Don’t count me out
I may be lost but I’m not gone
— Ryan Kickland, “A Wide Open Space” (The Mountain, 2010)
Cromwell’s eyes snapped open at the sound of birdsong. The pale light of false dawn painted the windows. He felt as though he’d only been asleep mere minutes, although a glance at his watch confirmed that he’d slept for just over five and a half hours. Still nowhere near enough, and he knew it, but it was better than nothing. He moved to sit up, only to find himself tangled in a blanket he didn’t remember pulling up when he crashed. Tesni, maybe? He’d been out like a light almost as soon as he was horizontal, he knew that much. For some reason the thought that she might have covered him wasn’t surprising. However the blanket had gotten there, he was grateful for its warmth. The temperature had dropped just far enough to make sleeping in shirtsleeves a chilly affair.
He could still smell rain in the air, which probably explained the coolness. If a front was coming in, travel would be a hassle. He had no idea what this planet’s weather patterns were like, of course, but he had plenty of experience with slogging cross-country in the rain. He rose and moved to the window to peer outside, gathering the blanket around him to ward off the chill. From all indications, there had already been some rainfall; droplets pattered from the trees as a light breeze blew. He was mildly surprised he had slept through it, though he supposed he shouldn’t be, given how utterly exhausted he had felt when he went to bed.
Sounds of motion from the next room alerted him that Tesni was awake. A moment later she appeared, a woolen cloak in faint gray plaid over her tunic and trews. She carried its twin, in muted shades of blue, which she laid on the bench near the table. Seeing him already awake and upright, she crossed to join him at the window.
“You feel better now?” she asked.
Cromwell nodded. “Some.” He plucked at the blanket around his shoulders. “Thank you for this.”
She smiled. “You are welcome.” She gestured at the cold hearth. “If I had expected the coolness early on, I would have made a fire last night.”
“Only if you wanted one. No need on my account. So this” — he indicated the weather outside — “is unusual for this season?”
A shrug. “Somewhat. I usually find it far too warm to light a fire indoors through most of the summer.” She eyed him critically. “We will be meeting Nenniaw and the others soon, but there is time yet. Come, sit at the table.”
Puzzled, he did as she asked, watching as she retreated into the next room for a moment, returning with her arms loaded. She laid several items on the table: a pitcher, a basin, two folded cloths, a small cake of what appeared to be soap, and a small hand mirror with an ornate frame of what appeared to be bronze. She peered at his face again, then handed him the mirror. “I was right. You were bleeding.”
He examined his reflection. He appeared almost as tired as he still felt; if he looked like this after sleeping, he could only imagine the ‘before’ picture. He must have looked like hell. No wonder Tesni had insisted on making sure he went to bed before she would go herself. There was a smudge of dull red on his left cheek, and he wondered how long it had been there. Ever since he was struck by flying glass in the Gate Room, perhaps? He didn’t think it was from anything that happened last night. He touched the spot, and it began to bleed again. Tesni had said nothing earlier, so the wound was probably new. He guessed he’d missed brushing this one tiny shard off after awakening in the compass circle, and it had pierced his skin while he slept with his face buried in the pillow, as was often his habit.
As Cromwell worked the sliver of glass out of his skin, Tesni took up the pitcher and stepped to the door. “I will be right back.”
A few moments later she returned with the pitcher steaming in the predawn coolness and a bundle under one arm. She poured about half the pitcher’s contents into the basin, and most of the rest into a ceramic pot to which she added dried herbs. Unwrapping the bundle, she laid out bread and cheese while Cromwell washed his face.
He needed a shave, he noted, but that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Although from what he’d seen, most of the men here went clean-shaven, so he supposed at some point he’d manage it. At the moment, however, he found that just the application of hot water and soap did wonders for his mental state, clearing away the worst of the fatigue and even soothing the lingering remnants of headache. He still very badly wanted a cigarette, but he hadn’t any on him. Suck it up. The fragrant steam from Tesni’s teapot began to reach him, and he hoped to high heaven there was at least some caffeine in whatever was brewing. He doubted he’d be that lucky. No coffee, no cigarettes. Quit bitching, Cromwell. You’re alive. Isn’t that luck enough for you?
He felt eyes upon him, and looked up to see Tesni studying him as she poured their tea. “That’s better,” she said, reaching across to set a mug near his elbow. She added a plate of bread and cheese, then frowned and moved around to his side of the table. “Turn your head.”
He did, and she examined behind one ear. “You have more blood here. Hold still.” She took the wet cloth from him and sponged the spot. The cloth came away with a new streak of red. “This is not from last night, I think. I saw it yesterday, and the cuts on your arms. What happened to you?”
Cromwell let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “It is part of that long story. When I was trying to repair my world’s gate — our drws rhyng y byd — there was broken glass. Ours is not out in the open as yours is. The room it occupies has a wall of glass.” Her eyes widened at that. “The glass broke, and the pieces flew. Some hit me. I thought I had removed it all, but apparently not.”
“Let me see where you cannot, then. Bend your head forward.” Tesni searched his hair and neck for additional glass shards, finding two tiny flecks embedded near his nape and another in his scalp near the crown. She removed them and washed the areas gently with the cloth. She also examined the tender spot where he’d hit his head, asking about headaches and other symptoms before assuring him that, yes, it appeared to be as minor an injury as he claimed but cautioning him to tell her if anything changed.
Throughout the process, Cromwell was reminded of a distant morning, at Christmas many years ago, when he and Jack arrived at the O’Neill home in Colorado Springs after a long, eventful trip home from Incirlik, Turkey. The trip had begun with a last-minute announcement of leave and nearly ended in disaster. The C-130 that brought them home to the States landed at Travis, where they soon discovered that heavy snow had grounded further flights that might get them the rest of the way home. After waiting impatiently for several hours for the weather to clear, the two of them finally gave up on flying and set out to drive to the Springs.
Desperate to get home to their wives and to Jack’s infant son, they’d driven across the Rockies in a snowstorm without stopping for more than a meal and coffee before rolling their rented Jeep and narrowly escaping death in the process on a twisting dirt road at high elevation. Jack had pulled him from the wrecked vehicle just before it toppled into a ravine and exploded into flames. They’d walked — God alone knew how — away from the scene together, back to the paved road and continued on foot. After grabbing a few hours of sleep in a lonely barn near the roadway, the pair set out again after the snowfall ceased. In the end, they managed to hitch a ride with a friendly ex-Marine and his wife, bound for Denver, who found them walking along the side of the road in the wee hours and drove them to their destination. Their arrival — unannounced, half-frozen and thoroughly banged-up, in predawn darkness — had woken both Sara and Lisa, who was spending the holiday there. The women fussed over them, cleaning and bandaging the cuts and scrapes acquired on their journey, without knowing or asking the cause.
Tesni had asked the reason for his injuries; for some reason, he had felt comfortable answering. She had then taken the answer in stride, despite its including what to her must surely be a fantastic concept, and simply set to work helping him. He marveled at that, even as she finished up before clearing the basin away and sliding his breakfast in front of him. Suddenly, Cromwell knew: She’s done this before. Probably more than once, unless I miss my guess. And she’s seen much worse than anything that’s going on with me right now.
He wondered who or what he reminded her of, as she moved to sit across from him, where her own meal lay as yet untouched. “Thank you,” he said.
Her response was another of those small, pensive smiles. “Eat,” she told him. “We will be meeting Nenniaw and the others soon.”
They finished their meal, rinsing the mugs with the remainder of the water from the pitcher. Cromwell shrugged the blanket from his shoulders, folding it on his sleeping pallet and donning the blue cloak. Murmuring that more rain was on the way, Tesni moved to close the shutters. He beat her to it on the second window, earning a broader smile of gratitude.