Cromwell lay awake, listening as the deepening night brought quiet to the village. He turned his conversation with Tesni over in his head. They had continued to talk for some time after she revealed her world’s connection to the alien Goa’uld, his mind churning all the while with questions he dared not ask. He worried that he might have made a serious mistake in telling her anything at all about Earth. He hoped her supposed ignorance of anyone or anything related to the SGC was genuine. He got the sense that it was, but everything about this planet was confusing, and he could no longer afford to trust surface appearances. He had assumed that since these people appeared to have a fairly primitive society, they wouldn’t be connected with the alien race threatening Earth. He wondered just how much other potentially useful information had not been included in his briefings. Of course, the Air Force more than likely assumed that no one in his position was going to wind up offworld, at least not without being in the company of SGC personnel. Yeah, well, look what happens when we make assumptions, people. He’d had the clearance, and now he had the need to know. Too bad no one had foreseen that possibility.
Not even Jack. The ten or so minutes they’d had to talk while prepping for their descent into the Gate Room had raised as many questions as it had answered. Somewhere in the time between the return of Captain Carter with the news that the auto-destruct would be useless, and the execution of her new plan, something had begun to thaw the glacial wall between his old friend and himself. Maybe O’Neill had actually taken to heart what he’d said with regard to Major Boyd and his team. Leaving someone behind wasn’t always a choice. It could be a necessity, if there were no way to effect a rescue without even greater loss of life. Or in the case of Boyd’s team, no way to effect one at all. Having it pointed out that this was the same situation, greatly magnified, as Cromwell himself had faced in Iraq appeared to have set something in motion within O’Neill, no matter how vehement his initial denial.
Alone in the locker room, the two men had busied themselves with buckles, laces and zippers, at first speaking only those words necessary to adjusting the g-suits. It was not an activity quickly or easily performed on oneself, and they fit them to each other. The task was reminiscent of countless other occasions spent double-checking each other’s equipment before missions, and they fell naturally into the flow as though the intervening years had never happened. Finally, Jack broke the near-silence.
“We actually do have aliens here, you know. Well, one, anyway.”
Cromwell’s response was to tug harder on the lacing he was adjusting on Jack’s right leg. He looked up, ready out of old habit for whatever joke was coming, and saw that Jack was serious.
He grinned anyway. “See now, I knew you were holding out on me, Jack.”
“Yeah, well, you know how it is.” A shrug. “You’re probably going to get to meet him in a bit, so I wanted to warn you to not freak out or anything.”
“That ugly, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Big scary dude named Teal’c. No hair. Looks like he should play left tackle for the Bears. Weird tattoo-thingy in the middle of his forehead. Don’t mention it though; I think he’s a little sensitive about it. Oh, and he’s Jaffa, which means he’s got a snake living in his gut.”
He waited for the familiar O’Neill smirk; caught its ghost for just an instant. It was enough. “Sounds like a fun guy to have at parties. Friend of yours?”
“Actually, yeah. He’s on my team. Him, our resident genius Captain Carter, and this geeky civilian Ph.D. named Jackson who speaks a metric buttload of languages and figured out how to get that gate out there to connect in the first place. We’re a regular traveling circus.”
“You always did know how to pick ’em.”
The ghost gained more substance this time. “Nothing but the best for Jack O’Neill. You know that.”
Cromwell grinned again.
Now, lying in the darkness on a strange world far from home, he reflected that in that moment in the locker room, he’d known they would be all right, he and Jack. With any luck, they would still get to be, provided he didn’t manage to screw things up by saying something here on Tir ’n Awyr that led to some new disaster for the SGC. He vowed to keep further information to himself until SG-1 or another team showed up.
For her part, Tesni had accepted his sudden reticence with aplomb, switching back to language lessons for a while before excusing herself to help lay out the evening meal. Most of the villagers preferred to share this meal outdoors during the summer months, she explained. He could understand why. The temperature had climbed steadily throughout the afternoon despite the surrounding forest, until even in the shade it felt like about 80°F. He watched as platters of roast meat, along with bread, cheese, greens and fruit appeared from somewhere behind the covered patio where he had spent the afternoon, and pitchers of herbal tea, cider and what smelled like spruce ale joined them on the tables. There must be a community kitchen beyond the wall that backed the patio. That would explain the scents of cookery and baking bread he had noticed as the day wore on.
Most of the food was familiar, too. He recognized chicken and pork, along with a couple varieties of fish. The orange cheese had a sharp flavor, while the pale yellow one tasted mildly nutty. The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, reminding him with a pang of the homemade multigrain bread Lisa had sometimes baked during the years of their marriage. There was a pile of something he recognized as scallions, alongside some green leaves he couldn’t place. The fruits were a mixture of species known on Earth — smallish early apples, raspberries and pears — and a few varieties he had never seen before, such as a tri-lobed yellow oddity about twice the size of his fist. Tesni noticed him studying one. “We call it tair dogn,” she explained, slicing it into its three constituent parts and placing two of them on his plate. She popped the third into her mouth.
Tair dogn translated roughly as ‘three portions’. An apt name. He took a tentative bite. It tasted like a combination of pear and orange, had a texture like cantaloupe, and was probably native to this world. He’d certainly never seen its like on Earth. As he chewed, he watched the villagers taking seats at the other tables. They looked healthy and well-fed. The children were active, running about while parents tried to calm them enough to sit and eat. He caught several of the children, and some of the adults as well, sneaking glances at him when they thought he wasn’t looking. Well, he was a stranger here, an unknown quantity. Curiosity was natural.
He noticed that no one else had come to sit at the table he and Tesni occupied. Just as the thought crossed his mind, however, the two teenagers he had first met that morning at the bridge came up and spoke to Tesni. The exchange was a bit fast for him, but it sounded as if they were asking whether they might join them. Tesni nodded, smiling and gesturing for them to take seats on the bench. They did, one on each side of her. “Frehnk, I have not properly given you the names of my niece and nephew. Tegwyn is the daughter of my brother Idris, and Ris is his son.” Both teens inclined their heads in his direction and smiled. Polite kids, he thought, giving them each a smile in return.
The locals seemed friendly enough, but ever since Tesni had mentioned Bel, the alleged “god” responsible for relocating her people to Tir ’n Awyr, alarm bells had been ringing in the back of his mind. What was their precise relationship with this Bel guy? He hoped he would be able to get off-planet and back to Earth without encountering any glowy-eyed aliens. More importantly, though, he hoped that any team the SGC sent to look for him would be able to avoid contact with the Goa’uld. He had no idea how often they came to this world. With any luck, they wouldn’t decide to pay a visit while he was here.
As they were finishing their meal, Nenniaw approached and indicated to Tesni that he would like a word with her. She excused herself, and the pair moved off into the dusk, leaving Cromwell alone with Tegwyn and Ris. He tried to converse a bit with them, but they had a harder time with his accent, and in any case seemed distracted by something a few tables over. Glancing in that direction, he noticed the man who had come to the village earlier in the day. He was sitting at one end of a table in a corner of the patio, in the company of Nenniaw’s two lieutenants. Cromwell didn’t have to wonder what made him think of them in those terms. It was the same instinct that had caused his reaction to Nenniaw. All three Pridani men were soldiers, and so was his fellow visitor. He sensed this in their bearing, their economy of motion, even the clipped tones of the speech he was doing his best to understand. Moreover, Nenniaw had an air of command, something to which Cromwell had unconsciously responded as soon as he laid eyes on the man. When the military had been your life since reaching adulthood, you could read its stamp on others from a mile away. Even across cultural lines, he’d discovered.
Her conversation with Nenniaw concluded, Tesni returned to the table. Shooing Tegwyn and Ris off to help with cleanup — apparently the universal chore of teenagers everywhere — she resumed her seat across from Cromwell. “I will arrange a sleeping place for you soon, and you must rest. At first light we travel.”
Travel? Where? Back through the gate? Where could they want to take him now, and why?
She must have seen the question in his eyes, for she elaborated. “We go to Dinas Coedwyg, half a morning’s ride from here. Maybe a little less than that.”
The name translated as Fort Forest, or perhaps Forest City. “Why am I being taken there?”
“Not only you. The other traveler, he goes as well. There are those there who will wish to speak with you both.”
Uh-oh. And he hadn’t even said ‘Take me to your leader’. Suddenly, the dire absurdity of his situation crashed in on him with full force, leaving him fatigued and drained. He felt on the verge of hysterical laughter. Pull it together, Cromwell. He was being borne along on a wave of circumstance over which he’d have precious little control without more information; information he was unlikely to obtain if he didn’t keep hold of himself.
“What is this about, Tesni? Who am I supposed to speak with in Dinas Coedwyg, and why? Who is this other traveler who arrived soon after me?”
She hesitated, as if weighing how much she could safely tell him. And ‘safely’ in what sense, he wondered? Had Nenniaw cautioned her against giving him information? He would probably have done the same in the other man’s shoes, depending on the circumstances. This was starting to feel like some of his old undercover ops. Did Tesni share Nenniaw’s concerns, or was she merely wondering how much she could say without getting into trouble with a superior? As he found himself thinking of the two of them that way, he realized that a lot of other pieces fell into place as a result. Underlying the picture of peaceful, friendly villagers ran a current of something else. A tension, a feeling that there was far more to Llanavon and its inhabitants than met the eye, though he’d be damned if he could put his finger on exactly what it was. And there was still that Goa’uld connection to worry about. He glanced once more around the village, gauging possible escape routes he might take if things went south. He was beginning to fear they might.
A sound from Tesni drew his attention back. She finished clearing her throat, then spoke again, her voice pitched this time for his ears alone. “The other visitor gives his name as Morcant.” She appeared to search his eyes for some sign of recognition at the name, but he had nothing. She continued, “My guess is that it will be Morcant whom the cadlywydd will need to see. But he will want to see you as well.” He groaned inwardly. The word she’d used had multiple translations, ranging loosely from ‘marshal’ to ‘general’. Take me to your leader, indeed.
She smiled. “Do not worry. Nenniaw has not spent the day speaking with you, as I have. I think you are a lost man, but he thinks a spy.” Cromwell opened his mouth to protest at that, but she stopped him with a shake of her head. “I think not. You would be a poor spy, who barely understands our speech.”
“I could be pretending, to make you tell me things.” Cripe, why did he say that? But she only laughed. A small, momentary chuckle, swiftly stifled as she schooled her features to seriousness once again. It was still laughter; in her case an honest, refreshing sound with no malevolence behind it that he could detect.
“You could. I do not think you are. You are a soldier, but you are not a spy.” So she could recognize it, too. No word in Tesni’s language for ‘airman’, of course. ‘Soldier’ was the closest concept she had. It fit. As for being undercover — no, not today. It was as well she knew nothing about his past, he’d reflected.