It was a dream, but as dreams often do, it felt so very real.
He perched on a rock on the side of a hill, sweet-smelling breezes stirring the fringe of hair at his forehead. Before him lay a lush river valley, its greens and golds littered with flocks of sheep and plowed patches. Here and there, a shepherd could be seen following the shaggy animals, and small groups of children chased one another across the flower-strewn meadows. Women washed laundry at the riverside and tended to pots and spits, while men chopped wood, cured hides, and struck out into the forest carrying spears and bows. Smoke curled lazily from the washing and cooking fires, the light gray trails leading upward to the brilliant blue sky and drawing his eyes to the twin mountains which lay beyond.
Perhaps 'twin' was an inaccurate turn of phrase, as the mountains were not a matched pair, yet the sense he drew from them was that they were, in fact, well-matched. To the left and toward the ocean was a towering edifice of white rock whose peak was lost in the clouds. The other, to the right and toward the forest, more closely resembled a squat, dark ant hill. Its summit was enshrouded in a sluggish gray haze.
An old man appeared suddenly at his side, nearly causing him to tumble from his precarious seat in surprise. Though frail in appearance, the elder was able to steady him with a single hand.
"You must not fall," the old man warned.
* * *
Daniel jerked upright, head whipping up from its comfortable resting place on his crossed arms. "I'm awake," he blurted, before he'd even begun to gain his bearings.
"Good morning, Sunshine," a familiar voice teased, and the silly nickname—almost as foolish as his insistence on calling him 'Jackson' the rest of the time—identified the man immediately: Cameron Mitchell.
"I'm awake," he repeated, reaching out a hand and locating his glasses with the instincts of a life-long wearer of corrective lenses. A fierce yawn came over him then, and he blinked at his watch. "Oh, briefing's in twenty minutes?"
Mitchell nodded, leaning against his lab table and resting the heels of his hands to either side of his hips. "Yeah, didn't want you to miss it, seeing as how you never went home last night."
Daniel frowned, stood, and stretched gently to ease muscles cramped from sleeping at his desk. "Tell that to SG-9. I was on my way out for the evening when Listman got his Bukarin syntax switched around. Instead of offering them a trade proposal, he offered to trade proposals, which the Executive Minister found rather offensive."
"What, as in we give them naquadah, and they give us seeds and stuff?"
"Yep." Nodding his head and stifling another yawn, Daniel shuffled over to his personal coffee maker, dumped the used grounds into the trash, and started a fresh pot. "I then spent the better part of an hour convincing Kel'madi to let me come and set matters straight, another hour explaining the error and that we wouldn't be upset if they asked for clarification should it happen again, and then about twenty minutes trying to convince them that I needed to come back to Earth instead of sticking around for the rest of the negotiations and signing party."
Mitchell bobbed his head again, arms coming up and crossing over his chest. "Uh-huh, yeah. So, why were you still here when SG-9 dialed in at 2215?"
Daniel blinked, mind still too sluggish and un-caffeinated to formulate a reasonable answer. "Um, like I said, I was on my way out."
SG-1's team leader was hardly a mental slouch, and unlike his predecessor, he rarely pretended ignorance. Further to his credit, he was less likely to pussyfoot around things that bothered him, and could sometimes be quite blunt about it. "Look, Jackson, I'm not saying what you do around here isn't important—far from it—but you need to cut yourself some slack... take it easy." Standing up, he crossed the room and clapped Daniel on the shoulder. "We just got you back."
Mouth hanging open in surprise, Daniel could only watch as the other man walked to the door. As he reached the threshold, Mitchell spun around, grinning crookedly. "Oh, by the way... Vala was busy while you were gone. Very busy."
Daniel's shoulders dropped. "Dare I ask?"
"Researching Arthurian legend," Cam answered, turning around again and calling over his shoulder as he walked. "Don't be surprised if she wants you to bring her a 'shrubbery'."
By the time he'd pieced together that cryptic clue, the coffee was ready. Sighing heavily, Daniel poured a cup and fortified himself for both the upcoming meeting, and for the inevitable encounters with a Monty Python-educated Vala.
* * *
"Gentlemen," General Landry began, then nodded at the two women at the table. "Ladies... there's been a change of plans."
"Something change with the Scalarans?" Mitchell asked, taking his seat after the general was settled.
"No, but SG-14 will be handling the follow-up in your stead; I have something more interesting for SG-1." Just then, Sergeant Harriman entered with a stack of folders, which were distributed to the team before the small airman departed. "This morning, we sent a MALP to P1L-223, where it sent back pictures of a medieval-style castle, along with a pillar covered in writing Doctor Merideth identified as Old Welsh."
Daniel quickly set aside the rest of the photos of the planet, and focused instead on the picture of the engraved stele. "I'm not as familiar with Old Welsh as Doctor Merideth is, but I recognize a few of the words. Has he finished the translation yet?"
"It's included in the file. He wanted to run the translation by his supervisor before submitting it, but you were, ah, indisposed."
His head came up suddenly, certain he'd detected a hint of humor in the general's voice. Sure enough, there was a gleam in the older man's eyes which suggested Daniel's lack of availability had been because he was found asleep at his desk. "I'm sure it's fine."
"Is not 'Myrddin' another name for Merlin?" Teal'c asked, having already begun reading the translation.
"Yeah, but who's this Emrys guy?" Mitchell added.
Shaking his head a little to attempt to clear his mind, Daniel picked up the sheet and did a quick scan, picking out the important pieces. "Emrys Wledig, uh, also known as Ambrosius Aurelianus... In the cavern beneath Glastonbury Tor, Merlin's hologram stated the treasure belonged to Ambrosius. I assumed at the time that he meant King Arthur, as some scholars consider them to be one and the same, but other accounts I've read since then suggest he was Arthur's uncle. 'Ambrosius' is also a name often associated with Merlin, as the name means 'of the immortal ones'."
"As in Ancients," Sam suggested, folding her arms on the table before her. "You're saying Arthur's uncle might have been an Ancient, too?"
"Well, no, there's no way to know that. Ambrosius Aurelianus was the second son of Emperor Constantine the Second—or Constantine the Third, depending on the source—and that he fled with his younger brother Uther after their father and elder brother were killed. Some accounts suggest it was the Gwent King Vortigern who was responsible for the deaths of the emperor and his heir, but like everything else, it's hard to tell what's history and what's been embellished for legend." He frowned as another phrase caught his eye. "The inscription says the name of the castle is Dinas Emrys, 'hill-fort of Ambrosius', which is also the name given to a hill and ruins in Wales, though I believe the ruins actually date from the twelfth century."
He took a deep breath, plowing on from memory as best he could. "It is said to be the place where Vortigern attempted to build a tower, but the foundation kept falling down. Vortigern's advisors told him to sacrifice a fatherless child to appease the spirits of the earth rumbling beneath the hill, and Ambrosius Myrddin—Merlin—was brought to him." He frowned. "It's entirely possible Merlin retook human form by impregnating a human woman, much like Adria is an Ori—"
"—Who got a physical body thanks to me," Vala finished. "Well, I hope he was a lot nicer to his human mother than Adria's been to me."
Daniel blinked. "Uh, I'm sure he was. At any rate, Myrddin told Vortigern that the foundations would not stand because the hill had been built over a pool containing two sleeping dragons. The workers were instructed to excavate the pool, and once it was uncovered, the dragons burst out and resumed their centuries-old battle. Eventually, the red dragon was victorious, which Merlin said was a sign that the Saxons would fall to the Britons, now led by Uther the Pendragon."
"Arthur's father," Mitchell finished.
Landry laced his fingers together on the table in front of him. "Doctor Merideth thought you might find this fascinating."
Teal'c certainly looked interested. "This could be yet another place Merlin visited before he was placed in stasis."
"But we've already found Merlin, his library at Camelot, and even the Sangreal," Daniel protested. "I'm not sure what we hope to find here." He suddenly became aware that everyone was staring at him strangely. "What?"
Mitchell sighed and dropped the pen he'd been flipping around in his hands. "You said it yourself, it's hard to piece together what's fact and what's fiction when it comes to Merlin and Arthur... what if this place can help us to sort some of it out once and for all?"
"Well, I have a team working on the documents we brought back from Camelot," Daniel began, then faltered.
"You've all been under a lot of stress lately," Landry announced, standing up. "You especially, Doctor Jackson. The Ori invasion has slowed considerably since Merlin's weapon was sent through to their galaxy, and I have to believe it was due to your actions. You deserve a break, and I hope a purely cultural mission will suffice."
Mitchell, having stood when the general did, leaned over and slapped Daniel on the shoulder. "This is the part where you say 'thanks'."
"Uh, thanks," Daniel stammered, gaze falling to the contents of his briefing folder in disbelief. He distantly heard Landry give them a departure window for 1500 hours, which he acknowledged with a nod.
When had he stopped seeking out knowledge for the sake of knowledge? There was a time he would have argued passionately for a mission with no military objectives, so why had he protested? And why wasn't he leaping for joy at having been handed such a mission now?
"Are you okay, Daniel?" Sam asked, coming around the end of the table to his side.
He shook his head. "I'm just tired. Didn't get much sleep last night."
"Then go grab some before we head out this afternoon," Mitchell answered. "We'll get Doctor Merideth to make a list of references he thinks you might need, and Vala will take care of getting them packed for you."
Vala's instinctive protest was cut off before it began by a glare from the team leader. "Right... research assistant," she sighed, referring to her official job within the SGC. "You'd think by now I'd be fictitiously assigned to something more daring, like 'human resources' or 'accounting'."
"Vala, if you were in accounting, the rest of us would be broke inside of a week."
"Why aren't we bringing Bryn with us?" Daniel asked, interrupting the banter.
"Doctor Merideth's fluency in Gaelic dialects has been requested by SG-11," Teal'c answered. "He and SG-3 will be joining them at 1300."
"Oh. Well, if I'm going to get that nap in, I'd better head that way." Gathering up the photos and papers, he shifted them back to his folder and closed the cover. Pushing back from the table, he picked up the file and started for the door, but Mitchell intercepted him.
"Ah, leave the folder with Vala. If you have that with you, you'll spend the time you should be sleeping looking over Doctor Merideth's translation."
Scowling, but realizing his friend was right, Daniel thrust the folder at Vala. Startled, the woman fumbled it, and some of the pages within fell to the floor. "Whoops!" she exclaimed softly, bending to collect them.
Daniel also knelt to help. His hand fell on one of the photos, and he automatically turned it face up as he lifted it.
It was a panoramic view, showing the stele's position in relation to the planet's DHD. The two objects dominated the left side and foreground of the image, with the aforementioned castle visible on the right side of the image. As the name on the inscription suggested, the fortress was atop a hill, overlooking a river valley.
Beyond them lay two mountains: one snow-capped, the other barren and hazy.
"Daniel?" Sam asked, crouching down next to him.
Daniel blinked, looked at her in brief confusion, and handed the photo to Vala. "Yeah, I'm fine... I'll just... go take that nap."
* * *
"Two dragons lie sleeping in a pool beneath the mound," the youth announced, voice unwavering despite the deadly spears pointed at his throat. "They were imprisoned there hundreds of summers past, by the great King Lludd and his archmage Llefelys. Until they are released and allowed to finish their battle, no stone will stand atop this hill."
Behind the soldiers, the man wearing a circlet upon his brow frowned deeply, seemingly dissatisfied with this response. "How come you to know such a thing?"
"I am Ambrosius Myrddin," the young man answered, "and I have knowledge of both the past and the future. I know this matter because the dragons sing to me in their sleep." He looked over his shoulder, his gaze meeting Daniel's. "Can't you hear them?"
* * *
"You know, something's been bugging me," Mitchell began unexpectedly as the dialing sequence began. "Some of this Arthurian stuff takes place way, way long ago in the sixth century, right? But all of the legends and even the stuff we've encountered at Avalon, Camelot, et cetera, it's all medieval... fourteenth century stuff. Why is that?"
Daniel shifted, scratching at the back of his neck. "That's part of what makes piecing everything together so difficult. I mean, historians know the Welsh repelled a major Saxon invasion around the turn of the sixth century, and Ambrosius Aurelianius is credited with the victory. Again, one major assumption has been that the same man was also called Arthur, but Arthur's part in the battle wasn't included in any historical accounts until some four hundred years later. But, since we now know for certain at least one Ancient was involved—possibly two, if Ganos Lal did more than just watch over Merlin—then it is entirely possible stasis and time travel technology came into play."
Sam smiled as the wormhole rushed open. "In other words, you don't really know for sure."
"Nope," he agreed, smiling at her. "Isn't it great?"
"Well, if we're lucky, that big ol' castle will be full of musty old tomes and scrolls that will answer all your questions," Vala enthused, following Teal'c up the ramp. She stopped at the top, turned around, and added with a nasal voice, "'What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?'"
"African or European?" Sam and Mitchell answered together, the latter giving Vala a gentle shove through the rippling event horizon.
"After you, Jackson," he offered gallantly.
The vista on the other side of the wormhole was just as the MALP photos had shown, and just like the photos, Daniel felt the same, disconcerting sense of deja vu. Looking upon the mountains now, he had the unshakeable feeling he was being watched himself, and he quickly looked away to check his surroundings. There was no one near the Stargate except his team, however, and with his gaze no longer on the mountains, the prickling sensation between his shoulder blades also began to ease.
"All right, let's get this show on the road," Mitchell announced. "Teal'c, take point... I'll bring up the end of this party train."
"Our arrival has already been noted," Teal'c replied, eyes fixed on the distant castle. Seconds later, the faint peals of a bell echoed across the countryside.
"Yeah, I'd say they spotted us," the Southerner drawled in agreement. "You think they'll come to us, or will we have to go meet them?"
"Probably come meet us," Daniel guessed. "Sending out an advance party to stall us will give their citizens more time to retreat to the safety of the castle's walls, while giving their forces still within the castle the chance to threat-assess from a distance. With sentries on the towers to watch, they'd have plenty of warning should any visitors through the Stargate prove hostile."
"Not that we plan to prove hostile," Vala added, drumming her fingers on the edge of the DHD. "But just in case they don't like the looks of us, I'll be right here, ready to dial us out."
"Good plan. Teal'c and Sam, you've got our flank... Jackson and I will do the meet'n'greet... unless they don't speak English, that is, in which case Jackson's on his own."
They waited for what seemed like hours, during which time Sam, Mitchell, and Vala discussed their favorite Monty Python moments, Daniel reviewed the notes Doctor Merideth had made on the differences between the modern tongue and Old Welsh, and Teal'c watched the castle. The Jaffa's announcement that a party had departed the castle provided only a brief distraction, and the tense anticipation resumed almost immediately.
"So this is what you military types mean when you say 'hurry up and wait'," Vala remarked after several long minutes, obviously uncomfortable with the relative silence.
"Not exactly," Mitchell grated out, "but close enough. 'Hurry up and wait' usually means an oh-dark-thirty wake-up followed by five hours in line waiting to get on a plane, followed by an eight hour wait on the plane."
"As opposed to a six hour mission prep followed by a two hour wait at the 'Gate for an exhilarating five minute dash when the natives start shooting at us?" she retorted.
Mitchell spun around in surprise. "Since when did you become such a cynic?"
"It's happened before."
"Yeah, but I always had a bad feeling when it happened before." He shrugged. "I have a good feeling this time."
From a distance, all they had been able to see of the welcoming party was a carriage, brightly-colored pennants, and a number of footsoldiers. As the group approached the Stargate, the members of SG-1 were surprised to see that the carriage was pulled by a dozen men, and that, other than the carriage's occupants, everyone was on foot. The armor the foot soldiers wore resembled Roman infantry uniforms, rather than the medieval garb they'd been expecting, and the lack of horses meant there were no armored knights.
The Stargate was positioned atop a small rise, and as the locals approached the base, Daniel and Mitchell set off down the hill, and Teal'c and Sam followed a dozen paces behind. As promised, Vala remained at the DHD, ready to cover their retreat if necessary.
Daniel frowned. Since when did Vala hang back from the action? Usually, it was all he could do to curb her enthusiasm and overly-forward manner.
Actually... she'd been this way since he'd come back from his little field trip with Merlin. Had something happened to her while he was away? If so, why hadn't someone told him?
Because, he chided himself, you haven't asked. Making a mental note to talk to Vala when he got a spare moment, Daniel took a deep breath and steadied himself for first contact.
The procession came to a halt only about twenty feet away from where he and Mitchell stood. The pilum-wielding guards were alert but not tense, which was a sign their leaders were willing to talk. Then, as further evidence diplomacy was to be considered, the carriage door opened and a well-dressed man stepped out. He was clad in an emerald tunic and trousers, but wore a red sash diagonally across his chest. His clothing and peaked cap were of a style more generically Middle Ages than the uniforms worn by his soldiers, but the drape of the sash again evoked Roman imagery.
The man called out a greeting, and thanks in part to Doctor Merideth's notes, Daniel was able to begin mentally adjusting his admittedly-limited knowledge of modern Welsh to the variant being spoken here. "Pri nown ta," he greeted. "Fa enna iu Daniel Jackson. Dama Cameron Mitchell, Samantha Carter, Teal'c, Vala Mal Doran." He pointed to each in turn.
"Fa enna iu Cadoc. Uno blir de ikhy?"
Daniel hesitated, unsure of how to answer. Mitchell took his hesitation for misunderstanding, however, and asked, "What'd he just say?"
"He just wants to know where we came from... I was trying to figure out the best answer to give him. 'From the Stargate' is too obvious, 'from Earth' might not mean anything to them, and 'from Wales' isn't entirely accurate."
"I have heard of none of these places," Cadoc answered, surprising them all and relieving Daniel from further interpretation. "Our sentries witnessed you arrive from Myrddin's Round. Dare we hope you have been sent by the archmage himself?"
"Not exactly... but we did meet Myrddin," Mitchell boasted.
A murmur rose up from the soldiers and porters, and even Cadoc looked surprised. "Myrddin yet lives?"
"Well, no," Daniel admitted. "He was, uh, asleep... for a very long time. He woke up long enough to help us against an ancient enemy, but he died not long afterward. He was thousands and thousands of years old."
"For Myrddin to have aided you, you must be King Arthur's Knights of the Round," the envoy decided. "Whether you were sent or came questing, you are desperately needed here."
Daniel shook his head. "We're not knights, either, we're explorers... but we may be able to help you, if you'll tell us what you need."
"Come then... we shall meet with Queen Branwen, and she can tell you of our troubles."
* * *
The queen was a thin wisp of a woman with a pinched face, dark hair, and pale skin. She was relatively young, but the severity of her features made her look almost skeletal, especially when compared to the plump child seated to her right. The fair-haired cherub looked to be no more than six years old, but like his mother, his solemn expression made him seem older and more mature.
"Knights of the Round, I am Queen Branwen of Cambria," the woman announced soberly, "widow of King Einion and regent-mother to Crown Prince Idris. My court and I welcome you to our humble kingdom."
"Thank you for the warm welcome, Your Majesty," Daniel answered, bowing his head, though he was unsure of the proper protocol. He introduced himself and the rest of SG-1, then added, "As I explained to Cadoc on the road, however, we are not knights. We're explorers from the planet Earth, also known as the First World."
"The world of our ancestors?"
"Then Arthur has returned? The Sangreal was recovered?"
"Yes and no," Mitchell answered. "The Sangreal was found, but no Arthur."
A brief look of confusion crossed the queen's face, and the prince blurted, "But only Arthur could find it!"
"So our legends have claimed," Branwen added, laying her hand on her son's arm. "Our legends also say that our rescue would come at the hands of Arthur and the Knights of the Round. Each time visitors have come to us from Myrddin's Round, we have hoped that our salvation was at hand."
"There have been visitors from other planets?" Vala asked, probably concerned with Goa'uld or Ori activity.
"Aye, but none in more than a generation," Cadoc answered. "King Einion's father was the last to greet such visitors, but they were unable to aid us... and now the situation grows more dire."
Mitchell cocked his head. "What situation?"
"The scourge of drakes has long been ours to bear. Cambria has been unable to keep horses or oxen for over a hundred years, and even our neighbors in Albion, Breton, and Eyr struggle with the beasts. On occasion, a phalanx may be fortunate enough to bring down a drake, but these victories are rare, and the beasts grow fat on our labors."
"When you say 'drakes'," the colonel began, "are you talking about dragons?"
"Aye," she replied simply, fingers clenching briefly on the prince's sleeve.
Gesturing to the rest of the team to move closer, Mitchell asked. "Anyone else think these are more holograms?"
"Just because the last one was, doesn't mean these dragons—plural—are," Vala pointed out.
"You have fought a dragon before? And bested it?"
Mitchell looked over his shoulder at Cadoc. "Uh, yeah, we have."
"We got lucky then," Daniel reminded him. "And it wasn't so much 'bested' as 'avoided'."
"You said its name, the thing vanished. I'd call that 'bested'."
Teal'c's left eyebrow rose. "There was a scroll which gave instructions for defeating that dragon. Perhaps we will find a similar document here?" He and Mitchell turned to look at Cadoc and the queen, but Daniel remained frowning in introspection. Vala and Sam looked at one another, shrugged, then looked at Daniel.
"Ideas?" Vala asked. "'Daryl' didn't work the last time, and somehow I doubt it will this time, either."
"I don't really know," Daniel answered. "It's certainly possible."
"No, really... I was only joking about Daryl."
Daniel smiled at her. "That's not what I meant."
"If they are created by advanced volumetric display technology, then maybe we'll be able to find the computers controlling them this time," Sam added, hopefully. "We couldn't get to any of the systems in Glastonbury Tor without damaging the site, and somebody destroyed the computer in Camelot."
"I suppose I could have let the Black Knight continue using Mitchell for a practice dummy," Daniel lamented jokingly, rolling his shoulders in a 'what can you do?' gesture.
"That would have been..." Teal'c paused for just a moment, eyeing the colonel. "Unfortunate," he finished at last.
"Hey!" Mitchell protested, then wisely changed the subject. "Okay, so do we have a plan or what?"
Daniel nodded. "Assuming they have any historical records we can look through, we have a plan. If we can't find anything useful, we'll have to come up with a Plan B."
"You will aid us, then?" Branwen asked, her hopeful expression erasing some of the worry lines from her face. "You will help us end this scourge?"
"We will certainly try," the archaeologist promised.
Mitchell rested his hands atop the butt of his P90. "How many drakes are we talking about here?"
"Hundreds, at least," Cadoc replied. "Some are scarcely larger than a horse, while others are the size of a hut. The smaller ones have become more and more rare, as they have all grown or have been slain by their larger brethren. It is but another sign that the time of Awakening is at hand."
"Awakening?" four voices echoed, as only Teal'c remained silent.
"When the Great Mothers arise from their sleep," Cadoc answered. "If they are not stopped, they will ravage the land and kill every living thing in Cambria."
* * *
The library in Dinas Emrys was small, dark, and crammed to the ceiling with sheaves of paper, rolls of parchments, and leather-bound volumes. From the moment he entered the room, Daniel was torn between joy at the wealth of information at his disposal and despair that there was so much to wade through in the hopes of locating something relevant. Many of the texts were in Medieval Latin—which he could translate far more easily than Welsh—but it was still a time-consuming process. Fortunately, the rest of the team was willing and able to look for keywords and phrases that might help narrow the search.
As the afternoon wore on into evening, Sam and Mitchell returned to the Stargate to report in and bring back supplies. They returned with a number of battery-powered lanterns and a caution from Landry to not understimate the dragon threat. "'Just because the last one was a hologram doesn't mean these are,'" Mitchell quoted, impersonating the general's voice.
Queen Branwen insisted they eat supper with the court, and ordered her servants to prepare rooms for the team for as long as they needed them. The meal consisted primarily of mutton and root vegetables, but it was tasty and filling, and the mood around the dining hall was upbeat. Daniel hadn't wanted to get anyone's hopes up in case there turned out to be nothing SG-1 could do, but it seemed that no matter what he or his teammates said, the Cambrians remained convinced the "Knights of the Round" were there to save them.
"How is it you plan to battle the Great Mothers, Lord Daniel?" Branwen asked.
"We're actually hoping not to fight them," he answered.
"Lord Daniel' here is our expert at ancient lore," Mitchell interrupted, leaning into the conversation across his dinner plate. "The last dragon we fought was destroyed when he figured out its true name, so if the same, uh, magic applies here, then he's the guy you want finding that out for you."
"And what of the rest of you?"
"Well, in case some of ol' Myrddin's magic is involved here, Lady Sam's the one you want on that. She might be able to find a way to, uh, make the dragons sleep forever, or something. Me and Teal'c, we're the hired muscle. The bait in case we need a distraction." Under his breath, he added, "Dear god, I hope we don't need a distraction."
Branwen smiled, charmed by Mitchell's easy manner. "And what of you, Lady Vala?"
"Me?" Vala had been taking a drink from her flagon, but set it down and wiped her chin when she was addressed. "Um, well, I'm here for moral support. Go team! Rah."
"We're actually curious about any stories you might know about Myrddin, Arthur, or the dragons," Daniel asked, shooting Vala a bemused look before returning his attention to the queen. "So far we haven't found much in the library, but I can't help but wonder what's been passed down in folklore over the generations."
The queen, who had been staring in Vala's direction with a contemplative eye, cast her gaze downward and ran a finger around the rim of her flagon. "I fear the bardic traditions have not fared well in our lands," she admitted. "Witnessing the glorious defeat of a dragon was the dream of many bards in Cambria, but far more have fallen to drakes than have watched drakes fall."
Daniel's eyebrows rose. "Um, actually, I was more interested in any legends you have about how you came here, when Dinas Emrys was built, if Uther Pendragon ever came here..."
"Glenys is the court bard," Branwen answered, gesturing to a woman near the table to the queen's left. "Although I personally know the generalities of these old stories, Glenys will be able to relate them to you more accurately."
"That would be great," Daniel agreed.
"I will join you in the library tomorrow," Glenys promised.
Realizing then that he would likely get little more done tonight, Daniel nodded and tried his best to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut.
* * *
Clad in gray robes which nearly blended into the mist-filled forest around him, a young Merlin stood with two attractive young women wearing gowns of red and white, respectively. There was an aura of power about all three, and the very air crackled with barely-restrained energy. From the looks which passed between the women and the wizard, there was some sort of communication taking place, but Daniel found himself unable to hear them, nor could he move or speak. At last, the two women bowed their heads, then turned and walked a short distance to a small clearing. There, they were met by a third woman—one dressed in blue—who held out her hands. The woman in red and the woman in white each took hold of one of the newcomer's hands, then all three turned toward Merlin and Daniel.
"Thank you, Morgana," Merlin said, bowing deeply.
"Do not make me regret this, Moros," Ganos Lal answered, then she and her companions vanished in a flash of light.
"Who were they?" Daniel asked, suddenly finding himself able to speak.
"Sisters of Avalon," the Ancient replied. "Fear not, my young friend, you will meet them soon enough."
* * *
Groaning, Daniel cracked an eye open, feeling like he'd just barely finished closing them before he was being shaken awake. "What is it now?"
Three concerned faces swam into focus: Mitchell, Teal'c, and Sam. "Vala's missing," Sam answered, handing him his glasses.
"She never came to our room last night," she replied. "After you went to bed, Queen Branwen remembered that there was a storybook in Prince Idris' nursery that contained stories about Arthur and Merlin, and asked if Vala wouldn't mind accompanying her to the royal bower to retrieve it. The nanny remembers seeing Vala leave the nursery with the book while the queen stayed behind to kiss her son goodnight, but no one saw Vala after that."
"The castle guards report no disturbances," Teal'c added, "and the only individuals known to have left the castle since were shepherds."
Rubbing at his dry eyes with the heel of his left hand, Daniel sat up and put his glasses on, then swung his legs over the edge of the surprisingly comfortable bed. "So she must still be in the castle somewhere."
"Teal'c thinks there might be secret passages in the castle... something about moats and baileys?"
"Motte-and-bailey," Daniel corrected automatically. "It's a medieval architecture style that..." He trailed off, dragging his palms down his cheeks. "That perfectly describes the way this castle seems to have been built."
"Great. What's that mean, exactly?"
"This hill is not a natural formation," Teal'c replied, "but was constructed in order to place the fortification in a more defensible location. Because the hill was man-made, it often included a reinforced passage from the keep to a location outside of the castle walls."
"An escape tunnel."
Rising and gathering his gear from the wardrobe next to his bed, Daniel shook his head to clear the proverbial cobwebs. "Okay, then... let's go see if we can find an escape tunnel."
"Cadoc should know, right?" Cam asked. "I may be rusty on my terms of address and what-not, but isn't a seneschal the equivalent to the White House Chief of Staff?"
"Uh, essentially, yeah," Daniel agreed.
"So wouldn't he be the guy to ask about any secret passages?"
"Ha! Told you!"
"—Unless he's the one behind Vala's disappearance," Daniel finished.
"Indeed," Teal'c rumbled, "as Colonel Carter told you."
Daniel's eyebrows rose. "Sam?"
The blond colonel shrugged. "I don't know, Daniel. There's just been something that's felt... 'off', I guess, since we met the queen."
"Despite our insistence we were not Knights of the Round, Queen Branwen continued to address us as such."
"That's weird, I'll admit, but not evidence of kidnapping," Mitchell protested, and held up his hand to forestall any argument. "But! I think we need to take a look around for ourselves first. Might be Vala just took a wrong turn somewhere and accidentally locked herself in a storeroom."
Sam cleared her throat and tapped the radio in her vest meaningfully. "The castle walls are thick, Cam, but they aren't that thick. Vala should've contacted us by now if she was just lost."
"Right... okay, so let's get someone to show us where the prince's room is and we'll back-track from there. Sound like a plan?"
They each nodded their agreement, and the remaining four-fifths of SG-1 exited the room the three men had been given. It was easy to snag a passing servant and receive an escort, though the woman had initially fretted about letting strangers into the queen's bower. Her worries were soon allayed by Prince Idris, who'd become very excited at discovering the "Knights of the Round" outside of his room.
"Are you on a quest?" he asked, abandoning the dolls he'd been playing with and racing out into the hall. "Are you going to slay the dragons?"
Mitchell squatted down to put himself on eye-level with the young prince. "Maybe... but first we have to find a friend of ours who's gone missing."
"Your Highness," Daniel began, "do you remember your mother and our friend Vala coming to see you last night?"
"Aye, Sir Daniel, but the Lady Vala did not stay long. Mother let her borrow one of my storybooks... the one about Myrddin and Uther and the Sisters of Avalon."
His eyebrows rose. "Sisters of Avalon?"
"Aye, Sir Daniel. There are nine of them..." The boy's face scrunched in concentration. "Alaina, Alisana, Morgana, Morgause, Nineve, Vivane... eh, and I never remember the others. But they're in the book."
"Thanks, kid," Mitchell smiled, and before Daniel could tell him not to, the colonel reached out and ruffled Idris' hair. Fortunately, neither the boy nor his watchful nanny seemed to object to Mitchell touching the crown prince without permission, and Daniel let his muscles relax a fraction. Unlike other worlds SG-1 had visited, it seemed these people weren't uptight about the manner in which royalty were to be addressed and treated.
Turning away, the team set off back down the hall toward their rooms, this time searching carefully for any clues to their teammate's disappearance. Sam had her hand-held scanner out, and was watching the display almost as intently as Teal'c was examining the walls and floors. For his part, Daniel pulled out his field journal and laser tape measure, hoping that sketching the castle's layout would help him to locate any hidden chambers.
"Is it Lady Vala who is missing?" Idris asked, following them down the corridor. His nanny trailed at a more discrete distance, keeping a watchful eye on her charge.
"Yeah. Nobody's seen her since she left your room last night," Mitchell replied.
"Perhaps she was stolen by faeries," the prince exclaimed, looking and sounding nothing like the solemn child they'd met only yesterday. "Or perhaps she was abducted by—Lo! Are you a wizard, Sir Daniel?"
Daniel stopped. "What? Oh! No, not a wizard, Your Highness." Leaning over at the waist, he held out his left hand to show the boy the tape measure. "This is a device that shows me the exact distance between it and wherever I point it. It's not magic, but technology... a tool, like a hammer or saw, but much more advanced."
"Is there a sprite in the box? Does she fly out of the box to alight on the wall?"
"Not exactly," he sighed, giving up on trying to explain to the inquisitive child.
"You should ask the sprite to tell you if the faeries took your friend," Idris decided, and taking the initiative himself, grasped Daniel's wrist to keep him from withdrawing the measuring device. "Sprite, I command you to tell me where the Lady Vala has been taken!"
Daniel carefully disengaged the boy's hand. "Sorry, Your Highness, but it won't work that way. This, uh, 'sprite' is only for... for telling me the distance between the box she lives in and where she lands when I send her forth."
"Lo! You must be a mighty wizard to command a faerie so, Sir Daniel! And you, Lady Samantha, is there a sprite in your box, too? Are you an enchantress like the Sisters of Avalon?"
"Not exactly," Sam smiled, obviously refusing to be drawn into the largely one-sided conversation.
"The storybook I let Lady Vala borrow says that the Sisters of Avalon weren't actually sisters, but more akin to Lady-Knights of the Hlyn. Are there a lot of Lady-Knights of the Round? Mother was a Lady-Knight of Loegria before she wed my father, and she even rode a horse!" Idris took what seemed to be the first breath he'd taken in several minutes. "But we don't have horses in Cambria because the drakes eat them all. Do you have horses? The storybooks always show the knights wearing magnificent armor and riding horses, but our knights walk everywhere just like everyone else, and Master Cadoc says that armor like they show in the storybooks would be too heavy to walk in all the time. Do you have armor like that, Sir Cameron?"
Mitchell seemed to enjoy the rapid-fire interrogation. "Nah, of course not. We walk everywhere all the time, too. Horses don't seem to like traveling through the Stargate all that much."
"Glenys the Bard says that in the oldest stories, the Knights of the Round didn't ride horses, either, but that the storybooks changed a little every time Myrddin came to sing the Mothers to sleep."
Daniel stopped mid-stride, turning to face the boy. "Myrddin came here more than once?"
"Aye, Sir Daniel. Glenys says he had to sing the Mothers to sleep every other generation for thirty generations! She doesn't know why he stopped, though, and then the Mothers woke up and the drakes started eating up all the horses. And without Myrddin to tell us how the stories were supposed to go, nobody ever fixed them to get rid of the heavy armor and horses!"
Mitchell leaned toward Daniel. "We spent all that time in the library when we should've just asked the kid," he muttered.
Closing his journal, Daniel knelt next the young prince. "Do you think Glenys knows how Myrddin sang the dragons to sleep?"
"I think it was a cradlesong, like the ones Heleth used to sing to me to put me to sleep at night." The prince turned to look at his still-trailing nanny. "Can you sing dragons to sleep, Heleth?"
"I doubt it, my prince," the woman smiled.
Sam and Teal'c had also stopped when Daniel did, and exchanged looks of mixed amusement and cautious hope. "Perhaps Merlin's 'singing' was produced by some sort of machinery," Teal'c speculated.
"Yeah, like a white-noise machine or something," Mitchell agreed.
Sam shook her head. "I doubt it's anything so simple, but you might both be on to something. The anti-Prior device we developed uses frequency nullification to counteract their powers. Assuming the Mothers are actual 'dragons' and not holographic projections, maybe Merlin used something similar to keep them in hibernation. Every sixty years—give or take—the frequency had to be reset in order to prevent them from overcoming its effects and waking up."
"So these dragons sleep for a long time, wake up cranky, and have to be sent back to bed without supper?" Mitchell joked half-heartedly.
"They get supper!" Idris exclaimed, nearly jumping with excitement. "Every Awakening, a princess is tied out to be sacrificed to the Mothers. If a brave knight can rescue her before the dragons finish fighting over her, then the knight and the lady get to marry and live happily ever after. But most of the time, the knight and the princess both get eaten." His gaze dropped to the floor. "Mother says I'm too young to try to fight the dragons, and even if I was old enough, there's no royal maidens to feed to them this time."
"Like in Perseus and Andromeda, or Saint George and the Dragon," Daniel mused aloud. "Actually, there are dozens of legends and fairy tales involving dragon-slaying knights and the rescue of the maidens that are to be sacrificed to them."
"Except that those all have happy endings," Mitchell pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest. "What happens if there's no maiden sacrifice?"
"It's never happened before!" Idris answered excitedly. "There's always a royal cousin or a princess from a neighboring kingdom, or even a noble from a lower house." He jumped again. "Lo, maybe that's where the faeries took Lady Vala! And you have to rescue her, Sir Cameron!"
"Oh, I don't think I'm the knight Vala would prefer to rescue her," Mitchell drawled.
Goosebumps prickled Daniel's skin as pieces fell abruptly into place. "She set us up."
"Who did?" Sam asked. "Vala wouldn't—"
Standing, Daniel spun on heel and marched back down the hall in the direction of the royal bower. Ignoring the calls of his teammates and the protests of the prince's nanny, he shoved open the door to the queen's private chambers, and stormed up to the thin woman seated at a breakfast-laden table. "Where is she?" he demanded without preamble.
Branwen leapt to her feet. "Sir Daniel, your demeanor is hardly—"
"What did you do with Vala?" he interrupted. "Where did your people take her?"
"I know not of what you speak. The last I saw her, she was to retire for the night after—"
"Where is she?!" Astonished cries of "Daniel!" "Jackson!" and "Daniel Jackson!" came from behind him as his teammates voiced their concern over his sudden lack of courtly manners.
The queen stared back at him with the arrogance of a Goa'uld. "Leave my chambers now, sir, or I will have you led out in chains."
Having faced down far deadlier foes than she, Daniel ignored her threats. "Legends say that the way to appease the dragons is to leave out a sacrifice of a princess or woman of noble blood, but from what I hear, there aren't any princesses handy... which leaves only you. But since you seem so certain that my friends and I are knights and therefore from noble bloodlines, you've had Vala abducted to take your place."
"Yes, it is, because as we've tried to tell you a number of times, we're not knights." He put his hand to his brow, pressing against the headache beginning to pound above his left eye. "Hell, we practically gift-wrapped Vala for you. Sam was off-limits because we told you we needed her to figure out any machines Merlin—Myrddin—might have left behind. But we let Vala downplay her contributions, and you picked right up on that, didn't you? I guess you decided she was expendable, right?"
Branwen fisted her hands on her hips. "Do not presume to lecture me, sirrah," she snapped, eyes flashing with fury. "The Awakening grows nearer by the day, and my people will suffer greatly if the Great Mothers are not appeased. I offered you the hospitality of my court and asked only that you aide me against this terrible scourge. Instead, you have done little but seek out stories and songs like a band of girdded minstrels. Stories will not stop the Awakening. Stories will not save my people!"
"And that's where you're wrong. It's thanks to 'stories' that my friends and I were able to find the cave Myrddin slept in and get past the protections Morgana had put around the cave, including a dragon." Stepping closer to the queen to use his superior height for intimidation, he stared down at her with barely-restrained anger. "So I'll ask again: where... is... Vala?"
The queen's shoulders slumped. "Heleth, please take Idris back to his chambers." Once the nanny and the protesting prince were gone from the room, Branwen sagged into her chair. "My captain and five of his finest men are escorting her to the far end of the valley, and will hold her at the garrison there until the Mothers arise, or the time of Awakening passes without the dragons returning. I am not optimistic about your chances of averting the Awakening, but I will not leave my son without a mother so soon after he lost his father to a cursed drake!"
Pulling the other chair out from the table, Daniel turned it toward Branwen and sat down, forearms resting across his knees. "I'd like to be able to promise that we can stop these dragons, but I can't. We've been here for less than a day, and haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the history of your world. What I can promise is that we'll do absolutely everything we can to determine how Myrddin was able to pacify the Mothers for so many years, and if it's a machine or a tool of some kind, we'll try to teach you how to operate it for yourself and your descendants. But kidnapping a friend of ours is not the way to secure our trust and goodwill, and ultimately, our help."
"Right now, our responsibility is to our friend and teammate," Mitchell added, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against a wooden pillar. "The 'knightly code' we live by says we don't leave our people behind, and Vala's one of us now. Order your people to bring her back, or we'll be forced to waste precious time going to retrieve her ourselves."
Branwen floundered, looking from Mitchell to Daniel, then to the equally angry and determined Sam and Teal'c. "I cannot do as you ask. By now, Captain Geralt and his men are miles away, having travelled throughout the night in order to reach the garrison as quickly as possible. It will take an equal number of hours for a messenger to reach them."
"Then send me," Mitchell said. "Give me a signet ring or some written orders or something so that the garrison will know I'm not yanking their chains when I tell them to free Vala."
"I will go as well, Colonel Mitchell," Teal'c volunteered, head lifting high and jaw working as he worked to control his anger at the queen's actions.
Daniel shook his head. "One of you has to stay here with Sam, and since you're a little more familiar with Ancient than Mitchell is, I'd rather it was you, Teal'c."
"We'll all go," Sam suggested.
"What? No! Jackson, you and Sam have to stay here and keep digging through that library to find Merlin's jukebox, or whatever. Teal'c and I'll rescue our damsel in distress, but in case the dragons wake up cranky before we can get back, somebody's going to have to stop them." Mitchell swished his finger through the air, pointing to both Daniel and Sam. "That means our resident science twins, got it?"
Daniel's jaw tightened in preparation to argue further, but in a sudden flash of inspiration, he asked, "Branwen, did Myrddin have a personal library or study he used whenever he came here?"
"Ah... aye," she answered, looking young, confused, and defeated. "There is a chamber at the top of the west tower which was his, but there's nothing there, now. All of his books and papers have long-since been moved to the main library."
"Show us where it is," he ordered, then added, "please."
He grimaced, then shook his head. "Just a hunch."
Mitchell nodded. "Good enough for me."
* * *
The west tower seemed to stretch upward for dozens of stories, though Daniel counted only three landings before they reached the door at the top of the spiral staircase. Each landing had held at least one closed door, which Branwen had explained led to bedchambers for the unmarried men within the castle staff, including guardsmen, shepherds, and cooks. The top room, though quite spacious, remained empty even after all these years, largely because no one wanted to be occupying it if the mysterious Myrddin returned.
Disused hinges squeaked and groaned as Branwen pushed futilely at the door, but Teal'c quickly had it strong-armed the rest of the way open. Flicking on his flashlight, Mitchell led the way into the room with Sam close on his heels, and Daniel and Branwen were right behind her. A sweep of SG-1's lights showed that little remained in the circular room but long-collapsed furniture, all of which was covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. What might have once been tapestries hung in tattered threads on the walls, and watery light spilled dull puddles on the floor through the warped glass of dirty windows. Overhead, the roof of the tower rose to a point, and cobwebs, frayed ropes, and old chains hung from the rafters.
Casting his gaze downward, Daniel was surprised to see a tiled mosaic floor instead of the usual flagstones and timbers seen elsewhere in the castle. Moving to the wall allowed him to see that the decoration, though nearly hidden by dust, clearly depicted an active Stargate, with a series of colored ribbons radiating outward from the center of the event horizon. Each was a different hue: red, blue, green, purple, gray, and black, plus three other muddy-looking hues which currently looked like shades of brown, but may have once been brighter.
"Guys... take a look a this," he called, directing everyone's attention to the floor.
"It's a Stargate!" Sam exclaimed, recognizing it immediately. "Nine threads coming from it... maybe Merlin was experimenting with applications for the Stargate's ninth chevron?"
"Shouldn't he already know what the ninth one did?" Mitchell asked. "I mean, the Ancients built the things, so why put nine chevrons on there if they didn't already have a use for them?"
"It would not be the first time the Ancients created technology they could not fully understand or control," Teal'c reminded them. "Their attempts to create a time machine on P4X-639 were quite unsuccessful."
"Oh, you mean Planet Groundhog Day?"
Daniel cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm pretty certain the ribbons refer to the Sisters of Avalon. According to what Prince Idris told us earlier, there were nine of them, correct?"
Branwen nervously clutched at the sleeves of her gown. "Yes. They were all goddesses, or at least demi-goddesses, and allies of Myrddin and the druids. Morgana, as you named, was one, as were Cerys, Morgause, Alisana, Nimue, Nineve, Vivane, Alaina, and Omasala"
"Oma Desala?" Daniel and Sam chorused.
"I... it is possible... you would have to ask Glenys."
"Daniel..." Sam began.
"Yeah..." he sighed, pulling off his glasses and rubbing at his persistent headache. "That's a pretty safe bet they're the same, and I recognize some of the other names, too: Morgause, Nimue, Nineve, and Vivane, and there's something naggingly familiar about Alaina."
"The Lady of Shallot was named Elaine," Teal'c suggested.
"Right... so were at least two other women in Arthurian legend, but there's something else... It'll come to me."
Mitchell frowned. "Jackson, are you feeling all right?"
"Hmm? Yeah, I'm fine... just a bit of a headache, and I'll feel a lot better when I know Vala's okay." He put his glasses back on, and stared at the mosaic with a furrowed brow. "Uh... Sam, Teal'c, this might seem like a strange question, but does either of you sense any naquada in here?"
"Now that you mention it..." Sam began, tilting her head as she concentrated. "Yeah, there's definitely something here."
"I sense it as well," Teal'c agreed. His left eyebrow rose. "It would seem to be coming from the floor."
"From the mosaic?"
"That would seem likely."
Mitchell squatted and tapped the butt of his weapon against the floor, moving it a few inches between each thump. As he passed over the Stargate itself, the sound changed. "The 'Gate's hollow," he announced, giving it a few more taps to verify his findings.
"There's probably something under there... a cache of some kind?" Sam asked,
Teal'c cast a look around the room, and this time both eyebrows lifted. "A transport ring."
"Oh my god, you're right, Teal'c!" the scientist exclaimed, staring at her hand-held scanner's display. Unclipping her pack, she wasted little time in digging out her laptop. "After the incident on P2X-887, Doctor Lee and I started working on a program that could potentially be used to remotely activate any ring platform... I just have to find the right frequency."
"Get on it, Sam... Teal'c and I are going after Vala."
Daniel shook his head. "No, I'm going after Vala, and Teal'c's staying here to help Sam."
"Jackson, you've got a killer headache, and even if you didn't, somebody's gotta translate any nifty gadgets that may turn up on the other side of those rings."
"I can't explain it, Mitchell... I have to go. I... I've been having dreams."
"With Merlin in them. I think they might be some of his memories, but they're strange... like he's still in there, and he's still trying to teach me things."
Branwen made a small noise of distress. "You... you're Myrddin's apprentice?"
"Not anymore," Mitchell muttered.
"I never was," Daniel retorted. "We just happened to share... head-space... for a while."
"You said there was nothing of him left!"
"I didn't think there was until recently, and I wasn't even sure they weren't just really bizarre dreams until we came here and I recognized the mountains."
"Why didn't you say something?!"
"Because I didn't think it was important at the time!"
A sharp whistle interrupted their argument, and both men turned to look at Sam, who had a look of incredulity on her face. "Thank you!" she exclaimed once they'd shut up, and returned her attention to her laptop.
Mitchell shook his head. "All right, new team rule: bizarre dreams that involve Merlin—or Jolinar—"
"Or Qetesh," Teal'c added.
"—or Qetesh, get shared with the class if they seem in any way based in reality. Got it?" He let out a huff of air—not quite a laugh, not quite a sigh—and added, "I mean, how many times has something somebody on this team dreamed actually turned out to be important?"
"Finding the Tok'ra," Sam replied.
Teal'c arched an eyebrow. "The Harcesis and Kheb."
"Osiris, Sarah, and the memory device."
"Okay!" Daniel exclaimed, waving his hand at them to get them to stop. "Fine, anything I think might be a memory or a vision of Merlin gets reported."
"Great!" Mitchell slapped him on the shoulder. "Now let's go rescue the princess."
* * *
There were two important matters that had to be addressed before Daniel and Mitchell could set off for the distant garrison, and one of those involved getting Branwen to write official orders to Captain Geralt. Daniel read the document before it was sealed to ensure the queen wasn't going to betray them to the guard—her suggestion, as she rightly assumed that she had lost SG-1's trust—and Mitchell tucked it into his pack for safe-keeping. Then, though it took them in the wrong direction, they detoured to the Stargate to report to General Landry.
Landry wasn't pleased with the turn of events, but he did seem satisfied with the efforts the team was making to remedy the situation, and promised both a small team of scientists and at least two heavily-armed SG teams would be en route to assist Sam and Teal'c, and to help defend the castle should the dragons make an appearance. Then, knowing that the two men had a long way to travel and a potentially short time in which to get there, the general had Siler to send through a pair of ATVs, one of which was packed with an extra helmet and a "piggy-back" harness to allow it to more-safely carry a second rider. The other had two gasoline-filled jerrycans strapped to the back, should they need to refuel, plus a duffle of rations and other supplies.
Although Daniel had never ridden an ATV, he was a quick study, and after a few minutes practice, he and Mitchell set off across the valley toward the mountains. Dust flew up behind them as they zipped down the hard-packed dirt road, and Daniel could only imagine what was going through the minds of the bewildered shepherds they passed.
"Sure as hell beats walking!" Mitchell exclaimed over the comm gear built into their safety helmets. "You reckon the guys in the field think we're riding some seriously messed-up horses?"
"From the noise, they might think we're riding miniature dragons," Daniel replied. "But as long as these things get us there fast, I don't really care what the locals think."
"You really care about her, don't you?"
"Vala. You really care about her."
Daniel glanced over at his companion, but Mitchell's faceshield prevented him from seeing the other man's expression. "Of course... she's my friend and teammate."
"She's more than that, Jackson."
"And," the colonel drew out, "you mean more to her, too. And I think you know that."
"We're... I can't explain it. There are times I think we couldn't be any more opposite, and other times I can't help but think how much alike we are. Watching her be burned to death in Ver Eger... that was bad. Losing her to the Ori... that was bad, too. Then I thought I'd lost her when she was kidnapped by Athena, and that was..." He searched for words, but despite having more than thirty languages at his disposal, the only thing he could come up with was—
"Bad?" Mitchell guessed.
"Yeah. I mean, it was right under our noses. Hell, the only reason she was even out in public where she could be grabbed was because I was the one who took her out to dinner."
"Ah, the not-date."
"It wasn't a date."
"Right. Just like the weeks she spent moping around base after Adria grabbed you weren't because she missed you."
"For all any of you knew, I was dead."
"Yeah, but Vala wasn't—and for that matter, still isn't—taking it at all well. And as if you being gone wasn't bad enough, then she had that run-in with Tomin."
"Her husband Tomin?"
"One and the same. She'd have done you proud... seems she managed to talk him around to taking a hard look at the way the Priors were twisting the Book of Origin to suit the situation, and it seems he defied a Prior to help her escape an Ori ship."
"Wow." Daniel had skimmed through the reports from the missions during his absence, but for some reason, he'd missed that detail. That incident was probably what he'd already perceived must have been bothering Vala when they first arrived on-planet. "What happened to him after that?"
"No way to know. He might be dead, might be alive... The point is, you and Vala need to talk, and I don't mean that little game where you trade petty insults and pretend you don't care."
Realizing that there was at least a grain of truth in what his team leader was saying, Daniel nodded and turned his full attention back to the approaching mountains. "Well, in order to do that, we have to get her back."
"Then we'll get her back," Mitchell agreed, and nothing more was said.
* * *
As they got closer to the mountains, the terrain became considerably rougher and rockier, and it took all of Daniel's concentration to handle the unfamiliar vehicle. Mitchell drove his ATV with the reckless ease that was so much a part of the fighter pilot's nature, and Daniel was glad to let the colonel take the lead on the trail. On one of the few times he dared to glance up from the road immediately before him, he was finally able to see the crenellated top of the Cambrian garrison.
"There it is," Mitchell announced, pulling his ATV to the side and allowing Daniel to catch up to him. "I'm not entirely sure if we should hoof it the rest of the way, or risk spooking the guard with our noisy 'horses'."
"I don't know either," Daniel admitted, frowning up at the tower. His gaze was inevitably drawn toward the mountains, and a prickling sensation began to creep up his spine again. "ATVs," he decided suddenly. "We don't have much time."
White noise began to fill his head, and it was all he could do to not cry out from the sudden needles of ice and fire stabbing at his nerves. "We have to go now!" he gasped, fumbling for the accelerator and gunning the engine. In his desperation, he nearly tipped the ATV over, but he was able to keep it upright and moving in the right direction. The struggle against the laws of physics allowed Mitchell to catch him up, and they were soon racing side-by-side across the rocky hillside, charging straight for the tower.
An ear-splitting shriek tore through the air, and even though the safety helmets helped to muffle the sound considerably, it was still almost painfully loud. A daring glance upward showed a streak of white overhead, moving far too quickly to be a cloud, and Daniel tore his gaze away immediately. Ahead, the boulders were parting to reveal more of the garrison tower, and as he looked on in horror, a raised wooden platform on a low hill next to the tower.
There, chained to a post eerily reminiscent of a stake used for burning accused witches, stood a figure in a simple white dress, and the wavy black locks spilling over her shoulders left no doubt as to her identity.
"Vala!" Daniel screamed.
There was no way she could have heard him from this distance, but she seemed to have heard the roar of the ATVs even over the noise the dragon was making. She turned to face him, and he could see her mouth move in what looked to be his name.
Another shriek sounded, followed by a ferocious roar. Not even daring to look up, Daniel turned his full concentration on the path before him, and as soon as he was close enough to the platform, he slammed on the brakes and shifted it into park as soon as it had come to a stop. His helmet was flung off, his P-90 snatched up, and he was up the steps and at Vala's side almost before Mitchell had finished halting his own vehicle.
"I hope you brought a key!" she shouted, her voice nearly lost beneath the terrible noises overhead.
"How about primer cord?" he answered, digging in his vest and coming up with the small coil Jack O'Neill had long ago taught him to never leave Earth without. Even though he'd rarely found occasion to use it, the fact that it was coming in handy now made almost ten years of packing it around worthwhile.
"The dragons are fighting each other!" Mitchell informed them, clearing the top of the platform.
"I know!" Vala replied. "According to Geralt and his goons, that's what they always do, and then the winner gets to eat the sacrificial lamb... and guess who that is!"
Daniel tied a piece of primer cord around the chains, set the detonator, and tugged Vala around in front of him, his body shielding hers. The explosion was quick but effective, and the sound of the chains hitting the platform floor was music to his ears. "Let's go!"
"Jackson!" Mitchell yelled.
A tremendous force slammed into Daniel's side, and with his arms still wrapped around Vala, she was carried with him as he was flung off the platform. Something snapped when he hit the ground, and he was unable to prevent a cry of pain from escaping. The chatter of a P-90 reached his ears, and he looked up to see Mitchell standing on the platform above, attempting to fend off the dueling dragons as their battle brought them close to the ground again.
Loosening his grip on Vala, Daniel attempted to roll to his feet, but fire flashed down his left side and nausea assailed him. Making it only to his knees, he brought his own rifle up, and as a streak of red flashed by, he instinctively fired. The armor-piercing bullets struck their target, and the red dragon roared and twisted away, striking the ground with a thunderous crash before launching itself into the air again.
Instantly, he knew he'd made an error. "Shoot the white one!" he yelled at Mitchell. "Not the red one, just the white one!"
"Are you crazy?!" Mitchell yelped.
Trust in him was something the colonel had in abundance, Daniel realized. In a strange moment of detachment, he reflected that of all the people he'd ever known, few had trusted in him so quickly and completely as Cameron Mitchell. It was as though he'd never needed to prove himself to the colonel: that everything Mitchell needed to know about him had been decided before they'd even met, perhaps even before Mitchell began studying SG-1's mission reports.
Vala's hands fell upon his thigh, and his Beretta was drawn from its holster. Its sharp report was soon heard as she grimly emptied the clip into the white dragon's hide. Her trust had come much slower, and in many ways, he felt he was still trying to earn it. She was a wounded soul, someone who'd been hurt badly countless times, but still managed to find her feet and carry on. In this way, she reminded him of Jack, as well as in the way that that cherished friendship was also a perpetual work-in-progress.
And then there were Sam and Teal'c, the sister of his heart and the brother of his spirit. Their trust had also had to be earned, but once won, it had rarely faltered. Sam's analytical mind was the perfect complement to his intuition, and Teal'c's steady wisdom was a source of strength despite the shaky beginnings to their relationship. They were his champions and defenders, his brothers and sisters in arms.
They were his Knights.
Shrieks and roars drew his attention to the sky again, and to his elation, the white dragon broke away from the red one, streaks and splatters of bright orange blood marring the gleaming scales as she fled from the battle, her injuries too numerous to allow her to continue. Wings beating furiously to increase her altitude, the White Mother headed for the snow-covered mountain, her rival in close pursuit.
"Hell yeah!" Mitchell crowed. "We beat the damn dragon!"
Wearily, Daniel nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but the only sound that emerged was a strangled groan. The P-90 fell from his hands, and as he began to fall forward, hands were at his shoulders, guiding him to the ground in a more controlled manner. The pain in his shoulder and side flared white-hot again; worried faces floated above him, doubling and swimming as he struggled to remain conscious, but it was a battle he was clearly losing.
The world abruptly dimmed, and he looked up to see red filling his vision. Mitchell yelled, Vala screamed, and the ground fell away into darkness.