Title: The Sleeping Warrior
Summary: Teal'c thought the hardest battles already won, but instead, the real struggles are just beginning. The Jaffa nation after the defeat of the Goa'uld.
Season: Future, post season eight AU.
Categorization: Drama, action/adventure, established Teal'c/Ishta, passing mention of Teal'c/Drey'auc and Teal'c/Shau'nac.
A/N: Written for the tealc_ficathon for lovellama with the prompts 'action, het, and intrigue'. Didn't turn out quite as het-centric as planned, but I hope you still like it! Special thanks to katcorvi and aurora_novarum for invaluable beta help.
You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself. –Siddhartha Gautama
The Sleeping Warrior
Teal'c steps out of the Council chamber, weary to his bones. The spring session is only three days old and yet he already feels his patience splintering. It is a weakness he cannot entertain, and he can only hope a few hours of evening meditation will bring his mind back into focus, his emotions tightly under control.
With his thoughts thus focused, Teal'c doesn't register the young Jaffa hovering in the shadows until he nearly steps in front of Teal'c, cutting off his path. Teal'c recognizes him as Arnok, one of Bra'tac's most promising apprentices and whatever part of his body that was not already stiff with indignation now becomes rigid with foreboding. There can only be one reason for Arnok to seek him out here.
"Speak, Arnok," Teal'c says in way of acknowledgement.
"Master Teal'c," he says, bowing his head lowly. His every movement is perfectly in compliance with protocol almost to the point of exaggeration.
"Speak," Teal'c repeats, having no more patience for manners and politeness this day.
Arnok nods, clearing his throat and darting a glance over Teal'c's shoulder and Teal'c recognizes these as the obvious stalling tactics that they are. Whatever Arnok has come to say, he does so unwillingly.
Teal'c grasps Arnok's arm and pulls him into an adjacent hallway, one less populated with curious ears. "Where is Bra'tac?"
Arnok shifts under his regard. "He went to speak with the Kal'vidan."
Teal'c's jaw clenches. "Alone?" he asks, his careful, even tone revealing nothing of the anger building in his stomach.
"Yes," Arnok confirms.
Teal'c closes his eyes momentarily, taking a deep breath. "How long ago?"
"And you have not heard from him since?"
"And yet you are only now coming to me with this."
"He ordered us not to interfere," Arnok insists. "But he should have returned by now. I fear something has gone amiss."
It was inevitable, perhaps. Ever since Bra'tac relinquished his seat on the Council in exchange for an intransigent life of wandering from Jaffa camp to camp, he was bound to run into trouble. Not all Jaffa greeted the new order with open hearts. And these, like the Kal'vidan, are the ones Bra'tac means to better understand and extend the hand of kinship to.
Teal'c knows the tentative peace between the Kal'vidan and the Council is such that any overt retaliation, even an armed attempt to recover Bra'tac, will be seen as a declaration of open war. Bra'tac must know this as well and as such has roped his attendants into swearing off any such action, effectively tying their hands. All this in the name of reaching out to all Jaffa in the galaxy.
"Fortunately I am bound by no such order," Teal'c says. "I will retrieve him."
Arnok nods, looking relieved. "Thank you, Master."
"I will meet you by the chappa'ai," Teal'c says, turning to head for his quarters and leaving Arnok behind.
The Kal'vidan may not possess great military power or strength of numbers, but what they do have on their side is a frenzied sort of fanaticism and a certain aptitude at the kind of guerilla unrest that can destabilize the largest of nations with nothing more than a campaign of whispers and public acts of flashy rhetoric. What Bra'tac may have hoped to achieve by meeting with these people, Teal'c cannot even begin to imagine.
For a moment Teal'c considers contacting SG-1 for backup, but retrieving Bra'tac will require subtlety and cunning and blending in among the new Jaffa worlds, and for all their effectiveness and loyalty and strength, calling upon SG-1 would be like trying to thread a ha'tak through the eye of a Stargate—foolish, dangerous, and ultimately overkill. Besides which, he must remind himself that SG-1 is disbanded, each member having moved on to new jobs and new locations, just as he has. No, he will not contact them unless his original plan proves fruitless. He will do this alone.
Once back in his quarters, Teal'c packs quickly, nothing but essentials placed in a lightweight backpack. Moving swiftly and easily overland will be a necessity. He also changes from his formal robes to a set of green fatigues, sparing not a glance for the armor sitting polished and ready for action in one corner. Like with many aspects of Jaffa culture, that armor is fashioned to intimidate and frighten, and while it withstands brunt force very well, it understands nothing of subtlety. He must move through rough terrain and does not need the flash of reflections or crash of metal to announce his position. Today's mission calls for subterfuge.
As he strides back out through the main corridor towards the Stargate, he feels eyes upon him, many no doubt in disapproval of his Tau'ri wear. They see it as yet more evidence of Teal'c's corruption. His is honored as Jaffa legend, icon, and yet held with suspicion much the same way as his words. He keeps telling his people they must adapt or perish, that they cannot cling blindly to the old ways out of nostalgia or pride, but must grow in strength and knowledge, for the best way to honor the past is to insure the continuation of their kind.
An oversized warrior class with no war and no ruthless, territory-hungry Goa'uld provoking a constant season of battle is nothing but a burden to its people. Honor the old ways, yes, but also become what your people need you to be, whether that is farmer or scribe or baker.
There is an ancient Jaffa tradition of warriors as a sleeping class, men trained in battle but going about other trades in times of peace, only taking up arms when called. The last centuries of near constant battle between the System Lords, not to mention the more recent threat of the Tau'ri, have nearly erased this notion from the minds of the Jaffa. It is hard to remember a time a warrior might quietly till his land and tend his family between conflicts. They have become far too dependent upon a slave class, lowly humans and the marginalized of their own kind.
It is dependence that has always been their greatest weakness, the links of their chains. Today they would exchange dependence upon the Goa'uld for dependence upon the Tok'ra, the Tau'ri, and the human slaves—a class of citizens that has become a point of contention among many. As former slaves themselves, who are they to yoke another people this way? But always, this moral pause is overwritten by the fear of maintaining their newborn nation and their old ways.
If they do not adapt, they are destined to become a class of mercenaries, always searching for a master to serve, dependent upon plunder for an influx of goods. And how is that not merely another incarnation of slavery?
This is of what Teal'c tried to speak to the Council earlier this very day, but they are deaf to his words, his knowledge and understanding. Just as the Jaffa he passes in the hall do not see adaptation in his Tau'ri garb, but corruption, capitulation, so too do the Council members see this in his advice.
It wears at him, day by day, and it is almost with relief that he leaves, if not for his concern for Bra'tac's safety.
The Stargate seems to greet him like an old friend.
The Kal'vidan, being a paranoid culture clinging tenaciously to an apocryphal past to the point of blindness, do not live near a Stargate, but rather four day's journey by foot. Though Bra'tac undoubtedly came by ship himself, and would thus provide an escape route, such an approach could not have gone unnoticed and Teal'c does not wish to be detected for the same reasons he did not call upon SG-1's help.
He must be in and out before the Kal'vidan know he is even there.
The planet's terrain is relatively level, large meadows spilling into low foothills covered densely with trees by the second morning. It is then that Teal'c notices there is someone mirroring him on the far side of the valley floor, gaining ground on him. He was not certain at first, but he can no longer disregard the tightness in his shoulders and so shifts further up into the tree line, doubling back for a mile until his pursuer compensates, unknowingly crossing over his path.
Crouching in the brush, Teal'c measures the probability of his shadow being one of the Kal'vidan or if Arnok simply found himself unable to sit in the village near the gate while his Master was in danger. Once Teal'c is done chastising him for his foolishness, Arnok may just rise in his estimation if this is so.
But surely Arnok is not this adept at tracking, for despite Teal'c's ruse, he has lost sight of his shadow again.
His first warning that his location has been made is the gentle press of the head of a staff weapon into his back.
Cursing himself for his lapse in attention, Teal'c shifts his weight, rolling to the side and reaching for the staff weapon, tugging it forward ruthlessly to knock his opponent off balance. He hears his opponent stumble at the unexpected movement. Teal'c kicks out his foot, sweeping their legs and pinning them to the ground in one smooth motion.
He looks down to see not Arnok nor some Kal'vidan stranger, but a face known very well to him. In stealth, Ishta has always undeniably been his superior, but in close range combat, he is the one with the upper hand.
"I yield," Ishta breathes from under the pressure of his forearm across her chest.
"Ishta," Teal'c says, pulling his arm back and rolling off of her. "What are you doing here?" He glances around, wondering if his approach has been this obvious. He could have any number of Kal'vidan watching him if this is so.
"Do not worry," she says, sitting up and rolling her shoulder as if testing for injury. "Your path was not easy to find." He is chagrined to be caught out thus and she must see something of it on his face because she smiles gently and says, "I simply have the advantage of knowing my quarry well."
Pushing to her feet, she swing her staff weapon back across her back, securing it with a strap. In addition to the staff, she carries a Berretta holstered to her hip. The soft leather of her clothing is a uniform brown that blends well with the surroundings and allows her to move without a rustle of sound betraying her.
"How did you know I was here?" Teal'c asks, getting to his feet.
Ishta tilts her head to one side as if trying to assess his mood. "I am not without resources, for all that I am out favor with the Council."
Arnok, the meddling fool. Apparently he had wearied of waiting by the gate.
"If I required your assistance, I would have asked for it," Teal'c says before he can contemplate the wisdom of speaking rashly.
Whatever spark there might be in Ishta at his less than welcoming tone is quickly subsumed. She has always reacted against brute force with nothing but increasing calm. It is why he is usually wise enough not let himself be pushed to anger; it puts her too much at an advantage.
"Would you really?" she asks, her voice serene, but full of hidden edges. "I wonder."
Teal'c feels the prick of her underlying censorship and forcibly reins in his foul mood. He reminds himself that with Ishta, his chances for pulling Bra'tac unharmed and with minimum impact has doubled.
"We should continue on," Ishta says when it is clear he has no response.
Teal'c nods, knowing he is without choice in this matter. Not that the thought of tying her to a tree does not at least cross his mind. It would be ineffective, certainly, but highly satisfying.
Unaware of his thoughts, Ishta merely falls back behind him without another word, slipping silently into the foliage.
And so they continue.
They both require sleep, though not quite so much as a human. They can function quite well on a few hours a day, but fumbling around unknown territory in the dark, let alone the territory of a people no doubt capable of setting defensive traps, is not the height of wisdom. So they settle for the night in a small depression behind a ridge of rocks.
They have not spoken in long hours, merely crossing the terrain in distant, but unified movement. Once again in close proximity, however, Teal'c begins to feel the weight of this silence.
"How do things fair on Hak'tyl?" Teal'c asks, a peace offering of sorts.
Ishta shrugs off her pack, settling down into the small depression. "Well. We have cleared and planted four more fields in the adjacent valley to accommodate our swelling numbers."
In the months since the defeat of the Goa'uld and the Replicators, many have immigrated to Hak'tyl, both those displaced by war and those left adrift with the collapse of the old castes. Priestesses and servants, men and women alike.
The integration of such disparate populations cannot be easy.
"Things remain calm?" he asks.
Ishta's lips twist. "Yet another benefit of the labor," she says, "it keeps tempers even."
Teal'c smiles at the admission. There are more than a few hot heads among the growing Hak'tyl camps, Neith chief among them. Yet this challenge, like many others, Ishta has competently traversed with ease and skill. He envies her that ability.
Ishta shifts, pulling one leg into her chest and laying her staff within easy reach. Taking a moment to study the weapon, Teal'c recognizes that it has been modified in a manner he has never seen before.
"Your weapon," Teal'c says, jutting his chin towards her staff. "May I see it?"
There is a beat of hesitance on her part before she lifts the staff, offering it to him.
Teal'c takes it, rolling and thrusting the staff through a short routine. As he suspected, it is shorter, much lighter, but still well balanced. In these new dimensions, it no longer seems a weapon of brute strength, but something subtler, more easily carried upon a person, or in particular, a woman. No matter the warrior's size, one would not have to over commit oneself in close combat with such a weapon.
"Where did you get this?" Teal'c asks.
Ishta hesitates again, but he is not sure what the source of this hesitance is. "Nesa," she eventually says.
Teal'c's eyebrows draw together. "The child?"
"Not so much a child anymore," Ishta says. "She has proven to have a quick mind. I believe Daniel Jackson has been seeing to her education, asking Colonel Carter upon occasion to help broaden her knowledge. The modification to the staff weapon was Nesa's idea."
"Impressive," Teal'c says, handing back her weapon.
Ishta nods, laying the staff across her lap, her fingers running the length of the smooth metal. "It is lighter and more accurate and requires less energy for each pulse. Apparently this means it will last longer. Which is essential due to our dwindling supply. Nesa already searches for a replacement energy source, so that we may construct new ones from old parts." Ishta's brow creases. "At least this is what Nesa has tried to explain to me. I confess myself still ignorant of most of the gods' secrets."
"And yet you encourage this," Teal'c notes, knowing how hard that must have been.
Ishta's chin lifts, as if ready to find criticism even where there is none. She has had to become far too used to defending her ideas from others' cynical judgment. "Yes," she says. "I have seen how easily curiosity spreads among the young. They have not been burdened by a lifetime of false service, by an age-old imprint that those of our generation find hard to erase."
If only the Council could see things thus, Teal'c thinks.
The gods' secrets were always forbidden to those of their caste—warriors permitted to use the weapons, but not to understand them. They know now that these false gods are powerless to doom their souls, to enforce eternal punishment, but it is still sometimes hard to ignore these deeply ingrained doctrines, just one reason among many that the Council hesitates to endorse such tasks. Curiosity in a Jaffa was never a sin, but it was dangerous. Discouraged to the point of extinction.
But perhaps not completely.
Teal'c sits down next to Ishta, noting the way her spine is still stiff, her hands almost protective across the weapon in her lap, as if to defend it. "As usual, you do your people a great service," he says.
"Do you really think so?" She looks up at him and he can see her conflict amongst her ideals, her unwavering certainty, and her fear that she is simply ostracizing her people, turning them into outcasts. A concern she doesn't have the luxury of acknowledging in front of those she leads.
He reaches for her hands, covering them with his own. "I do," he says, infusing the simple words with all the certainty he feels.
Her hands relax, loosening their grip on the weapon. She slides it off her lap, shifting closer to him until her thigh presses against his. The familiar, tantalizing scent of her skin touches his senses and he feels some of the aching tension he has been carrying around fading into the cooling air. His fingers lift to her face, sliding across her cheek and tangling in her hair.
"I have missed you," she says, her eyes slipping closed as his fingers brush her neck.
Teal'c leans into her, his face lowering to her hair. He feels more settled here, sitting with her in enemy territory, than he ever has on Dakara. He thinks this must reveal more about himself than he is ready to acknowledge.
"For all the crowds," he confesses, "Dakara can be a lonely place." Especially now that Bra'tac has left, leaving few Teal'c trusts implicitly. The list has always been a short one: SG-1, Hammond, Jacob Carter, Bra'tac, Rya'c.
And Ishta. For all their battles and disagreements, his trust in her has never wavered. Yet, as he sits next to her in the fading evening light, he must ask himself why he remains silent with a press of worries on his mind, burdens he cannot let himself share.
He is thankful she is here, and yet cannot quite speak the words. So he simply breathes in her scent and tries not to think what that might mean.
Lying on his stomach, Teal'c peers down at the sprawling village in the river valley below him. The dwellings show signs of age, weathered a uniform grey, but also indicate that the population of the Kal'vidan has only been swelling with time. A sweep of the perimeter reveals at least a dozen sentinels on the outskirts of the village, all armed with staff weapons.
Holding out the binoculars, Teal'c offers them to Ishta, who takes them and spends ten minutes doing a similar sweep of the setup.
"The central tent," Ishta says, her voice low. "The one with the red sash in the entryway."
Teal'c nods. He noted this building as the most probable location for Bra'tac to be held in. It has no less than four guards at the entrance and it does not escape Teal'c's notice that they seem prepared for an attack, perhaps are waiting for one. Anticipating one. Any excuse to claim umbrage against the Council.
"They seem well armed," Ishta observes.
The source of the Kal'vidan's abundant supplies is yet another mystery. Teal'c would not be surprised to learn they had access to resources they were keeping from other Jaffa.
"We must wait for nightfall," Teal'c says.
Together they quietly pull back from the ridge, settling in to wait in a small copse of trees.
The first blush of sunset is barely touching the tops of the trees when Teal'c hears the crunch of careless footsteps approaching from the east. He meets Ishta's gaze and she nods, picking up her staff and melting into the trees.
Teal'c arms himself as well, turning to the source of the noise. He is able to see the child well before she sees him. She cannot be older than fourteen. She seems to be dragging her feet purposely, holding her hands wide as she walks slowly up the path.
Something makes her stop. "Master Teal'c," she calls out. "I mean you no harm."
Over the girl's shoulder, Teal'c can see Ishta slipping into the bushes behind, flanking their visitor. He takes another moment to observe the child, to listen for any signs that this is an ambush. It appears that she is alone. He meets Ishta's eyes, and she nods her agreement.
Teal'c steps out in front of the child. She takes a step back in surprise, her face betraying fear, but she seems to force herself not to flee.
Teal'c relaxes his stance slightly, staff weapon lowered, but at the ready. "What are you doing here, child?"
Her fingers twist in her robes, but her voice is even when she speaks. "Master Bra'tac set me to watch for your approach." She shifts then, something defiant gleaming in her eyes. "Though he did expect you a day sooner."
Teal'c lifts an eyebrow in surprise. This spark of arch humor is not something he expects from a member of the Kal'vidan, one of their women even less. The child is dressed as all Kal'vidan women, the thick gray wool of a priestess draping heavily over her legs, but pulled tight across her shoulders and chest, purple embroidery edging the diagonal slash of the neckline. Rich, but impractical.
One can learn a lot about the Kal'vidan and their beliefs from this uniform alone. Unlike most Jaffa, the girl will know nothing of combat or self-defense, she will never be expected to lift arms in protection of her children and village in the absence of the men. No, she will likely have been raised to the life of service and compliance to the will of their ancient god, a Goa'uld defeated by Ra millennia before. His followers claim to have found a prophecy, foretelling the return of Anu, riding on the edge of the final days of judgment, where all souls shall be weighed. To the Kal'vidan, the recent eradication of the Goa'uld is seen as sign of the approaching triumphal return of Anu and his consort Antum. They accept the rest of the Goa'uld as pretenders, false gods, but cling ferociously to their own.
The Kal'vidan, as the chosen, are to pave the way for their returning gods by any means necessary.
And these are the people Bra'tac set out to enfranchise. A people so assured of their own salvation that they will protect their purity from outside corruption with violence and force. Bring on the final days of judgment through the vehicle of war, death the vehicle for rebirth.
They allow a long dead, false god to entrap them with archaic ritual and empty promises.
"My name is Sabah," the girl says with a deep bow of her head, surprising Teal'c yet again, because surely even standing here with him breaks one of their fundamental laws. "It is a great honor, Master Teal'c. Master Bra'tac has told me of your great deeds."
Teal'c lifts an eyebrow at her. "Great deeds do not make a great man."
Sabah tilts her head to one side as if considering his words. "Perhaps," she acknowledges soberly. "But it is a place to begin, is it not?"
Ishta steps out then, materializing from the trees and Sabah takes another step back in surprise, staring at Ishta with wide eyes as if not sure what to make of her.
Balancing her staff in the crook of her arm, Ishta acknowledges the girl. "I am Ishta of the Hak'tyl."
Sabah's eyes widen even further and Teal'c wonders what lies the child has been told about the Hak'tyl.
"Tell us of Bra'tac," Teal'c requests when the girl merely continues to stare at Ishta.
Sabah pulls her eyes from Ishta. "He has not been harmed, merely…detained. There are those who believe him to be a spy."
"And you?" Ishta asks. "What do you believe?"
Sabah bites her lip, looking surprised to be asked. Then, seemingly choosing each word carefully, she says, "I do not believe Master Bra'tac wishes us any harm."
"Is that why are you here?" Teal'c asks.
She nods. "To help you free him."
Teal'c shares a look with Ishta and he can see the same questions running through her mind.
The child could very well be leading them into a trap, but using a child in such a manner does not seem to fit what he knows of the Kal'vidan. Teal'c has been in the position of reading the intentions of another Jaffa many times over the years, often with nothing more than a string of words and a look in their eyes to judge on. He stares hard at the child, trying to find any sign of subterfuge.
"You are certain enough of Bra'tac's intentions that you are willing to conspire with your people's enemies?" Teal'c pushes, purposely imbuing the words with a layer of disdain.
Sabah's back stiffens as if having been accused of being a traitor. "Violence will not do either side good. Nor will I allow Bra'tac to come to harm if I have it within my ability to stop it. You may think of that as you must." She looks a little winded by the spill of words, but still determined, and Teal'c's lips curve in approval.
"As one who has been called shol'va by many," he says, his voice softening, "let me observe that there are a great many different kinds of loyalty, Sabah."
His sudden flip in demeanor seems to throw her for a moment, but eventually she nods, looking thoughtful. She darts another glance in Ishta's direction.
"We have seen the four guards posted at the central tent," Ishta says, gesturing down to the village. "Are there more hidden inside?"
"Yes, many," Sabah says. "But that is not where Master Bra'tac is being held."
"Are you certain?" Teal'c asks. The movement of the sentinels, the placement of the tent, the near constant guard, all of these elements point to the probability of Bra'tac being held in that location.
"It is a ruse," she explains. "Meant to draw you in and ensure your capture as well."
Teal'c feels an uncomfortable surge of adrenaline at this revelation, in the knowledge that he has been foolish enough to underestimate his enemy when he can afford it least. It is a well-reasoned trap, one that he knows would have worked. Catching him in the attempt of infiltrating their camp is all the excuse the Kal'vidan need to launch their campaign against the Council.
"Where is Bra'tac being held?" Ishta asks.
"In a small storage facility in the women's quarters," Sabah says, pointing to the southern edge of the village.
The last place he would have thought to look.
"There are only two guards," Sabah continues, "switched often in the day and dressed to look like servants."
The Kal'vidan are obviously secure in the seamlessness of their subterfuge if they have not thought to guard their prisoner more carefully.
"Master Bra'tac assured me you would be able to disable, but not harm them."
Leaving behind even one dead Kal'vidan would be enough to spark retaliation the Jaffa Nation cannot afford. He has brought a small supply of zats for this exact purpose. "You have my word," Teal'c pledges.
"Thank you," she says, once more looking resolved.
Crouching down by his pack, Teal'c rummages for a small notebook and a writing utensil. "We will need you to draw the location of the tent, the sentries, and Bra'tac's ship."
"I will simply go with you," she says.
They cannot risk her inexperience, or her safety by allowing her to accompany them. If the worst should happen and they are captured, her people will know she helps them. "It would be safer for you to remain here."
She shakes her heard. "No. I wish to help."
"You already have," he assures her, looking to Ishta for help, but she merely stands with her arms crossed over her chest as if waiting to see what the outcome shall be. Teal'c begins to realize he may be outnumbered.
"It is easy to get turned around in the village," Sabah insists. "You will need me."
"You are certain you wish to do this?" he asks.
Her hand trembles slightly as she pushes back a strand of her hair, but when she speaks, her voice is steady. "I am."
He gazes helplessly at her for another moment, suspecting that even if he denies her, she will simply follow after them. Surely it is better that he knows where she is and what to expect of her, both so that they will not get caught, but also so he can keep her from harm.
Teal'c nods, catching the tight flash of approval on Ishta's face as he does so. "We will wait for nightfall."
In darkness, the village is mostly quiet, as Sabah assured them it would be. The faded tents of the village are ghostly in the dim sliver of moonlight cast through the trees. Teal'c and Ishta glide between them, shadow to shadow, a steady pattern of forward movement as they pull apart and back together, Sabah nothing more than an echo behind Teal'c.
Their path brings them within range of only four sentries, each easily disabled, the only sound the treacherously loud whine of the zat and Teal'c wonders for the first time whether that noise is necessitated by purpose, by the release of energy, or if the Goa'uld were simply paranoid enough of any sneak attack to require the design flaw. Yet the mercy of a non-lethal shot seems something beyond the Goa'uld and Teal'c spares a moment's thought for the culture this weapon must have been pilfered from. What became of them?
Ishta lifts her hand, slashing it quickly downward. Teal'c drops to the ground, sliding cautiously forward to peer around the edge of the tent. Straight ahead, two Jaffa in plain woolen clothing recline near a small structure.
Sabah crouches beside Teal'c. He glances back at her to confirm this is the correct location and she nods. She looks even younger in the darkness, her eyes large in her pale face. Teal'c observes her for another moment before looking across to Ishta, similarly crouched beside a structure on the opposite side. She nods to indicate her readiness.
"Remain here," Teal'c says in an undertone to Sabah. She pulls further back into the shadows.
Teal'c and Ishta step out into the moonlight, two quick shots from their zats disabling the guards before they can even stumble to their feet, let alone raise the alarm. They still both pause a moment to listen for any sign that their strike has not gone unnoticed.
Satisfied, they slip into the structure, prepared to face more guards, but the interior is empty other than one prisoner sitting in meditation upon a large sack of grain.
Bra'tac eyes slide open, looking up at them as they enter. A slow smile curves his lips.
The lone sentry watching Bra'tac's ship is snoring softly as they approach. One shot from Teal'c's zat insures that he remains unaware.
They pause just on the edge of the clearing, Bra'tac turning to address Sabah.
"Thank you, my child," Bra'tac says, his hands on her shoulders. "You have done a great deed this day. I shall not forget."
Sabah stands a bit taller, something of the woman she will one day be appearing in the child before them. "Thank you, Master, for all you have taught me."
Bra'tac nods, stepping back away from Sabah. Glancing at Ishta, Bra'tac turns to Teal'c and says, "I will see to the ship." He disappears off towards the tel'tak before Teal'c can protest, leaving the three of them with the unconscious sentry.
"You may come with us," Ishta says to Sabah. "There is a place for you with my people, if you wish."
A strange look comes over Sabah's face, a mingling of curiosity, eagerness, and regret. She slowly shakes her head. "I thank you, but I must stay."
"If they ever discover what you have done…," Ishta says. The Kal'vidan, for all they treat their women as cloistered objects, hold them to a strict canon of laws, many of which Sabah has shamelessly broken this night. Punishment, if she is ever discovered, will be severe. It is a risk.
"They may, but I still will not leave them," Sabah says, her chin lifting, and in that moment Teal'c sees something of Ishta in her. "I have not given up hope in my people." A people who will not let her learn to lift a weapon or speak her thoughts, but tie her to a temple and complex rituals to gods that no longer exist. Bound as priestess and concubine.
"You are determined?" Ishta asks.
She nods. "I am."
"Then may we speak for a moment?" Ishta asks, gesturing a short distance away.
Sabah follows Ishta, the two of them standing close as they speak. Teal'c cannot make out the words, but recognizes the passion in Ishta's face, the movement of her fingers. He watches the way the girl seems to straighten and grow taller with each word. When Ishta finishes, she pulls something off from around her neck, pressing it into the girl's hand.
They step apart, but before Sabah turns and walks back to the village, she lowers her head in a deep bow, acknowledging Ishta as a teacher of worth, a Master.
"She is young to carry such a burden," Teal'c observes, stepping up behind Ishta.
Something softens in Ishta's expression. "She is not so very different from the rest of us in mind or situation."
"Most Jaffa are not like the Kal'vidan," Teal'c reminds her, feeling stung by the implied criticism. The Kal'vidan treat their women as little better than chattel.
The look Ishta gives him is wry, but without any real heat of anger. "You may consider that you simply do not see it the way I do."
Teal'c tries to conjure a counter argument, but remains silent as, unbidden, memories of the Jaffa women in his life, the ones he bound to himself through both affection and law, rise to the surface.
Shau'nac had been a dream, an unreachable ideal, a fantasy. She represented the innocence of his childhood, the fierceness of unsullied love that only one untouched by battle could ever truly feel. Drey'auc, on the other hand, had been a prize, a mark of status, a caretaker for his child, but never his equal.
Ishta is neither dream nor prize, and yet, for all Colonel Carter has taught him of the capabilities of women as warrior and scientists, he cannot say his behavior is that of one who believes she is his equal.
He thinks not to burden her with his own concerns, his own battles, but is that courtesy or the work of something much more insidious that always holds her at a careful distance? Why did he really not ask for her to accompany him on this mission? Why did he not even consider it?
Would you really? I wonder.
Ishta still stares after Sabah, even after the darkness has swallowed the child. "This displacement of our women," she says, "the confusion of standing and ability in the dissolution of our old ways…it will not be quickly resolved, and not at all without women like Sabah willing to undertake the task." She turns, holding his gaze. "That is the sad truth."
Teal'c thinks she may be trying to convince both of them. He wonders if it will make it easier to turn and walk away.
"Come," he says, touching her arm. "It is time to go."
Her steps do not falter.
Teal'c watches Bra'tac as he works his way through two sets of rations. Other than a hearty appetite, he seems to have come through his short captivity relatively unscathed.
Ishta sits at the controls, unusually quiet since they escaped the bounds of the planet and slipped into hyperspace. Teal'c gives her space, but cannot be sure if he does this for her, or for himself.
"I apologize for taking you from the spring session," Bra'tac says. "You needn't have remained to escort me all the way back."
Teal'c shakes his head. He can't explain why he did not simply gate home, why he is still sitting here as they race towards Hak'tyl, of all places. But even that is not true. He does know why, and it has nothing to do with a streak of over protectiveness for his old teacher.
"I am accomplishing little on Dakara," Teal'c admits, the shame of his failure burning in his stomach.
Bra'tac sets the remains of his meal down with deliberate movements. "There are those who would say you have already done the impossible twice over."
Teal'c's jaw clenches. "Clearly history has already begun to be colored by time."
Bra'tac gives a non-committal grunt. "And yet the fact remains: our people see the Goa'uld for what they truly are."
Teal'c concedes the point with a curt nod of his head. How quickly the headiness of that accomplishment faded in the face of bureaucratic tangles and splintering factions.
"How did you convince them of this?" Bra'tac asks, his tone brisk and eyes sharp.
Teal'c shifts, not particularly pleased to find himself once more treated as a child at his lessons. "It is not I who convinced them," Teal'c says. "I merely lived it."
Bra'tac nods. "And tretonin? How did you convince them of the importance of this drug in winning our freedom?"
"Again, they only believed because I myself took it," Teal'c says wearily.
Bra'tac strikes his hands together, the concussive sound ringing against the hull. "Yes, precisely! You did not lecture nor argue, you merely became that which you knew to be essential to the future of our people. You became your words. All else came in time."
Teal'c feels something tighten painfully in his stomach, as if the decision he has been avoiding is suddenly rushing blindly towards him.
Bra'tac reaches for Teal'c's arm. "The question becomes, Brother, what is now essential to our future?"
The answer is simple, the same list of words he's been spouting since their nation first was born. They need to maintain their freedom. They must produce their own goods, feed themselves, cloth themselves, learn the skills and knowledge they need to never have to depend upon another again, not the Tau'ri, not the Tok'ra, not the human slaves. Some of them must be willing to lay down their weapons and till the soil, or unravel the secret's of the gods' technology. They need be scholar and farmer and scientist and explorer.
But words, as ever, are easy to ignore, easy to dismiss and undermine, and Teal'c himself has become little more than a symbol, used both to unite and divide—a roadblock.
But perhaps this is Bra'tac's point.
"Why did you insist on coming to see the Kal'vidan?" Teal'c asks. "You must have known they would be unreceptive to your ideas."
"Perhaps," Bra'tac concedes. He slides Teal'c a sideways glance, one full of the tenacity and unbending faith he has long associated with his teacher. "But not all of them."
Teal'c thinks of Sabah, her face half in shadows as she risked all to guide them through the village, the way her eyes followed Ishta, full of questions. He thinks about the fact that Bra'tac sent her to him, risking the loyalty and tenacity of one so young.
And he knows then that this trip to the Kal'vidan was about so much more than embracing a lost cause.
Teal'c glances at Bra'tac to find him grinning widely at him. "You must be very proud of yourself this day, old man," he says with gruff affection.
"With such students as mine, it would be foolish to feel otherwise," Bra'tac concedes.
Always every tiny detail with some greater meaning behind it—that is Bra'tac's way. Teal'c tries to feel annoyed that he has been used in such a manner, but he cannot deny that something was planted in Sabah this day. Just the whisper of an idea, the tiniest seed left behind that one day may grow to be much, much more.
And perhaps she is not the only one.
When they touch down on Hak'tyl, they find an anxious Arnok waiting for them.
"Master," he rushes to say, bowing low to Bra'tac. The apprentice seems to be waiting for reprimand for disregarding the spirit of Bra'tac's orders not to interfere.
But Bra'tac merely smiles at the young Jaffa, clapping his hand on his shoulder. "You have done well, Arnok."
And Teal'c wonders if getting him away from Dakara for a few days might not have also been a secondary goal of his visit to the Kal'vidan.
Bra'tac does not look surprised when Teal'c turns down his offer to return him to Dakara, instead nodding silently with his all-knowing smile. Slapping Arnok on the back, Master and student climb back aboard the tel'tak and take off, leaving Ishta and Teal'c alone in the empty field halfway between the Stargate and the village.
Ishta moves almost automatically in the direction of the Stargate, no doubt believing that Teal'c will be anxious to return to Dakara.
"I will return to the village with you," he says.
Ishta glances at him in surprise, but does not question him.
They fall in step, side by side as they follow the well-worn path back towards the main camp. Teal'c feels the events of the last few days building and tumbling in his mind, demanding answers to the questions he can no longer avoid.
"I think you were wise to decline a seat on the Council," Teal'c says, breaking the silence.
Ishta's lips twist. "I am no diplomat. I believe Ka'lel is well suited to speak on behalf of our people."
Teal'c nods. He has watched Ka'lel, her ability to move smoothly between the various warring egos and yet is still able to make herself heard when need be. He has watched as the other Council members slowly, begrudgingly adapt to her presence not as priestess, but as equal, as a leader. And always, they watch for any sign of failure, any weakness to blame upon her sex.
He has blamed many of the Jaffa for being unbending, for not seeing the value of a new path, but he sees now how unwilling he himself has been to bend. Unwilling to see past his place as savior, as martyr. He has always best served his people as example, as the forger of unexplored lands, not writing laws and conspiring behind closed doors.
He blames them for not accepting women as warriors and council members and equals, but he has not accepted Ishta into his life—not completely.
She never begrudged him his war or his cause, never once spoke against his time being devoted to the Tau'ri or the Council. She has only ever asked one thing of him: his respect. And this is perhaps where he has failed her the greatest.
"Ka'lel does very well," Teal'c acknowledges. "Much better than I."
Ishta's defense of him is quick. "The Council values your experience and opinions, as they should."
Teal'c shakes his head. "I am considering relinquishing my seat."
Ishta comes to a stop, turning to look at him. "You think to rejoin the Tau'ri?"
It would be easy to return to Earth again, to slip into old routines among people who understand him as well as any may, but personal exile no longer serves his people the way it once had.
"No," Teal'c says.
Teal'c shakes his head. It is no doubt telling that Ishta does not even consider Hak'tyl in her list of planets he might settle on. "I wonder if there may be a place for me here."
There is something uncertain in Ishta's eyes before she looks away, once more moving down the path. "Your son would be pleased to have you near."
"And you?" he asks, catching up to her and pulling her to a stop.
She looks at a loss for words for a moment, before finally meeting his gaze again. "I would wonder how long you could be content here."
"On Dakara, on Chulak, there I might be content," he says. "I seek more than contentment."
Misery, trial and struggle, these things they understand well and in the name of a great cause these feelings are noble. But when suffered in the name of fear or uncertainty, there is no honor. Only weakness.
"And you think to find that here?" she asks.
"Some would see my world as small," she observes.
"I see more hope in your people than any other," Teal'c insists.
"Is that why you wish to settle here?"
He can hear the uncertainty underlying her voice and knows somehow that despite her steady confidence in every other area of her life, she has not been as casual and at ease with this thing between them as she has pretended. As either of them have pretended.
He thinks she must have just as hard a time as he, allowing herself to have something purely for herself rather than for her people. It seemed a necessary sacrifice at first, this need to play martyr, but it has become comfortable for both of them. Too comfortable.
Guiding her off the path, he leads her into a small cluster of trees offering greater privacy.
"Ishta," he says, pausing by the trunk of a tree and leaning into her. "I wish to hear what you want for yourself. Not duty, not honor, but in your heart."
She looks up at him, her breathing beginning to swell unevenly. "We have had very little time together," she observes.
"You fear that what we have only works at a distance?"
"At times," she admits, her voice softening. She lifts her fingers to his cheek. "But never when you are near."
Things never seem quite as possible as when he is by her side, a truth he no longer wants to ignore. "Let us be partners," he says. "Let me be here every day to help you build your world."
"Partners," she repeats as if the word is somehow foreign.
"In all things," he pledges. No more holding her at a distance, no longer two people bound by nothing more than convenient attachment.
"There will be battles," she says, stepping closer to him. "Many topics we may disagree upon."
Teal'c smiles. Of the things he has come to love about Ishta, her willingness to stand up to him no matter how sure he is of his position, to correct him when she believes he is wrong, is one that he has come to rely upon the most. She pushes him to be a better man, and with her by his side, he thinks he may just be one someday.
"I would have it no other way between us," he says.
She is smiling back at him now, her eyes liquid and sensual and full of promise. "You willingly submit yourself to my leadership?" she asks, something wicked touching her lips as she pulls his hips tight against hers.
Teal'c lowers his head, letting his lips hover just next to hers. "Gladly."
Her fingers brush his jaw. "You truly mean to do this."
"Yes," he says. "But only if it is your wish as well."
Her gaze slips past his shoulder, staring off at nothing for a long moment, but when she finally looks back up at him, her hands tightening on his arms, there is nothing but fierce certainty in her steady gaze.
"It is," she says.
There is something bubbling up deep inside Teal'c, warmth and a breathless sort of tingle in his extremities that leaves him off-kilter but resolved. He has only felt this sensation once before, this absolute certainty that what he risks is the right step, the right moment to leap, no matter the consequences—the day he stepped across an invisible line to stand next to O'Neill.
Today, he crosses another invisible line.
He will not falter.
The sun is high over the fields, many figures spread out through the rows, bodies bowed toward the soil. Ishta walks here and there, listening to concerns, lending a hand as needed. Soon they will all break for the evening meal, the tired children herded back towards the village.
Teal'c's own body aches from a day of foreign labors, fingers fumbling through new tasks. It is a pleasant ache though, an ache of purpose well earned.
Nesa sits in a small shaded area, a spread of mechanical objects before her and as Teal'c approaches, he picks up the familiar sharp odor of a soldering iron. Behind her, a young boy and girl have snuck up, peering over her shoulder, their eyes wide under foreheads unmarred by the mark of a false god.
In that moment, he sees it so clearly that it nearly steals his breath—a generation of Jaffa, prepared to take up battle at any moment, but trained in the ways of peace, working quietly and with dedication at their vocation, fighting for their people without need of weapon. A warrior class in waiting. And perhaps this time, the peace will stretch so long that it will be the memory of slavery and loss that will fade. Not forgotten, but its power blunted.
"Teal'c?" Ishta asks, appearing by his side, her fingers cool against his wrist.
He turns towards her, his hand lifting to shade his eyes from the sun. "I wonder if you have considered opening a school."
She tilts her head to one side, her lips curving. "You would like to teach?"
He glances back over his shoulder toward Nesa. "To learn."
To become his words.
They need not abandon their ways, merely augment them with broader understanding of the universe. To be more than the limits placed upon them by their creators, to be more than either servant or master could have dreamed. To refuse to be defined by others' views of them.
And if the Council finds itself in need of guidance or advice, its members will know where to find him—the sleeping warrior.
By then he will truly have something to show them.
"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."