, busy," said Sam, moving a piece on the chessboard. "You know what it's like."
"Yeah..." sighed Jonas, studying the board on the screen rigged above his head.
"Vala, you remember Vala, right?"
"Mmm-hmm," Jonas confirmed, concentrating on his next move.
"Anyway, Vala was kidnapped by the Trust a few days ago and we've been trying to track her–"
"I know," interrupted Jonas. "Knight to F-6. Doctor Wilson filled me in."
"Oh," was all that Sam could say to that. She moved Jonas' piece and stared at the board, trying to suppress the growing irritation she felt.
"She seems nice," Jonas said nonchalantly, his eyes shrewd as he looked at Sam.
"Mmmm," Sam made a non-committal noise.
"But you don't like her," Jonas noted.
"I didn't say that," defended Sam.
"You didn't have to," Jonas told her. "It's written all over you."
"Is it really that obvious?" Sam asked, giving up all pretence of playing chess and leaning back in her chair with a wry grimace.
"Only because I know you," Jonas reassured her.
"Great," Sam commented unenthusiastically. That meant she was probably broadcasting her dislike to at least half the base.
"We worked together for over a year," Jonas reminded her. "We trusted each other with our lives almost every day. That creates a bond."
"I know," agreed Sam.
"So why don't you like her?" Jonas asked, returning to the topic at hand.
"It's difficult to say," Sam hedged and Jonas' eyes narrowed assessingly. "I guess... sometimes you just don't like someone, you know?"
"No," disagreed Jonas.
"You never met someone you didn't like?" Sam asked with disbelief.
"Oh, I've met plenty," Jonas told her. "But I've always been able to work out why. Haven't you?"
"No," Sam said baldly.
There was silence for a moment as they both fell into their own thoughts, and then Jonas roused himself enough to ask about the information they were receiving from the Ori ship. Sam responded with enthusiasm, telling him about the progress they had made, and Jonas replied with interest, his keen intellect complimenting hers. Before they knew it the years had fallen away and they were talking as easily as they once had.
She was trapped. Afraid and angry, she struggled against an unseen presence that sat on her chest, squeezing the air from her lungs and forcing her to choke. Her stomach writhed as dread coiled its way through her body.
In front of her a man wearing rags convulsed on his knees, a bright beam of light connecting his head to her outstretched hand. Her eyes focussed on a chip in one of her gold encrusted fingernails and her forehead frowned but she wasn't in control. She literally couldn't stop her body from harming the man that knelt before her, and she was causing him pain; she could feel it. Worse, a sick sense of pleasure echoed back from the corners of her mind. She couldn't stop herself, couldn't force her own arm down. She could feel herself smiling while inside she silently screamed.
Sheer terror clawed Val awake. She heaved a great breath into her lungs; every muscle locked tight, the sleeping bag a confining bundle wrapped around her body. She held the breath for as long as she physically could, until her chest burned for air and her head swam.
She did it to prove that she could.
l DAY 3 l
Adria opened her eyes slowly. Audiences with her Fathers always left her yearning for more. They were unforgiving of the failings of her human half and unable to comprehend her growing obsession with her mother. This time they had impressed the importance of turning her attention away from the Clava upon her. She had more pressing objectives to fulfil. With the influx of soldiers and Priors due to arrive today she could afford to delegate. Besides, she had Deama to keep an eye on things for her.
The Orici regarded her Clava with a critical look. Unfortunately Deama was incapable of operating independently at the moment. Silently, Adria guided Deama across the floor to sit in front of her.
Staring deep into Deama's blue eyes, Adria began the slow and painstaking task of repairing some of the damage she had done to Deama's mind.
But not too much.
Sal realised that they had a problem when Val refused to take the trash out to the bins in the alley. Thinking back, he couldn't remember her setting foot outside the place. She'd made his diner her refuge. He pressed the issue and then backed off when she paled and bit her lip. He'd used it to guilt her into waiting on tables instead. Nothing major, just delivering the breakfast orders the waitresses called in, but he wanted to get her talking to people. She was too quiet.
After some coaching and a lot of encouragement, Val left the kitchen and entered the breakfast rush, laden with plates. She delivered them to the right table, quickly sorting out who'd ordered what, and made a hasty retreat back to the kitchen, her legs shaking.
"Good job," praised Sal, handing her two more plates. "Table seven, and kiddo? Don't forget to smile," he told her.
Val took a deep breath and pinned a smile on her face. "Smile," she said. "Gotcha."
Now that coffee was officially rationed it was only available in an absolute emergency. Unfortunately, as far as Faith was concerned, mornings didn't count as emergencies despite the fact that the slightly longer than normal day still had everyone's sleeping pattern out of whack. Logically Faith knew that the slayers had it easier than anyone else; needing less sleep to function. Logic didn't provide coffee in the morning though. Logic provided a minty cup of stewed herbs designed to send the recipient back to sleep, or so it seemed to Faith as she yawned into her cup. She was barely awake enough to follow the conversations flowing over the breakfast table, but a few words rose above the rest, catching her attention.
"One of the rabbits had a litter in the night. The little kits are so sweet!" Mallie was excitedly telling Jem.
"What?" demanded Faith, suddenly wide awake and sitting bolt upright in her chair. The chatter in the background died away as everyone became aware that Faith wasn't pleased about something.
"One of the rabbits–" Mallie hesitantly began.
"Rabbits!" Faith pounced on the word that had stirred her interest. "You brought rabbits back yesterday?"
"Um, yes," Mallie reluctantly admitted. Kay stepped away from the fire and the porridge she had been stirring to stand behind Mallie, silently offering her support.
"Oh, God," groaned Faith, dropping her head into her hands.
"What is wrong about rabbits?" Elifa asked curiously.
Faith reply was muffled but still clearly audible, "Australia."
Because it was raining in Montrose, Oz was helping Sergeant Siler construct the last computer bank they needed in order to handle the data they were receiving from the Ori mothership. Colonel Carter was at the far end of room, working her way through the latest information. Work on the mothership data had become a priority when Carter had discovered that the ship was currently in orbit around a world called Cimmeria. Apparently the Cimmerians were old friends of the SGC, and they wanted to monitor the situation on the ground.
But they were receiving more information than they could handle, and the sudden increase in transmissions that had begun a few hours ago wasn't making things any easier. They just couldn't find the information they needed to know. The stations Siler and Oz were building were an attempt to filter the data into designated stations grouped around the room. They'd deliberately copied the lay-out of a mothership bridge so that simulations would be easier to translate to a real bridge, although the stations were clearly of Earth origin and design.
At the moment the data was being held on a bank of servers at Colonel Carter's end of the room. She had already written a program that would split the data into the appropriate sections, so that it would be easier to monitor the arriving information. All that was left to do was to finish building the stations and connect the new hardware to the servers. They would then serve as both a back-up for the incoming data and as an overriding control system, much like the Prior's chair on an actual Ori mothership. All of the information would be accessible from Colonel Carter's station, and it could be used to program simulations to help the SGC learn more about the motherships and their capabilities.
First though, they needed to finish building the additional computers. Oz was enjoying the work. Although he was ultimately responsible for the data they were receiving from the Ori mothership, thanks to the virus he had coded into its systems, he hadn't had much of an opportunity to work on the project in the few days since its inception. Vala's abduction had meant that he spent more time in Montrose than at the SGC, using his highly developed sense of smell to try and track her down. So far he hadn't had much luck and, although he hadn't said anything yet, he was starting to agree with Jool. Either Vala had moved on, or she wasn't setting foot outside. Either way, he felt infinitely more useful here, helping Colonel Carter and Sergeant Siler. Not that he'd ever tell Doctor Jackson that. It was only the archaeologist's firm conviction that Vala was, for whatever reason, unable to contact them herself, that kept Oz and the others returning to Montrose. Doctor Jackson refused to give up on Qetesh's former host, and so neither would they. Other members of the SGC were continuing the search further afield, but for the most part it was business as usual for the heavily classified base. The Ori wouldn't halt their invasion of the galaxy just because the Orici's mother had been kidnapped, so Earth couldn't afford to stop working against them either.
The mothership data was just one of many projects the members of the SGC program were working on but, like so many others, it could provide the key to defeating the Ori. Once it was up and running, it would enable them to better understand the Ori motherships, and hopefully pinpoint any weaknesses in their design.
Both Sergeant Siler and Colonel Carter looked up as the door opened, but Oz had no need to. The scent that preceded the newcomer was a familiar one; although not one he had expected to smell for a while. Andrew was back.
Without looking up from the motherboard he was working on, Oz added his monosyllabic greeting to Colonel Carter and Sergeant Siler's more verbose ones.
Andrew was as enthusiastic as usual, excited to be back at the SGC and eager to get involved with the mothership project. He joined Colonel Carter at her workstation and badgered her into giving him a walk-through of the system they were currently using and a summation of what they had discovered so far. Sergeant Siler and Oz exchanged amused looks at the barely concealed irritation in Colonel Carter's voice as she explained the progress they had made so far.
"Andrew, give me a hand?" Oz requested, taking pity on the Colonel.
"Sure," Andrew agreed instantly. In his defence, he didn't mean to irritate anyone, but Colonel Carter didn't suffer fools gladly and Andrew had a habit of speaking before he thought. "What can I do?"
Sergeant Siler quickly walked Andrew through the process they were using and left Oz to keep an eye on him, moving to the other side of the room to start connecting the units they had already built. Oz began piecing the final server together, leaving the last motherboard to Andrew's surprisingly competent care. Although, thought Oz, didn't he remember Willow saying something about Andrew and a BuffyBot? Huh. Who'd have thought it?
"Sir Cyril?" Oz asked succinctly when Andrew handed him the completed motherboard, curious to know if the missing watcher had been found.
"Turns out he was kidnapped by a bunch of vamps who wanted him to tell them how to open the hellmouth," Andrew informed him, oblivious to the incredulous look Sergeant Siler sent their way. "He was being held in a magically shielded room, which is why I couldn't scry for him. Robin got a tip-off from one of the neutral races and we got him back late last night."
"Could that explain why you haven't been able to track Vala?" asked Colonel Carter, proving that she at least was following the conversation. Siler spared some incredulity for her too.
"It could," Andrew told her, giving the matter serious consideration. "If they've got her in a shielded room then the extra supplies I picked up in Cleveland aren't going to do any good."
"But it's worth a shot, right?" pressed the Colonel.
"Sure," Andrew agreed easily.
"Jool know?" Oz asked, returning to the subject of the missing watcher. Andrew's report clashed with what he had smelt in Sir Cyril's apartment, but he hadn't been there when the watcher was found. He supposed it was possible that the vampires had used mercenaries to kidnap the watcher, it just seemed unlikely.
"About Sir Cyril?" Andrew checked. "She's on the phone to him right now," he elaborated when Oz nodded. "I thought she was going to cry when I told her!"
"They're close," Oz observed.
"No kidding!" said Andrew as the last motherboard slotted into place and Oz reached inside to connect it to the others.
"Good to go," Oz told Siler, sliding the back plate into place and reaching for the screws.
Siler had the computer connected to the main server before Oz had all of the screws in, and Andrew hurried around the room, turning the newly-built machines on while Colonel Carter pulled up the programs she had written, waiting to hear that all was ready before she executed them. Monitors flickered into life as data flowed through cables and Andrew audibly squeaked.
"Oh, wow!" he said excitedly. "This is so cool! You based it on the mothership bridge design, right? Is it just me or is it missing... something?"
Closing her eyes and dropping her head into her hands, Colonel Carter sighed.
After a full day's work on the farm, Jem was exhausted. Born and dragged up from the gutters of a city the young man was unused to the long hours and hard labour associated with country living. He was hot, sweaty, and covered in filth from the animal pens. His muscles protested every movement he made, so much so that he was actually looking forward to the bath that Kay was bound to insist he take as soon as she clapped eyes on him.
Despite having worked much harder than him, Mallie's appearance was a direct contrast to Jem's. Her hair tied back from her face, she was actually glowing as she met him in the farmyard. The only thing that marred her features was a smudge of dirt on one of her cheekbones. She looked as though she could quite happily work for several more hours. Jem was dreading the walk back to town.
"Are you ready to go?" she asked him, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet.
Jem nodded wearily in reply, and turned to face the long trudge home. Mallie moved to his side and then stopped, frowning. Jem made it a couple of steps forward before he realised that she wasn't with him, and turned to see what the problem was.
Mallie was staring in the opposite direction, her forehead rumpled with concern. Jem followed her gaze and realised that he could hear thudding hoof beats striking the ground. Whoever was riding towards them was in a hurry.
One of the Cimmerian men rounded the corner of the barn, atop a dappled grey horse. As he drew nearer Jem realised that the horse was flecked with a foamy lather of sweat and clearly exhausted. The rider showed no signs of stopping, clearly aiming for the road that led to town. Uttering a small sound of disgust, Mallie stepped directly into the path of the horse as it reached them.
Jem lunged for her as the horse reared, almost unseating its startled rider. He tried to pull her back, out of danger, but she resisted, reaching up for the reins that the rider had let go. He watched incredulously as she started to soothe the beast.
"Are you mad?" the rider yelled at Mallie as his mount calmed. "I could have–" he suddenly realised who he was talking to and paled dramatically. "Forgive me, Valkyrie," he said in a drastically different tone, his head respectfully bowed. "I did not realise–"
"That you were in danger of riding this horse to its death?" Mallie cut him off acerbically, stroking the horse's nose. Still holding the reins, she began to walk. The horse shambled obediently behind her. "We need every animal we have if we are to survive the winter. What could be so important that you would risk her life?"
"We need no longer fear starvation," the man told her eagerly. "Several miles south of here the fields stretch for as far as the eye can see, all planted with a wondrous food. I was hastening to share the good news."
"Show me," commanded Mallie, an inkling of dread in her voice. Jem frowned, wondering what the catch was.
The man pulled something from the satchel he wore and threw it to her. Mallie caught it easily with one hand and then looked at what she held. She stopped pacing.
"What is it?" asked Jem, moving so that he could see her face. She looked pale and slightly green, her face devoid of expression and her eyes far away. "Mallie?"
"Kassa," she whispered.
"What?" Jem took a closer look at the vegetable that she held in her hand. It was cylindrical in shape, with pale green leaves that had been peeled back to show the curiously knobbly yellow and red vegetable beneath. He'd never seen anything like it before. "What is it?"
Mallie barely heard him, too concerned with what she held in her hand. Faith was already upset about the rabbits they'd brought back yesterday, treating the slayers to a long lecture over breakfast about a planet called Australia and the importance of something called echo-systems. How would she react when she found out that there was kassa on this world?
Distantly she became aware that Jem was shaking her. She batted his hands away without a thought, turning to the rider. "Have you eaten any?" she wanted to know.
"Yes, Valkyrie," the man admitted, his eyes troubled. "Did I do wrong? I feel no ill-effects. If anything I feel invigorated, as though Thor himself had blessed me."
"You would," sighed Mallie, closing her eyes as she thought rapidly. "Okay..." she said, starting to walk the horse again. "We need to see Faith. You had better come with us," she told the rider. "Jem, help Arne saddle two fresh horses and then tell him I need him to take care of this one."
"As you wish," Jem said stiffly, trying hard to stifle the resentment he felt over her cavalier treatment of him. It was obvious that something important was happening, but she was practically ignoring him. He didn't exactly relish the idea of riding back to town either.
"Only two, Valkyrie?" the rider questioned gently as Jem limped off on his errand.
"I do not need a horse to keep up," Mallie informed him airily, moving forward again to cool off his horse. "My name is Malina. You are one of Brock's scouts, are you not?"
"I am," the rider said proudly. "Hakon, at your service."
"I am pleased to meet you, Hakon," Mallie told him honestly. She was hoping that they could prevent word of the kassa from spreading. "I know that Faith will want to hear what you have to say."
Hakon's jaw dropped open at the thought of an audience with the most senior of Valkyries. Although he had known that his news would be welcome, this was more than he had thought to dream of.
"Two horses," Jem announced as he and Arne appeared, each leading a horse. "As ordered."
"Thanks, Jem," Mallie beamed at him as she stopped walking for long enough to allow Hakon to dismount.
Jem's sullen look evaporated in the light of her smile, but returned slightly when he turned his attention to his horse. Handing the gray over to Arne, Mallie walked over to hold the reins of his horse so that Jem could scramble atop. Flushed with triumph at achieving the feat, Jem looked down at her from what seemed like a great height.
"You ready?" she asked.
"When you are," he told her.
Glancing over at Hakon, Mallie realised that the scout had pulled another kassa from his satchel and was absentmindedly eating it, his expression one of bliss. Disgusted, she couldn't help grimacing. One kassa addict was one too many in her opinion. Without a word, she took Hakon's reins in her other hand and set off for town at a flat sprint.
The news that Vala's DNA hadn't been among those found at the Trust's destroyed safehouse spread swiftly through the SGC, bringing with it a collective sigh of relief. It was surprising how quickly the former host had managed to make her presence felt in the underground base, and even more surprising how much her antics were missed now she was gone. She certainly hadn't caused this much disturbance the first time she had disappeared, transported to the Ori home galaxy. Her time there had matured her to some degree, and the fact that she had continued to work against the Ori, despite the fact that her daughter was now leading their forces, had definitely raised her in the SGC's esteem. Daniel in particular saw the DNA results as further proof that she was still alive. His mood was particularly buoyant as he and the male members of SG-13 prepared for their evening patrol of Montrose. He even cracked a smile at Andrew and Oz's double act.
Jon was reminded of all the times Daniel had died, only to return in one form or another, and usually no worse for the experience. It was entirely possible that Vala had escaped from the warehouse before it exploded, although the reason for her absence was harder to figure out. Daniel's blind faith in her wasn't that different from the faith SG-1 had learned to have in Daniel.
Waiting for them in the hallway outside, Jool straightened as the four of them left the changing room. She noted Jon's close proximity to Daniel with little surprise. Over the past few days the Captain's attitude towards his former teammate had undergone a slight thawing. He might not have forgotten what he saw as Daniel's betrayal, but he was almost certainly closer to forgiving him for it.
Not that he'd ever admit it.
It didn't take long for Vealdr to notice that the leaders of the small community gathered every night in the house that the Valkyries had claimed for their own. Nor did it escape him that he had yet to receive an invitation. Oh, he collected his daily food rations from their kitchen (or rather, one of his acolytes did) but everyone did that. Only those that ran the village were permitted to join the Valkyries at their own table, and Vealdr was not amongst them.
The insult rankled. It was made worse by the fact that Gairwyn's son, Gunnar, and his wife were nightly visitors. He had already endured one affront from that family, when Thor's emissaries had overlooked him in the rebuilding after the Ettins had invaded, choosing Gairwyn as their envoy instead. He was not inclined to suffer another.
He was Thor's Priest! He should be counselling the Valkyries, not sitting in solitary splendour. Instead of confiding in him, they avoided him. It wasn't supposed to be like this! People listened to him, so why wouldn't they?
One thing was clear. Unless he took actions to prevent it he would be excluded from any decisions made by this self-elected council. And that was unacceptable to Vealdr.
Which was how he found himself shivering in the cool night air, torn by sudden trepidation outside the front door of the house the Valkyries had taken for their own. Reaching deep inside himself, he summoned enough courage to open the door and step inside.
Inside, all was dark and quiet. The hall was lit only by one guttering candle, but Vealdr's sharp ears detected the murmuring of voices beyond a door with light streaming underneath it. He crept across the room, closer to the door, until he could make out individual voice.
"We're all agreed then?" asked Faith, the leader of the Valkyries. "Tomorrow we get Hakon to take us–" a floorboard creaked under Vealdr's foot and Faith abruptly broke off mid-sentence.
Suppressing an automatic curse, Vealdr flung the door open. He'd already announced his presence; he might as well make it felt.
"Oh," he feigned surprise. "My apologies for intruding," as he spoke, his eyes were busily roaming the room, taking in every little detail and storing it up for later analysis. "I wished only invite you to a feast in your honour tomorrow night. Whatever is that?" he had spied the strange vegetables in the middle of the table and darted forward to pick one up before anyone could stop him.
"Kassa," Faith told him in a flat tone, exchanging significant glances with Kay and Ursula.
"Is it edible?" Vealdr wanted to know.
"Unfortunately," said Faith. She elaborated in the face of his confusion. "Apparently it's highly addictive too."
"But you have no proof of this?" questioned Vealdr.
"On the contrary," Kay interrupted their conversation with a gentle reproof aimed at Vealdr, "Kassa is known on many worlds. Those that have not succumbed to its allure have banned it, as we should do."
"But it is food," Vealdr's objection was simple. "If Thor did not intend us to eat it, he would not have allowed it to grow here."
"What part of addictive don't you get?" Faith asked him. "This shit is bad for you."
"Is there enough to feed us through the winter?" countered Vealdr, taking a seat at the table and forcing Gunnar and his wife to move down for him.
"Apparently," Mallie reluctantly admitted. She winced as Faith threw a glare her way and shrugged apologetically.
"Then what is wrong with us eating it if there is more than sufficient for our needs?" asked Vealdr.
"The people who sell this, who grow this, will be back for it," Kay told him.
Vealdr wasn't fazed, "So we will let them take as much as they want."
"They will want all of it," Brock told him.
"And they will expect us to have harvested it for them," added Mallie.
"So why are we not harvesting it?" Vealdr wanted to know, alarmed by the thought that the owners of the kassa might punish them for not doing so.
"Because if people harvest it they'll probably eat it at the same time," Kay explained matter-of-factly.
"We've already got one person addicted to it, we don't need more," Faith informed him.
"Who has eaten it?" Vealdr asked out of curiosity.
"Hakon," Brock told him and Vealdr nodded automatically. He remembered the name, but not the face.
"He was not happy when we took his supply from him," observed Nya.
Faith snorted, "You said it!" She squirmed when she realised that her outbreak had caused everyone to look at her.
"So what do you plan to do about it?" challenged Vealdr.
"We're gonna burn it," Faith said simply.
"What?" exclaimed Vealdr, horrified. "You can't do that!"
"Why not?" asked Faith.
"Because... because it must be worth something!" Vealdr seized an excuse. "What if we were to trade it for goods that we can use?"
"We're not drug dealers!" Faith said forcefully. "No!"
"But," began Vealdr.
"I said no!" repeated Faith.
"It is not the worst idea I have heard," Skardhe said from his position near the fire.
The argument that ensued lasted late into the night, and carried over into the next day.