Tesni led him to the same building where they had been last night, after his encounter with the unfortunate Ris. A fire was burning on the hearth inside, and a small iron kettle simmered over the flames. A teapot on the table gave off an herbal scent, this one different from whatever mixture Tesni had brewed. Nenniaw and Celyn were seated on a bench before the fire, sipping from mugs. They turned as Cromwell and Tesni entered.
Cromwell wasn’t sure what sort of reception he expected from the pair this morning, but they greeted him cordially enough. Apparently, being vouched for by Tesni carried some weight around here, and he was again reminded how fortunate he was to have her as an ally. As Tesni set out two more mugs and began to pour whatever was in the pot, the door opened again, this time admitting Nenniaw’s other lieutenant, and the man that Tesni had identified as Morcant. Tesni handed Cromwell a mug, murmuring, “The man with Morcant is called Dynawd. He is Nenniaw’s brother.” She moved off to speak with the pair.
Cromwell inhaled the steam from his beverage, then drank. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee right now, he thought again. This version of tea smelled and tasted slightly spicy, and it was warming, which he supposed made it a reasonable compromise. I still want a damn cigarette. Of all the times to be forced to go without…
His line of thought evaporated, interrupted by Tegwyn’s arrival. Cromwell remembered it would be her job to watch for anyone the SGC might send looking for him. Because of the language barrier, he would need to give her something identifiable as being, if not necessarily his personally, at least from Earth and nowhere else, so that anyone looking at it would know that he’d been here. Of course, he supposed he could leave a note, if only he could find something to write with, and on. Do these people even have writing?
Tesni appeared at his elbow again, her niece in tow. “Frehnk, the horses are ready. We must go in a moment. For whom shall Tegwyn watch, and how will she know them?”
He trusted Tesni, who obviously trusted Tegwyn, which meant that he would have to trust the girl as well. He motioned the two of them to follow him outside, squatting down to draw in the rain-moistened soil at the edge of the street the symbol found on the uniform patch worn by SGC personnel. He remembered being told in briefings that it was the stargate symbol unique to Earth itself, although dialing a gate address required seven symbols altogether.
When he spoke, his voice was low and urgent. “You will know my friends by this sign, on the arm of their clothing. If they should arrive, you must keep them here until I return.” As Tesni translated, Cromwell thought quickly. He needed something she could show them, something that would transcend any language barrier, so there would be no mistaking that he had been present here. Had he been wearing his dog tags, he could have removed one for the purpose, but he and Jack had both handed their tags over to Captain Carter before descending into the gravity well. He’d have been somewhat reluctant even now, given the symbolism involved, but it would have been the logical choice. Shit. He could think of only one thing at the moment, an object he was truly loath to part with, even temporarily, in this place. No choice. It was simply the one thing he carried right now that he knew Jack or for that matter anyone else in the US military would recognize. Cromwell was normally far from superstitious, but the item in question did serve as the closest thing to a good luck charm he possessed.
There was nothing else he could think of, though, so he rolled up his right pantleg and reached just inside the top of his sock and boot. It was still there, exactly where he had stuffed it just before leaving the locker room, in the one place he’d been certain that increased gravity wouldn’t rip it from his person. He regarded the challenge coin briefly, pursing his lips, before turning to Tegwyn. Taking her hand, he placed the coin in her palm, closing her fingers firmly over it.
“Show them this,” he told the girl. “Show this to the leader of the people who wear that symbol. He will know what it means.” Tesni translated, and Tegwyn nodded solemnly, her eyes huge. With any luck at all, thought Cromwell, that leader would be Jack himself, and while seeing this particular coin in someone else’s possession would probably give him one hell of a turn, Cromwell knew it would also serve to keep him here long enough for their party to return from Dinas Coedwyg. Either that, or it would send Jack storming the countryside searching for him, possibly all the way to Dinas Coedwyg itself, wherever the hell that was. In any case, it would guarantee that Cromwell wouldn’t be left behind.
While he was still considering this, Nenniaw and Celyn came out of the building, urging haste. Thunder punctuated their words, still some distance off but promising a storm to come. Peachy. Just once I’d like to travel in good weather.
The sound of hooves on packed earth caught his attention, and he turned in time to see Ris appear around the corner, leading two horses. He could hear others behind. As Ris approached, Cromwell found himself examining the youth’s face. He was badly bruised, to be sure, and carried himself gingerly, but seemed in good enough spirits. Cromwell hoped, however, that Ris wasn’t planning to accompany them. The kid deserved a little downtime after last night. Once again, he was glad he hadn’t managed to inflict the kind of damage he knew himself to be capable of delivering.
Ris came to a stop before him, handing over the reins of one of the horses. They were stocky, slightly rough-coated creatures, not especially tall but quite solid-appearing — more like ponies, really. The one whose reins Ris gave him was a bay of perhaps thirteen hands, with lively eyes. Cromwell examined the riding tack used here. The bridle was of a style he hadn’t seen before, but the biggest difference was the saddle. It was a primitive affair and lacked stirrups. Of course, he realized: the ancestors of the Pridani — and of their mounts for that matter — had likely been taken from Earth long before the stirrup made its way to the British isles. He was probably lucky they had even developed saddles to any extent. He recalled reading in one of his college texts, seemingly a lifetime ago now, that the saddle had been unknown in Britain until somewhere in at least the middle of the first millennium AD, when it was introduced by Roman soldiers to whom it was also something of a novelty. That had to be more recent than the sixty-odd generation timeframe that Tesni claimed for her people’s presence on Tir ’n Awyr.
Cromwell shook his head in amazement. He’d majored in history out of a keen interest, and although his primary focus had been on military and modern history, the few courses he’d taken detailing the ancient world had been fascinating. He’d never expected to relate to material on late Iron Age cultures in a manner quite this up-close and personal, however.
Ris was saying something. Cromwell still didn’t have anything like a firm grasp of Pridanic, but from the tone, it sounded like an apology. For last night? Hell, he was fine. His concern was for the kid, who had clearly come off the worst in their encounter. “Not to worry,” he said in Pridanic, hoping he didn’t mangle the words too much. “You are well?” That got him a nod and a crooked smile. “Good.” He clasped the boy’s shoulder, then turned to the task at hand.
The product of a rural childhood, Cromwell had enjoyed trail riding since before he was Ris’ age, even riding bareback now and then, but it had been well over twenty years since he’d had the opportunity to spend time around horses on anything resembling a regular basis. He’d found himself on horseback on rare occasion in the course of missions in some of the wilder parts of the globe as well, but the most recent instance was probably four or five years ago. Riding was certainly preferable to slogging on foot in the rain, however, and he was glad of this one small way in which his journey might be eased. Wherever Dinas Coedwyg was, this would get them there and back faster, so if Jack and his team showed up here while they were gone…
He noticed that the rest of the party had already mounted, except for Tesni, who came to take the remaining horse from her nephew. Ris was gesturing again, offering him a leg up, but Cromwell shook his head, confident he had this, at least, under control. He grabbed a handful of mane and reins. A leap put him belly-down on the animal’s back, his head over the creature’s neck. He swung one leg across, pushed upright, and settled into the saddle, which to his surprise was more comfortable than it had appeared, if just barely. Ris helped his aunt to mount, and waved farewell as horses and riders filed out of the village and onto the forest trail, just as the rain began in earnest.
Cromwell tried not to think about how sore he was going to be by the end of the day.