Don’t count me out
I may be lost but I’m not gone
— Ryan Kickland, “A Wide Open Space” (The Mountain, 2010)
Cromwell’s eyes snapped open at the sound of birdsong. The pale light of false dawn painted the windows. He felt as though he’d only been asleep mere minutes, although a glance at his watch confirmed that he’d slept for just over five and a half hours. Still nowhere near enough, and he knew it, but it was better than nothing. He moved to sit up, only to find himself tangled in a blanket he didn’t remember pulling up when he crashed. Tesni, maybe? He’d been out like a light almost as soon as he was horizontal, he knew that much. For some reason the thought that she might have covered him wasn’t surprising. However the blanket had gotten there, he was grateful for its warmth. The temperature had dropped just far enough to make sleeping in shirtsleeves a chilly affair.
He could still smell rain in the air, which probably explained the coolness. If a front was coming in, travel would be a hassle. He had no idea what this planet’s weather patterns were like, of course, but he had plenty of experience with slogging cross-country in the rain. He rose and moved to the window to peer outside, gathering the blanket around him to ward off the chill. From all indications, there had already been some rainfall; droplets pattered from the trees as a light breeze blew. He was mildly surprised he had slept through it, though he supposed he shouldn’t be, given how utterly exhausted he had felt when he went to bed.
Sounds of motion from the next room alerted him that Tesni was awake. A moment later she appeared, a woolen cloak in faint gray plaid over her tunic and trews. She carried its twin, in muted shades of blue, which she laid on the bench near the table. Seeing him already awake and upright, she crossed to join him at the window.
“You feel better now?” she asked.
Cromwell nodded. “Some.” He plucked at the blanket around his shoulders. “Thank you for this.”
She smiled. “You are welcome.” She gestured at the cold hearth. “If I had expected the coolness early on, I would have made a fire last night.”
“Only if you wanted one. No need on my account. So this — ” he indicated the weather outside, “is unusual for this season?”
A shrug. “Somewhat. I usually find it far too warm to light a fire indoors through most of the summer.” She eyed him critically. “We will be meeting Nenniaw and the others soon, but there is time yet. Come, sit at the table.”
Puzzled, he did as she asked, watching as she retreated into the next room for a moment, returning with her arms loaded. She laid several items on the table: a pitcher, a basin, two folded cloths, a small cake of what appeared to be soap, and a polished bronze mirror. She peered at his face again, then handed him the mirror. “I was right. You were bleeding.”
He examined his reflection. He appeared almost as tired as he still felt; if he looked like this after sleeping, he could only imagine the ‘before’ picture. He must have looked like hell. No wonder Tesni had insisted on making sure he went to bed, before she would go herself. There was a smudge of dull red on his left cheek, and he wondered how long it had been there. Ever since he was struck by flying glass in the Gate Room, perhaps? He didn’t think it was from anything that happened last night. He touched the spot, and it began to bleed again. Tesni had said nothing earlier, so the wound was probably new. He guessed he’d missed brushing this one tiny shard off after awakening in the compass circle, and it had pierced his skin while he slept with his face buried in the pillow, as was often his habit.
As Cromwell worked the sliver of glass out of his skin, Tesni took up the pitcher and stepped to the door. “I will be right back.”
A few moments later she returned with the pitcher steaming in the predawn coolness and a bundle under one arm. She poured about half the pitcher’s contents into the basin, and most of the rest into a ceramic pot to which she added dried herbs. Unwrapping the bundle, she laid out bread and cheese while Cromwell washed his face.
He needed a shave, he noted, but that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Although from what he’d seen, most of the men here went clean-shaven, so he supposed at some point he’d manage it. At the moment, however, he found that just the application of hot water and soap did wonders for his mental state, clearing away the worst of the fatigue and even soothing the lingering remnants of headache. He still very badly wanted a cigarette, but he hadn’t any on him. Suck it up. The fragrant steam from Tesni’s teapot began to reach him, and he hoped to high heaven there was at least some caffeine in whatever was brewing. He doubted he’d be that lucky. No coffee, no cigarettes. Quit bitching, Cromwell. You’re alive. Isn’t that luck enough for you?
He felt eyes upon him, and looked up to see Tesni studying him as she poured their tea. “That’s better,” she said, reaching across to set a mug near his elbow. She added a plate of bread and cheese, then frowned and moved around to his side of the table. “Turn your head.”
He did, and she examined behind one ear. “You have more blood here. Hold still.” She took the wet cloth from him and sponged the spot. The cloth came away with a new streak of red. “This is not from last night, I think. I saw it yesterday, and the cuts on your arms. What happened to you?”
Cromwell let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “It is part of that long story. When I was trying to repair my world’s gate — our drws rhyng y byd — there was broken glass. Ours is not out in the open as yours is. The room which holds it has a wall of glass.” Her eyes widened at that. “The glass broke, and the pieces flew. Some hit me. I thought I had removed it all, but apparently not.”
“Let me see where you cannot, then. Bend your head forward.” Tesni searched his hair and neck for additional glass shards, finding two tiny flecks embedded near his nape and another in his scalp near the crown. She removed them and washed the areas gently with the cloth. She also examined the tender spot where he’d hit his head, asking about headaches and other symptoms before assuring him that, yes, it appeared to be as minor an injury as he claimed but cautioning him to tell her if anything changed.
Throughout the process, Cromwell was reminded of a distant morning, at Christmas many years ago, when he and Jack arrived at Jack and Sara’s home in Colorado Springs after a long, eventful trip home from Incirlik, Turkey… a trip that began with a last-minute announcement of leave and nearly ended in disaster. The C-130 that brought them home to the States landed at Travis, where they soon discovered that heavy snow had grounded further flights that might get them the rest of the way home. After waiting impatiently for several hours for the weather to clear, the two of them finally gave up on flying and set out to drive to the Springs. Desperate to get home to their wives and to Jack’s infant son — Lisa was spending the holiday with Sara and the baby — they’d driven across the Rockies in a snowstorm without stopping for more than a meal and coffee, before rolling their rented Jeep and narrowly escaping death in the process on a twisting dirt road at high elevation. Jack had pulled him from the wrecked vehicle just before it toppled into a ravine and exploded into flame. They’d walked — God alone knew how — away from the scene together, back to the paved road and continued on foot. After grabbing a few hours of sleep in a lonely barn near the roadway, the pair set out again after the snowfall ceased. In the end, they managed to hitch a ride with a friendly ex-Marine and his wife, bound for Denver, who found them walking along the side of the road in the wee hours and drove them to their destination. Their arrival — unannounced, half-frozen and thoroughly banged-up, in predawn darkness — had woken both Sara and Lisa, who fussed over them, cleaning and bandaging the cuts and scrapes acquired on their journey, without knowing or asking the cause.
Tesni had asked the reason for his injuries; for some reason, he had felt comfortable answering. She had then taken the answer in stride, despite its including what to her must surely be a fantastic concept, and simply set to work helping him. He marveled at that, even as she finished up before clearing the basin away and sliding his breakfast in front of him. Suddenly, Cromwell knew: She’s done this before. Probably more than once, unless I miss my guess. And she’s seen much worse than anything that’s going on with me right now.
He wondered who or what he reminded her of, as she moved to sit across from him, where her own meal lay as yet untouched. “Thank you,” he said.
Her response was another of those small, pensive smiles. “Eat,” she told him. “We will be meeting Nenniaw and the others soon.”
They finished their meal, rinsing the mugs with the remainder of the water from the pitcher. Cromwell shrugged the blanket from his shoulders, folding it on his sleeping pallet and donning the blue cloak. Determining that more rain was on the way, Tesni moved to close the shutters. He beat her to it on the second window, earning a broader smile of gratitude.
Tesni led him to the same building where they had been last night, after his encounter with the unfortunate Ris. A fire was burning on the hearth inside, and a small iron kettle simmered over the flames. A teapot on the table gave off an herbal scent, this one different from whatever mixture Tesni had brewed. Nenniaw and Celyn were seated on a bench before the fire, sipping from mugs. They turned as Cromwell and Tesni entered.
Cromwell wasn’t sure what sort of reception he expected from the pair this morning, but they greeted him cordially enough. Apparently, being vouched for by Tesni carried some weight around here, and he was again reminded how fortunate he was to have her as an ally. As Tesni set out two more mugs and began to pour whatever was in the pot, the door opened again, this time admitting Nenniaw’s other lieutenant, and the man that Tesni had identified as Morcant. Tesni handed Cromwell a mug, murmuring, “The man with Morcant is called Dynawd. He is Nenniaw’s brother.” She moved off to speak with the pair.
Cromwell inhaled the steam from his beverage, then drank. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee right now, he thought again. This version of tea smelled and tasted slightly spicy, and it was warming, which he supposed made it a reasonable compromise. I still want a damn cigarette. Of all the times to be forced to go without…
This line of thought was interrupted by the arrival of Tegwyn. Cromwell remembered it would be her job to watch for anyone the SGC might send looking for him. Because of the language barrier, he would need to give her something identifiable as being, if not necessarily his personally, at least from Earth and nowhere else, so that anyone looking at it would know that he’d been here. Of course, he supposed he could leave a note, if only he could find something to write with, and on. Do these people even have writing?
Tesni appeared at his elbow again, her niece in tow. “Frehnk, the horses are ready. We must go in a moment. Who shall Tegwyn watch for, and how will she know them?”
He trusted Tesni, who obviously trusted Tegwyn, which meant that he would have to trust the girl as well. He motioned the two of them to follow him outside, squatting down to draw in the rain-moistened soil at the edge of the street the symbol found on the uniform patch worn by SGC personnel. He remembered being told in briefings that it was the stargate symbol unique to Earth itself, although dialing a gate address required seven symbols altogether.
When he spoke, his voice was low and urgent. “You will know my friends by this sign, on the arm of their clothing. If they should arrive, you must keep them here until I return.” As Tesni translated, Cromwell thought quickly. He needed something she could show them, something that would transcend any language barrier, so there would be no mistaking that he had been present here. Had he been wearing his dog tags, he could have removed one for the purpose, but he and Jack had both handed their tags over to Captain Carter before descending into the gravity well. He’d have been somewhat reluctant even now, given the symbolism involved, but it would have been the logical choice. Shit. He could think of only one thing at the moment, an object he was truly loath to part with, even temporarily, in this place. No choice. It was simply the one thing he carried right now that he knew Jack or for that matter anyone else in the US military would recognize. Cromwell was normally far from superstitious, but the item in question did serve as the closest thing to a good luck charm he possessed.
There was nothing else he could think of, though, so he rolled up his right pantleg and reached just inside the top of his sock and boot. It was still there, exactly where he had stuffed it just before leaving the locker room, in the one place he’d been certain that increased gravity wouldn’t rip it from his person. He regarded the challenge coin briefly, pursing his lips, before turning to Tegwyn. Taking her hand, he placed the coin in her palm, closing her fingers firmly over it.
“Show them this,” he told the girl. “Show this to the leader of the people who wear that symbol. He will know what it means.” Tesni translated, and Tegwyn nodded solemnly, her eyes huge. With any luck at all, thought Cromwell, that leader would be Jack himself, and while seeing this particular coin in someone else’s possession would probably give him one hell of a turn, Cromwell knew it would also serve to keep him here long enough for their party to return from Dinas Coedwyg. Either that, or it would send Jack storming the countryside searching for him, possibly all the way to Dinas Coedwyg itself, wherever the hell that was. In any case, it would guarantee that Cromwell wouldn’t be left behind.
While he was still considering this, Nenniaw and Celyn came out of the building, urging haste. Thunder punctuated their words, still some distance off but promising a storm to come. Peachy. Just once I’d like to travel in good weather.
The sound of hooves on packed earth caught his attention, and he turned in time to see Ris appear around the corner, leading two horses. He could hear others behind. As Ris approached, Cromwell found himself examining the youth’s face. He was badly bruised, to be sure, and carried himself gingerly, but seemed in good enough spirits. Cromwell hoped, however, that Ris wasn’t planning to accompany them. The kid deserved a little downtime after last night. Once again, he was glad he hadn’t managed to inflict the kind of damage he knew himself to be capable of delivering.
Ris came to a stop before him, handing over the reins of one of the horses. They were stocky, slightly rough-coated creatures, not especially tall but quite solid-appearing — more like ponies, really. The one whose reins Ris gave him was a bay of perhaps thirteen hands, with lively eyes. Cromwell examined the riding tack used here. The bridle was of a style he hadn’t seen before, but the biggest difference was the saddle. It was a primitive affair and lacked stirrups. Of course, he realized: the ancestors of the Pridani — and of their mounts for that matter — had likely been taken from Earth long before the stirrup made its way to the British isles. He was probably lucky they had even developed saddles to any extent. He recalled reading in one of his college texts, seemingly a lifetime ago now, that the saddle had been unknown in Britain until somewhere in at least the middle of the first millennium AD, when it was introduced by Roman soldiers, to whom it was also something of a novelty. That had to be more recent than the sixty-odd generation timeframe that Tesni claimed for her people’s presence on Tir Awyr. He shook his head in amazement. He’d majored in history out of a keen interest, and although his primary focus had been on military and modern history, the few courses he’d taken detailing the ancient world had been fascinating. He’d never expected to relate to material on late Iron Age cultures in a manner quite this up-close and personal, however.
Ris was saying something. Cromwell still didn’t have anything like a firm grasp of Pridanic, but from the tone, it sounded like an apology. For last night? Hell, he was fine. His concern was for the kid, who had clearly come off the worst in their encounter. “Not to worry,” he said in Pridanic, hoping he didn’t mangle the words too much. “You are well?” That got him a nod and a crooked smile. “Good.” He clasped the boy’s shoulder, then turned to the task at hand.
The product of a rural childhood, Cromwell had enjoyed trail riding since before he was Ris’ age, even riding bareback now and then, but it had been well over twenty years since he’d had the opportunity to spend time around horses on anything resembling a regular basis. He’d found himself on horseback on rare occasion in the course of missions in some of the wilder parts of the globe as well, but the most recent instance was probably four or five years ago. Riding was certainly preferable to slogging on foot in the rain, however, and he was glad of this one small way in which his journey might be eased. Wherever Dinas Coedwyg was, this would get them there and back faster, so if Jack and his team showed up here while they were gone… He noticed that the rest of the party had already mounted, except for Tesni, who came to take the remaining horse from her nephew. Ris was gesturing again, offering him a leg up, but Cromwell shook his head, confident he had this, at least, under control. He grabbed a handful of mane and reins. A leap put him belly-down on the animal’s back, his head over the creature’s neck. He swung one leg across, pushed upright, and settled into the saddle, which to his surprise was more comfortable than it had appeared, if just barely. Ris helped his aunt to mount, and waved farewell as horses and riders filed out of the village and onto the forest trail, just as the rain began in earnest.
Cromwell tried not to think about how sore he was going to be by the end of the day.