Cromwell pulled at the neckline of his tunic as a breeze wafted through the dining pavilion. It wasn’t stiflingly hot, but the air had gone largely still not long before dinnertime, and the stillness combined with the humidity made it feel warmer than it probably was. Now that the breeze had apparently decided to return, he hoped conditions might soon be more comfortable.
He glanced up and down the table at the gathered family; his family. Seated with the unaccustomed formality reserved for special occasions — this was, after all, the feast of Midsummer — they occupied what amounted to a ‘high table’ at one end of the pavilion, on a temporary dais perhaps a foot off the floor. Until two days ago, the colonel had thought his inclusion among their number at such events had been solely as a guest, by the invitation of one or another of the family. Someone had always taken care on formal occasions to point him to a seat near Tesni, or near Cadogan. Once, Idris had asked Cromwell to sit next to him and proceeded to engage him in a discussion of horses, a topic which greatly interested both men.
Now, of course, he knew that he was considered a family member, and according to Pridanic law and custom, he’d had every right to a seat somewhere at the high table for most of the past year. And after tonight… Well, after what he was about to do, he would be doubly bound to them.
As usual on formal occasions, Idris occupied the center seat, with Cadogan on his left. To the colonel’s amusement, the cadlywydd was once again fiddling with his ever-present data tablet as he listened to Idris talk. The rest of the seating arrangement tended to vary from one occasion to the next with little rhyme or reason that Cromwell could decipher. On this Midsummer evening, Tesni sat on her brother’s right, with the colonel next to her, flanked by Ris on his other side. Anwen occupied the seat to Cadogan’s left, while the rest of the family was disposed haphazardly around the table’s U-shaped perimeter. The colonel noted Nenniaw debating something with Dynawd, as Tegwyn laughed at some story Blodwen was telling.
He turned his gaze from his tablemates to the gathering at large. Only a few feet separated the dais from the tables where the rest of the local populace were seated, and Cromwell watched from this vantage point as his friends and neighbors enjoyed the holiday feast. The meal was not quite half over, and both Idris and Cadogan had addressed the crowd briefly, offering up comments and congratulations on various accomplishments on the part of specific individuals and the community as a whole in this first half of the year. A toast to the health of all present had been drunk, and one to the memory of absent friends. By this point, conversation seemed to have turned to the purely informal throughout the pavilion, and the high table was no exception.
He’d expressed to Tesni earlier that he generally felt uncomfortable as the focus of attention, and she’d assured him that their marriage exchange need not be an embarrassingly prominent affair. “This is a second marriage for each of us, so fanfare is highly optional, and I don’t think we need any,” she’d said with a smile as she helped him arrange the writing desk that he and Ris had carried from his bachelor quarters to her — their — cottage that morning. The desk was the only piece of furniture he’d seen fit to relocate, since it served him well in his duties as filwriad. Everything else in the home he’d been allocated the day after his arrival here last summer had its duplicate in Tesni’s already.
Now, amid the hubbub of conversation, he sought the right moment. He sensed Tesni doing the same. Idris finished whatever he was telling Cadogan, the cadlywydd’s answering chuckle reaching Cromwell’s ears from three seats away. A bottle of elderberry wine sat before Clan Branoc’s co-chiefs, and the colonel could see through the greenish glass that it was still half-full.
He reached beneath the table and grasped Tesni’s hand, giving it a brief squeeze. Leaning over the table, he caught her brother’s eye. “Idris, would you be so kind as to pass the wine, please?”
Idris turned and smiled, reaching for the bottle. “Of course.” He handed it to Cromwell, who tipped the bottle over Tesni’s cup, aware that he was now being watched by several of his tablemates.
“More wine, my wife?” he asked, meeting her eyes.
“If you will have some too, my husband,” she replied smoothly, smiling.
Their lips met, and someone – Probably Ris, Cromwell thought — broke into applause. It was quickly taken up by the rest of the table, which led to its spreading to the gathering at large. So much for keeping this low-profile. Not that the same thing hadn’t already happened twice during dinner, beginning at the tables where the other two couples had married with similar exchanges.
The kiss ended before the applause, and he finished dividing the wine between Tesni’s cup and his own, feeling his face warm slightly. Tesni’s was flushed as well, and she was grinning. They both took sips of wine, as Ris laid a hand on his shoulder. “Congratulations, Uncle Neirin,” he said.
The colonel turned with a grin of his own. “You’ve just been dying to say that, haven’t you?”
“I have.” The young man glanced past Cromwell, to his aunt. “Congratulations, Aunt Tesni.”
“Thank you, Ris.”
The applause died away, and Cromwell felt a hand on his other shoulder. He looked up to see Cadogan standing behind himself and his bride, grinning down at them both. There was a satisfied look in the cadlywydd’s hazel eyes as he focused on the colonel. “If you were anyone else, I would be welcoming you to the family, but you’ve been part of this family for nearly a year now, Neirin,” he said. “So let me just say ‘congratulations’ to both of you” — he glanced at Tesni and then back to her husband — “and welcome you as nephew rather than as cousin,” he finished, his gaze fixed on Cromwell. He held out a hand, and a wine cup appeared in it, passed by Idris. Cadogan raised it high, looking out over the gathered populace. “To Neirin and Tesni,” he announced. “Health and long life.”
The crowd echoed the sentiment with enthusiasm. Tesni leaned in close, whispering in Cromwell’s ear. “All right, so I thought we could perhaps do this quietly.” There was humor in her tone as she added, “It appears my uncle had other ideas. I hope you don’t mind.”
He turned and kissed her again before answering, “Don’t worry about it. There isn’t much that could bother me right now.” He’d suspected that marrying a clan chieftain’s heir was maybe not the kind of thing likely to pass with little notice, and it seemed he’d been right. No matter. At this moment, he didn’t care who was paying attention to them. His focus was Tesni.
Cromwell watched as the musicians gathered on the dais that had held the high table, which had now been moved to a more lowly station among the other tables being arranged around the periphery of the pavilion, leaving a large open area in the middle. He turned to help move the remaining tables and benches to their new configuration, only to be waved off by Celyn and Nenniaw. “Not on your wedding day, man,” Celyn told him with a grin. “You should go and spend time with your wife.”
The colonel looked over to where Tesni had hold of one end of a bench, while Anwen carried the other. “My wife appears to be moving furniture,” he commented drolly.
Nenniaw followed the direction of his glance and snorted. “Ah well, there’s another one who does things her own way. Come on, then, grab the other end of the table and let’s get this done.”
Soon the central floor space had been cleared, before the dais, and the musicians had arranged themselves to their liking and tuned their instruments. They struck up a lively piece that soon had folks clapping and whistling. As the first song segued into the second, a number of men and women formed lines on either side of the open space. Cromwell noted Idris and Anwen among them, along with Ris and Tegwyn. Cadogan had put aside his datapad and was out there as well, and even Nenniaw, along with his wife Blodwen.
Cromwell had seen the villagers dance on more than one occasion, mostly on gather nights, but also at festivals. He hadn’t joined in, however. It wasn’t that he couldn’t dance; many of the local dances reminded him strongly of square dancing, something he’d been taught in school as a child. Most of them were even called in a somewhat similar fashion, if less flamboyantly than some square dances were. Others reminded him of the contra-dances he’d encountered a few times in the area where his grandparents had lived, or other folk dances he’d observed on occasion during the odd outing here and there during his years stationed in various places around the globe. When at home, he’d found occasion to dance, if not often. The colonel knew he could dance well enough when he wanted to, but the last time he’d done so had been with Lisa, perhaps ten years ago or longer.
He knew that Tesni liked dancing, though. She’d often joined the dancers on gather nights, and he’d found himself watching her as she wove in and out among them as the patterns were called, admiring the grace with which she moved and how quick she was on her feet. Cromwell had often been engaged in conversation at the same time with one or two of the men from his unit at the time, and Tesni hadn’t intruded to ask if he would take part in the dancing, so he’d been spared the question of whether to say yes or no. Tonight, though, she was his focus, and he sensed that she would ask.
Almost as soon as the thought formed in his mind, he felt her take his elbow, leaning close to speak into his ear. “Fy nghalon, will you join in the dancing tonight?”
Good grief, no matter how much this looks like square dancing, it isn’t, and anyway, it’s been thirty-five, almost forty years since I last did that. On the other hand, the steps are called, and I’ve been watching long enough to know what at least some of them are…
His wife was looking at him, waiting for an answer. “Tesni, I don’t know these dances,” the colonel cautioned her.
She smiled. “You can learn as we go. The ones at the beginning of the set are simpler anyway, so why not give it a try, at least?”
Why not, indeed? Cromwell asked himself. I danced at my first wedding; why shouldn’t I dance at my second? Especially since my wife has asked me to. He shrugged, smiling. “All right. But if it starts to look like I have two left feet, please tell me.”
Perplexed, Tesni furrowed her brow. “Two left feet?” She glanced down.
The colonel chuckled. He’d translated the phrase directly to Pridanic, but clearly the idiom went unused here. “It’s an expression from my birth language that means ‘uncoordinated’ — especially at dancing.”
She laughed and took his hand. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, cariad. You’ve as much grace as any man here, and more than many.”
As she spoke, she led him to the edge of the dance floor, where they stood with other would-be dancers waiting for the current dance to end. When it did, they took their places for the next, which the caller announced as Colomennod yn y Coed, meaning ‘Pigeon In The Wood’. To Cromwell’s relief, he recognized the name as belonging to a dance he’d watched not a few times here and was reasonably sure he could manage to follow along. It began with a line of men on one side of the floor, facing a line of women on the other. He found himself between Dynawd and Armagil, and his former unit clerk grinned at him. “Congratulations on your marriage, filwriad,” he said.
The colonel returned the grin. “Thank you.” With two other local couples having wed on this festive occasion, he wasn’t the only new bridegroom receiving good wishes, but he was the eldest by what had to be at least fifteen years. Privately, he was rather glad that he and Tesni were not the complete center of attention, and he suspected this was true of his bride as well. Neither of them were the type to crave the spotlight. Nevertheless, the felicitations from his friends and family — and how good it feels to be able to say that! — were welcome.
The musicians began the tune with a flourish and the caller, a fair-haired woman who managed to project her voice admirably over the music and the crowd noise, called out the first steps. Cromwell followed along, grateful that this was indeed one of the simpler dances. By the time the pattern repeated a third time, however, he felt he had a handle on what he was doing, and as the lines wound back to their starting points he found he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Tesni smiled broadly at him as they completed their final circle and returned to the places where they’d begun the dance. As the tune finished, she cocked her head, clearly asking whether he wished to continue. He gave her a grin and a shrug, and they remained on the dance floor for three more dances before taking a breather.
As they made their way toward the table where they’d left their cups, Tesni slid an arm about his waist. “See? I knew you could dance,” she said.
The colonel chuckled. “Well, with someone calling out what to do, it isn’t too hard to catch on. Of course, now I’m glad I spent some time just watching, or I wouldn’t know the names of any of the steps.”
“I didn’t realize you’d spent much time watching people dance,” she said.
“All right, so I was watching you, mostly. The important part is that it made me pay attention.” He kissed her. “I haven’t danced in years, but I’m enjoying it.”
That earned him another smile. “Good; then I can expect you to keep on?”
He laughed. “Yes, I guess you can.” Stepping to one side, he drew her with him out of the path of other people heading for the counter where ale and cider were being dispensed. Taking her in his arms, he buried his face in her hair, inhaling that nameless fragrance that was uniquely her own. “Thank you,” he murmured into her ear. “If someone had told me not quite a year ago that I would be this happy today, I wouldn’t have believed them.” He kissed her again.
“Neirin, I could say the same. So thank you.”
There came the sound of a throat being cleared. Reluctantly, Cromwell released his bride and turned to find Ris behind him, holding two brimming cups of ale. “I thought perhaps you and my aunt might be thirsty, Uncle Neirin.” The youth wore a humorous expression as he held out their drinks.
“Thank you, Ris,” said the colonel, taking the cups and passing one to Tesni. “Although I’m surprised you aren’t off chatting with that girl you’ve had your eye on — Nia, isn’t it?” He grinned as the young man’s face turned pink.
Tesni slipped smoothly into the game. “I heard her asking Cornan about you earlier,” she told her nephew.
The pink deepened toward scarlet.
“If I were you, I’d go and ask her to join you for a dance,” Cromwell advised his protégé — his nephew, now. The colonel glanced over the crowd and pointed. “In fact, if I’m not mistaken, she’s right over there.”
Ris turned to look. “I, er, I suppose I should,” he agreed nervously.
His mentor clapped him on the back. “Well then, what are you waiting for? Hurry up before they start the next set of tunes.” He gave the young man’s back a gentle shove, propelling him into the crowd. “Good luck.”
As Ris made his way off in the direction of the dark-haired girl, Cromwell turned back to find Tesni laughing silently, her shoulders shaking with mirth. “You,” she gasped, “are every bit as bad as Cadogan.”
He feigned innocence. “Who, me?” A chuckle. “Besides, I seem to have had help just now.”