Ronon Dex was in a considerable amount of pain, and to add insult to injury, he knew that he only had himself to blame for a lot of it.
The manacles around his wrists were sharp, tight and heavy. His fingers weren't numb, but that just meant he could feel his fingers screaming abuse at him and demanding more blood. His arms were cramping from the effort of holding the metal in the air, but if he released the weight the chain linking his wrists to the neck of the man in front of him would pull the poor guy backwards.
They had settled for simple rope around his ankles, but that meant he had to shuffle along in the dirt, stubbing his toes and bruising his feet on rocks. His boots were gone; they had stolen them while he was unconscious, along with his gun, coat, and all the knives they could find, and divvied them up.
The sun was beating down on him like a physical thing. His head was throbbing, his skin was slowly cooking, and the glare meant he had to squint to see.
The injuries that weren't simply things that happened when you were harnessed to a slave chain, barefoot in the desert, were the ones that were his fault. His skin was dappled with bruises, and he wasn't sure that his jaw wasn't broken, or at the very least cracked. One of his eyes was swollen shut, and half of his face was covered with a mask of dried blood from a cut in his scalp. His throat was sore, and he was having trouble breathing. That had been his first injury: he had tried to escape when he thought his captors weren't looking. When it turned out they were–and that they could throw those damned lassoes like nobody's business–he had decided to go out fighting. The slavers had just laughed at him, tightened the lassoes around his neck until he was choking, dragged him back to camp at the end of their ropes, and hobbled his feet.
Initially they had seemed quite impressed. He distinctly heard the words 'fighters fetch more' several times. When Ronon had taken issue with a slaver bothering the woman tethered behind him… well, that was when their moods had shifted for the worse. He had broken the man's nose with a well-aimed head-butt. The man and his friends had beaten him unconscious and possibly cracked his jaw. There was one walking beside him at all times now, looking for an excuse to club him with the butt of the long walking sticks they all carried.
A cry drifted down the line of miserable, cowed humanity. Ronon shuffled to a halt and craned his head, trying to see why they had stopped. The next instant, he received a blow to the ribs that made him wince and hunch slightly. The slaver smirked at him. Normally, Ronon would have taken great pleasure wiping the expression off his face with a handful of rocks, but, mindful of the people chained in front and behind him, he stared back, trying to look meek.
The slaver's face shifted, and he hit Ronon again, this time in the face. "Eyes down," he snarled, before stalking off. Ronon staggered, but didn't fall; the woman behind him reach out quickly and grabbed his elbow to steady him.
"You shouldn't try and fight them," she whispered. It was the first thing she had said to Ronon– despite the fact that he had taken a beating trying to protect her. Not that he minded, or anything.
"I wasn't," Ronon told her through a mouthful of blood.
"Stop making them angry then!"
"I'm not," he growled. The woman shrank back, big dark eyes wide, and Ronon reminded himself with a sigh that she wasn't the one he was angry at. "I'm trying to play along until my friends rescue me."
"Your friends won't find you," the man in front of Ronon said in a voice that sent chills down the Satedan's spine. It was empty of hope, joy, warmth… humanity.
"They will," Ronon said with a certainty born of experience in his voice.
"These slavers belong to the Ghost Market," the man said. "It's called that because when it steals people, they never come back. Your friends can look, but you're as good as dead to them now."
"I've heard of the Ghost Market," Ronon said. "I didn't realise it was a problem. It never was on Sateda."
"You're a Satedan?" The man turned his head, jerking Ronon's hands to the side. "I thought your people were all dead."
"No," Ronon said firmly.
"Your people may be alive, Satedan, but you keep fighting and you won't be," the woman whispered. "Be silent, they're coming back. Look at the ground!"
Ronon quickly dropped his eyes as the slavers stalked past, muttering to each other. "We can escape," he insisted to his neighbours when the slavers were out of earshot. "We can–"
"We can't escape, and even if we could, we're out of time," the woman said in a flat voice. "I heard them talking. There's a ring up ahead. The market is probably just through it."
"Can you reach my hair?" Ronon asked her desperately. He was near the end of the chain; with any luck, it would take some minutes before it was his turn to enter the stargate.
"Yes, of course, but what–"
"There's a knife hidden in it. I need you to pass it to me."
For thirty agonising seconds there was no response. Then, finally, he felt-feather light fingers running over his scalp. "I have it."
"Who hides knives in their hair?" the man in front whispered in disbelief.
"I have enough of it," Ronon grunted in explanation. "You need to lean back."
"Forget it! I'm not getting myself killed!"
"I need to reach behind me," Ronon snarled quietly. "Lean. Back."
Picking up on the dangerous tone, the man silently complied. Ronon reached behind him awkwardly, and the woman pressed the knife into his hands.
Cutting the rope tying his feet was the most difficult feat, but Ronon took care of it first. With the woman holding him steady, it was not as difficult as it could have been. With his feet free in case he had to run, Ronon began steadily working the point of the knife around in the manacle's lock.
"What's your name?" he asked the woman behind him.
"Illa, you need to tell me what's happening."
"Um… people are moving through the ring."
"Is anyone coming our way?"
"Yes, but they're still far away."
"Ok." The manacle clicked and fell open on one wrist. Ronon felt a savage surge of pleasure and began working on the other arm.
"Hurry, one's coming," Illa whispered in fear.
"It's fine," Ronon whispered back, praying it was true. The knife point caught – slipped – caught again – click!
Ronon clutched his hands together, holding the manacles in place, and stared at the ground. The slaver reached him, but instead of passing, the man paused. Ronon chanced an upward glance; it was the one whose nose he had broken. He was wearing Ronon's coat.
The man grinned unpleasantly. "How are your feet?"
"How's your face?" Ronon asked. It was a knee-jerk reaction; clearly Sheppard was rubbing off on him.
The man scowled and raised his staff. Ronon's coat pulled back, revealing a primitive gun, like those of the Genii, tucked into the man's belt.
Ronon sprang, arms outstretched, completely forgetting that the collar around his neck was attached to the manacles around Illa's wrists. With a cry, the woman staggered forwards, pulling the slaves behind her along too. Ronon's head jerked back, but his arms, the bane of Atlantis quartermasters when it came to fitting jackets, were long enough to catch Broken-nose by the coat front. Ronon dragged him forwards and plunged the knife into his throat.
The man sunk to his knees, eyes wide with surprise. Ronon pulled the gun from his belt, took aim at a figure running towards the commotion, and fired. "Get the keys from his belt," he rasped to Illa, kicking the body behind him for her to reach. "Unlock your hands!"
Slavers were converging on him from all down the line. Ronon fired, and fired again, not wasting shots. The slavers were reluctant to fire back at first, perhaps not wanting to kill any merchandise, but as three, then four, then five fell to the ground in pools of their own blood, their reservations vanished, and bullets began whistling past Ronon.
The pressure around his neck slackened, and he stepped out of line, away from the other captives. He only had a few more bullets left… he had to make them count.
From the crowd behind him, there was a strangled choking noise in a familiar voice. Ronon turned his head, and, for a fatal moment, froze.
Illa lay on the ground, clutching her chest, red staining her fingers. Her big dark eyes looked up at Ronon in puzzled betrayal. The bullets had missed Ronon, but they hadn't missed altogether.
Ronon shouldn't have kept looking for that extra second. Before Atlantis he wouldn't have. But before Atlantis he had been a step away from sacrificing his humanity and becoming an animal. Sheppard, Teyla and Rodney had shamed him away from that course of action, and so he looked at Illa for just a second too long.
There was a familiar noise, a noise he had heard a million times over. Ronon turned his head just in time to see a streak of orange light come from the gun – his gun – that the leader of the slavers held in both hands. It hit Ronon in the chest.
Ronon had been hit by Wraith stunners before. They felt like you had just been hit with something. This felt like someone had harnessed a bolt of lightning and pressed it to his nervous system.
Trapped in agony, Ronon Dex fell into darkness.