Cadogan moved one of his knights and sat back, listening to the pop and crackle of the fire in the hearth. Lamplight painted the study with a golden glow, and the fragrance of mulled ale rose from the mug at his elbow, all of them helping to dispel the chill that he hoped would prove to be winter’s last gasp. He’d had about enough of snowy evenings for a while.

Across the table, the man known as Neirin surveyed the chessboard, looking for the best answering move. Having only begun to learn chess a mere two weeks ago, the cadlywydd knew himself to be still very much a novice, but every once in a while he managed a move that caused his teacher to pause and think for a few moments before countering it. Of course, having two minds available to address the game gave Cadogan something of an unfair advantage, and after the first couple of games, he’d informed his symbiote Sabar that they would have to alternate, each playing a game solo, while the other merely observed rather than actively offering advice. After all, Neirin — Frank, Cadogan remembered, though no one called the quiet, dark-eyed man by that name anymore — had only himself to rely on.

{Himself and many years of experience in playing this particular game, you mean,} Sabar reminded him drolly.

Hush. Maybe I just want to see how well I can learn this on my own, quipped his host in response. I would think you would, too, even though I know you’ve played many others like it.

On those occasions when Sabar took control and played, it was still Cadogan who did the talking, or at the very least, on the few occasions where Sabar uttered a comment of his own he was careful to do it in Cadogan’s voice, as the cadlywydd sensed that Neirin was still somewhat uncomfortable with the Tok’ra. As far as he could tell, Neirin didn’t suspect he was interacting with anyone other than the purely human half of the blended pair.

{I would think that he’s known us long enough by now to perhaps grow accustomed to me,} Sabar opined silently. {It’s been more than half a year.}

Cadogan chuckled inwardly. It took longer than that for me, if you’ll recall. When I first met you and Berwyn, I wasn’t sure what to think about the idea of two beings in a single body. I spent nearly a year and a half serving under the pair of you before I was really used to the concept.

The cadlywydd thought back to his early days with the rebel group that Sabar and his previous host had begun quietly building, a little over a century earlier. He’d been a young man then, barely into his twenties, and fired up by the ideals of Sabar’s host Berwyn, a Pridanic man who’d spent some time as a slave at Bel’s court before being given as a gift to Sabar, a Tok’ra operative doing deep cover work, posing as the emissary of yet another Goa’uld. Sabar had taken Berwyn with him when he returned to the Tok’ra, settling him among other humans on a free world whose inhabitants occasionally provided the Tok’ra with hosts. Years later, as Sabar’s host was dying of old age, Berwyn had come forward and offered himself as a replacement, out of gratitude for his freedom. Sabar was reluctant at first to accept the offer, feeling that having formerly been enslaved, Berwyn deserved to live a fully independent life, but Berwyn had persisted. Once blended with Sabar, he’d managed to convince the Tok’ra operative to turn his energies to directly aiding the Pridani in gaining their freedom, and Cadogan had been among the second generation of Pridani recruited to that fight. Later becoming the pair’s aide, he’d eventually become Sabar’s host as well, when Berwyn sustained battle injuries too severe to be healed on the fly and there’d been no time to do anything else. Eighty years had passed since then, during which the fortunes of the rebels had alternately risen and fallen, sometimes precipitously. Only in recent years had the movement once more gathered enough strength to dare engage in operations on the scale now being employed, and even so, much of its work was still of a covert, hit-and-run nature.

{He seems so… adaptable, otherwise,} Sabar observed. {And he does all right with most of the other Tok’ra he’s met.}

He is adaptable, but I can tell when someone is less than comfortable with us, and Neirin’s still at that point. He doesn’t interact all that much with the other Tok’ra, and in most cases, he only knows the symbiote, rather than the host. You and I are the only pair he really spends appreciable time with, let alone having cultivated any sort of connection with either partner. He’s had a lot else to cope with, don’t forget. It can’t have been easy, being thrust into a strange place by whatever incident it was that sent him here, and he still won’t talk about it. We’re just fortunate he’s comfortable enough with me to have taken charge of a team when I asked him to, since he’s a good officer. It would have been a shame for his skills to go to waste when we need people like him.

{At least he’s gotten to know you. If he’s going to continue working closely with us, at some point he really should get to know me as well.}

He will, if you give him time. Though it does occur to me that while we’re playing this game with him, we’re more firmly on his ground, which is perhaps the best place for it to happen. Cadogan paused, thinking. I feel a bit duplicitous over this, but I doubt Neirin realizes that part of the time he’s been speaking with you during these lessons, rather than with me directly. I wonder what he’d think if I told him you wanted to learn the game yourself?

{Try it,} suggested Sabar, just as Neirin completed his answering move.

Cadogan returned his full attention to the board. I will, once I finish this game. Right now, though, let me concentrate. And no, I don’t want help.

It didn’t take long to finish, as Neirin had Cadogan in checkmate just a short while later. He took the time to re-run a couple of segments of the game for Cadogan, pointing out what the cadlywydd could have done differently to affect the outcome. Both Cadogan and Sabar were extremely competent strategists in real life — else the Am Rhyddid would have been in real trouble — but this particular board game was still something new to them. Neirin, on the other hand, had learned it as a young child and played for years, the way Cadogan had learned first brandhu and then gwyddbwyll. Naturally, Cadogan knew that Neirin himself was likewise no stranger to real-world strategic considerations. All in all, it made for an interesting time whenever these three minds gathered around the chessboard. Though if Neirin were aware of the involvement of that third, alien mind as anything other than an onlooker to his and Cadogan’s contests, he’d not yet let on.

Cadogan had played White this time around, and pretended to brush a piece of dust from a captured Black pawn as he spoke. “You know, Neirin, Sabar follows along when we play.” He looked up, gauging the other man’s reaction. “He finds it fascinating, and tells me he would enjoy learning the game from you himself, directly, rather than merely observing.” He held out the pawn.

Neirin reached to take it. “I wasn’t aware the Tok’ra enjoyed games.”

Cadogan grinned. “Oh, absolutely they do. They’re really not so different from you and me, despite being another species entirely. Among themselves, they play several different types of games, some quite similar in nature to this one. Any intelligent species is going to have a concept of play, I think, and also a need for entertainment and intellectual challenges of some sort. The Tok’ra certainly have those, and what’s more, they’ve lived in such close relationship to human hosts for such a long time that we’ve surely rubbed off on them a bit as well.”

Cadogan could see his friend mulling this over as he set up the board again for another game. “I guess I never really thought about it that way,” Neirin allowed. “I suppose I should have, since it makes a lot of sense. I’m just not used to Tok’ra, even now. I never encountered one before…” He paused, seeming to discard whatever he’d been about to say, before continuing, “…well, before coming here.”

The cadlywydd nodded. “I understand, Neirin. We both do. You’ve had to make a lot of adjustments over the past three seasons since you arrived. And you seem to have done so quite well, you know.”

“That’s largely thanks to you, and to your family,” Neirin told him. “And if Sabar has had any hand in whatever moved you to do what you’ve done for me, then I owe him a debt of gratitude as well.”

Cadogan shook his head. “You don’t owe anyone anything, Neirin.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.”

“Neirin, I don’t know what your people’s customs are, and unless you want to tell me, I don’t need to. But you already know that as far as I’m concerned — or anyone else, for that matter — you’ve been a Pridano yourself ever since you decided to throw your lot in with us. Everything since that time has been no more than what we’d do with anyone like you. You’re useful to the Am Rhyddid, so we placed you where we can benefit from your talents. You’re a member of this community, so you have your share of its resources, and you know as well as I do that you’ve never failed to handle your share of the work that goes into its functioning. I really don’t know what other explanation to offer you.” Cadogan shrugged. He couldn’t for the life of him fathom just what it was that made the other man insist on seeing himself as an outsider after this long, when so many had taken it on themselves to treat him as one who belonged here.

The brown eyes that met his across the chessboard held a depth of some feeling Cadogan couldn’t put a name to. Whatever it was, though, it seemed to be at the core of Neirin’s struggle. “I don’t mean that, Cadogan.” He gestured around the study. “I’m talking about here. This house; or rather, the household. You. Tesni. Anwen, Idris, everyone else. I’m not family, but you treat me like I am, and it’s been a huge help, though I have no idea why you do it. But it occurs to me that with you and Sabar linked as you obviously are… he’s family as well, isn’t he?”

Ah, thought Cadogan. Now we’re getting somewhere.

{Perhaps,} put in Sabar.

Hush. Aloud, Cadogan said, “You’re right about that, Neirin. Sabar is part of this family, as much as anyone else is. He has an equal share in my life; hard not to, when he goes wherever I go, and experiences what I experience.”

“He’s been awfully quiet about it, then.” Neirin picked up the black king, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger like a worry-stone. “Please tell me this is normal, and that he’s not been staying in the background for my comfort when I’m around.”

Cadogan stared at him a moment. The man had hit the truth squarely on-target. “Tesni made me aware early on that you seemed uncomfortable dealing with both a host and a symbiote in the same body, and since you’ve had to deal with me more, Sabar and I thought it best if perhaps — at least as much as possible — you only had to deal with me for a while, at least until you’d adjusted to some of the other aspects of being here among us.”

{I did? I seem to recall this being primarily your idea.}

You’re not helping, Sabar, Cadogan told his symbiote. He could see Neirin observing his face, and knew he could probably tell there was an exchange of some sort going on.

“Cadogan, any issues I have with Sabar or with the Tok’ra in general are my own.” Neirin shook his head. “I don’t want anyone to put themselves out on my account. The idea of two minds in one body is beyond strange to me, but so are a lot of other things I’ve come to accept as reality lately. I managed that; I can manage this. I can’t promise it won’t take time, but it’ll never happen if I never begin.” He placed the black king on the chessboard. “You and I are friends, Cadogan. I can at least make a start at getting to know Sabar too. Just… slowly, all right?”

Cadogan nodded. “Fair enough, I’d say.”

“Then let Sabar tell me that for himself.”

Cadogan held his friend’s gaze for a moment, before bowing his head, eyes closed, and giving control to the symbiote. Sabar opened his eyes, looking up and then inclining his head to Neirin. {“I’m sorry that our first meeting was so disturbing for you,”} he said quietly, keeping the harmonics in his voice to a minimum, sensing that perhaps it might help the other man’s comfort level. {“I was presented with a crisis, but I honestly had no idea that you were completely unfamiliar with us. Had I been aware of that, I might have handled things with Gerlad differently in your presence.”}

Neirin gave him the hint of a smile. “Sabar, everything was a little off for me that day. Some things still are, but I’m working on it.”

Sabar nodded. {“I understand. In any case, I’m glad we can take the opportunity to get to know each other directly. I feel as though I know you relatively well due to the time you’ve spent in Cadogan’s company already, since obviously I’ve been there too. But that isn’t quite the same; and of course, you don’t know me at all, really, beyond what little direct interaction we’ve had in the field.”} Even there, Cadogan had generally done the talking when they spoke directly to Neirin. Only when Sabar needed to address the larger group had he done so in his own voice of late.

It was Neirin’s turn to nod. “Time to change that.” He gestured at the chessboard. “This seems as good a place to start as anywhere. Choose a color?”


Tesni stretched her legs, taking care not to kick the basket by her feet, which was filled nearly to the rim with peeled turnips. She set down the paring knife and indulged her arms and shoulders in the same treatment as her legs, leaning back in her chair and working out the kinks brought on by nearly an hour spent cleaning vegetables brought up from Idris and Anwen’s root cellar. The turnips were small ones, the larger specimens having been mostly consumed earlier in the winter, and Tesni found it more tiring to peel many smaller ones than several large ones. At least the weather today was nice enough to allow the task to be completed outdoors. The warmth of early spring sunshine bathed the porch where she sat, and the breeze carried the scent of a forest greening and awakening from winter’s harsh chill.

Picking up the knife again, she set to work on the last dozen turnips. Anwen had decreed another family dinner for this evening, which meant that most members of the household who weren’t already engaged in some other necessary activity had been put to work either on prep work for the meal itself, or on giving the large house something of a cursory spring cleaning. Privately, Tesni suspected her sister-in-law of simply being bored and annoyed with the long winter just recently ended, and that this was her way of chivvying spring along. It almost seemed as though the weather had taken heed, too, for no sooner had Anwen made her pronouncement in the early-morning chill as the two women shared a pot of tea at Tesni’s table than the skies had begun to clear of clouds and the sun to warm the air. By the time Tesni had completed the small list of chores necessary at her own cottage and walked over to Bennaeth Bod, the temperature had risen far enough to cause her to shed her cloak and take her share of the work out onto the porch.

Tesni didn’t mind winter itself, particularly, but spending long periods indoors grated on her nerves after a time. She was very much a creature of the outdoors, generally preferring tasks that could be completed in open air to those requiring work within a building. She also looked forward to spring each year because it greatly facilitated use of the forest trails that crisscrossed the area surrounding Llanavon, leading to other settlements or sometimes just to the sites of various resources used by the villagers. Tesni loved to hike and run, and while she was given to engaging in both year-round whenever possible, she far preferred doing so on bare ground to slogging through snow and slush, or over ice. Though even a chilly run on a snowy trail was an improvement over spending her entire day indoors, sitting next to a fire. She was by no means the only person in Llanavon who felt this way, she knew; many were the occasions on which she would take to the woods for a badly needed dose of head-clearing exertion, only to find that several sets of feet had broken the snow and churned up muddy slush before her.

One person she’d noticed who consistently engaged in the same practice was Neirin. The quiet man with the iron-gray hair and dark, sometimes brooding eyes who had arrived mysteriously last autumn was a familiar sight pounding along the same trails. He ran alone, always; and on the harshest days of winter when snow fell so thickly or was blown about so strongly as to obscure vision and keep everyone indoors or at least close to home, if she chanced to encounter him somewhere in the village she would often find him fidgeting and restless. It was a feeling she understood well, from personal experience.

And not only in herself. No, she’d seen it even more strongly and at close range in another, though it had been over seven — no, nearly eight years now since she had seen him. Nor would she ever do so again. Eogen had been her husband for only two short years, and one of the cadlywydd‘s men from the age of nineteen. He’d been only twenty-six when he was killed by Bel’s Jaffa, in a raid that had left seven dead and resulted in five youths — girls and boys both — being taken from nearby Bren Argoed, to serve as either slaves or hosts at the whim of the Goau’ld lord. Tesni was not the only one to have lost a spouse to the Jaffa in recent years, but unlike most of the others, or at least those her own age, she had shunned the idea of remarriage. Losing one mate was quite enough, she felt, and when the time of mourning was appropriately past, had made it clear that she was not interested in another pairing. Her energies since that time had gone mainly into her own multiple roles as an evaluator of potential threats, sometime intelligence operative, and saboteur, under the direction of her uncle and of Nenniaw. Her free time belonged to her niece and her nephew, as she and Eogen had produced no children of their own before his death.

In Neirin, she saw the same restless nature, the same barely-leashed energies — as of a tightly wound coil — that she’d seen in Eogen. The older man bore no similarity of appearance or of voice to her late husband, and precious little of manner, save for two things: that physical restlessness, and the relentless inner drive which had so often kept Eogen upright and functioning far beyond the point at which most people would have succumbed to fatigue or whatever injury they had sustained. It was this same characteristic that had given her pause on Neirin’s first night in Llanavon when he’d sat, pale and trembling in the candlelight, at her table after his encounter with Ris. She had seen clearly the signs that he was close to exhaustion, and yet it had taken all of her effort to get him to lie down and let himself sleep. In the morning, as she’d fed him and tended to the cuts he’d suffered as part of the incident, whose nature she still barely understood, that had resulted in his arrival on her world, she’d found herself awash in memory for the first time in years.

Not that she hadn’t kept guests before, nor tended to the needs of the exhausted or injured among the Am Rhyddid in the seven years since losing her husband. Or even before then, for that matter. But something in the act of doing so for the stranger — as she thought of him at the time, though that had long since changed — had put her in mind of Eogen. Perhaps it was the stoic manner that both men shared when it came to discomfort, or the simple, matter-of-fact way in which he’d responded to her questions about the cause of his injuries. Her husband had often done the same, recounting even the direst of situations as though it were little different from crossing the street. As she came to know Neirin over his first days and weeks in Llanavon, however, Tesni found herself surprised that he’d told her anything at all, since for the most part he tended to avoid speaking of himself unless asked a direct question and often even then he would do his best to deflect it. He maintained a wall of reserve, except when some special effort on the part of herself, her uncle or some other of those closest to him, if anyone could be said truly to be so, drew him out. Although it seemed to take far less effort to do so now, more than eight months on, than before. Perhaps he is finally growing comfortable with us, and with our ways, she reflected. But he still has much ground to cover.

Eogen had not been nearly as taciturn as Neirin; almost no Pridani were. It was their way to be open, vocal, even boisterous; this was simply how one got on in the world. Then again, some who had seen more than their share of hurt or of horror, as was not uncommon among certain of the Am Rhyddid, particularly those who had been involved the longest, did often tend to be more quiet and reserved than their fellows. Nenniaw was a prime example of this, though even he came nowhere near the reserve exhibited by Neirin, especially early on in his stay. She wondered if Eogen himself, had he lived and spent as long in the service of the Am Rhyddid as had Nenniaw, or as it seemed Neirin had as a soldier on whatever mysterious homeworld had spawned him, would have eventually become similar in attitude.

She shook her head, abandoning such woolgathering in favor of renewed attention to her turnip-peeling. She hadn’t thought so strongly of Eogen in some time, and today was far too nice a day to engage in such dark contemplations. Better instead to focus on the task at hand, and the pleasant weather that might afford her the chance to escape to the forest later, once her necessary chores had been completed. She bent once more to her work, pushing all other thoughts from her mind.

So focused was she that the sound of footsteps a moment later nearly startled her into dropping the knife. She looked up to see Neirin mounting the porch steps. He must have noticed her reaction; his expression was apologetic, though she thought she detected a trace of amusement as well.

“Sorry,” he said by way of greeting. “I didn’t mean to make you jump. Is Cadogan around?”

Tesni smiled. “Don’t apologize. I ought to have been paying more attention and then I’d have known you were there.” She laid down the knife once more, flexing her hand to release a cramp. “I don’t know where my uncle is at the moment. You might try the community hall, or possibly the baths. Did you need him for something urgent?”

Neirin shook his head, then paused to brush an errant lock of hair from his forehead. Still closely cropped in comparison to most local men, his hair was nevertheless somewhat shaggier than he normally allowed it to get. More like silver than like iron, at least in such bright sunlight, Tesni thought. Interesting, the way his face appears somehow younger than his hair.

“Nothing that can’t wait.” Neirin glanced from the basket on one side of her, containing only eleven unpeeled turnips, to the nearly full one on the other, then watched as she continued working at the cramp. “It looks like you’ve been at this for a while. Here, let me finish the rest.”

Before she could protest, he sat down in the neighboring chair, picking up the knife and an unpeeled turnip. “Just how many mouths is Anwen planning to feed with these, anyway?” he asked as he plied the blade.

She chuckled. “The usual crowd. It’s as well you came by now and saved someone the need to find you and issue an invitation. Of course, being here means being put to work if you’re seen. I half expect that’s why my uncle’s made himself absent, and Gerlad along with him.”

Neirin grinned. “That’s all right. It isn’t like I was doing anything much just now, anyway.” He handed her the peeled turnip to put in the other basket, and took up the next client for the paring knife. “I might as well make myself useful, especially if I’m one of the people she’s feeding.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, when you’re sorry later on.”

He laughed, a rare sound. “Not to worry. I’d rather be busy; you know that.”

“So you’ve told me. Thanks for helping.” Tesni fell silent for a moment, watching as Neirin peeled the turnip with deft movements. His hands were large and strong-looking, with broad palms and long graceful fingers. If he felt her gaze upon him, he took no notice, keeping his own eyes on the blade and working with the same economy of motion he brought to most tasks in which she’d seen him engage.

As he finished with the second turnip and reached to pass it to her, he glanced up, and she blinked, feeling herself color slightly. But he only said, “How’s your hand?”

She placed the peeled vegetable in the basket next to her and flexed her right hand again. “The cramp is easing now. I think I just needed to take a break. Do you want me to do the rest?”

He managed to look almost offended by the suggestion. “Of course not. I said I’d finish them and I meant it. I just wanted to know if your hand still hurt.” Picking up another turnip, he returned his attention to the task, shaking his head as he did so.

“My hand is fine.” Tesni shrugged. “I just feel strange sitting here doing nothing while someone else works.”

The knife paused in its motion, and Neirin looked up again, his gaze meeting hers. A soft chuckle escaped him. “You’re as bad as I am, aren’t you?” He smiled. “If you want something to do, why not tell me what to expect from springtime here? I know it’s warm and sunny at the moment, but are we likely to have any more snowstorms before nice weather settles in to stay? Or is that usually over with by now? I’m afraid I’m still figuring out how the local weather works.” He resumed peeling.

Of course, Tesni realized. Surely Neirin’s world had seasons, but she knew that even from place to place on Tir n’Awyr, the prevailing weather patterns associated with the seasons might behave quite differently. And although until two months ago, she’d never left Tir n’Awyr herself — with the advent of increased direct action aimed at loosening Bel’s hold on his worlds, that too had changed — she had long been aware from listening to Cadogan that this was true from world to world.

“By this point, we generally might only see one or two more snowfalls, and they’ll most likely be light,” she told him. “Now, rainstorms on the other hand… well, those are quite common in the spring. Actually, all through the warm months, as you’ve already seen.” She took the turnip he handed her and placed it in her basket. “Most of them won’t be terribly heavy, though we usually do get one or two flooding storms in mid-spring each year. Once in perhaps every ten years, we get one that will go on for two or three days. The river spills over its banks, and so do the streams in the forest. Part of the reason for the heavier walls on the river side of Llanavon is to keep floodwaters out, and they do a good job. But the trail to the compass circle will most likely be impassable for at least a day or two in the event of this type of storm, and whoever is placed on guard there will have to remain there, or more likely my uncle will order the details to rotate from Dinas Coedwyg in that event. You’ll want to speak to him about that. Of course, anyone coming to Tir n’Awyr won’t be able to come directly here, either, because of flooding on the forest trails. The road between here and Dinas Coedwyg is less likely to flood, because it follows higher ground, and the trail to Bren Argoed almost never floods.”

Neirin was nodding as he worked on a fourth turnip, taking in the information she was imparting. “So Llanavon is never completely cut off, then? That’s good to know. Still, it sounds like some messy weather.”

“It is, but it never lasts long, and it doesn’t happen every year. Also, unless there are heavy rains in the uplands, and they usually don’t get as much for some reason, any flooding that does happen tends to go down a day or so later. The river drains it all away pretty quickly. We’re not so terribly far from the sea here. As long as the fields upriver haven’t been washed out, things generally go back to normal pretty quickly. If they have, then there’s replanting to be done, of course. The biggest potential problem might be logjams from fallen branches or trees if the storms also brought extremely high winds, but that’s really only happened twice in my life. I was perhaps eight years old the first time there was a jam, and I remember the water rose quite high because of it. But many people worked to clear the jam and the water went down again shortly afterward. The second time was about nine years ago.”

He glanced at her again as he passed her the fourth peeled turnip, before turning to the fifth. “That’s not so bad, I guess. Twice in…”

He trailed off, and Tesni could sense him trying to guess how long ago she might have been eight. “I’m thirty-four, if that helps,” she offered, amused.

He chuckled, but didn’t look up. “I realized I didn’t know after I began that sentence, but I swear, I wasn’t going to ask.”

“Why not?” She smiled.

“Well… where I come from it isn’t considered a polite question to ask a lady.”

“Really? How odd.” Tesni reflected that she knew very little about Neirin’s world or people, but it sounded as if they had some very strange customs and taboos. “Why is it impolite?”

Neirin considered this for a moment. “You know, that’s a good question. I really couldn’t tell you the answer. It’s just one of those things my parents taught me while I was growing up. I’m not even sure it’s still taught much anymore.”

“Customs on your world change that quickly?”

“Sometimes. Does that happen here?”

“It depends. But sometimes they do.” She reached out to take the fifth turnip from him. “So age is considered an impolite question, but for no real reason? That just seems strange.”

“It’s only considered rude when it comes to women.” He shrugged and began to peel the next turnip.

“You mean it’s rude to ask a woman, but not a man?” Tesni shook her head. Neirin’s people were definitely odd.

“Believe it or not. I suppose we do have some customs that just don’t seem to make much logical sense. Then again, I think that’s probably true of people everywhere.”

Tesni nodded, despite the fact that he wasn’t looking at her, but at his work. “From what my uncle has told me, I’m inclined to agree.” She paused. “So how old are you?”

He laughed. “Well, that was direct.”

“You’ve been among us this long and you’re only now figuring out that direct questions are customary for us?” She arched an eyebrow as he glanced her way. “Besides, it can’t be rude; you’re a man.”

He laughed again. “Point taken. I’m forty-seven. No, wait; that’s in my world’s years, and they’re seven days longer than here.” A pause. “Let’s see… days are close enough to the same length back home, so I’ll skip that part since it’s minimal… Hmmm. Makes me forty-eight by this planet’s years.” He shook his head, grinning. “A week doesn’t seem like much, but I guess they add up after a while.”

So her initial guess on meeting Neirin hadn’t been far off, Tesni reflected. She’d thought him perhaps twelve or thirteen years older than she, maybe just a bit more. The actual difference was somewhere between thirteen and fourteen, as she had a birthday coming up in just a few more weeks herself.

The door opened, and Anwen poked her head out onto the porch. “Are you nearly done with the — oh, hello, Neirin.”

“Good morning, Anwen,” he responded, working the last of the skin off the turnip in his hand.

Anwen cocked her head at her sister-in-law. “Decided to get yourself some help, did you?” she asked with an impish smile.

“It was his idea.” Tesni shrugged. “He came looking for Cadogan, and saw I had a cramp in my hand. The next thing I knew, he took over. I was almost finished by then, though.”

Neirin passed the sixth turnip to her, and looked over his shoulder with a smile for Anwen. “I couldn’t let Tesni have all the fun, could I? There’s only five left to do, by the way. Give me just a few more minutes.” With that, he turned back to his self-appointed task.

The two women shared a look. He’s certainly in a good mood today, thought Tesni. In her experience, Neirin tended as a general rule to be quiet and introspective, and on occasion perhaps a touch melancholy, but overall he seemed even in his temperament. She’d seen him truly angry only a handful of times, though rumor had it there were some under his command who might be slightly more familiar with that side of him. From time to time he was given to humor, but it was a restrained sort of humor, for the most part. Today was unusual; she’d heard him laugh — not the quiet chuckle that was usually the extent of his response when amused, but actual laughter — three times in just over ten minutes. She found herself wishing he’d do it more often, as she rather liked the sound.

Anwen shook her head with a smile. “Well, if it’s work you want, stay around when you’re finished with those. I can find plenty for you to do on a day like today.” She withdrew into the house, leaving the door ajar to bring in fresh air.

Tesni glanced over at Neirin. “I warned you,” she told him dryly. “She’ll have you busy for the rest of the day now.”

He handed her the seventh turnip. “And I told you, I don’t mind. Especially if it’s something I can bring outdoors to do.” He squinted up at the bright blue sky. “It’s too nice a day to be inside.”

“I had the same thought. Why do you think I was sitting out here?”

That earned her another laugh. “So we’ll offer to… I don’t know, you think of something.”

“She’s cleaning house, too, you know. There’ll be rug-beating.” The large house boasted rugs in several of the rooms, and Anwen was almost certain to want the winter’s worth of dust beaten from them.

“That’s our answer, then. I haven’t done that since I was a boy. It’s been that long since I lived in a house with that kind of rugs.”

Tesni looked at him strangely. “What kind of rugs don’t need the dust beaten out of them?”

He looked momentarily taken aback, as though she’d caught him talking about something he hadn’t intended to. “Well… some of the homes on my world have rugs that are permanently attached to the floor.”

Attached to the floor? “How do you clean them, then?”

“Ah… very carefully?” Neirin shrugged, giving her the eighth peeled turnip. “It’s complicated. We have… mechanisms that can do the job, but I can’t really explain them.” His face grew serious, the way it often did when she managed to touch on some element of his former life that he was at a loss to explain or describe without going into far more detail than he was willing to. And he was in such good spirits until just now. Tesni mentally kicked herself for drawing him onto a topic that changed that.

“Forget I asked,” she said, casting about for a way to restore his earlier mood. “I don’t need to know, anyway. We’ll beat rugs, or whatever else it is Anwen needs done, and then… well, I was thinking of going for a woods walk later, if there’s time before dinner. If you’d care to come with me…?”

That seemed to help. His face brightened a bit. “I’d like that. Thank you.” He turned back to his peeling.

“You know, I really can finish those last two,” she said.

A grin, perhaps not quite as broad as before, but far better than the serious mood she’d seen a moment ago. “I told you, I’ll do it,” he said. “Just relax.”

A few moments later, the last peeled turnip was in the basket. Tesni stood and grabbed a broom from the corner, sweeping the pile of peelings toward the edge of the porch, where Neirin caught them in the empty basket. “Leave them there for Tegwyn,” Tesni told him. There was a compost pile behind the house, and Tegwyn’s job was to tend it, adding refuse such as vegetable peelings to decompose into fertilizer for the family’s kitchen garden. Putting the broom back in its corner, she heard him climb the porch steps again. Turning, she bent to pick up the basket of peeled turnips, intending to carry it into the house.

A pair of large, strong hands closed on the handles just before she would have grasped them. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’ve got this.”

She could hear the smile in his voice and looked up, seeing the same expression of mixed stubbornness and humor he always wore when insisting on doing some task she was perfectly capable of doing herself, whether it was carrying a load like this or any of a dozen other things. He did the same thing with Anwen, and with Tegwyn; even with Blodwen and Glenys, the wives of Nenniaw and Dynawd. Tesni had learned early that it was pointless to protest; this was apparently another custom with which he had been raised, or perhaps just a strong personal habit. Not that Pridani men weren’t known to do the same thing on occasion, but with Neirin it was a constant, as much as the sun rising each morning. And despite your protestations, nearly as pleasant a one, chided her inner voice.

She told the voice to hush, then picked up the paring knife and accompanied him into the house.

<— Chapter 16 – A Waiting Game, Redux

Chapter 18 – Signals—>