Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart. — Marcus Aurelius
Cromwell finished adjusting the strap holding the left stirrup onto the dun gelding’s saddle. Droeddu or “Blackfoot” was the horse he most often rode, and he’d instructed Glesig to alter Droeddu’s saddle first, so that he could use it as a test bed for the new straps and stirrups Cadogan had ordered made after the colonel introduced him to the concept. He’d attached the first set to Droeddu’s saddle two days earlier and gone riding, returning after a couple of hours to thank both the blacksmith Dubric and Glesig the saddler for their efforts. “These are exactly right,” he told them. Glesig had immediately gone to work altering the saddles for Cadogan, Gerlad’s and Nenniaw’s mounts. A fourth pair of stirrups was being made for Tesni’s use, on Cromwell’s own request to the blacksmith, and Ris was carving two sets in wood for additional testing.
The colonel turned to Nenniaw. “See that?” he asked, gesturing toward the stirrup. “Now watch.” Placing his left foot into the stirrup, he swung up into the saddle with an easy motion.
Nenniaw nodded. “I can see where that’s helpful,” he agreed. “Mounting is definitely faster, especially without a block.”
“Absolutely. The ability to mount easily from the ground is a big help when you’re out and about.” Cromwell dismounted again, patting the gelding on the shoulder. Droeddu clearly couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about, but seemed content to stand still and let the colonel demonstrate the use of the new equipment.
Nenniaw’s customary mount, called Lluched or “Lightning” for the narrow, irregular blaze the dark-coated creature bore on its forehead, snorted as Cromwell approached to check the stirrup straps newly installed on his saddle. The colonel murmured to the horse, patting the animal’s neck before adjusting the straps. A moment later, he stepped back. “Try it,” he told the other man.
Nenniaw imitated what Cromwell had done a moment earlier, mounting with only slightly less grace than his more practiced colleague. Cromwell moved in to readjust the straps slightly, setting the stirrups at a position likely to be more comfortable for the slightly shorter man. “”How does that feel?” he asked.
“Odd, but comfortable. I’m not used to having a place to rest my feet when I ride.”
Cromwell grinned. “I can almost guarantee you’ll get used to it pretty fast.” He swung back up onto Droeddu. “Let’s go test them out, shall we?”
The horses’ hooves kicked up dust as they made their way out of the village, taking the road that lead toward Bren Argoed. Cromwell planned on taking them just a couple of miles along this and a connecting trail that looped back to join the Dinas Coedwyg road just outside Llanavon — just far enough for Nenniaw begin to get a feel for riding with stirrups. While the main routes between places like Llanavon, Bren Argoed and Dinas Coedwyg were unpaved, along most of their length they were wide enough for several horses to travel abreast, or for two carts to pass one another, if carefully. The two riders traveled side by side, each man wrapped in his own thoughts, until Nenniaw broke the companionable silence in which they rode.
“Cadogan tells me these — gwrthaflau, did you call them? — are an invention from your homeworld, Neirin.”
Cromwell nodded. “They are. They’ve been used there for centuries. When I first learned to ride as a child, I used them, and it was only after I’d mastered riding with them that I tried it without. Even so, that was only when I rode bareback. I find long rides with no place to put my feet rather tiring, although the horns that these saddles have are helpful for balance.”
Nenniaw nodded. “I can already feel a difference.” He was silent for a moment, before continuing, “You know, I almost never hear you talk about your homeworld. I have to admit I’m curious about it.”
Cromwell winced inwardly. He’d grown used to not being questioned regarding his origins, especially since taking a Pridanic name the previous year, not long after his arrival. Cadogan had made it clear to those under his command — which included, directly or indirectly, everyone in Llanavon who was acquainted with Cromwell — that their guest and fellow soldier desired to maintain his privacy. The cadlywydd had explained that ‘Neirin’ had come to them from a community so distant that even the dialect spoken there was somewhat different, but that he enjoyed both Cadogan’s confidence and his hospitality, and was to be treated as anyone else who served the rebellion. If few had questioned him overmuch before that, out of politeness, none dared break the cadlywydd’s command by querying him as to his history and origins after that, especially once he had been promoted to the rank of filwriad.
Even in private, in the close company of what had become for all intents and purposes his family here on Tir Awyr, no one asked him about his origins or his past. By tacit agreement, the topic was left unremarked upon, except in those rare instances where the colonel himself brought it up, and then it was understood that he controlled the limits of the discussion. If anyone was bothered by his reticence, none had given voice to such a sentiment. From Cadogan himself all the way down to Ris and Tegwyn, everyone respected Cromwell’s privacy in the matter.
But he had to admit that bringing an Earth invention like the stirrup into local use was likely to raise questions. Nenniaw knew full well that Cromwell was not from Tir Awyr, and he had to have guessed, although the colonel had never told him, that he was not from any of Tir Awyr’s sister worlds, either. Cromwell knew he had the senior officer’s respect; after all, it had been Nenniaw himself who had originally recommended that Cadogan include him on that first offworld mission for the Am Rhyddid, a mere week after his arrival. Likewise, Nenniaw seemed appreciative of Cromwell’s military expertise. However, now that he’d brought something tangible into the picture, an item heretofore unknown on the Five Worlds, the colonel supposed it was only natural that the other man’s curiosity might be spurred to the point where he would ask questions.
“Nenniaw, I really don’t want to talk about my homeworld too much. You understand security risks, I know.” Cromwell looked at Nenniaw, inviting a response. When it came, it was in the affirmative. Not, of course, that the colonel had expected any less from his fellow officer.
“Certainly I do.” Nenniaw gave him a puzzled look. “Your world is in so much danger that you think telling me about it might pose a threat?”
Cromwell shook his head. “It isn’t you, or anyone hereabouts. But your world and mine share an enemy in the Goa’uld, because both our peoples refuse to serve them any longer. I had an accident that caused me to wind up here, without a way to get home. That much you know from what I told Tesni when I arrived, since I know she told you what I said. And security on my own world is so tight that I don’t even know its gate address. Otherwise, I’d have gone home already.” He shrugged. “It’s a world not much different from this one, with people not terribly different from people here. Beyond that, there really isn’t much that I can tell you that would mean much to you, so it seems like a pointless conversation to even begin.”
That last was partially a white lie, of course; the colonel did know one symbol that was supposedly unique to Earth, and that Earth had to be the planet from which the Pridani and the people of their sister worlds originated. But he had his own reasons for not sharing the information. “The accident that sent me here may have killed the other people who were with me, which would mean my people probably think I died, too. That means I’m not likely to get back there again anyway, so what’s the use in talking about it?” Maybe that’ll get him to leave the topic be. It wasn’t that Cromwell resented the questions; he just hated the fact that he didn’t dare answer them fully.
Nenniaw regarded him thoughtfully. “It must be difficult, living that way,” he said at last.
“It isn’t easy. Then again, if I’d wanted an easy life, I wouldn’t be on Tir Awyr. The average person on my world never travels via stargate, just like the average person on any of the Five Worlds doesn’t,” Cromwell told him. “You know me well enough to know that I’ve been in the military for a long time, and I’ll tell you right now that I chose to make it my career, when I could have done something else. I only got near my world’s gate because of my military role. Otherwise, I’d never have been in a position to wind up here at all.”
The senior filwriad considered this for a moment. “Fair enough,” he allowed finally. “I will go so far as to say I’m not entirely sorry you did, though.” He glanced down, kicking one foot a bit in its stirrup. “These are a definite improvement.”
Cromwell chuckled. “Nice to know I’m good for something, anyway,” he said.
Nenniaw echoed the chuckle as the two of them turned onto the trail leading back toward Llanavon.
Tesni gave the floor a final sweep before propping the broom in a corner and turning to survey the communal kitchen. Everything was put away, things were nice and tidy, and the fire had been allowed to burn down to the level needed only to keep the water in the large kettle hot. Gelhi would keep an eye on it; tonight was his turn at fire-tending.
The sound of footsteps behind her made her turn. Neirin stepped through the doorway from the dining area to prop another broom next to the one she had just put away. “I think that’s everything,” he said. “You all done back here?” Of late, the two of them tended to volunteer for chores that allowed them to work together. Tonight it had been post-dinner cleanup, and they’d managed to finish early enough to catch the last hour or so of daylight. The fact that it was nearly midsummer helped, as the sun set quite late and rose very early this close to the solstice. Soon the march of daylight would reverse itself, the days growing shorter as the hours of darkness began once more to lengthen. It would still be some time before the nights were more than a handful of hours long, however.
Tesni had hoped to interest Neirin in a walk before sunset, but the smell of rain on the air indicated this might not be the best choice. The heat wave had broken today, with the hot and sticky weather of the past few days giving way to much more comfortable conditions, though it remained summery and warm. That the change in temperature appeared to herald the coming of rain was no great surprise; this was a fairly common occurrence in the area. But it meant they would have to find something else to occupy themselves this evening, before candle-time and then bed…
“I do believe that’s everything, cariad,” she said as she took his hand, noticing his smile at the endearment. She could remember a time when he rarely smiled. He’d seemed so serious and reserved during his early days in Llanavon that those occasions when she’d managed to tease an actual smile out of him had come almost as a surprise. Each one had been well worth the effort, though. Neirin’s smile was like sunlight breaking through clouds, and equally as welcome. These days he smiled much more readily, though Tesni found that she treasured the sight as much as she had when it was rare.
As they stepped out from beneath the roof of the shelter and began to cross the square toward the street where both their cottages lay, he glanced up at the sky, where gray clouds were moving in, their bellies tinged with gold from the westering sun. “It’s going to rain later, I think,” he commented.
“I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” Tesni told him. “I had thought of taking a walk, but when the clouds come from the southwest like this, rain often comes on suddenly. Is there something you’d like to do instead?”
He shook his head. “Almost anything’s fine with me. A game, perhaps, or some reading?” Besides the history book that Cadogan had loaned him, Neirin’s current borrowings from the cadlywydd’s library included a novel by a contemporary author whose work both Tesni and her uncle enjoyed, and Neirin had taken to reading a chapter aloud in the evenings, both to entertain himself and her and to hone his recently-acquired reading skills.
“Reading, please,” she said with a smile.
Deciding to amuse themselves at Tesni’s cottage, they detoured to Neirin’s to retrieve the book and close the shutters against the coming rain. Once inside her own dwelling, Tesni poured cider for them both as Neirin lit a lamp against the approaching dusk, placing it on the side-table next to the cushioned settle. Sunset might be nearly two hours away, but with rain clouds moving in, it could easily get dark long before then. Setting his cup next to the lamp, she watched as he smothered the char-cloth and tinder in the small tin box before replacing the fire-steel and flint. Finally satisfied that all was in order, he sat down with one leg stretched along the settle’s broad seat, his back against a cushion at its end. Tesni joined him, tucking both legs up onto the cushion and leaning against him as he opened the book, steadying it on his other knee with one hand as he began to read. She always found his deep, resonant voice soothing as he read aloud at the end of a busy day, and loved to listen. Tonight, resting against his chest, she felt the words as well as hearing them.
When he reached the end of the chapter and closed the book, she shifted position, turning toward him and lifting her face to his for a kiss. He readily obliged, still holding the book. After a moment, she took it from him, setting it on the side-table before kissing him again as both of his arms went around her.
Tesni stretched languorously, her toes exploring a cool patch among the bedcovers as she drifted awake after a few moments’ drowsing. There was still light in the room, although it was waning, and she turned to study the dozing figure next to her. Not long after Neirin had finished reading to her in the cottage’s front room, Tesni had found herself being lifted and borne, laughing, into her bedchamber where he’d deposited her on the bed and made it clear what else he would like to do with the rest of the evening. Not that she’d had any objection…
She remembered again that first night Neirin had spent in Llanavon, on a pallet on the floor in her front room. It had taken her some time to convince him to lie down and sleep, despite his obvious exhaustion. He had clearly been keyed up from his encounter with Ris and the subsequent session with Nenniaw, but by the time she’d gotten him back to her cottage, he’d begun to tremble, the way one often did after a stressful event. His face had been pale, nearly gray with fatigue, only the amber glow of the candle-lamp lending him color. Yet still he’d fought to remain awake, asking her questions, unaware even of the bits of straw stuck in his hair. She’d plucked the pieces out, as she spoke whatever soothing words she could think of that might calm him enough to rest. All of them true, though; she wasn’t one to dole out empty platitudes.
Finally, he’d stood, swaying, and made his unsteady way to the pallet in the corner, as much falling as lying down when he got there. He’d been nearly asleep by the time she’d gone to extinguish the candle, but just as she was about to blow it out, a cool breeze from the window gave her pause, bringing again the smell of rain that she’d noticed on their way back to the cottage. It was far too late in the night to lay a fire, not to mention that she had no desire to disturb her guest now that he had finally gone to sleep, so she’d settled for pulling a spare blanket from the chest in the bedroom and carrying it out into the front room to cover him.
As she’d knelt over the stranger’s sleeping form, preparing to tuck the blanket around him, his breath had caught suddenly and he’d mumbled something. His brow, which had relaxed in sleep, furrowed in response to whatever dream he was having. He mumbled again, the words indistinct, but Tesni was sure they weren’t in whatever language he’d used during their earlier conversations. He mumbled a third time, his tone clearly one of discomfort. Concern? Fear? Pain?
A fragment of memory had drifted up from her past as she moved to cover him: Eogen, in the grip of uncomfortable dreams after returning from some mission for the Am Rhyddid. Like Eogen and like herself, this man too was a soldier, and while Tesni counted herself fortunate to have not yet encountered anything so horrible as to invade her dreams on a regular basis — with the exception of her parents’ deaths at the hands of Bel’s Jaffa, about which she occasionally did dream — she knew well enough that such things were not uncommon, whether among soldiers or, really, anyone who’d encountered trauma enough.
The stranger had shifted in his sleep, mumbling again. Some reflex made Tesni reach out, brushing away yet another piece of straw and then smoothing his hair, her hand lingering for a brief moment on his head, the way one might soothe a small child. He shifted again, his face relaxing somewhat, and she could tell by his breathing that he’d drifted deeper, beyond the level of dreams. She’d spread the blanket over him then, taking care to cover him well against the approaching chill. Rising, she’d brought the shutters partway closed, though not all the way, despite the coming weather. Given his concern over the possibility of being held captive, the last thing she’d wanted was for him to awaken and find himself closed in, even symbolically.
So much had happened since that night, and of course Neirin had ceased long ago to be a stranger, though it had taken some time for him to reach his current role in her life. Tesni watched him now, asleep with his head on the pillow next to hers. His face was peaceful; it seemed no uncomfortable dreams troubled him at the moment, for which she was glad. The lines in the high forehead above the dark brows and long, straight nose had relaxed to near-invisibility, and his lips were parted slightly. She had wondered, before taking him to her bed, whether perhaps he might snore as some men did. But he slept quietly for the most part, his breath a soothing and comforting sound.
She reached out to stroke his hair. The deep gray of iron, laced liberally with strands of brighter silver, it was perhaps just a bit longer now than it had been when they’d met. He still kept it somewhat shorter than many of the other village men, most of whom kept theirs fairly short as it was, but he’d bowed to Pridanic custom or perhaps just the capabilities of the local barber and taken to wearing it this way some time ago. He was, after all, determined to be taken for a Pridano; to “blend in” as he’d put it, on the evening he’d asked her help in choosing a name to go by.
The air in the room carried summer’s warmth, and the light sheet and blanket with which Tesni covered her bed in this season had slipped down, leaving Neirin bare to the waist. He lay on his left side, facing her, and she allowed her eyes to roam the contours of his upper body. He was well-built, broad of chest and shoulders with a flat stomach and muscular arms, his body defined in the manner of one who spent much of his time in strenuous physical activity. His skin was marred here and there by scars, the legacy of a combat soldier’s life, especially in a place where no one had access to the sort of healing devices used by Sabar and the other Tok’ra. There was a particularly large one on the outside of his right shoulder, just below the joint itself. Another decorated his lower chest, barely to the right of the midline, just slightly up from the bottom of his ribcage. Below it, and farther to the right so that it occupied his side, was a nearly horizontal scar that looked to have been caused by a knife wound. He carried a number of minor marks as well, but these three in particular drew her attention, due to the apparent severity of whatever wounds had caused them. There were others in the village who had scars, but none as serious-looking as these.
Until recently, Tesni had seen Neirin shirtless only a handful of times, none of them at such close range. He’d not been hesitant to strip to the waist while hard at work on some physically demanding task in the heat of summer even right after he’d arrived, but although he didn’t seem self-conscious about them, neither she nor anyone else had to her knowledge ever asked him about the origin of any of the marks his body bore. This, despite the fact that he used the men’s public baths along with the other local men. Neirin was a very private person, and she knew that few had the temerity to query him about his past. All the same, she found herself curious; even more so now that he regularly shared her bed and would, she hoped, share her life for the foreseeable future. What sort of weapons made wounds that left scars like these, and what kind of medicine allowed such wounds to heal without lasting physical effects on their owner? The knife wound she could recognize, but as for the rest, she was at a loss to understand. They weren’t the result of energy bolts, that much she was sure of, and the scar on his chest didn’t look to have been caused by arrow, sword or spear, though she couldn’t imagine what had made it. The scar on his shoulder looked in part almost as if someone had cut into his flesh with a very sharp blade, but given the blood vessels that ran through that area, surely a cut of that size and depth should have caused the victim to bleed too greatly to sustain life. How was it, then, that this man had lived?
Too, she realized that although the flesh that made up the scar itself was both raised and slightly puckered, the line of the cut was clean and straight, as if it had been made with great precision. Either someone had struck him a very unusual blow with the cutting edge of a sword, or there were practices on his world that she couldn’t even begin to imagine. Moreover, how such a grievous injury could have healed so well was beyond her, as he had what certainly appeared to be completely normal use of the arm, when by all rights it appeared as though he ought to have lost at the very least some range of motion despite surviving the wound. The same was true of the scar on his chest, she thought, as he stirred slightly and she got a better look at it; she could fathom neither its origin nor why the wound had not killed or incapacitated him. How Neirin had survived his former life at all, let alone done so in the obviously robust good health he currently enjoyed, was a mystery.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and he stirred again, rolling onto his back, apparently without waking, arms partially outstretched. The angle of the light through the window told her the sun had nearly set, and with the evening’s promised storm now clearly on the way, she couldn’t think of a good reason to get up, though she would do so long enough to cover the windows should it decide to rain in. Let the darkness come; the nights were growing shorter as the year turned toward midsummer, and she would savor what she could of them in such company as this. Moving closer, she laid her head on Neirin’s left shoulder, the fingers of her left hand gently stroking his chest, twining in the light growth of hair before tracing the outlines of firm muscle beneath his skin. She could feel his heartbeat, steady and strong, its rhythm lulling her to the very edge of sleep herself. As she prepared to cross that border, she felt him stir once more, his left arm curling upward and around her shoulders, holding her close in the deepening dusk as he drew the covers up over them both.