To have another language is to possess a second soul. — Charlemagne
The shadows were lengthening, the surrounding forest painting the village with shade as the sun slid past the treetops and the day began its descent toward evening. Cromwell glanced at his watch, which insisted it was 1030 hours, Mountain Daylight Time. Nevertheless, given the time check he’d made at sunrise and the angle of the light at present, he guessed this planet had a rotational period not too far off Earth’s own 24-hour cycle. Might as well reset my watch to reflect the apparent local time, he mused, taking a sip from the mug of cooled herbal tea he’d been nursing. It tasted like mint, chamomile and honey, and more importantly, it soothed the hoarseness he was beginning to feel.
He’d been sitting at the same table for nearly eight hours, doing his best to breach the language barrier that separated him from the villagers. The first two hours had been spent with the leader of the three men he’d encountered earlier, whose name, he’d learned, was Nenniaw. They hadn’t gotten much beyond names and a collection of simple words when a minor tumult arose near the same entryway where Cromwell had entered the village. The two teens he had first met by the creek — when had they disappeared? — led another man into the village and spoke hurriedly to one of Nenniaw’s earlier companions, who in turn came to summon Nenniaw himself. Apparently, someone of importance had arrived.
Cromwell had stolen a glance at the newcomer and been mildly surprised to see someone sharing a rough approximation of his own general build, coloring and physical demeanor, although this man was clothed rather differently. He watched him interact with Nenniaw and the others, and got the distinct feeling that the new arrival was someone not necessarily known to them personally, but expected nonetheless. Was it possible that they had had only a cursory description of someone who was due to arrive, and his own welcome to the village was the result of mistaken identity?
Whatever the case, soon Nenniaw and his companions had spirited the other man away into a nearby house, and the brown-haired woman he had met at the bridge took over the language lesson. He learned that her name was Tesni, and despite the gravity of his situation and the difficulty in communication, he found her a delightful companion for conversation, limited as it was. She seemed to instinctively understand his difficulty with her language, and demonstrated a level of patience and humor that put him at ease enough to smooth the learning curve somewhat.
For the language spoken here was almost definitely a variation, albeit an exceedingly strange one, on the Welsh he had learned as a child. The biggest hurdle seemed to be vowel sounds: almost none of them were what he had been taught, but there was a pattern to the substitutions, and once he had managed to figure out that much and apply it, suddenly the greatest portion of the puzzle came together. For all that his rather unusual military career had resulted in his learning bits and pieces of several languages, Cromwell was assuredly no expert. But the same personal curiosity that had informed his reading habits over the years extended to the softer sciences, and he remembered a term from a Discover article he’d read on linguistics some years earlier: chain shift. All languages change over time, it said, and one way in which they can change is by vowel shift. According to the article, when vowel substitution followed an internally consistent pattern wherein each vowel shifts to the one next to it in a sequence, that was a chain shift. Find the starting point, figure out the sequence, and it became easier to decipher the language in question. As far as he could tell using the scant knowledge he had, these people spoke something that resembled a rather bizarre, obscurely chain-shifted dialect of Welsh, with mutated consonants thrown in at random for good measure. But he was working his way through it, at least. Welcome to the ‘total immersion’ method of language learning, I guess.
For perhaps the fiftieth time that day, he gave thanks to whatever agent of good fortune had moved his grandmother to insist on his learning her ancestral tongue, thereby giving him at least a rudimentary set of tools with which to approach his present problem. He shuddered to think how difficult this would have been had he not had that as a starting point. Stuck here alone and with no idea whether he would be able to go home, encountering people with whom he had at least enough common ground to communicate was a godsend, even if it did play merry hell with everything he thought he’d known about humans and space.
For her part, Tesni was learning his somewhat limited Welsh at the same time she was teaching him her own language. She was a quick study, and given the combination of their efforts, they were conversing on an elementary level by mid-afternoon, in a crude but effective mixture of both tongues. It turned out that the village was called Llanavon, meaning “river village“, which would have also been a perfectly ordinary place name in the Welsh with which Cromwell was familiar. The pronunciation was slightly off compared to his grandmother’s, but the name was at least recognizable. Tesni’s name for her own people, meanwhile, sounded like ’Pridani’. The people historians know as the Britenni, perhaps? From what he could tell based on their conversation thus far, the inhabitants of Llanavon seemed aware that their world was one planet among many, and called it Tir ’n Awyr, or “Land in the Sky”. Since the only reasonable explanation for not only their apparent humanity but also their speaking a language related to Welsh would have to involve some link to Earth, he supposed it was an appropriate description of their world in relation to his own. He wondered exactly what the hell was going on here.
“Tesni, are the Pridani the only people living on Tir ’n Awyr? Or are there other…I don’t know…cultures? Tribes?”
“There are others. But mostly there are just ourselves and the Albannu.”
Albannu? In his Naina Cromwell’s Welsh, that could only be the Albanwyr: the Scots. Albannu. Pridani. Scots and Britons. What the hell? He dropped his head to his hands, massaging his forehead, where an incipient tension headache was beginning to make itself felt. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole had nothing on this.
“Frehnk?” His name sounded slightly odd in her accent. Cromwell looked up to find Tesni regarding him curiously across the table. “Where have you come from that you know so little about Tir ’n Awyr?”
Uh-oh. This sounded like it might get dicey. He remembered the odd look that Nenniaw had given him from across the village square before shepherding the other newcomer out of sight. “Where do you think I am from, Tesni?”
She appeared to think this over for a moment. “When I first saw you, I thought you were someone that we had been told to watch for.” Tesni shifted uncomfortably. “But it appears I was wrong. Still, you have come from the drws rhyng y byd, have you not?”
The ’door between worlds’? Well, there was as apt a term for it as ‘stargate’. Unless she meant something else? In some cultures he’d read about, that phrase that could just as easily refer to the portal between the everyday world and the spirit realm. Cromwell had a sense that was not what she meant, but decided to fish for a little more information before committing himself to an answer.
“Can you describe this door?”
Impatiently, she sketched a circle in the air. “On the hilltop, in the cwmpad cylch — the compass circle. Where travelers come to Tir ’n Awyr from other worlds, or leave to go to them.”
Compass circle? That was what they called the plaza surrounding the gate? He had been right about the standing stones, then. She makes it sound like people coming and going through that thing is an everyday occurrence. Playing dumb isn’t going to work here. It would be like pretending I didn’t know what an airport is, back home.
He sighed. “Yes. I did, though my people call it by a different name.”
She nodded. “So I thought. From which world have you come, and who sent you here?”
“Would you believe me if I told you I came here by accident?”
She regarded him for a long time before answering. “You have a story to tell.”
“I suppose I do. I also have many questions.”
An hour later, he had established several things. One: despite being aware of the existence of other planets reachable via the stargate, Tesni herself had never been offworld. She knew people who had, though, and this included some of the local residents. Two: his simplified explanation that he had fallen into his own world’s “doorway” while attempting to repair something that had gone wrong with its operation was met with a spate of questions regarding exactly which world was his. Which led to item number three: Tesni had never met any gate traveler who fit the description of any SGC personnel. He even drew a crude rendition of the SGC patch on the wooden tabletop with a dampened finger, but she showed no recognition. Four: Tesni’s people had a history that included a tale of their having originated on another world long ago, but they knew virtually nothing about that world. They had been here for over sixty generations, Tesni had told him, proudly offering to recite her own lineage as evidence.
The fifth thing was perhaps the most unsettling. According to her people’s legends, they had been brought to Tir ’n Awyr by a god known as Bel. A god who was still known to visit from time to time, using the same “door between the worlds” that other travelers, including Cromwell himself, used. A god who appeared human, except for glowing eyes and a strangely modulated voice. A god who, if Tir ’n Awyri legends were true, had appeared to his subjects in the same form for over two millennia. Normally, he would dismiss such claims as nothing more than mere fiction. One thing prevented his doing so in this case: his briefings regarding SGC activities in the Cheyenne Mountain complex had included mention of aliens who appeared as humans with glowing eyes and strange voices. Aliens who, if they were encountered, were to be contained at all costs.
Aliens known as the Goa’uld.