"New haircut, Rodney?"
"No," McKay snapped, his cheeks warming slightly. "Yes. Sort of. Is it that noticeable?"
"Not really," John said, carding a hand through his own hair as the two of them walked through the gateroom. "What is noticeable is that it comes right before our annual trading visit with Flora and Harmony. If anyone needs to impress, it's me. You're practically a national monument."
"Oh, come on, after all this time? Her Highness has been completely civil to you."
"That's what I mean."
"No, what you mean is you're jealous."
John pulled a face. "I am not."
"You so are. Jealous because she does not not like me." Rodney favored him with a somewhat sardonic smile. "But you shouldn't worry, my take from their last communique is the ladies are looking forward to hosting both of us."
"Maybe," John sighed. He turned to give Chuck the thumbs up and waved to acknowledge the final good luck wishes from Teyla and Woolsey.
It didn't take a genius with two Ph.D.s to tell there was trouble as soon as they walked through the 'gate. Sheppard snapped to, instantly shouldering his P-90. The path that led away from the 'gate was shrouded in darkness. The sky overhead undulated an arresting shade of blue, as if someone were holding a giant piece of cobalt glass in front of the sun. The mutability of it filled the landscape all around them like brushstrokes on a canvas.
"Yeah, what the hell?" He unfastened a pocket on his tac vest and took out a handheld scanner. Following Sheppard's lead, he also readied his weapon.
"What do you reckon?" John asked.
Before he could answer, Rodney whipped around at a noise behind them, a soft rustle of leaves, but no one was there. At least, no one was visible. Once his eyes conditioned to the strange light, Rodney detected a barely audible hum, a continuous, pulsating drone that centered itself in a spot behind his eyes. He glanced at the scanner then over to Sheppard, who didn't appear to have heard anything. John wasted no time in getting on his radio to request backup.
"Better get a medic, too," Rodney suggested, thinking idly that the lavish meal Flora had promised them would now have to wait. "There's a low-level frequency that may be affecting the villagers."
John did as Rodney asked, then told Atlantis they would maintain their position at the 'gate.
Rodney jerked his head around again in the direction of another sound. A scream had come from the forest just ahead of their position. They'd both heard that for sure. Sheppard advised Atlantis of the situation and that they were going to check out the disturbance. Rodney followed him into the woods, arguing pointlessly that they should wait for backup.
Inside the canopy of trees, the creepy blue light filtered through in shafts. It appeared viscous, moving like the tendrils of a jellyfish, swirling around them with a kind of glimmer that drifted along with them like wisps of incense or smoke from a guttered candle. As they neared the area from where they suspected the scream had come, pressure began to build between Rodney's ears.
Their own footfalls were the only sound above the constant hum. The silence made Rodney doubt if he'd actually heard anything. He shivered with a sense of déjà vu, memories surfaced of the organic hybrid device the Wraith had designed to induce hallucinations.
"I know this may be a bad time to bring this up," he began.
John didn't look around, he was intent on sweeping the area. "Then don't," he said.
"Right. But isn't this all just a little too familiar?" he asked, checking his scanner. "Possible hallucinations and auditory disturbance, not to mention the ultra-low frequency pulse, only this one is modulated high enough to be disruptive to normal neural activity."
"Peachy," John said. He looked back past Rodney to check their six. "What do you figure this blue light does?
"Disorientation, maybe? Also, certain blue light waves have been linked to retinal damage, sleep deprivation. I suppose together with the pulsations, given enough exposure, that might be enough to drive a person mad or create a catatonic-like state ripe for reprogramming."
"Best guess," Rodney replied. "The Wraith have tried it before."
"Yeah, well, I don't like the sound of that," John said. "And where did it come from anyway? Why didn't we know about—"
John stopped short. Rodney followed his stare. So much for hallucinations. Within a small clearing, two darkened shapes lay on the ground. Coming closer, they found one to be the dry husk of a man dressed in villager's clothing. Near him, the body of a woman. She was unresponsive but did not appear to have been fed upon. She also wore common villager's attire.
"I don't get it," Rodney said. "Do you think she fainted? Exposure? There is every indication of Wraith activity here, why would they leave her?"
John shrugged. "I don't know, but I wish the cavalry would hurry up and get here." As he said this, light flashed from the direction of the 'gate. It created an eerie aura, easy to see in the dim light.
"Ask and ye shall receive," Rodney said, his taut muscles relaxing a bit. He backtracked toward the clearing so he could wave the newcomers over. The stargate shimmered in the freakish light, but no one came through. He called out but got no reply. Ignoring the half-dozen worst-case scenarios playing out in his mind, he tried his radio but was unable to establish a connection. "Sheppard!" he called out as he headed back, "Someone's dialed the 'gate from this side. I can't hail Atlantis."
John had knelt beside the woman. "She's still breathing," he said as Rodney walked up, "but I can't rouse her." John turned to him, goofy grin lighting up his face even in the dim light. "Maybe all she needs is a kiss from a handsome prince."
McKay rolled his eyes. "That's the least of our worries. Did you hear what I just said? And she may be a beautiful princess, but you're no pr—"
Rodney felt the impact more than heard it. The hand was on Sheppard's chest before Rodney could blink, the horror of what was happening a jump in time, like flickering frames from an old film, each moment closing like an aperture on his opportunity to act and see his way clear.
The bursts from his P-90 were deafening, sending the woman backward away from Sheppard with the first hail of fire. Even then, Rodney didn't let up until he could hear Sheppard yelling at him that it was okay, that it was over.
Rodney let up on the trigger, his heart still pounding out hot adrenaline. He heaved out a great rush of breath before sucking in more air like he would never get enough. John was alive, he was all right, he was… visibly shaken, maybe a bit grayer at the temples, but otherwise alive… blessedly alive.
"Where the hell are those reinforcements?" Sheppard barked. "That fire is gonna draw every Wraith within half a mile."
"Forget the Wraith," Rodney said, still catching his breath and pointing to the dead woman. "What the hell was that?"
Suddenly, there were more sounds from the forest. He swung his head around wildly, then his eyes locked with John's to confirm that he had heard it too. People running. Running towards them.
"Talk about perfect timing," John said, taking a step past Rodney. Before he could say another word, he collapsed.
Rodney watched John's body go limp and crumple to the ground. "Sheppard!"
The footfalls were coming closer, but now they were joined by more from the other direction. Panic plunged its icy fingers into Rodney's chest, stealing his breath. He needed John to wake up—they needed to run. He wanted to believe they weren't in danger, that these were the good guys, that they were going to be rescued and laugh about it over good beer later, but logic and self-preservation quashed that folly. There was no rescue incoming. He was on his own.
He bent down to try to rouse John. John's skin was cool to the touch and Rodney was on the verge of flying apart, the fear so desperate and vile he could taste it. Through the trees, from somewhere behind him, a deep gravelly snarl sent chills down his spine, cementing him in his vulnerability. He was glad of one thing: that after so many scares and near misses, he and John were… good (an utterly awkward conversation worth every second of their stumbling attempts at feelings), and that this time death would be quick. Two, that was two things, but—
Another sharp blast of gunfire ripped through his thoughts. Figures appeared from nowhere, flashes in his peripheral vision. A hand caught him under his arm and hauled him up. Two others lifted Sheppard and carried him. Not Wraith. They neither moved like Wraith nor were they dressed like Wraith. They were dressed as villagers. The leader, the one who had gotten him to his feet, was out in front now, long dark hair flowing behind the slight, wiry frame. Rodney glanced behind him as his feet began to move with a purpose. There were other bodies on the ground. They were all dressed in villagers' clothing.
More confused and maybe even more frightened, Rodney fought to shake off the fear and pay attention to his surroundings and, most importantly, his benefactors, though at that moment he didn't know if he was being rescued or being collected for a late-night snack. He'd already been encased as a Wraith MRE once, thank you very much, and did not fancy repeating the experience.
"Keep up, Doctor McKay." It was the leader. She was agile, picking her way through the trees and moving them at a good clip over what was to Rodney an unfamiliar route.
He tried to work out whether someone knowing his name was a good thing. There were a few villagers who knew him, but then the thing that attacked Sheppard and those dead people back at the clearing were also villagers.
One of the men carrying Sheppard turned as Rodney drew level with them. "Not far to go now," he said. The man's face was drawn tight in a grimace. His eyes were empty and unfocused, but he was congenial, not aggressive or threatening. These people appeared to be helping.
Rodney became aware of the buzzing in his head again and felt a twinge of pain behind one of his eyes. "How long has it been like this?" he asked, pointing to indicate the sky.
The man didn't answer, just stared ahead. Sweat formed in beads and rolled down his face. Rodney trotted a little ahead of them, but not too far that he couldn't keep an eye on John. "I'm sorry," he called to the woman. "Do we know each other?"
"We do," she replied, without turning back to him.
They were nearing the edge of the forest where marshlands awaited. Rodney could see it through the trees. It was a great open expanse, and they would lose all their cover once out onto it. But just before they ran out of forest, the woman veered off to a different path. She seemed to be steering them around the perimeter as much as possible. Smart, Rodney thought, only with an unconscious Sheppard, time wasn't their friend. They would maintain their cover, but it would take longer to get wherever they were going.
"Well, you're not Mardola, she was imprisoned."
"Not anymore." It was the man who had spoken before. "She—"
His reply was interrupted by a cry of agony and a sound like a heavy sack hitting the ground.
Rodney turned back to see that one of the villagers had collapsed, leaving the other struggling with Sheppard. He rushed to help, seizing John around the waist and pulling John's arm across his shoulders.
"Your Majesty!" the other man called. He was forced to stop until he and Rodney could secure Sheppard.
Confused, Rodney stared at the woman as she turned around. He tried to reconcile her face. The wisps of gray hair didn't fit. The faint lines around her eyes didn't fit. The way she carried her weapon… none of it fit. Rodney blinked.
She saw the pain in his expression, and for a moment sorrow replaced wide-eyed fear. He needed an explanation, but they could not stop. She had to keep them moving. He opened his mouth to speak but she quickly cut him off. "Not now, doctor. There will be time later. The most important thing now is to get you and John Sheppard to safety."
He seemed to have no real argument with that.
"But I don't know what's wrong with him, and where are you taking us?"
His concern was justified, but there simply was no time. Not just that more of the Wraith-kind were out there, even more critical was the one villager left carrying Sheppard. The man was already weak and the more he was exposed to the light and sound, the less help he would be.
Still, she stopped for just a moment. "I am taking you to a place where you can fix John," she said, keeping her voice low.
"Fix him? I don't even know what happened to him."
"You will have to trust me, then." She nodded to her companion and took the lead once again.
"Trust you?" McKay complained, following after her. "Sheppard called for backup. We should be headed to the 'gate."
"The Wraith will be stationed there by now," Harmony shot back over her shoulder. "They could be right behind us. We must keep moving."
She pushed the hair from her face and led them through the last part of the dense woods. Ignoring the sharp prick of branches, she tried to guide them on the path that would cause the least discomfort to Sheppard. They were nearing the end of the trail. She paused to make sure they hadn't been followed before moving out of the shelter of the forest and onto the open land.
"We only need to get past this open area. I brought you this way because the trees help to break it up." She pointed to her ear to indicate the incessant hum. She found she was able to push back the droning to a level where she could still think, but it was a fine line. The sky was the same as it had been for many days. She looked back to see how the villager was faring. His eyes were glassy and fixed and his hold on John weakening.
As she emerged onto the open land, the full brunt of the disorder assaulted her senses. Her ears released pressure against the barely audible pulsations, and the swirling blue light charging the air, settled against her skin like something alive. If she didn't know the way by heart, they might all be lost.
Someone behind her stumbled. "Doctor McKay?"
"How long—how long has it been like this?" His breath was heavy and labored, the words coming out in short barks. "Your last communication said nothing about this."
She slowed to let them catch back up. "Many days," she said. "The Wraith are using it to enslave my people. I am told the effects cause great pain to some. They go a little mad and some have gone missing."
She peered back over McKay's shoulder, ever conscious of their position. "We think they go to the Wraith ship, across the great lake. I have seen a few of them when they return to the village. Like those," she said, pointing back the way they had come. "They come back to take others." She patted the butt of the weapon slung over her shoulder and added, "The munitions Atlantis was kind enough to provide after our trouble with the Genii have been invaluable."
McKay's eyes widened. "So that back there, with Sheppard…?" He shuddered as if he were cold, then shifted his weight to get a better grip on John.
She nodded. "If we had not been watching out for you and followed you from the stargate, you would have met the same fate, Doctor. Now, we really should go."
"So, these people aren't Wraith, but they—do you mean the Wraith are doing this to them? I've seen Wraith feed, believe me, they don't normally leave people alive."
She turned then and gave him a pointed look. "I know," she said softly. The villager helping Doctor McKay swayed but managed to keep himself upright. She really needed to keep them moving.
"We will be all right. It will be unpleasant out in the open, but we truly do not have far. We should make it to the edge of the Larris forest without any permanent damage."
"Should?" he cried. He was struggling now to keep up. "Why does it affect some of you, but not others? I've seen Sheppard fed on by a Wraith before—this one barely—I just don't understand why he won't wake up."
Harmony slid the weapon from her shoulder and swept it over the area as they advanced, if anything were going to happen it would be now, and they were so, so close. Another opening into the forest just ahead was where they needed to go. She didn't blame Doctor McKay for his questions, but they were chasing time. The sunlight filtering through the forest, distorted as it was, was already beginning to dim.
"These Wraith-kind do not have the same power," she replied, hoping it would satisfy him. "They are not as strong as Wraith."
"And how do you know that?"
She smiled to herself. Good to know Doctor McKay hadn't lost that exasperated, grating tone of his, the one that used to hurt her ears. He was probably not weakening as much as she thought, but it did signal he might be losing patience, giving way to panic.
"Ruthar Lingvaul told me."
"Yeah? Is he another one of your great hunters, the new Nolar whatzit?"
She shut her eyes briefly at the mention of Nolar Lumsbrik. Tightening her grip on her weapon, she said as confidently as she could, "Ruthar will be my King."
She pressed on without looking back; she didn't want to see his reaction, him looking at her the way her sisters used to, as if she were too young and inexperienced. She drew the lifeless air deeply into her lungs. She would prove them all wrong.
The entrance to the Larris forest was mere steps away. In the waning light, the trees seemed to waver in front of her. Her head ached. Doctor McKay was tiring; his feet had begun to shuffle more, making it harder for them to do more than drag John along. As she feared, even the short distance in the open proved too much for her other companion. Both of her subjects had succumbed. She did not like to leave them, but she had no choice. They would wake soon enough. If the Wraith-kind did not find them first, perhaps someone out on the patrols would find them and help them. She thought John would eventually wake up, too, and she feared what he would be like when he did.
"How did this all start, and what happened to your men back there?"
"The Wraith have encamped across the great lake. They created this atmospheric disturbance to spread a pall over my people. It has caused despair and dissent. They use a sound device to—"
"Waves—sonic waves, I think. I've seen something like it before. It can cause dysphoria, pain, eventual loss of motor control and a whole host of physical symptoms. I suspect depending on the way it's been deployed, it could also help disburse whatever they're trying to spread through the atmosphere."
"We are here," she said, thankful for Doctor McKay's sake they did not have to go deeper into the forest. They stood before a large breach within a rock face. The opening was overgrown with vines and flowering Olanthryx so that to a casual observer or passerby, it would go unnoticed. The fragrant blooms brought to mind eating her mother's ginger cake in front of a big fire. The scent was sweet and woodsy, but even children knew the toxic plant was not for picking. She winced with the pain of a vicious cramp as she tried to hold Sheppard up with one arm and press the pendant of Wairos against a dusty panel in the opening with the other.
Once across the threshold, the ache in her head and muscles began to subside. Inside, she closed the door and pressed the pendant to yet another panel. A quick buzz of energy filled the air, then the lights came on in sequence around the room.
"Over here." Harmony led him toward a dark hulking platform in one corner.
He stared at it.
"Put him down," Harmony ordered. "It is okay, it is an Ancient device."
"Of course, it is, but that doesn't necessarily make it safe."
"This place is a medical laboratory of some kind."
"And who told you that?"
"Ruthar's father. Nolar Lumsbrik and I—"
"Yes, yes," he said waving his hand in the direction of the machine. "I don't suppose good 'ol Nolar Lumsbrik showed you how to actually operate any of this stuff, did he?"
Ignoring the jibes about Nolar didn't make them hurt any less. She placed her pendant on the panel, causing the platform to power up with a hum and flicker of lights.
"Hmm, never mind," he said, easing John closer, his arm still firmly around Sheppard's waist. "Looks amazingly like the examination tables in Atlantis' sick bay." Doctor McKay's voice was already clearer and his eyes brighter as he undid the P-90 from John's neck and handed it to her. "What does what's-his-name's father know about Ancient tech anyway?"
"They are from Armeth, on the other side of the great lake. Their people were once more advanced. He told me there were other places like this and—"
"Fine, fine," he said, lowering John onto the flat surface. "All I need is to be able to interface with it, which will be a lot easier if I can breach the protocols with my computer."
Doctor McKay pulled a laptop from his pack, opened it and powered it up. He took out cables like the ones he'd used to repair the Ancient device at the ruins. It seemed impossible that her pilgrimage had been only three years earlier. Years that now seemed like lifetimes. She pulled the strap of her own weapon across her shoulder and placed it along with John's on a nearby table.
"Why are you not helping him?" she asked.
He did not look up as he fiddled with the cables and various crystals from one of the drawers beneath the scanning platform. "I am helping him," he said, his hands shaking slightly. "But I need to know exactly what type of machine I'm connecting him to. I'm not hooking him up to some random device. Been there, done that. Not happy times, if you know what I mean."
"I do not."
"A story for another day, then," he replied with a nervous laugh. "As it turns out, looks like you picked the right spot after all."
"And what purpose would I have in bringing you to a place that would be of no use?"
Instead of a comment, he busied himself placing clips over a few of the crystals. Sweat had darkened an arc around the back of his shirt and under each arm. "We're lucky, this device is a medical scanner very similar to the equipment back on Atlantis. I'll just need to make a few adjustments before we get started."
"What will it do to him?"
"I'm hoping it will do an internal scan and give me some indication… I'm sorry, why am I explaining this? Every second talking is wasted time. You wouldn't understand anyway."
"You sound like my sisters. I am not a child anymore, in case you haven't noticed, and I am the Queen." She made the last sound every bit the proclamation it was.
When he turned to her, she was ready for a snappy reply, but he quickly averted his eyes and sat down in front of the scanner. Being away from the castle, other people's reactions had to serve as her mirror. She had already noted the appearance of her hands and could well imagine the state of her that caused people to look away. Coming from Doctor McKay, it was especially hard to take.
"I know all about this place," she added defiantly. She would have her say. Nolar Lumsbrik helped me find it. We also discovered some Ancient writings, which he translated."
"So, a crack tracker and an Ancient expert? I'm impressed." He would still not look at her and he didn't sound impressed at all. "And just because you're older, that doesn't make you smarter, now please stop talking so I can think."
She frowned and moved around to stand at the end of the table, folding her arms across her chest. She was worried about John Sheppard, too, and she would not be ignored. Strange to see John just lying there. His face was handsome, peaceful, the way she liked to remember it. The slow, even rise and fall of his chest was reassuring, yet she sensed he was anything but peaceful. She could not explain it, a feeling of dread, like something creeping up behind her.
Doctor McKay pressed more keys, which made more panels on the table light up. One of the panels presented a complete diagram of Sheppard's body using colors for different biological functions. Each time he selected a new section, the computer beeped, and the display panel gave the results of the scan. "I can't find anything, he said. "According to this, he's as healthy as a horse." He pressed more keys, eyeing Sheppard expectantly each time.
"By the way," he said, his tone more conversational. "What happened—I mean how did you, uhm—" He waved his hand up and down in her direction.
He seemed too intent on his task even to feign interest in her answer, his attention flitting back and forth from his screen to the panels to Sheppard and back to his screen. But she decided to tell him anyway.
"When some of the villagers began to go missing, we formed patrols, those of us who were not affected by what the Wraith were doing. We locate the ones who are and if they're still in their minds, we take them to the castle or to another one of these places – they're shielded – so they can come back to themselves."
Doctor McKay made a hmmph noise that she took as her signal to continue. He was listening, and maybe not now, but sometime when this was all over, he would process what she was saying.
"A few days ago, we were ambushed, much like you were today. Nolar tried to tell me it was a trap, but Flora was gone, and I had not spoken to Ruthar in days." She stopped to take a breath, afraid if she did not that her voice would betray her. "If there was a way to help them, I had to try. We did find some villagers, and from the state of their bodies, we knew we were among Wraith. We tried, but we were attacked before we could get away."
Doctor McKay's keyboard flurry slowed as he half-turned his head toward her.
"One of them started to feed on me. Nolar shot at it, enough for it to let go. He kept shooting to confuse them, screaming at me to run. When I got clear, the shooting stopped. The last I saw of him, he was…" She didn't finish, could not speak it aloud. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to let them fall.
Doctor McKay did look up then, but this time she turned away from him. She did not want to see his pity. They weren't here for that. They were here to help John Sheppard.
"I'm really sorry," he said.
She could tell he meant it, especially if, as he said, he had once watched John being fed on. Still, she was glad when he changed the subject to ask about her sisters.
"Mardola managed to escape with the help of Genii soldiers and Flora…" She paused a moment, pressed her lips together hard before going on. "We think Flora went to the Wraith ship. None of the patrols have been able to locate her."
McKay stopped his typing and turned to her. "Oh. But that means—you're on your own?"
"When this all started, Ruthar and his mother and father joined me at the castle."
His mouth twisted in a way that was hard to tell if he was frowning or starting to smile, but then he abruptly turned his attention back to John, clearly refocused on the information on his screen.
"So, what does this tell you?"
McKay sighed heavily. "I'm looking for anything that will explain why Sheppard isn't responding. This is not a normal reaction to Wraith feeding."
"But I told you, these Wraith-kind do not have the same power. I see you still do not listen."
"Yes, I un-der-stand that, he said, clipping each syllable short. "I have a theory that what protects you and some of the others from the effects of this—disturbance is your Ancient gene, and John Sheppard has one of the strongest manifestations of the gene I've ever seen, but that still doesn't explain why he's been unconscious this long. Unless…" He snapped his fingers and fumbled in his pack for another connector and clamped it to a different crystal in the drawer. He typed something into the computer and looked up. "Oh, no. No, no, no…"
He bolted up and bent over Sheppard, so close Harmony thought he might kiss him. She moved around the table opposite him, focusing on where Doctor McKay's hands surrounded Sheppard's face. At first, she thought it was only a shadow, but John's face had begun to change, the skin dry and scale-like.
"Oh, god, why do I have to be right all the time. This is bad, very bad."
She searched for something hopeful in his voice, but there was nothing. Again, that same sense of foreboding caught her up, as if something had lifted her and held her in mid-air. Her senses were flooded. Images swirled in her mind, dark and painful, images of time passing, imagery that pulsed through her entire body. John was in trouble.
She nearly shouted at Doctor McKay. "What is happening to him?"
"Can't talk now, must work fast." McKay's eyes were glued to the screens. He pressed key after key and moved one of the cables to yet another crystal. Harmony went back to stand by his side. He bent down to examine more of the crystals in the table's base. Choosing one, he clipped another cable to it. He worked with the intensity of one of the court artisans, typing furiously and adjusting the settings on the scanner's control panel, his focus so pointed it was as if she weren't there. One would think that not only was John's life in danger, but his own as well.
She lifted John's hand to cup hers underneath. It was heavy and warm. The foreboding feeling increased as she turned it over in hers. There was something near his wrist, another patch of dry, flaky skin with scales that changed their color like abalone twisted in the light.
"This should just about do it," he said, still typing until more areas on the figure started to blink. "I'll be damned," he remarked, "It works. You can actually see the gene's effect."
Harmony elbowed him not so gently. "What is happening to him?" she repeated.
Taking John's hand from her, McKay carefully pushed the sleeve higher. The concentration on his face was in contrast to his softening features. The way he touched John showed a tenderness she had all but forgotten. Even calling it up in her memory, the loss formed a lump in her throat.
"Several years ago, Jo—Colonel Sheppard was bitten by an Iratus—a bug, a bug thought to be a precursor of what would become the Wraith, then later he was attacked by a Wraith who had taken a massive dose of an Iratus retrovirus our medical team was working on to turn Wraith into humans, only it wasn't perfected and the attack infected Sheppard with the retrovirus causing him to transform into a kind of bug-Wraith…"
She met his gaze with a measure of scorn. "Don't talk to me like I am a gullible child. You do not have to make up some idiotic story to appease me."
McKay blinked at her. "I'm not making anything up." He pointed to his screen. "Our medical staff developed this protocol as an antidote using Iratus stem cells. With their help, we were able to save Sheppard and reverse the damage to his DNA. We weren't sure if it would ever resurface. Let's just hope those antibodies are still kicking, because unless I miss my guess, Sheppard's strong ATA gene has shut down all non-autonomous functions in order to fight off the resurgence."
It was terrifying to think of John Sheppard enduring such torture. Her next thoughts were of Flora and Ruthar, and she quickly pushed them away.
"I've programmed the scanner with Sheppard's DNA signature following the antidote therapy as well as the signature of the retrovirus, allowing the scanner to display the progress of the antibodies. Then I reprogrammed a portion of the scanner's power supply to interface directly with Sheppard, not just provide information. This way we'll still be able to monitor his progress, but he'll have a power source geared to interact with the Ancient gene to augment his natural defenses."
She narrowed her eyes, trying to make sense of the words. "So, you are making him better?"
"Of course, I am. Well, more to the point, he is. I just upped his chances a little."
He sounded confident and she wanted to believe him. Gone was the dismissive you're just a little girl sneer, and she was glad of it, but what was left unsaid mirrored the tight knot in her stomach.
"Oh," he said suddenly, as a flurry of beeps sounded from the device. He pointed to the display of John's body. "Look at that. He's doing it. He's fighting it." It was working. He broke into a huge grin, then relaxed back against the seat.
"All we have to do now is wait," he said, and patted his pockets. "Is there any food here? I missed lunch and was looking forward to a big meal at the castle."
Harmony reached for the pack slung across her hips, opened it and handed him a strip of dried jerky.
McKay turned it over, sniffed it, then raised an eyebrow. "What's this?"
"Dried meat. I made it myself."
He did not look impressed. "Can I ask what kind of meat?"
"Ubor. It is the most popular wild game hunted by many of our people. You are fortunate there is any left."
He took a tentative bite.
"You are welcome," she said. She sat down on the floor, crisscrossed her legs and leaned back against the wall. From there she watched him, chewing furiously while his hand hovered over the computer, his eyes fixed on the panels of the scanner table.
"So, getting married?" he said between bites. "I thought you were going to wait for Sheppard."
She smiled to herself. She hadn't thought of that in a very long time and somehow now it felt foolish, "A childish dream," she replied. She had nearly forgotten what dreams were like. In too many ways, she was still that smart little girl who couldn't wait to lead her people. She couldn't have known then that she would get her wish before she was really ready to handle it. At least that was what Ruthar kept telling her. She suspected his father had ideas of becoming her Chief Counsel once the marriage was done and was influencing Ruthar more than she would like.
"So, does this Ruthar come from a good family?" McKay asked, holding out his hand for another strip of ubor.
"I suppose so," she said quietly. "Families play a big part in marriage arrangements." She handed over the last two strips from her pack. "Flora and his parents arranged for us to meet."
"Still, don't you think you're a bit young for such an important step?"
"In five more lunar cycles I will be seventeen, the age my people are allowed to marry." She stared down at her hands, turning them over, back to front, before tucking them under her thighs. "The wedding is to take place during the same lunar cycle."
He swallowed down the last of the jerky, turned and looked at her carefully. "But do you, I mean, uhm, you love him?"
She thought about that. The last few days had her questioning what she knew about a lot of things, including love. Where had Ruthar been when she needed him? He could be dead or have suffered the same fate as her sister. Ruthar was neither heroic or gentle, but it was a good arrangement and Flora insisted she would be more accepted as leader by the people of Armeth if she had the backing of the Lingvaul family. Thankfully, Doctor McKay saved her from answering by posing another question.
"How does his family know about hidden Ancient tech?"
"In the past, the Wraith culled their village many times, taking the most vital and leaving the elders. As the elders passed, there were not many people left who knew of the ruins. Ruthar's father was just a boy. His father and grandfather before him were scribes. They studied the ruins and other areas and wrote of them. The writings were passed down to Ruthar's father."
"Do any of them have the Ancient gene?"
She shook her head. "If there were any, the passage of time eventually left no one who could make the Ancient devices work."
She hesitated. "Would that be a bad thing? With the technology, we could promise protection for more people. They could come from the outlying villages to help build up Armeth once again, maybe even join together with my people."
Doctor McKay turned in his chair to face her. "Would you want that? You as ruler with them pulling the strings?"
Harmony was silent. It was unnerving to hear someone say in words what she had been afraid to think herself. There had never been outright war between their people, but she remembered her mother's counsel complaining of one-sided trade deals and suggesting that certain knowledge and intelligence about common enemies had not been shared. Would her people even support a welcoming of the Armethians? And now there was the Wraith to deal with.
"How were we not warned about the Wraith this time?" she asked, ignoring his question.
"I'm looking forward to finding out the answer to that myself. But if it makes you feel better, I can guarantee that Atlantis sent help as soon as they could. Our people will see to the Wraith. Then they'll come for us."
"Do you think they'll help us find Ruthar?"
The furrow between his brows softened. The depth of his blue eyes in the soft light held an understanding, a sort of kinship. She wondered if he had someone back in Atlantis, someone that he cared for and who cared for him. He deserved that, she thought. She started to ask him about it, but the beep-beep-beep warnings and flashing lights on the scanner drew his attention away.
He changed in the blink of an eye. The speed with which his focus shifted solely to taking care of Sheppard amazed her. She jumped up to see what was happening. One glance at the scaly patch showing through Sheppard's open shirt sent her back inside that frozen wall of fear. The sense of choking overwhelmed her, of hands clutching at her chest as darkness closed in on her from all sides.
"It's not working!" She screamed to keep her panic from spiraling out of control. "It's not working!"
"No," McKay said sharply. "It's working, it's just not working fast enough. The retrovirus multiplies too quickly."
Harmony fought to catch her breath. She tugged at the collar of her tunic, dislodging her pendant to swing free. "We have to do something, Doctor McKay. What can we do?"
He turned on her so quickly it startled her. "We can't do anything. Look, I appreciate all you've done, but right now I need to—"
His eyes widened. The wild expression on his face frightened her. Was he angry with her or angry because he couldn't help John? She stumbled back to give him room, but he reached out for her, grabbing her pendant. He pulled her toward the table. He was hurting her, but she was too shocked and afraid to protest.
He slammed the pendant against the control panel on the device. "Your hands," he ordered, his voice high-pitched and shrill. "Put your hands here, now!"
She did as she was told, acting without thinking, because she was frightened and did not want to disobey him. She was also frightened for Sheppard. The flat surface of the scanner glowed, pulsing like a heartbeat. Doctor McKay's breathing was harsh and quick, matching her own. Sweat had drenched the ends of his hair around his temples and collar. He was shaking as he held her still.
"C'mon Sheppard… damn it!"
Harmony held her breath, biting down on her lower lip as if that might freeze time, fearing what might come next. Abruptly, the warning beeps stopped. The lights on the scanning device winked out, the hum of its lifeblood extinguished into silence.
Doctor McKay looked at her, uncertainty welling up in his eyes as he loosened his grip on her. But she knew. She could feel it, freedom from the pressing weight on her chest, making her gasp for air. She let go of the panel – there were reddish marks on her arms where McKay had held her wrists. A different sense flooded her as she took another step back, a strange sense of calm.
"Oh my god," he said. "Are you okay?"
Harmony nodded numbly as they stared at one another.
They both started as the scanning device powered back up, the soft purr of its revival relighting the platform and display panels quickening her pulse. Doctor McKay moved like a cat, pouncing on his computer to type furiously. Finally, he sighed, a great whoosh of breath, before slumping back against his chair.
"It was the gene," he said, looking up at her. "Not that it wasn’t strong enough, but the dormant strains of the retrovirus got more of a hold than I thought, or maybe it was the nature of the contact this time, or having his life restored once by a Wraith might have some kind of residual…” his voice trailed away. He took a breath and smiled then, probably realizing that he had frightened her. “I'm sorry. When I saw your pendant, it just clicked. Sheppard needed a boost to kick his gene into overdrive, so I just used yours to put him over—"
"Rodney?" Sheppard's voice sounded shattered, unused, startling them again.
"Here," Doctor McKay replied. "Oh, god, is it ever good to hear your voice. Do you remember anything?"
John shook his head, not in a negating way, more to clear it. "A sleeping princess, a lot of really bad memories and waking up with one whale of a—" He lifted his head and started to look around, but his eyes fixed on Harmony.
She stepped closer, smiling nervously. "John Sheppard, it is good to see you well." He blinked to focus, his eyebrows knitting together a moment before his face fell blank.
"It's Harmony," McKay said. "She saved us. You probably don't recognize her because—"
"I think it's obvious what's happened, Rodney," John said, keeping his eyes on Harmony. He tried to sit up but was only able to brace himself on one elbow. He patted himself then looked down at his hands. "What the hell was that thing that attacked me?"
Harmony and Doctor McKay took turns explaining about Nolar Lumsbrik, the Wraith-kind, her betrothal and the Lingvaul family. When they'd finished, he paused, taking them both in for a long moment, his expression impossible to read. "Well," he said to Doctor McKay. "I hope you thanked Harmony."
"Yes," Rodney said, a note of uncertainty in his tone. "I'm pretty sure I did. Didn't I? I mean, I was kind of snappy when I didn't know where you were taking us, but—"
"That is only because of your concern for John," she said. "Even though you were not sure you could trust me, you would have done anything to help him."
"Is that right, Rodney?"
The color rose in McKay's cheeks. "Yes, well, it's merely instinct now, to be honest."
John grinned at him. "If that makes you feel better, McKay, keep telling yourself that. Anyway, we gotta check in. Atlantis must have sent those reinforcements by now. They'll be going crazy trying to find us." He managed to push his way up to sit, his long legs dangling off the side of the table.
"Can't," Rodney said, pointing to the ceiling. "Shielded."
Sheppard looked around the room, craning his neck to see into the far corners. Dark stubble covered his chin and throat. His profile could have been the work of their renowned sculptors, and Harmony was reminded of why she would have chosen him for her King.
"Another hidden lab?" Sheppard asked.
"Well, you know those Ancients…" Rodney replied. "Apparently they're scattered around like a kid's toys."
"How long have I been out, anyway?"
Doctor McKay checked his watch. "Oh, let's see, I wasn't really keeping up with the time, I was too busy trying to save your ass. You want all the gory details?"
John licked his lips. "Nah, spare me. Just tell me how far we are from the 'gate?"
Harmony spoke up first. "We are at the edge of the Larris forest, just past the marshes."
"Then we need to go," Sheppard said. "As I remember, that's quite a trek." He put his feet on the floor but stumbled on his first step.
Doctor McKay rushed forward to steady him. "Whoa, no, no, no, hold on. One detail you might want to know… you've just fought off a resurgence of the Iratus retrovirus. I need to do a complete scan to make sure you're okay."
John shuddered, drew his mouth into a tight thin line and shared a long look with Doctor McKay. Knowing what she did, Harmony recognized John's pain and revulsion in the crease of his brow and in the way his body stiffened.
"Well," he finally said to McKay. "I woke up, didn't I?"
"I'm not a bug, am I?"
Doctor McKay's hand was still on John's chest as if to hold him there. John reached up with his own hand to cover it. "Then, I must be fine," he said. His voice was surprisingly calm as he gently drew Doctor McKay's hand away. "I'm fine," he repeated and turned back to Harmony. "We really need to go."
Again, she sensed an undercurrent of understanding that made words unnecessary. John was a true leader and his main objective would be to get back to his people. She nodded, walked over to retrieve their weapons then headed for the door to turn off the shield.
When she didn't hear their footsteps behind her, she turned. At first, they seemed to be arguing because of the earnest way they looked at one another. John was still holding onto Doctor McKay's hand and they were whispering. She couldn't make out words, but their tone was not in anger, it was soft and reassuring. She looked away quickly, her face flushing hot. Ruthar was not tender as a rule. Being with Doctor McKay, watching him worry over John and seeing the two of them together now, Ruthar's behavior toward her seemed cold and controlling. She thought of the things Doctor McKay had said to her. She could have felt sadness for the days behind her; she could have felt anxious about the days ahead. In the end, she decided on grateful, then opened the panel and used the pendant to power down first the shield and then the room itself.
Outside, the light was near gone. Not certain the darkness would be an asset, she wanted to get them back to the stargate as soon as she could. Both Sheppard and Doctor McKay were hailed on their radios within minutes. She stood by as they listened and spoke, glancing at each other from time to time. It was obvious they were not speaking to the same people.
John signed off first. She stepped up to him, handed his weapon over and asked how they were going to proceed. If there was a fight with the Wraith, she wanted to help. It was the least she owed her people and John's.
He eyed her warily. "The Wraith don't always stick around to fight," he said, clipping his P-90 back around his neck. "Apparently, this time, a few of them decided to sabotage the gate on their way out. But they left their little light show running, so we're going to see if we can fix that for you first. Then McKay will see about repairing the 'gate. Point is, we aren't going to have time to get back, so our friend Colonel Caldwell is going to be-uh, collect us. We'll be aboard his ship, the Daedalus, right above us so—"
"You want me to leave my people?"
"Only for a little while," Doctor McKay said. He had just signed off himself. "We have a device we can use to take care of all this atmospheric interference. We'll bring you back as soon as we've neutralized the damage and the Wraith threat."
"But I can't leave them here. What will your device do to them?"
"Your people will be safe," John said. "The castle is protected, and my people have placed most of the villagers there. Others have already been, um, collected by Colonel Caldwell. They'll be waiting for us."
"And," Doctor McKay added. "The ones needing medical treatment are getting the very best of care. Once the mission is complete, we'll return everyone, I'll repair the stargate and we'll finally get that big feast Flora promised."
Harmony said nothing at the mention of Flora. Was she at the castle? Was she getting the medical help he spoke of? It was unthinkable to her to let even one person suffer. "How do you know you have all the villagers?" she asked. "There are families beyond the main village, even out as far as the lake. What about Ruthar, his mother and father?"
John side-eyed Doctor McKay, then looked down at his feet. To Harmony, McKay spoke slowly as he would trying to make a child understand. "We have life signs detectors. Colonel Sheppard's men would have made sure all the villagers were accounted for, even the ones away from the village. The ones they couldn't reach, Colonel Caldwell would have picked up. We have done this before."
"A lot," Sheppard said. "And our people will stay at the castle to make sure the mission goes off without a hitch."
She regarded them both, not yet sure if the device posed a threat to the people. They did not seem to think so.
"Then I should stay, too. You may go, but I'll go back to the castle. I can make it easily in the dark. My people need to see that I have not abandoned them."
John sighed but didn't answer her. He nodded at Doctor McKay as he tapped his radio and said they were ready.
Instantly, the air around her changed, dimpling her skin with gooseflesh, the hair standing on end. Her chest grew heavy with the need to take a deep breath. "No!" she shouted and turned to run. Sheppard was quicker. He grabbed her and pulled her back in against him. His fingers digging into her upper arm as a bright light surrounded them.
The next instant, she stood with John and Doctor McKay in an enclosed room. Around them, the deep pulse of the Wraith device was gone. The silence in its place made her feel unbalanced for a moment. She wrenched away from John, flailing her arms as she balled her hands into fists and began to strike him. How could he have done this? Her people depended on her. How were they going to feel now? One look and they would banish her. It was all so unfair. All she had wanted was to be a great leader, like her mother, and like John Sheppard, and now he had betrayed her.
John matched her parries, using his hands to guard vulnerable areas, but allowing her to land a blow here and there. Because he knows he deserves it, she thought. Doctor McKay tried to calm her, but he did not seem inclined to intervene. When she was thrashing more than landing direct hits, John coaxed her arms down by her sides and held them there. She was on the verge of tears, but she would rather give up her crown than cry in front of him.
She stood tall. "I will not forgive this, John," she said, choking back her disappointment in him. "You above anyone else should understand my feelings."
"I do," he said evenly.
There were pictures in her mind that echoed her own memories, the pain and pressure on her chest and the sensation of life ebbing away like a final breath. Her eyes widened. She understood. They had a connection. His thoughts were snatches of words, whispers carried on the wind. She shook her head, mentally backing away, and he let her go. She stared into his eyes. Inside them, she thought, were all the things he would never say.
Two more people came into the room then. Doctor McKay went over to speak to them. One was very tall and handsome, and he glanced her way as they talked. She recognized the woman as Teyla Emmagan, who had come on previous trade visits. Without warning, she sensed trouble. She looked around the room for the first time. It felt like a prison. She realized she had no idea where she was, and it saddened her to find herself questioning the motives of people she trusted.
Another person hurried into the room carrying a computer like Doctor McKay's. He spoke to McKay and handed the computer over to him. Doctor McKay was just as focused as he had been earlier with John. Then the two of them left together, talking so fast she could not understand what either one was saying.
John nodded to the others and they also left, leaving Harmony and John alone.
"Breathe," he said gently.
She hadn't realized with all the emotion roiling inside her, she was only taking short, shallow breaths, afraid if she relaxed and breathed deeply, she would break her vow not to cry. Oddly, that was just what she wanted. Not in front of John, of course, but to be somewhere alone where she could break down and cry out all the anger, the injustice, the fear and the heartbreak. She wanted to cry for Flora and for Mardola, for her people and for Nolar Lumsbrik, and then she thought of her mother. Her quiet strength had been her power, the regal face she always projected, not only to their people but to her family. Harmony had never had reason to think of it before, but now she had to wonder if there was ever a day when all her mother wanted was to sit down and cry?
John let go of her hands and brushed back a wisp of unruly hair stuck to her face. She, in turn, noticed the grey at his temples.
"It is said that many gray hairs make one wiser," she said, giving him just enough of a smile to show that she had gained control, but not so much that he should think the matter forgotten.
"I don't know about that," he confessed. "But I do know you have proven yourself in the way you survived, the way you helped McKay and me. You may not think so now, but you served your people well."
"You once told me that I had to put the needs of my people before anything else, including my own. This will seem to them that I was saving myself, not thinking of them at all. How are they going to feel?"
"I can't answer that," he said. "But I can say… well, if I were one of your subjects, I'd be honored to have you as my Queen."
She almost laughed at his platitude. This one time she wanted John to be straight with her, but really, what was he to say? Her smile faded. Something settled inside her, gripped her with the cold truth that she could never go back, that there was no time before this – at least no time to which she could return. This would be her life. It had been her choice to fight for her people, not to be deceived and to lose the one person whom she trusted the most. She had not chosen to give up years she could never reclaim, years that would always be tucked away only in the lines on her face.
A call on his radio interrupted them. He held her gaze as he listened. "Roger that, we're on our way."
"Something has happened?"
"Someone wants to see you," John replied, leading her out of the room. "You know we picked up many villagers—"
Harmony froze. She wasn't sure she wanted to know. "Ruthar?"
John didn't answer. As they rounded a corner, Harmony caught a glimpse of herself in one of the reflective surfaces. She stopped short, aware that others were watching her. For a moment, she thought her mother's spirit had come to comfort her. Slowly, she raised a hand to her cheek. The corresponding warmth of her own skin was far less ethereal. It wasn't that bad, really. Strands of grey streaked her otherwise dark wavy hair and the lines around her eyes and mouth weren't deep, not like her mother's, more the premature beginning of lines.
A hand on her shoulder gently pulled her away from the mirror-like surface. "Look," John said. "I know how you feel, believe me."
"Yes, Doctor McKay told me of your encounters with Wraith." She was grateful to John for trying, but he couldn't really know. She didn't care so much for herself, as Nolar had taught her that true leaders ruled by example, they accepted day-to-day failings and used them for the benefit of their people. She had suffered many who thought her too young to rule, including her own sisters, even the man who would be her King. But how would her people see her now? Was she somehow tainted? Even if the Wraith were driven from their land, would the people have confidence that she was not in league in any way, that she would not open the door to them at some future time?
"What I meant was," John continued, "Going back to your people—how they'll see you. I had the same concerns." He gave a little self-deprecating laugh and waved his arm to indicate the people around them. "My people have seen me at my worst, but even after I got better, I wondered if they'd ever really trust me. Some of them wanted to replace me."
"But that did not happen."
"No, it didn't. I was returned to command and my friends stood by me. The point is, your people will do the same. They'll see you as a leader, one who will always sacrifice for their welfare."
"Yes, Nolar used to tell me the same thing."
"Well, he was right. What you did back there was right. And it's not for nothing you found us, so thank you. If you hadn't been there to save Rodney and get us to—"
Harmony raised her hand and pressed the tips of her fingers against his lips to quiet him. She stared at him a long moment, then cocked her head to the side. "Not for nothing," she repeated. "Is that like, I don't not like you?"
John broke into a wide grin that opened his face and lit up his eyes. "Something like that," he said. "Now, I think there's someone anxious to speak to you."
From the hallway, they entered another small room. Immediately, someone rushed to Harmony. Her reflexes, taut for days, still had her in protection mode. She tried to step back, but the woman was on her, clinging to her. It took a few seconds for her to understand and to relax into the warm but fierce hug.
Flora clutched her tightly; her body jerking with sobs. When she finally pulled away, Flora was unable to hide her shock. The sadness in her eyes deepened before she fell to her knees. "I am so sorry," she cried. "I was wrong about so many things. Please forgive me."
Harmony was confused. Flora had not gone to the Wraith of her own choosing. She had had no part in their plans. "There is nothing to forgive," Harmony told her, reaching down to stroke her sister's hair. Her movements felt wooden, her emotions finally powering down, lulling her body and mind into a quiet corner.
Flora looked up at her, eyes bright with tears. "You cannot marry Ruthar."
Harmony knew that now. Even if he was found, she had no intention of continuing with the wedding, but she was curious as to Flora's sudden concern.
"His mother and father… they do not have your best interest at heart. They want you for your ability to make the Ancient devices operate. They will trick you, get you to Armeth and then…" her voice faltered.
Harmony took a deep breath to clear her head. First, she needed to finish this mission. Then she would worry about how Flora knew so much of the Lingvauls' plan.
"As I said, there is nothing to forgive."
Flora threw her arms around Harmony and sobbed harder. Harmony stared down at her. Strange, but she no longer felt the need to cry herself. Aware that John was watching them, she turned to him. No more images, no more dark feelings. There was nothing else to say.
John nodded, turned quietly and left them alone.
The day was also a celebration to honor each other, their heroism and strength as a people to have overcome such adversity and loss. Musicians from all over played, filling the hall with lively music: not mournful dirges, to which they were all certainly entitled, but gay reels and promenades suitable for dancing. And the villagers had danced, from the smallest children to the most venerable among them. For a time, they had left the darkness behind and whirled around the large space, throwing off their cares in time to the music.
Having then worked up giant appetites, they all sat down and shared the meal together. During the feast, at Harmony's request, court scribes recounted the recent installments of bravery and heroism. To end the festivities, two new renderings would be unveiled. One would depict the battle with the Wraith and the other one a portrait, a triumvirate of the Queen with her newest honorary envoys.
As Harmony listened and watched her people, concern for the coming days still nagged her. To some, the feast was their first look at the changes in their Queen. While she had noticed some of them grouped together, glancing at her and talking behind their hands, most did not appear to care. Everyone loved a party, but what of after? What would they make of her planned alliance with Armeth and even stronger plans for the protection of their shared homeland?
Many of her people had died; some by her hand. Some were gone with the Wraith, and some had been taken to Atlantis. Their doctors had therapies they could try to see if the damage done by the Wraith could be reversed. Would her people understand? Would they forgive? Would they be willing to accept her decisions and the role she had played?
And what of Ruthar? He was the last of his lineage and perhaps that was where the push for marriage had lain. He had not yet been found, either among the dead or among those rescued. His parents' bodies had been recovered from a settlement house near the great lake. Evidence found in the house offered the possibility that they had betrayed her. She would never be certain if that was due solely to the Wraith device. Her choice had been difficult. Did she make examples of them? Would doing so alienate the people of Armeth? In the end, to keep peace and avoid feelings of division, Harmony had personally led a delegation to return the Lingvauls to their land and mourn their passing.
A clean bright ring of crystal drew Harmony back to the festivities. The din of voices in the dining hall began to settle with each tap against Colonel Sheppard's goblet. She found it funny that it would be John to make a speech. Doctor McKay always had more to say.
"I'm not very good at this," he began, clearing his throat and glancing at Doctor McKay before continuing. "But at least I'll be brief. The stories told by the scribes were nice and we're very flattered. But I think it's important that you all know the part Harmony played. She…"
Harmony leveled him with a glare. He had said nothing of this when he had asked for permission to speak. This was to be a celebration for their friends from Atlantis.
"Let's just say that I wouldn't think twice about taking her on a mission with me." He raised his goblet and nearly everyone in the hall joined him. "Your Queen."
The hall erupted with applause and cheers of support and praise. Harmony blushed, scalding her cheeks before spreading down over her throat and across her chest. She could barely breathe.
John smiled at her and then put the cup to his lips.
Flora hugged her. They were mostly all right for now, even though Harmony had to continually brush aside any thoughts that her sister could have knowingly plotted against her.
She smiled back at John, and at Doctor McKay as he leaned around John and held out his glass to her as well. She lingered on the two men for a moment, dreaming of what the future might bring for all of them. She then rose to speak to her people, feeling for the first time she was truly their leader.