Warnings: Mild language and tragic situations (NO major character death)
Summary: The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.
Author's Notes: I don't know why these kinds of stories come to me, although this particular one dawned as I was listening to Loreena McKinnett. That woman lives for tragedy. *g* Many thanks go out to Diane, as always, for her fantastic beta skills. And just to clarify, all mistakes are my own.
The Shadows of Fear
"There is nothing to fear, but fear itself." -- Franklin Roosevelt
They traipsed through the woods; the strangers did, their boots barely making a sound on the frozen ground. Not like the Traveler, who came in with the wind, his arrival marked only by his presence next to her when she least expected it. She stopped to watch the people, looking at their shadows, afraid that she would see the demons of their fears following along behind. But their demons stared curiously back at her, not like the snarling ones that sometimes came into her woods with other strangers, so she went back to her play, knowing that she need not worry. These people won't hurt her.
It was an odd sight. Jack O'Neill noticed her as soon as he and his team rounded the bend. There was a little girl playing in the woods on a cold, snowy afternoon. She was alone, as far as Jack could see, skipping around the trees and jumping from logs and rocks, stopping every few minutes to stare at Jack and his team. He wondered whether he should say something, but she kept her distance and Jack figured to respect her wishes.
He continued to walk down the path behind his teammates as they headed for their destination, a small town several klicks away from the Stargate. The UAV had gone down somewhere in the vicinity of the village, which made this trip a double feature. Meet and greet the natives, while locating the UAV to bring it back to base. It was a standard mission, marred by the vision of a lonely little girl who shouldn't be out this far from home, especially in this weather.
"I see her, Daniel." How could he not, he thought. She was dressed in a long white dress and a dark blue shawl, both billowing out as she played in the wind. Even with snow on the ground and the trees, she was clearly visible as she danced in the woods.
"Shouldn't we stop to talk to her?"
"We don't want to scare her," Carter said, apparently agreeing with Jack's assessment. "We're not that far from the town we saw through the UAV. She's probably just out playing."
Daniel nodded, but Jack could see that he was still debating the issue. Teal'c, on the other hand, kept up the pace, leading his teammates through the gloom as late afternoon sunlight streamed in through the leaves. The snow tapered off, but the wind still shook the branches of the trees, scattering flurries in all directions. Jack shivered involuntarily when a strong gust sailed past him as they walked down the path. He couldn't help but worry about the little girl. She shouldn't be out in the woods in this weather.
To hell with it, he thought. He stopped and turned toward the child. The least he could do is try to get her to go home. But before he could even speak, the little girl took off at a run, her long brown hair flying behind her. So much for not scaring her, Jack thought grumpily. He hated it when he did that.
"Where'd she go?" Daniel asked with surprise.
"Home, I hope," Carter said with feeling. "It's too cold out here for such a little girl."
"Let's keep moving," Jack told them, his breath frosting in the air as he spoke. "It will be dark soon and I'm already freezing my ass off." Carter nodded, while Daniel kept looking off into the woods where the little girl had once played.
"Think she'll be all right?" he asked. "What was she doing out there in the first place?"
Jack just shrugged. He didn't have an answer and he figured Daniel probably didn't expect one anyway. He flexed his fingers, hoping to find a little warmth, even as he scanned the area for anything else out of the ordinary. This was a mission, like any other he had experienced back home, as well as on various planets throughout the universe. The woods they traipsed through smelled just like the ones on Earth; the aroma of wet dirt, dead leaves, and mossy patches on the rocks and trees reminded Jack of camping trips he took with his father. He relished in the memories even as he kept a watchful eye for natives, danger, or a certain little girl who didn't have enough sense to stay home in weather like this.
They walked a few more miles before coming to a complete stop when Teal'c held up his hand. Jack pushed past Daniel and Carter in order to find out what was going on, but relaxed slightly when he saw their earlier visitor standing in the road staring at them. She was a beautiful child, with long, dark, wavy hair framing a pale face, but Jack became seriously concerned when he saw that her dark eyes were filled with tears. Still, he had been through too many wars to let his guard down completely. The enemy had been known to use their children as bait, relying on the fact that most people valued the life of a child. He held out a hand to hold Daniel back, while keeping his eyes on the girl.
"Hello there," he said kindly. "Are you lost?"
She shook her head, causing tears to fall down her cheeks. She was shivering violently, but took a step back when Jack offered her his hand.
"I am so cold," she said, her words coming out strong and clear through chattering teeth.
"Here," Carter said, as she shrugged out of her backpack. "I have a blanket you could use." Jack glanced over at Carter, wanting to warn her to be careful, but Carter knew the rules as well as he did. She took out the blanket and held it out to the child, keeping her own distance as she did so.
The little girl stared at Carter with a look of sadness that nearly broke Jack's heart. Something was wrong here, but before he could react, the girl grabbed the blanket and pulled it over her shoulders, all the while staring at them with an almost haunting look. She gave them a trembling smile, then turned and ran off down the path in the same direction Jack and his team were heading. He and Daniel exchanged looks of exasperation, while Carter immediately took offense.
"Hey!" she yelled, but the girl was gone, almost as if she hadn't been there in the first place. The whole situation gave Jack the creeps. Carter, however was more upset than anything.
"She took my blanket!"
Jack, being who he was, couldn't help but inject a little teasing while the opportunity was still fresh. "Looks like you lost your blanket, Carter," he said with a smirk. "I'd be glad to share mine with you." He waggled his eyebrows at her, then said, "You know, in case you get cold."
She looked at him in surprise, then shook her head as she rolled her eyes. "A true gentleman would have offered to give me his blanket," she said, her own expression telling Jack that she didn't believe him for a minute. Jack just stared at her in disbelief. He wasn't about to freeze to death for anybody, all chivalry aside.
"I do not believe that O'Neill would allow you to suffer through the night without a blanket, Major Carter."
"There. See?" Jack said, pleased that someone was willing to side with him. "At least Teal'c believes in me." Teal'c bowed his head in agreement, while Jack looked around once more, a sense of ill ease tingling despite his attempts to lighten the mood. "Let's just get a move on, shall we?"
The day was almost over.
Although she lived out her destiny every single day, she was always surprised when evening brought on a bone chilling cold. She clutched the blanket around her shoulders, mourning the lack of warmth. She shivered with cold, listening to the strangers as they followed the path that she took. They were not like the others, those with the snarling shadows who would laugh and try to catch her. No, these people wanted to help, even giving her a blanket to ward off a chill that would never go away. She smiled sadly again as she let the blanket drop from her shoulders. They were good people, but she should have known that the blanket would not help. She turned toward the woods, her home away from home. She had one more thing to do. No matter that she dreaded it with all her being, she could not escape her destiny.
They took off down the road again, with Teal'c back in the lead and Jack pulling up the rear. They had traveled a short distance when they found Carter's blanket. It was hanging on a branch, the girl nowhere in sight. Carter picked up the blanket, a worried look on her face as she scanned the woods in the growing darkness. Jack joined her in her search, trying desperately to see past the deepening shadows that appeared through the snowy mists. The wind grew colder with the oncoming darkness, and the kid's only protection from freezing was a shawl.
"She must have gone home," Carter said with a worried frown. "Right?"
"Yeah," Daniel said, although it was clear that he had his doubts, as well.
Jack just shook his head to say that he didn't know. "It's getting dark," he told his friends. "She's probably warming her toes at the fire as we speak." He motioned for Teal'c to take the lead again, wanting nothing more than to find someplace warm.
"Wait, there she is!" Daniel said, as he pointed off toward a tree stump in the distance. Jack followed his gaze, then shook his head in disgust. The damn kid was sitting on the stump, staring at them, and Jack squelched the urge to run over there to scold her within an inch of her life. What was she doing out in the freaking cold?
He followed the others as they walked slowly toward the child. She was so skittish, he was afraid she would take off on them again. But she didn't move, even when Carter went over and knelt down beside her. But she did pull back when Carter moved to touch her arm, which prompted Carter to sit back on her heels.
"Why are you out here in the cold?" she asked the child, who stared at them with a look of sadness, mixed with fear. "Shouldn't you be at home?"
The girl shook her head, fear now overshadowing her expression. "I can't go home," she said, her voice quivering with emotion. She turned to look at Jack, her eyes pleading, "I can never go home again."
"Sure you can," Jack said, wishing he knew how to turn the tears, and her fears, into smiles. "Come on, we'll take you there." She didn't move, so Jack gave her an encouraging smile, then beckoned with his hand as he soothed, "Come on."
But the little girl shook her head, terror causing her to jump up and move away. "No," she said, as she stared at them with a frightened look. "I want to, but I can't." She was crying now, crystal tears sliding effortlessly down her cheeks, and Jack was at a loss as to what to say. Maybe the kid didn't have a home to go to.
Still, he couldn't leave her here in the woods to freeze to death. "Come on," he said, while Carter reached out to her, but the child bolted. "Big surprise," he said sarcastically, but still, they ran after her, only to lose sight of her almost immediately. It was almost as if she disappeared in the night. But they could hear her sobs long after she was gone, the sound mixing in with the wind until Jack couldn't determine which was which. They stood there in silence, until he shook away the awful feeling of failure and galvanized his team into action again.
"Let's go," he ordered, a little more gruffly than he intended. "The town can't be that far ahead."
Teal'c once again led the way, while Jack and the others followed in silence. Jack couldn't help but worry about that kid, his fears magnified as the sounds of the night filtered in through his thoughts. Something howled in the distance, but the lights of the town ahead eased some of his fears. Surely the kid had a home to go to. She was so young, maybe only ten or eleven years old. How could anyone not take her in?
She remembered the inn. It was always warm and full of happy people, although sometimes there would be anger and fights when customers drank too much. But it was the warmth that she craved right now. She huddled next to the door, trying hard to feel warm again, while pressing her ear to the smoothness of the wood, hoping to hear the familiar sounds of happy customers. It was hard to hear over the low growling and mumbling of the demons that lived there, but sometimes she could just make out the sound of something familiar, something that touched her like no other.
Sometimes she thought she could hear her past.
The lights of the town lightened the night sky as Jack and his team neared the buildings. The streets were deserted, nothing but snow swirling in the wind, sweeping across the ground in random patterns and obliterating any signs of footprints. If the kid came this way, there was no sign of the path she took.
Sounds of laughter greeted them as they walked farther into the town. Jack turned toward the building where the noise came from, and was shocked to once again see the child; this time huddled in the doorway. Her knees were pulled up to her chest, and she leaned against the door, as if listening for something.
"God," Daniel whispered, his anguish echoing Jack's feelings on the subject. The little girl must be an orphan. Why else would she be sitting outside that door? Anger swept through him as he thought about the people in the town and their obvious neglect of a child. Surely someone in this backwater town could take in a homeless kid.
"Is this your home?" Daniel asked of the child. She didn't respond, just stared at them with a sad expression, while the sound of voices grew louder. Someone was coming from inside the building.
"It's an inn," Daniel said, indicating the sign at the far end of the porch. "Marida's House," he read, while Jack briefly wondered if maybe the child was drawn to this place because of the extra rooms the place probably had. He turned back to ask her, but once again, he was facing emptiness.
"What the heck?"
"Okay," Daniel said, looking around at the landscape. "Where'd she go this time?"
That kid sure moves fast, Jack thought, as he pointed toward the other end of the porch. "Over there," he said just as the door opened.
"…And don't stay away for so long," the woman who opened the door said to someone who was behind her.
"I have a farm to take care of," the man said, as he followed her out. "The crops need tending to…" They both stopped when they saw Jack and his team, the woman's expression changing from mock scolding to a huge smile.
"Hello!" she said as she opened the door wider. "You look as if you are parched and hungry. Please come in and warm yourselves by the fire." She turned to look at her companion, her long, dark hair shimmering in the soft glow of the light coming from inside the building. "I mean it, Karden. I expect to see you in a few weeks time." Karden heaved a long-suffering sigh, but nodded in agreement.
"Thank you," Daniel said, in answer to her offer. "But I'm afraid we don't have any currency."
"What about the child?" Teal'c asked, butting in to Daniel's explanation. "Will she be allowed to enter your establishment?"
"Of course," the woman said. "All are welcome." Her smile dimmed though, when she looked toward the place where Teal'c pointed. Her expression became wary, and she turned to look at them with a polite smile that held a touch of fear. "What child?"