The greatest strength is in gentleness. — Leon Shenandoah, Onondaga elder
Winter had given way to the warmth of spring, and a carpet of yellow buttercups brightened the slope from the stone circle surrounding Tir ’n Awyr’s stargate to the nearby woods. Cromwell noted their brilliance in a distracted way as he accompanied Cadogan and Gerlad down the hillside. The trio had just returned from Caer Ynys where Cadogan had held another meeting of the Tok’bel council while Gerlad and Cromwell took a quartet of rebel officers from Emhain on a practice flight in some of the Tok’bel’s small squadron of ger’tak. At present, an even dozen men and women — including Armagil and Tathan from the Black Wolves — had volunteered for or been coaxed into the program. Gerlad, Cromwell and even Cadogan were kept busy instructing them in the hope that as more came forward this first cadre might be able to train those who followed.
“According to Sefys, survey teams located five additional ger’tak this past month,” Cadogan was saying. “Two were adrift in orbit around a small moon of one of Arverenem’s neighboring gas giants. The other three were on the moon’s surface, with only minor damage. That brings our tally of functional fighting craft to twenty-three.”
Cromwell shot him a sideways look. “Not counting your tel’tak, you mean.”
“Correct,” said the cadlywydd in a tone of mild amusement, “if only because you’d debate the point with me otherwise. Garlen still says he could mount oversized ma’tok — ”
“So we need at least fifteen more pilots,” Gerlad interrupted smoothly, by now surely accustomed to this sort of exchange. “Enough to fill the available seats and have reserve personnel should some be unavailable. Of course, that’s only enough for our present fleet. Once we capture the ha’tak, we’ll have its fighter complement as well.”
“Sources at Galla confirm twenty-eight ger’tak under construction, with another twenty planned,” said Cadogan. “There’s no guarantee they’ll all be completed by the time we strike, and any that are complete but not on board when we take the ship will have to be destroyed unless we can steal them too.”
Cromwell shook his head. “I don’t see how we’re going to get them all.”
“Nor do I,” Cadogan acknowledged. “But it would be nice to be able to try.”
In Llanavon, Cromwell continued to turn the problem over in his head after his companions departed for the stables to take mounts and ride to Dinas Coedwyg. Privately, he thought both Cadogan and Sabar were both being just a bit overoptimistic regarding the rebels’ ability to recruit and train enough pilots in the estimated four or five remaining months before Bel’s new ship would be complete. Granted, once they had the ship in their possession some of the Tok’bel could step in to pilot ger’tak if necessary. But given the relative paucity of Tok’bel numbers and the fact that through lack of a queen they were the last of their line, it would be better if this could be avoided. He knew that Gerlad, at least, shared his concern.
Still pondering, he crossed the square and paused for a moment at the far side. Turning left would take him home, while turning right would bring him to the building that served as the Am Rhyddid’s local command center. Might as well get some work done before bothering Tesni, he thought, and turned right. His wife had not slept well these past several nights, being near her due date and plagued by backaches. He’d been gone overnight this trip, and hoped that having the bed to herself might at least have helped her somewhat.
He’d no more than settled into the chair in his office when Tegwyn appeared in the doorway. “Uncle Neirin, my father saw Uncle Cadogan on the street and knew you’d returned. He sent me to tell you that Aunt Tesni is in labor.”
“For how long?” The colonel was on his feet before he got the words out.
“Since before dawn. Creirwy the midwife is with her, and so is my mother. The babe is near to being born.”
The little cottage was a bustle of activity when he arrived. Bronwen, Creirwy’s apprentice, turned from the fire where she had just dipped water from the kettle into a basin. “You’ve made it back just in time if my mistress is any judge,” she said by way of greeting as she carried the basin into the bedchamber.
“No doubt,” Cromwell replied, then paused just outside the bedroom doorway. Was he actually expected to be present in the room at the delivery, as was common for fathers in his home culture these days? Or was Tesni’s insistence on his presence, a request made only once but in a tone that had brooked little dispute, a nod to her awareness that he was not in fact a product of her society?
“Well, are you going to stand out there all day, or are you coming in?” said another voice from within. Creirwy’s tone managed to mix sarcasm with affection, a trademark of her bedside manner.
“Nye, come and hold my hand,” called Tesni.
Ducking his head to hide a smile, he did as he was bidden. His wife occupied a birthing chair that had been set beside the bed, and Anwen stood behind her with her hands upon Tesni’s shoulders. No sooner had Tesni taken hold of his hand than she was seized by a powerful contraction. Her grip tightened and he felt his fingers go nearly numb.
“Almost there, love,” said Creirwy. “Let’s have another half-dozen of those, shall we?”
Somewhere in the whirl of the next few moments Cromwell vaguely registered Anwen’s murmured reassurances, Creirwy’s instructions, and Bronwen’s quiet presence. He was focused on Tesni, breathing with her, bracing himself for her grip when each fresh contraction came. He lost himself in the rhythm of it: breathe, grip, push, repeat. Breathe, grip, push…
A loud wail pierced the air, and he felt Tesni give a final push and then relax. Creirwy straightened, clutching a damp and squalling form that wriggled. “You have a fine baby girl,” she announced, smiling. “And she certainly has healthy lungs.” Cromwell watched as Creirwy deftly bound the umbilical cord in two places and then cut it between with sharp scissors. “Just give me a moment to get her cleaned up.” The midwife turned away toward the basin, murmuring soothing words as she gently wiped the infant down with a warm, wet cloth.
A girl! Cromwell grinned. He hadn’t cared whether they had a son or a daughter, as long as the child was healthy. He’d been looking forward to fatherhood for months, and he knew he’d be teaching any child of his the same things and playing the same games, regardless of gender. The Pridani did things that way as a matter of course, and it was a healthy way to raise children. “What else can I do to help?”
Creirwy looked over her shoulder and chuckled. “Ask your wife.”
“Nye, would you get me a drink of water, please, while Anwen helps me onto the bed?” Tesni requested.
He moved to the dresser, where a pitcher and cup rested on a tray. Filling the cup, he carried it back to the bed where his sister-in-law was just tucking a bed-robe around his wife’s shoulders. Tesni leaned back against the pillow, her face flushed. A few wisps of sweaty hair had escaped her braid to curl damply against her forehead. She looked tired but happy as she took the cup and drank. As she set the cup on the side table, Creirwy approached and placed a squirming, blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms.
Tesni smiled, looking down at her daughter, and then at her husband. “Sit beside me, cariad,” she said, nodding toward the space beside her on the bed.
Cromwell eased gently onto the bed, careful not to disturb her. Tesni smiled, shaking her head at the exaggerated care he was taking. “I’m not fragile, Neirin,” she said. “Come closer, and sit against me.”
He scooted closer, adjusting the pillow behind her back as she raised herself to sit a bit straighter. He put an arm around her shoulders and together they gazed at their daughter. The newborn’s face was still rosy from the stress of birth, and a shock of unruly dark hair stuck up in all directions from her head. Tiny fists waved in the air, free to move about after the confines of the womb. “She has your hair, and so much of it,” Tesni commented.
Cromwell chuckled. “She does seem to. I haven’t seen all that many newborns, but most of them had less hair.”
“Not many are born with so much,” put in Anwen, smiling as she bustled about the room, helping Bronwen tidy up. “But both Ris and Tegwyn were born with full heads of hair, and old Aregwedd told me that Idris and Tesni were the same way when she delivered them.”
Tesni laughed. “It’s true. My mother used to tease me about it when I was a little girl, as she would brush and braid my hair before school. She said I’d been born with tangles, and would likely always have them.”
The infant squirmed again, fussing, then opened her eyes. They were bluish-gray. “I think she has your eyes,” Cromwell observed, “although it’s hard to tell. I’ve seen other babies start out with bluish eyes that turned brown eventually.”
Well, one, anyway. Charlie’s eyes had done that in the six months between his birth and the Christmas when a pair of impatient servicemen had driven across the Rockies in a snowstorm to surprise their wives, after flying into Travis AFB from overseas two days before the holiday, having been certain that they would spend Charlie’s first Christmas at Incirlik, far from hearth and home. The memory brought with it a familiar pang of regret over the boy’s tragically shortened life, but Cromwell pushed it aside, focusing on his own child today. His father had been blue-eyed, while his mother’s eyes were the same dark brown as his own, so he knew his daughter’s could turn out either way. Only time would tell.
Anwen had slipped silently from the room while he mused. Now Creirwy stood at the doorway, shooing her apprentice out. “Bronwen’s going to bring you some tea and food,” she told them. “I’ll be in the front room, writing notes until she returns. In the meantime, I’ll give you three some privacy.” Smiling, she stepped out, pulling the door partway closed behind her.
Reaching out, Cromwell stroked the baby’s cheek with one finger. Her skin was amazingly soft, and she hiccupped at her father’s touch. He chuckled again. “All I know is that she’s beautiful, just like her mother.” He leaned over and kissed Tesni.
She smiled, then moved to give him the child. “Here. You should hold her for a while, too.”
He took his daughter in his arms, cradling her against his chest. “Hello, annwyl.”
The baby wriggled and hiccupped again, peering up at him in the unfocused manner common to newborns, and the colonel felt tears of joy prick his eyes. His child. Fatherhood was a privilege he’d thought he’d never have, but now here he was, holding his firstborn in his arms, while sitting next to the woman he loved more than life itself. That he’d had to travel an unknown distance across the galaxy to another planet in order to reach this point was immaterial at the moment, as his heart filled to overflowing with gratitude — toward his wife, toward the other people here who he’d come to realize loved him as one of their own, and toward whatever agency of good fortune had brought him to this place, this life.
He kissed the infant’s forehead, blinking back the tears, then felt Tesni’s hand on his face. She didn’t say anything, merely coaxing him close when he turned to look at her, and kissing him again.
Drawing back after the kiss, he smiled, shaking his head slightly in wonder. “I love you,” he told her, his voice rough with emotion. “I never thought… I just…” He gave up, shrugging. “Thank you,” he said simply.
“Thank you,” she said. “I love you, too.”
They sat silently for a few moments, enjoying the quiet time together — just the three of them. Then the baby began to fuss.
“Our daughter would probably like to nurse, so let me take her,” Tesni said, opening the front of her nightdress.
He passed the baby back to his wife, who put the child to her breast. “What are we going to name her?” he asked. “I know we discussed a few names, but we hadn’t decided.”
“I still like ‘Seren’. And it suits her.”
Seren meant “star” in Naina Cromwell’s modern Welsh. Its Pridanic analogue had a slightly different pronunciation and had separated from the common noun but as a name it was one of the few with a recognized meaning — in this case, light. “You’re right,” agreed Cromwell. “It does suit her.”