True valor lies between cowardice and rashness. – Miguel de Cervantes
Concealed within the forest, well back from the treeline at the bottom of the shallow hill occupied by the compass circle and the stargate, Cadogan’s party of Pridani warriors waited while the cadlywydd and Gerlad conferred with Nenniaw and Dynawd. Watching from a few feet away and doing his best to follow what he could make out of the conversation, Cromwell fidgeted with the ma’tok he had been issued, hefting the staff weapon repeatedly to familiarize himself with its balance. The fact that the stargate and its Jaffa guards were atop the hill presented a problem, in his mind. The high ground was an easily defensible position, and any attack the Pridani launched from the bottom of the hill would almost surely be detected long before they reached the top, if the Jaffa were paying attention at all. Cadogan’s party outnumbered the Jaffa two to one, but numbers and surprise were their only advantages, and Cromwell worried that they would lose the element of surprise as soon as they began to make their way up the hill. Somehow, the two scouts the cadlywydd had sent earlier to check on the situation had gotten far enough up the hill to count ten Jaffa and return, however, without being detected.
He turned to look at Tesni. The Pridani woman leaned against the bole of a nearby tree, observing their surroundings. She held her own ma’tok lightly in one hand, its base resting on the leaf-littered ground. After a moment, her glance flicked in Cromwell’s direction, and he beckoned with a gesture. She moved to his side, and he spoke quietly, so that only she would hear. “I thought I took a pretty good look around yesterday before leaving the compass circle, but I may have missed something. Is there a way to the top that doesn’t involve an exposed approach? Obviously, the scouts managed it somehow.”
Tesni nodded, gesturing off toward the edge of the wood and the shallow slope leading up to the standing stones. “The woods reach to within just a short distance of the top of the hill at a point about one-quarter of the way sunwise around the circle from here.” Cromwell nodded; he did recall that much. The jutting bit of forest was on the opposite side of the stargate from the controller and the point where he had exited the circle to follow the trail that led to Llanavon. Tesni went on, “The trees there conceal a trail whose end is aligned with the compass stone for that quarter. Anyone coming from that direction has a good chance of being screened from view by the stone itself. The scouts would have come to the edge of the wood and no farther, and could do so without being easily noticed by the Jaffa, who they say are primarily guarding the drws deialwr — the device which controls the drws rhyng y byd — and the direct approach to the gate itself. The cadlywydd will likely send a small party that way to draw their attention — ”
” — while the rest of us approach from one or more of the others,” Cromwell finished for her. It made sense, and he approved. Not that it matters what I think. This is Cadogan’s show. I’m damn lucky to not have been stuffed away under lock and key someplace while he and that Sabar fellow figure out what the hell to do with me.
As it turned out, Tesni was correct. Cadogan and the others broke up their conversation a few moments later, the cadlywydd gathering the entire party and issuing orders in a calm voice. Four men were dispatched to the hidden trail on the other side of the hill, while the remainder of the group — eighteen in all, including Cadogan and Gerlad — were divided into three groups, each to approach from a different direction at the first sound of engagement from the hilltop. Cromwell noted that Cadogan himself planned to lead one of the groups; clearly, he was not the type of leader who sent others into harm’s way while remaining behind the lines in relative safety. He found the realization increased his respect for the cadlywydd.
Cromwell and Tesni were assigned together to Nenniaw’s group, along with — Cromwell was surprised to learn — Gerlad. Dynawd would lead the remaining party. As everyone arranged themselves and moved to the places from which they would approach the hilltop, there came sounds from the direction of the main trail leading toward Llanavon. Nenniaw’s group, which had been assigned that approach, melted silently back among the trees, far enough from the trail to escape notice, yet near enough to observe the passage of whomever came along it. From a place of concealment behind a massive oak, Cromwell watched as two Jaffa appeared, leading a group of children and youths bound together by the wrists and linked to a stout rope line. The youngest of the children struggled to keep up with the pace set by the Jaffa, and one stumbled, crying out, only to be roughly pulled to her feet again by the Jaffa stationed at the rear of the line. A teenaged girl ahead of her turned to offer a word of encouragement, despite the frightened expression on her own face, and Cromwell nearly gasped in recognition. It was Tegwyn. He felt Tesni, sharing the tree’s shelter, tense as she, too, saw her niece. Quickly, he scanned the captive group for any sign of Ris, but the boy did not appear to be among them.
Cromwell turned, his eyes meeting Tesni’s. He saw fury there, and laid a hand on her arm in reassurance. Somehow, they would get those kids free of the Jaffa, if he had any say in the situation. Tesni seemed to understand the meaning behind his gesture, nodding almost imperceptibly in response.
Cromwell glanced toward Nenniaw’s position behind a similar tree, just a few feet distant. The other man’s jaw was set as he watched the Jaffa herd the line of children along the trail, toward the spot where the forest ended and the trail emerged from the trees and began to climb the hill to the compass circle. Cromwell knew they couldn’t allow the children to get anywhere near the hilltop and the compass circle when there was about to be a firefight. At the same time, to give away their own presence and position prematurely would be to invite disaster of a different sort, which would likely result not only in the loss of their ability to retake the stargate, but also was certain to get quite a few of the Pridani killed, including any of the children unlucky enough to get in the way if said firefight erupted on the trail rather than on the hilltop. Damn, damn, goddamn it. From the look on Nenniaw’s face, Cromwell surmised that the man shared his own assessment of the situation.
Almost as soon as his mind processed the thought, Cromwell’s attention was drawn by another sound. He turned, peering back down the trail, deeper into the forest. There, among the trees, he caught a flash of blue, and the sound of ragged breathing reached his ears. He could only guess at the reason the Jaffa hadn’t noticed it — clearly, they were preoccupied with keeping their captives in motion toward the stargate that would whisk them away from their world and their families. Indeed, they were nearly at the edge of the forest, about to emerge into the open at the bottom of the slope. Cromwell glanced back along the trail in time to see the blue flash move out from behind a tree of its own. He realized with a shock that it was Ris, a zat’nik’tel in one hand. Christ, what the hell does he think he’s doing?
Both Nenniaw and Tesni saw him too. Helpless, the three watched as the youth approached. They couldn’t cry out to stop him, lest the Jaffa hear. Cromwell tensed, preparing to tackle Ris as he drew even with their place of concealment, hoping he could manage to do so at least as silently as he had done the night before. I hate like hell to do that to the kid twice in twenty-four hours, but better that than letting him tangle with the Jaffa and get himself killed.
An instant before he would have launched himself at Ris, however, another sound reached him, this time from the hilltop above. There was shouting and what could only be the sound of zat’nik’tels and staff weapons firing. Their advance party had engaged the Jaffa, and this was their signal to storm the hilltop. From a point to either side along the curve of the treeline, Cromwell heard shouts as the other two groups of Pridani broke from cover, making for the compass circle. Of all the goddamn lousy timing. Only Nenniaw’s group was even aware of the presence of the captive children and the two Jaffa still on the forest trail.
Nenniaw turned and was shouting something at Gerlad. Gerlad broke from hiding, yelling something at the other two Pridani with them, whose names Cromwell hadn’t gotten. Those two glanced in Nenniaw’s direction for a split second before following Gerlad out of the trees and sprinting for the hillside. Nenniaw turned back then, joining Cromwell and Tesni as they spilled out onto the trail, where the two Jaffa had halted their group of captives and taken up a defensive position. One of the Jaffa was looking straight at Ris, who hesitated on the trail, not more than five feet from where Cromwell emerged. The youth raised his weapon as the Jaffa brought his own to bear. Ris managed to fire first, somehow striking the Jaffa, who dropped, writhing, to the ground. His companion, however, had by this time taken aim with his own staff weapon, and loosed a bolt at Ris.
The youth was struck by the blast, and in the same instant by Cromwell, who knocked him off the trail and into the underbrush, a split second later than he had hoped. Cromwell caught part of the blast himself, and felt a searing heat blister the skin of his right shoulder. Fortunately, neither he nor Ris had suffered the full force of a direct hit, though Ris was clearly worse off than he was. The entire left side of the youth’s tunic was charred away, the flesh beneath burned and blackened. He was breathing, though, Cromwell noticed as he took a rapid inventory of both their conditions, even as he heard another zat’nik’tel firing — once, twice, a third time. His own injury was mild by comparison to the boy’s, and he scrambled upright, back across the trail to retrieve the ma’tok staff he’d let fall as he’d leapt at Ris.
Miraculously, none of the children had been hit by any of the energy loosed by either Ris’ zat’nik’tel nor the Jaffa’s staff, though they were huddled together, on the trail, the younger ones sobbing while the older ones tried to both comfort and shield them. Cromwell caught Tegwyn’s voice above the rest, speaking in as calm a voice as she could muster as she and a boy who looked to be just slightly younger than herself tried to quiet the smaller children, though he could detect a note of fear underlying her words. Brave girl, even so. But where was the second Jaffa?
He heard the sound of a zat’nik’tel twice more as he approached, and caught sight of Nenniaw hooking one of the z-shaped, serpent-headed weapons through his belt as he stood over the place where Cromwell would have sworn the body of the Jaffa that Ris shot had lain. Belatedly, he remembered that the commander from Llanavon had come to this fight doubly-armed, with both ma’tok and zat’nik’tel, and recalled being briefed on the characteristics of the smaller weapon. Three shots disintegrate the target? So that’s where the other Jaffa went, too. He shuddered in spite of himself at the thought. Tesni appeared from behind Nenniaw, glancing about for her nephew. “He lives, but he is injured,” Cromwell told her, gesturing toward the underbrush where Ris lay hidden from view.
Tesni nodded, and bent to free Tegwyn from the rope binding her wrists. “Free the others, then look after your brother. All of you, get off this trail and hide; Tegwyn, you know where. Take Ris with you.” She turned then, taking a firm grip on her staff weapon, and started for the trail leading uphill. The sounds of fighting still reached them as Cromwell fell in beside her and Nenniaw. He hated leaving the kids to fend for themselves, but had to trust Tesni’s judgment and Tegwyn’s ability to look after them. He, Tesni and Nenniaw would most likely be needed up top.
Cresting the hill, they were engulfed in smoke and sound. The plaza was filled with Pridani and Jaffa shooting at each other, and shouting orders in two languages. Cromwell strained to make out the Pridanic. He knew enough to understand that their objective was to gain control of the device that dialed the stargate, denying the Jaffa access to the gate and a way to transport their captives off the planet. Of course, the captives had since been freed — but no one here yet knew that. Outnumbered, the Jaffa were indeed taking a beating from Cadogan’s forces, and Cromwell found a firm appreciation for the ability of the Pridani against the armored warriors.
Tesni whirled suddenly, taking aim and firing her weapon halfway across the plaza at a Jaffa poised to strike Gerlad with the butt of the Jaffa’s own staff. The Jaffa flew backward to land in a smoking heap just at the base of the stargate. Gerlad, for his own part, shot twice at another Jaffa who stood next to the stargate’s dialing mechanism. One more shot caused the Jaffa’s corpse to disintegrate, and Cromwell shuddered again, wondering if he would ever get used to seeing that happen.
As they worked their way across the plaza, Cadogan himself appeared from behind one of the standing stones, a zat’nik’tel in his right hand. He picked off another of the Jaffa attempting to dial the gate, but Cromwell saw another appear from behind the cadlywydd, taking aim. He raised his own weapon and pressed the firing stud, as Tesni had shown him at the armory. A second press sent fire belching from the staff, and the Jaffa went down, just as Cromwell noticed a faint golden sparkle around Cadogan. Some kind of shielding? He tried to recall everything he’d been told about Goa’uld personal defense systems, and wondered whether the Tok’ra also used them. The gaps in the information he’d been given continued to irritate him.
They reached Cadogan’s side. “The children have been freed,” shouted Nenniaw. “There were two Jaffa with them, and both are dead. I have no idea what happened to the other two who were seen in Llanavon, but if they were still there when Celyn arrived, I trust he will have handled the situation.” There were only three Jaffa left alive in the compass circle by this time, and even as Nenniaw spoke, Dynawd, Gerlad and another Pridani whom Cromwell didn’t know dispatched them. The hilltop fell quiet, save for the moans of two injured Pridani near the stargate.
Cromwell counted six dead Pridani, all from among the contingent brought from Dinas Coedwyg. The two who were injured — a man and a woman — both bore burns similar to those suffered by Ris from the Jaffa staff weapon. Cadogan approached them with a quiet word, pulling a round, lozenge-shaped object from a belt pouch. It had a metallic rim surrounding a reddish, crystalline-looking center, and a metal band across the back, into which Cadogan slipped his hand. Holding the device over the burns on the woman’s back, the cadlywydd‘s face took on a look of intense concentration. The red center of the object began to emit a powerful glow, and after a moment the burns began to fade. Cromwell watched, fascinated, as Cadogan repeated the procedure on the injured man. By the time he had finished, the woman was sitting up and speaking quietly to Tesni, who knelt beside her.
Cadogan turned to Cromwell.
“Your turn,” he said, gesturing toward Cromwell’s shoulder, where the black fabric of his shirt and T-shirt had been burned away.
Cromwell looked, noting the blistered flesh beneath. Yes, it hurt, but he was pretty sure he could deal with it. He’d had worse injuries. “Ah… I can think of someone who could use your help more. Ris followed the Jaffa from the village as they led the children toward this place, and he actually shot one of them. He took a staff blast in return, or part of one, anyway. He’s pretty badly burned.”
Tesni glanced up and interrupted. “I saw you get hit together when you tried to push him out of the way.” She looked at Cadogan. “That’s how Frehnk got hurt.”
Cromwell shook his head at Tesni. “Ris is a lot worse off than me, though.”
Cadogan looked alarmed. “Take me to him, then.” Together they set off down the trail toward the forest, along with Tesni. About twenty yards inside the treeline, she led them off the trail and along what appeared to be a deer track, to a small thicket. Pushing aside branches revealed a clear space in which the children huddled. Tegwyn and the other teenaged boy sat on the ground at one side of the space. Ris lay between then, his head in his sister’s lap. He was conscious, biting his lip to keep from crying out in pain as Tegwyn stirred at their arrival.
Cadogan knelt by the youth’s side, once again fitting the round device to his hand. He murmured something to Ris, who nodded once. The cadlywydd played the glow of the device along the charred flesh, and Cromwell watched the burns fade, as they had on the other two victims. A few moments later, the process was complete, and Ris’ face relaxed, the expression of pain gone. Cadogan then said something else that Cromwell didn’t quite catch, but which elicited a look of apprehension from the boy. The older man spoke again, gesturing toward Ris’ face and the bruises still visible from his altercation with Cromwell the night before. Raising the device again, he played its glow across the black eye, healing that injury as well.
Tesni clearly understood Cadogan’s meaning. “If Ris thought I was harsh with him last night, he will soon realize that was nothing, once the cadlywydd has dealt with him for his actions today. He must learn patience and caution,” she told Cromwell quietly.
“He had better, before he gets himself killed,” Cromwell agreed.
Finishing with Ris, Cadogan stood upright once more, turning to Tesni and Cromwell. Again, he gestured to Cromwell’s shoulder. “Let me see what I can do about that.”
Cromwell noted the lines of strain in the cadlywydd‘s face. They hadn’t been there before he began healing the injured. Surely something like that had to take an effort from the user. “I will be all right,” he assured the older man. “I have had worse injuries than this before, and they healed fine on their own.”
Cadogan shook his head, a slight smile on his lips. “I can manage this. It will only take a moment, and you’re the last of the wounded, not to mention the least severely hurt.”
Tesni laid a hand on Cromwell’s other shoulder. “Let him. You will be glad you did.”
Rather than argue, he acquiesced, allowing Cadogan to use the strange healing device on him. He felt warmth and a mild tingle where the crystal’s glow bathed his skin. After a moment, the cadlywydd allowed the glow to fade, and Cromwell looked to see all traces of the burns vanished, replaced by healthy flesh. This was the same shoulder where he had been shot in Iraq, and the scarring from that injury reached into the area that had been burned. He could swear there was some blurring of the scar tissue itself. Blinking, he shook his head and glanced at Tesni, as Cadogan put the device away. “Better?” she asked. Cromwell flexed the shoulder.
“Yes, much.” He turned to Cadogan, curiosity finally overwhelming him. “Thank you. What is that thing, anyway?”
Cadogan shrugged. “We call this a ta’el kesh. A healing device developed from very ancient technology. Most of Sabar’s people carry them, and the Goa’uld use them too. They come in handy on the battlefield.”
I’ll say. Douglas would be having kittens right now if he saw that, Cromwell mused, thinking of his team’s medic, back on Earth.
There was a rustling sound, and Cromwell saw Gerlad push his way into the tiny clearing. The aide spoke to Cadogan. “Nenniaw and Dynawd would know how you want to handle returning the dead to Dinas Coedwyg, and how many people should be left to guard the compass circle against any Jaffa who may return.”
Cadogan turned to the younger man. “I would like to leave at least six on guard for now, and send reinforcements from Llanavon if possible. Let Dynawd be in charge in the compass circle for the present. The dead can be transported using the horses, but we should wait until we have brought more people from the village. Carry the dead into the forest and hide them until we have done so. I don’t trust the Jaffa, and until we receive word from Bren Argoed and from the mines to the north, we can’t afford to relax.” He turned to Cromwell and Tesni. “I will send scouts to Llanavon to make sure it is safe before sending the children back. If possible, the scouts will bring some of Celyn’s party to the compass circle. For right now, I’d like the two of you to remain here with the children, in case more Jaffa come.”
Tesni nodded, as did Cromwell after a moment. He glanced over to where Ris was sitting up, watching the three of them intently. With Tesni’s help, he intended to have a talk of his own with the young man.