6. Fragile

Cromwell glared at Nenniaw in the yellow lamplight. He had been herded into a nearby building by Nenniaw and the other man, whose name, he overheard, was Celyn. Tesni lit their way, at the same time supporting her nephew. She was silent, her face troubled in the flickering glow of the torch. Once inside, Celyn ushered a stumbling, bleeding Ris into an adjoining room and shut the door, leaving the other three alone. With Tesni translating, Nenniaw began by asking Cromwell exactly what had led to the fight.

Incredulous, Cromwell goggled at him. “I don’t know. What would you do if somebody took a flying leap at you from ten feet up?” he growled. The adrenalin was still in his veins; on top of that, he had finally run out of patience and didn’t particularly care who knew it. At this point, he’d been awake for damn near forty hours by his count, minus the twenty or thirty minutes he’d spent unconscious upon his arrival through the stargate. In that time, he’d led a strike force into a military base suspected of being overrun by hostiles; rappelled into a high-gee gravity well with a bomb; been sprayed with shattered glass; fallen through an even higher-gee zone after the line suspending him snapped; had his atoms disassembled, transmitted through God-knew-what permutations of spacetime and reassembled light-years from home; sustained a minor head injury; and then spent an entire day in the local equivalent of language school followed by several hours of trying to decide exactly how much of a security risk for Earth his presence here might pose, all before being leapt on in the pitch-darkness and having to fight his attacker only to find out it was some local kid. And that was only a partial list. Yeah, just another peachy day at the office. Goddamn, I need a friggin’ smoke.

He could hear Tesni hiss sharply as she prepared to translate his sarcastic reply, but didn’t look at her. She spoke to him, though, after translating his words for Nenniaw. “Ris made a mistake, Frehnk. He was not meant to do this.”

“Well, then why did he?” He turned the glare on her now, at full intensity. To her credit, he noted that she didn’t flinch.

“He is young, and takes himself too seriously at times. He was simply to watch for danger from beyond the wall, as our watchers do on any other night. I do not think he expected you to be in the street.”

“But why leap on me like that? Am I not allowed to leave this place?”

“His choice of action was stupid and deserves discipline. However, I suspect he thought you were absolutely required to remain in my house, which is one error that is not his fault.” She cast a pointed look at Nenniaw, and spoke in Pridanic far too swift and complicated for Cromwell to follow. She appeared to be taking the other man to task for what had happened. Nenniaw responded hotly, and Tesni repeated whatever she had said. Nenniaw shook his head, gesturing at Cromwell as he responded again.

Impatient, Cromwell broke in. “Am I a prisoner or not?” He directed the question at Nenniaw, but he looked to Tesni to make sure his meaning got across. Tesni spoke again to Nenniaw, still too rapidly for Cromwell to follow more than a few words. He could see Nenniaw’s brow furrow. The response was equally fast, and Tesni translated.

“He says you are not a prisoner. You are a free man. But he would know why you were sneaking along the wall in the middle of the night.”

“Tell him I was looking for the way out, and I was under the impression that I might not be allowed to leave. Tell him I wanted to go back to the compass circle.” Tell him I want to go home, and I don’t have the first fucking clue how to do that.

Nenniaw listened as Tesni explained, then responded with a stream of Pridanic that left her nodding before turning to Cromwell.

“He says that you have enjoyed our hospitality, shared a meal with us, and been given shelter. These are the duty owed to a guest. But you came here a stranger, and by your clothing and your speech, you are not from our world. Honesty is the duty owed in return for hospitality, no? Nenniaw would know who you are and where you come from, and he would have you share that information with the cadlywydd in Dinas Coedwyg.” Tesni paused, then added what appeared to be her own explanation. “He says you are free, but he does not trust you yet. The cadlywydd will decide whether you can be trusted. We have enemies, and must be careful.”

She paused, then added, “I trust you, and will speak to the cadlywydd myself on your behalf tomorrow when we see him. Please, remain here and go with us tomorrow. I give you my word that you will not be harmed or detained.”

“This cadlywydd will listen to you?” Cromwell asked.

A small smile. “He has reason to do so. Please, I can tell you no more right now. Let us go back and get what sleep we can.”

“I have friends who may come looking for me, and if I’m not here when they arrive — ”

She stopped him. “I will have Tegwyn keep watch. You can leave some sign with her to show them your presence. We will return here before nightfall.”

There was nothing for it but to agree. If it took more than a few days before the SGC sent a team to locate him, he knew it would be helpful to have people in the area who were friendly toward him. Cooperation now would help to ensure that, while refusal would likely alienate the locals, something would prefer not to do at the moment.

He shrugged, spreading his hands in aquiescence. “It seems I have little choice. What about Ris?”

“He will apologize to you in the morning, before we leave.”

Cromwell shook his head. “The boy was doing what he thought was his job, Tesni. I just want to know whether he is all right. I hit him pretty hard a time or two.”

Truth be told, he was very glad that he hadn’t gotten to land the kind of blows he might have managed had he not been been both dog-tired and fighting in nearly total darkness. Despite the very real fact that sometimes the forces he had to oppose — or even some of the ones he was expected to aid — included minors in their ranks, Cromwell was never comfortable with the idea. As far as he was concerned, combat of any sort was strictly a job for adults, and the thought of putting kids in harm’s way turned his stomach. Granted, with Ris it had been guard duty rather than the front line, but that didn’t change much, in Cromwell’s mind. The fact remained that the kid had been placed by his elders in a situation he wasn’t ready for, been given too little and/or possibly misleading information, and had misjudged what he should do as a result. Cromwell abhorred the thought that he might have seriously injured the youth over what was basically a misunderstanding.

Tesni shook her head. “I believe he is only bruised. He will recover.” She shrugged. “It is the price of making a mistake.”

Cromwell couldn’t keep the darkness from his voice. “He is lucky. The price could have been much higher.”

He and Tesni had spoken in the cobbled-together mixture of Welsh and Pridanic they had worked out over the course of the afternoon. Regardless, Nenniaw appeared to have at least gotten the basic gist of the conversation, probably from their tone and their mention of Ris by name, for he turned and motioned them both to follow him into the next room.

Ris sat on a bench against the wall, a blood-streaked cloth pressed to his face and a mug half-full of ale within reach. He started when they entered, but Celyn, seated next to him, stayed him with a quiet word. The boy looked pale in the lamplight, an impression only enhanced by the purple bruise beginning to bloom under one eye. Still, he was alert, which was a good sign. Cromwell reminded himself that at least the kid would probably heal quickly due to the resilience of youth.

Tesni planted herself squarely in front of Ris and unleashed a torrent of Pridanic, which was punctuated by the occasional short, sharp bark of reply from her nephew.

The three men — Celyn, Nenniaw, and, a second later, Cromwell — shared a look. Ris was getting his ass royally chewed by his aunt, Cromwell realized. Although the exchange was far too fast for him to follow, one look at the youth’s expression was enough to make him feel sorry for the kid. Hard on the heels of that came the unbidden thought, based on the tone of what he was hearing, that Tesni might well give his old drill instructor from ROTC field training a run for his money in terms of sheer vehemence. He fought to stifle the amusement generated by that image even as he reflected that there was clearly far more to this woman than appeared on the surface. He wondered again exactly what kind of situation he had been dropped into.

As Tesni concluded the verbal discipline session, Ris glanced in Cromwell’s direction, and said something that gave his aunt pause. She snorted, then turned to Cromwell with humor in her eyes.

“My nephew asks me to tell you that if you remain among us, he would be honored to receive lessons from you. After he has had some time to heal.”

Cromwell found he didn’t quite know how to respond to that. What he did know was that he was just about as bone-weary as he remembered being in a long time, and that dawn couldn’t be more than five or six hours off. If he was going to travel to Dinas Coedwyg at first light — and he had already decided he didn’t really have a better option at present — he was going to have to get some damn sleep first.

He allowed Tesni to lead him back to her house, although he insisted on carrying their light — a lantern this time — as well as the staff that had been returned to him at Tesni’s urging, even over Nenniaw’s objection. Once inside, Tesni lit a fat candle on the table, placing a glass chimney over it. The room seemed somehow more comfortable with a little light, Cromwell had to admit. If nothing else, it pushed back the external darkness, leaving him only his own internal supply to deal with.

Despite the fatigue that had overtaken him, he was unwilling to be seen keeling over into the oblivion he craved right now. Instead, he sank down on one of the benches and leaned his back against the table. Let Tesni go to bed, then you can crawl off into your corner and pass out. Less embarrassing for both of you. He reached up to massage his forehead, where the headache that had taken up residence earlier in the day was beginning to make its presence more strongly felt, noting with disgust the visible tremor in his hand as he did so. The adrenalin rush had passed, and that combined with forty hours of wakefulness left him on the verge of the shakes. He’d been there before, and always hated the feeling. Dammit, get it the fuck together, Cromwell.

Tesni must have noticed too, because she gestured firmly toward his pallet. “Please, lie down and sleep.”

“I will. Just give me a moment.” When she said nothing, he glanced up. “Go back to bed. I will be all right.”

Tesni fixed him with an exasperated stare, of exactly the sort one might use on a recalcitrant child who’d insisted on staying up long past bedtime. Making her way around the end of the table with a sigh, she sat down on the same bench, perhaps a foot away from him. Her expression softened a bit as she reached out slowly to pull a piece of dry grass from his hair. He held very still at the touch.

“I do know what tired men look like,” she said quietly. “You need rest. I need rest. Do not concern yourself over tomorrow. Nenniaw talks much, but the cadlywydd will listen to me, and Nenniaw will listen to the cadlywydd. If your friends come while we are gone, Tegwyn will keep them here. It will be easier if you give some token she can show them, but she will do it.”

“Tesni, why do you trust me, when Nenniaw does not?” Cromwell was genuinely curious.

She gave him another of those small smiles. “I understand people, Frehnk. Better than Nenniaw does, although he is not usually so thick-headed as he is at present. I spoke with you for most of the day, and by the end I said to myself, ‘Now here is a man who is lost. He is not where he means to be’ No?”

He shook his head, couldn’t help the wry smile. “A good way to put it.” What’s the Pridanic word for ‘understatement’?

“You said you want only to return home, but you do not know the symbols for your world, and that is why you remain. I believe that, and so I think you mean us no harm. That is what I will tell the cadlywydd.”

“And he will believe you?” Cromwell still had his doubts.

Tesni clearly did not share them. “He will.” She gave him a questioning look. “You have told me the truth, as much as you have told me anything. I think also you are reluctant to tell me more.”

How could he explain it to her? And more importantly, why did he feel as though he should? Because you’re hell and gone from home, and this woman is the closest thing you have to a friend here, that’s why. He sighed. “It is nothing to do with you. Just a very long story, and one I am too tired to tell now.” Even if I dared, which I don’t, and I have no idea what I’m going to tell your cadlywydd tomorrow, but I’ll think of something.

She reached out again, gently brushing another blade of grass from his hair. He closed his eyes, then forced them open again after a second. “So sleep, before morning comes,” she said. She was silent a moment, as if in thought, before asking, “Do you trust me?”

Cromwell examined the question, and realized that it was completely separate from the one he’d already spent hours wrangling. He didn’t trust the situation he was in, not so far as he could throw this house. But Tesni herself? Yes, he decided.

“I trust you.” God knows why, but I do.

She nodded solemnly. “Then believe me when I tell you that all will be well, or as much so as I can make it.” She rose from the bench then, and gestured once more toward the pallet. “I say again, sleep while you can.”

He was past fooling her at this point, Cromwell realized. He nodded this time, standing and making his way across the room to fall, exhausted, onto the makeshift bed. With eyes half-closed, he watched as she turned back to the table. Pausing over the candle, she looked a question.

“Blow it out,” he mumbled. They had to make their own candles here, he was sure, and the inside of his eyelids was all he’d be looking at for the next few hours anyway. Even as he completed the thought, sleep took him.

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