The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.  — Thomas Jefferson


“So no more sign of wolves nearby?” Cromwell directed the question at Nenniaw as the pair of them stacked firewood on the broad front porch. Bennaeth Bod certainly used its fair share of logs, the colonel reflected. Then again, the large stone manor did have ten rooms occupying two floors with several fireplaces to provide heat, and there was certainly no scarcity of timber around Llanavon.

“None that I’ve found in more than three weeks of looking,” replied Nenniaw, stretching his back and pushing the woolen hood from his sandy hair. “I think it was just a few who’d strayed from their pack and got a little farther into human territory than they’d expected to. The few tracks I saw early on indicated they were relatively young. It happens now and then with the young ones, but they never stay long.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” the colonel acknowledged, placing the last log on the neat stack that occupied one side of the porch, far back out of reach of all but the most fiercely wind-driven snow. It wasn’t snowing at present, but thick clouds filled the sky overhead, their dark bellies edged with the wan rays of the westering sun and promising more of the white stuff as evening closed in.

The front door swung open and Anwen appeared, her arms full of evergreen branches tied with ribbon. “If you two are done hauling firewood, would one of you be so kind as to mount these over the door for me?”

Cromwell chuckled. His diminutive sister-in-law might be long on any number of talents, but there was no way she could reach the top of the doorframe. He reached out to take the branches, noting they were tied together in a sort of garland. “Just centered over the top and hanging down along the sides of the frame?”

Anwen nodded. “Yes, just lay them over those three hooks you see up there.”

As the colonel arranged the garland above the door, he couldn’t help but be reminded of his grandfather placing a similar garland over the front door of the house in Nanticoke. Cromwell’s family had only spent a few Christmases in Pennsylvania when he was a boy, but he’d treasured them. While the Pridanic Midwinter festival wasn’t Christmas, it seemed to share many of the same traditional trappings. The colonel couldn’t quite decide whether this made him miss Earth or helped him to feel more at home here among his adopted kin.

“That looks nice,” said Anwen, stepping back to eye his work. “Thank you, Neirin. Now both of you come inside and get warm.”

The air inside the house carried the scent of roasting meat and baking bread, as well as the heady aroma of apples and currants baking in pies flavored with spices imported from Galla’s warm equatorial islands. Cromwell sniffed appreciatively, recognizing the familiar smells of ginger, cinnamon and cloves as he shed the coat he wore and hung it on a peg near the door. More at home here, I think, he decided, answering his own internal question from a moment before. Besides, for the last eight years he’d spent on Earth, he’d avoided anything to do with Christmas like the plague, or at least he’d tried. Christmas had reminded him too much of Jack, and of the all-too-brief span of years during which he and Lisa, with Jack, Sara and eventually Charlie, had formed their own tight-knit little family, spending whatever time together that they could, especially if he and Jack were able to be home for the holidays.

Things were different now, since making whatever peace he and Jack had found time for in their brief encounter before his fall, and since his own arrival here on Tir Awyr. It would be nearly Christmas on Earth now too, he realized, counting up the months and weeks in his head as well as he could, given that he had no way of knowing exactly how many days had passed outside Cheyenne Mountain while he and Jack — and eventually others — had labored to break the grip of the black hole’s gravity. Still, it had to be close to the festive season. There might indeed be no place like home for the holidays, he mused, but this is home for now. Maybe forever; who knows? And Jack, I have no idea what your personal life has been like since Charlie died and you and Sara split up, but wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you have people around who care about you as much as these folks seem to care about me.

Tesni brought him a cup of mulled wine and drew him into the manor’s great room to sit with her on a high-backed settle placed before the fire. “We’ve some time yet before dinner, though everything’s cooking and Dynawd and Glenys are taking their turn watching it all. Tegwyn has gone upstairs to get her crwth and Idris his drum, and I’ve brought my gitâr, so we’ll have some music while we wait.”

Cadogan appeared from the stairway as she finished speaking, with Tegwyn and Idris behind him. “I’ve brought my whistle as well,” he said, brandishing a small wooden flute.

Cromwell recalled having seen his friend playing the instrument several times on Bennaeth Bod’s porch or the banks of the river. He’d been surprised at first to learn that Cadogan was apparently a musician of some skill, but he reasoned that everyone needed a hobby or two, and perhaps the high commander of an entire rebel military group — not to mention the host of the Tok’ra who headed its sister organization — might require more than the normal number to serve as outlets. Indeed, Cadogan appeared to have several interests which he used to maintain his equilibrium and entertain himself in whatever downtime he managed to find. “I’ve played the chwiban since I was a boy,” Cadogan had told him once, when the colonel had encountered him piping a plaintive melody in the near-dusk of a summer evening. “It’s relaxing and enjoyable, so why not? You ought to give it a try.”

Cromwell had demurred, chuckling and shaking his head. “I’m not the most musical of people, I’m afraid. Oh, I like music well enough, but I’ve never been any good at making it myself.” He’d learned in his youth that he had little if any sense of pitch useful for singing or for playing the piano that stood in his grandmother’s parlor. Having tried, he’d cheerfully turned to other pursuits instead, giving the matter no further thought.

Cadogan hadn’t pressed him, for which he was grateful. Early on, Cromwell had noted that the Pridani seemed to weave music through much of their lives, and he was happy that he’d been able to please Tesni by learning the dances that went with so many of the tunes. Dance, at least, was dependent upon observation and physical coordination, skills he actually possessed. His career had honed the first to a fine edge, and his basic athleticism seemed to have provided the second. Moreover, he’d found that he actually enjoyed the sort of group dancing practiced among his adoptive people, and so was content to have at least this means of participation.

Anwen, Ris, Nenniaw and Blodwen joined the gathering as Tegwyn drew the crwth, which to Cromwell’s eyes resembled something like a cross between a small lap harp and a violin, from its case. Tesni already had the gitâr, which strongly resembled its modern counterpart on Earth, in her hands and was tuning it. After a few moments spent doing the same, Tegwyn drew her bow across the crwth’s strings and pronounced herself ready.

“Shall we begin with ‘Snow on the Branches’ or with ‘Turning of the Year’, perhaps?” Tesni asked.

“Oh, the first, I think,” her niece replied. “We can play ‘Turning’ once everyone’s warmed up a bit.”

Idris tapped his single drumstick upon the flat, tambourine-like drum that for all the world resembled an Irish bodhran the colonel had once seen played at some Celtic music festival he’d attended with Lisa, his first wife. He remembered the name only because Lisa had nearly bought one. The Pridani called the same instrument a bwrdd-croen, which translated roughly as “skin-board”. After a few beats to set the rhythm, the others joined in.

Cromwell recognized the tune as one of many played for dancing a few nights earlier in the gather hall. The thatch-roofed pavilion just off the square which served as an outdoor dining and social hall in Llanavon’s sultry summertime boasted an ingenious set of removable wall panels, complete with windows of oiled parchment and a few of glass, that were added to its otherwise open-sided frame in mid-autumn, enclosing the space for winter use. The kitchen section was similarly enclosed for winter, allowing its two-sided fireplace to provide warmth and a place to prepare food and drink for gatherings. On the morrow, the local populace would gather there to celebrate Midwinter itself; tonight was the eve of the celebration. At least some of the food being prepared in Bennaeth Bod’s kitchen was intended as a portion of the family’s own contribution to the feast. In fact, a great many of the edible ‘tithes’ that found their way to the manor over the course of the year tended to find their way back to the communal board enjoyed on such feast-days by all who lived in Llanavon under Clan Branoc’s protection, be they members by kinship or not.

He soon found himself tapping one foot in time to the music as Tesni began to sing. As she reached the end of the first verse, everyone except himself and Cadogan, who was occupied with the whistle, joined in the chorus:

Snow on the branches, midwinter’s white gown
From farmstead to wildwood, the year winding down.
Short grows the daytime and longer the nights
Until the wheel’s turning shall bring us to rights.
Snow on the branches, remember your place
Cov’ring the green only at the sun’s grace.
You dance on the landscape a season, no more
‘Til springtime relieves you, as ever before.

They continued through the rest of the song, each member of the family in turn singing a verse, and all joining the chorus. The colonel knew the words to most of the verses and to the chorus, having heard this song several times before. By now it was nearly as familiar to him as several of Earth’s Christmas carols. Still, he refrained from adding his voice to the chorus, and counted carefully to be sure that the verses would run their course before reaching his place in the circle. Unless the traditional song had more verses than he was aware of, he’d be spared the expectation of singing one, though he wondered whether the others would expect to simply pick up at the same point in the circle for the next song. He hoped not, because he was comfortable and didn’t want to have to absent himself to avoid an awkward moment… but neither did he want to sing and ruin an otherwise pleasant performance by the people he loved.

The song reached its end, and after a few experimental chords and a glance around the circle, Tesni led them into “Turning of the Year”, another Midwinter-themed song. Cromwell excused himself to top off his wine cup as Ris, seated to his right, contributed a verse, and returned just after Tesni, who occupied the place to his left, reached the halfway point in the next one.

At the close of the song, Tesni turned to him. “You missed your turn, cariad. Why aren’t you at least singing the chorus with us?”

Busted. The colonel shrugged. “I’ve told you before, Tesni, you really don’t want to hear me sing.”

Tesni favored him with an indulgent smile. “Oh, come now. It can’t possibly be that bad.”

He chuckled. “Trust me. I really can’t sing.”

Tesni cocked her head at him. “I find that hard to believe. With a voice like yours… ”

They’d been through this before, Tesni maintaining that she loved the sound of his speaking voice, and that anyone who sounded like that ought surely to be able to sing. He’d been spared having to prove it by chance happenings — a lucky visit by Ris with a message from Cadogan, an interruption from one of his men stopping by with a question — but Cromwell had been certain the matter would come up again. Apparently that time had arrived. “Fy nghalon, I honestly can’t carry a tune, not even in a bucket.” He smiled. “But I’m perfectly happy to listen to all of you. Just let me do that.”

Tesni shook her head with a sigh and bent to her gitâr once more. Strumming a few chords, she looked up again at her family. “Anyone for ‘Holly Green and Red?” Receiving unanimous nods, she played the intro to yet another festive song. May as well call them carols, Cromwell decided, since that was what they truly reminded him of.

This time, as everyone joined in singing the chorus after the second verse, Tesni elbowed him in the ribs and gave him a significant look. Good grief, she’s not going to let this go until I prove to her that I’m no musician, he realized. There was nothing for it; he knew his wife was aware that he was at least familiar with the words.

With another shrug and an apologetic glance around the circle, he opened his mouth and gave it his best try. He saw Anwen wince, noticed Cadogan raising an eyebrow in his direction from his place near the fire, and could have sworn he heard Ris falter for just a second before the youth coughed and increased his own volume. A moment later, Cromwell felt another elbow in his ribs, harder this time, and Tesni flashed him a look that clearly said, Stop. He shrugged again with a sheepish smile, and gratefully complied.

At the end of the song, Tesni laid the gitâr  aside and announced a short break, claiming she wanted to check on something in the kitchen. As the various family members stood and stretched, moving about the manor’s great room, Cromwell felt his wife tug at his arm. “Come with me,” she said, standing and drawing him to his feet.

Obediently, he followed her toward the kitchen. Just inside the short passageway that led past the pantry and into the kitchen proper, Tesni paused, turning to face him. “Neirin, what in the world possessed you to do that?”

The colonel arranged his face in his most innocent expression. “What? I thought you wanted me to sing.”

“Yes, but you didn’t need to… ” She trailed off, and he could see comprehension dawn. “You weren’t trying to be funny just then, were you?”

He shook his head solemnly, fighting the urge to laugh. “No, I wasn’t. I honestly can’t sing to save my life. Never could.”

Her eyes widened. “I thought you were only being modest when you said that.”

Cromwell chuckled. “No, I wasn’t. Can’t carry a tune, and learned years ago there was little point in trying. I do all right without it, though. A man doesn’t have to sing, after all.”

“Well, no, he doesn’t.” She reached up to gently caress the side of his face from temple to jawline. “Though I imagine you miss out, not being able to?”

He laughed outright this time. “Cariad, I don’t know how I can miss what I’ve never had in the first place. I genuinely enjoy listening to music. Love it, in fact. But I’ve tried singing, and it doesn’t work because I can’t match a pitch. Tried playing an instrument once, too, when I was a boy. Oh, I could play the notes if someone showed me where to put my fingers, but I couldn’t have told you whether what I played truly sounded right or wrong. And it mustn’t have been right, because pretty soon I was told not to bother. I had plenty of other things to keep myself busy and I could still enjoy listening to music, so I didn’t really think too much about not being able to make my own after that.”

She gave him a dubious look; he grinned and gathered her into his arms. “Tesni, it really doesn’t bother me. I just want to sit and enjoy the songs. You all sound great, and if I can’t contribute, that’s all right.”

“I’m sorry I put you on the spot, then.” Her arms went around him, and they held each other close for a moment. Then she drew back slightly, looking up at his face. “Though I’ve noticed you do have a sense of rhythm…”

The colonel chuckled again. “I suppose I do, perhaps. What of it?”

She smiled. “Idris has more than one bwrdd-croen. Ris sometimes plays it as well, so one of them shall teach you.”

He groaned. This was not exactly what he’d been planning. “Do I have to?”

“No… ” The smile turned mischievous. “But I’d appreciate it if you’d at least try. I hate leaving you out, even though I know you say you don’t mind.”

He couldn’t say no to her. He tried, but the word simply wouldn’t come. Instead, he sighed and kissed her before answering, “All right, I’ll try. But not tonight.”

“No, not tonight. But soon.” A grin bloomed on her face. “Thank you, Nye. And I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“You didn’t embarrass me. Not really, anyway. But the next time I tell you something, please believe me?”

She hugged him tightly. “I suppose I’d better.”

When they returned to the fireside, no one said a word about Cromwell’s failed attempt at singing, although he was amused to note that no one suggested he try again. The remainder of the sing-along passed without incident, and in due time Glenys poked her fair head into the room to announce that dinner was ready.

Everyone bustled to get the meal on the table, as the colonel’s adoptive family neither employed nor desired servants. Nobility they might be, he supposed, but by now it was clear to Cromwell that membership in a Pridanic clan’s chief family represented far more of obligation than of ease. Idris and the others had no qualms about rolling up their sleeves and doing the same work as anyone.

Cromwell often reflected that it wasn’t much different from the way military rank was meant to function in the world to which he’d been accustomed. Rank implied duty; the higher one’s rank, the greater one’s responsibility for those below. In the otherwise egalitarian society of the Pridani, the primary role of clan chief was to guide and organize the efforts of the local populace in providing for the needs of the group as a whole and to mediate the rare dispute that might arise. The concept seemed to be that of “first among equals”, and as near as the colonel could figure from his reading of Cadogan’s histories, probably owed its hereditary nature only to an older power structure that had developed around the time when Bel’s offspring had ruled his worlds in their father’s name and then risen against him.

He caught himself musing on this as he carried bread to the table and shook his head, chuckling softly. Almost a year and a half you’ve spent on this planet, Cromwell, and you’re still trying to puzzle out what makes its people tick based on what you learned in school. Not that this isn’t like being dropped into a living piece of history in some ways, but can’t you just relax and go with it sometimes rather than trying to analyze everything?


Dinner was enjoyable, as always with his family, and included the traditional sharing of the cup that Cromwell now understood symbolized unity, though he had not on the occasion over a year earlier when it had formalized his adoption by those he had since come to love. At one point, Anwen broached the subject of wolves again, as she passed a plate of roast pork in Nenniaw’s direction. “So you’ve seen no indication of them, I’m told?”

“No, they’re gone,” Nenniaw reassured her as he took the plate. “Young, they were, and just a bit out of their range if you ask me. But there’ve been no tracks in weeks.”

“Well, that’s good to know. I’ll worry less about the livestock, then. The barns are safe enough, but animals need a bit of fresh air even in winter, and there’s only so much a stout pen can do to protect them.”

“I shouldn’t worry,” put in Cadogan. “There’s still plenty of game deep in the forest to keep wolves occupied, even at this time of year. I doubt they’ll trouble us, despite the tales some like to tell.” He paused then, and it was clear from his expression that he was listening to some comment from his symbiote.

A moment later, his eyes refocused and he chuckled. At Anwen’s impatient throat-clearing, he grinned and said, “Sabar’s just reminded me of an old tale regarding a wolf, in which the wolf is not a villain.”

That drew a look of interest from nearly everyone at the table. “Is it a long story, Uncle?” asked Tegwyn.

Cadogan smiled. “The wolf’s portion is short, but the story itself is longer.”

“Perhaps you might save it for after the dishes are done, then,” suggested Anwen. “That way you don’t have to try to eat and tell a story at the same time, and we’ll all be able to enjoy it once the kitchen is clean.”

The cadlywydd chuckled again. “Fair enough, especially since I drew the short straw before dinner and get to wash. Who’s drying?”

“That would be me,” said Idris. He cocked his head at his wife. “And no, I still haven’t figured out how she arranged those straws just so.”

Anwen shot him a look of feigned indignation. “I did nothing of the sort.”

“Of course not, my love.” His lips twitched in a smile as he said it.

Cromwell grinned. The master of Bennaeth Bod — well, both of them, really — always amused him, as did its mistress. “We could ask Ethni and the two pups to help you,” he commented. “I imagine they’ll gladly clean plates after a meal like this.”

Anwen turned the same expression of a moment earlier in his direction, and he held up his hands in mock surrender. “Ah, I suppose maybe we won’t.” Everyone burst out laughing.


With dinner over and the table cleared, the rest of the family once more repaired to the fireside and song while the chiefs of Clan Branoc pulled kitchen patrol, a development the colonel privately found amusing although he’d never say it aloud. This time Ris played the bwrdd-croen and Dynawd took up Cadogan’s whistle, playing it with nearly as much skill as the cadlywydd. No one asked Cromwell to sing, and he was content to simply enjoy the performance of the others.

Halfway through the chorus of a song the colonel had previously only heard as an instrumental dance but which he’d been informed was called “Season of Stars”, two male voices added themselves to the chorus as Idris and Cadogan emerged from the kitchen.

The very sky announces the turning of the year
As stars descend upon the land
Watchful eyes behold them but have no care or fear
‘Tis only luck that’s close at hand
Come cheer, in happy hearts abide
Hold fast to hope in wintertide.

Detouring from his route toward the group gathered by the fire, Idris cupped his eyes with his hands and peered out the front window. “And what do you know?” he called, turning from the glass with a grin. “The sky’s cleared after all, and you can actually see them falling.”

Tesni laid her gitâr aside and stood, drawing her husband with her again. “Well, that’s good,” she said, smiling.

She moved toward the door with the colonel in tow, followed by the others, and took his coat and her own cloak from their pegs. After handing the coat to him, she fastened the cloak about her shoulders over her tunic.

Cromwell looked at her helplessly, with no idea what was going on. “Ah, where are we going, cariad?” he asked, mystified, as he pulled on his coat and began quickly doing up its buttons.

She laughed — even that was a musical sound, the colonel noted — and exclaimed, “I forgot that you don’t know! We had such clouds for so many nights in a row last Midwinter that you never got to see the falling stars. They come each year at Midwinter. I know you’ve seen them at other times, cariad.”

It was true; he’d seen at least three or four meteor showers since his arrival on Tir Awyr, but he’d been completely unaware that Midwinter was accompanied by one as well. Meteor showers especially reminded him of boyhood summers in Pennsylvania, watching the Perseids in the August sky with his brother Nick and their grandparents. They also reminded him of Jack.

“Come on.” Tesni tugged at his arm; the rest of the family were making their way outside, bundled in cloaks and coats against the cold. “Not that I necessarily believe it, but tradition says that to see the falling stars on Midwinter’s Eve bodes good luck for the coming year.”

Cromwell shrugged, allowing her to lead him outside. He knew there wasn’t really much that small orbiting rocks drawn in by gravity could do to change one’s luck, but the old superstitious streak that lurks just below the surface in so many military folk ran as strongly in him as in anyone, when it came right down to it. Reaching into the pocket of his trews, he fingered his unit coin, the single reminder of his old life that he still carried out of habit as his own good luck charm. Besides, he rationalized, meteor showers were a thing of beauty and worth watching for that alone.

This one certainly promised to be a treat. Joining the rest of the family in the front yard, breath misting in the chill air, he gazed upward into the clear sky and wondered what had become of the clouds. The firmament was inky black and strewn with stars, the wide swath of the Milky Way dominating its arc in brilliant majesty. Sights like this were rare on Earth, with its ever-present light pollution; there, the stars had been clearest when he’d been in the middle of nowhere, far from civilization. Rural Nicaragua. Afghanistan. Iraq, on one terrible night.

Here, there was no light pollution to speak of, Pridanic settlements being illuminated solely by candles, oil lamps, and the occasional torch. The twin moons rode close together just beyond the skeletal topmost branches of oak that marked the edge of the woods, their light casting faint double shadows on the snowy ground. From neighboring houses, other figures stepped into the cold, their faces turned skyward. He heard Tesni’s sharply indrawn breath and followed her pointing finger as a bright streak traced its way across the sky to vanish beyond the trees. Catching another from the corner of his eye an instant later, he similarly directed her gaze.

The eleven of them watched for several minutes, murmuring quietly among themselves, as their neighbors did likewise. Cromwell counted a dozen meteors during that time, before Idris turned back toward the house, announcing loudly that he was tired of freezing his feet. A chuckle rippled through the gathering to be taken up by their nearest neighbors, who stood just within earshot in the street in front of their own house.

As if at the breaking of a spell that had held them transfixed, everyone filed back into the manor, stripping off cloaks and coats, gloves and hoods, to gather once more before the fire with mulled cider this time. As Ris added another log to the blaze, Tegwyn brought the cadlywydd a cup of cider and asked, “Uncle Cadogan, may we please have that story now?”

Cadogan blinked. “Ah, yes, the story with the wolf. I think I’ll let Sabar tell it, since he knows it somewhat better than I do.”

Bowing his head, he closed his eyes for a moment. When he looked up, it was clear the symbiote had taken control. {“This is a very old tale, one I heard in my youth on the world where I was spawned,”} Sabar began, in his by now familiar multi-toned voice. Cromwell noted that he kept its harmonics muted slightly for the intimate confines of the family circle. {“It was told by the human folk who lived there, and while it’s quite fanciful, they took great pride in telling it as though it were true. Some of them may well have believed it, for all I know.”} Sabar shrugged. {“Either way, it makes an interesting story. It seems there once was a king whose brother stole his kingdom and exiled him. The rightful king was named Numitor, and his evil brother was Amulius.”}

Some memory pinged in the back of Cromwell’s mind, and he leaned forward to listen more closely as Sabar continued. {“Numitor had a daughter named Rhea, who as yet had no children, being unmarried. Fearful that any son of Rhea’s might do to him what he had done to his brother, Amulius had Rhea shut away in a temple where she could have access to no man, and would remain forever virginal in the service of a goddess, for the people of that time and place still believed in any number of gods and goddesses.”}

“She wasn’t made a host, was she, Uncle Sabar?” Tegwyn wanted to know.

{“No, and in fact the goddess in question was not Goa’uld. She was simply an idea the people believed in and made statues of, and a convenient way for Amulius to rid himself of the risk of his niece bearing sons who might oppose him. In any case, sending her off into service and a virgin’s vow didn’t really work, because Rhea got pregnant anyway. The story is foggy on who the father was; some versions claim it was a god, some that it was a hero, and still others that it was Amulius himself. Rhea gave birth to twin boys, and Amulius ordered all three — mother and sons — put to death.”}

Sabar paused and sipped from his cup, as if ordering his thoughts. {“Rhea was killed, but the man who was supposed to kill her infant sons instead chose to spare their lives, and placed them in a basket on the bank of a river, which soon flooded and carried them away. The basket was caught in the roots of a tree downstream, near the base of a hill, and a she-wolf found them there when the floodwaters receded. The babies were hungry, and the wolf had pups of her own, so she had milk and suckled the twins. They lived with the wolf for a time, until a shepherd discovered them and took them home, where he and his wife raised the boys as their own.”}

Cromwell felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, and a shiver ran down his spine. I know this story! He was familiar with the legend of Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome, having learned it in school as a boy. This sounded like the same tale.

Sabar’s next words confirmed the colonel’s suspicions. {“The twins were named Romulus and Remus, and they grew up to be shepherds themselves. Some accounts say they were also the leaders of a band of outlaws. Either way, Remus got involved in a fight with some other shepherds and was captured and brought to King Amulius to be judged. Romulus gathered their followers and went to free his brother, and the presence of twin young men the age that Rhea’s sons would have been revealed their identity. Romulus succeeded in freeing his brother, and the two of them, along with their followers, killed Amulius.”}

“It sounds like some of the stories from the Wars of the Gods and from early in the Interregnum, at least the bit about one ruler usurping another’s place,” observed Tesni.

The Tok’bel leader seemed to consider this for a moment. {“You’re right; it does,”} he agreed. {“Let’s just say that there were similarities between the way people lived during that time, and the way they lived on the world where I spent my own early years. Mind you, this was very long ago; just a bit longer than there have been humans on Tir Awyr, and the story I’m telling is even older than I am.”}

Cromwell’s mind was in a whirl. It was one thing to be intellectually aware that symbiotes lived for thousands of years, but to be reminded of this so directly was nothing short of awe-inspiring, and a bit uncomfortable as well. His own forty-eight years paled by comparison, causing him to feel suddenly insignificant. What must we seem like to them? he wondered. Perhaps the way an intelligent, speaking rat or rabbit might seem to us?

He was struck by another thought on the heels of the first. He knew the Tok’ra did not avail themselves of the sarcophagus to extend their host’s lives — and perhaps their own? — as did the Goa’uld, and found himself wondering what it might be like for a Tok’ra symbiote of Sabar’s age, which had to be at least two millennia given that the Pridani had inhabited Tir Awyr for nearly that long, and having what had to have been dozens of human hosts during that time. Given the expected human lifespan, say the middle of the bell curve, figure an average of less than sixty years, probably, from blending to the death of the host. Less if the blending occurs later than the host’s twenties. Spread over a two thousand year span, that must add up to a good forty or fifty hosts.

Surely the symbiote couldn’t retain the memories of each individual host, could it? And if so, were all of those memories also shared with its current host, or only those of his or her most recent predecessors? There had been occasions when Cadogan seemed to speak of events too remote to have occurred in his lifetime, or at least his adulthood, yet he related them in language that implied he spoke from direct memory. Cromwell had always chalked such references up to a sort of filtering of Sabar’s own observations of those events, but they could just as easily originate in the memories of a previous host. What effect must the combined weight of all those memories, from the symbiote and those previous hosts, have upon each successive one?

The thought made him shudder, even as it increased the regard in which he held Cadogan. He’d found the cadlywydd impressive from the start, but now he marveled at the strength of personality and character it must require for the man to maintain his own identity intact beneath the weight of what was must be forty-fold his own lifetime’s span of memory — surely Cadogan was no more than fifty-five, if even that — and not lose himself in the sea of years, becoming a mere shell for his symbiote.

“So what happened next?” Ris inquired, his question drawing the colonel’s mind back to the here-and-now. Cromwell wondered how much he’d missed while focused on his own thoughts.

{“Well, Romulus and Remus were offered the chance to rule the kingdom, which was really more of a city-state, together. They refused to do so while their grandfather Numitor still lived, and so restored him to the throne since it was rightfully his. At the same time, though, they weren’t keen on remaining under anyone’s rule, and decided to go a little ways away and found a city of their own that they might rule there instead, over their own band of followers.”} His expression grew somber. {“ They’d decided to build it in the spot where the she-wolf had found them as infants, but. Romulus killed his brother in a fit of rage during an unfortunate dispute over exact location where this had occurred. In sorrow, he buried Remus and built upon the spot that seemed right to him.”}

He paused for a sip of cider before continuing. {“He named the city Roma. Some say he named it after himself. Roma began as a city of shepherds, runaway slaves, and outlaws, and yet it went on to become one of the most influential cities upon its world.”}

“What was the name of its world, Uncle?” Tegwyn posed the question this time.

Sabar smiled faintly and, the colonel could swear, a little sadly. {“It has as many names as there are peoples who remember it, Tegwyn. You would call it Y Byd Cyntaf.”}

Y Byd Cyntaf. The First World. Cromwell felt Tesni’s fingers, entwined with his own, tighten their grip momentarily, but neither of them spoke as Sabar went on in answer to their niece’s question. {“Roma was founded on the same world from which your own ancestors came here at Bel’s offer to bring them away from encroachment by Roma’s own soldiers. By then Roma had become the seat of an empire not unlike a System Lord’s own, and had its own Goa’uld operating to promote and expand it, posing as gods much as Bel has done.”}

Sabar sighed, an uncharacteristic sound. {“At one time it seemed as though perhaps Roma might escape the imperial lure and go another way. My own mother, who opposed the Goa’uld way of doing things, tried to push Roma in a kinder direction when she served as an advisor to Numa Pompilius, the city’s second king. She tried with one or two later rulers as well, but while Numa actually listened to her, it seemed that Roma’s track was set in stone by events too great for her to counter. So she instead bred offspring who would share her beliefs and who might, by sheer patience and in greater number than one alone, manage in time to end the slavery in which the Goa’uld desire to hold all the worlds they find useful.”}

“And that’s why you fight them, then, isn’t it?” Ris, again, leaning forward in rapt attention as he waited for the answer he surely must already know.

A solemn nod. {“That’s why we fight them.”}

“Are there still Goa’uld on the First World?” asked Tegwyn.

Sabar shook his head. {“No, I believe they’ve all gone. No one’s bothered with that world in centuries, perhaps longer. Your people were among the last to be taken, and to my knowledge no Goa’uld has had any use for the Tau’ri — their name and ours for those humans left behind on their native world — since then. For one thing, there’s no longer access by chappa’ai; everything has to be done by ship. That’s more trouble than it’s worth for a world that doesn’t have naquadah, even to a Goa’uld like Ra, who was once its ruler. In the long run, the world of the Tau’ri was only useful as a source of hosts, or  — forgive me — slaves, and there are enough of your kind spread among the stars these days that I doubt anyone’s seen a real need to go there again.”}

It was clear now to Cromwell that Sabar had no knowledge of any alliance or even contact between the Tok’ra and Earth. Either he still hadn’t had contact with the main group of his own kind, or else the Tok’ra were playing things very close to the vest. Then again, the colonel supposed that the principle of ‘need to know’ might apply as much between the Tok’ra and what they surely regarded as a rogue band of mavericks as it did within the US military or even among the Am Rhyddid in all its forms on the Five Worlds. And as much as he loathed the fact that this policy had on occasion resulted in his having somewhat less information than he would have preferred in dealing with a situation, including the in which one he’d found himself on arriving here, at the same time he could utterly respect the need for it. After all, one couldn’t inadvertently reveal or compromise that which one did not know.

Sabar had bowed his head again, passing control back to Cadogan who raised it and said brightly, “Well, you were promised a story, and you certainly got one. Myself, I’d prefer some more music, if anyone’s in the mood.”