Nicholas was barely holding back his panic as he trudged away from the battlefield and towards the hastily erected tents that were being used by the doctors to treat the wounded. It was entirely possible that someone had collected Lord Mitchell from the field and brought him to a doctor while Nicholas had still been looking, or even back during the fighting.
But no one had seen him. Not since before dawn.
He wasn't among the dead, Nicholas kept reminding himself. Lord Mitchell was not on the battlefield any longer. Of course, his mind pointed out relentlessly, it was possible the body had been removed already as well.
He shook his head, wishing to push off the thought.
He stumbled to a halt and turned. Lord John was approaching him at a run. Though Nicholas was relieved the marquis was alive and whole, the look on the other man's face made his stomach sink. It was expectant and worried at the same time.
"I'm glad to see you, Nicholas," Lord John said, drawing up alongside him and putting a hand on his shoulder. "You're not hurt?"
"No, my lord."
There was a momentary pause and Lord John bit down on his lip. He guessed the man already suspected Nicholas could give him no good news.
"Nicholas, my cousin. Have you seen him?"
His voice shook. "He fell."
The hand on his shoulder clenched, digging into the bruises already there. "What?"
"He was struck by a Jaffa and fell from his horse." Nicholas had to wet his lips, barely able to continue. "I lost track of him in the battle."
Lord John closed his eyes for a moment, and despite the fading sunshine overhead, Nicholas shivered. Lord John's face had gone frighteningly pale even with the heat and the sweat pouring down his neck. In the weeks since Lord John had returned to Caldora, Nicholas had learned that the marquis was even worse at concealing his emotions than Lord Mitchell. Lord John had no other family left in the world than his master, and the fear etched into the older man's face in that moment was palpable.
Lord John released his shoulder, visibly drawing himself together. "You have checked over the field?" he asked needlessly.
"Yes, my lord. It is possible someone brought him to the doctors without my knowing it."
He nodded, already moving. "Then we shall check there next."
Nicholas followed hurriedly.
Stephen dumped a bowl of water over his head, swiping at the muck on his upper body with a cloth. Now that his armor was gone, he could see dark bruises marking much of his torso. His ribs hurt on his left side, and his right leg ached from where the armor had cut into his leg. Blood was still seeping down his calf. Still, he had faced worse than this.
Someone called him outside. He dragged a clean tunic over his head and went out. The wind nearly tore the tent flap from his hand. Dark clouds were scudding across the sky, swallowing up the sun. Out on the plains flashes of lightning were already visible to the west. At the least the breeze was cooling, and they would have fresh water.
Lord David was astride his horse, and after just one look at the man's grim expression, Stephen simply asked, "Who?"
"Lord Mitchell," David said.
Stephen cursed inwardly. He had no great love for either of the lords of Sheppard, but neither did he wish either of them to fall at the hands of the damned Goa'uld.
David added, "The king wishes someone to check with the Sodan and Tok'ra and be sure they have proper aid with their wounded."
Stephen had men of his own with the doctors that he wished to check on. "I will see the Sodan. Their tents are not far from my own men."
David nodded and said he would check with the Tok'ra and rode off. Stephen began to make his way through the camp as the storm drew nearer, limping somewhat from his injured leg.
John exited the last of the physician's tents and paused, struggling to control himself. There was no sign of Cameron in the tents or lying about with the other injured men in the grass. He was not out on the field, nor was he in the camp.
His cousin had achieved the impossible. He had vanished into thin air.
For a moment John wondered if the Goa'uld had taken Cameron with them. But what on earth could be their purpose for doing such a thing? There were other and more valuable hostages on the field the night before.
John thought of Lord Ba'al, of their brief and unfinished skirmish in the middle of the battle, and his stomach turned over at the thought of Cameron in that vile bastard's clutches.
Nicholas was standing beside him, also looking to the west, into the teeth of the approaching storm. "Nicholas, you are certain Cameron was not on the battlefield?" he asked for the fourth or fifth time.
"No, my lord," Nicholas repeated, sounding the slightest bit snappish. John could hardly blame him. He was silent for a moment, and then his voice dropped noticeably. "However, it is possible his body– he was removed from the field before I began to search."
John's hands clenched as fear ran through him like a cold blade. But there was only one thing to do. Silently he marched off towards the place where the Caldoran dead were being gathered, Nicholas following faithfully in his wake.
Men were hustling about securing tents and supplies against the approaching storm as Stephen crossed the camp, while the horses pranced and reared nervously. The combination of battle weariness and the tension of one of the large summer storms was driving the animals, and some of the men, slightly wild.
Stephen surveyed his own men in one of the tents. Many of his knights had been wounded badly in the fighting. Some, he knew, had fallen on the field. Their bodies were being collected either for burial or to return home. He saw at least two men who'd lost limbs, and others with great wounds and soaked bandages waiting for the physicians to get to them. He did what he could for them, even if it was just fetching water. Rank be damned. They were good men who had fought bravely.
When he stepped outside again it was much darker, and the thunder of the storm was closer. He threaded across a small space and approached the Sodan somewhat warily. He had not had much interaction with them, save with Lord Haikon, who was their leader, and another man who was head of the Sodan cavalry. What he did know was they were proud and aloof and not much for making friends with anyone, even their allies. Of course, more than one of the Caldoran lords had complained openly and loudly about the prospect of yielding land to the Sodan warriors as payment for their aid, and if the positions were reversed, Stephen was not sure he would not behave the same way as the Sodan.
Haikon was speaking with one of his men when Stephen approached. "My lord, I come to bring King Henry's thanks, and to see that you lack for no aid in dealing with your wounded."
Haikon nodded, a little stiffly. "Lord Stephen. Your king is most kind. We are coping with our injured well enough."
Stephen didn't miss the slight flash of superiority in the other man's response, and had he not been so exhausted, he might have bristled over it. At the moment, he had one or two dozen other things on his mind.
Haikon went into the doctor's tent and Stephen followed silently, sure he was meant to witness the speed and skill of the Sodan healers - not to mention the hardiness of the warriors - for himself. As he observed, his eye caught on a figure lying near the edge of the tent. Something about it struck him as wrong. The man seemed too short for the Sodan.
Stephen limped down the length of the tent, shock rapidly spreading through him, until he could clearly see the man's face. He stood staring for a moment, and then whirled around and hastened back outside. He grabbed the first man he recognized, one of Lord David's men, a man named Siler. "Find Lord John of Sheppard and bring him here immediately!"
John was very nearly sick as he looked over the line of corpses lying in the grass. The dead soldiers had been brought together away from the battlefield and the small streams in the area until their bodies could be granted a decent burial.
They were so young. Not all of them, but John looked into faces that seemed barely past boyhood and recoiled. Too many, and too young.
And for what? So the Goa'uld could flee back to their own lands on a whim? What had been the point of all this, then?
His only comfort, and it was a thin one, was that Cameron was not among the dead.
He was also not among the living, unless he had become invisible.
The thought of Cameron taken hostage by Ba'al came back and made John want to retch again.
Nicholas was looking at him worriedly, waiting for John to say or do something. But he was at a loss. They had looked everywhere. He didn't know what else they could do, so he began to trudge back towards the camp.
Slowly he became aware that someone was shouting. It was difficult to hear over the wind and the thunder. He looked about and saw a tall, thin man running across the field, directly towards them.
He hated himself for it, but John's legs froze. Suddenly he could not move. He was peripherally aware of Nicholas standing beside him, just as immobile, waiting.
The stranger approached, yelling and pointing over his shoulder. "My lord! It's Lord Mitchell! They've found him! He’s in the healers' tents of the Sodan!"
John drew in a single breath. His paralysis broke and he ran like the devil, Nicholas right behind.
The noises of the battle were growing louder. Flashes of light burst through his eyelids and the echo of hooves and something else he couldn't place filled his ears. An especially loud sound rattled everything and Cameron bolted upright and then moaned as his head swam.
Hands seized his shoulders, but he twisted to the side, feeling his stomach rebel. Someone shoved a basin before him and he heaved into it, emptying his stomach thoroughly. When it was over, a cup appeared before him and he rinsed his mouth clean before leaning back.
He blinked in surprise when he saw John next to him. His cousin looked like hell, his face pale and drawn, dark circles under his eyes, his hair sopping wet. Cameron looked around, confused. He was not out in the field as he expected, but in a tent. The sounds of combat that had woken him were actually, now that he could focus, from a storm that seemed to be raging outside. John was on his right, sitting on the edge of the pallet he was resting on. Nicholas hovered to his left.
"What happened?" he muttered, rubbing his eyes. His head was throbbing.
"What's the last thing you remember?" John asked.
He frowned. He'd been in the middle of the fighting. It had been dark. "The Sodan riders came. Then one of the Jaffa..." he trailed off, his mind struggling to focus.
Nicholas shifted anxiously. "You fell, my lord. You were struck by a flail and lost your seat."
Cameron winced, half-expecting John to tease him for falling from his horse, but John's eyes were haunted. "If Jolan had not pulled you to his horse, you would have been trampled."
"Jolan?" Cameron asked.
"He brought you to safety before returning to the fighting. The Sodan doctors were not sure who you were, but they treated your injuries. We thought–" John stopped, biting his lip and swallowing visibly. Cameron was startled by how distraught his cousin looked. "We couldn't find you."
Distantly Cameron realized that John and Nicholas must have been thoroughly frightened when they could not locate him, but the throbbing pain in his head was making it difficult to focus. "What of the battle?"
"It is over. The Goa'uld fled."
"What?" he yelled and then groaned as his head gave a vicious stab of pain.
Someone approached and spoke with John. Cameron couldn't pry his eyes open enough to see. Then John's hand wrapped around his forearm. "You must rest now, cousin. I will tell you everything after you've gotten some sleep."
He wanted to protest, demand John explain how in hell they had managed to drive the Goa'uld away, not to mention what exactly his injuries were, but a fog was stealing over his senses already and Cameron drifted into peaceful oblivion before he could form the words. The last thing he was aware of before sleep took him was the warm pressure of John's hand on his arm.
A steady rain had set in by the evening, but Henry was undeterred from touring the tents where the injured men were sheltering. The sheer shock of the Goa'uld retreat had stifled some of the grief at the damage done to Caldora in this fight, but seeing the youngsters swathed in bandages reminded him of how much they had still lost. The country had survived, but there had been a price.
The Asgard kindly sent their four physicians to help with tending to the wounded. Master Thor had pulled the king aside to point out that the heat and the rain presented a new danger, that of disease from the corpses of the fallen. Thor suggested the men be buried swiftly, and though Henry knew some of men would protest, wanting to take their comrades' bodies home, he assured the tiny priest he would see to it.
Lord Haikon and some of the Sodan volunteered to organize the burying of the dead Jaffa. Henry intended to ask Stephen to manage the arrangements for the Caldoran dead, but he found his highest ranking nobleman still seeing to his own men, with a bloodstain spreading on his trousers from an untended wound to his leg. The duke was eventually compelled by the king to submit to an examination by the Asgard, and Henry delegated the unpleasant task of the burials to Lord David.
Henry's last stop for the night was in a secluded corner of the Sodan tents, where Lord Mitchell lay asleep. His cousin dozed at his side, arms folded across his chest. Lord John had clearly not stopped to clean up since the end of the battle. He roused himself at the king's approach and belatedly stood, weaving slightly from tiredness. Henry led John to the edge of the tent to avoid disturbing the injured man.
"How does young Lord Mitchell fare?"
John scrubbed a hand across his face. "He is resting for now. The Sodan healers believe he will recover, but his stomach is still hurting him. Though not as much as his head."
Henry offered a wry smile. "It's been my experience that nothing is quite so hard as the head of one of the lords of Sheppard."
John grimaced a bit, but held his tongue, at least on that score. Instead he asked, "Has there been any news of the Goa'uld?"
"Lord Maybourne's scouts report that they are still heading west, though the mud and flooding from the storm have slowed their progress. There is no sign of them turning back. But I won't know peace until every last one of them has crossed the borders and left the country entirely."
"It is the most unaccountable thing that they should simply walk away."
"Indeed," Henry concurred. "I imagine once the shock wears off, there will be only one question on everyone's lips," he added sourly.
John nodded. "Why."
It was a mystery they were not to solve that night, if ever. Henry put a hand on John's shoulder. "You should go clean yourself up, John. Eat something and rest. The Sodan will take care of Lord Mitchell."
John yawned, as though on cue. "Master Nicholas should be returning shortly. I sent him to bathe and eat first."
Having heard the story of Lord Mitchell's disappearance and discovery, it didn't surprise Henry that John did not want his cousin left alone. He knew better than to argue with such an impulse. "We will speak more tomorrow," he said, turning to head to his own tents. All of them had been awake for two days if not longer and he was looking forward to finally getting a little peaceful sleep.
For the next two days, the Caldorans kept up the watch to the west, and the whole camp waited for news that the Goa'uld were turning back to annihilate them or begin some new plan of attack. It never came.
John spent much of his time with his cousin, who was moved back to their private tent once the Sodan and Asgard deemed him able to go. He still slept a great deal, but when he was awake, he seemed rather haunted by his close brush with death. The war had aged him, turned him from boy to manhood, just as the Ori war had done to John, though that experience had left far deeper scars on John's mind and soul. He did not want that outcome for Cameron. Not wishing his cousin to brood too much, John stayed close and he and Nicholas did their best to amuse Cameron as he convalesced.
Eventually, though, Cameron told John that if he didn't go elsewhere for the evening, one of them was going to run mad. John decided to join in on the evening meeting in the king's tent. He was not surprised by the people he found there or by what they were discussing.
The Tok'ra were waiting for some of their wounded to recover sufficiently to cross the mountains again before they decamped. Malek was seated alongside his unlikely ally, Haikon of the Sodan. His people were still awaiting a decision from King Henry regarding their compensation. Caldwell was there, as were Dixon and Maybourne. The king himself looked as though he was holding off a headache by force of will.
John entered and was beckoned into a seat. Caldwell was talking. "It just doesn't make any sense. I know we've been saying this for days, but I cannot fathom why they simply ran."
So far no one was disclosing what exactly the Asgard had used to frighten off the Goa'uld, but John was somewhat dubious, as were others, that the mysterious weapon had been the sole reason for their departure. "There is something we do not know," John concurred. "Much as it pains me, I must agree with the duke."
There was some light chuckling from Dixon, and even the two foreigners smiled at the remark. "I thank you for your confidence," Caldwell said with a wry smile.
John nodded in mock salute.
Malek cleared his throat quietly. "Lord John, you may remember what I asked you upon my arrival here," he began.
John frowned for a moment, thinking back. "About Sarah Gardner?"
Malek nodded, and at the puzzled looks of the others in the room, he explained, "Six months ago I was in the territory of Lord Osiris. I was shocked to discover that his wife was Atalanian by birth. After some investigation I learned that she was not there by choice. She was kidnapped not long after King Edmund's untimely death, and Atalan was in no position to pursue the kidnappers of even a noblewoman."
"What has this to do with us, sir?" Haikon asked.
"I helped the lady to escape," Malek replied, "after Osiris turned up dead in his bedchamber."
John had never heard that detail, and the rest of the room was as startled to hear that as he was. "Lord Osiris is dead?" Landry said. "And we have not heard of it before now?"
"Osiris and Anubis were the two lords leading the push to invade your country, Majesty," Malek said. "Yet neither of them came to war. Osiris is dead. I doubt Anubis had a hand in it, but I believe he may have taken advantage of the timing."
John's mind was racing over the events of the last few months, but not as fast as Maybourne. "Ba'al did not attend the negotiations until nearly the last moment," he mused. "And when he arrived, it was clear he had been traveling long and hard."
"Yes," said Caldwell. "Is it possible he had been in Goa'uld territory? To investigate?"
"Why would it matter so much that Osiris is dead?" Dixon asked.
"Because Anubis must be keeping this secret," Haikon answered. "Otherwise we would have heard of this. Anubis pushed the others to go to war, to take their troops to another country unprovoked, but he himself stayed home. Now one of his allies is dead, and he has told no one."
"It's a grab for power," the king finished. "Distract your rivals with the promise of new, fertile lands and a people to enslave, and while they are gone, take their lands for your own with no opposition. When they return, their forces are so depleted as to make regaining them impossible."
"Wait," John interjected. He could barely believe where this was leading. "Are we speculating that the Goa'uld staged this? That Ba'al discovered this conspiracy, but instead of ending the conflict here and returning to save their own territories, they decided to fight out one more battle? On what pretense?"
"To save face," Caldwell said darkly. "They cannot have it reported that the immortal lords of the Goa'uld turned and fled from anything, save perhaps the magic of the Asgard."
Silence fell, and disgust was all that John could register. It was unconscionable that the Goa'uld could have stayed in Caldora to maintain an illusion, sacrificing the lives of the Caldorans, not to mention hundreds of their own Jaffa. It was nothing compared to the losses Caldora had suffered at the hands of the Ori, but they could not afford to lose any.
"Well," the king said, rising and bringing all the others to their feet, "I doubt we will ever know for certain, but we have received reports from the west. They are leaving. For whatever reason, the war is over, and we are still standing. Now, it is time to rebuild."