“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Lazarus Long (R.A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long)
Cromwell woke to the sound of footsteps in the outer room. Shadows danced on the wall as the light of a candle spilled through the open doorway to the bedroom. He sat up, checking his watch. He’d slept for several hours, and felt better than he had since before leaving the BOQ at Peterson. A glance out the window confirmed what the watch told him: it was deep dusk. He stood, moving to the doorway, assuming that Tesni had returned. Instead, he found Tegwyn. She was lighting a lamp on the table, next to a cloth-covered basket. A second, much larger basket occupied the settle beneath the windows at the main room’s far end. As he watched, Ris appeared through the front door with a third basket, the same size as the second.
Tegwyn looked up and noticed him watching her and her brother. “Oh, good; you’re awake. How do you feel?”
“I’m fine, though I certainly didn’t plan on sleeping this long.”
Tegwyn smiled. “Aunt Tesni came back with some things for you earlier, but when she saw you asleep, she decided to let you be. You’ve missed dinner, but she sent food for you.” The girl indicated the basket on the table. “Go ahead and eat while we put some things away, and then Ris is to show you to the baths. I imagine you’ll find it a welcome visit.”
Baths? The villagers used communal baths? It sounded almost Roman, or perhaps Japanese. Cromwell had to admit, though, that it also sounded like heaven right about now. He crossed to the table and pulled the cloth from the top of the basket, finding bread, cheese, meat and fruit, along with a ceramic bottle that, when he removed the stopper, proved to contain cider. Realizing he’d had nothing of substance since breakfast that morning, he ate as the two teens bustled about, deftly setting up housekeeping for him in this new space. He felt vaguely guilty that they’d been put to all this trouble, as he didn’t anticipate being here long. But Cadogan had made it clear that this was the way things would be, and Cromwell had already seen it was useless to argue. Besides, this was the cadlywydd‘s turf, apparently, and the colonel found himself ill-disposed to make waves at the moment. Not to mention that having his own private quarters beat sleeping on someone’s floor, all else being equal.
He watched as Ris carried the two larger baskets into the bedroom. Sounds of fabric rustling reached his ears; he would have bedding tonight, he surmised. Tegwyn emerged back into the main room a few moments later. “You have some of our uncle Cadogan’s clothing for right now, along with several other items you may need. After Ris takes you to bathe and dress, Cadogan asks that you join him and Aunt Tesni where you spoke earlier.”
That answered the question he’d been about to ask. Tesni was with her uncle. Through the open window came a faint babble of voices and the occasional phrase of music played on what sounded like stringed instruments and flutes. Cromwell caught the sound of some sort of hand drum as well. It appeared that the villagers were having some type of social gathering. For a moment, he wondered if he could politely decline, but then shook off the feeling. No, these people seemed kind and welcoming, and the last thing he wished to do was alienate them by refusing an invitation, especially from the man who’d essentially insisted on taking responsibility for his well-being. Nor Tesni, who had been looking out for him almost since the moment of his arrival among them.
Finishing his dinner, he glanced around to find Ris watching him. “Are you ready?” asked the youth.
“I guess I am.”
Tegwyn handed him a bundle. “The clothing ought to fit you well enough,” she said. “I will see you both in a little while.” With that, she began to clear the table as they left.
The baths, it turned out, occupied a low stone building two streets over, which was divided into what must be men’s and women’s sides. Cromwell and Ris had the men’s half to themselves at the moment. The air inside was warm and humid, though Cromwell noted that elaborately screened open windows provided plenty of fresh air. Oil lamps provided illumination, and shelves lined one wall, providing space for bathers to put clothing and towels. The place indeed reminded him of a Japanese bath he’d once visited: utilitarian but comfortable, neither ostentatious nor crude. Clear, fresh water flowed through two bathing-pools, one larger and one smaller. A slight haze of moisture rose from the larger pool; apparently it was the hotter of the two. No stranger to communal shower facilities, he viewed this as similar and wasted no time in stripping down. If he were lucky, the water in the large pool would be hot enough to ease the sore muscles he’d acquired through the day’s activities plus all that had gone before since he’d entered the gravity well in the gate room back at the SGC. Dipping a hand in before committing himself, he was mildly surprised to find that this was indeed the case. He sniffed the air, but couldn’t detect smoke, which he would expect if a furnace were in use somewhere in the building. “What heats the water?” he asked Ris, who was busy unpacking items from the bundle that Tegwyn had sent with them.
The youth shrugged, handing him a cake of astringently herbal-smelling soap and a cloth, before turning to shake out a towel. “It comes that way, from the ground. There are channels that cool what goes into the smaller pool somewhat, for washing. The larger is for soaking afterward.”
Geothermal springs? Well, that was convenient, the colonel supposed. Though outwardly unsophisticated, the village clearly boasted at least one pleasant surprise.
A wash and a hot soak did wonders, and a short while later, he found himself far less sore and much more comfortable. The bundle Tegwyn had given him had included not only clothing but a set of shaving gear. God, how many years had it been since the one time he’d tried a straight-razor shave on himself? That had nothing on the more primitive implement in use here, but on the other hand, he’d spent his entire adult life clean-shaven and he wasn’t about to change that now. He forged ahead, managing to complete the task with minimal bloodshed, though he was thoroughly grateful for possessing steady hands. It was amazing how a ritual that could be soothing on Earth, with modern equipment and supplies, became quite a different matter when you changed the venue and the tools involved.
Clean, relieved of at least the worst of the aches, freshly-shaved and dressed in a manner similar to the men of Llanavon – until you looked at his boots, anyway – he decided he was more or less ready to face whatever situation awaited him as the result of Cadogan’s invitation. It wasn’t that he felt particularly awkward in social gatherings, nor even that he actively avoided them under normal circumstances, because neither was true. Rather, it had been years since his life had felt anything remotely close to what he considered normal, and he’d kept largely to himself over that time, except for whatever interaction was a completely necessary part of his role as a military officer. However, he was a stranger among these people, and he supposed it was better to be friendly than stand-offish, so he would put on his social face and do his best to function in step with whatever was the custom here. When in Rome, indeed.
It was full dark outside, and apparently no moon had yet risen. Ris handed him one of two lanterns. “Go and find my aunt and the cadlywydd,” the youth told him. “I’ll take everything back to your house and see you in a while.”
The colonel snorted. “You don’t have to tote things around for me, son. I’ll do it myself.”
Ris shook his head. “Haven’t you heard? I’m in disgrace at the moment, and must work my way out. This is but one of the tasks I’ve been set.” He grinned. “I don’t mind. Helping a guest is never unpleasant, and you did save my life. My uncle decided that assigning me to assist you in getting settled was appropriate, and my mother and father agreed. I’ve had worse jobs.”
Cromwell ducked his head to hide a grin of his own. Okay, so it appeared he’d acquired a helper of sorts, under the guise of the young man’s penance. Fair enough, he supposed. Ris was perhaps more mature than he’d first appeared, given that he seemed to understand exactly what was going on, and was fully cooperative. In any case, it was clear they’d both been maneuvered into this situation by Cadogan. Fine; I’ll play along.
“I see,” he said. “Well, then, go and do whatever you’ve been told to, and thank you.” Dismissing the youth with a nod, the colonel set off toward the square.
Most of the villagers were out and about, if the number of people he encountered was any indication. Lanterns lit the covered patio to one side of the square, and a small group of musicians occupied one corner, seated on benches that had been drawn together. Cromwell noted a small harp, something resembling a lute or mandolin, a couple of flutelike instruments, and a small, flat drum with an open back, played with a stick. As he watched, another player slipped into the group, equipped with what could only be a primitive bagpipe. It had a leather bag and a single drone. The colonel realized the players were arranged in a loose circle, rather than facing outward in the way one might expect in a public performance. Jam session?
Threading his way among the tables, he spotted Tesni and Cadogan absorbed in conversation with Idris and Anwen on the far side of the roofed structure, and headed in their direction. Tesni gave him a smile as he approached, detaching herself from the others and coming to meet him a slight distance away. “There you are,” she said. “I’m pleased you decided to join us. I hope you don’t mind my letting you sleep through dinner. It seemed to me that you could use rest more than anything else just then.”
“Probably true,” he replied. Tesni had, after all, seen him at his exhausted worst. “Thank you.” He glanced around, taking in the gathered villagers, the musicians, and the relaxed, slightly festive air. It seemed just a bit surreal after the events of the afternoon, and the loss of six people. Though the dead had all come from Dinas Coedwyg, as far as he could tell, Cromwell found it difficult to believe that none of them had friends or family here in Llanavon who might mourn them. Turning back to Tesni, he gestured about at their surroundings. “What’s the occasion?”
Her expression grew perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“Well, given what happened earlier, I suppose I expected everyone to be… I don’t know…” He shrugged. “Six people died today. I guess I expected that to have a certain effect on everyone. Instead, this looks more like a celebration.”
Understanding bloomed on her face. “Ah, I see. The dead were from Dinas Coedwyg. Three of them did have family here, and those family members have already left to go there. Don’t think that the rest of us won’t mourn all six in our own way, too, though most of us didn’t know them well. But the living do go on with life. Is it different among your people?”
“I suppose it isn’t.” Cromwell fell silent, contemplating the issue. How many times hadn’t he and Jack returned from missions where others had been lost, only to spend hours in the officers’ club or rec area, trying to fill the void left behind with normalcy, however forced it might be? Until the day when he’d returned injured and alone, without Jack at his side, and with a void that nothing could fill, even after his physical wounds had healed… He shook his head abruptly. That was in the past, and he’d finally fixed things. Hadn’t he? All he had to do now was wait. Jack would come for him, or would send someone to find him and bring him home. Tomorrow, maybe; or the next day. Perhaps even tonight. Everything would be fine then.
Tesni was regarding him curiously, and he belatedly realized that she had asked him another question. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What was that again?”
“I just wondered where you’d gone for a moment there. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine. I was just thinking.” He mustered a smile, at least outwardly. “Bad habit of mine.”
Her answering smile was understanding. “It happens to all of us.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, steering him toward Cadogan, Idris and Anwen, and talking as she went. “Anyway, you asked what the occasion was, and there isn’t one, nor is this a celebration. It’s simply that tonight is a pleasant night, tomorrow is traditionally a rest day, and there will be plenty of time for sitting indoors when winter comes. You might call this a ‘gather night’, and it isn’t uncommon for many of us to spend the evening this way, especially in high summer. What do the people of your world do for entertainment?”
Cromwell cast about for an answer that would make sense. “Nothing so different, actually, now that I think about it,” he said slowly. He could just picture himself trying to explain movies, television, organized sports, nightclubs, the internet… Yeah, that’s gonna happen.
As they joined the others, Cadogan saved him from the need to elaborate. “Good evening, Frank. I trust that Ris made sure you have what you need?”
The colonel nodded. “He has. In fact, he’s been very helpful.” It was true, and assuring the cadlywydd knew it wouldn’t hurt any.
“I’m glad to hear that,” commented Anwen. “My son may have been somewhat hasty this afternoon, but he’s a good boy.”
“He certainly seems to be,” agreed Cromwell. “And I do appreciate his assistance.”
Cadogan smiled. “It was only right that he do so.” Changing the subject, he went on, “I’ve had word that the Jaffa who went north to the mines have been disposed of. And I’ve passed your concerns regarding your friends along to all of those tasked with guarding the chappa’ai.”
“About that,” said the colonel. “I would like to be added to the rotation, if I may.”
The cadlywydd nodded. “I see. You will have a chance, then, of being present when your friends arrive. We’ll be happy to have your help. The guard changes three times a day, and Celyn’s party goes out tomorrow at noon. I will instruct him to include you among their number.”
Cromwell spent shifts at the Stargate on each of the next six days, twice with Tesni assigned to the guard detail as well, but there was no sign of anyone from the SGC. Mercifully, no Jaffa showed up, either. The only comings and goings were of Cadogan and his aide, a half-dozen assorted off-worlders from elsewhere in Bel’s domain who showed up to confer with the cadlywydd, and four Tok’ra who took rotation among the guards so that there was always someone on watch who could detect even disguised Goa’uld or Jaffa.
Back in Llanavon, the cottage he occupied began to take on a collection of items aimed at making his existence among the Pridani a more comfortable one. Every day when he returned from the compass circle with the others, he would find something that had been left for him: additional clothing, an extra oil lamp, dishes and eating utensils, a rather nice drinking mug, a spare blanket, what he would have sworn was someone’s new cloak, and a pair of sandals that somehow managed to fit and which provided a welcome change from wearing the same pair of boots during all his waking hours. A familiar-looking carved woodpecker greeted him on the sixth day, the decorative item resting atop a neatly-folded pile of deep blue fabric that, when he shook it out, proved to be a soft woolen tunic with bands of embroidered knotwork in cream, gray and pale blue around neckline, cuffs and hem. It showed no sign of having been worn, and he shook his head, laying the garment aside on the table as he sat down to remove his boots. Slipping his feet into the sandals he’d been given, the colonel went in search of Tesni.
He found her in the communal kitchen behind the patio, shaping dough into loaves in the company of another woman and two boys around the same age as Ris. She looked up as he stepped into view, greeting him pleasantly. Setting the finished loaves aside to rise, she excused herself with a word to the other woman, then gestured for him to accompany her to the patio area. Flour dusted the apron she wore, and there was a smudge of it on her nose. Cromwell fought the sudden inexplicable urge to brush it off, settling instead for pointing it out to her. She lifted a corner of her apron and wiped it away, then sat down at one of the tables, leaning her back against it. “Was there something you needed? Have your friends arrived?”
The colonel shook his head, taking a seat next to her on the bench. “They haven’t, though any day now…” He stopped, studying his feet for a moment before speaking again. “Listen, I know your people take this business of looking after guests pretty seriously, but really, I have everything I need right now. I honestly don’t expect to be here much longer.”
She looked confused. “I know that. It seems I’ve missed something, however?”
“Well, between what your uncle gave me and the other other items that have shown up, I have several days’ worth of clothing. But I don’t need things that are new, Tesni. I don’t want anyone going to that much trouble.”
Her blank look told him that she had no clue what he was talking about, and he elaborated. “The other day, someone left me a cloak that doesn’t even look like it’s been worn. Today I found what looks like a brand-new tunic. A fancy one, embroidered, and while I don’t even pretend to know much about such things, I’m pretty sure that a lot of work went into it. Whoever that was made for doesn’t need to go giving it away or loaning it out or whatever.”
The blank look faded, replaced by humor. “I think I know what you’re talking about. You should go and have this conversation with Anwen, not me.”
“Anwen? Don’t tell me she made it?”
“That would be my guess. And it probably didn’t take her anywhere near as much work as you’re thinking, or at least she wouldn’t have looked at it that way. Anwen is one of the most skilled tailors in Llanavon, and she genuinely enjoys what she does. What you’ve been given is probably something she began to make for my uncle before you arrived and then finished for you instead, since you and he are of a size. She likely had Tegwyn’s help. My niece does beautiful embroidery.”
“It is beautiful, but I can’t accept something like that,” Cromwell protested.
“Why not?” From the expression on her face, Tesni was clearly puzzled. “It was made to be a gift. You do realize that my sister-in-law is grateful that she still has a son, don’t you?”
The colonel scrubbed a hand across his face. How was he supposed to explain that he didn’t want anything from Anwen? From anyone, really? He was completely unaccustomed to receiving gifts, to being fussed over or looked after or on the receiving end of any of the sort of generosity that he had been shown since his arrival here a mere week ago. Give me a job to do, then leave me alone and I’ll get it done. That’s all I need. Not this other stuff.
He tried again. “Tesni, I don’t need anything from her. This is making me uncomfortable.”
“Our customs must seem very strange to you, I’m sure. But no one means to cause you discomfort.”
“I realize that. It’s just… well, where I come from, most people just don’t usually go out of their way for each other like that. Certainly not for me, or someone like me.”
“You don’t have friends who look after you and each other?” There was genuine concern in her eyes now.
“Of course. That is, I…” He shook his head. Well, not many. Not for a while now, have you, Cromwell? And whose fault is that? “Friends will do that, certainly. But strangers? Not so much.”
“Then we must seem doubly odd to you, for it is our tradition to look after strangers as well as friends. In this way, we may turn the former into the latter.” Tesni smiled. “Regardless, the gift has been given. By our custom, attempting to give it back dishonors both the giver and the receiver. My advice would be to wear the tunic, perhaps for tomorrow’s gather night. Then thank Anwen, and speak no more of it.”
The colonel fidgeted, dropping his gaze to stare again at his feet. “I’m just not accustomed to this sort of thing, all right?”
She laid a hand gently on his arm, and he looked up to see again the familiar expression of mixed understanding and concern. “If you really are leaving soon, then you haven’t much longer to be uncomfortable. And you will have something nice to remember us by, won’t you?”
“I suppose. But really, I don’t want anything else — Wait; that’s not true. Give me something more I can do to help around here.” It hadn’t escaped Cromwell that everyone in Llanavon worked together, sharing the duties that kept the place functioning. “I’m used to being busy, and sitting around at the compass circle waiting for something to happen isn’t enough. There have to be things I can do here when I’m not there.”
Tesni grinned. “Very well. In fact, you can help right now, with dinner.” She stood, pulling him along with her. “You can cook, can’t you?”
“Good. Then we shall begin to solve your problem of not being busy enough.”
And so it was that he began to be absorbed into the daily life of the Pridani, taking his place alongside his neighbors at the various tasks necessary for the smooth functioning of what was, in essence, a largely communal society. He also spent time more fully acclimating himself to the strange weapons in use here, with the help of Tesni and Dynawd. It was something to do, and he reasoned it couldn’t hurt. Another two weeks went by, still with no sign of SG-1 or anyone else from the SGC, and the colonel began to worry. It seemed that his worst fears might be coming true: either Earth’s stargate or its supporting systems had been damaged — whether beyond all function or just enough to require extensive repairs, who could say? — or possibly no one knew where to begin looking for him. Or maybe they don’t even suspect I survived at all. I know I didn’t expect to; I suppose they might just assume I’m dead.
There was a certain depressing symmetry to the thought. He had made the same assumption with regard to Jack in Iraq, only to learn later that he’d been terribly, tragically mistaken. But beyond that, the similarity of their situations ended abruptly. As a result of that error, Jack had spent four months as a prisoner of war, tortured at the hands of his captors, returning battered and scarred from his experience. Cromwell reflected that his own situation was quite different. Far from being a prisoner, he lived freely in comfortable quarters, with every physical need met, and was surrounded by people who treated him with what seemed to be genuine liking and more respect than he felt he deserved. Carrying that thought in his mind and holding it up in contrast to what he knew Jack had gone through was its own form of torment, however, for a man who’d spent years waking in a cold sweat from dreams of boarding a helicopter, bleeding from his own wounds, and knowing that every beat of the rotors carried him farther from the friend he’d sworn never to abandon.