Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. — G. K. Chesterton


“…and its principal products are lumber, textiles and paper.” Cromwell slipped the attached ribbon into the geography book that Cadogan had lent him, marking the spot where he’d left off reading aloud. Seated in the chair by the open front window of his cottage, he glanced up to where Tesni leaned over his shoulder, scanning the page along with him. “So. Do I pass?” he asked with a grin.

She grinned back and patted his shoulder. “You’ll do. Honestly, I’m surprised you even needed my help. It hasn’t taken you long at all to get this far. Just over a month?”

The colonel had spent the past five weeks working on reading and writing in nearly every free moment he could find. Once his duties to the Am Rhyddid were completed for the day, and he’d done his own household chores along with his share of whatever communal tasks were assigned to him and taken the time for some exercise — without which he’d always found himself too restless to sit still long enough to study, even given the additional physical effort inherent in the business of daily living in his current environment compared to the equivalent tasks on modern Earth — he would find Tesni or some other member of the family, even Cadogan when the cadlywydd was himself free, and work on his skills with the Pridanic script. He often continued on in solitary fashion, reading by the light of an oil lamp for a time before bed, mentally sounding out words written in the phonetic Pridanic alphabet as he turned the pages of one of Cadogan’s books. He’d pushed himself hard, endeavoring to make up the time he’d lost by his initial unwillingness to ask for help. More than that, though, he found the work fascinating, for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, even to himself. He’d always been the type of person who enjoyed learning for its own sake, seeking out intellectual challenges with the same enthusiasm he applied to physical ones. He was aware that many people tended to prefer one over the other, but for him the cravings had always been of equal magnitude. That fact had shaped his academic life and also his career; in this strange and unexpected place to which that career had led him, it was of immense help.

He shook his head, still smiling. “Getting started was the hard part, since I didn’t have the proper frame of reference. You and Cadogan gave me that, and don’t forget how many hours you spent drilling me on the letters.”

“I suppose. Still, you’ve picked it up fast, even if this has been almost all you’ve done in your spare time since you started.” Tesni came around from behind him to take a seat on one end of the high-backed settle, next to his chair. The bright sunlight slanting in through the window illuminated the map in the still-open book as he secured his bookmark deep into the cleft between pages before closing the volume.

Placing the book on a side-table, he said, “Well, remember, it isn’t as if I was new to the concept of reading itself, Tesni. People on my world read, and while I was there, I did learn to do it in two different scripts; one as a child and the other as an adult when I was getting ready to go to a place where I would need it. My problem was figuring out how the one used here relates to the sounds of your language. Once you helped me with that, the really hard part was done. Your writing system is actually a much better phonetic match for spoken Pridanic than the system I grew up with is for either my native language or the one I first spoke with you when I arrived, and that’s a huge help. I’ll still need to spend a lot of time practicing, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’ve been reading long enough in my own language and script that I can look at a word and not have to sound it out in my head to know what it says. I see the entire word at once, and recognize it. I still have to go through yours letter by letter half the time, the way a child would. It’s a little frustrating.”

She nodded. “I see. It should come naturally in time, though I do understand the frustration. You’re doing remarkably well, regardless.”

He smiled again. “Having a good teacher helps. I really want to thank you, and your uncle as well.”

Tesni shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing? Tesni, on my own world I used to do this all the time, every day, without having to think about it. Not just things I had to read for my education or to do my job, either; I read for fun, too. At least a book a week when I was growing up, and usually two. Maybe a bit less once I was in the military, but it was still pretty close to one a week except when I was extremely busy or in a place where I didn’t have the opportunity to bring one along with me. More, if I actually had enough free time. I could read faster than a lot of people, which helped.”

“There were that many books available?” Her eyes were wide.

“More than a person could read in a lifetime, even if he did nothing else, and there were new ones being written all the time. In most places on my world, books were readily available to anyone who wanted them. Now imagine coming from a place like that, where you take reading for granted, and suddenly finding yourself in an environment where you are unable to read what everyone around you can; not even when it pertains to your work. Not at all, until someone helps you learn how. That’s hardly ’nothing’, all right? I felt pretty lost there for a while, and I don’t anymore.”

“I’m glad of that, then, and I’m happy I could help.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Do you want to work on writing now, or have you had enough for one day?”

He grimaced. “My handwriting is still awful in your script, so I suppose I should work on it for a while.” Looking out the window again, he added wistfully, “It’s just that it’s so nice outside that it seems criminal to sit indoors. But I don’t want anyone to catch me at this. It’d be embarrassing, and probably lead to questions, too.

Tesni gave him another smile. “If you like, I can think of a couple of places we could go that would be private but still be outdoors. I wouldn’t mind getting outside, myself.” She stood. “Shall we take a walk, Neirin? Just bring the practice tablet my uncle gave you, and we’ll go get some fresh air.”

She led him along one of the trails that crisscrossed the forest surrounding Llanavon. Just over a month before midsummer, the late afternoon was warm and Cromwell found the shade welcome. Sunlight falling through the green-leaved branches above dappled the forest floor with bright patches that shifted as a light breeze set the leaves to dancing.

At a fork in the trail, she chose the fainter of the two paths, stopping after perhaps a quarter-klick at a trio of oaks growing so closely together their branches intertwined overhead. A weathered wooden ladder disappeared into the leaves. Amazed, the colonel looked up to see a wooden platform overhead, hidden among the branches. “A treehouse?” Or no, wait…

Tesni grinned and unwittingly finished the thought that was forming in his head. “This is a popular route for deer in the rutting season, and someone built a platform up there years ago. It’s a good place to hide with a bow. The deer don’t even know anyone is there, unless you make noise. It’s been added to over time, and when it isn’t being used for hunting, it’s a nice place just to get away from people for a while. I know Ris and Tegwyn used to come here all the time to play when they were a little younger, and to be honest, I’ve sat up there when I just wanted some peace and quiet. Sometimes I bring a book.”

In a childhood split between rural Pennsylvania and rural Tennessee, Cromwell had had plenty of experience with treehouses. He and his brother Nick had built one in the woods behind their parent’s home not far from Knoxville, and a similar one had been situated not far from his grandparents’ Pennsylvania home. Nick and their grandfather had built that one, before he’d really been old enough to help. And yes, he’d escaped to one or the other with a book countless times in boyhood and his teenage years. Every time I turn around, I find something more that Tesni and I seem to have in common. The colonel was also familiar with deer stands from his youth, though he’d only tried bowhunting from one once, preferring to use a rifle. Here, naturally, bowhunting would surely be the norm. He remembered a fair bit of venison having shown up on the menu last fall, though he hadn’t actually taken part in its procurement. Perhaps this coming deer season, assuming he was still here…

Tesni’s voice drew him out of his reverie. “So, shall we?” She gestured toward the ladder.

“After you.”

She scrambled up the ladder, leather-shod feet and pale green trews disappearing among the leaves. The platform was just over ten feet off the ground, but a large branch dipped below it and spread a covering screen of greenery that helped to disguise it from below. After a moment, a hand reached down, Tesni’s face peering over the edge of the platform as she lay on her stomach. “Give me the tablet; then you’ll have both hands free.”

Stepping onto the first rung of the ladder, he handed the triptych up, then climbed up to join her. The platform was perhaps ten feet by eight, unroofed except for the rear third, constructed of broad planks and surrounded by a low railing with gaps built in that were large enough for a person seated on the floor of the platform to slide a bow through, with room to draw it. Overhead, the oaks spread a leafy canopy. Tesni sat tailor-fashion in the middle of the platform, rolling up the sleeves of her tunic and looking about at her surroundings. Cromwell copied her. “I can see how this would be a great place to get away now and then. I had no idea it was here.”

His guide smiled. “Well, now you do. Maybe this is where we’ll conduct the rest of your lessons, not that you’ll need many now.”

“Hey, practice never hurts. I’m surprised you didn’t suggest this spot before, though.”

In answer, she pointed at a branch perhaps a dozen feet away. “See that nest?”

The colonel peered in the direction she pointed. Sure enough, there was a clump of twigs bound together with strands of dry grass and other plant material, clinging to the bough. Some enterprising bird had built a nest close to the platform. “I see it.”

“Until four days ago, there were baby warblers being raised there. They learned to fly and now the nest is abandoned for the season. I came here three weeks ago thinking to use this place, but when I saw the birds were here first, I didn’t want to frighten them away from their family, so I waited and just checked back every few days.” She shrugged. “Call me silly.”

Cromwell chuckled. “Silly, you’re not. I’d have done the same thing.”

“Really? In that case, I don’t feel silly at all.” She smiled again. “If you sit here long enough and listen, you’ll probably hear the warblers somewhere nearby; this is their territory, after all. But they’re done with the nest now, so we won’t disturb them too much by being here.”

“I wouldn’t think so.” He picked up the triptych and opened it. “Time to do some work, I guess.” One end of the stylus was flattened, for smoothing the wax surface to receive fresh writing. He applied it to the page where he’d done the previous day’s exercises. “Give me some commonly misspelled words and let’s see if I can get them right. I might as well practice that along with my handwriting.”

They spent perhaps half an hour or so on spelling and writing, with Tesni checking his work. “That’s fine,“ she said, at length. “I really think you’ve done enough for today. Only two spelling mistakes, and regardless of what you may think, I can read your writing perfectly well. Why not just relax for a while?”

He shook his head, chuckling. “I suppose so. Besides, you’ve probably had enough for one day, whether or not I have.”

“Well, yes.” At his look, she reached over and gently took the triptych from his hands, placing it out of his reach. She wore an indulgent expression, though, and patted his arm again. “Everyone needs some time off now and then, Neirin. Even you. Even me.”

Cromwell glanced up, measuring the angle of the sunlight filtering through the branches. Out of habit, he checked the watch he still wore. It confirmed what the sunlight told him, not that this was any surprise. The dinner hour was soon approaching, though admittedly, he didn’t feel particularly hungry. The full heat of summer had not yet arrived, and evenings were often still cool enough that keeping a fire burning in one’s own hearth did not create undue warmth, so while the communal kitchen would be in operation to feed the overflow of extra mouths that seemed to be always present lately in Llanavon, most people still prepared their own meals at home, and would until the humid stickiness of high summer made doing so indoors nearly unbearable. He supposed that, since he and Tesni had wandered out here rather than either of them tending to any sort of meal preparation of their own, they could grab something from the communal table when they returned. Right now, just remaining where he was, away from the bustle of an entire village full of people, had its appeal.

Besides, he was in pleasant company. He and Tesni had spent so much time together over the past five weeks that he found himself slightly surprised she wasn’t heartily sick of him by now, but in fact it seemed quite the opposite. Not of course, that he was tired of her company, either. Far from it. If he’d found her companionship enjoyable early on in his time among the Pridani, when he’d first been adjusting to his bizarre situation, his delight in her presence had only increased since then. Tesni asked nothing from him, and seemed amused whenever he did things for her anyway. Like the time he’d helped her peel turnips, or clean rugs at Bennaeth House. What she didn’t quite grasp, it seemed, was that he enjoyed doing things for her. All right; admittedly, he enjoyed doing them partly because he could do them with her.

And why not? he asked himself. She was a good friend, and nice to be around. In fact, he could almost be glad of having needed help learning to read her language, because it had afforded him an excuse to spend such a wealth of time with her. If he was being at all honest with himself, the more time he spent with her, the more he craved her company. Now she’d insisted he put lessons away for the moment, yet she seemed in no hurry to leave him and go do something else. She’s right, you know, his inner voice chided him. You really don’t have to be doing something constructive with every waking moment. Take a little bit of downtime, Cromwell. In that last sentence, he heard the echo of Jack’s advice to him, first uttered over twenty years ago.

Tesni was regarding him with the expression that meant she’d caught him woolgathering again. “Now what’s on your mind?” she asked lightly. There was humor in her tone.

Busted. “Would you believe me if I said ’absolutely nothing’?” he asked.

She laughed. “I would not.”

He had to laugh at himself, then. “All right, clearly you know me too well for that.” He lay back, stretching full-length on the weathered planks, hands behind his head, staring up at the patterns the leaves made overhead. “If you must know, I was thinking that you’re right. Taking a little time off is a good idea. It’s just that I forget how, sometimes. Bad habit, I know.”

She matched his position, lying back herself to gaze up into the leafy canopy. “I have the same habit, in case you haven’t noticed. Fortunately, we don’t seem to have it at the same time.” She stretched before tucking her own hands beneath her head. “I’ve seen what happens when people push themselves too hard, and it isn’t healthy.”

He couldn’t disagree on that point. “No, it isn’t; you’re right about that, too. You’re also not the first person who’s ever said it to me.”

“I’m sure I’m not.” A beat. “I didn’t mean that as a criticism, by the way.”

Huh? “I didn’t take it that way, Tesni.” He rolled onto his side, propping his head on his hand so that he could see her face. “Why would I?”

Her eyes, still focused on the leaves, closed for a moment in something that looked almost like discomfort before opening again, focusing this time on him. “I’m sorry, Neirin. Of course you wouldn’t.” A sheepish smile. “Don’t mind me. I’m just thinking out loud right now, more than anything.”

That was unlike her, at least in his experience. “Everything all right?” he asked, concerned.

“Fine; why?”

“I don’t know. You just sounded like you had a lot on your mind, that’s all. Not that it would be any of my business, but if there’s anything you need…“ He waved his free hand vaguely. “You’ve done a lot for me, and I’d like to think that if there were anything I could help you with, you’d say something.”

She smiled at that. “I would. Don’t worry about it, though. I was honestly just thinking, and got a little lost in the process. The same way I know you do sometimes.”

Ah. So he wasn’t the only one of them with that habit, either. “I can respect that. I’m still curious as to why you thought I might feel you were criticizing me, though. You only spoke the plain truth.”

“Some people don’t take it well when you remind them they’re only human, or tell them they need to relax a bit. Especially if it comes from someone who is frequently guilty of forgetting that themselves.”

“Believe me, I’m not one of those people. And you really aren’t the only person who’s ever said it to me. At least a couple of other people have told me the same thing over the course of my life, and they weren’t wrong either. One of them even has the same problem, though not to quite the same extent, and once in a while I’ve had to remind him that he was taking life way too seriously.” Besides, even if you were to criticize me, I could take it. It isn’t as if I haven’t aimed plenty of that at myself over the years.

She looked genuinely relieved. “All right. I’m glad you don’t mind my pointing things like that out to you.” After a pause, she said, “You and I really are a lot alike, you know that?”

“No, I’d never noticed.” He raised an eyebrow, grinning.

Tesni laughed. “Oh, good.”

He had no idea what made him do it, because he hadn’t been planning to — at least not consciously — but he leaned over and kissed her lightly. “You’d have to work pretty hard to upset me, Tesni. All right?”

She nodded. “All right.” Another pause; he could see humor playing over her features. “So what was that all about?”

Busted again. “Just now?” He chuckled. “I honestly don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the moment. Was I wrong?”

“I don’t think so. It’s something that hasn’t happened to me in a while, and I was just surprised, that’s all. ”

He picked at a small sliver of wood that was in the process of separating itself from the edge of a plank. Working it free, he dropped it through the narrow cleft between two adjoining planks. “To tell the truth, so was I. It, ah… it isn’t something I’ve done in a while, myself.”

“I understand.” Something in her tone made him look up. She was staring into the branches again, with that same pensive expression he’d seen before, beginning on his first night in Llanavon.

“Tesni, if I’ve made you uncomfortable…”

She turned onto her side, facing him. “Not at all. In fact, I’m very comfortable with you, and I think you know that. This is just a difficult day for me each year. It’s a little less difficult this time, in some ways.”

Now he was thoroughly confused. “Maybe I’m dense, but help me out here. What makes today difficult?”

She shook her head. “You’re not dense at all, Neirin. Eight years ago today, Bel’s Jaffa made me a widow. Life goes on, and mine certainly has, but this one day of each year I am reminded.”

Shit. He’d wondered whether Tesni had ever been wed; certainly a woman with her grace, intellect and appearance must at least have had the opportunity. Now he had his answer. “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

“Of course not. I know I’ve never told you, and I seriously doubt anyone else in the household would have, either, unless you had some reason for asking. Even then, they would have directed you to ask me.” She toyed with a strand of her hair as she spoke, winding the ends around one finger. “It isn’t anyone’s story to tell but mine.”

“I don’t need to know the details.” Cromwell was curious, but he wasn’t about to pry. He valued the privacy of others as highly as he valued his own.

“Ordinarily, I might agree with that, but given what just happened a moment ago…”

He held up a hand to quiet her. “Forget about that. I’ve clearly put you in an awkward spot.” Myself, too, but that’s of little consequence.

“’Forget’ about it? Hardly. And anyway, who says I want to?” She laughed, surprising him. “Neirin, don’t you think I might have enjoyed it?”

“Well… If you did, then I’m glad.” He meant that sincerely, but this was definitely turning into one of the more awkward conversations he’d had in a long time.

“I did.” Tesni reached out and took hold of his hand, twining her fingers with his. He didn’t contest the appropriation. “Look, I haven’t the slightest idea what was going through your mind, but that’s all right. You and I know each other pretty well, I think, and we understand each other. We enjoy each other’s company, and if it turns out that perhaps we enjoy it on more than one level, what’s wrong with that?”

“Ah… where are you going with this?”

She smiled. “I have no idea. Does it matter?”

He considered that for a moment. “I don’t know. Does it? This isn’t exactly something I’ve really thought out.” And now I wish I had, before letting impulse get the better of me.

“To be honest, I didn’t think either of us had. Let’s start from the beginning: I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next in your life, or in mine. Up until recently, that would have been enough to keep me from acting on any sort of attraction. It’s kept me from doing so with anyone else for the past eight years. Eogen and I had only two years together, and it was the first formal pairing for both of us. He was one of my uncle’s men, from Bren Argoed, and when he died it was in the course of trying to prevent the Jaffa from taking a group of young captives away to be slaves or hosts — a situation very similar to the one that occurred on your second day here. The difference is that the Jaffa won, on the day they killed Eogen. They took the captives offworld, and I was one of three people who lost spouses in the attempt to prevent this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. Anyway, after an appropriate period of mourning had passed, certain friends and family members began trying to interest me in seeking another mate. I suppose it was because I was young, and everyone just assumed I would want that again. But I wasn’t ready, nor was I certain I ever would be. It wasn’t a matter of pining for Eogen; it was more the thought of chancing the loss of someone else I might love. Right around that point, the Jaffa had come again, and when they left, Idris and I no longer had living parents. That’s why Idris is the master of Bennaeth Bod, in standing for Cadogan, who while he is in fact chieftain, obviously has other duties that prevent his taking day-to-day responsibility for the household. After Cadogan, Idris is the eldest member of the clan with direct claim to the house, and to inherit the chieftaincy of clan Branoc, or what remains of it. Before she and our father were killed, our mother was householder and heir.”

Some of the pieces were falling into place, now, in both puzzles: the first puzzle being that of Tesni’s unmarried status in a culture where it appeared that most people her age were married, and the second being the underlying structure of the clan into which he had been effectively adopted. What he’d just learned also shed a bit more light on the respect that seemed to be accorded Tesni by everyone in the village. This was not a feudal society — the Pridani had a largely egalitarian culture — but it appeared that they held certain positions of leadership to be hereditary, and Tesni was third in line for one such position. Second, effectively, when you considered that Cadogan had other business to attend to and apparently had already ceded the greater part of his clan duty to Idris. Cromwell had picked up on that much, at least, over the course of the winter, as he’d figured out why Bennnaeth Bod, or “Chieftain House“ bore that name among the locals, and listened to Tesni’s family talk over dinner. Now he knew more of the backstory.

“You’ve lost a lot of people you cared about to Bel, haven’t you?”

Tesni nodded. “I have. If I hadn’t already been directly involved with the Am Rhyddid since I reached the age of majority, that would have been enough to drive me into its ranks.” She shrugged. “In any case, for most of the past eight years, I’ve avoided any… entanglements, if you will, in the hope of avoiding a repeat of what happened with Eogen. But eight years is a long time, and lately it occurs to me that I stand to lose people I care about anyway, as long as we remain enslaved to the Deceiver, and as long as we fight for our freedom, too. So there’s little point in denying myself whatever pleasure I might be able to gather while I can. Doing so only gives Bel something more than what he has taken directly from me, and by thunder, I’ve no cause to give him anything without a fight.” Her jaw was set, and something in her eyes glittered fiercely as she said this last.

If Cromwell had respected Tesni greatly before these revelations, he now found that respect increased several-fold. It was humbling to realize that his staunchest friend and ally — and perhaps more? — here was an eminently practical woman born simultaneously into both slavery and a leadership succession; who carried a large share of responsibility for family members, the well-being of a village full of people, and elements of a rebel movement aimed at throwing off the yoke of slavery; who had lost a number of people whom she loved to the enemy she fought, and who ultimately refused to bow to despair in the face of her losses, being determined instead to live as full a life as possible and in so doing spite her foe.

He admired her for it, and found himself wishing he could identify that kind of strength in himself.

“So where does this leave you and me?” he asked.

She rolled onto her stomach, still holding his hand, and propped her chin on her other hand, watching him intently. “I don’t know. Some of that depends on you, obviously. You have your own situation to deal with, and while I know you’ve been waiting for someone from your world to come and take you back there, it’s been ten months. Do you still think they will?”

“I don’t know. There are a number of possible reasons for their not having arrived yet, and only some of them imply that they never will. On the other hand, if they don’t, then eventually I’ll have to make a decision to either stay here or to try to find my own way back home. Right now I don’t know how I’d do that anyway, so it limits my choices a bit.”

At first, he’d anticipated the arrival of an SG team nearly any day, but as days stretched into weeks, he realized that it was possible that Earth’s gate, or even the base itself, might have sustained damage as a result of the bomb that he and O’Neill had set. In that case, he supposed it could conceivably take as much as several months to get everything operational again. He might well be found even yet, but in the meantime, his continued work with the Am Rhyddid kept him occupied. Not only did he find in their cause something he could appreciate in the abstract, but if no rescue were forthcoming, it was entirely possible that he might live out the rest of his days among them. That made their struggle his own, in a very real and immediate way.

While it was unfortunate that these people had to be at war at all, he reflected that it did make his own transition simpler in the sense that he was doing something very similar to the career he had pursued throughout almost his entire adult life thus far. The trappings were somewhat different, the organization a lot less formal, and the weaponry something he might politely term ’bizarre’ but at the core of things, he was still doing the same sort of work he had always done, especially if you counted the times his career on Earth had involved training or working with guerrilla forces.

On occasion, he felt vaguely guilty at the thought that it was probably a lot easier for him to adjust to the Pridani’s current situation than if he’d been dropped into a society at peace where he was expected to be, say, a simple farmer and nothing more. He suspected that would have bored him out of his mind. He was too used to both mental challenges and a certain amount of adrenalin-fueled action, after nearly a quarter-century in the military, most of it in Special Operations combat units. Even training exercises were a far cry from the bucolic life. He knew what had driven him from rural Tennessee and into first university and then the military, despite the fact that, unlike his older brother, he’d actually had a choice in the matter. At least he’d used the opportunity to get an education in exchange for a commitment to serve. That was something Nick had never gotten, and would never have the chance to get.

Not, of course, that there weren’t farmers among the Pridani surrounding him, even in Llanavon. While Llanavon was supplied in part by farms farther away — being these days something akin to a military base disguised as a village — the inhabitants did indeed grow some of their own food, along with gathering what was available in the forest surrounding them. They kept livestock as well, and as an adopted member of the community, Cromwell had put in his fair share of time at the task of keeping the village fed. He even enjoyed the work, having become accustomed to similar tasks during his youth. But there was much more to life in Llanavon than that, and for this he was oddly grateful.

He had been somewhat abashed to discover the extent to which he had underestimated the Pridani on first glance. He’d soon realized that while this was on the one hand a low-tech culture, in many ways the Pridani seemed to be quite sophisticated. They were generally a polite, cooperative people who valued integrity, intellect and creativity. Universally educated and literate, they had a respectable body of written works spanning not only their own culture and that of their neighbors on Tir Awyr, but also those of their fellow Celts on four sister worlds, as well as a reasonable grasp of at least basic science and its methodology. They practiced full gender equality, something that struck him as eminently civilized. Pridani women moved with confidence and grace, expected to be listened to by men as well as by other women, and commanded respect equal to that accorded men. Girls and boys played the same games and were taught the same skills, and had the same career paths open to them in adulthood. Cromwell found this utterly refreshing compared to some cultures he had been exposed to over the course of his career on his supposedly advanced and enlightened homeworld. He could think of worse fates than having to spend the rest of his life here, among these people.

The problem was that he still wanted to go home. Whenever he had to go away from Llanavon, he still left his challenge coin with Tegwyn in case anyone from Earth came to visit, and the guards who kept watch over the Tir Awyr’s stargate knew to look out for anyone resembling an SG team. But he couldn’t shake the nagging fear that the reason why no one had come for him was because something had gone horribly wrong with the stargate on Earth, and that his exile might be permanent.

“So at least for the moment, it appears you’re stuck with us, Neirin,“ Tesni observed.

“I suppose it does,“ he agreed. “How long that moment is going to be is anyone’s guess, though.”

His companion smiled. “Tell me, how is that different from what any of us face?”

She had a point. Tesni knew as well as he did how quickly things could change. Cromwell had suspected almost from the first hours of their acquaintance that she was in some wise a member of the Pridani military, but he’d been surprised to learn that she was actually an intelligence operative among other things, tasked with gathering and conveying information and also with assessing possible threats that appeared from the direction of the stargate — including himself, initially. In the time he’d known her, she had variously served as a messenger, overseen supplies, and on at least one occasion that he knew of, coordinated and carried out an intelligence-gathering mission in a town several days’ journey distant, near one of the continent’s naquadah mines where Bel kept an outpost and a Jaffa garrison. Among the Pridani, she informed him, there was not only a proud and ancient tradition of female warriors who fought alongside their male counterparts, but some of the most renowned military leaders in her people’s history had been women. And while Tesni herself had not been involved in actual combat in recent years — beyond their one encounter with the Jaffa — not only had she done so in the past, but she considered herself fully capable of doing so in the future should the need arise. At present, however, the Am Rhyddid had more need of her other abilities and so she obliged.

Cromwell found he could imagine her in the thick of the action easily enough. He wasn’t about to forget the way she’d handled the Jaffa staff weapon, or the deadliness of her aim despite what he was later to learn was the weapon’s inherent tendency to favor broad firing rather than pinpoint accuracy over any real distance. Like himself, Tesni had risked her own life in the field before, and in all likelihood would again, more than once. Between that and the experience of losing loved ones to Bel and his minions, she was well aware that life — her own or anyone’s — could alter course in an instant, or even end abruptly. It was an awareness that he understood all too well. What matters is what you do up until whatever happens, happens.

So why was he hesitant, if she wasn’t? Especially when it had been his action, unpremeditated though it was, that had brought them to this question? Face it, Cromwell, he told himself. You’re stuck out here on your own, and you have no guarantee you’ll ever get to go home. Make a life of what you have here and now, and take tomorrow as it comes. You’ll be a happier man for it.

He shook his head, grinning. “You’ve got me there, I’ll admit.” Raising the hand whose fingers were still entangled with his own, he brushed its back with his lips. “So, now what?”

“I don’t know. I suspect we’ll figure it out as we go.” She shrugged, still smiling. “We’re both patient enough for that, I think. In any case, I know what I want to do right at the moment.”

This time, she kissed him.


<— Chapter 19 – Confession

Chapter 21 – New Frontiers—>