Here is the life you have tried to throw away. Here is your second chance. — David Malouf, An Imaginary Life
Twenty-one days after his arrival on Tir Awyr, the colonel was surprised to find himself sitting once again at a table in the shade of the communal patio, listening as Cadogan addressed those assembled. Surprised, because this time he was part of a much smaller group, comprising men and women hand-picked by Nenniaw and the cadlywydd himself to take part in an operation designed to further deny Bel the fruits of Pridanic labors. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect when Dynawd had collected him that morning, asking only that Cromwell accompany him at the cadlywydd’s request.
When the briefing was over, Cromwell approached Cadogan. The older man was conferring quietly with Gerlad and Nenniaw, and the colonel waited off to one side, making it clear that he wanted a moment of the cadlywydd’s time. Concluding his conversation with his aide and the commander of the Llanavoni rebels, Cadogan clasped arms with the two and sent them off. Nenniaw gave Cromwell a nod in passing.
Turning to the colonel, Cadogan nodded as well, a smile playing about his features. “You wished to see me?”
“I have a question, sir.”
The cadlywydd’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “Formality now, is it? I told you, we really don’t stand much on ceremony here, Frank.”
In spite of himself, Cromwell felt a faint smile steal over his face. He shook his head. “You know, you’re one of the very few around here who can say my name correctly. Almost everyone else mangles the vowel.”
The other man chuckled. “It has a sound not found in Pridanic. I have rather more experience with other languages than most Pridani, and I’m used to speaking Tok’ra, which does use that particular sound.”
The colonel still found himself mildly unsettled by the reminder that the man to whom he was speaking was only one of two conscious entities sharing a single body, despite the fact that he was becoming somewhat accustomed to dealing with the Tok’ra. He did, after all, spend eight hours of most days on guard at the Stargate with a party that invariably included one of their operatives. The one thing he’d noticed about the cadlywydd was that Cadogan, rather than the symbiote Sabar, did most of the talking, at least in his presence. It was quite different from how most of the other Tok’ra in his admittedly limited experience handled things; with them, he was as likely to find himself talking to the symbiote as to the host. Not that he’d spoken to them all that much.
Cromwell pulled his thoughts back to the matter at hand as Cadogan spoke again. “So, what was it you wanted to ask me about?” the cadlywydd asked. “And why the sudden formality?”
In the colonel’s mind, the two issues were intertwined. “Sir, I seem to have been brought more fully under your command, at least for the moment. Where I come from, that calls for a certain level of… respect, formality; whatever you’d like to term it. The question on my mind is how exactly, or why, I was chosen for this. Don’t get me wrong; I’m perfectly willing to take part. But I can’t help wondering why me, when I’m still a stranger here and you have plenty of other qualified people. Also, I’d like to remind you that I do have a prior duty, one that I still expect to reassert itself at some point soon.” I hope.
Cadogan eyed him with concern. “Does serving for the present among my people constitute a conflict with that, Frank?”
“Not as such. At least I don’t think so. This is a situation for which I don’t exactly have a direct precedent. But your people and mine fight the same enemy, so it isn’t terribly different from other instances when I’ve been placed with groups outside of my normal… organization, if you will. Except that in those cases, I’d been sent there on the orders of my own superiors.”
“If you have reservations…” Cadogan began.
Cromwell shook his head. “Not exactly. I’m just curious as to why you want me along.”
The cadlywydd nodded again. “I see. Well, for one thing, you were recommended by Nenniaw.”
“Don’t be so surprised. He’s gotten the impression that you’ll be handy, and I agree. We’re both aware that you’ve held a position of command before, and that means experience. You don’t say much, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ve spent a lot of time in the field, and probably been involved covert operations.” Cadogan held up a hand. “I don’t need to really know any more than that. But I’m right, aren’t I?”
Cromwell was floored. He’d said absolutely nothing about that, and as little as possible about his own past otherwise, to anyone he’d met on Tir n’Awyr. Except, now that he thought about it, he had admitted to Tesni that he was in fact the CO of a small team back home. She must have shared that information with her own superiors; by now, he was well aware that she was as fully a member of this rebel force as were Celyn, Dynawd or Nenniaw. But of his background in covert ops, he’d said not a word. “Sir, I have to ask how you came to that conclusion? The second one, I mean; I’m sure I know where you came by the first.”
“Your reactions, when others have spoken of such things. I know that my people speak much more freely among themselves than you appear to be accustomed to” — No kidding, thought the colonel, though he didn’t interrupt Cadogan — “and while you neither have joined in nor would be expected to join those conversations, it doesn’t take much more than watching your face to see that you understand exactly what is being discussed.” When Cromwell would have protested, the cadlywydd cut him off with a wave. “Oh, don’t be concerned. No one who wasn’t pretty deeply involved themselves would catch that; it isn’t as if you give much away in your expression. But it’s quite clear to me, and to Nenniaw, that you’re one of us, at least in the manner I’ve mentioned.”
Well, there wasn’t really any point in denying it; not in this situation. “All right, you’ve pegged me on that, anyway. And I won’t pretend I’m not glad to have something more to do than guard duty and whatever else I can scare up in my off hours.” Not to mention that the longer I’m around, the more this looks like it’s going to remain my fight on a personal level. I could be here a while.
Cadogan grinned and nodded. “I thought as much. You don’t strike me as a person much given to pacing” — I don’t? Then you still don’t know me well. — “but you’ve looked on the verge of it for at least a week now, according to Nenniaw.”
Three days later, Cromwell had made two more trips through the Stargate, this time in what he took to be a normal fashion. As if a word like ‘normal’ even applies to something like that, he reflected as he stepped out into the compass circle on Tir n’Awyr. The eight-person team of which he’d been a part had traveled to one of the other worlds under Bel’s control — a place called Arverenem, at least as near as he could tell given that he was dealing with a place-name in one language translated into another, neither of them his native tongue — where they had aided a local group in sabotage of one of the processing centers for naquadah ore. The colonel didn’t know much about naquadah, other than what he’d been told by the Air Force: that it formed the basis for much of the technology used by the Goa’uld, including staff weapons — the ma’tok with which he’d recently familiarized himself — and the Stargates themselves. According to Cadogan, who had taken the time to bring him up to speed, Bel’s small collection of worlds didn’t have a large supply of the metal, and as a result, decreasing his ability to access and process even a portion of it was one way to help weaken his grip over the peoples he’d enslaved. While the operation in question could probably have been carried out by the locals alone, the fact was that Cadogan involved the Llanavoni team in part as training for future such missions. A bonus reaped from the operation was a small supply of naquadah for the rebels’ own use, which was welcome.
Cromwell found that helping Cadogan and the rebels in this manner alleviated some of the discomfort he’d been feeling over his status as a guest, dependent upon the Pridani for food, clothing, shelter and the information necessary to his survival since he’d arrived. They’d taken him in and looked after his needs, going out of their way to make him welcome among the community. If he had any sort of expertise that they found useful and he could offer it without endangering his own people in any way, then he would gladly do so.
Once again, the cadlywydd spent the next two days in Llanavon. Cromwell was beginning to get the impression that while the rebel group, and thus Cadogan as their high commander, maintained headquarters in Dinas Coedwyg, the cadlywydd preferred on a personal level to spend as much of his time as possible in Llanavon. The colonel supposed it made sense; Llanavon was slightly closer to the stargate than Dinas Coedwyg, and Cadogan did have family here.
On the second night, Cromwell found himself sharing a table with the cadlywydd after dinner, as the villagers milled about in yet another of their informal evening entertainment sessions. The addition of Tesni, Idris and Anwen rounded out their group. Cadogan and Tesni sat across from each other, a wooden game board between them, with small carven figures set up in a pattern on the board’s gridded surface. The game was apparently called brandhu or “black crows” and Cromwell and the others watched as Tesni and her uncle played. Idris and Anwen offered suggestions, while the colonel just tried his best to figure out how the game was played. Upon conclusion of the first game — won by Cadogan — the others took turns playing. Each game took not all that long to play, and by the time a little over an hour had passed, Cromwell thought he had figured out how it worked. He was also the only person who hadn’t yet taken a turn, so when Tesni invited him to play, he decided to give it a try. As before, the others offered suggestions, with Cadogan taking it on himself to coach the colonel. To Cromwell’s surprise, he won, though Tesni immediately challenged him again, sticking out her tongue at her uncle in mock indignation. “Of course he won; he had you helping him, and you bested me earlier.”
Cadogan only laughed. “Fy nith, next time don’t use the same strategy twice in a row.” He turned to the colonel. “Have you yet seen our game called gwyddbwyll? It’s similar, but more involved. I think you’d enjoy it.”
Gwyddbwyll? ‘Woods sense’? Cromwell shook his head. “I’m afraid I haven’t.” He looked again at the brandhu board, which reminded him for all the world of a grossly simplified chess set, with fewer pieces. He’d learned to play chess as a boy, his grandfather teaching him as he’d taught his father before him, and had continued to play well into adulthood. It was one of the things he and Jack often used to do together on downtime.
It had been years since he’d played chess.
Cadogan was speaking again. “I’ll make some time to show you, one of these days. Unless Tesni would like to teach you?” He turned to his niece, who was setting up the brandhu pieces again. “You still have the set I gave you, I’m sure?”
“You know I do; we played at midsummer. You bested me then, too. Twice.”
The cadlywydd laughed. “So I did.” He grinned at Cromwell. “I’ll teach you, when we both have adequate free time.”
The colonel wasn’t sure what to make of the offer. “You’re assuming I’ll still be here for a while yet.”
Cadogan shrugged. “If you are, then I’ll enjoy teaching you to play. Fair enough?”
“All right.” He accepted, bemused by the idea that someone who had as much on his plate as the cadlywydd surely must would take an interest in teaching a stranger to play a game. Still, he was curious to learn, and he found Cadogan to be quite personable. If he were going to be stuck here for an extended period, he supposed that cultivating a friendship with the man wasn’t the worst way to spend his time. It had been a while since he’d bothered to do that with anyone, but since arriving on Tir Awyr, the colonel had begun to learn that it took more effort to rebuff the friendly overtures of the Pridani than it did to just go with the flow.
He played two more games of brandhu that evening, losing to Tesni — though just barely — because he insisted on playing solo, and then going on to win against Idris, this time with Tesni’s help, as Cadogan went off to confer briefly with the ever-present Gerlad. Idris and Anwen drifted off shortly afterward, in the company of another couple with whom they were friends, and Cadogan was ensconced with Nenniaw and Dynawd several tables away. Cromwell helped Tesni put away the game board and pieces, then divided the ale left in the pitcher on the table between both of their mugs. “You know, it’s been years since I played a game like that, but I enjoyed it,” he told her.
“I’m glad to hear that, Frehnk,” she replied. He winced and dropped his gaze as she once again mangled the vowel in his name. Cadogan was right: Pridanic didn’t seem to have the exact sound necessary, but the colonel was getting tired of the myriad ways people here found to mispronounce one simple monosyllable. Not their fault, he reminded himself for the hundredth time. He didn’t quite know why it bothered him so, save for the fact that he was effectively stranded, for the moment anyway, in an unfamiliar place and it would have been surprising if there weren’t something that bothered him. That his mind had apparently decided to fixate on a single inconsequential detail bothered him even more than the detail itself, now that he thought about it.
He looked up to see Tesni watching him with a look of concern. “Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine, Tesni.” He shook his head. “I was just thinking.”
She smiled. “Again? What about, this time?”
“Oh, nothing much. Language, of all things.”
“Ah.” She sipped from her mug. “You know, I was thinking about that, too. You’ve been here not quite a month, yet you’re speaking our language with almost no problem. I can’t remember the last time you asked me to explain a word or expression to you.”
She was right, he realized. When he’d first arrived, Pridanic had sounded to him like something just beyond his understanding, but after several hours of working through the basics, first with Nenniaw and then with Tesni, his brain had begun to fit the pieces together so that Pridanic sounded less alien to his ears. Somewhere in the next few days, something had suddenly shifted in his mind that caused most of the rest of the language to fall into place for him. Oh, he still had to work at it, but he found that if he forced himself to think in Pridanic, the way his naina had so often urged him to think in Welsh when he was using it, the language came much more easily to him. He’d used the same tactic in high school German, and when the Air Force needed him to learn to converse in languages like Spanish and Arabic. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to learn to get by in another language for a while,” he said. “Yours is close to one I learned when I was very young.”
“The one you first spoke with me when you came here isn’t your normal tongue?”
“Not exactly, but I did learn it as a child and I used it a lot growing up, which helps. I never forgot it, which is good, considering where I am now.” He gestured around. “I don’t know that I’d have managed if not for that.”
Tesni looked at him curiously, a smile playing about her lips. “How many languages do you speak?”
“Three, mainly, now that I’ve had to learn yours. And I can manage to a certain extent in two or three others, but I run out of things to say in them a lot faster, because I didn’t learn them in-depth. Why?”
“Are there many languages on your world?” she asked.
“A great many. It isn’t like that here, is it?”
She shook her head. “Here we have only ourselves and the Albannu, so there are only the two languages. I can speak a little of theirs, and I understand Tok’ra well enough, though I can’t speak it well at all. I have trouble with some of the sounds. Sabar says I don’t practice enough, and the cadlywydd agrees.”
Cromwell nodded. “Probably true. I’ve noticed you have trouble with my name, and so does almost everyone else here, except for a few people who I’m going to guess probably do speak Tok’ra well. Your uncle tells me the vowel in it is used in Tok’ra but not in Pridanic.”
“I’m sorry if it bothers you.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. There’s no real reason for it to bother me, anyway.”
“It must be interesting to live on a world with many different languages.” Tesni gave him another smile. “When are you going to tell me more about your world, anyway?”
The colonel shrugged. “There really isn’t much to tell you, and I’d actually prefer not to be asked that a lot.” At her frown, he hurriedly amended, “I don’t mean you, specifically. You haven’t done anything wrong. I guess what I’m saying is that for right now, I have reasons for not wanting to talk about it much. I’m not supposed to be here, and I’m not really sure how the people back home would want me to handle that, under the circumstances. I’m actually hoping that someone will come for me soon, and then maybe I can tell you more before I go. Maybe they’ll even decide to visit here again, and if I’m lucky I can come along.” After all, part of Earth’s Stargate program did involve making alliances with people from other worlds, according to the information he’d been given, and after getting this far in and actually spending time off-world, Cromwell was beginning to think it might be worth it to request reassignment to the program itself, once he got home. They had just lost some personnel, obviously, so it wasn’t unreasonable to think they might want to bring in a few more, and hell, he already had the clearance. “But for right now, I’m on my own and while most people here in Llanavon are aware that I’m from someplace very far away, they don’t all know exactly how I got here, do they?”
“Some do, and some don’t. And most who do think you’re from one of our sister worlds, the same as Morcant. There are a few Pridanic communities on one or two, and that’s probably where they think you’re from. Everyone who actually knows about your accidental trip is under the cadlywydd’s orders, so if you explain to him that you want your secret kept, he can see to it that it is. Given our situation, we’re very good at secrecy, you know.”
Cromwell felt a profound relief. “Then I think it would be best if I could keep a low profile and blend in that way. Do you think my Pridanic is good enough for that?”
She nodded, smiling. “You actually speak it well, and without much of an accent, except on a few sounds. And there are ways to explain that away. But your name confuses people, so you’ll need a name in our language and tradition if you really do want to blend in.”
Well, that would solve the problem everyone’s been having. It wasn’t entirely a novel concept, either; he’d taken an assumed name on one or two other occasions, for the sake of missions that sent him to places where the United States military did not officially have people. If this doesn’t fall under that category, I don’t know what in hell does.
“I suppose I will.” He chuckled, realizing he had no clue where to start. “Of course, I’m completely unfamiliar with how you choose names, or what’s traditional for you. Help me out here?”
“Help you choose a common name, you mean?”
“That’s what I mean. Give me a suggestion or two, anyway.”
Tesni fixed him with an appraising look. He could nearly see the wheels going around in her mind. Finally, she nodded. “You strike me as a Neirin.”
“‘Neirin’, is it? And that’s a common name among your people?”
“Common enough, I think. There isn’t anyone else in Llanavon with it at present, but I know of one or two other men by that name, in Dinas Coedwyg and Bren Argoed.”
“Does it mean anything?” The last thing he wanted was to be saddled with a name that held some awkward meaning, in a culture where names might be more likely to carry understood meanings than in his own.
She shook her head, smiling again. “Not really. Not all names really have present-day meanings, you know. Some may have had them, back when my people first came here, but over time they’ve just become names rather than words. I couldn’t tell you what half of them ever meant, not even my own. Is it different with your people?”
That was a relief. “It’s exactly the same way among my people. I’m sure my name probably meant something at some point, but not by the time my parents gave it to me.” He took a sip of ale, contemplating her suggestion. “All right, I can use Neirin. At least it’s pronounceable.”
“You’ll need a byname, too. A girl or woman is formally identified as the daughter of her mother through her father, while for men and boys it’s the opposite. Informally, we simply identify ourselves as the child of our same-gender parent. What are your parents’ given names?”
“My father was named Owen, and my mother’s name was Lois.” As far as he knew, his grandparents had given his father a solidly Welsh name, which should help a little.
“Owen sounds very much like ‘Owein’, in our tongue,” Tesni said. “I’ve never heard the name ‘Lois” but it sounds a little bit like Lona, so perhaps you could substitute that instead? That would make you formally Neirin ab Owein trwy Lona, and informally just Neirin ab Owein. Do you like it?”
Neirin, son of Owein, by Lona. He wondered fleetingly what the late Owen and Lois Cromwell would have thought. “It works.”