To have another language is to possess a second soul. — Charlemagne
The shadows were lengthening, the surrounding forest painting the village with shade as the sun slid past the treetops and the day began its descent toward evening. Cromwell glanced at his watch, which insisted it was 1030 hours, Mountain Daylight Time. Nevertheless, given the time check he’d made at sunrise and the angle of the light at present, he guessed this planet had a rotational period not too far off Earth’s own 24-hour cycle. Might as well reset my watch to reflect the apparent local time, he mused, taking a sip from the mug of cooled herbal tea he’d been nursing. It tasted like mint, chamomile and honey, and more importantly, it soothed the hoarseness he was beginning to feel.
He’d been sitting at the same table for nearly eight hours, doing his best to breach the language barrier that separated him from the villagers. The first two hours had been spent with the leader of the three men he’d encountered earlier, whose name, he’d learned, was Nenniaw. They hadn’t gotten much beyond names and a collection of simple words when a minor tumult arose near the same gate where Cromwell had entered the village. The two teens he had first met by the creek — when had they disappeared? — led another man into the village and spoke hurriedly to one of Nenniaw’s earlier companions, who in turn came to summon Nenniaw himself. Apparently, someone of importance had arrived.
Cromwell had stolen a glance at the newcomer and been mildly surprised to see someone sharing a rough approximation of his own general build, coloring and physical demeanor, although this man was clothed rather differently. He watched him interact with Nenniaw and the others, and got the distinct feeling that the new arrival was someone not necessarily known to them personally, but expected nonetheless. Was it possible that they had had only a cursory description of someone who was due to arrive, and his own welcome to the village was the result of mistaken identity?
Whatever the case, soon Nenniaw and his companions had spirited the other man away into a nearby house, and the brown-haired woman he had met at the bridge took over the language lesson. He learned that her name was Tesni, and despite the gravity of his situation and the difficulty in communication, he found her a delightful companion for conversation, limited as it was. She seemed to instinctively understand his difficulty with her language, and demonstrated a level of patience and humor that put him at ease enough to smooth the learning curve somewhat.
For the language spoken here was almost definitely a variation, albeit an exceedingly strange one, on the Welsh he had learned as a child. The biggest hurdle seemed to be vowel sounds: almost none of them were what he had been taught, but there was a pattern to the substitutions, and once he had managed to figure out that much and apply it, suddenly the greatest portion of the puzzle came together. As far as he could tell using the scant knowledge he had, these people spoke something that resembled a rather bizarre, vowel-shifted dialect of Welsh, with mutated consonants thrown in at random for good measure. But he was working his way through it, at least. Welcome to the ‘total immersion’ method of language learning, I guess.
For perhaps the fiftieth time that day, he gave thanks to whatever agent of good fortune had moved his grandmother to insist on his learning her ancestral tongue, thereby giving him at least a rudimentary set of tools with which to approach his present problem. He shuddered to think how difficult this would have been had he not had that as a starting point. Stuck here alone and with no idea whether he would be able to go home, encountering people with whom he had at least enough common ground to communicate was a godsend, even if it did play merry hell with everything he thought he’d known about humans and space.
For her part, Tesni was learning his somewhat limited Welsh at the same time she was teaching him her own language. She was a quick study, and given the combination of their efforts, they were conversing on an elementary level by mid-afternoon, in a crude but effective mixture of both tongues. It turned out that the village was called Llanavon, meaning “river village”, which would have also been a perfectly ordinary place name in the Welsh with which Cromwell was familiar. The pronunciation was slightly off compared to his grandmother’s, but the name was at least recognizable. Tesni’s name for her own people, meanwhile, sounded like ‘Pridani’. The people historians know as the Britenni, perhaps? From what he could tell based on their conversation thus far, the inhabitants of Llanavon seemed aware that their world was one planet among many, and called it Tir n’Awyr, or “Land in the Sky”. Since the only reasonable explanation for not only their apparent humanity but also their speaking a language related to Welsh would have to involve some link to Earth, he supposed it was an appropriate description of their world in relation to his own. He wondered exactly what the hell was going on here.
“Tesni, are the Pridani the only people living on Tir n’Awyr? Or are there other… I don’t know… cultures? Tribes?”
“There are others. But mostly there are just ourselves and the Albannu.”
Albannu? In his Naina Cromwell’s Welsh, that could only be the Albanwyr: the Scots. Albannu. Pridani. Scots and Britons. What the hell? He dropped his head to his hands, massaging his forehead, where an incipient tension headache was beginning to make itself felt. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole had nothing on this.
“Frehnk?” His name sounded slightly odd in her accent. Cromwell looked up to find Tesni regarding him curiously across the table. “Where have you come from that you know so little about Tir n’Awyr?”
Uh-oh. This sounded like it might get dicey. He remembered the odd look that Nenniaw had given him from across the village square before shepherding the other newcomer out of sight. “Where do you think I am from, Tesni?”
She appeared to think this over for a moment. “When I first saw you, I thought you were someone that we had been told to watch for.” Tesni shifted uncomfortably. “But it appears I was wrong. Still, you have come from the drws rhyng y byd, have you not?”
The ‘door between worlds’? Well, there was as apt a term for it as ‘stargate’. Unless she meant something else? In some cultures he’d read about, that phrase that could just as easily refer to the portal between the everyday world and the spirit realm. Cromwell had a sense that was not what she meant, but decided to fish for a little more information before committing himself to an answer.
“Can you describe this door?”
Impatiently, she sketched a circle in the air. “On the hilltop, in the cwmpad cylch — the compass circle. Where travelers come to Tir n’Awyr from other worlds, or leave to go to them.”
Compass circle? That was what they called the plaza surrounding the gate? He had been right about the standing stones, then. She makes it sound like people coming and going through that thing is an everyday occurrence. Playing dumb isn’t going to work here. It would be like pretending I didn’t know what an airport is, back home.
He sighed. “Yes. I did, though my people call it by a different name.”
She nodded. “So I thought. From which world have you come, and who sent you here?”
“Would you believe me if I told you I came here by accident?”
She regarded him for a long time before answering. “You have a story to tell.”
“I suppose I do. I also have many questions.”
An hour later, he had established several things. One: despite being aware of the existence of other planets reachable via the stargate, Tesni herself had never been offworld. She knew people who had, though, and this included some of the local residents. Two: his simplified explanation that he had fallen into his own world’s “doorway” while attempting to repair something that had gone wrong with its operation was met with a spate of questions regarding exactly which world was his. Which led to item number three: Tesni had never met any gate traveler who fit the description of any SGC personnel. He even drew a crude rendition of the SGC patch on the wooden tabletop with a dampened finger, but she showed no recognition. Four: Tesni’s people had a history that included a tale of their having originated on another world long ago, but they knew virtually nothing about that world. They had been here for over sixty generations, Tesni had told him, proudly offering to recite her own lineage as evidence.
The fifth thing was perhaps the most unsettling. According to her people’s legends, they had been brought to Tir n’Awyr by a god known as Bel. A god who was still known to visit from time to time, using the same “door between the worlds” that other travelers, including Cromwell himself, used. A god who appeared human, except for glowing eyes and a strangely modulated voice. A god who, if local legends were true, had appeared to his subjects in the same form for over two millennia. Normally, he would dismiss such claims as nothing more than mere fiction. One thing prevented his doing so in this case: his briefings regarding SGC activities in the Cheyenne Mountain complex had included mention of aliens who appeared as humans with glowing eyes and strange voices. Aliens who, if they were encountered, were to be contained at all costs.
Aliens known as the Goa’uld.
“For cryin’ out loud, Doc! You couldn’t warm that thing up just little before using it?”
Janet Fraiser gave her patient, who wasn’t really being very patient at all, an amused smile as she moved her stethoscope into position on his torso. “Sorry, Colonel.” Pulling it away, she rubbed it on her palm for a few seconds before reapplying it to his chest. “Better?”
“Yeah.” O’Neill fidgeted while she listened to his heart and lungs. When she’d removed the earpieces, he resumed speaking. “You are going to clear me to go through that gate.”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Whichever will get me off this planet in” — he glanced at his watch — “the next forty-three minutes.”
“Colonel, you’ve still got lacerations, first-degree burns, bruises, a mild shoulder strain — ”
He cut her off. “And a search and rescue mission to run. For a man, I might add, who helped save this entire planet.”
“And that’s why, despite the fact that you’re still not completely recovered, I’m clearing you for gate travel.” She took satisfaction in the look of surprise that rippled briefly across his face. “Just don’t add to the list if you can help it. Fortunately, you’re a pretty quick healer. ” Watching as he slipped his T-shirt back on, she saw him wince a bit with the motion. “Some ibuprofen will take care of most of the soreness. Keep those cuts and burns as clean as you can.”
She couldn’t quite prevent tension from coloring her tone as personal knowledge born of experience with this particular patient warred with her medical training. O’Neill must have heard it, though he obviously chose to feign misinterpretation of the cause.
“Doc, I know your first encounter with him wasn’t exactly fun. But Frank’s really not a bad guy.”
She nodded, the ghost of a smile curving her lips. “I know that, Colonel. You told me, remember?”
He had, during that restless interval when he could no longer sleep and was chafing to be up and about — and, she sensed, away from the infirmary and the entire SGC for a time. Never one to really talk in-depth about his personal life, O’Neill had surprised her a little by telling her the story of his friendship with Frank Cromwell, including the tale of how it had been fractured by what had happened on that damned mission in Iraq. Janet knew that even the most stoic of individuals could not completely ignore the need for release when stressed beyond capacity, and the events of the past couple of days had pushed even the colonel’s limits. Deprived for the moment of any other outlet, and perhaps also driven by his memory of her initial treatment at the hands of his friend, Jack had begun to talk. And she had stayed to listen. There, in the evening-shift quiet of the infirmary, long after she had planned to go back home to her daughter Cassie, he had told her the story of how he and Frank had met. How they gone through Special Ops training together and then served side by side for twelve years, coming to rely so closely on one another in all manner of situations that they functioned nearly as one. How they had saved each other’s lives so many times, in so many places, that they lost count. How he and Frank, with their wives Sara and Lisa, had become a family unto themselves; had welcomed together the birth of his son Charlie; had together celebrated good times and sustained each other through bad. How the two men had been brothers in every way but genetics, until their bond had been sundered by the combination of three bullets, enemy intelligence, and pure human error on a black ops mission during the Gulf War.
The colonel hadn’t detailed his time in ‘Club Med’ but he didn’t really need to. Janet had treated her share of former POWs and knew the kinds of physical, mental and emotional damage that could result from captivity in enemy hands. Although her primary job was to treat the body rather than the mind, this wasn’t the first time she had sat and listened as the floodgates opened and a man poured out what had been eating him from the inside. It was, however, the first time that man had been a fellow officer with whom she worked on an almost daily basis, and whom she considered a personal friend. And so she had listened in the capacity of both friend and physician as he recounted the dark days of anger and hurt which had turned into years of bitterness before culminating in a final, if at first grudgingly withheld, forgiveness when the man who had once been his best friend appeared as if from nowhere to redeem himself by helping him to save the whole damn world… and had given his own life in the process just as Jack had opened himself to their friendship once again. Given it despite Jack’s own best effort to save him. Underlying everything O’Neill had said, Janet could hear the regret and the grief that she knew this was as close as he would come to expressing openly.
This was why she would let him go through the gate today, when she would otherwise insist that he spend several more days recovering from his recent ordeal. He needed this; needed to be the one to rescue the friend he’d thought he’d lost forever. Or else he would need the closure that only leading even a failed attempt could bring him. She watched as the lanky figure rose from the exam table, buttoning his shirt as he strode toward the curtain separating the exam area from the rest of the infirmary. “Be careful out there,” she called as he pushed it aside and vanished from view. The sound of the door closing followed a second later. “Godspeed, sir,” she whispered to the empty room.
Cromwell lay awake, listening as the deepening night brought quiet to the village. He turned his conversation with Tesni over in his head. They had continued to talk for some time after she revealed her world’s connection to the alien Goa’uld, his mind churning all the while with questions he dared not ask. He worried that he might have made a serious mistake in telling her anything at all about Earth. He hoped her supposed ignorance of anyone or anything related to the SGC was genuine. He got the sense that it was, but everything about this planet was confusing, and he could no longer afford to trust surface appearances. He had assumed that since these people appeared to have a fairly primitive society, they wouldn’t be connected with the alien race threatening Earth. He wondered just how much other potentially useful information had not been included in his briefings. Of course, the Air Force more than likely assumed that no one in his position was going to wind up offworld, at least not without being in the company of SGC personnel. Yeah, well, look what happens when we make assumptions, people. He’d had the clearance, and now he had the need to know. Too bad no one had foreseen that possibility.
Not even Jack. The ten or so minutes they’d had to talk while prepping for their descent into the Gate Room had raised as many questions as it had answered. Somewhere in the time between the return of Captain Carter with the news that the auto-destruct would be useless, and the execution of her new plan, something had begun to thaw the glacial wall between his old friend and himself. Maybe O’Neill had actually taken to heart what he’d said with regard to Major Boyd and his team. Leaving someone behind wasn’t always a choice. It could be a necessity, if there were no way to effect a rescue without even greater loss of life. Or in the case of Boyd’s team, no way to effect one at all. Having it pointed out that this was the same situation, greatly magnified, as Cromwell himself had faced in Iraq appeared to have set something in motion within O’Neill, no matter how vehement his initial denial.
Alone in the locker room, the two men had busied themselves with buckles, laces and zippers, at first speaking only those words necessary to adjusting the g-suits. It was not an activity quickly or easily performed on oneself, and they fit them to each other. The task was reminiscent of countless other occasions spent double-checking each other’s equipment before missions, and they fell naturally into the flow as though the intervening years had never happened. Finally, Jack broke the near-silence.
“We actually do have aliens here, you know. Well, one, anyway.”
Cromwell’s response was to tug harder on the lacing he was adjusting on Jack’s right leg. He looked up, ready out of old habit for whatever joke was coming, and saw that Jack was serious.
He grinned anyway. “See now, I knew you were holding out on me, Jack.”
“Yeah, well, you know how it is.” A shrug. “You’re probably going to get to meet him in a bit, so I wanted to warn you to not freak out or anything.”
“That ugly, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Big scary dude named Teal’c. No hair. Looks like he should play left tackle for the Bears. Weird tattoo-thingy in the middle of his forehead. Don’t mention it though; I think he’s a little sensitive about it. Oh, and he’s Jaffa, which means he’s got a snake living in his gut.”
He waited for the familiar O’Neill smirk; caught its ghost for just an instant. It was enough. “Sounds like a fun guy to have at parties. Friend of yours?”
“Actually, yeah. He’s on my team. Him, our resident genius Captain Carter, and this geeky civilian Ph.D. named Jackson who speaks a metric buttload of languages and figured out how to get that gate out there to connect in the first place. We’re a regular traveling circus.”
“You always did know how to pick ’em.”
The ghost gained more substance this time. “Nothing but the best for Jack O’Neill. You know that.”
Cromwell grinned again.
Now, lying in the darkness on a strange world far from home, he reflected that in that moment in the locker room, he’d known they would be all right, he and Jack. With any luck, they would still get to be, provided he didn’t manage to screw things up by saying something here on Tir n’Awyr that led to some new disaster for the SGC. He vowed to keep further information to himself until SG-1 or another team showed up.
For her part, Tesni had accepted his sudden reticence with aplomb, switching back to language lessons for a while before excusing herself to help lay out the evening meal. Most of the villagers preferred to share this meal outdoors during the summer months, she explained. He could understand why. The temperature had climbed steadily throughout the afternoon despite the surrounding forest, until even in the shade it felt like about 80°F. He watched as platters of roast meat, along with bread, cheese, greens and fruit appeared from somewhere behind the covered patio where he had spent the afternoon, and pitchers of herbal tea, cider and what smelled like spruce ale joined them on the tables. There must be a community kitchen beyond the wall that backed the patio. That would explain the scents of cookery and baking bread he had noticed as the day wore on.
Most of the food was familiar, too. He recognized chicken and pork, along with a couple varieties of fish. The orange cheese had a sharp flavor, while the pale yellow one tasted mildly nutty. The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, reminding him with a pang of the homemade multigrain bread Lisa had sometimes baked during the years of their marriage. There was a pile of something he recognized as scallions, alongside some green leaves he couldn’t place. The fruits were a mixture of species known on Earth — smallish early apples, raspberries and pears — and a few varieties he had never seen before, such as a tri-lobed yellow oddity about twice the size of his fist. Tesni noticed him studying one. “We call it tair dogn,” she explained, slicing it into its three constituent parts and placing two of them on his plate. She popped the third into her mouth.
Tair dogn translated roughly as ‘three portions’. An apt name. He took a tentative bite. It tasted like a combination of pear and orange, had a texture like cantaloupe, and was probably native to this world. He’d certainly never seen its like on Earth. As he chewed, he watched the villagers taking seats at the other tables. They looked healthy and fit. The children were active, running about while parents tried to calm them enough to sit and eat. He caught several of the children, and some of the adults as well, sneaking glances at him when they thought he wasn’t looking. Well, he was a stranger here, an unknown quantity. Curiosity was natural.
He noticed that no one else had come to sit at the table he and Tesni occupied. Just as the thought crossed his mind, however, the two teenagers he had first met that morning at the bridge came up and spoke to Tesni. The exchange was a bit fast for him, but it sounded as if they were asking whether they might join them. Tesni nodded, smiling and gesturing for them to take seats on the bench. They did, one on each side of her. “Frehnk, I have not properly given you the names of my niece and nephew. Tegwyn is the daughter of my brother Idris, and Ris is his son.”
Both teens inclined their heads in his direction and smiled. Polite kids, he thought, giving them each a smile in return. The locals seemed friendly enough, but ever since Tesni had mentioned Bel, the alleged “god” responsible for relocating her people to Tir n’Awyr, alarm bells had been ringing in the back of his mind. What was their precise relationship with this Bel guy? He hoped he would be able to get off-planet and back to Earth without encountering any glowy-eyed aliens. More importantly, though, he hoped that any team the SGC sent to look for him would be able to avoid contact with the Goa’uld. He had no idea how often they came to this world. With any luck, they wouldn’t decide to pay a visit while he was here.
As they were finishing their meal, Nenniaw approached and indicated to Tesni that he would like a word with her. She excused herself, and the pair moved off into the dusk, leaving Cromwell alone with Tegwyn and Ris. He tried to converse a bit with them, but they had a harder time with his accent, and in any case seemed distracted by something a few tables over. Glancing in that direction, he noticed the man who had come to the village earlier in the day. He was sitting at one end of a table in a corner of the patio, in the company of Nenniaw’s two lieutenants. Cromwell didn’t have to wonder what made him think of them in those terms. It was the same instinct that had caused his reaction to Nenniaw. All three Pridanic men were soldiers, and so was his fellow visitor. He sensed this in their bearing, their economy of motion, even the clipped tones of the speech he was doing his best to understand. Moreover, Nenniaw had an air of command, something to which Cromwell had unconsciously responded as soon as he laid eyes on the man. When the military had been your life since reaching adulthood, you could read its stamp on others from a mile away. Even across cultural lines, he’d discovered.
Her conversation with Nenniaw concluded, Tesni returned to the table. Shooing Tegwyn and Ris off to help with cleanup — apparently the universal chore of teenagers everywhere — she resumed her seat across from Cromwell. “I will arrange a sleeping place for you soon, and you must rest. At first light we travel.”
Travel? Where? Back through the gate? Where could they want to take him now, and why?
She must have seen the question in his eyes, for she elaborated. “We go to Dinas Coedwyg, half a morning’s ride from here. Maybe a little less than that.”
The name translated as Fort Forest, or perhaps Forest City. “Why am I being taken there?”
“Not only you. The other traveler, he goes as well. There are those there who will wish to speak with you both.”
Uh-oh. And he hadn’t even said ‘Take me to your leader’. Suddenly, the dire absurdity of his situation crashed in on him with full force, leaving him fatigued and drained. He felt on the verge of hysterical laughter. Pull it together, Cromwell. He was being borne along on a wave of circumstance over which he’d have precious little control without more information; information he was unlikely to obtain if he didn’t keep hold of himself.
“What is this about, Tesni? Who am I supposed to speak with in Dinas Coedwyg, and why? Who is this other traveler who arrived soon after me?”
She hesitated, as if weighing how much she could safely tell him. And ‘safely’ in what sense, he wondered? Had Nenniaw cautioned her against giving him information? He would probably have done the same in the other man’s shoes, depending on the circumstances. This was starting to feel like some of his old undercover ops. Did Tesni share Nenniaw’s concerns, or was she merely wondering how much she could say without getting into trouble with a superior? As he found himself thinking of the two of them that way, he realized that a lot of other pieces fell into place as a result. Underlying the picture of peaceful, friendly villagers ran a current of something else. A tension, a feeling that there was far more to Llanavon and its inhabitants than met the eye, though he’d be damned if he could put his finger on exactly what it was. And there was still that Goa’uld connection to worry about. He glanced once more around the village, gauging possible escape routes he might take if things went south. He was beginning to fear they might.
A sound from Tesni drew his attention back. She finished clearing her throat, then spoke again, her voice pitched this time for his ears alone. “The other visitor gives his name as Morcant.” She appeared to search his eyes for some sign of recognition at the name, but he had nothing. She continued, “My guess is that it will be Morcant whom the cadlywydd will need to see. But he will want to see you as well.” He groaned inwardly. The word she’d used had multiple translations, ranging loosely from ‘marshal’ to ‘general’. Take me to your leader, indeed.
She smiled. “Do not worry. Nenniaw has not spent the day speaking with you, as I have. I think you are a lost man, but he thinks a spy.” Cromwell opened his mouth to protest at that, but she stopped him with a shake of her head. “I think not. You would be a poor spy, who barely understands our speech.”
“I could be pretending, to make you tell me things.” Cripe, why did he say that? But she only laughed. A small, momentary chuckle, swiftly stifled as she schooled her features to seriousness once again. It was still laughter; in her case an honest, refreshing sound with no malevolence behind it that he could detect.
“You could. I do not think you are. You are a soldier, but you are not a spy.” So she could recognize it, too. No word in Tesni’s language for ‘airman’, of course. ‘Soldier’ was the closest concept she had. It fit. As for being undercover — no, not today. It was as well she knew nothing about his past, he’d reflected.
Nevertheless, as he now lay on the pallet she’d fixed for him in a corner of what he supposed was her house, he was restless and filled with dread. The breeze through the window nearby still carried the heat of the vanished day. Not that heat would keep him awake. He’d slept like a baby in deserts and in jungles, taking rest where and when he could get it. You learned to do that in his line of work. Of course, there usually had been someone standing watch while he slept, which helped. That line of thought brought him back to Jack, naturally. For a dozen years, when it was the two of them on a mission, knowing that Jack had his back made it easy to sleep anywhere. He’d always hoped the feeling was mutual. It seemed to be: Jack could lie down, pull his hat over his eyes, and be out like a light in thirty seconds. And be up again in a flash, if there was need; Cromwell had never met anyone with quicker reflexes. He wondered what his friend was doing right now, and when he would see him again. Wondered if he would do so.
He knew damn well that traipsing off into the woods and farther away from the gate was not going to improve his chances of that. While he was pretty sure that an SG team would not only scout the area immediately surrounding the gate for signs of him but would also follow the same trail that had led him to Llanavon, he was far less certain that they would manage to locate him if he left the village and went farther afield. A lot would depend on the Pridani cooperating and telling them of his whereabouts. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how Jack or anyone else from the SGC would communicate with the locals here. Jack had mentioned something about SG-1’s civilian linguist, a consultant to the Air Force. He hadn’t met the man in the course of the crisis that brought him to the SGC; the good doctor had probably had been somewhere up top with the rest of the evacuees while he and Jack and the rest of Jack’s team dealt with matters below. You didn’t need a linguist to deal with a black hole, after all. He just hoped the guy was good, and knew some Welsh. What were the odds of that, though?
Of course, he could improve his chances if he just got the hell out of here and went back to the gate. He wasn’t sure whether he was a prisoner or a guest. Getting up and simply heading for the exit was one way to find out, he supposed. If he wasn’t a prisoner, they’d have to let him go. If they didn’t, then at least he’d know his status. He didn’t really want to hurt any of these people, although if he had to do so in order to free himself, he would. It beat being carried off to who-knew-where and missing his ride home.
Quietly, he sat up and took stock of the small house. It was full dark now and no candles or other lights burned, but he had entered at twilight, and remembered noting wood-and-plaster walls, a worn wooden floor, and a wall dividing the interior into two rooms. The one he was in was sparsely furnished with an oaken table, two benches and a couple of chairs, all fairly plain and sturdy. His pallet occupied the corner farthest from the door, where the dividing wall joined an outer wall. A fireplace took up a portion of this outer wall, its hearth cold in the summer heat. Tesni must rely on the communal kitchen for food and hot water at this time of year, he reasoned. Listening intently, he could just hear her breathing softly in the sleeping room on the other side of the dividing wall. An open doorway linked the two rooms, about ten feet from where he sat. In the other direction, he knew, about fifteen feet separated him from the home’s entryway, a narrow opening filled by a door of nondescript, weathered wood. He recalled metal hinges and a worn-looking latch. He hoped they were well-oiled.
Levering himself up from the pallet, he crossed the room silently, pausing to feel the door hinges. His finger came away slightly greasy. Good; he should be able to open the door without anyone’s hearing. Probably quieter than climbing out an open window, though the thought of doing the latter had crossed his mind. He glanced back at the room again, double-checking his options. The windows appeared as slightly lighter rectangles in the overall dimness, their sills about four feet off the floor with nothing beneath them to climb on, unless he wanted to start moving furniture around and risk waking Tesni. The openings themselves were narrow, offering no room to swing his legs up and gain purchase; he’d have to pull himself up using his arms alone and then wriggle through, head-first. Not really all that difficult, especially for someone with his training. But to do it silently, in his current state? Eh, maybe five years ago. Christ, he could do it right now, he knew, if his arms and shoulders — okay, everything else, too — weren’t stiff and sore as hell from all that had gone on in the Gate Room and that rough landing when he’d exited the wormhole on this planet. But at the moment, hard as it was to admit, he trusted the door more than he trusted his own body.
Lifting the latch, he gave a gentle tug. The wooden slab swung noiselessly on its hinges, and he stopped it with a hand when the gap was wide enough to slip through. A peek outside showed the empty lane, just around the corner from the village square, everything barely visible in the inky blackness. Between the surrounding forest blocking all but a patch of sky directly overhead and the fact that the only one of the planet’s moons even visible was a mere sliver in its current phase, he had only the faint glow of a portion of the Milky Way’s ribbon to light his path. It was enough, if just barely, as his eyes had adjusted to the darkness several hours ago when he’d lain down and feigned sleep on his temporary bed. Oh, not that he’d exactly mind having a pair of night-vision goggles right about now, but he was grateful for the fact that his own natural night vision had always been good, even into middle age.
Stepping fully outside, he pulled the door shut behind him. He turned slowly, making a 360-degree sweep of the area, checking to see whether anyone had observed his exit. Seeing no one at either ground level or above, he set off in the opposite direction from the square, intending to slip along the inside of the settlement’s protective wall until he came to an egress. What he would do then would depend on whether there were guards or not. He assumed there would be. While not ideal, it was the best plan he could come up with on limited resources. He had no weapon beyond his own bare hands and the makeshift staff he had picked up on his trek through the forest. For some reason, he’d been permitted to keep it when Tesni took him to her home. This gave him hope that he wasn’t quite regarded as a prisoner. After all, who in their right mind allowed a prisoner to have a potential weapon? Unless, of course, the captors had weapons so much more powerful as to render it ineffective, which didn’t seem to be the case here. A staff could be useful against someone wielding a sword or a knife, maybe even a spear, though not against arrows or other projectiles. He doubted there would be much use of those within the confines of the village anyway. Now if the locals had firearms, he was toast, but he’d seen nothing to indicate that this was the case.
Making his way along the perimeter wall, he stopped every few feet to listen for sounds of alarm or pursuit. The drone of woodland insects and a rising breeze which caused the forest leaves to flutter conspired to make this somewhat difficult, but also served to mask the sound of his own movements. He could smell rain in the air, still some distance off if his guess was any good. He hoped he could get out of Dodge and find shelter before it came. He didn’t relish the thought of spending the night wet on top of the soreness and stiffness he already felt from the abuse his body had taken in the past twenty-four hours. Of course, being sore and wet beat being held captive on any day ending in -y, and rain would actually make things more difficult for anyone trying to track him in it.
He sensed motion above just an instant before a body landed on him. That brief warning was enough to make him lunge to the right, so that his assailant caught only his left side, knocking him off-balance rather than bearing him to the ground. He recovered and whirled, his staff at the ready. In the darkness, it was hard to separate his opponent from the shadows, but he could hear rough breathing and the shifting of feet as whoever it was tried to assess the best position from which to launch another attack. Not about to give him the opportunity, Cromwell moved in toward the sound. He swept his staff low, caught something solid in the shadows just above ankle-level and sent the other man sprawling. Heard him grunt on impact, and hoped to heaven that no one else did. He was surprised that this individual, whoever he was, had chosen to leap on him from above and pursue a solo fight rather than merely raising the alarm and bringing out the rest of the guard or the watch or whoever was responsible for keeping the peace in the wee hours. Even yelling out once he’d landed would have made sense. So what was the purpose of this attack, if not expressly to prevent his escape from Llanavon?
A scuffling sound told him that his attacker was attempting to rise. If he wanted to make a clean escape, he couldn’t let any alarm be given. He leaped toward the sound, flattening the other back into the dirt and straw that made up the pathway. He noticed as he did so that the figure he had landed on felt slighter than expected. One of the village youths? They didn’t seriously put kids on watch here, did they? He flashed back just for an instant to Nicaragua; saw again that teenaged kid in the contra unit, the one who’d bought it in the firefight that had gotten him and Jack out of there after the mission went south. Shit. It isn’t like that here, is it? Please tell me it’s not like that…
The body beneath him squirmed, face-down in the dirt. He shifted his weight, reaching to clamp one hand over the other’s mouth as the head turned, and flipped him over, pinning arms to sides with his knees. This was definitely a kid. Shitshitshit. In the faint starlight, he peered into the wide eyes that stared, frightened now, into his own. Ris. What the hell is going on?
He heard the sound of approaching feet, at least three sets of them, just before flickering torchlight painted the area. Clearly, it had been too much to hope that no one had heard their altercation. He looked up to see Nenniaw and one of his lieutenants approaching. And Tesni.