Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. — Confucius
Torchlight bathed the common patio and night insects sang in the forest beyond the village. At least the sweltering heat of day had dissipated somewhat, Cromwell reflected, although it was still far from cool and the humidity remained. The weather reminded him of Florida during his time at Hurlburt Field, or perhaps of Nicaragua.
Having left just after midday, Cadogan had returned to Llanavon as night fell. As expected, he’d called a meeting of his officers upon his arrival. Cromwell and his fellow filwriadau, their number once again augmented by many others in the village, had gathered to hear what news the cadlywydd might have brought.
The leader of the Am Rhyddid stood near the center seat of the head table occupied by his officers, his grey uniform tunic partway undone in deference to the muggy air. He had just finished outlining the latest intelligence from Emhain. Just before he’d left Caer Ynys to return to Tir Awyr, another messenger had arrived at the Tok’bel base, carrying word that the mysterious Goa’uld — who gave his name as Apri, which to Sabar’s knowledge and that of the other Tok’bel was not a name associated with any of Bel’s current underlings — and his Jaffa had left almost as precipitously as they had arrived, taking with them the stores of naquadah ore that had been brought from the mines since the last tribute and put aside for Bel. “It appears there are additional factors at work here,” Cadogan told those assembled. “For one thing, eyewitness accounts say that none of the occupation force seemed to have any awareness that there might be a rebel cell in the vicinity. For another, Sabar’s Tok’ra operatives close to Bel himself report that he believes our movement to have died out several years ago.” The cadlywydd gave a sly grin. “Apparently, the disinformation program he instructed them to put into practice has borne far greater fruit than anticipated.”
Nenniaw spoke up. “Then who does he think took his Jaffa out of circulation here last summer, Cadogan?”
Cromwell glanced around the table, noting the perplexed expressions and nods of agreement from Dynawd, Celyn and Aeronwy. It would appear that Nenniaw’s just asked the $64,000 question.
“That’s the interesting part,” replied the cadlywydd. He went on to explain that two Tok’bel operatives had deflected blame for a number of Am Rhyddid actions in recent years onto a rival Goa’uld whom Bel suspected of having designs on his worlds. “That’s why Bel is focused on Lord Moccas these days, and thinks we’re a defunct organization and that the Tok’bel cleared off years ago. Of course, until now, we’d thought the original rumor of Moccas’ interest was only that: a rumor, and nothing more. But according to our operatives, no word of what happened here last summer has ever reached Bel’s ears, at least as far as they can tell, and they’re in a position to know. Moreover, there was also no word at that level of any action being carried out against anyone on Emhain. These operatives now suspect that what they thought was mere rumor had its basis in actual fact.” Cadogan scanned the faces of his officers. “It’s probable that the Jaffa we killed weren’t Bel’s at all, but belonged to Moccas instead. And after his failed incursion here, he waited a while, and then went after resources on Emhain instead.”
Great, so now we’ve got two Goa’uld we need to worry about? Somehow, the thought didn’t make Cromwell feel any easier. Cadogan, on the other hand, seemed positively encouraged by it.
“As long as Bel continues to attribute our actions to efforts by Moccas to weaken his hold over his territory,” the cadlywydd continued, “this misdirection should allow the Am Rhyddid and the Tok’bel to operate with relative impunity. So the trick here will be to play each of them against the other. Of course, the other side of the coin is that we’ll need to know exactly how much strength Moccas himself is able to throw into his bid against Bel, because we don’t want to exchange slavery under one false god for slavery under another. My guess, with which both Sabar and his council concur, is that Moccas most likely does not have a whole lot of resources to work with at present, or else we’d have seen a lot more out of him than we have thus far. In fact, that’s probably why he’s only staging brief raids to obtain naquadah and possibly a few slaves.”
Cromwell spoke up for the first time in this meeting. “How sure are we that this is all he’s done or will continue to do, and for how long?”
Cadogan turned to him. “The Tok’bel are going to attempt to place an operative within Moccas’ organization, as they’ve done in Bel’s, so that we can keep abreast of developments. Once we have intelligence on both sides, we may be able to use Bel and Moccas against one another.” The cadlywydd’s gaze swept the rest of the table. “In the interest of maintaining the illusion that our movement no longer exists, I’m going to discontinue the use of a heavy guard at the chappa’ai. The last thing we want to do is have Bel or anyone loyal to him show up and find an armed force waiting that tips them off to the fact that the Am Rhyddid is still active. We’ve been lucky to avoid that, and if our guess is correct that Bel has placed the blame for our actions in recent years on his son instead, then I’d prefer to keep our continued existence a secret for a time, yet.”
His son? Cromwell reflected that there clearly were details he still did not know regarding Bel’s history with the Celtic worlds. He pushed the thought aside for the moment to focus on the rest of the meeting, vowing to find the answers he needed at his first opportunity.
From his own seat of courtesy next to Cadogan’s, Idris spoke up. “Uncle, are you certain it’s wise to leave the drws completely unguarded? We have no way of knowing who might pay us a visit, and it would be best to have at least some warning if what happened before occurs again.” There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd beyond the head table. As the functioning chief of Clan Branoc, Idris was as much responsible for the well-being of the villagers as was Cadogan in his own twin roles as cadlywydd and as chief-in-fact, Cromwell knew.
Cadogan fixed his nephew and heir with a disappointed look. “You know me better than that, Idris. We’ll still keep a guard in place, but well back into the forest, with scout lookouts posted on the periphery of the forest near the compass circle. The scouts will be close enough to see who comes through, when anyone does, and can send runners to alert both the guard and the village if necessary. That should provide ample warning to hide our children and the most vulnerable among us, but we’ll take no further action to tip our hand unless it is warranted. I’m willing to exchange extra tribute — as long as it isn’t human — for the ability to operate undetected and unpunished against Bel for as long as we can manage.”
Idris inclined his head in acknowledgment. “My apologies, Uncle. I should have realized you would have an alternative plan.”
After the meeting broke up, Cromwell sought out Tesni. Collecting a pitcher of ale from the tavern counter at one corner of the communal dining shelter, he led her back to the porch of his own cottage to talk privately. The latest two volumes Cadogan had loaned him included what the cadlywydd promised was comprehensive history of the Five Worlds from roughly a millennium ago to the present; however, the colonel had only had it in his possession for a couple of days and had not yet made time to read more than a few pages, having been occupied with other things. At this point, if Tesni can give me the Cliff’s Notes version to start with, it’ll at least help.
Pouring her a mug of ale before filling his own, he said, “It seems I’m in need of a history lesson, beyond what I’ve read in the books I borrowed from your uncle. What can you tell me about this Lord Moccas? Is he really Bel’s son?”
Tesni nodded. “This goes back to something that happened long ago, Neirin, in an event known as the Wars of the Gods. You know that my people have been on Tir Awyr for over sixty generations, correct?” Cromwell nodded. The Pridanic calendar began with the establishment of the first settlement, although the earliest legends said that more people had arrived over many years after that, with the Albannu arriving last of all.
Seeing his nod, she continued. “Some of our sister worlds have been populated even longer by peoples that Bel brought from the Byd Cyntaf — the First World.” Cromwell nodded again, not daring to tell her that he was very well acquainted with the Byd Cyntaf indeed.
By now, Tesni had warmed to her subject. “Nearly eight hundred years ago — in 1163 by our calendar, although it’s different in the calendars of our sister worlds — some of Bel’s offspring staged a coup, and overthrew him. For several centuries prior to that, he had placed various of them in charge of each of the Five Worlds, or sometimes divided a world into provinces, placing one of his sons in charge of each. When these offspring rose up against him, Bel and his queen vanished. No human knew for sure what had happened to them, and all assumed them to have been killed by their own children.”
She paused to take a sip of ale before continuing. “Bel’s offspring warred among themselves soon after that. Individually, or in one case as a pair, they fought to take control of the entirety of their father’s domain. Bel’s fleet of ships had vanished, and none of his offspring commanded a large enough army of Jaffa, nor of loyal humans, to wrest control from the others and maintain it for long. Bel’s own armies had splintered, with different factions offering their allegiance to one or another of the offspring, but in the end none held enough power to gain or hold control over more than a portion of their father’s domain.”
“So they were fighting, but no one was winning in any real sense. Is that what you’re saying?”
Tesni nodded. “Yes, and they did this for approximately twenty years. Eventually, each had been worn down enough that their own forces either turned against them or deserted them. Most of their Jaffa had been killed during the years of constant warfare anyway, except for the women and the young children. The Tok’bel theorize those survivors turned their allegiance to other, more powerful Goa’uld soon afterward, for they vanished from our worlds. The humans who had once served and worshipped Bel and his children as deities came to the conclusion that the ‘gods’ were in no wise divine, and abandoned them. Bel became known as ‘the Deceiver’ for having lied to his worshippers, his name an epithet in every language spoken among our tribes. Temples were destroyed, and the priests along with them. Soon, there came a point where no Goa’uld, not even the lowliest of them, were left among the Five Worlds. The knowledge of the use of the gates remained, however, in the hands of some of those who had once served our former overlords, and the tribal leaders utilized them for purposes of trade among our worlds. These five addresses were the only ones known, so no one ventured beyond our worlds, nor even was aware that there was anyplace else to go. But within Bel’s former holdings, human culture found a chance to flourish far beyond what had been permitted under the reign of the Goa’uld.”
Cromwell recalled some of the entries he’d read in the geography text he’d borrowed from Cadogan and used to familiarize himself with the written form of Pridanic. In light of what Tesni was telling him, many of the more confusing ones began to make sense. “It was during this time that human kingdoms began to spring up, then?”
“Yes, and sometimes they fought among themselves for power and control of resources. We have nearly five hundred years of history detailing these developments. But aside from the conflicts, this was also a fruitful time, during which much that is good was done. Cities and towns were built. Our peoples studied the universe around them to whatever extent they could, and learned as much of its nature as was possible. Science advanced, literature flourished, and many of our greatest works of art, music and theatre were created during those five centuries, which are known as the rhwng teyrnasiadau.”
Between reigns? So, an interregnum. The effect on science and culture make it sound almost like the Renaissance, in a way. The colonel shook his head. “So where does Moccas fit into this? I gather he is one of the offspring who overthrew Bel?”
Another nod. “Moccas was originally in charge of the world of Averenem. He was the last to abandon Bel’s old domain. We have had no idea where he or any of the other offspring went during this time, nor of what they did, of course. Not even the Tok’ra appear to know, or at least that’s what Sabar says. If any do, they haven’t shared that knowledge with him.”
Cromwell found himself utterly captivated by Tesni’s tale. A student of history for many years in his old life on Earth, he was fascinated by her account of the history of the worlds of Bel’s domain. He had pieced together what he thought was a reasonable picture of how the Celts had gotten from Earth to these worlds, and roughly around what period in time, but he hadn’t been able to ask too many questions regarding their history here, since to do so of anyone outside of Cadogan’s inner circle would have blown his cover identity as a native Pridano. He could have asked Tesni or even Cadogan to tell him more at any time, he supposed, but he’d avoided doing so lest it lead to reciprocal questions regarding his own people’s history, which was part of that parcel of things he was unwilling to discuss for fear of giving away too much information about his homeworld. Now, however, curiosity and what he suspected might soon be a genuine need to know — rather than a mere desire to do so — drove his questions.
He topped up her mug from the pitcher. “So this lasted for five centuries. What happened then? I know that Bel’s capital is on Bohan, but how did he come back into power?”
“In 1672, word came to Tir Awyr that the Deceiver had returned to Bohan, and had taken control of the capital city of one of its kings, claiming still to be a god and that he had returned triumphant from the underworld. Few people actually believed him to be a deity, although a small number on Bohan did return to his worship after that. The cult of Bel has never really spread again among the five worlds, though, nor even done so widely on Bohan itself.” Tesni paused to refresh herself from the mug. “The armies of the various Bohani kings and queens did abandon whatever quarrels they had with each other to fight against him, but he had armies of Jaffa with weapons like those the Am Rhyddid uses today, while human armies of the time had only swords, spears and simple projectiles. Bel also had ships that could cast fire from the sky, and soon retook the planet entirely.”
Cromwell shuddered, imagining such a battle. Humans armed with little more than blades and spears, and probably bows or crossbows, up against Jaffa armed with ma’toks and zats, and backed up by air cover. ‘Rout’ was the mildest term he could come up with to describe it. Even if the Jaffa force was smaller than the human one, as was likely, the humans wouldn’t have stood a chance. Throw in some P-90s and M-16s, with maybe a few well-placed explosives, and it might’ve been a different story…
Tesni was speaking again. “The Deceiver still makes his home there, in the city of Arandesed, which means ‘the high dwelling’ in the language of Bohan. From there, he set about reclaiming the rest of the Five Worlds. It didn’t take him long. Tir Awyr fell last, and some of the fighting occurred right here where we’re sitting. Bennaeth Bod was a fairly new structure then, having been built when my eight-times-great grandfather, Branoc ap Gryg, was chief. Llanavon was smaller then, but more spread out, with the forest sparser and cut much farther back. Branoc lost sons and daughters fighting Bel’s forces, but when it was over, the house still stood, and the core of the village around it.” Her eyes grew steely. “Branoc ap Gryg vowed right then and there that if there were ever to come a day when the people of Tir Awyr and her sisters could throw off the Deceiver’s yoke, his own kin would be among those who brought that about. The Am Rhyddid had its birth right here, among his own grandchildren.”
The colonel blinked. “So that’s why your entire family is involved. They’re the ones who started it.”
A voice came from the shadows. “Neirin?” Ris stepped onto the porch, bearing a lantern. “Oh, excuse me, Aunt Tesni.”
“Did you need something, Ris?” asked Cromwell.
The youth shook his head. “Not really. I was just going to ask if you’d be interested in a game of chess, but I see that you’re busy. I can come back another time.” Ris sounded sincere, but his mentor detected a faint note of disappointment in his voice. Guiltily, he realized that he hadn’t made much time for Ris beyond their martial arts sessions in several days.
Tesni must have heard it too, for she stood and stretched. “Neirin, I’ve monopolized you quite a bit lately. Why don’t you have a game with Ris, while I go and finish some chores I didn’t get done before my uncle returned? If I sit here talking with you much longer I won’t complete them, but you can stop over when you’ve finished your game if you like.” She flashed him a brilliant smile, gave him a swift kiss on the lips, and was off down the porch steps before he could respond, taking the ale cup with her. “You can collect this when you come to see me later,” she said, grinning and holding it up as she turned at the bottom of the steps to walk up the street toward her own cottage.
Bemused, the colonel watched her go. After a moment, he shook his head and turned to find his protégé regarding him with an amusement, one eyebrow raised in unconscious mimicry of the expression he so often used himself.
“What?” he growled; or rather, tried to. He couldn’t get quite the right note into it, nor school his face into the stern expression meant to accompany it.
The eyebrow climbed higher as the young man’s amusement visibly increased. “Perhaps I should practice calling you ‘Uncle’ Neirin?” Ris nimbly ducked the half-hearted swat Cromwell directed toward him.
Sixteen-year-old smartass acts way too much like me. “I thought you came here to play chess,” said the colonel, hiding his own smile in the shadows as he turned to tug the small table holding the ale pitcher into a better position between the porch chairs. “Go and bring the chess set and a candle, and you may as well grab yourself a mug from the shelf while you’re at it.”