You must trust and believe in people, or life becomes impossible. – Anton Chekhov


Tesni found herself impressed. The stranger had come out of nowhere, clearly out of his element, and injured besides. Yet he had managed to maintain his composure, even as he struggled to communicate despite the language barrier. He was a quick study, learning as he went, and teaching her his own speech in the process. While their conversation had of necessity been guarded as well as being somewhat limited due to linguistic differences, she had still gleaned a fair bit of information about him by their interaction. He was clearly a soldier of some sort, the evidence writ large in his bearing, the tones of his speech, and the manner in which he observed his surroundings. He appeared to be perhaps a dozen years her senior, with the indelible, if subtle, marks of experience stamped on his features. She knew the type very well; indeed, she inhabited a world filled with such men — and such women. Individuals who had seen much and done much in the service of their cause and who wore that experience like a mantle. She would wear it herself one day. Her job at present in that service was to assess possible threats, especially from the direction of the drws rhyng y byd, and that made this man who had arrived without warning her responsibility. He was no threat, however; she had determined that early on. He might, in fact, make a formidable addition to their forces, should he find himself remaining, and be so disposed.

It was a gift, her sense for people, and a large part of why she held the position she did. The sole item remaining to be determined was where the stranger stood with regard to the Goa’uld, and Tesni was fairly certain she already knew the answer to that. The immediate change in their interaction upon her floating a test mention of Bel had told her much.

The stranger’s altercation with Ris had been the product of poor judgment on Nenniaw’s part, and on Ris’ as well. Yet even Ris had quickly found respect for the stranger — who, to his own credit, had exhibited a touching concern for her nephew’s well-being after the incident. Now the man was her responsibility by guest-right, not to mention by virtue of the fact that at present she was the one person who could communicate clearly with him. She reflected that she most likely would have taken responsibility for him anyway. There was something compelling about him, some element that sparked her curiosity. Right now, however, what he needed most was a friend and advocate among her people, and she was more than willing to take on that role. It was, she told herself, yet another aspect of her job.

She glanced over at the figure sitting straight as an ash pole on a borrowed bay horse, his dark eyes scanning the surrounding forest through a mist of rain. If she looked closely enough, she could still see fatigue lining his face, even as he ignored it. He seemed much improved over last night, however. She had been honestly concerned for him then, as she watched him sitting in the candlelight at her table, ashen-faced and with trembling hands. She hadn’t seen that look on anyone in a long time, not since… Well, not in a long time, regardless.

She knew well that refusal to show weakness, that insistence upon pushing past all bounds of fatigue or injury even to the breaking point where the body might of necessity betray its owner, while the mind still raced on. She’d seen it dozens of times, even once or twice in herself. Women were by no means immune. Men, however — the thought came to her unbidden — were more prone to its grip, at least in her experience. It was this which she had seen scant hours ago in the stranger’s countenance, by the amber light of a lone candle. Not for the first time, she reflected on the irony of how a desire to seem invulnerable could so often sow the seeds of its own betrayal. She had felt a keen need to reassure him that in her presence he might let himself rest without losing face. But how?

Among Tesni’s people, touch was as important as breath. She’d sensed from his body language that this was not so among the stranger’s tribe, whoever they were. Nevertheless, she took the chance, and found that a touch stilled him as words alone could not, and so she had finally moved him to seek his bed and the rest he needed. He had fallen asleep almost immediately upon lying down, and after covering him with a blanket against the approaching chill, she had left him to find what healing he could in the hours remaining before dawn.

When she found him already awake in the early light, she was struck by the fact that even after only a few hours of sleep, he appeared ready to face the day and its challenges. She would have given him more time to recover if she could, but necessity dictated they leave early to journey to Dinas Coedwyg. She had given her word that he would be neither harmed nor detained, and she intended to keep that promise. When they returned to Llanavon, assuming his mysterious friends had not arrived, she would find a way to give the stranger some well-deserved peace and quiet so that he could rest. Assuming, of course, that he would.


The rain had abated about halfway through their journey, leaving the trees dripping and the trail muddy. The light brightened as the cloud cover moved off, and the air soon warmed, turning humid as the moisture evaporated. Cromwell shed the blue cloak, spreading it a bit over his horse’s withers in the hope that it might dry. Still clad in the black uniform he’d been wearing for what was to him two days now, he was uncomfortable in the muggy air, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “Does the weather here do this a lot?” he asked Tesni, who rode next to him.

“Change abruptly? Yes, that is common,” she replied. “In winter, it is worse. Many sudden snows.”

Sounds like Colorado. Though with any luck, I’ll be long gone from here by then. As they rode through a large clearing, Cromwell looked toward the sky, trying to get a fix on the position of the sun. He glanced at his watch, calculating how long a day here might be. According to the sun, it appeared to still be early morning. His watch said that not quite twenty-two hours had passed since his arrival in Llanavon. This confirmed his earlier guess: a day here on Tir Awyr must be of similar length to one on Earth. “Tesni, how long are the years here? How many days?”

She looked at him, puzzled. “Three hundred fifty-eight, why?”

Very Earthlike. “Just curious. I wanted to compare it to my own world. They are similar. You said this is summer, and I assume you track the seasons by stars and the sun, no?”

“Yes, of course. Midsummer passed twenty-seven days ago.”

Knowledge, even knowledge he was unlikely to really use, always helped to orient him, giving at least the illusion of some control over his situation. He knew it might remain largely illusory for the time being, but that could change at a moment’s notice.

Up ahead, the trail wound back into the trees, traveling uphill now. It was wider here, however, and the forest soon gave way to another clearing, this one much larger than the one occupied by Llanavon. Another fortified wall arose ahead of them, encircling what appeared to be a large settlement similar to the hill forts whose remains Cromwell knew dotted much of Europe. This, then, must be Dinas Coedwyg.

They entered the settlement via a gate set into the earth and timber walls. Within, the streets were similar to those of Llanavon, lined with buildings constructed of wood and of stone. A wide avenue led through the center of town, with narrower lanes turning off along its length. People were out and about on the streets, a few turning to watch as the mounted party passed by.

They hadn’t gone more than a few blocks before Nenniaw led them down a side street, stopping at a square stone building. Three youths of around Ris’ age appeared to take their horses as they dismounted. Cromwell was annoyed to find that he was, indeed, sore from the ride. There was nothing for it, however, but to go on. He turned to offer Tesni a hand in dismounting, only to find her already slipping gracefully to the ground. She probably does this all the time. Damn, I need to get up to speed, and quickly, if I’m going to be here for any length. He stretched protesting muscles as Nenniaw gathered the group.

At his elbow, Tesni outlined their agenda. “The cadlywydd will most likely meet with Morcant, Nenniaw and Dynawd first. Celyn has business of his own to attend to, though he may be asked to join the others before that. You and I will wait until the cadlywydd has time for us, but it should not be too long. While we are waiting, we can find someplace to sit and talk, and I can teach you more of our tongue, if you want. I know you are still tired, but — ”

Cromwell cut her off. “Not all that much.” Tesni shot him what he knew to be a disbelieving look, but she didn’t comment. Nenniaw and Celyn set off toward the door of the building before them, and the rest followed.

It was cooler inside. A short hallway led them to a sort of reception area furnished with a couple of tables and actual chairs rather than benches. A desk stood off to one side, an earnest-faced young man in gray seated behind it. Tesni ushered Cromwell toward a seat at one of the tables, before procuring tea for them from a sideboard. Cromwell watched as Nenniaw approached the desk and consulted with the clerk, who gestured toward a set of stairs. Nenniaw, accompanied by Morcant and Dynawd, mounted the stairs and disappeared. Celyn remained speaking with the clerk for a moment longer, before setting off down another hallway.

Cromwell fidgeted in his chair, still trying to work a cramp out of his left thigh, as Tesni deposited a cup of tea on the table in front of him. She eyed him curiously. “Are you sure you are all right?”

“Yes. It has been some time since I last rode a horse. My legs are unaccustomed to it, but I will adjust.” Hell, may as well tell her the truth; it isn’t as if she can’t see for herself.

Understanding bloomed on her face, along with a measure of sympathy. “Ah. Let me see if I can find some rhisgl helyg. That may help.”

He had to think for a moment before his memory provided the probable translation. Willow bark? “What is that for?” In fact, the mention of willow bark rang a bell. Something he’d once read…

“It eases pain, but leaves the mind sharp. Stay here; I will be right back. There is a” — she used a word with which he was completely unfamiliar — “just along the street.” She was gone before he could say anything to stop her. He settled for staring out the nearby window, drinking tea, occasionally glancing back around the room as people came and went. For all the world, it reminded him of office waiting areas anywhere. But for the decor and the lack of modern technology, he could almost have been in the admin building of nearly any base where he’d been stationed, back home. Well, except there I could score a cup of honest-to-God coffee. Probably bum a smoke, too.

Tesni returned shortly, clutching a glass bottle small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, stoppered with a tiny cork. She opened it and tipped several drops of liquid into what was left of his tea. “There. Drink that and see if it helps.”

He took a tentative sip. Whatever she had added gave the tea a bitter taste similar to what you might expect from chewing on aspirin. That’s it, he realized. Some article, in some magazine he’d read over the years, discussed the botanical origins of several well-known medications. If memory served, aspirin had been developed from a compound found in willow bark, which the article claimed had been used for thousands of years.

“Tastes awful, but if it helps…” He shrugged. “Thank you.”

She smiled, handing him the small bottle of tincture. “Here, you keep this. The same amount, twice more in the course of the day, should be useful.”

Modern medicine it ain’t, but close enough. Might help what’s left of this headache, too. He accepted the bottle, tucking it into a pocket and thanking her again. These people actually seem to have a lot on the ball.

Tesni got both of them more tea. “With any luck, we will be done here soon, though I cannot say I am completely unhappy to be visiting.” She glanced around the room. “The cadlywydd does not get here often, of late.”

Cromwell was still confused. “He is not someone local, then?”

“Well, he was at one time, but he spends much of his time quite far away lately.” She sipped from her cup, her expression thoughtful. “Tell me, how long have you been a soldier?”

There was the question he sensed she’d been wanting to ask, ever since he realized she could tell he was a military man. “Actually, I would use a different term, but it wouldn’t translate. ‘Soldier’ is apt enough. Twenty-four years, so far. Nearly my entire adult life, and I spent three years before that preparing for the job.” Inwardly, Cromwell shrugged. He wasn’t giving away any real information there. If it was obvious to her what he was, more or less, then it was equally obvious that he’d been at it for quite some time. He was well aware that at forty-six, he didn’t exactly look like a callow youth.

“And there is much for a soldier to do, on your world?”

“A little too much, sometimes.” He shifted in his chair. “Why do you ask?”

She smiled. “Like your earlier questions, curiosity. You know I have never left Tir Awyr. One day, perhaps I will. How many times have you been away from your world?”

“This is the first time. As I said, it was accidental. I was never supposed to be here, and I just want to go home. No offense to your hospitality, you understand, but this is not a trip I planned on making.”

She laughed. “No offense taken. I am sure I would feel the same, in your place.”

They never did get around to more language lessons before Nenniaw reappeared to usher them upstairs and into what appeared to be a conference room. Broad windows provided light, and a table with several chairs dominated the center of the room. Judging from the teapot and cups occupying space in front of some of the chairs, some meeting or other had recently concluded. Only one other person was currently present, however. A man of about Cromwell’s own height and probably just a bit older, to judge by his face, stood near the table. He had light brown hair shading heavily to silver at the temples, and was clad in what appeared to be a uniform — a gray tunic, with matching trousers tucked into boots that reached above mid-calf. He was studying a small, flat metallic object, a portion of which glowed, but blinked and looked up as Tesni entered the room, her guest in tow. Tucking the object into a belt pouch, he came to greet her. “Tesni, fy nith. It is good to see you again.” A smile lit his face as he clasped her shoulders.

Cromwell’s mind raced. ‘Niece’? Wait, this guy’s her uncle?

Tesni was speaking. “Hello, Uncle. It is good to see you too. It has been too long.”

Nenniaw was still at the door. The other man waved in his direction. “You may leave us.” Nenniaw frowned slightly but withdrew, closing the door behind him.

Tesni introduced them. “Frehnk — ” she stumbled again on the unfamiliar vowel ” — this is cadlywydd Cadogan ap Cynan. Uncle, this is the newcomer I am sure Nenniaw mentioned. Arriving as he did, when he did, Nenniaw insisted he be brought to you. His name is — ”

Cromwell interrupted, taking a step forward. “Frank Cromwell.” He continued in what he hoped was passable Pridanic. “My pleasure to meet you.”

The other man’s eyebrows went up, his smile broadening. Cromwell had guessed right: apparently, the cadlywydd appreciated direct approaches. He reached out to clasp Cromwell’s arm just above the elbow, his grip firm. “The pleasure is mine. I am told you arrived yesterday from off-world, yes?”

Cromwell nodded. “I did, though it was completely by accident. There was a problem with our drws rhyng y byd, and it wasn’t working correctly. I was trying to help resolve the problem. The device was active at the time. I got too close, and found myself on your world.” He’d decided to stick to the truth, or something like it, up until that point beyond which telling the truth might endanger Earth. He could only hope that his very presence here was not enough to do that already.

Cadogan’s expression became puzzled. “And you could not return?”

“Only because I lack the address for my world. I have never traveled through the drws rhyng y byd before this; very few of my people do. I do expect someone to come looking for me soon, and when that happens, I intend to leave here and return home with them.”

Tesni broke in, speaking once again in Pridanic too fast and complicated for Cromwell to completely grasp. It sounded, though, as if she might be recounting his explanation of how and why he’d ended up on Tir Awyr to the cadlywydd… the general, or whatever he was… her uncle. No wonder she was so sure he’d believe her. They appear to be close, and I’m guessing he trusts her. This certainly helps me, that’s for sure.

Cadogan was nodding as Tesni spoke, occasionally darting glances in Cromwell’s direction. With each glance, Cromwell got the impression he was being sized up, examined, analyzed. When she finished her explanation, he nodded again, turning back to Cromwell. “My niece tells me that she has been teaching you our language. May I say that you are doing a fair job with it, for someone who only arrived yesterday.” The tone was carefully neutral, but his expression invited explanation.

Yeah, this is where it gets hairy. Cromwell shrugged, schooling his face to innocence. “It is very similar to another language I once learned.”

“I see. She also tells me that you are a military man of some experience.”

Cromwell was saved from having to respond to that by a knock on the door. An aide rushed in to whisper in the cadlywydd’s ear. Cadogan’s expression grew alarmed. “Are they certain?” he asked the aide aloud.

The aide glanced at Tesni and Cromwell. “Yes, yes, go ahead,” said Cadogan, impatiently.

“They are certain, cadlywydd.”

“How many?”

“Twenty-six altogether. A small group have taken the path toward Llanavon, while the rest remain stationary near the compass circle.”

The SGC sent that many people? The hell? Cromwell turned to Tesni, about to suggest they light out for Llanavon, but she held up a hand to silence him. Something in her look made him hold his tongue.

Cadogan was still questioning his aide. “All Jaffa, or are there Goa’uld with them?”

“All Jaffa. But that is a large group. They may be here to collect tribute, although it is not one of the normal times for that.”

Jaffa? Cromwell and Tesni shared a look. Shit. I was really hoping to avoid any of those guys while I was here.

Striking a fist on the table, Cadogan uttered a word Cromwell had never heard before. “Mai’tac!” It didn’t sound Pridanic, but his meaning was clear regardless: the man was furious. The cadlywydd bowed his head for a second. When he raised it, his hazel eyes had taken on an entirely different appearance, as though someone else were looking out of them. Turning to the aide, he spoke in an unfamiliar language, this time in a deep, flanged voice that carried harmonic under- and overtones.

Cromwell’s skin crawled. The language might be unfamiliar, but he’d heard recordings of such voices, supplied by the Air Force so that he and his men would recognize the enemy if they heard them. Jesus Christ, he’s a fucking Goa’uld!

He stole a look at Tesni. She was watching her uncle, or whoever was currently in control of her uncle’s body, with concern. “Bel has sent twenty-six Jaffa to Tir Awyr?” she asked. “Why? Tribute is not due again until the harvest festival.”

{“I have no idea. We had no report that this was coming.”}* The reply was still in the Goa’uld voice, though the language was Pridanic.

Tesni shook her head. “Had you no one close to Bel at the moment, Sabar?”

{“We did, but there has been no report from him in several weeks.”} Cadogan — or the Goa’uld, rather — turned back to his aide, speaking again in that other language, which must be Goa’uld. His aide replied in the same tongue but a completely human voice, before hurrying away.

Cromwell took this in, all the while trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do next. What have I gotten myself into? Who the fuck is this Sabar character?

Cadogan bowed his head again, closing his eyes briefly. When he looked up, he spoke again to Tesni, this time in a normal human voice. “Well, this changes our plans somewhat.” He glanced once more at Cromwell. “Your guest would seem to — ”

Tesni cut him off. “He has nothing to do with any of this, Uncle.”

Cadogan’s expression was skeptical. “You can be so certain?”

She nodded. “Yes. You have always trusted my sense for people before this. You would doubt me now?”

The cadlywydd simply looked at her for a long moment, before turning his gaze on Cromwell, who carefully kept his face impassive, despite the alarm bells still ringing in his mind. Cadogan finally turned back to his niece. “No, I believe you are correct. Perhaps more importantly, Sabar trusts you as well.” He paused a beat. “A part of me would prefer you remain here in Dinas Coedwyg, for safety’s sake, until we find out more of what’s going on, but I know better than to ask that.”

Tesni gave him a small, tight smile. “You may order it, of course, and leave me no choice, but you know I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Nor shall I. Take your guest and go. Put him to use if he is willing; an extra set of hands will not go amiss right now, though I expect you will need to enlighten him somewhat. You will find Nenniaw and the others at the armory, if Gerlad has located them by now and passed along what Sabar told him. Otherwise, you are to locate them yourself and convey what has happened. Tell Nenniaw, if Gerlad has not, to draw arms and take whomever is available with him. We will meet you on the road.” He ushered them toward the door as he spoke, dismissing them both with a curt nod.

Once in the hallway, Tesni hurried toward the stairs, descending them rapidly with Cromwell at her heels. The reception lobby was deserted, he noticed as they passed through on their way toward the door.

Outside the building, Cromwell grabbed Tesni’s shoulder, halting her and spinning her to face him. “You want to tell me just what is going on here?” he demanded.

She looked pointedly at his hand on her shoulder, then stared him full in the face, her eyes blazing. “I had planned to, but you will let go of me.”

He withdrew his hand, instead fixing her with his best you’ve got two seconds to explain yourself scowl. She glared back at him for a second, then looked skyward briefly before bringing her gaze back to his, more calmly this time. “Follow me, and I will explain as we go.”

He shook his head, his jaw set. “Now, or I go nowhere with you.”

Tesni sighed, visibly annoyed. “Do you still trust me?”

“I have no idea who I am supposed to trust right now. I was not expecting the cadlywydd to be your uncle. Nor did I expect him to be a Goa’uld.”

“He is not Goa’uld,” she replied coldly.

“Then explain that voice.”

She gave him a long, appraising look. “Your people do not serve the Goa’uld.”

“No, we most certainly do not.”

“Nor do mine, or at the very least, not willingly nor for much longer.” she responded. “I saw your face when you heard Sabar speak. You tried to hide your reaction, but you were not immediately successful. I saw not awe, not worship, not even fear. Only revulsion.”

“Yes, I find them repulsive! But if Sabar is not Goa’uld, then what is he, Tesni?” It was more of a challenge than a question.

“Cadogan has dedicated his life to fighting against the Goa’uld, toward the freedom of our people. Sabar is of the Tok’ra, a people identical to the Goa’uld, except that they oppose the Goa’uld and their ways. A small group of them have allied with us, and Sabar is their leader. Cadogan is his willing host, and leads the Pridani, as well as our other allies, in this fight.”

The Tok’ra? Cromwell recalled a report he’d read, outlining the SGC’s discovery that there existed a faction of the Goa’uld species who stood in opposition to the System Lords and their enslavement of humans, and who existed in a truly symbiotic relationship with their human hosts. If the Tok’ra are active on this world…

“Yesterday, you told me Bel was a god,” he stated. “Why?”

“To gauge your response, so that I could know whether you viewed the Goa’uld as gods to be served, or as an enemy to be fought. You reacted as I had hoped you would. You ceased speaking of your world and people, and seemed bothered by my mention of Bel. That told me you and your people must be opposed either to the Goa’uld overall, or at least to Bel. Your reaction to Sabar just now told the rest of the tale. From it, I know that you oppose the Goa’uld themselves. That is good, because so do we. Bel only thinks he should be a god. My uncle and I, and a great many others, disagree with him. We had our fill of slavery long ago, and we will be once more free.”

Cromwell was taken aback. Tesni was far more perceptive than he’d given her credit for. Apparently, she had been testing him all along. Well, didn’t she tell you that she would vouch for you with the cadlywydd? That implies it’s her job to decide whether a stranger like you is friend or foe. She’s pegged you correctly, too. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, especially in this case.

“Fair enough,” he conceded. “So you and your people are in rebellion against Bel.”

“We are. And unfortunately, my family and friends may be under attack right this moment by some of his Jaffa. I plan to do something about it. You have two choices: either help, or stay out of the way. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to carry out the cadlywydd’s orders.” Tesni turned on her heel and headed off in the direction she’d been going when Cromwell stopped her.

He stared after her for a beat, then shook his head abruptly and followed. ‘Stay out of the way’? Not friggin’ likely. After all, if for some reason he didn’t get off this world anytime soon, these people’s fight would be his own anyway. No time like the present to make it clear where he stood. Congratulations, Cromwell. Three weeks ago, you were thinking about the days when you and your team used to see regular action, before taking the job as the SGC’s backup plan, and you were bored. Well, you’ve sure as hell found some action now.

As Cadogan had hoped, they found Nenniaw and the rest of their party at the armory, in the cellar of a low stone building just down from the one where he and Tesni had met with the cadlywydd. A couple of dozen other people were there, too; mostly men, but with a few women among them. They send women into ground combat situations here? he thought. A second later, the realization struck him. Well, hell, the SGC does it, too, if half of what I’ve read in those mission reports is accurate.

Cromwell watched as weapons were distributed. He recognized both the long staff-like weapons and the smaller zat’nik’tels from reports and photos he’d been shown while being familiarized with things he might find himself encountering if called into the SGC to deal with an alien incursion. He’d never handled a physical example of either, however, and observed with interest as others checked their weapons over.

A messenger appeared, speaking quickly to Nenniaw, then leaving. Nenniaw gathered Dynawd, Celyn, Tesni and a couple of others. Cromwell shadowed Tesni. Nenniaw gave Cromwell an odd look, until Tesni took the other man aside, speaking too quietly for Cromwell to follow. From Nenniaw’s expression, Cromwell surmised that she was relating the fact that Cadogan had accepted Tesni’s assessment of him over Nenniaw’s own. Fine, Nenniaw; I get it. You don’t trust me. Your CO apparently does, though. And this may or may not actually be my fight, but it appears we share an enemy, so at least for the moment we’re in this together. Deal with it.

Tesni returned to Cromwell’s side as Nenniaw related what the messenger had said. “Scouts with short-range communicators say that only ten Jaffa remain at the compass circle. The remainder have entered the forest. Unfortunately, they have split into two parties. Eight are approaching Llanavon. For the moment, the other eight appear to be heading north, possibly on their way to the mines.”

Cromwell found himself surprised at the thought of modern communications in the hands of people from what appeared to be a low-tech culture. The Tok’ra must be giving them military tech, like the communicators and the weapons. My guess is this is a completely underground movement, and that’s why they keep things low-tech on the surface. I wonder how long this rebellion’s been going on, and why the Goa’uld haven’t simply quashed it before this? He was curious to learn more.

Tesni had left him for a moment, and now approached with a staff weapon. “Do you know how to use the ma’tok?” she asked.

“I have seen them, but never used one; my people have different weapons. Show me.”

She did. The weapon had no scope and no sight, Cromwell noted. For someone accustomed to late twentieth-century firearms, it was a big adjustment — but really, what choice was there? Anything beat being sidelined. He didn’t think he could stand that.

Soon they were on the road, headed directly toward the stargate this time, by a different trail. Nenniaw led their party, while Celyn had taken another back toward Llanavon. As they moved out at a brisk canter, Cromwell was grateful for the willow bark tincture Tesni had provided him. Not that it did much more than take the edge off, especially when they slowed to a trot periodically. There was no help for it, however; the stargate had to be about ten miles away, and riding over distance with any useful speed required varying a mount’s gait. Somehow, he managed it, pushing the pain of outraged muscles from his mind. Not much choice, really. I’d hardly have stayed behind in Dinas Coedwyg by myself. Never thought I’d miss that one Humvee in the motor pool with the busted seat springs, though.

Once again, he reflected on the bizarre situation in which he found himself. Energy weapons, in the hands of people on horseback, with spotty communications. A half-alien leader with a split personality. And one guy who doesn’t even belong here. All of us up against a bunch of fanatical armored thugs with more energy weapons. Peachy. No, really, I’d like to wake up now.

They hadn’t gone more than a mile or so before the sound of hoofbeats at a gallop closed from behind. Cadogan, his aide — Gerlad? — and two others joined them, reining their mounts to match pace with Nenniaw’s. Cromwell and Tesni listened as the cadlywydd conferred with the local commander. “More trouble,” began Cadogan, speaking in his own voice. “Apparently, they have come for palace slaves this time, at least in part. The Jaffa who went to Llanavon broke into two smaller groups. Four continued on, taking the western trail toward Bren Argoed. The other four remained in Llanavon, rounding up children over nine. They have at least a dozen, and when challenged, the Jaffa threatened to kill them before their families’ eyes. Kidnapping, hostage situation, whatever you want to call it, this is ugly.”

Nenniaw uttered a word Cromwell couldn’t translate, and Tesni didn’t bother to try. There was no need. Dynawd, also listening, had gone stark white; whether with fear or fury was anyone’s guess. Cromwell surmised the man likely had children in the village.

“What of the other eight Jaffa?” Cromwell asked.

Cadogan turned in the saddle, shooting him a curious look. “At last sighting, they were still headed toward the mines, away from the compass circle toward the north,” he replied.

“On foot?”

Cadogan nodded. “Naturally.”

Ten at the stargate, four holding hostages in the village, four on their way west to what must be another village, and eight headed north. Strange way for them to break up their numbers, but if we can take advantage of it, good. Cromwell glanced around. We’ve got twenty people here, not counting Cadogan and Gerlad, and I saw at least fifteen move out with Celyn when he left. Celyn’s people and ours are all mounted, so potentially we’ve got speed on our side, though obviously any actual fighting will be on foot. On the other hand, I know the Jaffa wear armor. Supposedly these weapons are effective against it, but I’ve never seen them in action. Shit. What the hell am I getting myself into here?

He was glad he wasn’t the one in charge. The real question was, what would Cadogan do?

Tesni spoke to him, her voice low. “We have continued to supply Bel with tribute for many years, including naquadah from the mines, and other useful or valuable items, so that he would not suspect we were building up to outright rebellion. It has bought us time, but by now we were nearly ready to move openly, and giving him our children for his strange taste in slaves is more than we will stand for. He has already taken far too many of us as it is.”

Cromwell nodded. “Is anyone in the village armed?”

“There is a hidden cache of weapons, and everyone in Llanavon over the age of sixteen knows how to use them, but with children held hostage, no one will dare.”

“Of course.” Dammit, this has all the makings of a disaster. I can feel it.

Cadogan directed the party to continue on toward the stargate. “We may be able to gain control of the chappa’ai. It will be up to Celyn to find some way to deal with the hostage situation in Llanavon. Runners will have already been sent by another route to alert Bren Argoed; with luck and forewarning, they can take care of the other four Jaffa.”

Cromwell looked at Tesni. “What is a ‘chappa’ai’?”

“The word used by Tok’ra, Goa’uld and Jaffa for the drws rhyng y byd. It is not uncommon for the cadlywydd to use Sabar’s words for such things.”

“I see.” Cromwell wished there were a foolproof way to deal with what they were up against. He wondered if the Jaffa had rounded up teens among the would-be slaves. The thought of any of the Pridani villagers — especially children — as slaves or hostages was bad enough, but imagining Ris or Tegwyn in that situation made it even worse.

Within the hour, the party reached the near vicinity of the stargate, tying their mounts well back in the forest. Cadogan sent scouts ahead; they reported ten Jaffa still guarding the compass circle and the gate. “Something is odd about all of this,” the Pridani leader observed, speaking again to Nenniaw and Dynawd. Tesni and Cromwell stood just a few feet away, neither party to nor excluded from the conversation. “Under normal circumstances, we might almost have expected a vessel to be sent if Bel were planning to take large amounts of cargo, such as ore from the mine, but we do know he has lost ships recently, thanks to the efforts of our operatives.”

Nenniaw nodded at this, something like a smile crossing his face momentarily. “Then the Gallaeci were successful?”

It was Sabar who replied, Cadogan’s head bowing briefly before the harmonic voice was heard, this time sounding oddly quiet to Cromwell’s ears. {“They were, at least to a limited extent. This has been a long, slow business of late, but waiting until we could relieve him of some of his resources was definitely best.”} The Tok’ra looked from Nenniaw to Dynawd and back. {“My guess is that Bel will wish to step up mine production to compensate for the naquadah lost. He was not expected to move quite this soon, however. And as for the slave raid — “} He broke off, shaking his head. {“Regardless. We need control of the chappa’ai. For the moment, we appear to have the element of surprise. Let us not waste it.”}


<— Chapter 7 – Daybreak

Chapter 9 – Disclosure —>